Primary Respiration and the Cycle of Attunement

by Michael Shea, PhD

I was reading an interesting piece of research in the infant-mother attachment literature. After studying moms and babies at play and without any stress, it was discovered that over 70% of the interactions called attunement occur every 100 seconds between the mom and the baby. This means that there is a function of regularity built into our nervous system when we are socially engaged that allows us to pay attention more closely to the person we are with. In this case the rhythm of attunement, when there is no stress, happens every 100 seconds. In the world of biodynamic craniosacral therapy, that regular tempo is what we refer to as Primary Respiration.

This research comes from a book by Beatrice Beebe entitled Forms of Intersubjectivity in Infant Research and Adult Treatment.

I've always felt that the biggest piece of work we do with our clients is what I call the Cycle of Attunement. We train ourselves to spontaneously move our attention toward the client with our hand contact, and then move our attention away even when the hands are in place. This is normal and natural, especially if our office has a window through which we can look out and appreciate nature, the sky, the trees or even the weather.

This also helps to stabilize and retrain the autonomic nervous system. When we bring our attention to the client, the sympathetic nervous system is involved. When we withdraw our attention from the client the parasympathetic nervous system is involved. So here we witness the function of Primary Respiration interfacing with the autonomic nervous system and helping to stabilize it, providing the opportunity for calm and balance so needed by today’s clients.

At another level this is the very nature and ground of empathy and compassion. Through mindful attunement the client is able to experience being held in a wider field. The state we call Primary Respiration is likely to be sensed by our clients as loving kindness and compassion.