The Carer Self: Attuning Needs and Wants With Circumstances

Nightfall’ (Oil painting on board by Alan Rayner, 1974). A female figure draws a net curtain of stormy darkness across a glittering daytime scene, irradiated by sunny terns and with flowers receptive to the wanderings of a butterfly and passing gannet.

Your Constant Companion

I am always with you

Do you hear me

As I seek

To find a way

To guide you?


Do I call you softly?

Do I chastise you harshly?

Am I calm or rough with you

Or somewhere in between?


Do I soothe?

Do I encourage?

Do I frighten?

Do I tempt?

Do I forbid?


Do you wish I would just go away

And leave you alone

In peace?


But I am there too

For where would you be

Without me?


Where do I come from?

Do you possess me?

Do I possess you?

Is it my voice or yours

That speaks its mind?


Am I in your head,

The heart, breasts and bellows of your chest,

Your gut or your gonads?


Do I come in from out of the blue -

Your parents and teachers

Your neighbours and neighbourhood

Your trials, mishaps and discoveries

Your wounds and recoveries -

As I speak to you?


Do you answer me back?

Do we converse?

What say you?

What say I?


Am I honest, reasonable, kind

Or am I a bind

That misleads, punishes and paralyses?


How should I know?

How should you?

What you truly want

And what you truly need

And how that depends

On circumstances beyond our control

But not without our influence

Our ability to attune

Receptively & Responsively

To what’s called for



Needs, Wants & Circumstances’ (Colour Pencil sketch on paper by Alan Rayner 2021) Schematic relating what we need and want to do to circumstances

How would you respond to the following question?

‘What, and in what circumstances, do you TRULY need and want to do in order to live?’

I prepared the above sketch by way of a summary of what was coming into my mind as an evolutionary ecologist with a special interest in the way that life forms attune and evolve sustainably with their situational context. At the back of my mind was also a schema I prepared many years ago relating processes of boundary-differentiation and boundary-integration to energy-availability in ‘abundant’ and ‘restrictive’ (due to shortage or inhibition) conditions.

The interplay between boundary-differentiating and boundary-integrating processes in energy-rich (stippled) and energy-restricted circumstances (From Rayner, 1997). This interplay enables energy to be assimilated (allowing regeneration and proliferation of boundaries), conserved (by conversion of boundaries into relatively impermeable form), explored for (through internal distribution of energy) and recycled (via redistribution/reconfiguration of boundaries) in spatial capsules, channels, branches and networks of life forms in dynamic attunement with their natural neighbourhood. Thin lines indicate relatively more permeable boundaries, thick lines relatively impermeable boundaries and dotted lines degenerating boundaries.

It’s a schema that I have found applies well to all forms of non-human life that I know of, but becomes problematic when it comes to our human psychology of caring — or not caring — for ourselves and others. The root of the problem appears to reside in the fact that whereas all other life forms do what they need to do in order to live in correspondence with varying circumstances, human beings commonly seek to deny or control their circumstances in order to do what they desire to do. And this is especially true of modern cultures.

The way we human beings actually behave can therefore often contrast with how we need as living organisms to behave in a given circumstance. Instead of recognising the situation we are in as it actually is, we distort and misrepresent the truth by making exceptions of ourselves and others from it. And yet we remain as we are — animals, with animal needs and animal nervous systems. Our lives depend utterly upon our natural neighbourhood for sustenance. This contrast results in profound misunderstanding of ourselves and the natural world about us, along with psychological, social and environmental harm.

My above diagram of ‘needs, wants & circumstances’ is intended to show how, when our individual and/or collective needs and wants do not align with circumstances, we suffer increasing, needless distress. This manifests as pain, anxiety and depression. It comes from needing — or being required socially — to do what we don’t want to do, and/or needing not to do what we want or are required socially to do. For example, when we are required socially to go to war, or want to stay at home when our neighbourhood is on fire.

On the other hand, distress decreases when our needs and wants are attuned with circumstances.

How does this vital attunement with circumstances come about? Does it occur:

(1) within or outside our bodily boundaries;

(2) nowhere distinguishable or extant;

(3) through some kind of relationship between inside and outside mediated through their dynamical interface?

(1) Is the objective or ‘third-person’ perception that arises from philosophical dualism — the assumption that matter is isolated from immaterial space. This assumption has underpinned definitive logic for millennia and is deeply embedded in the foundations of orthodox, rationalistic thought. It isolates inner self as ‘observer’ from what is externally ‘observed’ as ‘environment’ (as per Einstein’s claim that ‘the environment is everything that isn’t me’). As such, it resides at the root of the so-called ‘nature or nurture’ debate between one or the other. It excludes self-identity from its natural neighbourhood and hence sets up an opposition between them. This opposition is epitomized by the notion that life is ‘a struggle for existence’. Let’s consider for a moment, Hamlet’s soliloquy and where it led:-

To be or not to be, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’

Here, we find the source of a conflict between human ‘free will’ and what it independently ‘wants’ with what it dependently ‘needs’. It is clearly fallacious because it is impossible to displace intangible space from or with a tangible material body. To do this would require the reduction of all material form(s) to a dimensionless (shapeless and size-less) ‘point-mass’. This, incidentally, is the very same point-mass that is the imaginary starting point for abstract Euclidean and non-euclidean geometry, discrete numbers and ‘big-bang’ cosmology.

(2) Is the perception that arises from philosophical ‘non-dualism’ (monism, nihilism and holism). This, in effect, denies the occurrence of material boundaries, dismissing them as illusory ‘appearances’. Here the very existence of an individual self-identity is obviated in favour of nothingness or a seamless collective ‘whole’ that differs from the sum of its ‘parts’.

(3) Is the perception that arises from awareness of the fundamental evolutionary process that I call ‘natural inclusion’: the assimilation and distribution of energy into living flow-form, which diversifies in receptive-responsive attunement with its habitat. Here, tangible form and intangible formlessness are dynamically distinct but mutually inclusive occurrences. Hence individual self-identity occurs naturally both as a dynamic inclusion within and of its contextual, spatial and energetic neighbourhood (e.g. see

An individual self-identity that is both a dynamic inclusion within and of its neighbourhood has the potential simultaneously to to be a carer both for its self and for its neighbourhood, providing that it senses both inwardly and outwardly from its dynamical boundary between inner and outer. How would you feel if you realized this is true for you? If ‘God’ is understood to be ‘your natural neighbourhood’ then this could be recognised as the basis for Jesus of Nazereth’s two great commandments:-

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. … And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

This, then, is what I think of as ‘the Carer Self’, the voice of my poem, ‘Your Constant Companion’. (S)he serves, both biologically and spiritually, to attune dynamically with your circumstances in life. In mammals like ourselves our constant companion’s wisdom develops as we mature both bodily and mentally towards adulthood from our initial dependency on external carers to being our own carers. This development can, however, very easily be arrested or subverted in an adverse social context where fear governs our lives, and in a sheltered context where we take our safety and external care/regulation by others as a given.

Now, when we view my illustrations above, what I want to recognise is that the Carer Self has two very distinctive roles:- both to nurture and to protect from harm. Moreover, there is a reciprocal relationship between these roles depending on whether circumstances are benign or adverse. The nurturer is needed in benign circumstances, the protector is needed in adverse circumstances.

So far, so good. But what happens when we inhabit a human culture that dualistically or non-dualistically disregards our natural self-inclusion in neighbourhood, and instead promulgates some kind or other of falsehood? This situation is fraught with danger and sadly characterises much of modern human life. It confuses the carer self. Terror can and indeed does then become a way of gaining political control over others. Pretence that ‘all is well’ can be a way of anaesthetizing ourselves and others from what is truly harmful to our lives, preventing us from taking avoiding action. We can become so unreasonably terrified of what is actually innocuous, or so unafraid of what actually is harmful that our lives become paralysed.

Not to care for our natural neighbourhood as we care for ourselves in alignment with our true circumstances aggravates human distress. We cannot be responsible for our circumstances, but we clearly are response-able for attuning with them. And to do that, we need to hear and tell truthful stories, not false ones.

For further explorations of the implications of self as a dynamic inclusion within and of its natural neighbourhood, please visit


A.D.M. Rayner (1997). Degrees of Freedom — Living in Dynamic Boundaries. Imperial College Press

Alan Rayner is an evolutionary ecologist, writer and artist, who is pioneering the philosophy of natural inclusion