The Carer Self: Attuning Needs and Wants With Circumstances

Alan Rayner
11 min readNov 12, 2021


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

Postscript 1 (added 22/01/2022)

Compassionate Ways to Cope with Misplaced Fear

A Navigational Aid

1. Remember that the fear is due to the arousal of your self-protective instinct. It is not bad in itself, nor does it make you a bad person. It is understandable but not necessary or helpful.

2. Remember that you won’t physically do something that you are scared of doing and not be aware of it.

3. Remember that imagining doing something scary is not the same as actually doing it — it’s just a scary thought. If you have actually done something that scares you, you will know it.

4. Remember what you really don’t need to be scared of, because it isn’t harmful and may actually be necessary.

5. Remember that once aroused, the fear can’t just be ignored and will need to be allowed time to subside. Try to find that soft place of calm and refuge deep within yourself. Imagine being there when you’re feeling very anxious. And know that you can learn gently to allow yourself not to do what the fear is needlessly making you do. You can also do something creative or practical as an outlet from what is troubling you.

6. Remember that although it is sometimes sensible to check that you have actually done something that needs to be done, it isn’t helpful to do this repeatedly. Because repeated checking makes the urge to check more and more irresistible: in the long run it reinforces the fear, it doesn’t lessen it. Progressively allowing yourself not to check repeatedly will help lessen the urge.

7. Remember that it is natural and helpful for our minds to wander and lose concentration on what we have learned to do automatically, as we imagine all kinds of prospects and possibilities. We can’t concentrate on and recall what we are doing all the time, especially when this is routine. But that doesn’t necessarily mean either that we will do something wrong or not do something important. In fact such occasional lapses are just that — occasional — and are often easily corrected.

8. Remember that one of the commonest misplaced fears, especially in a competitive culture, is ‘fear of failure’. The very idea that it is important for us to do or avoid something creates a feeling of ‘pressure’ in which we may imagine the consequences of not doing so. For some people this can be a source of motivation to do our best. But in conscientious people those imaginary consequences can then themselves become fears that distract us and compel us to take unhelpful avoidance or controlling actions that impede our ability to do what is needed. In such circumstances the fear self-amplifies, bringing disabling feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and untrustworthiness. It is then better simply to do what’s beneficial to the best of our ability for that reason alone, and not because we fear the consequences of not doing it. It can help also to recognise compassionately that to ‘err’ (literally to ‘wander’) is natural, human and a source of creativity. This enables us to form mutually beneficial and supportively corrective relationships with friends and family. But try to avoid delegating total responsibility for your welfare to others, because to do so is unrealistic and will tend to reinforce disabling feelings. Remember that others are human and needful too.

9. Remember that ‘association’ is not the same as ‘causation’. Imagining that things are causally connected does not mean they actually are causally connected. So, try not to allow imaginary connections to dictate your life. They often arise as a legacy from a frightening or painful experience in a time and place (i.e. a ‘situation’ or ‘circumstance’) that is no longer current.

10. Remember that just because something could happen or could have happened doesn’t mean that it actually will happen or has happened. Life is full of possibilities — we can only act in accordance with what is certain or most likely, not in accordance with what is most uncertain and unlikely.

Postscript 2 (added 12/02/2022

  • **Retrospection — And the Fear of Regret***

    At the end of the day
    At the end of a life
    How many of us
    Simply want to be able to feel
    That we’ve done OK
    That we’ve not done
    Anything terribly wrong
    That we’ve made the best of what
    We were given
    And I wonder
    How many of us
    Simply don’t
    Actually feel that way?
    So, what’s wrong with that?
    I ask you
    Is it too much
    To hope for?
    Is it something inborn
    Or is it something we learn
    From our social context
    I feel quite sure
    From my studies of life in the wild
    That it’s the latter that makes us fear
    Regretting our past
    Only to end up
    Doing just that
    As if we could or should
    Have known at the time
    What the consequences of our actions and inactions
    Would be
    A story we’ve been told
    And keep telling ourselves
    Through endless regenerations
    Which has at its root
    An assumption
    That any with gumption
    Would know is false
    Setting time and space
    Apart from each other and us
    In a world of mechanical causation
    Which overlooks
    The nature in human
    And the human in nature
    Which makes us alive
    Not digital processors
    Artificially intelligent
    Emotionally bereft

Postscript 3 (added 17/02/2022)

So Be It

Dark & Light: Flesh and Blood (Acrylic painting on paper by Alan Rayner, 2019) I view the sun; Through outstretched fingers; Of my child’s hand; And my child’s eyes; Are filled with wonder. What seemed so hard-edged — So sharply defined; Is no thing of the sort

So Be It

These three words come to mind

When thoughts unkind

Sit on my shoulder

Swearing blind

Concerning what could or should have been

Or could yet happen

If only I or she or he or they

Had said or done or known

Or not said, done or known


But find ourselves instead

As we are and are becoming

Making do as best we can

With whatever has or hasn’t happened

Or might yet happen

So far as we can tell


Finding contentment in what’s good

Honestly recognising what isn’t

Taking the rough with the smooth

The bitter with the sweet

In lifelong learning

With kind compassion

Not harsh recrimination

Aware of what we can and can’t be

Can and can’t do

Given our circumstances

And what we’re made of as living beings

By way of love and life

In mutual correspondence

Receptive holes and throbbing hearts

Not wholes and parts

Assembled by machine code splitting

The ones from the nones

In lifeless, loveless fixtures

Made to move by outside force

Not inspired by inside yearning

The internal combustion of baby soul

Calling to be nurtured

By father spirit and mother care

Until it grows big and strong enough

To return the favour

In dying out-breaths

From degeneration to regeneration

Until and unless

Retentive storage blocks the passage

With great piles of motionless stuff




Alan Rayner

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