Thomas Keating is a Cistercian monk and priest, and a prominent teacher of the spiritual discipline called Centering Prayer. He believes that every child comes into the world with instinctual needs for survival and security, affection and esteem and approval, and power and control.
Keating goes on to say that the craving for these things is essential to surviving early childhood. He would also say that every child is to some degree deprived of the optimal level amounts and qualities of these things. We are not born into perfect families, and it is not a perfect world. In fact, for many children, for many people, the world we live in is a dangerous and difficult place in which to grow up.
Keating suggests that there is a correlation between how the child’s instinctual needs for security, and love, and encouragement, are met, and the child’s success at establishing a meaningful relationship with God.
If that connection to God is not established in a healthy, life-giving way, Keating believes that the child may seek happiness by either compulsively seeking to fulfill the instinctual needs mentioned earlier, or by over-identifying with its social group- by which he means family, ethnic group, community, village, tribe, country, or even religion.
Keating uses the phrase “emotional programs” to refer to the effort human make to find happiness and peace by satisfying their instinctual needs. He would say that this is a hopeless and doomed effort, because those emotional programs are driven by limitless need- we never actually get “enough” of these things to make us feel whole, and good, and at peace. (Keating would describe this as being addicted to our emotional programs.) The same is true of seeking happiness and peace by identifying with the values and agenda of another person, or a social group.
To me, this all seems like a more nuanced expression of what Henri Nouwen was saying when he described faithful living as keeping in a healthy balance our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God.