The previous sections have a lot to unpack. I hope you do so slowly, understanding that what’s important is not necessarily understanding any or all of the concepts but to have a willingness to explore and test to see if, in fact, what we are learning together makes actual sense and has practical applications.
The question I often come back to is “Can I stop the war with myself ?” “Can I make friends with who I am?” “Can I alleviate my suﬀering and those around me?”
In this last part on the nervous system I want to share a framework to help us navigate the rest of the course with the breathing, moving, and writing practices. I learned this practical tool, from the work of Deb Dana the Coordinator of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium in the Kinsey Institute.
Befriend, Attend, Shape, Integrate, Connect
We live in a society with a tendency to look away rather than befriend. It has something to do with keeping us all in a state of separation, fear, and dis-regulation. This tendency is a dominant flavor of just about every institution we may encounter.
Befriending is the opposite of separation, fear, and dis-regulation. It is the process of turning to rather than looking away. Befriending sounds easy, but it is something we need to practice and develop because most of us have never learned how to befriend ourselves.
This is important because befriending one another is not really possible when we can’t fully befriend ourselves.
“It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” —Ram Dass
In our time together, befriending has to do with creating the habit of tuning in to our bodies and the cues the body provides us, sensing rather than judging, noticing without adding a story to the awareness, turning to wonder when finding diﬃcult feelings and sensations. As we do this tuning in to, noticing, and wondering, we deepen our capacity to engage ourselves with curiosity and compassion.
Attending follows the tuning into, noticing, and wondering. It invites us to find language for what it is that we are sensing. When we attend, we begin to map those sensations and notice where we are in the autonomic ladder (ventral vagal (social connectedness), sympathetic (flight or fight), or dorsal vagal (freeze/paralysis). It is a naming process we begin lightly.
Naming is a step toward the next step of shaping and not remaining in a state where we add to our suﬀering. Naming is the first step. This is often something I share with students over and over again. (I can’t help it being a language teacher.) I point to the story in Genesis where G-d tells Adam to name the animals. G-d didn’t need their names.
The naming was for Adam to better understand the relationships in the larger community of life. We all need this training. The Genesis story along with so many of the creation stories across cultures have some sort of naming process. The naming process is baked into us. It’s how we learn and also become active agents of our lives.
But to misname is to misunderstand. Learning new ways of naming when we find that the language we learned as children doesn’t quite capture the full range of human possibility can be a life-long process of learning. Seeing this process as an opportunity changes the kind of work it entails. We move from having to memorize a vocabulary in a foreign language, to eagerly figuring out what things are called so we can order food in a menu.
Naming gets us to the threshold of freedom. Walking through the threshold isn’t achieved with words, however. This is an experience that is a state of deep and wordless ventral vagal state of connectedness and bliss. Every so often we get glimpses.
This next step adds to the notion of freedom we find in the naming process. It reminds us that we have the capacity to change. We know that trauma often leaves us fixed in a defense state. But with skill, we can move through that state. Unprocessed, trauma disrupts our ability to move up and down the autonomic ladder (ventral vagal [social engagement], sympathetic [flight or fight], or dorsal vagal [freeze response]).
The first two steps described in this framework (befriending and attending) crack open the door to establish new nervous system patterns where we incline toward intentional connection rather than remain in survival mode and isolation.
The practices and readings in this course are invitations to increase our capacity to strengthen our ventral vagal roots, allowing them to find nourishment through skillful and heartful means.
Building muscle demands tiny muscle tears that when the body repairs, new muscle tissue is added. Something similar happens with bones. If there’s too much stress on muscle or bones, we have tears or a fractures.
Our nervous system follows a similar pattern. If we have endured a traumatic experience, healing will take time but just like a tear or fracture that is not tended properly, left alone, trauma often leaves us in a limited state, disregulated.
My hope is that our time together may be useful for you.
Resilience has to do with our ability to return to a state of ventral vagal regulation. We don’t go through the day staying in that state of connection. That is, we will be drawn down on the ladder during our day. This is a normal part of living. Given the nature of where you are in life as a new college student during a pandemic, this may be happening frequently. Being able to notice when we are going down the ladder or climbing back up begins the process of learning the patterns we tend to follow and the beginning of bringing awareness to these patterns so we can gently nudge ourselves toward connection.
When sharing yoga with men at Everglades Correctional, I always felt that the men I worked with were the most advanced yogis I encountered throughout the week. They were not the most limber, but they came to their mats with a PhD in challenging situations and a desire to work with their circumstances in ways that aﬃrmed their freedom rather than the limitations of incarceration.
Beginning to see the impossible as something to work with is where we are headed with these practices.
Our nervous system is inclined toward connection. That inclination is what we want to use, just like we use gravity to develop muscle and bone. The resistance we find along the way due to our environment or trauma are learning possibilities we can begin to gently observe and slowly work with and grow in capacity and strength.
If there’s something you can take away from what you have read so far, if there’s something you can notice from my words, I hope you notice that these 16 weeks are meant to provide an opportunity to connect, not just with me and others in the class, but ultimately with your own heart. The heart is where we all can gather in the freedom that is our birthright. Lots of good can happen there when we are paying attention.
A Short Visual Review
of Polyvagal Theory
*Remember to use your notebook to digest what you are learning. Write what comes to mind. Doodle. Draw. Ask questions.