About this episode
Are you familiar with polyvagal theory? It may sound highly scientific, but Martha says polyvagal theory has a profound effect on spiritual practice as well, and she’s talking all about it in this episode of The Gathering Room: Dropping Anchor. The polyvagal nerve is a system of nerves connecting the brain to various parts of the body, and it plays a key role in our response to stress—either revving us up or shutting us down.
How are you all? It’s so good to see you. I feel so happy. I see your little names, and especially the little emojis and stuff, and it triggers in me a state of joy.
I talked last time I did a Gathering Room about how the opposite of a trigger is a glimmer. A trigger is something that reminds you of a difficult thing or connects you with a trauma you’ve experienced before and it makes you feel bad. And a glimmer is something that connects with something really good in your life and it makes you feel good. Well, I love this whole concept, which came from a woman named Deb Dana, and she is an expert on something called polyvagal theory.
Earlier today, I was talking to some of my Wayfinder coaches about polyvagal theory and how I want to put it into the coach training to some extent because it’s really great, and it helps me understand so many things about my life, and myself, and in particular, what I want to talk about today, my relationship with the world and with other people. Or as Deb Dana puts it, you have relationship with self, others, world, and spirit. This is the place I celebrate spirit most directly.
The polyvagal theory may sound very scientific. It actually has a really, really profound effect on spiritual practice. I’m not going to do too much skyience, but I will tell you a little. Your brain triggers a lot of things in you and interprets what happens to you in the world. But the relationship between the brain and the body, a lot of that is taken care of by something called the polyvagal nerve. Poly means many, and vagal means wandering, I believe. It’s actually a bunch of nerves that are all wrapped together, and they communicate between your brain and other parts of your body.
This part of it that evolved earliest just handles your guts, and the nerves are literally down in your guts, like below your belly button. Then, there is another set of nerve responses that evolved somewhat later. The very earliest organisms, like worms and stuff, they could just digest food and find a mate.
That’s all low down in our bodies. Then you get up toward your diaphragm and your heart area, and that’s where the vagal nerve triggers fight-or-flight reactions. It actually energizes you. It can take you from anywhere from, “Oh, I need to get something done,” sort of mild energy to, “Holy crap! There’s a bear in front of me, and I have to run faster than I’ve ever run in my life.” Or, “I’m so angry. I want to stab the bear so it won’t hurt me,” or something.
Then, up here, the most recently developed part of the vagal nerve, and it goes… A lot of it’s connected directly to the physical heart. That is the part of us that feels… Well, it connects with our higher cognition. It connects with our sense of connecting with the universe. It connects with our sense of joy, love, compassion. A lot of good feelings happen when we’re centered and the… Not centered. But when the part of our vagal system that’s active is… This part. It’s called the ventral vagal.
Anyway, this is what happens. When you’re relaxed and happy, all the information coming from your heart to your face, and literally to the muscles of your face, they naturally make you have a cheerful expression.
Our little Lila turned three yesterday. When she saw her birthday cake, her expression of delight was not a fake. Little kids don’t need… There’s nothing better than watching a little baby laugh, right? Or a little kid who’s just seen something amazing. We put the cake in front of her, and we sang happy birthday. Then, we finally said, “Go,” and she just reached with both hands and just shlomped the cake, and then started putting frosting in her mouth and she got to, because it was her birthday.
All of that joy and all of the bright eyes and smiling face and everything, that is natural when we’re coming from a place where we feel very safe, and protected, and nurtured. When things get a little dicey, the vagus nerve turns on a fight-or-flight reaction. It’s actually a fight-flight-fawn reaction. You either fight the bear, you run from the bear. Or if the bear is a human, you may start to ingratiate yourself and try to please the bear into treating you well. In fact, some people would probably try to please the bear even as a bear, like, “Here, if I do enough for you, will you stop biting me?” Because that’s the way humans are. We have a natural fawning response that’s part of how we cope with the world.
If that doesn’t work, if we get to the end of our rope and things are just too overwhelming the way they are, if you read all the news on a given day, you can go into something called a dorsal collapse. That is the bottom part of the vagal nerve just sort of shuts everything down. These are the days you cannot get out of bed, the days when you just… Bad things happen, you’re like, “I don’t even care.” The plumbing breaks, you’re like, “Oh, let it flood.” You just can’t move.
Now, all these things are functional. We have the happy part of ourselves. We have the energetic part of ourself that responds to threat, and need, and excitement, and interest, as well as fear. Then we’ve got the need to shut down and rest every day, at least at night, but periodically throughout the day.
All of this is interesting to me because I realized that I have lived almost my entire life in the fight or flight response. I can tell because I can feel… When anything happens, I feel my heart rate speed up, and I get a lot of adrenaline. I can’t sleep. I don’t really eat. Then if it goes far enough… And this hasn’t happened for decades. But if it goes far enough, I used to just fall down and not be able to get up.
What reading about this has done for me, now, two things. One is that from Deb Dana’s working, and from reading around it and practicing, I have learned that we can anchor into a state of joyful, peaceful relaxation. Then, even when we feel fight or flight, even when we feel overwhelmed, we can hold the state of being at peace, grounded, loving, and compassionate while we’re feeling fight or flight, while we’re feeling like we’re going to collapse.
Now, take it out one step. Here’s the most important thing for me. It was to realize that when someone is in front of me and they’re in a state of fight or flight, like somebody just got fired or something, and they’re very anxious, and they come to me, and I’m trying hard to fix it, they actually cannot see anything good in the world. They will take my anger on their behalf or my determination to make things better for them, and they will see danger. Everything will start to look like danger.
When you smile at a person who’s in a deep fight-or-flight response, what they see is bared teeth. That just took out so much misunderstanding. I just realized, oh, when people are upset, they really need me to just be gentle, and listen, and accommodate, and just make space for them to fuss a little. They just need me to be calm. because anything I do is going to be read through that filter and they’re going to think that I’m making it worse.
When I’m with someone who’s in a total dorsal collapse, there is nothing I can do to pull them up and make them march out with energy into their lives. They don’t have it. It’s okay. My job is to say, “You’re in dorsal collapse. I accept that. Given that, what shall we do next?”
This was really an interesting thing to be reading as we were doing cross-Pacific air travel with a two-year-old. At one point, on the flight from Auckland, hello, Kiwis, to Melbourne, Hello, Aussies, our child started reenacting the capture and deportment of criminals to Australia in the 19th century. I really believe she was trying to do this. She has Australian ancestors. Everybody in Australia likes to find someone who was sent to Australia as a prisoner, and that’s sort of a badge of honor these days.
But the whole way from Auckland to Melbourne, which was a four-hour flight, Lila screamed and fought and kept saying two things. “Get me out of here,” and, “This is not fair,” at the top of her voice. People weren’t happy with us, y’all. People hated us. There I was, and I’m struggling with this kid. I was worried because there was a COVID rash in New York, so I was trying to keep every… I was all masked, and I’m sweating. It was a four-hour physical ordeal. She was belted to me. Roe was in the next seat.
But the whole time I just kept thinking, “She’s in fight or flight, and there’s nothing she can do about it.” I kept anchoring back into my own state of peace called the ventral vagal. I’m going to give you one of Deb Dana’s exercises in just a second for doing that. It was so interesting because I didn’t have any anxiety about Lila’s anxiety. Then when she was supposed to be going around and doing things in Australia, sometimes she would just be too tired and collapse. I would go, “Oh.” Roe and I were like, “Okay. She’s done all she can do.” And there was no judgment, and there was no pushing.
It really helped me to know that people go through these three levels of understanding. And that when you’re in one, it’s hard to understand the world any other way. The way you can keep your calm in the face of a whole bunch of people who are always going to be risking fight-or-flight reaction or dorsal collapse is to get really, really familiar with what those three conditions feel like on the inside of your body.
The polyvagal theory, I spent a lot of time teaching people to feel the insides of their bodies. It’s called interoception. Right now, think of a time when you felt really collapsed, and remember that sensation. I’ll get you out of it. Now, go to a time when you were really angry, like you couldn’t leave an argument. You just had to go back and yell one last thing, or you were so scared you just ran from a place without even thinking about being polite. So, deep fight or flight. For me, that’s the fluttering heart and everything.
Now, we’ve been doing this for a long time, listeners. I can’t even remember the name of this podcast I’m so exhausted. Gathering Roomers, I mean. Gathering Roomers, we’ve been doing this for a long time. By this I mean find a place in your life when there was a glimmer, a really, really bright glimmer. Find the brightest one that ever happened to you. I’ve got several, and a lot of them were frankly mystical. I felt the presence of loving beings. I heard an inner voice giving me advice that I couldn’t have known about, but it came with a sense of love and support. Always I feel there’s something guiding me, there’s something helping me, and I can lose consciousness of that. But the second I relax and come back into ventral vagal nervous system state, it’s back again.
We always do this meditation. You regulars know what I’m going to do. It’s about the consciousness of space, stillness, and silence, and how that tunes the nervous system to something that is not the material world. For me, that links me, that anchors me deeply into this ventral vagal state where I can be fine with all the hubbub of the world. We’re going to do it now for just a minute, and then I’ll talk a little more and answer some questions.
All right. The first thing we do is ask that odd question from the Princeton Research Center. Is it possible for you to imagine the distance between your eyes so you can put it in first person? Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Take a minute to do that. Can I imagine the space inside the atoms of the matter between my eyes? Can I imagine the space inside the volume of my whole head, which is mostly not material, because atoms are mostly not material? Can I imagine the stillness in which all activity is occurring? Can I imagine that instead of imagining things? Can I imagine the space that goes through my body and out into the furthest reaches of the universe, like an ocean of space that nothing can disturb? Can I imagine the stillness in which all sounds emerge and into which all sound disappears?
Now, what just happened to me, it always happens. When you guys start doing this meditation with me, I feel like my body is gently and sweetly on fire. And I took a very long breath and sighed it out. That sighing, yawning, deep breaths that comes without intention, those are all signs that your body is switching into the ventral vagal state.
Here’s the cool thing. From there, you can look at and love the other two states without leaving peace yourself. You can see someone else’s fear and pain and be the space that holds it that is never disturbed. And you can see someone else completely collapsed and exhausted and know that it’s okay and surround them with love, and space, and stillness, which cannot ever be exhausted.
I am looking at my texts for questions. There are no questions. Well, that’s nice. Then, let’s just play with the ventral vagal anchor then. I wish I could see you because I would ask you how many of you felt a settling down when we did the meditation. However many of you were able to feel that, I’d love you to take this moment and look around you, wherever you are, and I want you to have a visual reminder of the moment that you went into that relaxed, ventral vagal state.
I’m looking at a lamp that’s just across from me, and behind it is a window where I can see the forest. I’ve got y’all in front of me, and I’m just going to wait and almost take a picture with my mind. I’m doing that by looking at it and then breathing really deeply, and connecting the relaxation in my chest with the look of that lampshade. It just looks really pretty to me for some reason.
Find around you something that is positive or beautiful. Or, for example, I have my little… This is my little tree of life necklace that I have. I could take that, and I could connect it to the feeling of being anchored along with this group of people in this state of ventral vagal, of relaxation and peace. I could hold this medallion whenever I do a meditation that takes me to it, and then I can keep that with me when I know I’m going to be in a stressful situation, and I can look at this, and there’s a screaming toddler making a whole plane full of people hate me. I look at this little thing and know that we’re all being held by something really sweet and beautiful, and that I am not attached to that. I’m a continuation of that force.
It allows me to be calm with the anger of the other passengers, with my little passengers screaming, “This is not fair. Get me out of here,” and with myself. It helps me keep in touch with self, other world, and spirit in a way that is very, very powerful.
Somebody just said that they like the painting behind me. I painted a picture of the forest once. It was just trees. Then I said, “That’s not how the forest feels to me.” So if I drop into a ventral vagal state and I look at the forest, that’s what I see. I see the light from which all things come, and I see my own connection with self, otherworld, and spirit.
We’ve got some questions now. Thank you very much, Gracious Badger, who’s behind the scenes. Maryanne says, “How can you go from imaging the space in stillness to becoming the stillness?” That is a really good question. It’s been answered, or at least asked, often in the history of meditation. One of the best things you can do in meditation, as far as I’m concerned, is to ask yourself over and over, just on every breath, the question, “What am I? What am I?” Not Who am I, because that puts you in the human framework of deciding what your identity is, and that’s not where we’re going with this.
When you say, “What am I?” Well, I’m a person. Is that true? Well, I won’t be a person forever. I’m going to die sometimes, so I won’t be. Will any of me? The meditation on what am I takes you deeper, and deeper, and deeper into levels of identity that then under scrutiny dissolve. I am this body. No, I’m not. There’s not an atom in this body that was here seven years ago. Oh, okay. I am this personality. No, I’m not. It goes to sleep every night and shuts down, and I’m still me.
As you meditate with the question, “What am I?” you eventually come to the point where you feel like you actually are the stillness. When you get there, it’s not a, “Oh, this is what I think I am.” It’s the end of all other thoughts.
I saw a great quote online that said, “Home is not what you seek. It’s the place where all seeking ends, all seeking ceases.” When you ask, “What am I?” and the answer is, “There’s not even a word, but it is the stillness.” there’s no doubt. There’s no, “Well, maybe that’s…” No. It’s like, “Oh God [inaudible 00:22:17].” And it’s so relaxing. It’s so peaceful. You don’t even have to be a human.
I said that to somebody once the first few times it happened to me, and she was like, “I think we need more people in here.” You realize that none of them is permanent either, that we’re all just flowing bundles of energy having this interesting experience.
All right, Donna says, “Can you describe a way to do this when caught in the web of anxiety?” I cannot. And that’s because if I’m caught in the web of anxiety, I’m just going to see anxiety. I’m going to give you lists of things to do, and I’ll anxiously try to get you to do them so that you will no longer be anxious. But if I’m caught in a web of anxiety, it’s not going to be convincing.
Now, I was playing with you there because the language, “Can you describe a way to do this when caught in a web of anxiety?” I think means, “Can you, from a place of non-anxiety, tell me how to do it when I’m in anxiety?” The way I read it on purpose was, “Can you describe a way to do this when you’re caught in a web of anxiety?” I just wanted to reinforce the idea you can’t. It’s okay.
But here’s the thing, if you burn out enough, you’ll go into a dorsal collapse. In the dorsal collapse, you have no choice but to surrender. It was in my twenties and thirties, it was only when I had collapsed when I was so exhausted or emotionally distraught or whatever that I had no option but collapse. And there was nothing to do but either fight against it or surrender, and I would stop fighting against it. And guess what? Then I was out of the web of anxiety.
I was talking to someone yesterday, someone I really respect, who was going through a tremendously difficult experience, and she’s a fighter. She’s really strong-willed and strong-minded, and she fought, and she fought, and she fought. The one thing she didn’t want to do is surrender to the idea that she had lost someone from her life. She said, finally, I just got so exhausted that I surrendered to it. She said, “It was so weird. On the other side of it was joy, this unbelievable happiness.”
As she was talking about it, I thought, “That’s exactly how it happens to me.” I think it is the mercy of our nervous system. If we’re not happy, we go into fight or flight. If we can’t get out of fight or flight, we go into dorsal collapse. If we surrender to that collapse, totally surrender. We know ourselves as stillness, and that stillness is filled with joy. It’s not rational. Doesn’t work with our physical explanation of what we are, but try it. You will like it.
All right. Jessica says, “Can we put a pin in the piece and silence to quickly access it while others are afraid quickly, or with a technique, or do we only find it through great repetition?” I like to use the symbol method, and I do think that’s what symbols are for. I think that’s why mala beads or rosary beads are important to people, why people wear medallions, anything to remind them or to anchor them, as Deb Dana would say, in the polyvagal state. I would recommend both.
Get a prop, an image in your head or an object in your hand, and then go into a state of stillness and silence and connect it to that object, connect it to that moment, connect it to that memory over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. What you do is you wire in stronger neural pathways out of the sympathetic, out of the dorsal into the sympathetic, and then finally into the vagal state, and it becomes much easier. Anchor yourself with objects and images.
Kale Parness, I don’t know how that’s pronounced, says, “How can we be better listeners?” The way you listen from the perspective of this theory is you listen with your whole body. I gave a speech to a big corporation the other day, and they were using a technology where I couldn’t see them, and I couldn’t see any reaction from them, kind of the way this is almost. But I’m used to Zoom, and this wasn’t Zoom. I couldn’t see them, and I never dealt with them before.
They were all scientists, kind of intimidating. I listened to them by activating all, every bit of nerve capacity in my body. Just as it did when you all went into the stillness meditation, I could feel something in my sternum. Different parts of my body would react. When I was talking about changes at the company, I could feel their anxiety. When I took them through an exercise, I could feel their little sort of glimmers opening up.Was I right about it? Were these accurate interpretations? I don’t know. But based on a lot of previous history, I would say, I think they probably are. Because asked a million people… Not a million, thousands of people, “Am I getting this right?” And they’re like, “Yeah.”
As you become more aware of this whole nervous system phenomenon, you start to be able to listen with your gut, and listen with your diaphragm, listen with your throat. You can listen with your whole body by being open to energy and trusting that the sensations you’re picking up are based on real energy coming from other people. You can listen to all kinds of mood states that aren’t being sort of portrayed to you. Just the way when someone’s angry and they’re saying, “I am not angry,” you listen, and you hear what they’re saying, and you also hear the anger. So, listen with your whole body.
May Elizabeth says, “Is there a way to move forward and take nourishing action in ventral vagal state?” Yes. All nourishing action can come from the ventral vagal state. You can keep your ventral vagal state working even when excitement or danger comes in by imagining that bigger self that’s connected to the universe wrapping its arms around the part that goes into fight or flight or fawn, wrapping its arms around the part that is in collapse, and saying, “I got you. I’m not going to let go. We’re okay. We can do this.” Then, the dorsal will let you rest, and the sympathetic system will help you take action but not get you into a state that frays your nerves. The whole system is meant to work with the ventral vagal turned on, but most of us don’t really have access to that for reasons I’ll save for another podcast.
Finally, “Any tips for interrupting the survival-related hormones? I always can see in the moment in hindsight when they are hijacking me, but where’s the point that it breaks?” Such an excellent question. The hormones come out in response to a fight-or-flight situation, anything perception of danger. As you pay attention to the physical sensation of the emotion, not the event that causes it, and not even the emotion itself per se, but the physical sensation in the body and the moment you feel… or… or… you say, “Oh. I’m going to go back to my ventral vagal. I’m going to go back to my anchor. I’m going to feel myself as stillness, then I’m going to wrap my arms around the other parts of me.” What happens is it’s called the vagal brake, like a brake on a car or a bicycle. It actually pulls back on everything in your body that is reacting with fight or flight, so it pulls back on the hormones, the production and distribution of those stress hormones.
I brought all this to you because I had such an unusual… I’m just going to end with this sort of note of hope. After realizing that I spent almost my whole life in sympathetic or dorsal misery, I sort of learned to anchor in as I’m flying across the Pacific. I’m reading Deb Dana’s book. Then, I went through a couple weeks of a real chaos where you have a two-year-old with extreme jet lag and a whole bunch of loving, wonderful family and friends that haven’t seen Roe for years, and everybody wanted to see everybody. It was something that would’ve been, earlier in my life, from my worst nightmare. Because I have social anxiety. I’m afraid of fatigue. I’m afraid of jet lag. I have very strong physical breakdown tendencies. Using this anchoring, I experienced no anxiety during the whole thing. That is so different for me that I wanted to pass it on to you.
I know it’s a little technical, but if you can get this stuff going, if you can learn the inside feeling of your body and how it goes through those three states, and learn to stay in that state that is connected with self, other, world, and spirit, you really are going to be able to function. You’re going to be as unbeatable as space and as unstoppable as silence. Nothing can overcome you when you can stay connected to that universal being.
Thank you for coming to the Gathering Room. Thank you for being here with me all over the world, all the time without airplanes. I love you so much. Thanks for coming. And I will see you very soon on another episode of The Gathering Room. Bye.