Most of you by now will have heard of Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. But you might be unclear about what it actually means and its implications. The actual biology and science are a tad complex, so here is my take on the core practical insights of polyvagal theory. I’m being cheeky and stripping away the science to reveal what, for me, are its core insights that are practically useful for personal development. (For an introduction to the science of polyvagal theory, the Wikipedia article is a good start.)
Three Primal States: Petrified, Aroused, Cooperative
This, for me, is the essence of polyvagal theory: Embedded in all human beings are three primal states. These are evolutionary survival mechanisms and embedded parts of our biology. They are below our threshold of consciousness – they function without us being aware of them.
Polyvagal theory helps us to be aware of them and manage them.
These three states are:
Frozen, petrified, inert This is what we do when experiencing traumatic threat.
Aroused and ready to fight or flee This is what we do when we perceive threat that does not traumatise or overwhelm us.
Cooperative This is what we do when we are not threatened.
Polyvagal Theory suggests that we move through these states almost as if we are reliving the primal evolution of our nervous systems. Petrified —> Aroused —> Cooperative
What I find useful about the polyvagal model is:
It is realistic and useful to accept that these three states are an intrinsic part of our biology. To be petrified is normal. To be aroused is normal. To be cooperative is normal.
So they don’t need psychological analysis to understand them. For example, we all experience being petrified not because we were mismanaged by our parents but because it’s a natural state. To be petrified is a normal biological state and sits in all of us.
I don’t buy that we move in a linear direction from one state upwards to another. I think it is more realistic to suggest that all three states are happening simultaneously in us. For example, if we go to an awkward social event or a shop assistant is rude to us – then simultaneously a part of us freezes, another part is aroused and wants to attack or run, and a third part wants to cooperate. This is the way we operate as human creatures.
Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction
Body Aware Self-Management
I like the polyvagal model because it suggests how we can better self-manage ourselves and develop healthily. For example, if I am going into a meeting where there are authority figures who make me uncomfortable, I could go psychoanalytic and explore what these people represent for me and what needs healing; or I can simply say to myself: Ah ha my evolutionary nervous system is behaving normally. Let’s see how I can soothe and manage it.
This then points to all the strategies of body awareness, meditation, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, qi gong, internal martial arts and so on – which work directly into the nervous, endocrine and gut systems.
To do this self-management requires — roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets — consciousness. Yay for consciousness!
So where I go is:
Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover,’ sang rock n’ roll pioneer, Bo Diddley. These words were acutely relevant to me when I was a young man learning yoga and simultaneously working with the severely disabled.
On one side of my life there were these toned, flexible and vibrant yoga teachers. On the other were teenagers and young adults confined to wheelchairs, bodies crunched up and completely dependent on the physical help of others.
But which of these two groups enjoyed spiritual health?
Thirty years on and I am leading a team pioneering the first mainstream vocational qualification in spirituality and health. Its development, as you can imagine, has involved long discussions about the nature of spirituality and health. We have also had to anchor it all down into a coherent language that could be approved by the government education watchdog, Ofqual.
Our working definition of good healthdescribes it is as a state of comfort and flexibility, which applies to our physical and mental wellbeing as well as to our spiritual selves. Bad health is the opposite. Pain and rigidity. Movement hurts. Nothing flows.
What is particularly interesting here is that we can be physically flexible, but hurting mentally and spiritually. Equally we can be spiritually strong and physically weak. In Taoist philosophy, authentic good health is to be in harmony with the benevolent flow of the universe. So our physical bodies can be wrecked – but our spiritual and mental health can be fantastic.
But what on earth do we actually mean by spirituality? I like to encourage people to develop their own definition of spirituality. What’s yours? Working in an educational charity we have had to clarify and articulate our own stance. After much consultation we drafted a definition that seems to work for most people regardless of their beliefs.
Spirituality is everyone’s natural connection with the wonder and energy of life.
We also had to clarify and explain the meaning of spiritual health. For this we identified three crucial elements: connection, peace of mindand compassionate care. When assessing my own spiritual health these are the crucial issues. Am I connected? Do I have peace of mind? Am I caring and compassionate?Those questions apply whether we are in a wheelchair or teaching yoga.
It is worth repeating, isn’t it? The first of the crucial elements of spiritual health: Are you connected to the wonder and energy of life?
In the new Your Spiritual Health Programme, readers are guided through a series of questions to help them discover how best they make this spiritual connection. People have so many different ways. Yoga. Reading. Nature. Art. Caring. Worship. Song. Sport. Cooking. Meditation. And so on.
Then when people have identified what circumstances and activities work best for them, they are guided to practice them regularly. Through mindfulness, grounding and breath they are supported in deepening the experience and fully enjoying it. For many yoga practitioners that happens at the end of a session, in corpse pose just lying there, soaking in the deep connection.
PEACE OF MIND
Spiritual peace of mind is not apathy, or a relaxation exercise, or a brain wave state. It arises from a deep and wise way of looking at life. This wise attitude guides us to take regular reflective pauses.
In these mindful pauses we observe and monitor our lives with detached good humour and compassion. We recognise that all our circumstances and experiences – good and bad, health, illness, success, failure, loneliness, community – are always opportunities to develop love and consciousness. This development of love and consciousness is surely the true purpose of our lives. Understanding this brings us meaning and coherence, a deep calm.
The third foundation of spiritual health is compassionate care or love in action. If we are not actively caring we block the harmonious flow of the natural world, causing congestion for others and ourselves. Energetically, being compassionate pays forward the good energy we receive from being connected and having peace of mind. Selfishness, egoism, narcissism are all prime symptoms of spiritual bad health.
Fortunately Mother Nature has evolved us very shrewdly. When we give care our endocrine systems are stimulated in a positive and beneficial way, relaxing tissue. Doing good, feels good.
The wonderful thing about spiritual health is that we are not dependent upon anyone else for our ‘medicine’. We also always have access to a wonderful doctor who knows us better than anyone else, our own consciousness. So my fellow doctors, shall we all look at the state of our spiritual health?
Every Thursday at noon I sit in St Joseph’s Chapel in Glastonbury Abbey and participate in a healing meditation. It is a simple twenty-minute session: being still; awareness that healing is always available; receiving healing; sending healing to wherever there is suffering.
Sometimes in this meditation I contemplate what exactly is happening. I have one sceptical brain cell enquiring whether spiritual healing is real, or whether it is just a displacement activity to make me feel useful in a world where I may be useless. But this doubt is more than balanced by a clear sense, a deep knowing, that something real and useful is truly happening
In my meditation I also enjoy contemplating the nature of good health. Good health it seems to me is best defined as a state of comfort and flexibility. There is enjoyable harmony and flow. This applies to both our physical and mental states. It is similar too for societies. Bad health is the opposite. Illness is pain and rigidity. Movement hurts – physically and emotionally. Nothing flows.
If we accept this simple flip-flop – comfort and flexibility versus pain and rigidity – then we can suggest a coherent definition of healing. Healing is surely anything that facilitates comfort and flexibility. This definition is appropriate for modern medicine. It also reflects the Taoist philosophy that the universe is a harmonious ocean of flowing states; so a healthy state, for an individual or a community, is also to be in harmony with this continuous flux and flow.
In this context the process of all healing methods – surgery, medication, touch, spiritual healing, exercise, diet, being in nature and so on – can then be easily described. First, identify what is uncomfortable and rigid. Second, intervene with an appropriate strategy to enable comfort and flow.
There are obvious problems of course if we deny or misdiagnose the rigidity. More difficulties can be triggered too if we seek an easy healing intervention, instead of an effective one. A simple example from most of our lives is when we feel emotional pain and then intervene with food instead of perhaps some quiet in nature or a dance.
It is a simple reality of life that most of us at some time or another experience pain and therefore seek healing. The good news is that within each of us is there is a great doctor, a wonderful agent of healing: our own consciousness.
Your consciousness – your mind, your awareness, your soul – can acknowledge your pain, seek to understand it and find the best medicine to bring yourself back into flow, comfort and flexibility.
Everyone is sensitive to atmospheres and vibrations. This is a normal human sensitivity. But some of us are more highly tuned than others.
Some sceptics might protest and say that it is all imaginary – made up by an overactive mind – and I reply: Did you ever rent or buy a home where you didn’t like the vibe? The sceptic responds: Never! And I, trying not to be smug, say: Case proven. Because you are sensitive to atmospheres.
One of my friends was an officer in a nuclear submarine. When things went wrong and needed fine tuning, the captain always asked my friend to fix it because he had an extraordinary sensitivity to how the vessel felt and where it needed attention.
My dad was a psychiatrist and disliked all kinds of psychism and spirituality. Nevertheless he claimed that he could tell what was wrong with his patients the moment that they stood in the doorway of his consulting room. How could he do this? He said that he could read body language, but I have known of many blind people who have the same ability so cannot ready body language. So what is the source of their sensitivity? And in your own home or work place, can you feel the mood of someone coming in the front door – especially if they are angry or depressed?
This is all very normal stuff. We all sense invisible stuff. It is a human sense just like sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Sometimes, in ‘respectable’ language, it is called intuition. For me, I simply understand it as a result of the fact that we all have magnetic fields. Every atom and cell in our body has a magnetic field. That is basic chemistry and physics. Planet Earth has a magnetic field. Birds guide their migration roots using their magnetic field.
When something enters our magnetic field, it creates an ‘event’ that ripples through into our nervous system. We then feel or sense it.
The challenge for some people, including me, is that we have very sensitive energy fields and nervous systems. This means that sometimes we feel too much and it can be disturbing, tiring or even overwhelming.
In my mid-twenties for instance I lived off-grid for two years in the High Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. When I came back home to central London my body could not stop shaking for several months as I felt all the vibrations of the city after two years in the mountain calm.
At the same time I was also exploring different approaches to spirituality and healing. Because of my own sensitivity I was particularly interested in spooks and negative atmospheres. I explored whether these unpleasant experiences were psychological or energetic phenomena and how to discern the difference. I led many workshops and trainings in this topic and wrote two books Psychic Protection and Feeling Safe on the subject.
I can summarise the advice I give to people who are sensitive to energies:
Learn about your magnetic field and energy body; and how it integrates with your nervous and endocrine systems. Know thyself.
Do what works best to strengthen your nervous system. Less caffeine, less alcohol, less recreational drugs, less rubbish food. More exercise.
Learn about internal martial arts – chi gung– how to use meditation and movement to build your inner strength.
Develop a stable grounded centre of gravity – what is called hara in martial arts and bottom in horse riding.
Practice the classical strategies of psychic protection such as protective bubbles, shield, columns of lights, power animals and plants.
Keep your energy moving – physically, psychologically and in your home and workplace.
Use your sensitivity to deepen your connection with the unconditional love that permeates the universe.
Ask and pray for help.
Develop your ability to love, bless and forgive those whom you dislike and might be ‘enemies’.
Understand that sometimes you attract difficult situations that are in fact great opportunities for learning and development.
Visiting my GP a little while ago he began talking with me about his own health. This was not unusual as we had known each other for twenty years and he had read my self-help book The Endorphin Effect. He was committed to a holistic approach and believed that good medicine enabled patients into self-care.
‘If only I had practised what I preach,’ he said wryly, ‘I would have caught my own condition much earlier and probably avoided surgery. ’
We then chatted for a while about the archetype of the wounded healer and the self-sacrificing hero; and that medics have a calling to relieve the suffering of others, but not themselves. Self-care is hardly on the clinical map and hardly possible in a busy day.
‘You could do the self-examination in the bath or lying in bed or even commuting to work,’ I nudged. ‘You know exactly where to scan.’
He sighed. He agreed. He then had to see more patients and I left.
The interesting thing for me about clinicians is that of all people you know how to scan a body for signs of ill health. You know the crucial importance of early diagnosis and appropriate adjustments in behaviour, diet, exercise and life style. But you rarely do it for yourself.When you examine patients you get a quick sense of their state from their body posture, skin tone, breathing and the state of their eyes. But you rarely do it for yourself.With careful hands and appropriate kit you touch, push, look, listen and feel. You know all the signs of ill health. But . . .
More than that, before any physical examination you ask the core question, ‘How do you feel?’ But . . .
Again – and I know that I am repeating myself but it bears this repetition –because it is your profession you know exactly what to scan for and what signs are important, but in failing to self-examine you continually risk your own physical and mental health.
So. How do you feel?
Your main piece of kit here is your own mental ability to scan, sense and cognise what it feelslike inside your body. This requires the self-discipline of an intentional pause and then deliberately focusing down into your own physicality.
This sensory, felt awareness of yourself is crucial. It is the sovereign individual who alone can really know and experience their own state; and is able to self-assess and catch early signs of threatening symptoms. Who else can notice those signals that require just a tad of relevant adjustment: a bit more exercise, regular stretching, earlier nights, less caffeine, better food, more fresh air?
Being very serious and also pragmatic, surely the long-term viability of the NHS is based in this self-awareness, early diagnosis and preventative self-care.
Self-care as preventative medicine is not of course a new model. Indeed in classical Chinese medicine the art of being in a friendly clinical relationship with your own body is considered the foundation of good health. There is even a clear set of instructions on precisely how to conduct this practice. At its heart is a relaxed and friendly bedside manner towards your own physicality.
Sometimes this self-care practice is translated from Chinese as The Inner Smile, which may sound quirky to a cynical ear, a prime candidate for a bad science award. But unpack the Inner Smile tolerantly and we can see that it meshes extremely well with a modern understanding of the integration of brain, nervous system, endocrine system and gut ecology.
The Inner Smile is in fact a good example of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and polyvagal theory put into practice. The practitioner is advised to do it daily, when the body is at ease, with a particular focus on letting the abdomen drop down and sink into relaxation. With a calm and friendly attitude the practitioner then conducts an internal scan, especially checking in on all the major organs and noticing how they feel. Moreover the practitioner is asked to come into a direct and personal relationship with each organ, greeting it with a smile.
Is this hippy-dippy? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of mind-body anatomy and PNI will understand that this internal focus triggers signals from the brain through the nervous system into the endocrine system. It is crucial therefore that the practitioner’s attitude be friendly. If the self-examination is conducted with a purely clinical, impatient or, worst, an inquisitorial attitude, the message triggered in the neuro-endocrinal system will be that of threat, thereby precipitating the production of cortisol and adrenalin. If however the attitude is friendly and comfortingly parental then the neural signal is reassuring and soothing, triggering a cocktail of wellbeing hormones: endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. Just as an external caring parent can do wonders for our health, so an internal caring persona can have a similar positive effect.
Scanning with the Inner Smile then serves two purposes.
It brings into conscious awareness the felt state of your own body; early diagnosis leading to appropriate early intervention.
It self-soothes, relaxing and opening up tissue, integrating heart rate variability, settling and balancing gut ecology — all of which support general good health and a strong immune system.
Done on a daily basis the benefits are obvious.
But people are predictably human and, despite how sensible and positive this practice is, there is resistance to adopting it. I opened this piece with that conversation with my GP who was bemoaning that he had not followed his own advice and caught an early diagnosis on his own illness. He provides an excellent example of the many clinicians and carers who fail to self-care even though they know precisely how to do it and how beneficial it is for them.
So why is there this resistance? Why do professionals who preach self-care and the importance of early intervention completely ignore their own advice? In my opinion it is good to be realistic about the sources of this self-sabotage, because recognising them makes them easier to manage. So here are a few possibilities. See which ones might apply to you:
WHY I DON’T SELF-CARE
Can’t break old habits
New behaviour to learn
It wasn’t in my training
Embarrassing and awkward to care for self
Internalised authority figure judging you for appearing soft and narcissistic
Pretend there is not enough time
Frightened to look at what might be wrong
Addicted to role of stoic hero and healer
Scared of feeling feelings
Lazy and lack discipline
Depressed and no motivation
Those are all extremely good and normal reasons for avoiding self-care.
What therefore might motivate someone to push through the resistance? We could just wait for a harsh health crisis to prod you into action – the stick. Or — and I write this carefully after decades of experience in the field — you could just exercise sensible self-discipline,similar to washing your hands after the loo. I have led hundreds of trainings and I really know that other than the unpleasant shock of a severe illness, the only thing that seems to work is a disciplined rhythm that ultimately, like hand-washing, becomes a part of your normal life style. The carrots of self-care and early intervention are obvious.
Be encouraged as a professional by the skills and knowledge you already bring to self-care.
YOUR SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
Necessity of early intervention
Good bedside manner
High awareness of the basic strategies for general good health
High awareness of the immediate ameliorating strategies for specific health challenges
Importance of modelling self-care for others
Scientific understanding of the neuro-endocrinal mechanism and benefits of the Inner Smile self-care practice
And do the practice.
INNER SMILE SELF-CARE
Daily — perhaps in bed; lunch break; watching television; whenever suits you
Allow your body to sink down into being at ease
Let your abdomen slump and let your breath soften
Switch on the attitude of good bedside manner, like a friendly parent
Focus down into your own body and scan it
In whatever sequence works for you, give awareness to and feel into each organ and each region; sense into your systems
Notice how it all feels and the indications
Think about the appropriate health benefiting activities
Action the appropriate health benefiting activities
The long-term benefits for you and your community are immense.
What is the connection between the state of your gut and spiritual wisdom?
If you are up-to-speed with developments in medicine you will know that there is substantial evidence now for the health connection between the lower intestine and the brain. This is so well evidenced that some hospitals are performing poo transplants, replacing unhealthy with healthy faeces. The condition of the gut is implicated in so many illnesses. Some of them are obvious, such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and cancer. Some are more unexpected such as autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other mental health conditions.
Spiritual traditions have known about the gut’s importance for millennia. You can see it expressed in drawings and sculptures of many goddess figures and Buddhas. These images show a contented being with a large but very comfortable belly.
In most traditions of meditation, self-healing and internal martial arts, there is clear guidance to be at ease in our abdomens – to ground, centre and earth our bodies. When we do this, our stomachs relax and sink. There is a shift in our physical and mental states. We become calm in our bodies. Our centre of gravity drops down into our abdomen and is no longer in the chest or head. The feeling is good and comfortable. From this stable and agreeable state we can then meditate and do our spiritual practices more effectively.
The teaching is always the same. Be centred and at ease in your body. In martial arts and classical Japanese medicine there is a single word for this state – hara. To be in hara means to be grounded down in your body and at the same time kind and mindful.
All of this points to a very clear traditional understanding of mind-body-spirit integration.
This connection between the gut and our psychological state is so clearly demonstrated in anxiety and tension. When we are anxious our gut is tense, acidic and its microbes unbalanced. Our heartbeat is not integrated. Our breath is uncomfortable. Our brains are over-stimulated and it is difficult to think straight. We may sweat or shake or feel nauseous.
Most spiritual traditions teach the same quick and efficient way to manage that horrible state. It is very simple: belly breaths. These are soft, slow and calm breaths down into the abdomen. Just two or three soft breaths can work wonders.
These gentle abdominal breaths send reassuring messages through our neuro-endocrinal system. They are a signal that we are in control and consciously self-managing. Get your abdomen to be at ease – and it will ripple through your whole body, calming your heart, breath and brain.
But for me there is more to it than just the physical and mental wellbeing. There is also an important spiritual dimension. This is the crucial concept that the spiritual purpose of being human is to manifest love and compassion, and to become fully mindful and conscious. I am sure that many of my readers align with this philosophy: we are here to embody love.
And one thing is certain. If we are a bag of nerves, dealing with the frantic arousals of survival and anxiety, we cannot fulfil this spiritual purpose. On the contrary, we need a calm foundation, a gut that is at peace.
Our bodies need to be at ease so that we are oases of calm and blessing in a wounded world. So whenever you can and whenever you need, remember the universal strategy taught for millennia across the world: Gentle, slow, soft breaths down into the belly. Just two or three soft breaths can shift the mood. This is good for your health, your spiritual growth and everyone around you.