On May 1, 2020, on the Global Launch call of the Restorative Practices Alliance, which I convened, the most meaningful part of the event for me personally was a dialogue that I facilitated between Kuuyux Ilarion Merculieff, an Indigenous Unangan Elder from Alaska who is President of the Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways, and Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD, a psychophysiology researcher and likely the world’s leading expert on the relationship between the Autonomic Nervous System and behavior, about the human heart.
Although approaching the topic from seemingly distant orientations – Ilarion approaching from the perspective of Indigenous Wisdom, and Stephen approaching from the lens of neurophysiology, by way of the Polyvagal Theory, which he developed, and using very different words and framings, I found it remarkable that they were saying the same thing.
Indigenous people call modern western society the upside-down or inside-out society. They say we have reversed all the laws of living, because the heart and the mind are not in their proper places. They say that in modern Western society the mind tells the heart what to do, whereas in order to live in the right relationship with all that is, the heart needs to be telling the mind what to do. Dr. Porges says the same thing in a different way: only when we feel safe, at an embodied level, can we turn on the social engagement or Connection system, which is the gateway to connection and relationship, and only when this happens can the heart physiologically run the brain.
I want to explain what Dr. Porges is saying a bit more deeply here, so that you can feel what he is saying about our access to the human heart. We are endowed by Life with a remarkable nervous system. Our nervous system has a variety of components and functions, but what I want to focus on here is our Autonomic Nervous System, which you can also think of as our Automatic Nervous System. This embodied nervous system is the architecture of the mind-body connection, monitoring our internal organs and bodily systems, and exchanging this information with the brain.
The Autonomic Nervous System has two primary functions:
- To maintain dynamic balance in the internal bodily systems, calibrating them moment-to-moment as we move through our lives. This dynamic balancing is called homeostasis, and involves constantly tuning and adjusting our heart rate, breathing, digestion, core temperature, immune function, and a variety of other involuntary systems to keep us adapted to our internal and external environments and using energy efficiently.
- To tune our bodies and minds to respond appropriately to the environment based on whether or not we have a bodily detection of safety or threat.
Polyvagal Theory teaches us that depending on whether we feel safe or threatened, our Autonomic Nervous System evokes one of three primary neural platforms, which exist in a hierarchy. If we feel safe enough, our system will surface the Social Engagement, or Connection System, which is the neurophysiological system that unites the face and the voice with the heart and the breath, and brings us into functional calm and attuned relationship. If we feel threatened (and this assessment of threat is made by our body, not our thoughts) our nervous systems will re-tune into a protective response. In the hierarchy of the nervous system, this is often first a fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system response) that is high energy and active. If the fight or flight response fails to get us safe, our nervous system will shift to a shutdown response that is immobilized and often numb (a dorsal vagal nervous system response).
These neural platforms (Connection, Fight/Flight, and Shutdown) tune our bodies, emotions, thinking, perceiving, and acting. They shape how it feels inside our bodies–our heart rate, breathing, muscle tension. They shape our emotions and our thoughts. They shape the way that we interpret the world around us. And they shape the behaviors through which we respond to it. Of principal significance: when we feel safe, we literally see, hear, and feel different things than when we feel threatened. Neural platform, over time, also shapes how we experience ourselves at a core existential level: we identify with the states we spend the most time in. Someone who becomes baselined in a fight response experiences themselves, and is experienced by others as a combative person. Someone who becomes baselined in a flight response experiences themselves, and is experienced by others as an anxious or fearful person. What this really means is that they feel chronically unsafe.
The key to understanding Polyvagal Theory, and as it happens, the key to understanding the relationship between the heart and the brain, is threat detection. I make this assertion because it is only when we feel safe enough in our bodies to surface the neural platforms of Connection that we have full access to ourselves, Others, and the Living World. Feeling safe in our bodies is the doorway to the Connection System, which in turn is the doorway to connection with all that is. When our connection systems are turned on, the heart is literally, physiologically, telling the mind what to do. This system is not only the root driver of wellbeing, but the doorway to connection.
Feeling Safe In Our Bodies
Only when we feel safe in our bodies are we able to connect deeply into ourselves, others, the world around us. Only then are we able to be with: to move into reciprocal relationship, to create a ‘we’.
Take a moment, if you will, to engage in a brief experiment. Imagine that you are sitting with a dear friend – someone you feel safe with; someone who you feel understands you deeply, and has your best interests at heart. Imagine that you are having an animated conversation with this person about something that matters to you both. In your mind’s eye, can you see how you are tracking their facial expressions, the rising and falling of their voice, the meaning in its inflections? Can you see how you notice each of their gestures? And can you feel this space of connection that opens up between you, the sense of a shared space, the sense of a ‘we’? This is a simple and beautiful example of the Connection System being online, with archetypic echoes of the earliest communication between an infant and a caregiver, often the mother. Before we can speak, our caregivers are using this system – the doorway of the face, voice, the tuning of the middle ear – to see and listen into our interiors so that they can tune into us and meet our needs.
Imagine now a slight interruption in your dialog with your friend – something that pulls your attention away. An unknown sound, for example. Can you imagine how, in an instant, your attention re-tunes, quickly scanning the environment to detect and identify the sound? Suddenly, your nervous system is re-prioritizing the information coming in. It shifts from connecting to protecting.
We can conceptualize this, in lay language, as the heart opening and closing. It opens when we feel safe, and can trust enough to enter into the vulnerability of connection and reciprocal relationship. It closes when we feel threatened, and sense that we must protect and guard our hearts.
It is very important for our wellbeing to understand the physiological nature of these responses, because we live in a modern world where we are surrounded by cues of threat. The global pandemic has put the world, for nearly a year, into a state of almost constant awareness of threat, while simultaneously depriving us of touch, and being able to see the faces of others, which is generally our source of connection cues. Furthermore, we find ourselves in countries where political division and polarization are so extreme that our politics is locked into a perpetual state of fight, and in the midst of social upheavals arising from systemic oppression, and ecological catastrophe arising from climate disruption. All around us, we see things that make us feel unsafe, and the heart contracts. Yet only when it opens can we live the highest, fullest versions of ourselves. Only when it opens can the heart take its rightful place, telling the mind what to do.
What I would like you to take away from this article, what I would like you to hold onto, is this awareness that only when we feel safe can we access the full intelligence of our hearts and the resources that reside there. Our human family will require its fullest creative brilliance and ingenuity to re-align our civilization with the Original Instructions for all of Life, and to do this we’ll need to be able to feel safe enough to open our hearts, so that we can receive the full inspiration we need to create a future that works for all.
Feeling safe in the body is the doorway to turning on the Connection System that allows us to live from our hearts. If this project seems meaningful to you, or it if seems difficult – if you find yourself aware of the many ways that trauma – either personal or collective – is blocking you from accessing this awareness, I would like to invite you to read the book I’ve spent the last many years working on with the help of 40 mentors and advisors in 20 disciplines of wellbeing across 18 cultures: Restorative Practices of Wellbeing.
Wishing that Your Heart is able to tell your mind what to do.
Natureza Gabriel is a connection phenomenologist. He likes to be still, and he likes to make things. He has spent a good deal of time making a company, a school, and a global cooperative. These three things are closely connected.
He is Convener of the Restorative Practices Alliance (the global cooperative), a philanthropic ancestral neuro-technology cooperative and culture repair engine. He studied at Yale and Stanford Universities, but has been shaped more by sitting in teepees and circles than in classrooms. He has been blessed with many remarkable mentors in many cultures and lineages and disciplines. He is the Founder and CEO of Applied Mindfulness, Inc. where he directs research, curriculum development, and pedagogy. He is co-founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine, where Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD is honorary chair of Neurophysiology.
For 25 years he has been studying connection phenomenology across multiple disciplines, including neuroscience, mindful awareness, creativity, social justice, cultural linguistics, deep nature awareness, leadership, organizational structure, and ancestral economics. His newest book is Restorative Practices of Wellbeing, which is being published July 10, 2021.