The Polyvagal Theory, developed by neuroscientist Stephen Porges, is about the centrality of the Autonomic Nervous System in the human experience. It describes how our nervous system evolved to allow us not just to regulate the functioning of our organs, but also to assess whether things are safe and whether or not to engage in connection with others.
This article describes how the Polyvagal Theory gives us an embodied and relational perspective on mindfulness. I will start by putting the theory within the larger context of the human mind and the nervous system.
The human mind as a process
Computers have helped provide a metaphor for how our brain and nervous system work, consistent with how neuroscience conceptualizes the mind. For instance, Daniel Siegel, MD, author of The Developing Mind and The Mindful Brain, defines the mind as “an embodied and relational regulatory process.”
A computer processes information based on the way it is programmed. In a similar fashion, the mind works based on how it has been honed by evolution. Survival depends on the ability to assess situations for threat or safety and to do so nearly instantly. The mind evolved to provide action-oriented predictions about safety and threat.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The assessment of threats is mediated by the nervous system, especially the autonomic nervous system.
Traditionally, the ANS has been described as having two branches: the Sympathetic nervous system, which gives us the energy for fight/flight; and the Parasympathetic system, mediated by the vagus nerve, which helps us slow down, and provides a setting for digestion and rest.
In classical theory, these were the two forces balancing each other. It was assumed that the “window of mindfulness” was when the two were essentially balancing each other out.
The Polyvagal describes how the vagus nerve is comprised of two parts (hence the name “polyvagal”):
– The dorsal part is the more primitive part of the nerve. In the old model, it essentially does what the Parasympathetic was described as doing.
– The ventral part is associated with social engagement, and mindful engagement in general.
Mindfulness has its own circuit
The traditional view postulates that the two circuits of the ANS function the same way as two faucets: you get the “medium” water of the mindful “window of tolerance” by adjusting the hot and cold faucets.
In contrast, the Polyvagal Theory identifies a third circuit, the Ventral Vagal circuit, which mediates social engagement. So, there is an embodied basis for mindful engagement. Mindfulness is not just a by-product of being somewhere in the mid-range of ANS activation but something you can foster by engaging in the mindful mode.
In so doing, the Polyvagal Theory dovetails with the experience of people who have practiced mindfulness through the ages. Essentially, practice improves our ability to be mindful, moment by moment, and over time.
The third circuit, the Ventral Vagal circuit, is wired to mediate social engagement. So, the biology of the ANS makes it clear how being socially engaged goes hand in hand with being more mindful, i.e., responsive rather than reactive.
It’s not just that our capacity for mindfulness developed in connection with our capacity for connection. The context provided by the Polyvagal Theory is that life is interaction, and the ANS evolved to provide increasingly sophisticated ways to manage threats and opportunities for connection.
There is a progression: the crude on/off switch of the Dorsal Vagal, the mobilization of energy made possible by the Sympathetic, and, ultimately, the capacity for fine-tuning responses of the Ventral Vagal.
So, when we talk about mindfulness informed by the Polyvagal Theory, we are not talking about one-person psychology. We are in a context where life is interaction, and managing interaction is essential to how we evolved.
Mindfulness in real life
Our natural capacity for mindful engagement evolved within the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Thus, it is part of how our organism manages life’s interactions in real-time, moment by moment. This real-time integration of mindful engagement and response gives it survival value and evolutionary advantage.
This perspective is very different from the notion of mindfulness as something that requires removing ourselves from the hustle and bustle of life, at least temporarily. For instance, when we meditate, we face a wall or close our eyes, look inside, and find some distance from life.
We need to remember that there is a big difference between having a meditation practice and spontaneously using our natural capacity to be mindful. It’s about as different as training to be an opera singer versus spontaneously singing in the shower.
Hence, this article is about understanding how our natural capacity for mindful engagement works and how we can harness it.
Continuous monitoring of interaction
The traditional perspective on the ANS is that it controls the automatic functions of our body as it connects the brain to most of our internal organs. The Polyvagal Theory adds that the ANS operates within the context of interaction.
It is not just that the ANS regulates our heartbeat, for instance, and our heartbeat is faster as the Sympathetic system is engaged when we are in danger. Generally speaking, how the ANS modulates the function of our internal organs depends on its assessment of how safe or dangerous our situation is.
Our senses are continuously scanning the environment to detect potential threats. A vital function of the ANS is to process this sensory information about the environment and assess risk. Stephen Porges coined the term neuroception to describe how our nervous system does it automatically (i.e., at the nervous system level, without conscious perception).
Mindfulness in context
The Polyvagal Theory puts mindfulness within a broader context: how we manage interaction. Moment by moment, we implicitly assess our situation. Neuroception takes place below awareness, as much of our functioning does. However, it is possible to develop our capacity for mindful awareness of what we sense through neuroception.
Much of what happens at an implicit level is difficult, maybe even impossible, to fully express in logical language. So, mindful awareness is not the same as making explicit what is implicit, and it involves finding different ways of relating to our experience.
Culturally, we have a bias toward explaining what we experience, which is reducing it to familiar concepts. We need to resist the urge to explain what we experience and instead spend more time exploring it.
Dancing at the edge of experience
The Polyvagal Theory provides a logical, scientific framework for making sense of life as an interaction. However, to put this framework into practice, we must shift from a logical thinking mode to a sensing and feeling mode.
As we enter this territory, we discover that self-awareness, artistic exploration, and mindful practices blend into an embodied philosophy of life that we experience freshly, moment by moment.
I invite you to explore how it may open up new directions in your practice and life.
– the interview of Serge by Blake O’Connor, Education Director of the Polyvagal Institute on the topic of Polyvagal-informed mindfulness.
– the Sunflower Mind perspective on life as interaction.