My name is Gabriel Kram, and I’m grateful that you are here. I am the Founder of Applied Mindfulness, Inc., the Convener of the Restorative Practices Alliance, and the Co-Founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine. My team and I have developed this course to teach health professionals and other interested people about the Polyvagal Theory: the landmark theoretical work of Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD, which represents the most significant transformation of our understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System in 50 years, and which will have transformative effects on medicine and mental health in the coming decades. Since being introduced to the theory ten years ago, it has been a foundational lens through which we approach our work in well-being, mindfulness, anti-racist and social justice work, deep nature connection, and human development. It has exponentially deepened the effectiveness and impact of our work training thousands of health professionals. This is because it so powerfully explains a wide variety of phenomena: from the most obvious ways that people behave when addressed with care or confronted by challenge, to how people interpret situations as they unfold, to how they show up in the world, down to how people conceptualize their identities at the most subtle and profound levels.
I work as a connection phenomenologist. For the past 25 years I have been studying, with 40 mentors and advisors across 20 disciplines related to human well-being and transformation(1), and in 18 cultures (2), what makes some people and cultures deeply happy, humble, resilient, and connected to themselves, one another, and the living world, and what makes others systematically disconnect from all of those. In our extensive research and practice, and that of our mentors in deep nature connection, we have observed that the modern (originally western, now globalized capitalist) world literally came into being through disconnection, elaborated in European intellectual history with a Cartesian split between mind and body, through a wave of conquering nations displacing indigenous and ancestral cultures of the places that they colonized, and the conceptualization of nature as a savage and mechanistic force to be tamed and exploited for human benefit. At the deepest level, this worldview represents a rupture of reciprocal relationship: a breakdown of connection that has manifested with devastating consequences across internal, social, and ecological domains, and is at the heart of the medical, mental health, social, and environmental crises in which we find ourselves presently situated.
As Dr. Darcia Narvaez, PhD, so eloquently explains in her ground-breaking research, and in her book Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, for 99.9% of the 2 million years that the human genus has existed, the fundamental fabric of our lives was woven from connection. Through a Polyvagal lens, we would say that human culture developed to optimize human developmental outcomes by instantiating and stabilizing people’s connection systems (social engagement physiology of the ventral vagal system) as the physiological baseline for individuals and collective culture. This collective, universal, and ancestral wisdom is preserved in intact indigenous and ancestral cultures, and fundamentally shapes their (our) relationship and conceptualization of self, community, and our relationship with the living world. We could also say that modernity is characterized by a systematic deviation from this mode of living.
The people known to outsiders as the San Bushmen of the Kalahari (they don’t call themselves San), the oldest continuous culture in the world with an oral history of more than 100,000 years, who are still living their ancestral lifeways, say that identity in the deepest sense arises through the intentional creation of a living fabric of reciprocal relationship (connection) with all the elements of the living world. They say that when they go out into the world, and see, for example, an individual bird, and recognize it as an individual– that in that moment of connection a tiny energetic thread forms between them and that particular bird. This is literally a thread of connection: a moment of recognition and relationship, experienced by both. In that moment, there begins a relationship that Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist teacher, calls inter-being. The San say that each time they go out, and see that bird and recognize it as an individual, the thread grows thicker, until it becomes a cord, until it becomes a rope. This is the fabric of connection, and they say that to be a bushman is to build these ropes of connection with all of the Creation. This fabric of connection is an embodied, felt, reciprocal connection, a way of knowing and inter-being with all that is. It is a way-of-knowing, a form of intelligence, a way of feeling ourselves (3) and the world. And this way-of-knowing can be developed: it is the connection intelligence experientially modelled by ancestral and indigenous cultures.
The San bushmen of the Kalahari are consistently considered by experts to be the best trackers in the world, because they are the most nature-connected people in the world. Their abilities as trackers, those who can read the stories written in the pattern language of nature, is unparalleled. And interestingly, they are the ancestors of us all: a 2011 Stanford study found that genetically they are who we all come from. So their abilities, their capacity for connection, is latent in us all. Our genetic material comes from them, with one minor variation. As connection phenomenologist Jon Young explains, we have a gene that they do not have: it is called the war gene. There is a story that, about 70,000 years ago, there happened a diaspora out of Africa, an expansion of the tribes. Occurred something related to war. The warring people developed what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, which enacted epi-genetic changes in their DNA. These people did not have a problem rupturing the fabric of connection: they did not hesitate to take human life, and they decimated the San population, pushing them back into the Kalahari, which is so inhospitable that, literally, no one wanted it. These people then spread out.
We, in the modern world, are the inheritors of the people with the war gene, the people with traumatic stress. (Please watch our short film about this: The Origin Story.) Hurt people hurt people, and in this state, we evolved and conceptualized a worldview that systematized disconnection, a worldview that described our lived experience. In the Polyvagal Theory, we say that story often follows state. The story of the modern world is the story that emerges from a culture of people living in a disconnected state. Our epistemology is an epistemology of trauma. Our origin stories are stories that explain the origin of disconnection.
The Polyvagal Theory is a map that can help bring us home. It is a map that teaches us the deep physiological nature of connection and disconnection, the patterns and the pathways into and out of it. It is a map of the dynamic living expression of the Autonomic Nervous System, the deepest oldest parts of the brain responsible for homeostasis, and for tracking our felt sense of safety or threat (Dr. Porges calls this neuroception), and then surfacing, based on this assessment, one of a variety of neural platforms of behavior.
Dr. Porges’ theory maps 7 neural platforms of behavior, 4 pure and 3 hybrid, arising from three neural circuits, which emerged at different points in our evolutionary history and that shift depending on whether we feel safe, in danger, or under life threat. These neural platforms shape:
They are like glasses we can’t take off: a physiological filter through which we feel, see, and understand the world, sometimes with clarity, and sometimes distorting. These platforms filter and shape our reality. When we feel safe (and connected) we literally see, hear, and feel different things than when we feel threatened.
When we become conversant in the Polyvagal Theory, we can become trackers of the moment-to-moment nervous system state of ourselves and one another. We can learn to read and recognize, in the change of inflection in someone’s voice, a shift in eye gaze, a loss of expression in the upper part of the face, the tell-tale signs of the deep shifting of neural platform, and the movement into and out of connection. And as we are able to track these subtle shifts, we can learn what we need to do, in a given moment, to meet the deep biological calling that another human being has for safety, based on their nervous system state. It is for this reason that we sometimes conceptualize the theory as the science of safety.
The Polyvagal Theory forms the theoretical foundation of the newer somatically-oriented trauma therapies, because it teaches us to read the movements into and out of defensive platforms, and teaches us how to support shifts in the nervous system back towards neuroception of safety and connection. Pioneers such as Dr. Peter Levine, PhD, and Dr. Pat Ogden, PhD, working with and from this awareness, have developed modalities (Somatic Experiencing, and Sensori-Motor Psychotherapy respectively) that support transitions in nervous system state and the completion of un-metabolized, or un-integrated nervous system states, otherwise known as the resolution of trauma. And yet these applications of the theory only begin to scratch its surface. Our Restorative Practices neuro-developmental model, of which this course is a part, is an attempt to more comprehensively map the terrain and implications of Dr. Porges' lens across the domains of restoring human wellbeing. Dr. Porges and collaborators are also working to develop a Polyvagal Institute to shepherd development of clinical applications of his work (Applied Mindfulness, Inc., and the Restorative Practices Alliance are involved with this process).
At the present time, in the United States, 60-80% of visits to primary care physicians are stress-related.(4) All stress-related issues are issues of Autonomic Nervous System dys-regulation, the system that Polyvagal Theory addresses directly. Many of the maladies of modernity: anxiety, depression, gastro-intestinal distress to name simply a few, are maladies of Autonomic regulation in a culture where people have drifted away from a baseline in safety and connection into a baseline of fight, flight, or shutdown.
It is imperative that we, as health providers, learn the map of the Polyvagal Theory, and become skilled guides at helping people walk themselves back to safety and connection, for this is where well-being resides.
It is a happiness to share with you some of Dr. Porges’ revolutionary Polyvagal Theory with you. It is our sincere hope that this course is useful and illuminating to you, and of benefit to those you serve, and that it begins for you a deeper and fulfilling engagement with Dr. Porges' remarkable body of work. In addition to the course material, we will be directing you to relevant supplementary content that resides at other places on the learning platform. If you encounter a film or practice that is referenced, that you cannot access, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, tell them that you are enrolled in the Polyvagal Mindfulness course, and request a 30-day complimentary ADVANCED access to the Learning Platform. It will be our pleasure to provide this to you (a $99 value) as a gift so that you can understand the model we are developing more deeply.
Founder, Applied Mindfulness, Inc.
Co-Founder, Academy of Applied Social Medicine
Convener, Restorative Practices Alliance
(1) Applied Mindfulness, Inc. has mentors and advisors in the following disciplines: integrative medicine, neurophysiology, neurobiology, neuropsychology, neurocardiology, trauma healing, mindful awareness, somatics, emotions research, contemplative psychology, positive psychology, liberation psychology, diversity equity & inclusion, anti-racism and anti-oppression practice and pedagogy, deep nature awareness, tracking, indigenous and ancestral lifeways, cultural linguistics, systems theory, behavior design, implementation science.
(2) We have mentors and advisors both from, and who have been trained by people in the following places, cultures, cultural groups and lineages: Africa, African-American, Apache, Australian aboriginal, Brasil, China, Chinese-America, Filipino, Hawa'iian, India, Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), Japan, Lakota, Muskogee-Creek, San (Kalahari), Tibetan, Unangan (Aleut), Yanawaya
(3) Here we already encounter a limitation of the English language, which unlike Romance languages does not have a reflexive verb construction. What we need to say is feel myself. This includes interoceptive awareness as well as tactile sensations. In French, this would be ‘Je me sens.’ Imagine the world we would live in if instead of saying, ‘Je pense donc je suis’ (I think therefore I am) Descartes had said, ‘Je me sens donc je suis.’ (I feel myself therefore I am.) The San formulation, through Thich Nhat Hahn: (I inter-be, therefore I am.) This echoes the Bantu concept of Ubuntu: I am because we are, and the Filipino concept of Kapwa: awakening to the other as myself.
(4) JAMA, Intern. Med. (2013)