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Embodied relational mindfulness, attachment & co-regulation

The following is a draft. It is based on the Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges.

The theory specifies two functionally distinct branches of the vagus nerve. The branches of the vagal nerve serve different evolutionary stress responses in mammals: the more primitive branch (Dorsal Vagal) elicits immobilization behaviors, whereas the more evolved branch (Ventral Vagal) is linked to social communication and self-soothing behaviors. These functions follow a phylogenetic hierarchy, where the most primitive systems are activated only when the more evolved structures fail. These neural pathways regulate autonomic state and the expression of emotional and social behavior. Thus, according to this theory, physiological state dictates the range of behavior and psychological experience.

I am talking here about mindfulness as a natural capability of the human living system, as opposed to mindfulness meditation. I think of mindfulness as the opposite of mindlessness, i.e. engaged versus disengaged. I have a simple image for this: When our distant ancestors roamed in the savanna or the forest, they were actively engaged: hunting or foraging, and careful not to be hunted by predators. When we walk in the woods, as well as in much of our lives, we do not have such strong incentives to be engaged, so we are essentially disengaged.

I imagine that, most of the time, our distant ancestors were in a state of relaxed alertness as opposed to high alert, simply because it would be physiologically unmanageable to constantly be in fight-or-flight mode. So we are talking about Ventral Vagal mode.

For instance, I can imagine a situation such as a camp at night: The night watchman's attention is engaged because there is a very real danger. However, he is not on high alert because the situation is familiar, it is part of normal life, it has been reversed many times, and there is a cultural context for it.

In contrast, in a situation where there is no danger, the watchman gets bored and dozes off (Dorsal Vagal mode). We may not literally be in Dorsal Vagal mode in many of the circumstances of our life when we get bored (disengaged), but metaphorically we are – hence the concept of "awakening" in spiritual traditions. At the very least, we are not in Ventral Vagal mode at those times.

When we are disengaged and a threat occurs, we do not have the benefit of Ventral Vagal activity to mitigate the nervous system activation. So we are intensely steeped in a fight-or-flight perception of the world, essentially: Me vs the threat, and little else. This is a vicious cycle: Being activated makes it even harder to be aware of the possibility of connection and the resources that connection can bring. Hence, the visceral sense that safety is in isolation.

Conversely, if the Ventral Vagal mode is engaged when a threat occurs, there is a virtuous cycle: Not only are we calmer in dealing with the threat, we are also potentially more able to sense that safety lies in connection.

Thinking in these terms reinforces my sense of the usefulness of approaching mindfulness in terms of engagement:
- it provides an operational definition of mindfulness,
- it articulates the link between inner connection an interconnection,
- it provides a pragmatic framework to develop practices: behaviors conducive to Ventral Vagal engagement.

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