Seeking safety in a powerful and nurturing group
by George Thompson
Throughout history, humans have been in many different physical environments: steamy jungles, blistering deserts, cool forests, and the ice age. Humans have lived in the plains, by rivers, lakes and oceans, in the mountains, in the desert. These are such different environments. The one environmental constant for humans has been the presence of other humans. We have adapted to be with other humans. (James Coan call this the “Social Baseline Theory.”)
We have survived because of our ability to collaborate with each other, to solve problems, to create together. One man or woman in the jungle may survive. But a group of men and women who know how to work together is trustworthy and almost certain to survive. Belonging to a trustworthy group can give us a felt-sense of safety as well as actual physical safety. We feel safe and we are safe. We trust each other to care for one another and that mutual care becomes our support and our confidence. On a biological level, we get prepared neurophysiologically for collaboration.
Dr Stephen Porges, the researcher who first discovered and described Polyvagal Theory, calls this optimal neurophysiology the Social Engagement System. He says that our nervous system is constantly monitoring our environment, not just for signals of danger, but also for signals of safety. Because our nervous system is predisposed to be on the lookout for danger, it takes more than danger’s absence to convince it that it will not be harmed. It needs active signals of safety to gain that reassurance. Until it gets that reassurance, we might go into a fight-or-flight neurophysiology.
Polyvagal theory says the vagus nerve, which is called “vagus” because it wanders through the body like a vagabond, has two branches, one that is older, because is occurred earlier in human evolution. Then, about 200 million years ago, mammals developed a new branch of the vagus nerve responsible for triggering the Social Engagement System. The new branch of the vagus suppresses the fight-or-flight response.
Fight-or-flight developed in mammals 400 million years ago. The fight-or-flight response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (think, adrenaline). It is the use of vigorous action to stay safe. We can’ t cooperate in fight-or-flight mode. We can only defend ourselves from threats. So, to come together in a coordinated fashion, we need to be able to calm our sympathetic nervous system. That’s the value of the new branch of the vagus.
The older branch of the vagus is responsible for the freeze-or-faint response. This defense mechanism developed in bony fish and reptiles about 500 million years ago, and shuts down many of an animals functions. Blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tone all drop. Faint-or-freeze is hiding or disappearing as the main protection. Think of a turtle pulling into its shell or a fainting possum who we say is ‘playing dead.’
Fighting and fleeing were a big step up from hiding and disappearing. But for mammals to take their next step, they needed to be able to work together, and they couldn’t work together if they went into fight-or-flight every time they saw another member of their species. Think about it — did you ever see snakes working together to accomplish something? You have seen wolves and beavers and tigers and chimpanzees working together. One particular kind of working together is nurturing one’s babies. Snakes don’t do this. Neither would we if we went into fight-or-flight response whenever we saw our baby. So we need to move from snake-like behavior to be able to be warm-blooded mammals, working and playing together and taking care of our live-born young.
Okay, now we know that we need to calm the fight-or-flight response to care for each other and work together. We know that a new branch of the vagus developed 200 million years ago to suppress fight-or-flight. But how does our nervous system know whether to suppress fight-or-flight, or to activate it? What tells our nervous system that it is safe for us to get close enough to work together? After all, not all other humans are safe to be around. How do we know if this human won’t hurt us?
As we said before, our nervous systems don’t conclude that things are safe simply from the absence of danger. Active cues of safety that convince the nervous system to open up from its defensive postures include an animated facial expression, an animated tone of voice, and non-threatening postures. A stony facial expression or a flat tone of voice can be a menacing non-verbal communication. Telling a story is a cue of safety. Lecturing someone is a cue of danger. Accepting the experience of another is a cue of safety. Evaluating someone is a cue of danger.
One of the biggest cues of safety is when someone demonstrates that they our experience matters to them. Think about it. Whose experiences do we care about? We care about the experiences of people who belong to groups that we also belong to: our family members, our close co-worker, our close friends. We know that we belong when someone in the group cares about our experience. Their face lights up when they see us. Their voice lights up too, vibrant and alive. They tell us their stories and listen to ours. They accept our experience. We trust people who want to know what we are thinking and feeling. We trust them when they pay attention to what we are hoping for and what we are fearing. Demonstrating that you care about what someone is experiencing is a sign that you consider them a member of the group you belong to.
Friends care about each other’s experiences.
Enemies care about each other’s behaviors.
Now, what happens when we do something like the Compassion Exercise, which comes from the Avatar® Course? It has five statements, such as “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for his/her life.”
When we deliberately adopt this perspective, we are demonstrating, at least to ourselves, that the other person’s experience matters to us. We take a moment to put ourselves in their shoes: they also want to experience happiness and to avoid suffering. What else do we tell ourselves? That having those experiences makes them “just like me,” a member of my group, someone similar to myself.
Doing the Compassion Exercise sends a brilliant signal of safety to our nervous system. I believe that Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar materials, is quite a genius. Asking us to think about how we are similar to others and how they are similar to us tells our nervous system that we are surrounded by members of our group. From an evolutionary biology perspective, our nervous system concludes that there is safety in the numbers of people who are on our side. This sense of being surrounded by safe people then creates a personal sense of peace.
I teach medical students to do the Compassion Exercise because I want them to create a sense that they are “in it together” with their patients. I heard about one doctor-to-be from my class who was kind of an anxious person. Before she saw each of her patients, she wanted to tell herself that her patient was in many ways someone just like her. Arming herself with this perspective, she could relax and connect with her patient. And that’s what happened: she would pull Harry’s little card out of her pocket, say the five statements to herself, feel calmer and more connected, and then enter the room. Imagine how much safety that communicated to the patient even though they had no idea that the student had just done that. They would feel well-cared-for by that student.
The Compassion Exercise is just one way to use Avatar to send ourselves a signal of safety. There are myriad ways that the other Avatar Courses, like ReSurfacing, Avatar, and the Masters, Professional,Wizards and Integrity Courses help us feel safer and more connected. If you haven’t done these courses, consider exploring them. But for now you can know this:
Demonstrating that you care about what someone is experiencing by doing Harry’s Compassion Exercise signals that you both belong to the same group, humans who are learning about life.
[Explore compassion further in the Avatar Forgiveness Option minicourse.]
Angels in the Shadows
by George Thompson
What We See When We Release Our Fixed Attention
Whiplash of Attention
When my son, Seth, was little and wanted to show me something, he would grab my chin and turn my head. Having my head forcefully turned by a two-year-old without my permission was surprising and more than a little unsettling. Usually, instead of looking at what had delighted him, I shot him a stern look to get my point across: “I didn’t like that. Don’t do it again!” After the long moment that it took me to calm down, I would look where he wanted me to look.
Traumatic memories can grab us in the same way my son did, unexpectedly and disturbingly. They take hold of our attention and, without warning, jerk it in a direction we weren’t planning to look. Usually there is some trigger, something that reminds us of the old trauma and screams, “Look out! It’s happening again!”
Dark parking lots used to do that to me, back before I found a way to free myself from a long-ago traumatic experience. In the years since, reminders of that night, when a man robbed me at gunpoint, would still catch me off-guard, sending me back to the parking lot with the whole memory package — sudden fear and shock, racing heart and trembling hands, an urge to run, and an image of a gun pointed at my face.
How can our attention be caught in a steely grip when it is riveted to something as ephemeral as thought, memory and conjecture? From a few steps back, this is an interesting phenomenon. Traumatic memories cause the same reactions that we have when we are actually in danger, threatened by growling dogs, careening cars or menacing strangers, but the traumatic event itself has come and gone. The memory of an experience can feel the same as the actual experience itself. Maybe to warn us of possible present risk, the brain goes down an old side track to produce the sense of a life-and-death situation even if no present-time danger exists.
In my case, a reminder of the robbery used to whip my head around, just like my son once did, to lock my attention on that old fear. Riveted attention is intense, unwavering and anchored in place, but there are ways to free that fixed attention.
You Remember What Could Kill You
When the police caught the robber, he was wearing my suit and fighting another man in the middle of an intersection in a bland Houston neighborhood. My father’s car was out of gas nearby. The men told the police that they were fighting to see who was going to rob the gas station on the corner. A week before they stole the car, I had driven to Houston from Dallas, where I was in medical school, to see my father, who, to my surprise, bought me a brand new Honda Accord. The dealership needed a few days to service it, so Dad lent me his ’79 navy Oldsmobile Toronado, a fancy ride, to drive back to Dallas.
A week later, my girlfriend and I drove the Toronado back to Houston to pick up my new Honda. We first went to my old college prep school for the football game against our archrival. It was my first time back in years. As we got out of the car, a short man in a trench coat stepped from the shadows and pointed his shotgun at my face. “Give me your keys and wallet,” he ordered, then pointed the gun at my girlfriend and told her not to move. We did as he demanded. Twenty seconds later, he drove my father’s car away, and the people who took our parking spot helped us find a payphone to call 911.
After the detective called with news of the robber’s arrest, my girlfriend and I flew back to Houston. We went directly from the airport to the station, signed in, and met the detective. He briefed us on the carjackers and the identification process, then took us to an area straight out of a crime show on TV — the police lineup room. The detective took me in first, and I found myself in a small amphitheater with curved rows of chairs in tiers, a bit like a small movie screening room. We sat in the back row, with a brightly lit stage down below us. Our side of the one-way mirror was dark and cool.
Five men walked into the room, behind the one-way mirror, and stared ahead blankly, toward a spot below where we were sitting. The officer gave a signal and they turned to their left, so I could see them in profile. After a few seconds of looking them over, I pointed to the guy second from the right. The officer asked if I was sure. “Yes, sir. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.” My girlfriend identified the same guy, but we were both wrong. I was stunned. How could that happen? The officer said it was not uncommon.
<>I was thinking of these events the other day while explaining to a friend over coffee about trauma and fixed attention. When you are in a life-threatening situation, your nervous system is designed to mobilize resources to keep you alive. You breathe rapidly and your heart pumps faster and stronger, creating an oxygen-rich blood flow, which is directed to the biggest muscles in your body, to help you run like mad or fight like hell. I experienced all of that. What you pay attention to changes as well. No longer are you attracted to faces, but to the source of the danger. You get tunnel vision, and time slows down. Sometimes you just shut down completely.
I told my friend, “Today I have no idea what that guy looked like. But I bet I could still easily identify the sawed-off shotgun.” That gun had held my attention hostage. The barrel’s end looked to be recently hacked off with rough, bright steel sharp enough to cut me if I had touched it. Come to think of it, I don’t remember what the rest of the gun looked like either. I just remember that tip.
This was fixed attention: a strong memory of some things and no memory of others. In the years following, a dark parking lot or something similarly menacing would shake me up, and I would see the tip of the gun. Today, I can still see it clearly, but because the fixed attention is gone, it only appears when I want to recall it.
The Only Way Out is Through
Luckily, there are ways to free ourselves of the burden of fixed attention, including an Avatar® mini-course called “The Forgiveness Option.” The course helps you get unstuck and move your life forward again. Since I am a psychiatrist, I should say that this is an exercise that people use for personal growth rather than as a clinical tool in a therapist’s office. I use it myself to free my attention from where it has gotten stuck in my life, in my relationships, at work and with my family. One day I used it to process the robbery.
To start, you make a chart of some of your “burdens of life,” small or large events that cause you an emotional reaction or fix your attention. The robbery topped the list I made. Then you consider what you might have done to prevent the thing from happening. I wrote, “If I had paid more attention, I might have seen the guy.” That consideration helped move me from feeling like a victim of what happened to acting more as the master of my own fate, what psychologists call moving from an external to an internal locus of control. Avatar calls it “being source.”
Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar materials, says that looking for ways that you might have prevented a situation is not an exercise in self-blame, but a way to develop what he calls “rational risk management.” If a person is not yet to a point where they can avoid shame and self-blame, they likely need a therapist who can hold a space in which they can think about what happened without getting retraumatized. The Forgiveness Option desensitizes the trauma and decreases the emotional intensity of the event with an exercise called “Releasing Fixed Attention,” which asks you to tell the story again and again from beginning to end. Telling the story multiple times frees attention in the same way you free a truck which has been stuck in the mud, by rocking it back and forth until it builds enough momentum to burst out. Each time you tell the story, you pay attention to the pain and emotions associated with the memory or anything about it that arouses feelings of resistance. After each telling, you describe something in your surroundings in detail, a present-moment impression.
So you don’t get stuck in the mud of your story, you do this exercise with a partner who coaches you to make sure you stay on track and avoid getting lost in the feelings. When I did the exercise, I told my partner what had happened to me, just as I have written here. I told her that seeing that gun shocked and scared me, and then told her the whole rest of the story. Then I described a nearby house plant. I told her the story again, including how I felt violated to have something taken from me by force. Then I described the patterns on an interesting vase. Each of the many return trips to the present moment brought deep sighs of release and relief. Eventually and suddenly, like a truck getting unstuck, my attention was freed up.
My mind had been fleeing from and fighting the events of that night. But mental wrestling doesn’t free attention. I had to relive those events in present time without escape into thinking — to be with my experiences while I was experiencing them. As the saying goes, the only way out of an upsetting situation is by moving all the way through it. The key to feeling safe again is to release the fixed attention.
[I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar materials, more than I could say here. Read something about Avatar’s impact on my life here.]
The Gift of the Angel in the Shadows
The last time I told the story, I saw intentions I had banished from my awareness. While driving to Houston, I had been picturing myself arriving at the football game as a medical student with a new car and a girlfriend. I was preparing to lord it over my old friends in an attempt to resolve a lingering middle school shame that still stung a little. Seeing the hidden intentions was a whole new take on those events. I had long blamed my friends for causing my middle school inferiority feelings and had harbored at least a mild desire to get even. But now I could see that my own self-criticism had been the cause of my pain. I saw it all simultaneously. It hadn’t been them, it was me.
Before doing The Forgiveness Option, I hadn’t done much poking around in those memories. It was like I walked past the entrance to a dim and cheerless room, briefly glanced in that direction, then told myself, “I know what’s in there,” and kept on walking. Repeatedly and attentively telling the story of these events was like letting my eyes get used to the dark. I could see that parading my (imagined) superiority to turn the tables on my friends would not have made me feel any better. It would have only increased my shame. I clearly saw what I had never admitted to myself, exactly what it was that I had been setting out to do.
When I finally caught sight of this bigshot intention lurking in the shadows, I found it possible to say to myself, “yes, I was planning to make my friends feel small as an attempt to make myself feel better.” That realization was both sad and a relief. Owning my intention restored my sense of personal responsibility and source beingness, a shift from external to internal locus of control. Responsibility and clear sight contained no blame, not even self-blame. I had simply been headed in the wrong direction. Just like the man with the gun, the shadow-bound intention had stepped into the light.
To my surprise, this shift in perspective unfixed my attention from the trauma too. When I put my attention back on the robbery, I no longer felt the rush of adrenaline that would prepare me to fight or hide. Instead, I now felt I had been saved by an angel who suddenly appeared in my life, redirected my attention, then vanished just as abruptly. I understood why the minicourse was called The Forgiveness Option: I was at peace with someone who could have shot me.
A friend asked me, “How could you possibly see a man who could have killed you as an angel?” Excellent point. One reason I write this story at all is to describe this remarkable shift and let you know that it’s possible. It’s not just a different idea, like, “maybe I could look at it this way…” Rather, it’s like walking out of one movie theater in the middle of the action, and walking into another with the same characters and set, but the plot has changed completely. It’s a whole different movie. No longer was the robbery an unwelcome event that had happened to me, but a gift that saved me from myself and set me back on a path aligned with who I really am.
Hidden in Plain Sight
When Seth was almost two years old, he was frightened by a mechanical snowman in a Christmas display. As my wife drove us home from the mall, we did a version of the Releasing Fixed Attention exercise. I directed his attention to his fear by saying, “That snowman sure was scary!” He responded, “Me no like snowman!” Then I directed his attention out the window to whatever we were passing: “Those cows are black and white.” After several rounds of this exercise, the snowman was no longer scary, and his attention was free.
We often did the exercise with Seth whenever something — a bad dream or worry — had stuck his attention. One day, when he was still a toddler, we were on our porch, and he looked up at me and said, “I notice when I am with grownups, I’m not afraid of bees, but when I’m by myself, I am afraid of them.” But what he said next really blew me away. “What can I do about that?”
At 3-½ years old, he knew there were ways to unstick his attention when it got stuck on fear. Unlike Seth, during the many years my attention was fixed on the robbery, I didn’t ask what could I do about it. I wouldn’t even have been able to say that my attention was fixed, or that I was enduring a traumatic experience. I felt that these alarming reminders were part of who I was, part of my make-up, outside of my control. How many of us notice when our attention is fixed? Do we even have that language?
Imagine a world, hiding in plain sight all along, filled with Seths, in which people know how to unfix their own or others’ stuck attention. Imagine the gifts they can share and receive. When I think of the man with the sawed-off shotgun now, I think of what I learned and what he saved me from. Without the ability to free attention, those insights would still be in the dark. Imagine everyone having this ability. How many angels will we find waiting patiently in the shadows of our past? How much grace will be revealed as those angels step forth into the light?