Polyvagal Theory
September 18, 2022

Finding Balance in Polarity

Connection is key to finding balance in polarity. When we connect to our emotions, and how the show up in our physical form, we start to understand the nature of polarity.

Polarity tends to be presented in terms of opposites: in-out, up-down, dark-light. What we overlook is the quality of balance present in polarity. 

Think of a chemical bond: without balance, the chemical becomes volatile and may even explode. 

When balance is treated as the core of polarity, the opposition feels more like caps containing an experience and less like extremes on a spectrum. Polarity becomes a gateway into a new way of viewing the world. 

Escaping Into Polarity

As a child I used to love sitting upside down on the sofa, imagining the ceiling was the floor. 

Seeing the world from this inverted perspective gave me a sense of freedom in a world regulated by my parents, school and music lesson schedules. It was a dip into a rich fantasy life, complete with detailed scenarios and endless possibilities. 

Multicolour light reflecting out of a door and down a hallway

This imaginary world was the polar opposite of day-to-day existence. By turning myself upside down, I easily escaped into a world that was a reflection of my everyday life. The elements were all the same -  but the perspective was different. It was so simple, so easy and to this day I can imagine the details of that land of polar opposites as if it was yesterday. 

Escape Requires Safety

As an adult, I discovered that this kind of polar-opposite fantasy state is only possible when a deep sense of safety is established in the body, the home and within the family unit. 

In the polyvagal theory, this is referred to as neuroception. When the autonomic nervous system automatically checks for cues of safety inside the body, in the environment around the body, and between nervous systems.

Shamanic Journeying and the Polyvagal Theory

My time in that upside down fantasyland prepared me for the polarity of journeywork

Journeywork, otherwise known as shamanic journeying, enables a shamanic practitioner to enter a state of non-ordinary reality. 

According to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, journeying presents:

 “One of the most remarkable visionary methods used by humankind to explore the hidden universe otherwise known mainly through myth and dream. Participants are initiated into shamanic journeying, aided by drumming and other techniques for experiencing the shamanic state of consciousness and for awakening dormant spiritual abilities.”

Shamans call that hidden universe “Non-ordinary reality”. Ordinary reality is the space we all can see and interpret in the same way. 

A daisy, for instance, has white oval petals and a yellow core. We can agree on this. 

Yet in Non-ordinary reality, we may all see things in our own unique light. The message each of us receives often overlaps, but the way the information is presented is unique to us. 

Entering a state of non-ordinary reality is like entering a world of polarity: one that seems quite opposite to what we’re accustomed to. In order to enter that world of polarity, each of us requires an innate sense of safety (that most people take for granted). 

Journeying Requires a Sense of Safety

We can only safely journey to non-ordinary reality when we are emotionally balanced (eg. regulated in ventral vagal) and know that the needs of our physical bodies are tended to. 

That means we need to set ourselves up in a safe, quiet location where we will not be emotionally or physically disturbed during our journey. We know that we are warm, we are safe from physical harm, and that we are protected from disturbance from the outside world. 

For most people, this safe place is a closed room, nestled under a cozy blanket and wearing an eye covering. Creating this space takes planning and requires discipline. Finding yourself in a space like this doesn’t just happen by chance. 

Dissociation is NOT the Same as Journeying

In my early days of journeying, I often wondered how the imaginary space I visited when I was sad, lonely or feeling unwell was related to non-ordinary reality.

It took me some time, and in depth study of the polyvagal theory, to realize that my altered state was more of an automatic dissociation - and not a choice at all. 

I escaped into an altered state when my body wasn’t feeling safe. 

Where is My Mind?

Think of the last time you felt overwhelmed. Where did your mind go? 

Mine, for one, goes into a different sort of imaginary dreamland. 

With the knowledge of the nervous system in hand, I now know that the body shuts down - focusing exclusively on survival - while the mind escapes into a place that provides psychological safety. (This concept of dissociation has grown quite popular in social media over the past few years.)

This world is the polar opposite of what I live in when I’m in my body, feeling safe or making decisions about visiting my upside down fantasy world of childhood or choosing to journey to non-ordinary reality. 

Fragmented image from a fish-eyed lens
Taking Cues From the Nervous System

It takes time and experience to differentiate between the polarity of “in” or “out” of the body - which determines if you’re journeying or dissociating. 

When we feel serene, grounded and embodied - that’s when we can actively choose to explore the polarity of non-ordinary vs ordinary reality. 

When we make choices about the world we chose to live in, we can find solace in polarity. In fact, I consider this a way to establish balance. We know that the experience is capped by two poles, and that we can exist at the point of balance between the two caps. 

How Substance Use Influences Polarity

When we consume substances that alter our state of mind - from alcohol to drugs (including psychedelics) to food - we are handing over navigation of the polarities to the substance. Which means WE aren’t making a choice. WE aren’t in the driver’s seat of perspective. It becomes a tandem effort between person and substance.

Our perspective of polarity is dramatically altered when we rely on substances. 

For many people, alcohol and drugs are adaptive tools that release the mind from the constant pressure of the world. It may feel like a different reality - because it is. Yet, this is not ordinary reality, it is more of a dissociative, collapsed state. It’s the creation of a polarity where you are not living in your body, and not engaging with your conscious mind. Instead, you’re living in an interstitial altered space. 

When we choose to escape to an altered state to feel free and relaxed - this is the polarity of dependency. 

It’s as if you chose to abandon your experiences, your felt sense in your body, and your autonomic nervous system responses so you can ‘be free’.

In conversations with Lisa Lanzetta, a Shamanic teacher and guide based in Southern California, it became clear that many people aren’t clear on altered states vs non-ordinary reality. We decided to explore the polarity - and all its possibilities - from a shamanic and polyvagal-informed perspective. Knowing the science behind the concepts builds trust in the process of healing - whatever modality may support it. 

Substance Use = Polarity of Abandonment

Imagine leaving a small child alone to survive. They quickly realize they don’t have support, and they feel afraid. 

When you think of the body and autonomic nervous system as the child, your use of substances signals to the body that you’re abandoning it. 

When you live for altered states, you are suspended in a disembodied reality. 

Consciously Cultivate Your Polarity

Spending time with sensation can bring you back to your body. The body wants you to come back, to spend time experiencing the world physically. 

The beauty of polarity is the power to explore the different variations of reality when and how you choose. 

Many clients find their way to me and to Lisa after psychedelic use. In experiencing an altered reality they encounter ideas, concepts and scenarios that feel scary and jarring. Bringing this experience back into the body can feel terrifying … but it’s also a gift. 

The altered state offered by psychedelics teaches us about what we need, not what we want. 

From a neurological perspective: psychedelics flip the Default Mode Network in the brain upside down. This network prioritizes what concepts preoccupy our minds and bodies. 

Labryinth at sunsent

After psychedelic use, what has gone unspoken / unfelt is flipped to the top of our awareness. That means what mattered to us most was submerged below the surface of perception - until psychedelics changed the brain chemistry enough to bring these concepts to the forefront.

From there, we have a whole new set of information to process. Emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually. This is really hard to process independently. This is when the attuned presence of an experienced psychonaut or shaman offers invaluable support to the integration experience.

Again - this is a choice. A choice to explore non-ordinary reality with the guidance of a medicine. When we can embrace the premise we chose this path to experience polarity - perspective on the experience starts to shift. 

Connection is Key

Consciously navigating between realities requires the willingness to experience emotional, physical and spiritual conditions.

For many people, there is polarity in experiencing emotions and sensations. One is driven by the mind, and one is driven by the body. Adding a layer of spirituality can seem disorienting. Which senses are used to experience spirits and non-ordinary reality?

Using the breath to find connection

The answer is: all of the senses. 

When we can connect the body and the mind and consciousness, we can achieve balance. 

We can learn to interpret experiences based on the sensations in our body, which are stimulated no matter what reality we chose to experience. 

Many people in spiritual communities willingly abandon care of their physical form to experience deep spiritual expansion. The body cues that offer so much rich direct knowledge go ignored.  We need the connection between all the states - the balance of non-ordinary reality and ordinary reality, the connection of physical-emotional-mental - to fully make our lives manifest.

It is from this place of connection that we are able to balance the polarity of relationships, including with spirit. When we know ourselves, when we understand how fear exists in our polarity to ecstasy - and how it appears in our physical form, we can prepare ourselves for all experiences. 

Polarity becomes the gateway to exploration!

Team member photo
Andrea Wood

Connection is key to finding balance in polarity. When we connect to our emotions, and how the show up in our physical form, we start to understand the nature of polarity.

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