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Being Polyvagal : The Polyvagal Theory Explained

Being Polyvagal : The Polyvagal Theory Explained

Written by Eric Friedland-Kays, WIMH Senior Clinician and Deb Dana

The intention of this article is to explain the Polyvagal Theory, and to relate it to the Windhorse approach.  This theory was developed by Stephen Porges, and has great relevance to “basic attendance”  and Windhorse, which puts meaningful relationships as the basis of healing from extreme states of mind.  Polyvagal Theory is a tool for working with trauma as well as a tool for understanding social connection and communication in general.   This Fall, Deb Dana, a colleague and co-author with Porges, conducted an experiential training for Windhorse staff to learn about this approach.

The Vagal Nerve and Our Nervous System

According to Porges, “We all come from dysfunctional families.  The issue is not whether our family was dysfunctional but whether we can put meaning to the experience of our lives.”

Our autonomic nervous system  is all about safety.  Polyvagal Theory offers precise science to understanding how the vagus nerve, one part of this system, which connects the brain, to the heart, to the viscera (the organs of the belly), relates to our human ability to connect and communicate with each other.  Learning about the vagus nerve allows us to understand our coherent human nervous system and how it predictably relates to stimuli it encounters as varying degrees of safety and danger.   

This important nerve is aptly named by the latin root of “vagus,” which means “wander,” because of the far reaching connection it has throughout the body.  Previous theories explained that  the parasympathetic nervous system, through the calming effect of the vagus nerve, worked in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system energizes us for physical action in times of need by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, while simultaneously putting other functions like the digestive system on hold.  This system enables us to run from a dangerous animal or to act quickly to deal with crisis without having to stop and think about it.  This traditional model noted that the parasympathetic nervous system gets us back to normal homeostasis when we are no longer in need of such extreme reaction to a stressor.

The Autonomic Nervous System – Communication and Connection

What Porges provides is a more complex scientific understanding of a three-part hierarchical model and how the vagus nerve is directly related to a coherent system of communication and connection within the autonomic system.   

Porges coined the term “neuroception” to refer to our innate unconscious awareness through the autonomic nervous system to influences in the body, in the environment, and in interactions between people.  In other words, we detect dangers before we have time to think about it.  This tells us about the subtle sense of safety or danger that potentially influences any interaction in the world

Polyvagal Theory describes the autonomic nervous system has having three subdivisions that relate to social behavior and connection.  The oldest of these subdivisions is the “dorsal vagal,” a part of the parasympathetic nervous system that  enables us to shut down, or “freeze” when a situation of danger feels uncontrollable and we are overwhelmed.  The second is our sympathetic nervous system, or “fight/flight,” system.  And the most evolved and complex of the subdivisions, is our mammalian parasympathetic social communication and social engagement system – the ventral vagus.  This is a very complex network of fast, myelinated neural fibers originating in the brainstem that dictates our heart rate, breathing, hearing, facial muscles, and vocalizing.

Polyvagal Theory is hierarchical, meaning that all three of these subdivisions follow a natural order depending on the neuroception of safety or danger in the situation.  If the environment is detected as safe, we are free to use the ventral vagal social engagement system, which means we are relatively free be ourselves, express our own feelings, use facial expression easily, and use a modulated voice pattern.  Also, our heart rate is relatively calm, we breathe freely, and we filter out human language from background noise.  Whereas, if we are not detecting the environment as safe, we fall into a fight or flight, survival mode (this is the aforementioned “sympathetic nervous system” taking over).  And if that system fails too, and we continue to feel unsafe, we naturally fall back into the freezing or shutting down dorsal vagal mode.   In these more primitive modes, much of the aforementioned capacities are turned off, leaving a person with far less ability to relate to the world socially.

Trauma and the Polyvagal Theory

When it comes to post-traumatic stress, all of these subdivisions are reacting not simply to the immediate safety or danger in their environment, but to an interaction internally between the immediate environment and a sense of triggering activity based on past life events.   Therefore, if someone experienced an event in childhood in which they did not feel safe, an event in their present adult life might echo such an experience internally, and this person may fall back on the more primitive neural systems of subconsciously needing to fight off, flee, or shut down in order to survive.

Each of us experienced some degree of trauma in our early lives.  Whether it was an event that brought a great fear or we felt a deep lack of support in a significant situation, or whether it was a series of events that gave us fear, confusion, or a sense of not being safe.  Any of these experiences may have remained in our nervous systems and emerge to add fear to situations later in life that remind our inner system of the danger.

Responses within ones’ inner system may be overt or subtle. This is why it can be confusing for a support person, friend, or family member if they are not seeing the internal mechanism happening for the person they are with.  They might think the person is reacting too strongly with anger, for example, or perhaps shutting down, to what may seem like fairly safe conditions.  Recognizing that the response to the situation is real and valid based on the person’s neuroception is extremely  important for a counselor or therapist.  Understanding that there is no foundation for blame, that the response is not a conscious decision, helps to not take the reaction personally and contributes to safety.   

Polyvagal and Windhorse Basic Attendance

What is helpful for a Basic Attendant of any form (in this broad definition I am including any therapist, counselor, housemate, nurse, mentor, friend, family member, or any other caring person in contact with someone in a mental health struggle) is to notice what seems to actually be happening for this individual with whom they are interacting, and appreciate the need for cultivating safety in the environment, including using their own facial expressions, vocal prosody, and even subtle movements.  Also, in doing this, it is helpful to notice what seems to be happening in one’s own body and nervous system as one is in contact with the person needing support.

A key to the Windhorse work is cultivating an environment that is as safe as possible, and having interpersonal exchange within that environment.  The social world and so much of what we encounter in our daily lives is affecting our nervous system, and in varying degrees it can be anxiety-producing or outright scary.  At Windhorse, we want folks to be more engaged in their lives and be capable of, and interested in taking the risks of living in the world with others.  We want to build a sense of safety so that risks can be taken and edges of growth can be tolerated.

From a polyvagal perspective, the autonomic nervous system is the foundation upon which all lived experience exists.  It explains how we move through engaging with the world (of activity and of interactions with people) through connecting, disconnecting, and attuning.

Each of us experiences shame in some moments.  Many folks seeking mental health services have struggled with school, or had to leave their school, or struggled with jobs, with relationships, etc.  And unfortunately, society gives the message directly or indirectly that they have failed.  Our mental health and education system often uses terms like “failure to launch” for young people who are deemed to have not realized their potential.   

A more useful paradigm for recovery recognizes how the individual has successfully managed to navigate the risks, traumas, and various predicaments of their life.  As Deb Dana says, “reducing shame makes room for curiosity and compassion.”  Polyvagal Theory helps us understand that behaviors are manifestations of our internal nervous systems taking actions in the service of survival.  People develop habits based in early adaptive survival responses, and these habits naturally continue into adulthood.  When we can recognize how these responses once served a person by helping them tolerate otherwise seemingly unbearable circumstances, we are able to cultivate a sense of appreciation for how an individual has survived, adapted, and learned through the difficult experiences and predicaments of their life .  This leaves us with the option of a recovery paradigm that creates meaning out of the varied experiences within an individual’s body-mind-spirit continuum, rather than putting emphasis on a need to overcome the so-called “mental illness.”

Deb Dana says, “we come into this world wired to connect.”  What Polyvagal Theory is helping us to see, through scientific understanding  of how the autonomic nervous system works, is how our innate drive to survive in the often challenging predicaments of our lives can interact with our innate longing to connect with others.  Each of us has more capacity to engage socially when our nervous system feels safe, and contrastingly we have more need to fight, flee, or freeze when our nervous system is sensing danger.

“Basic Attendance” at Windhorse, is potentially a path to learning safety and learning more about ones’ mind as it interacts with the outside world.  A challenge of the practice of basic attendance is that as these one-on-one interactions occur, habitual patterns of fighting, fleeing, and freezing may naturally emerge in the relationship.  These are the complex edges of tolerance that need to be supported so that one can learn and grow from them.  On one hand, an individual may not be able to shift stuck habit patterns if they avoid environments and people with whom we have any discomfort.  And on the other hand, one also needs to remain relatively safe and not simply throw oneself so far outside their comfort zone that their nervous system becomes activated and can only remain in fight, flight, or freezing modes.    

As Deb Dana notes, “Polyvagal Theory offers a roadmap to work with autonomic activation and build regulation and resilience.”  If we understand how to read this roadmap, and make it more of our habit as people in service of others and ourselves, to build safety in our interactions, we may likely be contributing to cultivating less shame and instability in our world.  Some of the community integrating healing benefits of this may be a feeling of connection, safety with vulnerability, having flexible options in times of stress, consciously communicating, and a greater capacity to authentically receive and offer love.

Windhorse Talks: Deb Dana Presentation And Workshop On Polyvagal Theory

Windhorse Talks: Deb Dana Presentation and Workshop on Polyvagal Theory


If you had walked into the Windhorse community room one Wednesday morning in early November, you would probably wonder if you were having a very strange dream. For in the community room you would discover the Windhorse staff wandering around wearing sunglasses, expressionless, and speaking to each other in monotone voices. Suddenly, the warm, caring people you were expecting to see were behaving like cold, uncaring androids. Would you hang around long to figure out what’s going on? Probably not. Most likely, you would exit the room and try to shake off the disturbing feeling the experience left you with. You might get the urge to call a friend or family member, or perhaps hug a beloved stuffed animal.

Later, you would be relieved to find out that what was really going on in the community room was just an experiment and part of Deb Dana’s fascinating presentation on Polyvagal Theory, and your response to the situation was a perfect example of a normal nervous system doing its job, which is to protect you from harm. It does so primarily by recognizing when people or places seem unsafe, sending you signals to leave, then guiding you back to well-being by way of finding friendly faces.  Deb Dana is one such friendly face. So much loving kindness does her gaze exude, it is hard not to melt in her presence. A clinician and consultant specializing in working with complex trauma, she recently co-edited, with Stephen Porges, the book Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies, and is the author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. Dana has “a particular interest in Polyvagal Theory and the influence of the autonomic nervous system in shaping the ways we move through the world.”

We highly recommend you read Dana’s books to find out more about Polyvagal Theory and we provide a primer here on our site. But in a nutshell, the theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and according to Dana, “offers a way to understand the human autonomic nervous system and directly engage with our habitual patterns of response. Through a polyvagal lens we learn to listen to embodied stories. Using a polyvagal perspective, we can let go of self-criticism and bring an open heart to exploring the ‘ways and whys’ of our daily experience…how we interact or isolate, join or judge, move toward or stay away, speak or stay silent.” Polyvagal Theory is especially relevant to the Windhorse approach of “healing through relationship” because it has been described as “the science of connection.” At long last, there is ample scientific evidence that supports what we at Windhorse have always believed and practiced. In her “Beginner’s Guide to Polyvagal Theory”, which you can download for free on her website, Dana says, “We come into the world wired to connect. With our first breath we embark on a lifelong quest to feel safe in our bodies, in our environments, and in our relationships with others.” Ideally, we feel safely engaged and socially connected most of the time, for those are the conditions needed for both physical and mental health. Unfortunately, that state of well-being is frequently interrupted by signals of danger sent by the highly sensitive nervous system which cause feelings of alarm and distress in the body and mind. Over time, if those feelings are allowed to persist- if we can’t find the “friendly face” we depend on to help us return to well-being- both our physical and mental health can be eroded.

Earlier in the article, we suggested that after the distressing experience of being in the presence of a group of people who appeared cold, uncaring, and possibly even hostile, you would probably feel the impulse to leave. Yet even after leaving, the feeling of distress lingers on. Until, by hugging a friend or family member or even a stuffed animal, the fear and stress leave and a sense of safety and relaxation return. It sounds like such a simple remedy, yet finding friendly faces is not always easy in this day and age. Part of our focus here at Windhorse, is to provide the simple remedy of friendly faces that trigger the feeling of safety. For from that safe place, members of our community can not just survive; they can thrive.

Overview written by Katherine Parker, Windhorse IMH, Team Leader

Windhorse Talk: Basic Attendance And Relational Mindfulness

Windhorse Talk: Basic Attendance and Relational Mindfulness

Regardless of our role or setting, we intuitively know the importance of being present and open if we want to genuinely “be there” for another person. According to contemplative psychology, this capacity to be present and available is an expression of our basic human sanity and a strength we can cultivate. We share this capacity with everyone we encounter, regardless of role, diagnosis, and the like. Mindfulness meditation and other contemplative practices offer us a way to bring forward this natural clarity, warmth, and openness. We can then bring these qualities into the various relationships and environments that fill our work and lives.

At Windhorse, the practice and art of relational mindfulness is known as Basic Attendance. In Basic Attendance, one attends to one’s own mind and body, to the other person, and to the environment as a whole. By mindfully connecting with our immediate experience, we are better able to meet others with presence and genuine openness—human being to human being—and better able to recognize and encourage the innate wakefulness we all share.


Windhorse Talks: Dr. Gail Hornstein

Windhorse Talks: Dr. Gail Hornstein

Recently, Windhorse had the honor of welcoming Gail Hornstein to join us for a conversation about the life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the pioneering psychiatrist who dedicated her life to doing intensive psychotherapy with the most disturbed patients, and was an important influence on Edward Podvoll, founder of Windhorse. Gail Hornstein is Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of the widely-reviewed biography To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World: The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. “One goal of that book,” Hornstein said in an interview, “was to show that despite the spread of medication and electroshock as the primary treatments in American psychiatry, psychotherapy has long had powerful results with even the most seriously distressed people.”

A recurring theme of Hornstein’s presentation was Fromm-Reichmann’s intense focus on “the hidden wellness within the patient.” This attunement allowed her to “bring forth the parts of someone focused on clarity and recovery.” In her quest to find the “healthy part” of her patients, most of whom had been on locked wards for years, Fromm-Reichmann would take them to lunch or a concert in order to bring alive that part of them that could still appreciate and respond to both the great and small pleasures of life. It is easy to see how her thinking informed Podvoll and his belief in the enormous potential for healing that exists within the context of a basic attendance shift, for on any given day, Windhorse staff and clients can be found spending time together by sharing a meal, going to the library, or visiting a museum.

Hornstein is also the author of Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness, which shows how the insights of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, personality disorder, and paranoia force us to reconceive fundamental assumptions about madness, treatment, and mental life. This book is another incredible resource and would surely be applauded by Fromm-Reichmann, who encouraged her staff to read personal accounts of madness by survivors themselves to obtain the deep insights they offer. On Hornstein’s website, you can download a free version of her Bibliography of First-Person Narratives of Madness in English (5th edition). We strongly recommend reading both texts if you want to obtain a wealth of insights yourself.

Hornstein’s presentation was illuminating and inspiring. Her expert knowledge, deep understanding, and talent for story-telling allowed her to render for us such a clear and intimate portrayal of Fromm-Reichmann that at times it felt like the great psychiatrist herself was in the room. Had she actually been in the room, we are sure she would have been smiling and nodding her head in approval as Hornstein spoke, overjoyed to know her legacy was being passed down through such an apt and deft channel. Please follow this link to Hornstein’s website, where you can find her Bibliography and order her books.

Recovering Sanity Session 3: Crowhurst Chapter – Megalomania Is Very Close To Us All

Recovering Sanity Session 3: Crowhurst Chapter – Megalomania Is Very Close to Us All

Over the course of the next few months, Windhorse Northampton will be having discussions about Podvoll’s Recovering Sanity which is a principle book towards the Windhorse approach to recovery. The discussion is lectured by staff members and open to the wider Windhorse community. This first post was lectured by Gary Blaser.  The following is an edited (for ease of reading) transcript of the lecture. 

Gary: We’re continuing our passage through the parables, which are found in the first part of the book Recovering Sanity. I’ve been given Donald Crowhurst, who sailed in an around-the-world race in 1969 and disappeared. It’s actually documented that he committed suicide.

What the book says is that we all have the seeds of megalomania and the seeds of our destruction right in that place of ego development—we all have it. I like how Ed Podvoll brings that really close. It’s really easy to look at a sailboat in the middle of the ocean and a guy having dual logbooks and doing all this stuff, and to say, “Wow man, he’s out there.” What Podvoll suggests, and what I’d like us to consider, is that Crowhurst is really, really close to us.

In reading about Crowhurst’s youth and his adventures, we see how he got identified with being brave. I would like you to consider the statement, “I am brave.” There is a way, in terms of healthy ego development, that identifying with being brave is appropriate. For example, when you’re a teenager, you go off and you challenge the hell out of the world. Why not? That’s what you do. That’s a great thing, that’s important, and at the same time, that has in it the seeds of our destruction.

What I appreciate is this iconic predicament that gets set up by the very nature of what Podvoll calls our character, our experiences, or the development of our ego. All these experiences that Crowhurst had, his clashes with the environment, and what we know from Greek tragedy, is that this is a very old story. Podvoll mentions Icarus but just about every Greek tale is about Joe Athenian going along in his life thinking, “I’m all that and a bag of chips! I’m moving along in my life and hey, maybe I know as much as the gods, and maybe I’m going to do this and that.” And then what happens? Bam, he gets beaten down very quickly—so we can see a very archetypical story about ascension and fall. The Greeks portrayed that really well. They knew human psychology very well, and they enacted it in their plays and theology. We can look at Crowhurst as another parable; it’s another look at how we all have the seeds of our own destruction and how we all have that potential to be “crashed down by the gods,” in so many words.

In Latin, the definition of megalomania is “delusions of greatness” and I like the word hubris because that has Greek roots that relate to being an affront to the gods. Hubris is knowing more than the gods in a certain way, so you can see how these themes weave their way into our language. When we think about egomania (or we think about hubris or about ego), we often think about an inflated ego. Crowhurst certainly had an inflated ego. When someone says, “I can do anything. I can overcome any obstacle.” that’s a serious inflation. What I want us to consider, especially for us as human service workers, is that ego really doesn’t care how it’s special. Ego can be special because it is great or the ego can be special because it’s a piece of shit. Ego doesn’t care.

Again, it’s really easy to distance ourselves from Crowhurst and say, “Wow, he was really out there and he was inflated,” but I want to suggest that ego deflation (where I say, “Oh, no I can’t do that,” or “I’m not good enough,”) those sorts of deflated places that we go to, have just as much ego in it as ego-inflation. Both are true and I want to keep holding that because again, I want to keep bringing this home to where we live, and as human service workers, we are absolutely susceptible to both of these energies and forces.

So the seeds of our self-destruction are in our egos. I like how one author describes ego as, “Captain Control,” and its only role is to do whatever it takes to stay safe. In this way, it has its own energy. If we’re not able to separate from it and observe it, it can really take over. I think we’ve all experienced that.

Two Stories Related to Ego

I want to share two stories related to ego. One happened here and one happened a long time ago. There was a time in my life when I was newly sober with all that that takes and feels like. After I got sober, I found I was driving really fast and I loved speeding. I had this belief (and I really believed it) that, “I am protected, man. I am not going to get pulled over. I’ve got magic powers.” I really believed that and I didn’t get pulled over for a year. I didn’t get pulled over for two years, but then in that third year, bam, bam, bam. Within two months I was in driver education thinking, “How did I get here? I was protected.” Fortunately it was driver’s education and not the hospital. That’s how close this is for me. It’s not far away.

Then there was one time here when I was in supervision with Mary, and I had a case that was really challenging. One of the things for me working here is the struggle of trying to will my clients to feel better. I can have this sense that I know what’s good for them, and I can feel really attached to them doing what I think they should be doing. There’s a real easy way to get attached to that perspective. I was lamenting with Mary in supervision one day, saying, “God, he won’t do this and he won’t do that, and he’s blah, blah, blah, and he’s never going to blah, blah, blah” and she looked up and goes, “What if he doesn’t have to change?”

It was like somebody took a hatchet and just went boom, right in my head and I was like, “Maybe he doesn’t have to change.” I was so wrapped up and attached to him changing that I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see. I was wrapped up in my own perspective and I didn’t have a vision of what was possible.

Am I being clear about how this is really close?

When Sailing, the Gods Will Have Their Way with You

Now I’m going to move on to some pieces about sailing and the sea, and then we’ll move into Crowhurst’s journey. One of the reasons why I was asked to do this presentation was in 1991, I was part of a crew of four that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat. A 39-foot Camper & Nicholson that left Newport, Rhode Island. I forget the dates, but it was around June-ish and we arrived in the Azores nearly 20 days later. We spent about seven days in the Azores and then we went on to England, to Gosport, which is a coastal town in the Southern part of England. That took 12 days. I was at sea for 18 days and 12 days, so it was only 30 days at sea. There are a couple things I noticed about that, and about how it relates to Crowhurst.

The first is, when Crowhurst sets out and his boat starts to break down a certain way, that is just part of what happens when you’re at sea. When you’re in a boat in the middle of the ocean and being tossed around, things break. We had things break: at one point, our boom broke in a storm, and at another point, we thought we didn’t have oil pressure so we couldn’t run the engine. All this stuff happens at sea because you’re in a little teacup bouncing around on the ocean. When you talk about hubris, it’s like, “I’m gonna make it across the ocean.” Right? It’s like, “Really? You really think you’re gonna make it?” Cause you really don’t know. But when we set out, I was like, “I’m gonna make it.”

There were a couple ways I got schooled related to this. One was when we were sailing, about the fifth or sixth day out, the weather report came in and there was a large tropical depression coming. It was pretty significant and I started to get a little scared, because when you’re in the middle of the ocean, you can’t throw out an anchor and say, “Well, I want to take a break.” You’re there. So we got hit by this storm and when you’re in the middle of the Atlantic and you’re on a sailboat and the waves are 25 to 30 feet high and you’re on a 39-foot sailboat, you have to just pull the sails in and surf down the waves as they come up underneath you. You can only run with the storm.

We were doing that and we got knocked down two times. “Knocked down” means the mast was about horizontal, and I was holding on with my elbow around the winch with my legs dangling, and then it righted itself. That happened twice. It was a sublime experience. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, the gods really had their way with us.” Right? But this is what people experienced like 2,000 years ago when the gods were really having their way with them, from their mindset.

It’s really humbling and I remember the moment when we were surfing down these waves when I said to myself, “Today’s the day. Today’s the day I’m gonna die. There’s nothing I can do about it.” There was nothing I could do, there was nothing I could say, there was no line I could pull, there was no trick out of my hat that would change that. And when I admitted that, my fear went from an 80, 90, or 100, down to about 20 or 30. I was like, “Well, I’m not dead in this moment, so I can do this, this, and this.” It really is a relationship with the present moment in relation to what the gods are doing. I was intimately linked with what was happening right there and not knowing what was going to be next, because you just don’t know.

Sailing Requires Some Skill and a Lot of Luck

The other part of the story, which kind of made me understand some things in terms of my ego was after I sailed across to England, I took some really nice trips and I did a bunch of sailboat racing in Rhode Island for some time, for a couple of summers. One time I was in a race off the coast of Long Island, and we pulled in and I was looking at the boats and wanting a boat. There was this beautiful boat and I encountered this captain of the boat who was a Jamaican guy and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve done this and I’ve done that” because the sailing community is all about ego and about boasting. It’s intense. Anyway, I was doing that, right? I was like, “Oh yeah, I sailed across the Atlantic,” and this guy said, “Ah, you’re lucky. If you did that, you’re lucky.” There was some kind of truth being spoken to that. I didn’t quite understand at the time but what I’ve come to understand is I was lucky. You get out of these situations with some skill, and a lot of luck. That’s just the way it works.

Crowhurst’s Race

Crowhurst’s race was about the same. The sea will have its due and you can’t control for that. So you take a guy like Crowhurst, who believes, “I’m brave. I got the world in the palm of my hand. I’m doing it, right?” He had the real makings of the psychotic predicament. His history and the world are going to have “a collision of currents.” Crowhurst tended to get very wrapped up in trying to fix things, and really not understanding what was going on outside of him. When you’re in a situation like that, it’s really important to have a horizon point that you’re going toward. If you don’t have that, then you have really lost your way. Crowhurst’s horizon point became his mind and all of the things on his boat. It was an internal reference, and not an external, “I’m going there.”

There is a little jiu-jitsu trick of the mind when you are in the ocean and all you see is water. When all you see is horizon and everything that you see is the same in every direction, it’s very disorienting. You don’t know where you are, so in your mind, you have to have some fixed point somewhere that you can visualize. While we were traveling, it was the Azores. We focused on how “we’re gonna get to the Azores.” And it was really fabulous when there was finally land and we’re like, “Oh my God, there’s land. Thank God there’s land.” Then you gain perspective, thinking, “Oh yeah, that was a bad storm.” For Crowhurst, he lost that trajectory and became really involved in his image and all these details related to his boat and the race.

Group Discussion

Gary: Any questions about sailing, sailboats, things of that nature?

Audience member: How much harder is it to do it by yourself?

Gary: Oh my God. You have to deal with sleep. You’ve gotta sleep and when you sleep, what do you do? Well, there’s all sorts of alarms that they have to wake you up if you go off course. Again, when you are alone, the journey becomes much more difficult. One of the things that Podvoll alludes to when he talks about recovery is that what we need is connection with other people.

If you don’t have connection with other people and you’re projecting onto the sublime nature of the ocean and everything that that entails, you can lose your mind. You can really lose your mind because there’s nothing to grab onto. One time, I was sailing across, and to take a shower, we would jump off when it was warm, come out, soap up, jump in. So I was swimming in the Atlantic and I look down and open my eyes and every part of my vision was aqua, and you know it’s two miles down. That’s really humbling. It’s two miles down. All I see is aqua. You really get it that you are very small, very small. There’s all sorts of ways that the ocean can really play on your mind. It can really evoke senses of smallness and just . . . I love when Jacques Cousteau says that when people enter the ocean, they enter the food chain, and not necessarily on top. It’s a very big place and it is unforgiving.

And to be out there on your own is even more of a challenge.

So when I set out, I was prepared to take the world on. Obviously, life has its way of correcting us and luckily, I listened. Crowhurst didn’t quite listen. He had very small islands of clarity in his doubt, but that quickly got covered over. He didn’t live in relation to what was happening around him in terms of the environment and himself. He quickly retreated into his fast mind to make himself larger and larger. I imagine he tried to make himself larger than the circumstances.

Audience member: Crowhurst eventually stops relating to the sailboat and situation, and starts focusing entirely on the log books or what he’s generating in there. He’s absorbed in the fact that the two log books are different.

Gary: He’s trying to manufacture the experience as opposed to paying attention to the reality of what’s going on.

Audience member: And he uses the ability to manufacture the log books as a way of having some sense of control over something he’s creating, as opposed to a situation over which he has no control, essentially.

Audience member: Something that sticks out for me related to Crowhurst’s experience in this story, is the wall of external pressure: of both his own observation and that of the world’s eyes on him. Right off the bat, he pretty much decides that he needs to start creating this fraudulent record in an effort to save face.

The book also the mentions that part of Crowhurst’s reason for doing that is being with all these people that invested all this money in him and in his boat. There was this sense of “I’m gonna let them down if I don’t do well in this race.” And even his initial reason for doing this boat race was to draw publicity to a company of his. So much of his motivation related to other people’s perception of him.

Gary: What comes to mind related to that, in terms of a psychotic predicament, is our own personal experiences and the external circumstances colliding. For Crowhurst, the potential energy of that collision was huge, given his life. He was so invested in people seeing him doing good and being brave and all this stuff. The potential energy of that creates the pressure of “Oh my God, I’ve gotta make sure that all this holds together and. . .” And the more those internal and external experiences collide, the farther and farther apart the log books can get. And then the idea of how do you square these two can become what seems like an impossible design.

Audience member: I was just thinking about how so much of this relates to identity: where we see ourselves, our ego, and what happens when there is a mental health diagnosis. What it is like to identify with being a “sick person” or the complexity and the pressures of having multiple identities. Often people are taught to identify with themselves as being really special. And there can be an expectation from parents that their kids should be really brave, and be amazing. How there can be a disconnect from that expectation, and how there isn’t room for imperfection.

Gary: Right. The force of circumstance becomes the family, or another image, or even Windhorse, right? Then there’s the collision, again there’s potential energy in the collision.

Audience member: What I’m having the strongest reaction to in the chapter is the letter that he left to his wife before he set sail. She found the letter four months into his journey. I guess he had to deal with the fact that he may die on the voyage and he talks about how he’s not afraid, and never has been and never will be. Instead, he’s only deeply concerned about the consequences for his wife and the children that he loves only second to her. It blows me away that, with those relationships in his life, it’s hard for me to see how they didn’t sustain him, and help him to say nevermind the ego. I’m surprised that his attachment to his ego could supersede his attachment to these dependent beings.

Gary: That points to the seeds of self-destruction. That’s how powerful the ego is when it gets roaring.



Recovering Sanity Session 1a: Beyond The Medical Model

Recovering Sanity Session 1a: Beyond the Medical Model

Over the course of the next few months, Windhorse Northampton will be having discussions about Podvoll’s Recovering Sanity which is a principle book towards the Windhorse approach to recovery. The discussion is lectured by staff members and open to the wider Windhorse community. This first post was lectured by Mary Tibbetts and Phoebe Walker. The following is an edited (for ease of reading) transcript of both the lecture and talk back.When listening to the discussion we thought it best to break the discussion into two themes highlighted in the talk; the differences and evolution between two of Podvoll’s books and thinking beyond the medical model. We hope that these series of talks further highlight our history and approach to recovery.

Phoebe: It also strikes me about how that if there is a sense of being familiar with one’s own mind and one’s own mental suffering is what helps or informs the second part of the book, which is about being of service. Knowing the places our own mind can go, and our own suffering, affects how we would try to be of service. And in the absence of some lived experience of this suffering, trying to be of service can be clumsy or it can be like trying to drag somebody along or can sort of miss the point of the suffering altogether.

Mary: Right.

Phoebe: And then from that frame of mind “helping” seems to be more about what the helper wants, where they’d want a person seeking services to be, as opposed to being of service in an informed way. I think there’s something really fundamental, as Ed describes in the introduction, about how everything has become medicalized. There’s a fundamental shift here about not fixing the situation, which is what the medical model might advocate doing. But Ed’s revolutionary point is about understanding the situation in a totally different way, which to me connects with the Buddhist understanding that suffering is happening all the time and for everyone in one way or another. There’s no way suffering is ever going to totally go away. And from that frame of mind, how do we be of service to somebody in the face of their suffering? And suffering, in many ways, is something that we have no control over.

Mary: What, if anything, does fixing have to do with it? I know I’m programmed by the way I’ve grown up and our culture’s general way of thinking that suffering shouldn’t happen. Suffering is bad. Even sometimes in our most idealistic ways of mind, we come to this work because we want to alleviate suffering. And then we feel like we failed if we haven’t alleviated suffering. Over and over and over again, you have the hope of alleviating suffering, and that’s a genuine desire. I think it’s a deeply human desire, but there’s a trap there. If you think about dropping that …

Phoebe: I wonder sometimes in the book why Ed doesn’t come out more clearly and say this.. But at the same time, in my position of responsibility, I sometimes feel like if I come from the place of accepting suffering without promising a fix, I’m irresponsible. And yet it’s truly the only thing that makes sense to me.

Mary: Right. What is that perspective that says, “the ‘responsible’ thing to do is, well, we can’t have such suffering. We have to do something about intervening in the situation in some way to alleviate this suffering.”? What is it that you feel is most important at a time like that?

Phoebe:             Well, for me, I only know how to be of service when I don’t think that way. I don’t know how to be of service when I think that way.

Mary:                   Right.

Phoebe:              I find myself in the suffering that’s happening, and realize that the best I can do is be of service to this person.

Mary:                   Some way of being intimate with them in that context of that suffering.

Phoebe:              Yeah. Not just even intimate, but just …

Mary:                   There.

Phoebe: There’s something about respecting and offering something just to make [their week 00:01:13] a little bit gentler to preserve their sense of humanity and dignity. That’s about the best–or it’s not the best, it’s all I can do, really. If I come from the “fix it” mentality, it doesn’t feel like I actually end up being of service.

Mary:  With “fix it” mentality, you distance. I was telling you that story about my mother where she was very close to the end of her life. I knew that she was going to die. I sort of came up close to this feeling of despair. No matter how good I was at taking care of her, no matter how much I could be present, no matter how much I could do, whether it was making the meals perfectly or helping her get dressed in a way that was not uncomfortable for her, she was going to die. In a way, I see that in Basic Attendance that no matter what is done, there’s going to be suffering.

Nonetheless, there was a particular thing that happened that within her time of demise, a nurse came in and I saw the nurse doing Basic Attendance. She related to my mother’s pain, her suffering, in a way that attended to her dignity and allowed her to feel good because those things had been taken care of.

She was able to take [heart 00:03:15]. Similarly, the first time we talked, I felt your very strong connection to not backing away from suffering. I think one of the challenges we face in taking care of people is the despair we feel and the hopelessness that we feel. Where’s the hope that we feel in the face of this suffering?

 I think hope can actually unground us in a certain way if we’re not able to be with how things are.

Phoebe:              I was just thinking about the momentary nature of life. And the momentary nature of recovery, too. That word is always challenging.

Mary:                   Recovery?

Phoebe:   Recovery, yeah. We can sometimes have such a grand idea of what recovery looks like that I think it’s a little bit misleading sometimes, too. Yet, there’s this belief in the book and in us that recovery happens. It’s possible. It makes me think about moment to moment, recovery popping out. It happens in moments. Maybe it’s the islands of clarity, but it happens in moments. That often isn’t enough for us, somehow.

Mary:   No, we want concrete proof. I remember talking about recovery with the first client that I worked with here. At one point he said, “I don’t think I’m gonna have a white picket fence recovery. That’s not what recovery means.” So in addition to moment-to-moment recovery, it is also very personal. Recovery is deeply meaningful to each individual, it is different for each person, and it relates to what they find within themselves when they are given the opportunity.

Recovering Sanity Session 1: His Earlier Works

Recovering Sanity Session 1: His Earlier Works

Over the course of the next few months, Windhorse Northampton will be having discussions about Podvoll’s Recovering Sanity which is a principle book towards the Windhorse approach to recovery. The discussion is lectured by staff members and open to the wider Windhorse community. This first post was lectured by Mary Tibbetts and Phoebe Walker. The following is an edited (for ease of reading) transcript of both the lecture and talk back. When listening to the discussion we thought it best to break the discussion into two themes highlighted in the talk; the differences and evolution between two of Podvoll’s books and thinking beyond the medical model. We hope that these series of talks further highlight our history and approach to recovery.

Ed Podvoll Seduction of Madness BookPhoebe: The Seduction of Madness was printed in 1990. Then the new edition, Recovering Sanity, came out in 2003. Originally the book itself was based on a course that was offered at Naropa Institute, in the contemplative psychology program. In a way, the book was an offering of allowing other people to do that course of study without being at Naropa.

Every time I come to the book there’s some other layer that arises, so it always feels new to me even though we’ve been over it a few times.
There are few metaphors people use to describe the book. Somebody once described that the book is kind of like a telescope. It starts from this kind of broad view of Perceval’s journey and sort of zeroes in to sort of the micro operations of the brain. And then it expands out again in the second section with the description of the Windhorse Project and recovery.

One way I was thinking about it was like a lighthouse. Somebody gave me this image, which I like better than a telescope because with a lighthouse, you walk up and up and it gets narrower and narrower. You get sort of a more fine-tuned perspective as you go up, but you also get up there and there’s this perspective that almost comes from every step of the journey. It gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, narrowing into something there. So there’s a certain perspective at the top of the lighthouse, and then coming back down again. That is true of the reader’s journey through the book as well.
I was also thinking that there’s something about coming to teach the course that sort of brings you narrower up into that point of the lighthouse that relates to getting more and more intimate with the material.

We teach this course every few years, and it’s been two years now since we finished the psychotherapy course. So this group is sort of narrowing up towards that lighthouse peak, and that it would be good for them and part of their learning to offer the book class back to the community. There are five folks who went through the training who will teach the class. Jeremy will start next week with Perceval, the first chapter. Then Kat with Constance and Gary is going to do Crowhurst and Lindsay, Michaux. Along with Cynthia’s presentation. These are these parables that begin the book.

Each of them is doing that individually, almost like a representation of these people’s individual stories. Then the second part of the book, instructors will be pairing with one another, as the second part is more of a together journey than a solo journey of being in the madness. Each of them has the liberty to create the way they offer the education time. They’ll be the creators of that.Before that, we thought that Mary and I would start with some dialogue between the two of us for a little bit of time to get us going into the introduction of the book.

Mary: Phoebe and I had a couple of dialogues leading to up to our presentation today. She made the remark to me that she felt like the second edition,, which is the book that we all have read and are using, actually has a different flavor to it than the first book. The first book was sort of the birthing of presenting the Windhorse Project, and there was a lot of excitement that went into its being birthed. And you have a really particular take on what happened from the first edition to the second edition.?

Phoebe: Yeah, which is my theory–they’re just so different. Starting with the title and the cover. Just look at them. So they’re different from the outside, and then on the inside they’re different, too. There’s things that were a part of the first edition that got left out in the second. One being the dedication, and the other being the acknowledgements.

Mary: Right.

Phoebe: The first edition has a dedication at the start of the book, which is about not giving up on anyone. And that was missing in the second edition.

Mary: So there’s no dedication, which changes what you encounter when you first open the book.

Phoebe: Right. Then the other thing is the acknowledgements are not included in the second edition. The first edition explains that this book was written with the intent of giving the reader an experience of those in the course at Naropa. And that it was written with the intention to provide the reader with a sense of a personal relationship with insanity — and also the inspiration, knowledge, and courage to be of service. That’s totally left out of the second book, and that feels somehow really important to me: that the purpose of the book is to give people a personal relationship with insanity; to provide a sense of it and also the inspiration, knowledge, and courage to be of service.

Mary: And then we get to the title.

Phoebe: Right. Then even in the titles of the two books are very different.

Mary: Right.

Phoebe: Which I think there is something revolutionary about what Ed is pointing to in this first edition.

Mary: Read the first edition’s title, Phoebe.

Phoebe: The Seduction of Madness: Revolutionary Insights Into the World of Psychosis and a Compassionate Approach to Recovery at Home. So there is recovery in the subtitle, but the emphasis is different: it leads with “insights into the world of psychosis,” and then follows with “a compassionate approach” and “recovery at home.” Those three qualities of “understanding, compassion, and recovery at home or in the community” represent so much of the Windhorse approach. And the second edition’s title, which is Recovering Sanity: A Compassionate Approach to Understanding and Treating Psychosis, doesn’t emphasize these qualities in the same way.

Yeah. Then it occurred to me that when we give people the book these days, the new edition, Recovering Sanity, we often tell them to start with the second part of the book. And doing that, in a way, is sort of a . . . you know, the whole introduction of the book is about the takeover of the medicalized model. In a way, this second edition is sort of a medicalized version of the first one. And that somehow we’re missing the very thing that was so revolutionary about the first edition, which is the view of understanding and compassion. It’s like when we suggest people start with the second part of the book, we’re jumping to the fix again.

There’s something revolutionary that Ed and the people who were working with him at that time were suggesting. So not just Ed; it’s also Jeff Fortuna’s mind and Molly’s mind and Paul Cashman’s mind, these people who were coming together to do the work were suggesting that there’s something really, really important about creating this personal sense of one’s own insanity. It’s like you can’t really get to the second part of the book without first experiencing part one.

Mary: Right.

Phoebe: Yet that’s, we’re kind of jumping to part two ourselves to sort of make it more palatable. And that’s similar to what they did with the second edition..

Mary: Yeah.

Mary: And we apologize a little bit when we give people the book. We say, “Well the first part’s a little dense.” You know?

Phoebe: Right.

Mary: I confess some aversion every time it comes time to try to penetrate the first part of the book. It’s very intimidating in some way to have to make your way into this sort of forest where you have very little perspective. In fact, you just give up your perspective and get up close and intimate with madness. And as an aside, madness is a word that Ed uses a lot, which I have mixed feelings about. He uses madness and insanity pretty much. He doesn’t say extreme states. He doesn’t use any of the terms that we currently use, like people seeking services. He just calls it madness or insanity.

One thing that I’m curious about, do you remember the first time you encountered that material that you read… and how you responded?

Phoebe: Yeah. I remember I actually really got into the parables. Mary: It magnetized you in some way.

Phoebe: Yeah.

Mary: The stated purpose is to have an experience of madness or insanity. Was there any particular one that you identified with or that you felt if you were going to become insane you would go down that road?

Phoebe: Actually, no. Because I felt like the absence of a woman in the parables always struck me. There’s bits and pieces of it, but as a whole, not one that really felt like it resonated with my experience of insanity, which I think has something more to do with a depressive side. Not so …

Mary: Not so big.

Phoebe: Not so wild and big.

Mary: Whether or not there’s someone that you identify with, it’s that encounter with yourself and with your own human ability to experience anything that another human being can experience that’s hard to look at. Well it’s hard for me to look at.

Continue with this Podvoll discussion >> Beyond the Medical Model

Lama Rod Owens Speaks At Windhorse Part 3

Lama Rod Owens Speaks at Windhorse Part 3

Sitting with Lama Rod is to be guided into conversations and contemplations around things that affect us all but we’re scared to talk about like sex, race, identity, gender, class, power, depression and all the other stuff we tend to turn away from.

He sits with the Windhorse staff and guides us through unpacking boundaries and the emotional receptiveness and intelligence of the body.

*Transcript, forth coming.

Listen to Part 1
Listen to part 2

Lama Rod Speaks At Windhorse Part 2

Lama Rod Speaks at Windhorse Part 2

Sitting with Lama Rod is to be guided into conversations and contemplations around things that affect us all but we’re scared to talk about like sex, race, identity, gender, class, power, depression and all the other stuff we tend to turn away from.

He sits with the Windhorse staff and guides us through unpacking boundaries and the emotional receptiveness and intelligence of the body.

*Transcript, forth coming.

Listen to Part 3
Listen to Part 1

Lama Rod Owens Speaks At Windhorse Part 1

Lama Rod Owens Speaks at Windhorse Part 1

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Sitting with Lama Rod is to be guided into conversations and contemplations around things that affect us all but we’re scared to talk about like sex, race, identity, gender, class, power, depression and all the other stuff we tend to turn away from.

He sits with the Windhorse staff and guides us through unpacking boundaries and the emotional receptiveness and intelligence of the body.

*Transcript, forth coming.

Listen to Part 2
Listen to Part 3