Episode #23 When we can’t meet in person, how do we make hearfelt connections? A second conversation with Sarah Schlote
Life is changing and we need to find ways to keep ourselves emotionally resilient. Sarah Schlote, therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, has spent her professional life exploring the pathways by which we find safety – in our own bodies, in our closest relationships, and out in the world.
In today’s podcast, we explore the ways we can find the connection that science (and experience) tells us we need to feel safe in the presence of others.
We explore ways that we can work towards safety in Zoom (or other video) calls in both one to one situations and in larger groups.
We look at strategies we can all use all the time to help us navigate the novel circumstance of a global threat.
Manda: [00:00:14.1] My guest today is Sarah Schlote, returning for part two of our conversation. Sarah is a psychotherapist and somatic experiencing practitioner from Canada who specializes in integrating somatic experiencing and trauma neuroscience in horses and in people. She has a quite extraordinary depth of knowledge and experience of both the theory and practice of what makes us tick. And she has the ability to explain what she knows clearly. And yet with such humanity and compassion that I find her work totally compelling. Our first podcast together was number 21. If you haven’t listened to it, you might want to check it out.
Manda: [00:01:47.63] That’s where we dive deep into the structural theories behind what makes us take the somatic experiencing theory, the Polyvagal Theory, how our bodies respond to trauma or to triggers in the environment – why we do the things we do. At the end of that podcast, we had just reached the understanding of our own co-regulation and dysregulation – the impact on us individually and socially of lockdown. And it felt as if we could easily devote another whole podcast to the ways that each of us could apply this to finding out how we can help us regulate ourselves and each other in this really strange time that might yet become the new normal. So that’s what we did. We recorded another podcast looking at the ways we can help ourselves to feel safe on our own, in our close relationships and in the strange outer and inner online world, that is so much of what we do. So, People of the Podcast, please welcome for the second time Sarah Schlote. So welcome, Sarah Schlote part two of what is, I am sure you’re going to be a completely mind bending, mind blowing episode.
Manda: [00:03:13.45] Most of the feedback we’ve had for the first podcast was that people found it so useful to understand their own process. So by the end of last time, we had covered Stephen Porges polyvagal theory, the difference between the sympathetic and the two sorts of vagal tone. And for anybody listening, I will put a link to Sarah’s resources page in the show notes and on the website, because this is really fundamental. And the paper that she gave at Guelph was clear and structured, so rather than us reading through all of that, if you’re interested, listen to the first podcast and then go and look at the notes and look at the diagram, because it helps a lot, I think, to see the differences between the different ways of perceiving our safety or danger or life threat in that curve with the traffic light colours.
So where we’d ended at the end of the first part was looking at how we support co-regulation in a time of pandemic when we were all having to be remote, when a lot of our ways of regulating ourselves and co-regulating ourselves used to depend on human contact, that is now really quite limited. So what I’d like to explore in this podcast is how we can find ways during lockdown and whatever lockdown progresses into, to feeling safe in our own bodies, safe in relationship and safe in the outer world.
Sarah Schlote: [00:04:52.59] Where to begin such an interesting topic? Maybe we could start with this idea of pandemic and how we reach out and make connection, because one of the things that is really interesting right now these days is how we’re having to make more use of social media and we’re having to make more use of things like Zoom or Skype or WhatsApp video or a Messenger video in order to be able to create some sort of sense of connection. I just did an interview recently with a colleague of mine in the U.S. and we talked a little bit about the difficulties with even using video in order to connect. And yet, at the same time, how we can still experience a sense of co-regulation through video provided that we are being intentional about it.
So perhaps what I’ll do is share a story that happened recently when I was teaching and training online. We had about forty two people from around the world in on this call. And it was a very interesting training in that we were talking all about these topics. We were looking at Polyvagal theory and attachment theory and the nervous system and somatic experiencing and trauma and all these really cool, nerdy topics that are so fascinating.
And what was really interesting was we were working through some material looking at the nervous system responses when we feel safe, when we feel a neuroception of danger, when we feel a neuroception of life threat. And as we were connecting with images and videos that showed animals in various states of the threat/response cycle, we were sharing with each other what we were noticing in our bodies as we were looking at these images and these videos.
And some people were responding by video, some people were typing in the chat box and saying, ‘Oh, I noticed a pressure in my chest,’ or ‘I feel like my feet want to run,’ or ‘I noticed a heat rising into my face.’
Sarah Schlote: [00:07:19.77] And everyone was sharing their nervous systems state. And what was really interesting was while we were experiencing this, one participant started talking about how her cat went from being calm when we were all calm to starting to act like a predator, when we were connecting with the image of the predator chasing the prey animal: her cat started ‘predating’ around her home and started stalking various things and pouncing and attacking various things. And it was so interesting that her cat was doing this because it cat wasn’t doing this just a few moments ago.
And so in what we might call ‘In the field’ or ‘In the resonance of coming together’, we can actually sense each other’s states even though it’s through video.
Who knows how this happened. Is this because the cat was resonating off all 43 of us? Or was the cat resonating off her owner who was resonating off the rest of us? So we’d apply Ockham’s Razor and ask what’s the easiest explanation? And the answer is probably that the cat was responding off the owner, but the owner was responding off us – and in the end, it’s the same thing ultimately. The ripple effect will spread.
Manda: [00:08:48.58] And how we test this is to do exactly the same again. And the owner leaves the room. And you just put the cat in (with a camera) and you do that with the video running and you see what the cat does. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Because the implications of that for people, the understanding, the extent to which the energy in a collective group is shared is at the heart of all of shamanic work. It’s at the heart of animal communication. It’s at the heart of local and distant energy healing. It’s at the heart of most of the stuff that lies on the fringes of what we do. Because you weren’t trying to do any woo-woo stuff, you were doing pretty good, geeky, hardcore science – and yet the cat did what it did.
Sarah Schlote: [00:09:45.41] And what I think is really lovely about what we might call the woo-woo stuff is that often it stuff does have scientific explanation for it. And that’s where I love it, because I do have a really interestingly spiritual side, in which there are certain gifts that I have where I can I connect with things that I don’t know that I know, but I know them for some reason and I can’t explain why I know those things.
And so there are parts of me that defy explanation. But there are scientific explanations for what I’m actually noticing. So the two come together for me within me in a really interesting way. And so during that training that we had a few weeks ago, that happened in a really profound way. And then later I was talking with a colleague of mine, and as we were talking about that, I was in my office and no animals around and she was at her place and she has animals in her yard. And she as we were talking and she and I were connecting through the video and playing with eye contact – because even with video, when you look at the screen and the person you’re looking at is looking at their screen, you’re not quite making eye contact. You’re looking at the video screen.
And so we kind of played with that a little bit. And I said, ‘OK, so let’s try something. I’m going to look at my camera, which is going to give you the impression that I’m looking you in the eyes.
Manda: [00:11:19.93] So then you don’t have the feedback she thinks it and you don’t.
Sarah Schlote: [00:11:23.92] This is where it’s a disconnect. And yet, at the same time, while there’s an odd kind of disconnect, I can still see her peripherally through my peripheral vision, because while my gaze is on the camera, I can still see her take a deeper breath in the video just beneath my eyes.
So there’s a little bit of awareness of her state’s shifting. Because I can visually see her body size, her body posture change, even if I’m looking through the camera itself. So I position her little capture screen just below my video. And I said, ‘I’m going to switch my eyes up to looking into the camera, which is going to give you the illusion that I’m looking you in the eyes. But it is kind of like that, except I don’t see you seeing me seeing you.’.
And so we tried it and it was so fascinating because she felt such a different state in her nervous system, having that impression of me, looking at her and knowing that I could still at least see her body response in the periphery as it shifted. And she tracked her, state and was telling me, ‘As you’re looking at me through the camera and I see your eyes, look at my eyes, even though it’s a little artificial, I can sense something calming in my body. I can sense something changing inside of me because I’m getting that face to face contact that in the polyvagal theory is so important.’
Manda: [00:12:57.04] Eye to eye contact because you get quite good Face-To-Face contact with Zoom these days, but not eye to eye. So the eye to eye makes a difference.
Sarah Schlote: [00:13:04.77] Eye to eye makes a huge difference.
Manda: [00:13:08.77] So I’m thinking there are two separate sets of Zoom calls that we do. There’s the one-one. And then there’s the one to many. And with the one-to-one, I have been staying quite close to the screen where there’s quite a big angle from looking at the screen where I’m looking at your eyes, but not looking you in the eye, to looking up at the camera.
But when I’m doing one-to-many, I’ve been moving a foot or so back, so the angle is much less. Because when I have to talk to large crowds, I tend to pick half a dozen people in the audience and make eye contact with them serially. Because then I have eye contact and I feel if I have eye contact, then the audience feels that they have eye contact with me even if they’re not the one I’m looking at. So that theory would my theory has been up till now that by making the angle shallower, having to look at the screen because I’m looking at slides or something, then it feels more like I’m making eye contact. Because then you’re smaller because you further back from this: you can’t be close in and have a shallow angle. You have to have one or the other.
So do we think in general that it matters more to be close so that the nuances of our face are readily visible or to be further away so that eye contact feels real?
Sarah Schlote: [00:14:28.04] And that’s so interesting. I mean, I can speak to the benefits of both, because when we did the training, we had a moment where we decided to put ourselves on gallery, view – those who wanted to – because here’s the thing: eye contact is not comfortable for everyone. So I’m going to come back around to that later.
But for those people for whom the seeking of eye contact and the seeking of the facial visual was helpful to experience a sense of connection and co-regulation, we turned our videos on, we went to Gallery View and some people just showed their names because we were in Zoom, and so you could see their names so they could see us seeing each other, but they didn’t want to be seen.
And there’s something really potent about being able to choose that. And so for those people who weren’t feeling quite ready to be in social connection because social connection was scary or was never safe in the past, those people chose to not be seen but chose to watch.
And everyone else sort of chose to do that. And what we did was we made eye contact from person to person. We sequentially allowed ourselves to wave. And we would wave and we would look at someone and we would wait until that person noticed and then we would smile. And then that person would smile and it started to create this beautiful little ripple effect throughout the whole group.
And it was a really potent moment of, oh, here we are sitting in our respective homes, in our respective time zones, on our respective continents…and yet here we are sharing this interesting space where we are sensing each other. And because the videos were, of course, much smaller, because we had more videos on the screen, although the angles were varying, the gallery view made everything smaller.
And so we were able to kind of have that experience of looking at each other. I remember at one point I made a smile looking at someone and we didn’t quite have the eye gaze correct, but we were looking at each other and she smiled back. And so even though the eye connection wasn’t there, there was still a face-to-face connection and an experience of recognition. And the pinging between my grin and her grin and then the noticing of each other’s grins as we noticed each other.
And then we paid really close attention to what changes inside the body when we had those moments. And then people would share. Sof, or instance, ‘I’m noticing a settling.’ Or ‘I’m noticing the warmth there.’ or ‘I feel more connected to all of you,’ or ‘I feel more settled on my chair’… all this kind of stuff.
So while it’s not quite the same – obviously having the eye to eye contact adds a whole other layer to it – there was still something to be said for having the not-so-perfect eye contact, but still being able to respond to each other and have that sense of being seen, even if it was 90 percent seeing as opposed to one hundred percent dead on.
Manda: [00:17:44.1] So if we’re going to be working in groups, then that’s a really good way to start – to help to build that sense of group cohesion that usually happens over coffee before the group even starts. Because that’s the thing that’s been missing most, that sense of the combined sense of unity that happens in the breaks between the actual work. And we we don’t have that. But that would be a way to recreate that.
Sarah Schlote: [00:18:07.62] And it was so it was so potent because the whole week I felt so connected to everyone. As if they were were there with me. And by the end of the week, we all were saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry that we’re not going to get to continue tomorrow!’ At the end of our five days together, it was sad that we were having to say goodbye.
And a colleague of mine sat in on some other calls and she shared with me a message later saying that she had been in another webinar recently with another trainer. And the time had not been taken to do that. And it felt much more disconnected, much more surface, much less powerful. And what we did was a relational process that really allowed the material to land differently because we felt a sense of community in spite of, again, being separated by time and distance.And even eye gaze being slightly off, we still managed to have that connection.
Manda: [00:19:09.39] And there’s something about acknowledging the difficulties. And then I’m picturing that smile across continents between you and the other person. There’s something about us a ‘social agreement’ that those moments of private connection that need to be allowed to happen. That certainly for me would help me to feel safe in a group – that sense of it being OK to be seen and it being OK to see.
And this isn’t the kind of thing that happens when you’re telling your story in a circle or whatever it is that people do in the circles. Because I’m thinking we don’t know where this is going. I was having a conversation with a financial person earlier today, and he said the only thing we know about next year is it’s going to be called 2021.
And they’re right. And so if this is the case that we just don’t fly anymore, which from a carbon and climate point of view would be a really good idea – we have to become skilled at what it is that creates this sense of community and cohesion so that after five days you were cohesive.
Manda: [00:20:18.51] I was exhausted after two days of teaching for Schumacher. I want your secret of how you manage five days without falling off your chair. I’m guessing this is presumably it? Because what I really missed when I was doing teaching at Schumacher online instead of being there, was the energy in the room because you can surf on that energy teaching. And it feels effortless. And then we did it by zoom and I got to the end of the first day and I basically had to go straight to bed because I was shattered. I couldn’t have done five days like that. So you presumedly found energy in the connectedness.
Sarah Schlote: [00:20:55.89] Yeah. And let me speak to that. I remember reading an article recently about that was talking about screen fatigue and also officially known as Zoom fatigue, specifically for those who are using Zoom. But I’m calling it screen fatigue. And I think just from a biomechanical perspective, sitting in the same position for hours, is tiring. We’re not able to adjust as easily.
Manda: [00:21:21.0] We were fatigued at the end of that week, don’t get me wrong, I did sleep a lot every night. But I’ve had glasses my whole life and I have a special eyes and glasses to help address screen staring and blue light and all that kind of stuff. But my optometrist has told me many a time of the importance of breaking away from the screen every certain a number of minutes. My physiotherapists have told me this as well because screen staring is extremely fatiguing to the eyes, because our eyes are not meant to be in a fixed position for long periods of time at the same focal distance.
Sarah Schlote: [00:22:02.4] And so that can start to create fatigue. And interestingly, the articles I keep reading about screen fatigue don’t really talk about that. And I’m sitting here going, ‘I’m not an optometrist, but my optometrist and my physiotherapist have told me plenty of times about screen fatigue and eye fatigue and eyewear. And so I know that there’s that portion as well.
But I suspect that week would have been much more challenging to get through had we not taken the time to model the co-regulation and the attunement that are missing when we don’t take the time to do that. It creates a little bit of a buffer because of that shared energy.
And so one of the things we were doing that week also is I was co-teaching with a colleague of mine in France, and so she and I were on separate continents and we were co-teaching this workshop. And what was really interesting is that as part of the modeling – because we were teaching co-facilitation and therapeutic interaction and working with horses and humans together and all this kind of great stuff. And she and I have been very connected – we’re good friends – and what we did in the training also is we would take time to share our process individually in our interactions with the group of how we came to develop safety with one another.
And we’ve been doing this by WhatsApp. We would send audio recordings to each other where we share our process. It’s not in real time. And so I will share about what’s going on for me and say, ‘As I’m talking about this, I’m noticing a pressure in my chest. And and as I’m tracking that pressure, I’m imagining you listening to this recording when you have a chance to and knowing that you’re going to listen allows something to move through my body differently.’
And so we had this virtual connection with Other. And then we would do it in person during the video where I would talk about how she and I got connected and how that the process of building safety in our relationship as colleagues and now as friends took time. It took taking a risk, sharing a little bit about myself being vulnerable. And then the feelings of vulnerability. And then her receiving that and saying, ‘As I heard you be vulnerable, I really felt something lift in my body or I felt something open in my chest and something shifted inside me as I heard you take the risk to be vulnerable with me’.
And we did that kind of modeling where in the real time of us discussing our co facilitation relationship – our friendship – that allowed the group of students to settle because they were seeing how we were establishing safety within our relationship through our social engagement systems. And when our ventral vagus was online, when we were pinging off each other and our heart rates were slowing and our bodies felt safer, the whole group felt the co-facilitator and I be in sync. And that created a ripple effect. And it was so powerful. And so that energy, I suspect, is perhaps what allowed the group to feel energized in spite of the fact it was a long week because it was long – we did four hours every day. But by the end of the week, everyone was asking to do another day tomorrow?
You know, and I think in part, it’s because we really made sure that we were cultivating that felt sense of being seen, feeling felt, getting gotten, as Dr. Dan Siegel likes to say.
Manda: [00:25:43.42] Can you say that sentence again? That’s lovely.
Sarah Schlote: [00:25:45.88] Being seen as being seen. Yeah, being seen, feeling felt and getting gotten.
Manda: [00:25:51.52] I’m wondering what the mechanism is. The idea of mirror neurons is is leaping around in my head. But it feels to me that this is there’s something else going on that’s more energetic, that mirror neurons are just too hardcore neurophysiology. There must be something else happening. Have you any idea of what is going on?
Sarah Schlote: [00:26:17.44] I think there’s a number of things. I’m going to disclaimer this to say that poly vagal theory is a theory. It is not the only explanation for what’s going on in mammals. You know, and it’s rather reductionistic, like any particular model or theory can be.
There’s more going on than just the Vagus. I just wanted to say that. Because I tend to talk about poly vagal theory a lot, because I like it. It’s a really lovely map and I really like it. It’s easy to understand when you get your head wrapped around it. It’s elegant. But again, it’s not the full picture. There is more going on than just this one nerve. So I do want to preface what I’m about to say by saying that.
But at the same time, when Porges talks about the face/heart connection there is something about vocal tone and prosody. And Steve Porges likes to say that our nervous systems are all just looking for Johnny Mathis.
Manda: [00:27:15.22] Really? You going to have to unpick that because I didn’t actually know who Johnny Mathis is.
Sarah Schlote: [00:27:19.12] Johnny Mathis is a singer from a number of years ago. And and I think he’s from the US and he was a crooner. His music was very romantic.
So our nervous systems are all just looking for Johnny Mathis and and that’s speaking to the prosody of the voice. That particular tone in our voice conveys something to the nervous system that allows us to feel soothed. And when we have that connection with the other, where we can hear the vocal tone and we can hear the prosody, something changes inside ourselves where we slow down and we start to feel a sense of safety.
That’s face/heart connection that the social engagement system is the layerings, the fairings. It’s what I hear through my middle ear. And all that information comes in and it’s soothing to the nervous system. And that slows my heart down. And I feel safe. And we do this with little babies. It’s why it’s why lullabies are so potent.
And I remember reading an article recently, talking about how millennials don’t sing lullabies to their children. We’re losing social engagement because of screens. And so while we’re living in a world where screens, oddly enough, are the necessary evil to allow us to experience some sort of social connection in the midst of this pandemic, how can we do it in such a way that restores connection and co-regulation as opposed to the screen connection where we’re disconnected through the screen?
Manda: [00:29:15.82] And that is our inquiry for today, for sure. Apart from telling all of the listeners good learning lullaby, find a child and sing to it in a way that does not get you arrested… But because one of the things I’m always looking for is whether there is intelligent design.
I don’t believe in intelligent design in the way that it is often framed. And yet it is my observation that if this virus that hit even five years ago, certainly 10 years ago in the pre-Zoom, pre-Facebook world, we would have been communicating one by one on the phone. And the prosody could have been beautiful, melted chocolate voices. But it isn’t the same if you can’t see the face to go with it. It’s not enough as it is. There’s something about that ability, however much it is a necessary evil. We are able to make connection because we have visual and auditory and we’re obviously missing olfactory and tactile and the other things that connect us. But those two: sight and sound together, give us that sense of congruence.
Because I don’t know about you, but I’ve had phone calls where I can sound really cool on the phone and I’m busy making ‘WTF are you doing?’ signals to my partner was my faces are entirely incongruent from how my voice is going. Or the other way around.
And so there’s that ability to know that there’s authenticity and safety. I think a lot of what you were saying was that sense that somebody is vulnerable. We feel it. And we all settle in a way that suggests that if that person is being vulnerable, then it’s okay for me to be vulnerable therefor this space is safe.And so our inquiry for today is how can we help people listening to find that safety? And you’re modeling it as we speak. I think people can’t see your face, but we can hear the authenticity of what you’re saying. So we need the congruence. We need the courage to be vulnerable with each other when it is appropriate – there’s going to be different kinds of meetings. What else can we offer people as signposts for safety.
Sarah Schlote: [00:31:36.35] One of them is going to be recognising that not everyone finds attunement to be safe. So perhaps you’re one of the people who are listening right now who feel a little bit put out because we’re talking all about the beauty of this co-regulation through face heart connection, and you’re thinking ‘That’s not true for me. I have autism. I have sensory processing issues. I have trauma, I have social anxiety…’.
So clearly there is going to be as a particular population for whom this whole piece is very challenging and for whom making eye contact is difficult. If there has been a forcing of social engagement on individuals who cannot do it easily or for whom social engagement does not feel safe for many reasons, where the forced facial connection actually feels more unsafe, then we need to find other ways.
And so perhaps we can sit side by side, and not look at each other, look forward in the same direction and hear each other’s voice? Sometimes that’s what safer. It isn’t the eye contact for some individuals. There are some people for whom they can’t do eye contact, but they are great at having conversations sitting side by side in a car going for a drive.
Manda: [00:33:00.96] Ok, so for those people, the Zoom facility to just not have video and just put up a picture of a flower for yourself, then gives you that safety because then you can just cut back to audio. But if you are with someone who’s comfortable with video, you can watch their face if you want to.
Sarah Schlote: [00:33:18.66] Right. Or you can also play with this as well. One of the things I like to do in somatic experiencing is working with titrating access to the face.
So we would explore how far away does your gaze need to be from my gaze before you start to feel settled and comfortable? Is it two inches? How far from my eyes do your eyes need to be where you feel a sense of settling? So is it dead on? Or is it just a couple of inches off to the side? The left, right, up, down? And then finding that sweet spot where as you bring your gaze in or your gaze away, where you settle and then finding that sweet spot.
And that’s s close as you can get. And that’s where we start. And so there are people who have body dysmorphia, for instance, who believe that they are hideous or too large or too small or whatever, and who whose perception of their bodies does not match reality, so to speak. Their sense of themselves means they don’t want to be looked at. But maybe they can tolerate having the video camera on their hand.
So just their hand is in view. And what’s that like knowing that I see your hand? And then can we just be with that?
And then what happens on the inside? It’s not just the tone of voice. So if your hand is in view and you know that I can see your hand through my peripheral vision, what happens inside? What’s that like for you? What sensations are there? And then let’s track through what Peter Levine calls the pendulation. There is an activation and there’s a deactivation. Can we just track the rise and the fall of the activation around just having maybe my pinkie being seen?
And then we just pause there. And then what’s that like? And you can play with that. It can be eye gaze. It can be either person playing with what the distance is like. As you were saying earlier, you can play with the angle. How far are you from the screen? What’s this angle like? What’s the setting like behind me? What’s different if I change settings? How can we support more comfort, whether that’s with more attunement or to recognizing we need less attunement? Because the attunement is where the scariness is.
Manda: [00:35:48.11] And this is a one to one situation. And I’m feeling extremely guilty about some of the webinars and Zoom calls that I’ve held where I’ve put people into breakout rooms and asked them to go and chat together. Wondering if that would have been better if it offered the opportunity to switch your video off or angle your computer away so that you were seeing your chin.
And then presumably it this must, like everything else, as you said, it pendulates. Just because yesterday it was OK to make some eye contact doesn’t mean that today or tomorrow will be the same.
So this involves people being very aware and able to assess and express where they are. And I know that in my past, it could take me several hours to work out where I was. That my capacity for self-awareness was so frozen that I would tell myself stories that something was fine. (or not). And it could take a long time to work out that this wasn’t necessarily true. So if we have people who are at the beginning of this exploration, are there steps in that will help us to become more aware if we were actually at?
Sarah Schlote: [00:37:07.57] Yes. Because even just noticing with curiosity, I remember in the notes you sent me prior to our call today, you talked about this idea of curiosity. And what’s so interesting is that curiosity is usually a sign that there is some social engagement onboard. If I can be curious, it means I am in what we call in somatic experiencing ‘exploratory orienting’. I am in ‘seeking’, but it’s not ‘seeking because I feel in danger’. It’s ‘seeking out of curiosity’. That’s Jak Paanksep’s work. So we seek when we feel safe and seeking when we feel safe is very different from the seeking, when we feel in danger.
Manda: [00:37:51.75] And it requires that we feel safe. So we’re in a kind of a circle of wish to feel safe. Therefore, I’m going to be curious about what’s happening in my sense of unsafety. But I need a I need a foothold in safety in order for my curiosity to be joyful curiosity rather than ‘I need to find somewhere to hide’, curiosity.
Sarah Schlote: [00:38:12.25] And that would be defensive oriented. So to me, defensive orienting is incompatible with curiosity. To me, curiosity is exploratory orienting. It’s , ‘Ooh, that’s so interesting. There’s a bug. I’m going to go look at that bug,’ Verus ‘OMG, there’s a bug!, you know, versus oh my God, there’s a bug!’ You’re not looking to be curious about the thing. You’re looking to get the heck away from the thing.
So for me, defensive orienting is the is the ‘I need to get away and not be curious’ response. Curiosity is the safety. And so if for some people, this exploration around ‘How do I feel in connection?’is going to feel really vulnerable. To be able to say, ‘Can you turn your camera a little bit away?’ might be really scary because for some people that’s voicing a need and voicing a need hasn’t felt safe in relationship.
And so what’s really interesting is that the very fact of the pandemic being the way it is, makes some people for whom connection is scary feel more safe because they’re more isolated. And isolation for some people is what feels safer. For other people, isolation is the trauma because of neglect or abuse. And so for those people, the isolation is bringing up all their needs. And then ironically, because the only way we have to connect is through these these social media and videos, then if we’re going to actually be in connection, we’re having to do that work of sorting out camera angles and proximity. And then that brings up our stuff around being seen. And so it’s as if there are all these little landmines that we’re having to navigate.
And so hence why it’s so important to really slow this right down. And for some people, the slowing down is what’s hard. Because then they’re more in connection with all these pieces. And for some people, it is easier to just simply be disconnected during a video call. And if that’s true for you, that’s OK. But then notice that and be curious about that. So notice that ‘For me. It’s safer or it feels easier or more comfortable, more familiar for me to not be paying attention to these things’. And then that’s what you get to be curious about.
Manda: [00:40:43.3] So if somebody is in the defensive orienting side. So whatever it is that has triggered the, ‘Oh, my God, I’m frozen now’ response. Let’s assume that that happens in a video call. We don’t know what the trigger is. We could go into potential triggers. How does somebody in the moment help themselves to shift from defensive orienting to exploratory orienting? From fear to curiosity? Because of my understanding or certainly what’s been coming up in everywhere I look now, the ways through to the places I want to go are curiosity. Find that sense of ability to go, ‘My goodness, my breathing just locked. That’s really interesting. What does it feel like.My whole diaphragm feels like it’s full of needles. That’s really interesting.’ But how do we get people to that. How do we give them the tools. Other than knowing that there’s a possibility to step from one to the other.
Sarah Schlote: [00:41:50.29] So some people will find this easier than others. And for some people, we need to back away the heck off and help them learn to recognise that they are uncomfortable with something and start there. One thing I might recommend is for people to look into finding someone who is trained in Somatic Experiencing, to do some video sessions and to work on some of these pieces. There are practitioners all around the world. Most of us are doing remote work right now.
Manda: [00:42:20.14] And that’s the thing we can do to cross continents now. There’s not that many somatic experiencing people in the UK yet, but there some.
Sarah Schlote: [00:42:37.84] So it is out there but you can work with anyone regardless. People are working with people around the world so you can look into it. Not every practitioner does, but many do. And so one thing I would suggest is if that is of interest to you, certainly look into that because it’ll be easier to do it with another nervous system who can help titrate it and do it with you.
Peter Levine often says, ‘No one can do this for us, but we can’t do it alone’. And so having another nervous system there as a guide to help us go in and out of what’s scary can show us that we can’t go in and out of what’s scary and be OK and get through it and not override that actually be with some of those pendulations of activation and deactivation. And so that’s one thing I usually suggest.
Then another thing will be if you noticed yourself in defensive orienting – which is sometimes hard to notice because we get caught so caught up in it that we don’t even know that we’re in it because we’re so used to that urgency, that survival drive.
Manda: [00:43:45.93] So it feels like a default and normal, that therefore, we this is the way the world is.
Sarah Schlote: [00:43:50.31] That is right. And what’s interesting is our state determines the story that we have about the world. So if we are in a constantly defensive survival state of a neuro-ception of danger, my narrative is going to reflect that. ‘People are unsafe. The world’s on fire. Everything is bad. Yada, yada, yada.’.
I’m not saying that that’s not true on some level, but it almost becomes all encompassing. Where we don’t see the cues of safety, we don’t notice the Johnny Mathis voices. We lose sight of that.
And so one of the telltale signs I notice in people who are in defensive orienting is that their eyes are darting everywhere, but they’re not really looking. They’re talking, but they’re not really present. They’re looking around, but they’re not really seeing. They’re just in that frantic kind of urgent energy.
And if you can step back and go, ‘Hey, I noticed that you’re looking around a lot. I notice that your eyes are all over the place. You can’t seem to settle. I wonder what would happen if you were to just simply slow that movement down to like a quarter of the speed and allow your ears to lead? If you were to look in one direction, allow your ear to lead and your eyes were to follow your ear. And you were to just look at a little bit more slowly and notice what I noticed is still in your head.’
Manda: [00:45:12.39] I’m just trying it as you’re speaking as my ear than my eyes go in an arc round.
Sarah Schlote: [00:45:16.8] That’s right. And you fall, you let your eyes follow your ears. And as you do that, exhale. Do a long, slow exhale as you’re doing that. And then do the other direction and you can look in different angles up and down. But notice what’s different when you slow down the looking. What’s different and what you see in the story you’re experiencing inside, look what starts to shift when you slow down the defense of orienting? Even to half the speed that you’re used to.
Manda: [00:45:52.16] And that move and then becomes very like Castaneda movements. There was a few years back from Carlos Castañeda. There was a whole system which just basically involved turning your head very slowly while exhaling from side to side and back again. So that’s one piece.
So one of the things we wanted to talk about was that for some people being still – the idea of lying down to meditate or lying down in shivassana pose for yoga or even sitting still to be part of a group – the very stillness itself is threatening. So if that’s the case, we obviously we move. But if we want to do contemplative practice, which generally speaking, involves some stillness at some point. How do we walk people into that? So we’re not triggering stuff? Can we look at why stillness can often be unsafe? It can sometimes be unsafe. And then how to make it safe?
Sarah Schlote: [00:47:07.61] Absolutely. In Somatic Experiencing we talk about ‘coupling dynamics’.And what that essentially means is something becomes overly associated with something else. Or something becomes unassociated with something else. Where and when they actually should be in connection.
So an example would be whenever I go to lie down, I start to feel terror. Normally, when I go to lie down, I shouldn’t feel terror. I should be able to lie down. So that would be over coupling. And usually when there’s over coupling, there’s also something that’s under coupled, as in something that should be present that’s missing from that equation.
And what can be present or absent Peter Levine likes to call SIBAM. So SIBAM is an acronym that stands for Sensations, Images, Behaviors, Affect (emotion) and Meaning, which is thoughts, beliefs, etc.
And these things can either be present or not present. And so we talked about blended states last time. Porges talks about blended states including immobility without fear, which is that our first experiences of immobility without fear are when we are feeling felt and getting gotten and being held in a safe relationship where there is attunement and co-regulation and the caregiver is reliable enough – not perfect – but reliable enough that there is repair when there’s a mistake in attunement, that we do all these things and we are able to settle in the presence of another.
And then that allows me to settle and feel safe. And then we have immobility without fear where I can rest. I can nurse. I can relax. I can sleep in the presence of another. And it feels OK because I learned that the presence of another is OK and that my needs will be met. And so I can slow down enough and feel safe in the slowing down.
But of course, there’s also immobility with fear, which is what you’re speaking about. And and both Peter Levine and Steve Porges talk about this idea of immobility with fear, which is when I start to slow down, I start to notice terror.
Sarah Schlote: [00:49:30.31] I feel dread. Something bad’s going to happen. And often that links back to earlier times where it wasn’t safe. Some when I felt unsafe, no one came. And the only option I had was to go into shutdown and be alone. And that was terrifying.
That’s really scary for a little nervous system to not have your needs met, to not have someone come when you cry, to to be left alone in the midst of something overwhelming when your nervous system is that premature or immature. We need that co-regulation. We need that presence of a reliable other. We need that ventral vagal system from another individual to help us develop ours. And when that isn’t possible, the only options we have are to get activated or to shut down.
And so the shutting down can, for some people, be over-coupled with fear and terror. And so what’s under coupled is safety and connection, because all we have is the terror. And so what you have is people who go into contemplative practice, who learn to meditate who are excellent at splitting off and dissociating.
And they go to meditation or contemplative practices of various kinds because it supports them to be more disconnected. And then we call that spiritual bypassing.
Sarah Schlote: [00:51:01.19] Robert Augustus Marsters wrote a book a number of years ago called ‘Spiritual Bypassing’, which is a really great read. And so I really encourage people to take a look at that. And then, of course, there’s other people for whom going to yoga meditation is absolutely the opposite experience. It’s absolutely terrifying. It isn’t the bliss of disconnection where I’m no longer present to my experience. It is the terror of being alone.
And then you’re going to have people who quit yoga just before you get to savasana. And the story, the narrative is, ‘I have to get to work’. But if you look at the state that precedes the story, it might be that they’re starting to anticipate anxiety. They’re starting to anticipate something. And that the story being told, is ‘I have to get to work. I’m going to be late’. But in reality, there actually can be another explanation for that story. And is it actually that you’re worried about being late? Because that could be true. Or it could be that the stillness is terrifying. And the story you’re telling yourself is that you’re going to be late. And the urgency is I need to leave.
And that urgency is actually very early developmental urgency around ‘I’ve got to move because something bad’s going to happen’.
Manda: [00:52:16.42] So for those of us who teach contemplative practice – particularly now when we’re teaching at a distance – what can I offer people for whom this may be an option? Because there are walking meditations, but they’re more of an advanced skill. It is much easier to watch your breath with some kind of joyful curiosity if you’re not having to think about not tripping over stuff at the same time.
Sarah Schlote: [00:52:46.58] Depends on the person. ome people feel more present when they’re outdoors and nature walking. That is when they feel the most grounded. And that is what allows them to be more connected to themselves because they feel held. There is sensory input. They have a sense that there is something on the outside.
Manda: [00:53:04.95] I will I will never forget this. I have had a number of clients who have gone to various types of contemplative practice – silent retreats, that kind of thing – where they’re told that they’re not allowed to look around. They’re told they have to keep their eyes closed or keep their eyes down. And these are clients of mine for whom eyes closed or eyes down contributes to a sense of feeling trapped. It contributes to a sense of ‘I can’t move’, which was really terrifying.
Sarah Schlote: [00:53:35.16] And to be fully in the body and looking down and looking in can become very overwhelming for individuals who have that kind of early history. And so I had one person that was preparing to go to a treat and we had done a lot of work around sensory orienting and present time orientation. By doing that slow looking with the ear and taking in the surroundings. And then that allows the person to settle and feel more in their body and feel more and present. And that person did really well with that kind of practice. And that’s what allowed them to cue in and went to this silent retreat and was told not to do that – it was distraction.
And they were forced to be in a little isolation chamber and not look at each other. And there wasn’t that sense of co-regulation. When you go to these group classes, you’re supposed to all look ahead and no one’s supposed to look at each other.
And so that beautiful practice I talked about earlier today where on the video call, we all took time to orient to each other’s faces (for those for whom it felt comfortable) – and we oriented the sense of the connection in the space. Everyone’s settled. And even for those who couldn’t look directly head-on, to whatever degree they were able to tap into the sense that we were all there together, there was something about that that was OK-ish,and something shifted.
And I think to myself that if we’re going to be teaching, contemplative practice, – and that’s what we’re returning to in the midst of this pandemic for resourcing, for grounding and so on – can we also allow space for whatever is needed to be done to help resource ourselves in the midst of that?
Because for some people, the stillness is the center of what Peter Levine calls the Trauma Vortex. And what we know from somatic experiencing is we need to titrate into that to build a window of tolerance for it. So what resources are available to allow me to dip into that Trauma Vortex without losing myself?
if that resource is ‘I’m going to allow my eyes to be open and look around while everyone else is in savasana, and I’m gonna allow myself to sit up and put a blanket around my back, and I’m going to allow myself to look around the room and lead with my ears and listen to the music. And if sitting and having the bolster against my chest gives me a felt sense of pressure, which is proprioception, which allows me to feel a sense of containment, and that allows me to find stillness and safety and stillness – then by all means, do it. Because that’s what’s going to allow you to have that moment. And that’s your first step into titrating into stillness, not being unsafe, perhaps.
What resources are needed to allow you to let go? We only let go and we feel held.
Manda: [00:56:31.8] And then if people find it easier in their own practice to be out in the world – which a lot of us do – and if you have an ‘out in the world’, you can get to safely, that isn’t likely to be queued up with muggers, but is a place where you can be safe. Then you can titrate into that also.
Sarah Schlote: [00:56:58.2] Yes. What’s it like to be present to what’s around? And this is a really lovely practice to begin to notice: ‘Can you allow your senses to orient to what attracts you?’ What is pleasurable and can you orient to that?
That’s going to bring up some stuff for some people because they weren’t allowed to experience pleasure or good things, never lasted and so the thought of connecting to something good brings up stuff again. This is where titrating little bits takes time. . Every nervous system is different. For all your listeners, you’re going to have eighty thousand people who are going have eighty thousand different responses to what I’m saying.
It’s so important to have a guide to help you with this. If you’re finding this difficult to do by yourself, you do not have to do this alone.
And if it’s safer to try it alone for now, then absolutely go with that. Notice what you’re drawn to. When you go for a walk, what allows you to feel in connection? Are you walking disconnectedly. Are you in defensive orienting as you’re walking? Are you completely not oriented at all? Or are you waking up your ventral vagus by allowing yourself to taken what you find pleasurable? What colours do your eyes like? What sounds do your ears like? What happens if you walk towards the flower on the side of the road? What happens if then when you notice the flower, you feel the sunlight on the on your right cheek and you walk in the direction of the sunlight. And then what happens? We’re using our exploratory orienting to wake up the ventral vagus, which wakes up the social engagement system, which is kind of like self-regulation. It slows the heart down. If being with people is too much, can you do it by being in connection with nature and really attuning through curiosity? Because that’s utilizing the same parts of the social engagement system as social connection.
Manda: [00:58:51.66] We could be just about to open up a whole new hour. We can’t because there isn’t time. But that one day we’re going to go back to that phrase of opening up the social engagement system.But for here for now, because I am very aware of the time. I think that’s such a good place to stop.
And I’m going back to your notes on Guelph. And right at the bottom of the Guelph presentation you wrote, ‘The feeling of safety is the treatment’ (Stephen Porges). And I think that for me, this was one of those beautiful light bulb moments where I realised that there is a doorway that can open. And it maybe a different doorway every time, but it is possible to open it. And we can find ways in this pandemic to open the doors.
Sarah Schlote: [00:59:41.83] Last time you said something beautiful about there may not be a tiger in the bushes, but there’s a coronavirus that’s like glitter and it’s just everywhere. but we can’t see it. So we have a danger that we can’t see. And yet there are ways that we can help ourselves to feel safe. And this feeling of safety is the treatment.
Or safe enough. Yes. If you do not. Yes, I’ll say safe(r) with an R in brackets. You know, it’s relative safety. In this moment right now. What attracts me. What is safer in this moment.
Manda: [01:00:18.12] So that I can feel safe enough.
Sarah Schlote: [01:00:21.2] And when you orient to that, what’s different inside, what changes happen?
Manda: [01:00:28.17] You’re a wonder! I think we need to be done because…time. Thank you so much for this, Sarah. I am so grateful. And when you do one of these 5 day courses, I’m going to find a way to come on it, however sneakily, because it sounds really exciting.
Sarah Schlote: [01:00:42.39] We’re running them again. We’ve got a new sets of dates for for July, August and October.
Manda: [01:00:51.21] Do you want to tell everybody where to look for those – it’ll be on your website?
Sarah Schlote: [01:00:55.32] So the focus specifically is on the horse-human relationship. But even if you’re not in that world, you may find it interesting to sign up and you might get a lot out of it just the same, because the material applies to other animals as well. So If you have dogs and cats and other farm animals, for instance, you they may really appreciate it.
So we would find this on the Equusoma website. Although it is also listed on the Sarah Schlote website, which is non-horse web site. It’s my more regular private practice site. Either way, you’ll find it. But Equusoma.com is the one where you’ll find more specific details about the program.
Manda: [01:01:32.05] Yay! I am heading there now. Fantastic. And I will put both of those in the show notes. So, Sarah, thank you again so much for the generosity of your time. I am beyond grateful.
Sarah Schlote: [01:01:41.88] Welcome. Thank you so much again for the opportunity. Always a pleasure.
Manda: [01:01:45.39] So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Sarah for her wisdom and integrity and the depth of her humanity. I think – I hope – this is the end of Series Two, where we look into the ways that we can use the foundational work we laid out in Series One. If all goes according to plan (you never know) then Series Three will begin next week. And that’ll be where we start to build a vision for a future that can be different – where we can predicate the entire structure of our culture on foundations of humanity and the planet flourishing.
This feels really important. We can’t go somewhere if we have no idea of where it leads. So I want to start building visions of different ways – hopefully integrated different ways – that we can build our way to a different future. So wait for next week. Series Three will kick off if I can get the right people herded into the right cats at the right time.
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