ERP 346: Accessing Relatedness & The Priority Of Connection — An Interview With Gabriel Kram

By Posted in - Podcast November 15th, 2022 0 Comments

Most modern people are unaware of the extent to which the human nervous system is dissociated because there are so many forces—technology, social media, politics, and a whole host of other things—vying for our attention.

In this episode, Gabriel Kram talks about how these dissociative tendencies are becoming more prevalent in modern culture and how authority has robbed us of our sacred connection to the earth. Gabriel emphasizes the value of real human connection to one’s overall well-being and shares their unconventional strategy to reestablish this connection.

Natureza Gabriel is a connection phenomenologist. For 25 years, he has studied connection and what gets in its way. He attended Yale and Stanford universities but has been shaped more by sitting in teepees and circles than in classrooms. He has been blessed with many remarkable mentors. He is the founder and CEO of Hearth Science, Inc., convener of the Restorative Practices Alliance, and co-founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine.

In this Episode

5:55 Gabriel’s personal healing journey that inspired him to specialize in connection phenomenology.

11:29 Gabriel defines relatedness.

15:29 Differences between how indigenous people and Western culture conceptualize intelligence.

21:21 How dissociative tendencies are being normalized in modern society.

23:46 How our relatedness to the earth has been obliterated from our language.

39:45 How interoception can improve general wellbeing.

46:40 Gabriel defines social engagement physiology as a physical system.

54:06 A diagnostic and intervention system they’ve built to strengthen access to the hearts, intuition, and relatedness.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Prioritize your relationships over being right.
  • Take a walk and appreciate what’s around you.
  • Keep in mind that you are interconnected with all living things so be kind to everyone and take good care of the environment.

Mentioned

Restorative Practices of Wellbeing (Connection Phenomenology) (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

The Polyvagal Theory

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Connect with Gabriel Kram

Websites: restorativepractices.comhearthscience.ioaasm.io

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Gabriel Kram, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jessica, it’s a happiness for me to be here with you and your audience. Thanks for the opportunity.

Well, I’m thrilled about our conversation. I know that you speak and teach worldwide in very renowned institutes, and really bringing such a comprehensive blend to the interdisciplinary of so many things that we could speak for hours with you. I know that most of the listeners here on the Empowered Relationship Podcast are interested in intimate relationship and relationship in general. We had talked about incorporating the experience of felt sense in your background, and also how that shows up in what we’re experiencing in relationship. 

Before we go there, I wonder if you can share a little about who you are. I know we could, again, spend the whole time talking about that. But how you’re approaching this, so people can get to connect with you for a minute here.

Jessica, thanks for asking. So I am a connection phenomenologist, and I have been doing work in six related disciplines for over 25 years. In fact, I only learned that word three and a half years ago. So I had been doing this work that was, at first, a very personal work of healing. Part of my story is that I had a very early, severe trauma of dislocation. I grew up in a really profound community that was really deeply nature connected, and because of economic reasons primarily, my parents ended up leaving when I was seven years old. It was a vulnerable time developmentally anyway, and I was removed from this context that I loved so much, it never occurred to me it could be taken away. So I’ve come to think about it. 

I had an experience of growing up that’s very unusual, I think, for a modern person, and for probably a White person. I identify as White in the United States, I have a Jewish ancestry, and I grew up basically, in a tribe. It wasn’t an indigenous tribe, but it was a very close knit community. I had a second mother. I have a best friend I’ve known since he was born literally. I just saw him a couple of weeks ago actually, and our children met for the first time, which was beautiful. So I had this experience where I could walk out my front door and be in the forest in about 90 seconds, because that was how small the town was. 

When I was seven years old, my family moved to us, again, for primarily economic reasons, to suburban St. Louis, which is where my parents were both from, and I found myself suddenly profoundly dislocated. It was an experience that I didn’t remember until I was about 19 years old. When I was 19 years old, I was enrolled at Yale University. I had dealt with being estranged from my heart by going into my cognition, maybe a story that’s familiar to some of your audience. And I fell in love with somebody in college and my heart woke up again, and then she broke up with me and I got really depressed. I had this intuition that it wasn’t just about the breakup, there was something that happened to me and I couldn’t quite reach it in my awareness. 

So I began a journey. I dropped out of school, began a journey that was very chaotic at first, for the first several years. Because the level of running I was doing away from myself, the level of shame I experienced about dropping out, all of these things were such a load. But eventually, that journey, which was a journey of building awareness and trying to understand the roots of what had happened, led me in some very fruitful directions. I had the very good fortune to encounter many guides and mentors who were very generous; a number of them were indigenous. I was taken under the wing of a number of people with ability in awareness training in different lineages. 

Over time, as I began to become more stable, we began to develop a body of work that unites neurophysiology, which is what I had been studying at Yale, with ancestral awareness practice. So I have the good fortune now to direct a global organization that unites the cutting-edge of neuroscience and data science with indigenous ancestral awareness practices. That’s the perspective that I’m bringing to you and your audience today.

Thank you. I love your ability to give us a broad arc of how this has been integrative and dislocated. Well, starting from a deep, profound sense of connection and just what you were experiencing in your young life, and then how that dislocation was so impactful and traumatic as you’re describing, and then your journey and how you learned to adapt and had some strategies to perhaps cope, and then your breakup in college. I know that this isn’t doing it full justice, but that there’s a real process and journey that has allowed you back into healing with guides and being in your study and your work, and the comprehensive blend of being able to look at. I mean, your experiences are a beautiful mirror, if you will, of the things that you’re bringing to the world, and a personal experience of it, a felt sense of it. And also just how this is so collective, and how, like you said, many people can resonate with going into the intellect, going into the head, as a protective strategy perhaps. Is that right?

Absolutely. I think it’s important for your listeners to understand that the place from which we’re speaking here is a very experiential place. I didn’t come to this academically. I didn’t come to it as an object of study. I came to it because I needed to find a way to be in contact with myself that felt okay. At first, just okay. Then from there, as that ability increased, we began to really start to understand the root drivers of human wellbeing, and the degree to which modernity has been alienated from those root drivers, for a variety of reasons. Many of which were political imperatives of power. But the result of which is that many modern people are really disconnected from the root drivers of wellbeing.

One of which we’re going to be talking about today, relationship, and also connection in the bigger sense of it.

I know we’re sort of back and forth here. But I would say that when we speak about relationships, and I recognize and we’ll defer to the purview of your audience. But when we talk about, in our work, the foundation of wellbeing being connection, another way of saying that is the foundation of wellbeing is relatedness, is relationship; the verb of relationship, the verb. 

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“As opposed to relationship being a noun or a thing, it’s the living experience of relatedness. Certainly, a relationship with an intimate partner is perhaps the deepest mirror one can find for that experience of relatedness.”

That that’s one experience of being in a relationship, being… How did you say it, again? I loved it.

“Relatedness,” the verb of relatedness. Maybe that becomes fractal. The intimacy that opens with someone, one we love, that the attributes can then be applied into our relatedness with other facets of our experience, our inner world, the living world that we are finding ourselves blessed to be held within. That we can apply the relatedness, the connection, the intimacy we experience with a partner, to all of these other facets of relatedness. 

So maybe one way of also articulating that, and I’ve heard this referenced in other books or teachers, is that it can be an awakening. That that love can awaken or emerge or reveal certain things that we haven’t been conscious to, or maybe old traumas that we have had deeply buried. It can just evoke so much that then can be brought to the surface, that then is transformational. 

I love also, I just want to, with what you’re describing, name that being in relatedness, there’s the relationship and intimacy that we’re talking about here. There’s also being with self, there’s being with nature, there’s being with community, there’s being with our tribe. So there’s many ways in which we are in relationship and being in relatedness.

Absolutely. I think one of the hallmarks of modernity is that we’ve over-solidified these boundaries between internal and external, between what’s inside of us and what’s outside of us. You can redirect me if this feels like a tangent, but I think you see it mirrored in our architecture. I think you see it mirrored in house design. The place that I’m sitting to film and record this with you is a film city that we built in the living world, and it has an open wall. The wall is not there by design, because we didn’t want to exclude the living world at any point; there’s no way to close it out. That’s a mirror and a metaphor of the psyche that we feel as well. Modern people have enclosed the psyche, that separation between the interior and the exterior is formalized in the way that we live indoors as opposed to outdoors. So part of what we’re inquiring into is what it looks like to reopen permeability there when there is safety, and that’s the critical caveat. Because as we talk more today about embodiment, this awareness that safety is the necessary doorway to embodiment being integrative, I think, is a place that we can really deepen into.

Well, let’s go there. If you want to talk about embodiment or felt sense, and we can then talk about safety, and then start talking about relationship, as we’re talking about in this fractal way of partnership and intimacy.

Beautiful. So one of our mentors is a man named Kuuyux Ilarion Merculieff. He’s an Unangan elder. He’s from a culture that has a 10,000-year history in the Bering Sea. He was born on an island called St. Paul Island, it’s 300 miles off the coast of Alaska. I don’t know how they found it, it was a tiny island, it’s out in the middle of the ocean. I had this very interesting conversation about mindfulness. 

So what I want to do is constellate for your audience, a set of questions and a set of concepts, and then you and I can explore them together. So Ilarion and I were having a conversation about mindfulness. He was one of the last generations raised in a traditional manner on that island, and he had a mentor since he was four years old. He would go out with elders, his acha, this mentor. They were hunters, and one of the things they did was they hunted seals. He’s told me this story a number of times, about being six or seven years old, and sitting on these basalt boulders with these men who are hunting seals. This is how they lived. They would sit there sometimes for six or seven hours. He would fall asleep, and he thought, how are they not falling asleep, how are they paying attention? Because invariably, every single time they went out, they would sit for some inordinate length of time. Then suddenly, as one, they would all turn in a direction, raise their rifles, and someone would shoot before they could even see anything. He experienced this as a child, he said, as being a magical thing. What’s happening? How are they doing this? 

So he told me that one morning, when he was very young, he got up and went to the cliffs on the edge of the island. There were seabirds on the island at that time, millions of seabirds. He went and he stood on the cliffs as the seabirds were awakening, it was before dawn, and they came in thousands flying around him. And he stood there marveling that not one of them touched him with its wing, not one of them collided. He thought, how are they doing this, how are they not crashing into me? There’s no light, they can’t see me! It’s dark. And he asked himself, what are they doing that I’m not doing, or what aren’t they doing that I am doing? Suddenly he realized, well, they’re not thinking. He said to me, then I realized that’s what the men were doing on the rocks. They’re not thinking! 

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“He said, in your culture in the West, you conceptualize intelligence beginning with thought. He said, for me, as an indigenous person, we know intelligence begins the moment thinking stops.”

What does that mean? So he says, when thinking stops, what happens? We come into the present moment. We come into contact with what? Hopefully the body, the felt sense, the experience. I would not say it’s just the interior, because again, with respect to boundaries, it’s the relationship between the felt interior and exterior. Because that’s what the nervous system is doing is mediating that relationship. 

So you have this very different point of entry. We talk about the felt sense as a point of entry into this completely other kind of intelligence that is, in fact, the mode of awareness that has been refined by most ancestral cultures since humanity emerged, and that modernity has almost no idea how to interface with successfully.

Wow, and such a sophisticated development of that embodied, felt sense and the wisdom and the attunement that comes from that, that we’ve essentially blocked, using that as a resource in more modern living.

Absolutely. This is one of, I don’t want to say the arguments that I have with the modern mindfulness movement. Because I think the modern mindfulness movement is very important. I think the refinements of attention and the ability to stabilize it, especially in a world where there’s such rampant distraction—there’s so many forces of technology, social media, politics, or whatever, that want to extract our attention—this ability to stabilize attention is really, really important. 

At the same time, particularly in the United States—I can only speak about the movement in the United States, because that’s the place that I know it intimately—there is not yet a really deep awareness of the degree to which most modern people are pretty highly dissociated. What our indigenous mentors say very consistently is, for y’all modern people, White folks, American Citizens of the United States, sitting still is probably not a very good practice for you. Because you’re dissociated anyway. I want to land this concept with your audience, because I don’t think that most modern people understand the degree to which modern humans’ nervous systems are dissociated. They are already in what we would technically call a dorsal vagal state; they’re already in a shutdown state, just ordinarily. There’s very high degrees of shutdown and fight or flight that are baselined into our culture. For a newscaster to be able to report “objectively” on a tragedy, to stand in the face of a human suffering and have no reaction, is dissociative. Yet, that’s normalized completely within the context of this modern culture.

There’s so much in what you’re describing. Even as you pointed out architecture and how we design our homes, and that we are removing ourselves from relating to nature, to our community in more of an open way. Also, maybe how we are in schools and sitting at a desk and not maybe really in this cerebral headspace, and really trying to develop the mind and the intellect, not giving any credence to perhaps the body wisdom and the embodiment, and the things that you’re describing, a more indigenous living. 

Then you add in, you’re talking about media and social media and all the things that we might do and participate in, in any given day, we’re not even aware. That that seems so normalized that we can recognize maybe having dissociative tendencies if we’re like: Oh my gosh, I didn’t even remember getting from here to there, like, whoa, that’s scary. Or I just had been on my phone for an hour, and I didn’t intend to. Or I’ve been watching this movie, or I’ve been sucked into this game, or whatever, they can recognize that disconnect. Or I ate these things, or I took this substance, and that disconnect. And maybe even more versions of that when we talk about other experiences in mental health as we would describe them in modern living, of depression and anxiety and different states. So there’s a spectrum here perhaps, and you’re saying where we’ve put our setpoint perhaps around embodiment, and what we define as dissociative, you’re calling out perhaps that that in and of itself is something to be pointed to.

The setpoint we have for conceptualizing wellbeing: we think of people being healthy. That’s a very, very low bar, is what I’m saying. The potential that humans have—to really stabilize, ground, and deepen into this relatedness, and thereby optimize physiology—is so far beyond what we understand in modernity as to be almost indescribable.

I know I’m smiling, because I’m like, I don’t even know how do you confront this? If someone’s listening and they’re living in the more modern ways, what you’re describing probably resonates on some level. Yet, it’s a call from such a place that feels so foreign right now perhaps. Like, where do you begin with people?

I think we’ve been socialized within an inch of our natures. My own journey, because the trauma was so extreme in certain ways, and it was so abrupt, the dislocation was so abrupt, I couldn’t take certain things for granted that I think a lot of modern people accept because it’s like, they’ve always been this way. 

I think understanding the degree to which we are alienated, I’ll give you just a very simple example of this. There’s a very profound degree to which our relatedness with the Earth has been cut out of our language, it’s been cut out of our religion, and this was done on purpose over a long historical arc. You can trace it back to Greek civilization. You can see amplifications of it in the Roman Empire in the 4th century when they adopt Christianity. If you ask a modern Western person, you say “heaven and,” and you just let the word come to mind. And then you ask an indigenous or an Eastern person, the indigenous person will say “Heaven and Earth.” That’s not what the American person says. Do you understand what I’m saying? Heaven and, what’s the counterpart here? The reason that that’s the counterpart is because authority has successfully assigned the animal, the feminine, the primal, the indigenous, the wild, the untamed, to the evil, essentially.

The most extreme or clarified distillation of this I’ve ever heard from a person, which I got secondhand from a friend and colleague who shared a story, where she was teaching her friend Tai chi. And at a certain point, her friend stopped and said, I can’t do this. My friend said, why? She said, it’s against my religion to feel the energy moving in my own body. It’s against my religion to feel the energy moving in my own body. It’s become illegal or illicit to have contact with our own interiority. I’m going to say this, I can feel that you’re almost crying, and I say that out loud. 

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“We’ve been robbed. It’s a theft. It’s a colonization imperative. It’s a domination paradigm that has stolen from us the sacred access to our own interiority, and our own relatedness to the Earth and to one another. It’s very sad.”

It’s immense! When I think about what you’re describing of the disconnect with the body and the felt sense, and also, as we’re talking about relationship, when we’re approaching intimacy from these notions of cultivating partnership, and even with the best intentions, perhaps mindfulness and consciousness, that perhaps even our definitions as we start relating, we’re in maybe this dissociative place, or the ways in which we know to practice our toolset, if you will. It sounds like there’s so much to overcome and so much to negotiate that works against us in this being in relatedness.

I think if we’re wanting to constellate for your audience some access points into addressing or healing this, there are a couple of really useful places to start. One of them is looking at the language of domination, or domination broadly speaking. Because the whole paradigm of our modern world is a domination paradigm. We have several really dear friends and colleagues who speak from profound experience and so beautifully to this. One of them is a mentor of ours named Tiokasin Ghosthorse, who’s an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Lakota people. One of the things he comes teaching us, the Lakota don’t have a word for domination; they don’t have a concept of domination. He calls Lakota a non-mathematical quantum mechanical language of intuition. 

I think as someone encountering his teachings and learning with him, it’s been astonishing to me to recognize the degree to which I’ve normalized domination throughout my life, even the way that we talk. I live in the Bay Area, it’s like, how is your day, and someone goes, I crushed it! It’s like a normal thing to hear someone say. Then you think like, what does it mean? I killed it! Why do we say that? Why do we want to do that? What is that? So there’s this experience, I think, that we have of relishing in domination almost, and we don’t really have a sense of how it would feel to be in a different paradigm. So these kinds of clues that we can get. 

Relationship. Whenever you’re dominating something, you’re not actually in relationship with it. Yet, we are enmeshed in all of these paradigms of domination. So what does it mean to be in an intimate relationship and then work to dismantle it? The work is different, I think, for us, depending on our social locations, our gender, our life experience, our class, our religion; there’s all these different facets of it. But our modern system is really organized around hierarchy and centering dominant positionalities. 

So one place, I think, for people to begin to open into this is to start listening to how they talk in their own minds, and how they talk with their partners, and just noticing where domination is creeping in. This is a humbling thing to do. I had this conversation my 13-year-old the other night, and it was like: Wow, Gabriel, you’re talking about this stuff and you’re teaching this stuff. But when push comes to shove, and she’s really upset and we’re arguing about a screen, you’re exercising power-over, which is the whole thing you’re trying not to do. It’s not that we’re going to stop ourselves from doing this. I had to come back to her later and say: Listen, I am really upset about how I spoke to you, I’m really sorry. Not the idea of what I was saying, but the way that I conveyed it to you. I look at myself and I go, well, I felt busy, and I had all these other things, I didn’t feel like I had time. So the shorthand is just to exercise power-over. Because it’s a much harder, longer, more vulnerable process to not do that. I’m not standing outside of it or saying I do it perfectly or anything. But the work is like going, wow, and I don’t know if I can say this on your show, I fucked up! Then how do I do my best to fix it, and repair that connection? 

I think this is, again, what we prioritize. We see this throughout our work and our mentors that these ancestral cultures, they prioritize connection above all things. So they really give effort to that repair. So that’s the first thing is the language and the tracking around this.

Yes. I want to also acknowledge, perhaps even with the awareness of the paradigm, naming it can help illuminate just that ability to see. Because we are in a more modern Western living and life, we’re so habituated, most of us, to the competitive mind, and not even knowing that it’s competitive; evaluating, assessing, where am I falling, the hierarchy, how do we flex. So I love what you’re describing, that perhaps not only with the habituated competitive tendencies, and that’s how we excel, that’s how we achieve is through that power-over. And also when we’re confronted with a conflict, that the easy move might be to use that power-over strategy. That perhaps, if we can turn and look for the priority of valuing relationship—and that might feel less convenient, and might feel more time-consuming, and might feel more energy-demanding—that what it’s in service of, and what the benefits of that in the long game of that is critical.

Absolutely. I’ve been mentioning the work of our mentor Tiokasin Ghosthorse, and I’ll bring to your audience’s attention another mentor of ours, his name is Lee Mun Wah, and he is the director of a number of extraordinary films. He’s a master mindfulness and anti-racism facilitator, and he directed a film many years ago called The Color of Fear, which is an award-winning film. That particular film brought together eight men of four races to talk about racism, made in 1994. You wouldn’t know listening to it that it was made that long ago until you see the pants everybody’s wearing. But the content is as relevant today sadly, as when it was made. 

One of the things Mun Wah teaches us is, look at the ways we disconnect in the moment. I had this very profound experience with his teaching in this area. Because I grew up in a house where there was only one person who got to be angry, and it wasn’t me; it wasn’t the kids. So I saw as he began to explain, he taught us 12 ways that people leave connection in the present moment. Your audience would be well-served by exploring his work, it’s extraordinary. But a few of the things he said, it’s like, you’ll be in a conflict with somebody talking about how you feel, and they might respond by saying, well, I think this. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience of being in a conflict with somebody where it suddenly seems like the rules changed midway through and you’re like, what just happened? I grew up with someone who was masterful at this, and it was like, what just happened? It was like I got Kung Fu moved or something. 

So he went through this list that was categorically defining the ways that people moved out of connection. These are defensive responses, and they generally come from someone feeling unsafe. But someone can go to thinking, they can change the subject, they can throw sand in your face, distract, they can turn themselves into the victim. There’s all these different ways that we stay out of the messy and vulnerable and painful work of being in contact when we’re in conflict. I think, especially if your audience who’s White, anti-racist practice, I had the good fortune. And I was really frightened of doing this, but I had a necessity in my life to begin training with him and their work and other anti-racist practices. The thing that astonished me, beyond the necessary benefit of allowing me to begin to build healthy relationships across culture, was that it completely transformed the way I communicated. Because I think so many of the strategies of White-ness are actually disconnection strategies, and I don’t think most people realize that when they’re acculturated into it. But a lot of White-ness is a mask. 

The stereotypes and the ways in which, like you mentioned, our paradigm, you mentioned the language that we use, you mentioned power-over. To unpack and really look at the stereotypes, the things that we operate within, that maybe we don’t even look at or even confront, and then confront with people that we’re describing, and being in relationship and confronting that. 

I remember doing some of that work when I was young, I think it was hosted by the National Conference for Community and Justice. They separated us all into race and had us unpack all the stereotypes, maybe whether or not we believe them or not, and put them all on this whiteboard. Then we would meet face-to-face in groups and really show the board, and it’s intense! It’s a lot of work that requires, like what we’re describing around being able to face and be with, but also be in relationship and be in connection. That is some of the most terrifying, sweaty conversations that most of us want to avoid. And the impulse to avoid is really understandable, because that’s how we’re wired: to seek comfort, seek pleasure, avoid pain. Yeah, if we stay in that, it keeps us in a very restricted, limited, maybe even unhealthy place.

I agree with you profoundly. It’s about mental health. What is mental health? What is it to be well? I was astonished. I don’t think that a motivation to improve my own wellbeing is a useful or good motivation for engaging in anti-racist practice. I think we have to engage in that practice because there is one human community, and until we are able to honor the perspective of everyone who’s sitting around that fireplace as it were, that ancestral fireplace, we’re just going to continue to make a mess of things here.

As a father or as a sister, as a fellow human being in the global tribe.

Yeah, and there’s a tremendous amount of repair work that has to be done, because there have been tremendous unspeakable harms. But the only way to begin to heal that is to turn toward it, so there’s an imperative to do this work. But the byproduct of that work also, is that we process through these things that we didn’t even know we were holding. We’ll put this in the show notes, because I’m having trouble remembering their name. But there is a remarkable Japanese somatic practitioner, who brought my attention to this concept in Japanese of a cultural soma. We talked about somatics, the body, the field of the body. The idea is that there’s a collective soma. 

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“In the United States, there’s this collective body, and the collective body here is a White supremacist body. So whether or not one individually holds those beliefs, one is impacted upon neurologically by the structuring of this Reality that we’re co-inhabiting. So that dismantling is an imperative.”

Yes! There’s so many things that we’re talking about that are so, so important.

If it’s okay, can I bring our attention to something else? I know that this is maybe scratching the surface, and perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to go deeper in some of these areas. Because clearly, we could unpack them further. But I have a strong impulse to bring attention to the physiological side of this. I’m going to make reference to a body of work that’s called the polyvagal theory, which is developed by Dr. Steven Porges. Some of your audience may already be familiar with it. 

He’s actually been on the show.

Oh, fantastic! He’s our head of neurophysiology. He’s been a friend and a mentor of ours for a while. He’s a lovely human being, which is so deeply appreciated. We were talking earlier about the mindfulness movement. I think what I want to say to people is that attention is really powerful. The way that we use our attention, it’s really important. We think about the embodiment, this desire to be in deeper contact with the felt sets; deeper contact with our bodies, our emotions, or sensations. Talk about the felt sense, we’re talking about sensation, or about emotion. This ability to feel our body from the inside, which is called interoception. Then, hopefully, the ability to enjoy that experience, which a lot of modern people don’t, which is part of why a lot of us don’t feel ourselves. Why don’t we? Part of the answer to that is because we have unmetabolized distress states co-inhabiting our nervous system. 

One of the analogies that we like to use is this analogy of water, a droplet of water. This idea that you can really understand polyvagal theory viscerally through the lens of water. The idea is simply that the connection state, the state of wellbeing—the state that is, technically speaking, a ventral vagal state, the one we want to spend time in—we can think of as liquid water. You can think of everybody as like a droplet of liquid water. Then you think of experiences that we haven’t been able to metabolize or make sense of, experiences that are traumatic in some way. You think of them as moments where there was such an intense force exerted on that droplet, that some part of it either changed state to steam, or changed state to ice. That’s polyvagal theory through the lens of water. 

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“You have a droplet of water, and then you have some part of it that’s in steam, that’s maybe floating around it, and some part of it that’s in ice. So one way of conceptualizing healing is that what we’re trying to do is bring everything back to liquid water.”

And we can say that small band hunter gatherer culture, culture as a verb, was designed to help people stay liquid.

Oh my gosh, that’s such a great metaphor and analogy to use, water, and the impact of the intensity, and how we might do our best to cope with that or survive that, and what happens in the internal state. Also, you mentioned safety, this might be a great place to talk about how safety perhaps helps us have a little more room to confront, so that we can start to process, hopefully in the sense of connection, so that we can start to metabolize, so that we can get to some level of integrating that allows for that fluidity in that water. Would you like to speak about safety? 

Yeah, sure. This is really important. I think it’s misunderstood maybe even within the modern trauma healing community, the degree to which safety is the only container in which that work can take place. So we talk in public health a lot about inequities, but I never yet hear a conversation about inequitable distribution of safety. Yet, that is what’s undergirding all of this. Even with that said, individuals of whatever background, we’ve experienced, I believe, almost all of us, such profound unsafety in the context that we’ve been brought into—familial contexts, social contexts, cultural contexts—there’s not even really language yet to talk about trauma. There’s not even a language in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for social traumas. What is the unsafety that’s felt by being aggressed for your gender, for your race, for your sexuality, for your religion? 

I think one of the lenses that’s really important to bring to bear on this is the polyvagal lens, and this awareness that a trauma is not in the event, it’s in the nervous system and the way that your nervous system responds.

Each of us have this deeper sense of what it is to feel safe enough to open into connection. That I would say is, or should be, in a way, an ancestral birthright, and many of us have had that taken away in so many different ways.

And might not even understand the need or even the lack of safety. That it’s such the water that we swim in, or the air that we breathe, that again, this is where we’ve been habituated to a setpoint that is not healthy. 

It’s dissociative.

Yes. So as we look at our conversation here, and I know we have a few more minutes, and we’re talking about relationship, but everything’s relationship really, and what we are contending with. When we speak about safety, and being able to give support for this nervous system to start to regulate to confront some of the traumas, both individually and collectively, and how our society and our tribe that we live in, and our participation in that. Like, where do you recommend people start? I know you have the platform that we’ll talk about in a minute. 

Is there anything else that you want to speak to that gives people a sense? I’ll just say, I feel hope when you speak about the power of nature or connectedness and community and being in relatedness. Like, viscerally, I can feel the health of that. I can feel that if I can access that, there’s so much that brings repair, restoration, and resource. But I’m curious, what would you like to say as far as our conversation, maybe what you might invite people to consider. You said language, we talked about paradigm, also looking at safety. So anything else you want to name here?

I’ll give you and your audience some really practical points to start from. I remember about six months into the pandemic, we were working with people at this point in 45 countries, and we started to see this degradation of mental health at scale about six months into the pandemic. This is back in 2020, maybe September, October. So we’re like, well, what what’s going on? The thing that became very obvious, I think, to many of us, was people had now been masking for about 90 days, and the six-foot radius was in place so you’re not supposed to touch anybody. So I think part of what I want to convey to your audience in this practical section, this last section, is the degree to which the social engagement physiology is actually a physical system. That’s a system that unites the neural regulation of the face, the voice, the tuning of the middle ear, the turning of the head and neck, with the heart and the breath.

I would invite your audience to think about holding a baby, holding an infant—for those who have their own children, or for those who’ve had the good fortune to be holding an infant—that wasn’t yet able to speak. Then you think about how do you connect with that baby? Because you ask them how are you doing, they can’t respond. It’s through the voice. It’s through the eyes. It’s through this conversing. Do you ever notice that a big dude with a deep voice will pick up an infant, and their voice goes up. He’s like, oh, it’s a baby! It’s like a big burly dude, but he’s like that. It’s because the tuning, physiologically, is in that infant’s ears, the melodic prosody of the human voice. 

So if you pick up a baby and go, oh, it’s a baby, (in a deep voice), the baby is going to neurocept danger, because it’ll activate a predator sense. So we do this naturally. We talk to our dogs, and we have this experience where like, if you watch the dog wag, if you talk to the dog in a certain voice, like, Brichte, come here, and the wag starts. You can feel that connectedness. That when that gaze into the infant’s eyes is reciprocal, you can feel it. That’s an opening that’s happening, where if we were to hook up a heart rate variability monitor to you in that moment, we would find that your HRV trace became ventral; it became connected. It’s a connection system. 

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“So what we want to do in our lives is we want to create opportunities to open the doorway to that connection system, and the door to opening that is a felt sense of safety. It’s like a flower, you can’t force it to open. It opens when there are the conditions of safety. You create more conditions of safety, there’s more opportunities for it to open.”

I would propose to your audience that if you’re going to feel yourself from inside, wait until that door is opened and then feel. There’s an advice that’s often given in meditation where they go, close your eyes first. It’s terrible advice. I’ll just say, it’s terrible advice! Because what it doesn’t presuppose is that you’re already in a ventral state, you’re already connected. If you close your eyes before you’re in that state, what it puts you into contact with is often that you don’t feel good inside your body. This is why meditation doesn’t work for a lot of people. It’s why our indigenous mentors are like, guys, connect first! Open your eyes, do something with your hands. Use your relatedness to open the doorway to connection before you feel inside, because only then will it bring you the intelligence that you want. 

So these are gateways; the eyes are a gateway, the voice is a gateway. The voice is so precisely a reflection of the heart that we can measure an index, your heart rate variability, through your voice. And we know this intuitively, because when you get on the phone with somebody you know super well, and you go, hey, how are you doing? They’re like, eh, and you go, what’s wrong? They go, what do you mean, nothing’s wrong. But I can hear it in your voice. We know this about people. We can sense this. We just don’t know that we know it. 

So these are the doorways in: the face, the voice, song, sound. Sing to yourself. Let the voice be melodic. Let the eyes find something beautiful to rest into. It’s a very simple thing. The eyes, unlike many other senses, they’ll find something they like looking at. So there’s this very simple thing we can do where it’s like, I’m going to let my eyes go where they want to go. Then when I find something they want to notice, I’m going to allow myself to let that in, and I’m going to ride that into sensation in the body. This is an exercise called orienting that I was taught by Steven Hoskinson, who was trained by Peter Levine, who developed somatic experiencing. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s really profound. Bring attention to the felt sense through the doorway of safety. Come inside when you feel safe, and let the senses open the doorway. 

If I’m hearing you too, that if we are approaching being in relatedness with another, like an intimate partner, that if we can slow down, perhaps access this connection the way that you just described, whether or not it’s with our significant other, or something else that helps us feel a little bit more of that ventral, a little bit more of that regulation, that allows us to feel some sense of more space, and hopefully, some sense of safety, so that we can approach our significant other from this relatedness. Both in wanting to participate in connectedness in some form or fashion, and also, perhaps in trying to approach a challenge or seemingly opposing views on conflict, that we can put relationship first and have that priority and that reverence for the connection that can be such a pathway, rather than that easy move of power-over or just the habitual moves that we might flex into.

It’s about prioritizing relationship over being right. We can be right and lonely, or we can be in relatedness.

Gabriel, I know you do so much, and your time is so valuable! And you have developed this amazing, comprehensive platform that’s bringing, I can’t even do it justice, the transdisciplinary approach of all the things that you’ve been able to distill and provide. Can you speak a little bit about it and help people with how they might be able to access your platform on the Restorative Practices?

We’ve built something very unusual, because we had to. Because we couldn’t find a structuring for this developmental pathway that was already out there, because it’s a very nonlinear structure. So what we’re trying to do is fortify access to the heart, intuition, relatedness, and so many of the technological structures that we encountered were developed from a linear logical lens. The logic of this work, it’s a very profound logic, but it’s a different logic. 

So we ended up building a learning platform, initially to assist clinicians was the initial objective, to better support their patients and clients. It came out of the transdisciplinary lens that we’ve been developing with, at this point, 60 mentors and advisors and 25 disciplines of wellbeing from 23 cultures. Then we spent about seven years crowdsourcing a practice model with 5,000 people. The awareness in the practice model, because we kept seeing this thing that happened. I’ve personally led about 1,700 trainings in this area, and we just kept seeing this thing happening where we used to call it applied mindfulness. And I do think we’re applying mindfulness. But a lot of people didn’t want to do mindfulness. So I was always trying to figure out like, how do you decide? 

Let’s just say you have a hard day, it’s the end of the day, you have an hour or half an hour to take care of yourself. How do you decide whether to go swimming, or take a walk, or play with the dog, or binge watch Netflix, or call your friend? Like, is there a methodology whereby you could make the best decision? So we ended up building this tool that has, I think, at this point, 300 different practices, and then a set of very sophisticated filtering mechanisms, so that we can look at what are the particular symptoms somebody’s dealing with? What is their nervous system doing in terms of that lens of water? Is it in steam? Is it in ice? Because the way that attention works in different states is very different. If you’re shut down, you need a very different set of experiences to bring you back to safety than if you’re angry. If I’m angry and my wife says, oh, everything’s fine, I get angrier. It depends where we are on the autonomic state map. 

So we built a set of tools that is a diagnostics and intervention system, and it’s available. We work primarily with clinicians. But if you have audience members who are interested in working with it, we have a directory of practitioners on the platform. It lives at RestorativePractices.com. Yeah, we’d love to see them there. It’s an open source phenomenon. It’s always growing as we add content. This is our life’s work.

Well, now what I love is that you’ve said, and I know it to be true, that it’s experiential, it’s intended to be used in connection, it’s research-based, it’s bringing together all these different disciplines, and it’s holistic and comprehensive. So I’m very much just in support of what you’re offering, and the richness and depthness of it. You also wrote a book, you’ve written several books. But specific to Restorative Practices, you also wrote a book. Do you want to say anything about that?

I don’t want to say that I’m most proud of it or something, because it forecloses, maybe, future books. But I love the book, I worked on it for a very, very, very long time. It’s called Restorative Practices of Wellbeing, and it maps out the way that we approach these areas in the beginning, and then it has 300 practices. It is actually the app to our learning platform. I wanted to build an app that was analogue, because I don’t want to curl up on the couch with a screen. I’d rather curl up with a book. So yeah, it’s available on our website, it’s available where books are sold. I hope your audience would benefit from it.

Lovely. I know I got it for a friend for her birthday, I know she actually leads retreats and supports wellness. I was like, you need this book! Anyway, I will put the link to the book and the platform, as well as what website would you like to direct people towards?

RestorativePractices.com is where our courses and our learning platform and the books live. So that’s a great place to start.

Great. Then is there anything else you want to put on there as far as where you’re teaching, or how to be in touch with you and what you’re up to?

Sure. I am the Founder and CEO of a company that’s called Hearth Science. That’s at HearthScience.io. Then I’m a Co-Founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine, which is AASM.io. So those are all places people can go to find out about our work. Yeah, we’re here to be useful, so let us know how we can be.

Okay. Well, I’ll put all the links on today’s show notes. Gabriel Kram, thank you so, so much for sharing your time with us here today.

Really nice to talk to you, Jessica. Best of luck, and thank you.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching