The sun peaked over the mountains with a flush of warmth and embrace. God greeted me each morning with love, through a desert landscape brushed with golden hues. A Jesuit retreat center in Colorado hosted me as I deepened my friendship with the Trinity on a thirty-day Ignatian Retreat. Immersed in the experience of the Spiritual Exercises, I did not realize ripples of grace would grow wider as the years went on.
As a trauma therapist, the impact of my retreat astounded me daily and continues to do so. As my study of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises continued post-retreat, I came to realize these five-hundred-year-old practices aligned with a model designed to regulate our nervous system. It is a trauma-informed approach called Polyvagal Theory.
Trauma-informed practices understand the breadth of traumatic experience, while holding an awareness of the signs and symptoms of trauma. Most of all they actively resist re-traumatization.Larke N. Huang et al., SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach, July 2014, accessed February 22, 2021, https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf. With seventy percent of the human population reporting at least one traumatic event in their life, it makes sense to assume the majority of people we interact with have experienced trauma in their lifetimes.Jitender Sareen, MD, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Adults, September 2022, accessed February 25, 2022, https://www.uptodate.com/contents/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-in-adults-epidemiology-pathophysiology-clinical-manifestations-course-assessment-and-diagnosis/print As a result, leaders in all sectors would be wise to adopt trauma-informed strategies and policy. Polyvagal Theory is the most universal approach I have encountered.
Polyvagal Theory in practice, intentionally shifts one’s focus from external events to the body’s internal response. Deb Dana states “Polyvagal Theory is the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living.”Deb Dana, Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Boulder, CO: Sounds True), 1. All of us know what it feels like to experience stress, anger, and shutdown. We also know what it feels like to be safe, to love, and to be connected with others. Each of these bodily states speak to us from our vagus nerve.
The autonomic nervous system, which can be thought of as the “automatic” nervous system operates without our active awareness. It is composed of two branches, which include the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Polyvagal theory focuses on the sympathetic branch and two parts of the vagus nerve located in the parasympathetic branch. The two branches stretch from your head, through the core of your body, and stretch out to each limb.Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co.) 8. Polyvagal Theory helps us connect with our autonomic nervous system so we can exercise it in a way that regulates our nervous system to operate with optimal efficacy.
The connection to Ignatian Spirituality lies in the exercises used for regulation. In this article, we will explore vagal practices that connect us to God’s love, attune us to the voice of love, and create space for reflection that can lead us toward union with the Trinity. These practices come from three core understandings in Polyvagal Theory, which include autonomic hierarchy, co-regulation, and neuroception. Each section will define these core principles and integrate them with Ignatian practices that deepen our intimacy with God.
02. The Face of Love
A part of Ignatius of Loyola’s daily routine was to go to the roof of the Society of Jesus’ headquarters, kneel for the space of an Our Father, and then he would rise and sit in silence on a bench. In the brevity of the Our Father, Ignatius was looking at God looking at him. Robert R., Marsh S.J., “Looking at God Looking at You: Ignatius’ Third Addition,” The Way, October 2004, accessed February 16, 2021, http://rmarsh.com/files/looking.pdf. What he saw was the face of love, and when we regard God’s heart towards us our autonomic nervous system naturally moves to a state referred to as ventral vagal.
Three components help us to understand the core principles of Polyvagal theory. They include ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. These parts operate as the autonomic hierarchy which regulates our nervous system. When we say we are operating from ventral vagal we mean we are operating from a place of safety and connection. Sympathetic implies that we are in a state of active alertness, fight, or flight, and dorsal vagal refers to our systems ability to shut down or dissociate in the face of a perceived threat.
It helps me to think of ventral vagal as my home base. This is where I am open to connection, where I live fully in the present moment, and I am in a state of peace. Deb Dana also teaches that we all have a “home away from home.”Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co.) 43. For me this is the dorsal state. So when I am stressed or under threat I check out, which may look like zoning out to a movie or mindless scrolling on my phone.
For some of you, sympathetic is your home away from home. In this state, you cope with stress through anxious activity, you are on edge, or simmering with anger. As you can imagine these three states have a profound impact on our view of God. For example, do you view God as absent or distant (dorsal vagal)? Is God an angry judge (sympathetic)? Or do you experience God as a friend and source of deep love (ventral vagal)?
In a spiritual direction session, my directee began our time together by letting me know that she was stressed out. While my body could feel her anxiety, I leaned in from a ventral vagal state with an awareness of God’s presence, as I attended to God’s movement in her story. We took a moment to breathe and paid closer attention to what the anxiety might be telling us. As she did this, colors representing her various feelings surfaced. Yellow represented her current state of anxiety, but she said sometimes yellow turns to red, which means she is offline. It scares her when she goes offline, because she is afraid she will get stuck there. As we processed this, I encouraged her to notice what color is revealed when she connects with God. A warm blue emerged.
Next we noticed where each color lived in her body, and to my internal delight red lived in her belly (dorsal vagal), yellow was in her diaphragm (sympathetic), and blue radiated from her heart (ventral vagal). We took these colors in her body and I asked her how God was looking at each of these parts. After a period of contemplative silence, tears flowed as she reported seeing God’s finger dip into each color like they were paints being swirled together. The mixing of the colors created a rich brown which God’s hands molded into a beautiful clay pot. Time spent savoring God’s loving gaze transformed the piece of pottery into an image of a mothering God embracing her.This story omits identifying details and is shared with permission from this directee. Every part.
Beholding God beholding us is an Ignatian practice that is meant to precede every spiritual exercise. Maggie Ross says beholding “enables us to live from, continually return to, and dwell in the depth of silent communion with God. And as this is something God does in us: we have only to allow it, to cease our striving and behold.”Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books), 12. When we find a safe and loving image of God, it can become an anchor to our ventral vagal state. Repetition with this practice strengthens neural pathways that lead to our homebase with God.
It is important to acknowledge that all three states serve us well and regulate autonomic processes occurring in our bodies. There is no “bad” state, but Polyvagal Theory helps us to strengthen our autonomic response system by anchoring one foot in ventral vagal which allows the other states to operate optimally. When God dipped a divine finger into the colors of my directee’s states, it was like God was saying each part holds value. The creator crafted every part of us with a purpose, and uses those parts to reveal the whole essence of who we are.
Exercise: Notice moments when you were in dorsal, sympathetic, or ventral. Invite God to look at those moments of dorsal shutdown or sympathetic activation with you. How does God Respond? Does God’s response reflect your view of God? If you find that God’s response is not loving or safe, imagine a close friend or partner reviewing those moments with you from a place of love and compassion. How might their response be a mirror of how God regards you?
03. The Voice of Love
Before the Jesuit Order was established, Ignatius traveled what I imagine to be a long and dusty road to Rome. He was first and foremost a pilgrim, following the way of Jesus. Before he arrived in Rome, he stopped in a chapel in La Storta. In that place, he had a vision of the Father placing him next to Jesus. Father God spoke to him and stated that he would be favorable to Ignatius in Rome.Brian Grogan, Alone and on Foot: Ignatius of Loyola (Dublin, Ireland: Veritas Publications), 148. After this encounter, I can almost see Ignatius rubbing shoulders with Jesus as he helps souls throughout the city. While he faced many trials in Rome, God was favorable and grew the ministry of the Jesuits exponentially.
This idea of friendship with God is a key component of Ignatian Spirituality. Through a practice Ignatius called “colloquy,” we learn to speak with God as “one friend speaks to another.”David L. Fleming, S.J., Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading (Chestnut Hill, MA: The Institute of Jesuit Sources), 48. Like the practice of beholding God beholding me, colloquy is considered to be an essential part of every prayer exercise. It allows us to interact with the Risen Lord, through a two-way dialogue. Just like a conversation with a friend we cannot predict how God will respond to us, but we believe God’s responses come from a heart consumed with love. Our interactions with God have the power to shape our autonomic nervous system, through a process known as co-regulation.
“Co-regulation creates a physical platform of safety that supports a psychological story of security.”Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co.) 44. It occurs when another individual connects with us from a place of safety and love. This is how healthy attachments are formed. Individuals that experienced various types of traumas during developmental years struggle with co-regulation when repair did not occur after a traumatic event. As adults it takes time to heal those wounds and it leads many into a state of loneliness, with a desire for belonging.
During my college years, I struggled with a distorted image of God despite a deep profession of love for the Trinity. When my resident director decided to teach all of us who were resident advisors to hear God’s voice, I encountered an angry and demeaning God. My director introduced me to two books that taught me how to tune into God’s voice. One was called, The Love Exchange by Margaret Therkelsen and the other was Homesick for Eden by Gary Moon. The first led me through scripture exercises which invited me to soak in God’s love. Moon’s book taught me how to discern the voice of God versus other voices that distorted my concept of God. This was the beginning of a platform of safety with God that has evolved into a rich and intimate friendship.
Despite the many truths your mind knows to be true about God, it is important they sink into the core of your body. When we encounter a God who is love and is loving toward us, we begin a journey of co-regulation, which enhances our social engagement system, enabling us to operate from a place of safety and connection for others. While I did not call my earlier conversations with God “colloquy,” that is exactly what they are. And just as I believe Ignatius talked with Jesus throughout the day, I believe we have the same access to Jesus.
Another practice I explored during my Spiritual Exercises retreat comes from an Ignatian concept of contemplative prayer. Ignatian contemplation is an “experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality…. It is a long loving look at the real.”George W. Traub, SJ, ed. An Ignatian Spirituality Reader (Chicago, IL: Loyola), 91. In other words we use our imagination and senses to live our life with God.
During my commute to and from work I imagine how Jesus is sitting with me in the car. I notice how he looks at me, and sometimes I hear him speak words through an inner voice that I have come to know as the texture of his voice. Other times I reach my hand to the passenger seat and sense his hand holding mine. We may engage in colloquy or we may just soak in one another’s presence. This is a practice of co-regulation with God. I cannot predict how Jesus will engage with me, but I trust Jesus’s responses toward me will be safe and loving.
As we develop a friendship with Jesus, we regulate our nervous system in a way that allows us to extend the hand of friendship to others. Just as Jesus used the process of co-regulation to heal us and lead us to a place of safety and belonging, we have the ability to pass this gift on to others. “God longs passionately for a world where we live in friendship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation.”Trevor Hudson, Beyond Loneliness: The Gift of God’s Friendship, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books), 94. Sometimes the process works in reverse. At times a spouse, friend, child, or even a pet can create for us a foundation of safety and belonging. And because we have experience with this in another, we can learn to connect to the heart of God through their loving actions.
- Exercise: Take a moment to slow your breath, and ground yourself in the present moment. If it feels safe and helpful to do so, imagine where Jesus is with you, wherever you are.* What is his posture toward you? How does Jesus look at you? What is Jesus saying? If you experience Jesus to be safe and loving continue the exercise by engaging in colloquy with him, speaking as “one friend to another.” This may only take about thirty seconds and that is ok. If it is longer that is fine too.
* If traditional images of God do not feel loving or safe to you, it may be helpful to use the image of a loved one in place of your image of God. Since we are all created in God’s image, after you engage this practice you may explore moments of connection and love that may represent an aspect of God in the person you chose.
04. Loving Reflection
When the prayer of examen was first introduced to me I was not impressed. I found it to be contrived and boring. I said as much to my Jesuit director, who wisely instructed me to stop practicing the examen while I completed my thirty-day retreat. On the last day of retreat, we reflected on my experience and transformation. I wanted so badly to keep the fire of the retreat ablaze. When I asked my director how he did this, he described how he paused a couple times a day to have a conversation with Jesus. Together they would reflect on the day and they would notice how it was going. I chuckled and told him that he was telling me to do the examen. He just smiled when a greater revelation hit me.
What I had been doing during the Spiritual Exercises was just one examen after another without some of the formalities I had first learned. From that point on, the prayer of examen was transformed into a conversation with my best friend. Together we chat about how the day went. I ask Jesus for his input regarding the parts I found challenging, and I express gratitude for the moments I noticed God’s presence and love living life with me. When I share my desires, I experience God’s compassion and love towards me. Because of this, I am encouraged to grow closer to God with a dual desire for intimacy with the divine and for an expansion of my heart towards the world around me.
When we add a polyvagal lens to the examen, we are given another tool to move us towards greater intimacy and union with God. “Through the process of neuroception, the nervous system listens to what’s happening in our embodied, environmental, and relational experiences, looks for cues of safety and danger, and responds by shutting down (dorsal), mobilizing for action (sympathetic), or anchoring in regulation (ventral).”Deb Dana, Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Boulder, CO: Sounds True), 55. Our brain takes this information and creates a story that helps us to make sense of what the nervous system is learning.
Neuroception is a completely unconscious process and when we have faulty neuroception it impacts our relationships and our ability to feel safe and connected in the world. The only way to change how this process operates in us is through a process of reflection, that can correct any inaccuracies within the stories our brain developed. With practice, reviewing our day trains the brain to adapt the narrative being told through neuroception. In other words, we practice a type of examen to regulate the messages provided by our autonomic nervous system.
“Loving desire for communion of life with the God who loves us is the root desire,” of the prayer of examen.Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V., The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company), 36. Ignatius would tell his fellow Jesuits that if the demands of the day prevented them from their regular rhythms with God, the only thing they needed to attend to was their daily examen.Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V., The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company), 160. Every Ignatian examen begins with the practice of looking at God looking at me. “For Ignatius, God’s love is always the first consideration, and all else is viewed after and only in the light of this love.”Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V., The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company), 88. In neurobiological terms, Ignatius is inviting us to review our day rooted in our ventral vagus nerve. From here we can objectively review the movements of the day through practices of gratitude, petition, noticings of consolation and desolation, prayers of longing and desire, with our conversation with God integrated throughout.
The three elements of Polyvagal Theory we have explored in this article can be applied to the prayer of examen with ease. In review of our day, we notice the process of autonomic hierarchy at play. What triggered a movement toward dorsal shutdown or sympathetic action? How did I respond in moments of ventral safety and connection? We follow this with the co-regulating practice of colloquy with God. It is a two-way dialogue with a safe and loving God who desires to draw us into union with the Trinity. By engaging God in this way, we transform our process of neuroception with God’s help as we interpret the events of each day.
Through these practices, we strengthen our relationship with God, we regulate our nervous system, and we enable rich engagement with individuals and systems in our sphere of influence. When we live from the reality that we are God’s beloved and God is beloved to us, we cannot help but see the belovedness of others. “Looking through the lens of the nervous system we understand we are all trying to anchor in the state of safety that supports connection to self, to others, to the world, and to spirit, and provides the energy we need to navigate our days.”Deb Dana, Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Boulder, CO: Sounds True), 2. Utilizing a polyvagal lens with Ignatian prayer, not only regulates the nervous system, but it moves us out of isolated cognitive practice into an embodied encounter with the Trinity.
- Exercise: Review moments from the past day or week. Is there a moment of interaction with a friend, spouse, child, or pet that brings joy or a sense of safety and connection? Try to pause the image at the best part just as you would pause a movie. Settle into the image noticing any sensations in your body and the messages being offered by the other in this interaction. If the sensations are positive stay with the image a little longer and notice how you want to respond to the individual as they have responded to you. You can either stay with this image a little longer or can you invite the possibility that God desires to engage with you in a similar way? Imagine what it might be like to have God look at you and talk to you the way you experienced your spouse, friend, child, or pet. Talk to God about what you are experiencing, noticing what you feel in your body, pay attention to your state (ventral, sympathetic, or dorsal). If you have entered sympathetic or dorsal gently bring your awareness to the present moment and recall an image or memory that symbolizes a state of ventral vagal connection and end the exercise there.
Tracy Busse is the founder of Ash Tree Center, a writer, teacher, therapist, and spiritual director. She also provides consultation to a variety of organizations who serve leaders and marginalized populations around the globe. In addition, Tracy works with the Companioning Center to offer training on Trauma Informed approaches to spiritual companionship. You can learn about the next training here: https://learning.
Tracy resides in Atlanta, GA and finds delight on her paddleboard, hiking, writing, painting, traveling, and enjoying the presence of the humans she is privileged to share life with. You can learn more about Tracy’s work at The Ash Tree Center for Transformation, Connection, and Hope and https://tracybusse.