little girl lost
Jan 9, 2020
Let us consider the little girl lost.
The education system says it cares about her. And it does. It cares that her salvation lies in her academic attainment.
But there is (potentially) a price for this. The price of her autonomic state.
Your autonomic state determines your physiological sense of safety. However, education’s adherence to performativity has detached the little girl lost from her sense of safety. Yes, she needs cognitive stretch, yes she needs challenge. But it’s not her salvation. And she most certainly doesn’t need what Dr Stephen Porges calls the ‘chronic shift’ of the ‘evaluative model’. This is because, according to Porges, the ‘evaluative model ‘ is a frame within which you have to fit. And that can take its autonomic toll. What Porges tells us is: the little girl lost needs something more. The little girl lost needs safety and trust.
According to Porges’s Polyvagal Theory feeling safe is dependent on three conditions:
1) the autonomic nervous system being in a state that supports defense;
2) the social engagement system being activated to down regulate sympathetic activation so as to ensure homeostasis, the neural and neurochemical processes through which our body regulates visceral organs to optimise health, growth and restoration;
3) the ability to detect cues of safety (e.g, prosodic vocalisations, positive facial expressions and gestures) via neuroception (the process through which the nervous system evaluates risk without requiring awareness). In other words, the feeling you get in your gut, your heart, what you experience as intuition, about the safety of the context you find yourself in. 1
From Porges I get the kernel of an idea. It tells me that one way the little girl lost can be found is through ‘co-regulation’. Porges defines co-regulation as ‘the mutual regulation of physiological state between individuals’. Dana goes further, she tells us it’s a ‘biological imperative: a need that must be met to sustain life’. It is through reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states that we feel safe to move into connection and create trusting relationships. Put simply, it is the neural platform beneath every experience. 2
I wonder whether it’s possible to bring ‘co-regulation’ through mindful attention. I wonder if ‘co-regulation’ offers the teacher the opportunity to role model self-regulation through mutual, synchronous, and reciprocal interaction.
Of course, schools are all for ‘self-regulation’, it's become a mantra, a theoretical frame. Schools know it’s needed, desirable, a contributory factor for a growth mindset. But schools miss the point about its neurobiological basis. Essentially, about its need for embodiment. For Porges this is achieved through the ‘neural exercises’ of contemplative practices. The learning here is that all teaching is neurophysiological. It is channeled through embodied cognition and is therefore dependent upon the skilful cultivation of (to reiterate) ‘mutual, synchronous, and reciprocal interaction’. In other words, co-regulation. Come to think of it, when teaching and learning hits the sweet spot of flow state it is surely due to the emergence of ‘co-regulation’.
With this in mind I attempt to use mindful attention in its ‘co-regulatory’ sense. Or at least what I think is its co-regulatory sense.
Amy says to me: ‘Sir, I don’t think I’m going to pass.’ Mindful attention helps me notice anxiety in her posture and in her eyes. She’s the little girl lost. I’m reminded of Oliver Sacks words: “People will make a life in their own terms, whether they are deaf or colourblind or autistic or whatever. And their world will be just as rich and interesting and full as our world.” I tune into its mantra: Amy, your world is as full and rich and interesting as any other constructed world. But does Amy know this? And can I help her to know this, beyond simple platitudes?
Let’s start by embracing it. A somewhat counterintuitive response, to be sure, but how is judging the system going to help? Seems a somewhat egotistical indulgence. No, my approach has to be one of present moment awareness; noticing each unfurling teaching moment as it arises. Amy’s needs are more important than my desire to barnstorm against the system. This is where I have to start. With Jack Kornfield's ‘middle way’; what he refers to as “complete non-referential ease.”
So I embrace a ‘co-regulatory’ approach, as Amy and I consider a question on Macbeth:
How is Lady Macbeth presented in this scene and in the play as a whole?
I check in with Amy.
How are you getting on?
She has produced an opening paragraph. She then says those words all-too- familiar to a teacher:
I don’t know what to write next, Sir.
I mean, I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to write it. I can’t put it into words.
What am I going to do? Shall I say: let’s go through the key words on the board; think about your thesis statement; remember your method of analysis; start with Shakespeare’s intention; pick out three quotes relevant to the themes you know, and so forth? No. That’s not going to help her. That’s performance criteria. That’s the evaluative model. Now, I’m not getting all high and mighty in my disdain of performance culture, I’ve got to accept it. But I notice that I’ve got the words of Ellen Langer in my mind, telling me: Amy needs a different set of criteria. Then I’ve got Porges telling me: she needs safety.
Between these two voices lies the need to recognise my own physiological response to Amy’s stuck-ness. I can feel a heaviness in the head, a dullness in the chest. This is an effort. I feel a sluggish. It’s hard to articulate. And trying to rationalise it to myself will wither my will. Mindfulness guides me to just stay with the bodily sensations as they arise.
I need a moment to be quiet. Hard to do: checking into that awareness in the midst of the liminality in the classroom. What I need to do is just let myself be with this undertow of perceived chaos. Just let go.
So I just let things sink in. Actually, I’m grateful for the opportunity because Amy’s class is a small class. They’re a gentle, polite bunch of kids. The challenge is their – sometimes painful – reticence. I’ll ask a question and there will be this chasm – these tectonic plates- of silence. It’s a different kind of challenge this. The sound of silence. It can bring on lassitude; a heaviness in the shoulders, a weightiness to the eyelids.
I reckon here’s my opportunity for co-regulation.
Amy, why don’t you adjust your posture. Like this.I turn my chair so she can get a sidelong view of my sitting posture. An uprightness at the spine, shoulders dropping back, chin and crown of head level with the floor and ceiling. Tummy tucked in (hopefully).
Amy looks perplexed.
So I chirrup: OK. Why don’t you take a sip of water? Hey, let’s both take a sip of water, because , you know what? I’m feeling sluggish. The air is heavy in here.
Is this co-regulation? Perhaps. But, as I said, it’s the kernel of an idea occurring to me now, in this present moment of teaching.
OK, Amy smiles, slightly.
I continue: What I do when I get stuck is – first off – just say: OK, I’m stuck. It’s OK to be stuck. In fact, it’s pretty normal. Then I check in with how my body feels. I ask myself: where is it that I’m feeling this stuckness? I’m kind of curious about that. Where is it? What’s here? What’s the quality of this stuckness, in my body? So how about you, Amy? I mean, are you stuck too?
In my head, she says. The side of my head.
And she points to her right temple.
Well, it’s pretty good that you can feel that.
What do you mean by that? Why’s it pretty good?
Well, it’s sort of making you aware that stuck-ness is not just a thinking thing. It’s happening in your body too, and that if you send this message to your body then your body might be able to help you get unstuck. Your body can help you say: Ok, bring it on, stuck-ness.
I’m not sure what you mean, Sir.
To be honest, I’m having doubts about what I’m saying too. I find this deployment of mindful attention hard to articulate. But here goes:
OK, well, I’m going to start by sitting upright because that’s immediately saying “bring it on” to my stuckness, it stimulates a change in attitude. I’m feeling a bit more assertive. More confident in the body, regardless of what the mental challenge is. Then I’m going to take this biggish in-breath. Try it. It’s like a big, cooling, in-breath. Like the sip of water you just had, I suppose. It’s refreshing me. Then I’m going to feel a really long, soothing, out-breath. I just want to clear my lungs of air. Clear my head. Now I’m going to count the in-breath up to the number five: so, one-two-three-four-five. Then hold it comfortably for a couple of seconds. Then with the longer out-breath I’ll count to seven: one – two-three-four-five-six-seven. Hold it comfortably again for a couple of seconds, then do the in-breath again up to five. Shall we just try that?
We spend about 30 seconds doing this, perhaps longer.
You see, I do this when I’m feeling a difficult emotion, or stress, or a challenge because I find my energy starts to sap when I feel that way. Then I start to feel anxious, sometimes nervous…sometimes I just want to give up, kind of collapse….disengage. I get frozen in the stuck-ness. Do you ever feel that?
Yes, she says.
Then my mind starts telling me stories. It says: you’re no good at this. You never have been any good at this. And you think about the last piece of work you got stuck on just to justify why it is you so easily get stuck in the first place. It’s me. I’m no good. I always feel like this when I have to do this type of question. Then you start to get angry, frustrated and sad. Sometimes tearful. Then I think that I must be the only person who ever feels like this. And I look round the room and it always seems like everyone can do it. They’re working. They look so confident. But I feel alone. Somebody once said: there’s more right with you than wrong with you. Always. There’s always something more right with a situation than wrong with it. So that’s a good place to start. So perhaps just breathe in and out in this way and just say to yourself: there’s more right with this than wrong, and you’ll find that the quiet mind will allow ideas in. So let’s have some quiet time, just breathing this way.
After a few moments, I say:
So you have a method, don’t you? I mean, let’s start from there. You told me earlier in the lesson that Lady Macbeth is like Macbeth in that her tragedy comes from her excessive ambition. Right?
But now she feels guilty. And that guilt will lead to her suicide, right?
There’s so much that’s right with that; with you knowing that. So just take a moment to sit comfortably and breathe with that. Also, you’ve also got your method. What’s that?
Shakespeare’s intention, stagecraft, language, and the attitude of the audience.
Yes. And also how this might fit into the conclusion of the play, right?
So what is Shakespeare’s intention here?
He wants to show us Lady Macbeth’s suicide.
Is that what we see?
Are you sure? I mean, where does it say in this extract that Lady Macbeth kills herself?
So what made you say that he wants to show Lady Macbeth’s suicide?
Well, she kills herself later. That’s what I wanted to say.
So why does she kill herself later?
Because she feels guilty?
Why does she feel guilty?
Because she got Macbeth to kill Duncan. Because she’s got excessive ambition.
Why has she got excessive ambition?
Because of the witches.
Well, why didn’t she just ignore the witches? I mean, the witches are wrong aren’t they? Or, at least I mean the witches are morally wrong.
Yes, but she is already possessed by the witches. The letter she got from Macbeth. It made her possessed.
So that’s another scene from the play. That’s another scene you could connect with this one. So give me some of the key words from the board that connect with what we’ve just talked about. What do you feel comfortable with? What do you feel safe about knowing? Just take a few moments to think about that. Perhaps just breathe slowly again. Because it seems to me that there’s more that you do know than you think you don’t know. There’s more right here than wrong. OK, so what are some of the key words we want to work on?
Excessive ambition. Guilt. Possessed.
Yes, supernatural. Great Chain of Being.
OK, that’s interesting. So going back to your method. What else could you work on to get unstuck?
Yes. What about that?
Well, the audience can see her as guilty.
Really. How can they see her as guilty?
Well, it says: “will all the perfumes of Arabia not sweeten this little hand.
So how does that show that she feels guilty?
She wants to cover things up.
And that shows guilt?
But how does it show guilt?
I don’t know.
So you’re stuck.
Interesting. I’m feeling a bit stuck too. So let’s just check in with the posture and breathing again. Take a cooling in-breath and a slightly longer out-breath. Just for a few moments.
I’m thinking of Porges here, creating safety. Can I do this with the tone of my voice? Its modulation? Also, I’m tired now; with this questioning. It’s taking its autonomic toll.
I noticed that you zoomed in on the perfume as an image?
Well, before she says ‘perfumes’ she says the smell of blood.
Oh. OK. Well, what makes you say that?
Well, the blood is what Macbeth had on his hands after he killed Duncan. Macbeth felt guilty about that but Lady Macbeth told him to wash his hands.
What did she think washing his hands would do?
Make him feel less guilty, perhaps?
Why would washing your hands make you feel less guilty?
I don’t know.
OK. Let’s have a moment here.
Now it’s me who’s having the moment. I’m not sure if Amy is following but I do feel some synchronisation. It’s not intentional. It’s just arisen. And I need a moment for myself.
OK. Why would Lady Macbeth feel that washing your hands could make you feel less guilty?
Perhaps because she’s the fourth witch.
Really, how is she the fourth witch?
Well…when she gets the letter…she becomes a witch because she says ‘unsex me here’ and fill me with cruelty.
So has that got something to do with the guilt?
Yes, because witches don’t feel guilt.
So what you’re saying is that in the scene after Macbeth is feeling guilt after killing Duncan she doesn’t because she’s a witch?
So why does she feel guilt now? Why does she feel that perfumes will not sweeten her hands?
Because she’s changed because Macbeth has taken over and he doesn’t care any more even after he sees Banquo’s ghost, he’s not bothered and that shocks her. So perhaps now she can feel her own guilt now that she doesn’t have to make Macbeth feel guilty.
Is this integrating co-regulation into pedagogy? Maybe. Amy is starting to give more extended responses because of this co-regulation where the teacher shares vulnerability with the student: it consists of neural exercise, modulation of voice, prosody, facial expression, gestures that are brought into the interaction: all mutual, synchronous, and reciprocal interactions between teacher and student. This awareness frames a new identity because the teacher knows the value of the frame as a part of the identity of being a teacher. It’s part of who we are together as co-learners. Student and teacher. It’s a shared autonomic state. It recognises the integration of teaching self-regulation as an experience that comes out of co-regulation. Both student and teacher learn together because the teacher acknowledges their own struggle with self-regulation.
But see how long it has taken. See how much patience it requires. See how much dedication and commitment it requires – and not just to Amy, but to myself too. It’s compassion fostered through self-compassion.
Will measurable criteria culture recognise this? Will it make the necessary adaptations for the health, growth and restoration of Amy and myself? Of student and teacher? If so the results might be immeasurable.
What co-regulation fosters is this sense that it's okay for both teacher and student to feel lost as they help each other to be found.
Stephen W. Porges, The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe (Norton, 2017),15,19,23,24.
Deb Dana: The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. (Norton, 2018), pg. 4