10. Self-Transcendent Experiences (Anchored Book Club)

In chapter ten of Anchored, Deb Dana considers sources of transcendence and the impact of those experiences on our autonomic nervous system.

While it sounds rather grandiose, transcending is stepping beyond ordinary life’s limits and patterns. It’s where we explore the heights and depths of our creative human potential. In polyvagal theory, transcending means stepping beyond the individual experience into the interconnectedness of all people and things.

Transcendence is when we feel connected as a small part of something bigger and a contributor to the way things are (and could become).

This describes the creative process for me. The creative act is a bridge between moments. It is an invitation to process where we’ve been and express something new that affects where we’re going. The world will continue without us (our existence isn’t necessary for life), but it wouldn’t be quite the same (our life is interconnected to everything we encounter).

Where Do Self-Transcendent Experiences Come From?

Awe

According to Keltner and Haidt, “Awe” is an emotional experience that involves feeling as if one is in the presence of something greater than oneself. This experience is characterised by a sense of vastness, where we perceive something greater in scale than ourselves. It also involves a need for accommodation, shifting our current cognitive frames and structures to hold the experience. If we can’t accommodate the experience, awe can become terrifying. However, if we can accommodate the experience, it can become enlightening.

We can seek out, observe, and record moments of awe to build a greater sense of transcendent interconnectedness into everyday life.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a feeling we experience within our body and an action we take in response to something we appreciate. Similar to awe, gratitude is linked to the ventral vagal system. When we experience gratitude, our heart rhythm becomes more stable, our blood pressure decreases, our immune function improves, our stress levels reduce, and we tend to sleep better. From a psychological standpoint, gratitude increases positive emotions such as joy, vitality, generosity, compassion, and a sense of connection.

Gratitude happens when we are thankful. We experience transcendence through it when we reflect in a journal, pray, and say thank you to someone. It can lead us down a pathway to deepening connection, like a positive feedback loop.

Paying it Forward

Even though they are seldom covered in the news, we are often innately attracted to accounts of individuals who help others. Dana highlights the idea of “Elevation” as the uplifting sensation we encounter when we witness unanticipated demonstrations of human goodness, kindness, bravery, or empathy.

When we experience something inspiring, it activates the ventral and sympathetic circuits in our autonomic nervous system. Elevation moves us to pass the spirit of compassion and kindness we absorb onto others.

Compassion

Dana defines compassion as empathy (embodying another’s suffering) in action. When we see and feel someone else’s suffering, compassion is the desire to respond somehow.

Research shows that compassion is part of human nature. Both giving and receiving compassion benefit our well-being.

When we are constantly stressed or in a state of emotional shutdown, we become unable to feel empathy or compassion towards others. It is only when we are in a state of emotional connection and are anchored in our body’s ventral vagal system that we can experience compassion. Only then can we truly see and feel someone’s suffering, be present, and offer support.

Recognising that everyone’s nervous system is fundamentally wired in the same way can serve as a starting point for cultivating compassion for our family and friends, who may sometimes test our ability to connect with them. It can also help us be more understanding of people in the world who have different thoughts, feelings, and behaviours than our own.

Exploration – Just Like Me (Self-Transcendence Through Compassion)

This exploration is designed to embody a compassionate awareness of how other people’s nervous systems have the same core mechanisms as ours.

Dana starts with these phrases, inviting us to imagine they are about a friend. Notice what happens to you as you read them.

  • Just like me, this person experiences times of connection and times of protection.
  • Just like me, this person responds to cues of safety and cues of danger.
  • Just like me, this person can disconnect and disappear.
  • Just like me, this person can feel dangerous.
  • Just like me, this person can be warm and welcoming.

What state did you experience? What stories emerged?

Do the same, but imagine the stories are about someone who isn’t a friend, someone you are not connected to, or someone you have a conflict with.

  • Just like me, this person experiences times of connection and times of protection.
  • Just like me, this person responds to cues of safety and cues of danger.
  • Just like me, this person can disconnect and disappear.
  • Just like me, this person can feel dangerous.
  • Just like me, this person can be warm and welcoming.

What happened this time? What states did you experience and what stories did you hear?

Our capacity for compassion is grounded in our capacity to be in a state of ventral vagal regulation and can increase with time and practice. As our ability to anchor in the ventral system deepens, so will our capacity for compassion.