Optimal Zone Resilience

Robert Gilman
Founder and President, The Context Institute
Robert Gilman
Founder and President, The Context Institute

Our optimal zone refers to the state of our nervous system when we are calm, confident, clear headed, and creative.  We move into our defensive zone when we are triggered; there we are more prone to escalating conflict, less empathetic, and less able to engage in rational thought.  In this episode we discuss how we can become more resilient in remaining in our optimal zone.

Show Notes

In this conversation Jenny and Robert discuss:

  • What the optimal zone is and how it relates to our nervous system
  • What the defensive zone is and how it relates to our nervous system
  • How our triggers are amplified by past trauma, agitation from other events of the day, and chronic stress
  • How we can break the cycle of reflexive response when we are triggered and develop new patterns to become less triggered next time
  • The notion of optimal zone hygiene, and practices we can employ to stay in our optimal zone
  • Optimal zone first aid; i.e. things we can do in groups as preparation to better respond when someone is triggered
  • Healing, particularly with respect to intergenerational trauma
  • How this conversation fits into Robert's course at the Context Institute, Bright Future Now


RG: I think one of the downsides of a focus on justice, the way it exists in our culture, is that it tends to be back-focused. It tends to be about rebalancing scales from some time in the past. There's value to that. There's an important value to that. I think that it would be better to focus on healing, on a future-oriented sense of, how do we get this system that we're all part of to a healthier place? Getting it to a healthier place may very well require some rebalancing.


[0:00:46] JS: That's Robert Gilman. He's the Founder and President of the Context Institute and a pioneer in the sustainability space. This is the Denizen Podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti. In this episode, we're discussing optimal zone resilience, which I understand might be ambiguous, but it's actually an incredibly important topic and incredibly timely as we continue to witness the events unfolding in the Middle East.

Our optimal zone refers to the state of our nervous system when we are calm, creative, curious, compassionate, confident, and clear-headed. Its counterpart is our defensive zone, where our instincts to fight, flight, or freeze are triggered. In our defensive zone, we are less able to engage in rational discourse, less able to empathize with each other and more prone to escalating conflict. Cultivating optimal zone resilience, where we are more likely to remain in our optimal zone, or return to it when we are triggered, is a critically important skill.

Our guest, Robert Gilman, is an elder in our midst. He's been working on systems change since the 1970s. The first phase of his career was actually as an astrophysicist. After 30 years in that world, he realized that the stars could wait, but the planet couldn't, and he embarked on a new phase of his career in the then nascent field of sustainability. Robert founded the Context Institute in 1979. He teaches a course called Bright Future Now, which provides the framework, skills, and experience to foster systems change.

The course integrates change at the personal and global level. In this conversation, we discuss what the optimal zone is and how it relates to our nervous system, what the defensive zone is and how it relates to our nervous system, how triggers get amplified by past trauma, existing agitation from prior experiences that day, and the chronic stress that many of us live with. We talk about how we can break the cycle of reflexive response when we are triggered and develop new patterns to become less triggered next time. We talk about the notion of optimal zone hygiene, practices we can employ to stay in our optimal zone. Optimal zone first aid, that is the things that we can do in groups to prepare us for moments when some of us get triggered, and critically healing, particularly complex intergenerational trauma.

As always, you can find our show notes on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com. There you can sign up for our newsletter where I bring our latest content to your inbox, alongside announcements from our partner organizations. We're also doing a biweekly virtual event to discuss each podcast episode, so stay tuned to our newsletter for details. Obviously, this is an incredibly timely conversation, given the violence occurring in the Middle East. It's one of those episodes where the systems conversation really lands in our everyday behaviors, and in this case, also in current events.

I hope you enjoy soaking up all the wisdom from this episode. It's just the tip of the iceberg. I'll be sending out information to sign up for the next cohort of the Bright Future Now course in our next newsletter, or you can just contact me from our website for the information. All right, I hope that this conversation provides insights and support during this difficult time.


[0:03:33] JS: Okay, optimal zone resilience. This is not necessarily obvious what we mean by that. I'm going to ask you the question that I started within just a minute. But before we dig in, I do want you to paint a little bit of a big picture for us. How does optimal zone resilience fit into the broader work that you do around supporting a shift from what you call the empire era into the planetary era?

[0:03:58] RG: Yeah. Optimal zone resilience is really about – it's very core to what kind of autonomic nervous system state you're in. The autonomic nervous system state that you're in is just really important relative to how much capacity you really have to be – it's not only a matter of, it's more pleasant to be in your optimal zone, but you're also more capable when you're in your optimal zone.

To the extent that what we're working on is really increasing people's agency, and hopefully, wise agency. This winds up being something that more and more I'm seeing is just really foundational. That's the positive way to describe it, if you will. I see all kinds of places where people with really good intentions wind up tripping over themselves, being less effective than they could be, because they're just not sufficiently aware of what's happening in their internal states. If we can have some reasonably easy way to be able to connect into that, then that seems like a good thing.

[0:05:14] JS: Optimal zone resilience fits into a broader scope of what you call human operating systems literacy.

[0:05:23] RG: The big threads that we work with and the work that I've been doing now in the Bright Future Network, one of them has to do with the human operating system. What you might think of as ideas around human nature, but I like to think of it more in terms of what is it that we bring with us. So much of our ideas around human nature right now are colored by the fact that we live and have lived for thousands of years in cultures where almost everyone is traumatized. We have an idea of human nature that is really about traumatized human nature. That's part of it. That's very much part of the human possibility, but it's not all of it. That's one thread.

Another thread that's really important for us is about understanding culture, especially culture as an evolving living system. Not only understanding it in the abstract, but understanding really where we are and understanding cultural history and understanding those dynamics, not in terms of history, in terms of events and names of people and all that stuff, but more in terms of the flow of underlying patterns. Then the third big piece is systems. Especially not just mechanical systems, but living systems. Putting all those different pieces together offers a pretty potent mix.

[0:06:50] JS: Yeah, and I also – I note that in addition to our sense of what human nature is being confined to a history of trauma and not understanding a broader possibility space, but also, I think, very much informed by the culture and the water that we swim in and not realizing that we're swimming in the water. People think it's our human nature to be selfish and individualistic, that we've grown up in that space.

Yeah, I talk a lot about the idea that there's – I draw parallels between genetics in this conversation, because we have our DNA and then we have our epigenome that upregulates certain genes, and it makes genes express anything. Similarly, I think there's just a DNA equivalent to the whole scope of the way that humans might behave, that certain behaviors get upregulated in certain cultural contexts, or to your point, also, given traumatic history.

[0:07:40] RG: The traumatic history is just one facet of the cultural bundle. I very much agree, we're social beings and we're very much shaped by the culture that we’re part of. But that doesn't mean that we can't also participate in co-evolving our culture, bringing some consciousness and intentionality to where it might go.

[0:08:04] JS: Thank you for that. We'll talk a more about trauma in this conversation, because it's so incredibly important. Okay, so now we get to the question I always ask that we're all speaking the same language. What do you mean when you say optimal zone? Can you explain it in conjunction with its counterpart, the defensive zone?

[0:08:19] RG: Sure. Probably, the easiest way that I can give people a sense, an experiential sense of what I mean by optimal zone is to tune into what it feels like when you have an authentic smile. Especially an authentic smile when you're just all by yourself, where there's no social aspect to it. You're just tuned into that energy. In that space at a neurological level, you've stimulated the upper part of your vagus nerve that is associated with a sense of safety. The optimal zone is very much defined, if you will, in terms of what's happening in your autonomic nervous system.

Its companion, the defensive zone, is also in the autonomic nervous system. If you are in a strongly sympathetic autonomic state of fight-flight state, you're not in your optimal zone. You're in your defensive zone. Similarly, if you're in a withdrawn depressed, that's the lower part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the lower part of the vagus nerve, then you're not really in your optimal zone.

One way to understand it is that in your optimal zone, you have an internal sense of safety. I want to emphasize the internal quality, because it's not about what's happening externally to you. That may influence your sense of safety. In your defensive zone, you have more of a sense of threat. Those go back and forth. We have, in mild ways, we're traveling all the time on that territory. We may be going along in a conversation and feel just perfectly fine and comfortable. Then somebody says something and it triggers us.

Part of socializing is to just suppress the recognition of all that. You just travel through it. You just keep going. What we're working with is actually becoming more conscious of that, more aware of that. In many ways, using the mild triggerings as a practice ground where you learn optimal zone resilience is the skill set, the habits that enable you when you have been triggered to recognize that you've been triggered and then work your way back to a greater sense of internal safety.

[0:10:51] JS: I think it's important for us to have a big picture of the nervous system.

[0:10:54] RG: Yeah, sure.

[0:10:55] JS: You touched on it, but let's just paint the big picture, so that we have that in our heads as we proceed with the conversation.

[0:11:00] RG: Sure, happy to. I'm going to throw in just a little bit of history in the sense that a few decades ago, and you still find this in various places, the autonomic nervous system was understood in terms of simply two subsystems. The sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is it’s fight, flight, but it's also just generally, what activates you. Your heart rate goes up, your energy goes out to your muscles, away from your internal organs. It's about activity and about active form of dealing with threat.

Then in the old model, the parasympathetic nervous system was simply about rest and digest in its more mild forms and shut down, or freeze in its stronger form. That's what you get into when you – everything from simply feeling fatigue to feeling depressed, discouraged, all of those sorts of things get to, into that.

In the last couple of decades, especially through the work of Stephen Porges, come to recognize that the parasympathetic nervous system, which the vagus nerve is very much part of that, and I'm using these terms just because they're used so much and familiar. The vagus nerve actually has two parts to it and they're not just two physiologically distinguishable parts, but they have different functions. The lower part that's also more towards the back, so it's called the dorsal vagus nerve is the part that's really focused on internal organs and digestion and slowing down and depression.

Whereas, the upper part and the more forward part, so it's called the ventral vagus nerve has to do with what's above the diaphragm, the breathing, the heart, the facial muscles, all of that. In evolutionary terms, it's very much about the ability for, and this is, it's particularly there in mammals, and it's about the ability to connect, to socially connect.

In infants, when they tune into a caregiver, and when a caregiver holds them, or in various different ways supports them, it's really activating that ventral vagus nerve. All of our memories, where we have positive memories of that interaction that starts in infanthood, and then hopefully, proceeds, is very much connected with that upper part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When that part is activated, you can also have a blend where you have this relational part with the sympathetic activated part, and that shows up in things like play and sports and really, focus creativity and other things of that sort. That's part of the optimal zone, those things.

If you have a blend of the ventral vagus, that relational part and the rest and digest part, then you have a mellowness. What's good for intimacy, it's good for all kinds of wonderful things. They are a little slower paced. It's important to understand that, call it an optimal zone, because it encompasses both active and more calmer parts of our being.

[0:14:41] JS: I thought it was also useful. You mentioned the C's from internal family systems when you described optimal zone. Maybe you can say just briefly what internal family systems is. We're not going to get into it, but I think it's worth not throwing it out there without describing it at a high level.

[0:14:59] RG: Internal family systems is one of the systems that helps. It's a therapeutic system that makes use of what they call parts, what others would call sub-personalities. There are actually lots of different psychological therapeutic approaches that make use of sub-personalities. One of the questions that always comes up when you work with sub-personalities is yeah, but who's really there?

In internal family systems, what they describe as the self with a capital S is their version of the core of who you are. They use these eight C words to characterize what it feels like when you're in that state, when you're expressing yourself from that core level. Let me see if I can get them.

[0:15:53] JS: I've got them. Okay. I'll tell you the one. You go and I'll tell you which ones you miss.

[0:15:59] RG: Okay. Curious, calm, clear-headed, connected, confident, courageous, creative and compassionate.

[0:16:11] JS: There you go.

[0:16:12] RG: It's important with this – is cover a spectrum. There's things that you might think of as more mental, things that you might think of as more emotional, because it's all in there. It's a great way to assess, am I really in my optimal zone? One of the keys there is that first one, curious. If you find yourself strongly opinionated, you're probably not in your optimal zone.

[0:16:37] JS: This is such a timely conversation, obviously, with everything that's happening in the Middle East, and so many people are in such an agitated state. It's been really interesting to see some of these conversations play out within the Denizen community. Anytime we get into a conversation that is likely to foster some division, I remind us of our value of curiosity, which is when someone presents an opposing position, get curious and try to challenge your own biases and assumptions. It's interesting, I hadn't thought about curiosity being inhibited when you're in the defensive zone.

[0:17:14] RG: Yeah. Yeah.

[0:17:15] JS: Okay, so what happens in your body? You mentioned in the background materials you sent to me, a cascade of hormonal, nervous, brain and circulatory changes. Can you say more about this? Because I'm a huge geek, and so many of the other listeners on this podcast are. Just even a double click on that would be supportive for me in understanding what happens when we get into the defensive zone.

[0:17:36] RG: Yeah. This frequently, when we think about being triggered, we think about being triggered into a sympathetic state of fight-flight state. Just as a sidebar, I want to say, you can also get triggered into a depressed state. If we look at the specifically at the sympathetic state, so the triggering begins at a subconscious level, but in the nervous system. That sets off the release of things, like adrenaline. That adrenaline and the other nervous system stuff that's going on shifts the way the blood is flowing in the body and removes the flow of blood from digestion and internal organs and shifts it out to the large muscles that you would use for fight, or flight. Also, in your brain, it brings what can be a really one-pointed focus. You lose peripheral vision. You lose the ability to stay in touch with context, because you're so focused.

[0:18:52] JS: It was interesting of you to talk about how, what happens when you get triggered is a combination of these instinctual responses. But also, so we're saying it now, just your personal history and this empire era inheritance and you mentioned that it's easy for us to respond to being triggered by looking for someone to blame and direct our anger towards. Say more about that.

[0:19:13] RG: Right. Yeah. Jeez, you see it in animals. I think about this little image in my mind of, we no longer have this dear cat, but we had a cat at one point, a male cat and there was another male cat that was in the neighborhood and there were times when they would get into fights with each other. The cat was triggered. In that triggered state, he was really focused on this problem outside. We have the same thing going on for us when we get triggered. Our immediate response, because we feel like something is threatening us, our immediate response is to that thing that's out there and the way that it's threatening us and what can we do to it, what can we do about it. We want to find something to blame.

Depending upon what our personal history is, because all of those physiological and hormonal responses, as you say, it's built into the body, it's instinctual. The overlay for us is all the memories that come up, not necessarily fully to consciousness, but we go into a place where we are associating a current situation with something in the past, probably something in the past that we have some pain around. Part of what happens is that we see the present situation through the lens of that past situation. If it's strong enough, we really lose touch with what's happening in the present.

[0:20:51] JS: Yeah. Is this transference?

[0:20:53] RG: Transference, bingo. Yes.

[0:20:57] JS: I put that with an exclamation point in my notes, because that really resonated with me. Because I used to interpret triggers as I'm having a disproportionate response to what's happening in the moment, because of some other thing, right? Which is interesting, because it can be a repeated – all of us are familiar with that repeated pattern in the relationship. As that continues to happen, you tend to react more intensely, because it's triggering the past pain that hasn't been resolved. It's also really interesting just exogenous factors make you more likely to be triggered, if you look at the complexity of the human being. I had a bad day at work and then I come home and I'm more easily triggered by an interaction with my child, for example.

[0:21:44] RG: Right. Displacement there. You talk about transference. Displacement sets us up. You're at work and for various reasons you can't explode at your boss, or whatever, or you don't allow yourself to do it. You come home and you really don't want to explode at your kid in a certain sense, but in another way, you can. Or anyway, all kinds of things happen that way.

Another place where we do a lot of explosion is in the political arena, where things that are going on in our own lives, we can't really quite deal with, but somehow or another, we project that out onto what's happening in the political world and it really energizes, makes our feelings very intense, because it's mixed up with what's happening internally.

[0:22:39] JS: Transference is when some prior trauma shows up in the moments to affect your response to it, right?

[0:22:48] RG: Yes, and it's simply, if you're interacting with somebody right now and you in effect are seeing them as if they were someone in your past. It may have –

[0:23:01] JS: Even if that person – that it is that person in the past. It is something in the past.

[0:23:07] RG: Yes. The history becomes dominant in your perception.

[0:23:13] JS: Displacement means you're just in an elevated state still.

[0:23:17] RG: Yeah.

[0:23:17] JS: Then that. Okay, that's interesting. Then, I also just think it's really fascinating, the – when I first became aware of this ironically as I did research around how to parent my children when they have two-year-old terrible twos and what happens when they have a tantrum. Recognizing that they are in this elevated state and they need to calm down before you can explain to them why they shouldn't be so upset about the blue gumball, versus the red gumball.

Really interestingly, it just talks about how when parents respond in ways that they're often taught to respond, imprinting from their own parents, particularly men around the authoritarian and the dominance and the fear-based parenting and just understanding that your tone, your body language, your words can escalate that state of the nervous system of the counterparty, versus staying calm and holding them and saying, “You're really upset right now about the gumballs aren't you?” That was just really fascinating to me to start to have an awareness of when one is triggered and what is happening in one's body.

Also, the way that you can get into bringing in one of our favorite thinkers, Donella Meadows, who I know you knew, right? Which is that you can get into this positive reinforcing feedback loop of increasing agitation. I think that's really interesting to just understand in the context of what happens when we get in our defensive zones in our bodies, but also, when we are in our defensive zones and we get into interactions with others.

[0:24:46] RG: Yeah, it's easy for it to spiral. That's why it's so important for people to not just be driven by their reaction and driven by their environment.

[0:24:58] JS: Yeah, go ahead.

[0:25:00] RG: Yeah. No, it's okay.

[0:25:01] JS: No, and also to your point that our natural instinct is to blame, right? Then we say, whatever it is, blame interpretation that we have, and then now we can fold in the conversations that we've had about non-violent communication, right? What happens? You feel criticized. What happens? You get defensive, you feel attacked. Again, we're in escalating fight or flight response, versus a I feel frustrated, because I have some fundamental human need, which then induces the other person to empathize.

[0:25:33] RG: With that, finding ways to slow it down. One of the things that goes with that kind of sympathetic triggering is you have an incredible urge to act right now. For most of our lives, we don't need that. We actually can take a little more time. This is one of the people that Dale Byron, who, that I was working on that, the presentation that you saw, he has all kinds of wonderful keynote stories. One of the key techniques in a keynote is what they call stepping off the line, which is neither moving toward your attacker, nor moving away from your attacker, but moving perpendicular to the line of attack, and take that as a metaphor.

When you do that, it gives you a different perspective, but it takes a moment of time. Dale has also been talking about how one of his keynote teachers, people would say to him, “You don't ever seem to get triggered. What's going on?” His response was, “No, I get triggered all the time. It's just I come back from it very quickly.”

[0:26:54] JS: I want to get into optimal zone resilience, and that's a double click. But I want to stay on just a defensive zone piece first. Let's talk about mild triggers. You mentioned that, what's a mild trigger? You mentioned that in the utility, and we'll talk about it again, we dig into the optimal zone, but just to introduce the concept of a mild trigger first.

[0:27:14] RG: Yeah. In the world of triggering, we tend to be dramatic. There's all the time throughout the day, you have little things that, “Oh, that's annoying,” or, “Oh, that's discouraging.” You may not even consciously notice it, but there are these shifts that are going on all the time in your autonomic nervous system and in your brain for that matter. If you have a mild trigger and developed the awareness of it, it becomes actually a really wonderful practice ground.

I know you don't want to go there quite yet. But just to say that we're socialized into just ignoring those things, or just gliding past them. In some situations, that's totally appropriate. It turns out, they're also a great resource for learning.

[0:28:07] JS: Makes sense. You start with the shorter runs before you start to get – reel your way up to the marathon, right?

[0:28:12] RG: Exactly. They happen much more frequently. At least, hopefully, your life is such that you're not having super intense triggerings all the time, but you're having these mild triggerings. You look at your email, and somebody sent you an email that has a subject line to it that, “Eh.”

[0:28:32] JS: Well, I think we can all relate to social media right now, just being a fairly dangerous place for our nervous systems. That's mild triggers. Let's go to the other side of the spectrum. We talked a little about transference, but what about intergenerational trauma? You mentioned something, and the material that you sent around persistent defensive patterns that regrew the trauma.

[0:28:53] RG: Right, right.

[0:28:54] JS: Say more about that.

[0:28:56] RG: You were talking about that earlier, too. If you're in a relationship with someone where the two of you are in a pattern of, there's some issue that comes up and never really gets resolved. Each time it comes up, you go into – and the other person does, too, but you go into a reaction, and then you get this sense of blame, and anger, and other things. It just emotionally reinforces, strengthens your emotional discomfort around this whole situation, so that it sets you up, so that you're even more triggerable next time. You don't want to have that spiral. You need to be able to break out of it.

[0:29:47] JS: I'm curious about burnout. I was looking at burnout, and I'm feeling burnt out right now, and my husband's feeling burnt out right now. We got into such an intense, I would call it a death spiral, where we just kept – we were not in an optimal zone. We would get in a fight that would push us further down under water, where we finally said, we actually need to spend a couple days apart to just restore ourselves before we can come back together.

If you look at burnout, it's just really interesting to look at what causes burnout. It's basically the modern lifestyle, is such a source of burnout. Working too much, not enough time for relaxing, lack of close supportive relationships, taking on too much responsibility, not getting enough sleep, what personality traits can contribute to burnout, type A personality, high-achieving, perfectionist tendencies, pessimistic view of yourself and the world. We all have pretty negative views of the world right now.

I'm curious. I know this isn't we know. We're talking large about triggers in this acute moment, but burnout is an extreme state. I think there's a case to be made, that we're all in this persistent, slightly off the optimal zone state of stress and chronic stress, that takes us away from the optimal zone, and sets us up for more triggering. The same way there's the mild triggers, there's the mild off state of the nervous system that comes and takes us away from that. Can you say something about that?

[0:31:07] RG: I think that, yeah, I can venture into that. First off, the culture you and I are in is really oriented towards action. And so, it has a bias towards keeping people in their sympathetic activation, and doesn't have much respect for the value of rest and digest. The body needs the rest and digest. If you aren't doing that, it will catch up with you, and the body keeps a score in that sense. You can't get out of burnout by trying harder. You need to be able to shift and acknowledge that there is real value to getting some reasonable rest. Just as you and your husband did, which I mean, it makes a lot of good sense when you're in that place to, it gave you a rest to do that.

[0:32:05] JS: I want to get into the optimal zone stuff in just a second. But while we're on defensive zone, understanding of what's happening in defensive zone and in this overarching umbrella of human operating systems literacy, do you think there's an important piece of it, which is less about nervous system and triggering, but related to that tendency to escalate is just some of them are cognitive biases, and some of the stories that we hold and our tendency to confirm the stories. The story that we default to is blame and then the story starts to ossify. What do we need to know about the way that our minds work when we get into the defensive zone outside of the hormonal and all of the physiological things, which is cognitive biases? I just want to surface that in the conversation, because I feel like, it's pretty important, too.

[0:32:52] RG: Yeah. Where I would go with that is we have a bias towards being relatively categorical.

[0:33:01] JS: Tell us what you mean by categorical, because categorical thinking is such a key part of what you teach in the Bright Future Now class.

[0:33:07] RG: We're all aware of the grosser forms of categorical thinking in terms of stereotypes and things of that sort. What I've come to understand is that our categorical thinking is actually much more pervasive than we realize, because language is essentially labels on categories. If we are only using language as our mode of both communicating and thinking, then we're likely to get caught into categorical boxes and not have the flexibility that we need.

Categorical thinking is incredibly useful, but it's low resolution. It's lots of big pixels. As we deal with more and more complex systems, that gets us into trouble. You can say, okay, so what do you do? One of the big antidotes here is to bring in visuals, and to bring in instead of categorical boxes, be able to have continuous change.

[0:34:15] JS: Gradients.

[0:34:16] RG: Gradients. When we're in that focused, our right brain is better with those gradients and our left brain is better with those categories. When you're focused in that sympathetic state, it seems as though you're really particularly focused in a left-brain way. You're likely to be more rigidly categorical.

There's another thing I want to bring up here, to just a little bit of a reframe. I actually think that talking about conflict resolution is maybe, it's a halfway house, but I think it also has its downside. I would prefer to say, you have a design challenge.

[0:34:58] JS: I take issue with the use of the word of conflict to begin with. Because it puts us in oppositional versus a, yeah, an opportunity to actually connect.

[0:35:09] RG: To connect and to work together on your design challenge. Because then, you're stepping into a collaboration. Good design process always comes out with something that's better than any of the people who entered in would have thought at the beginning.

[0:35:27] JS: Okay, let's talk about optimal zone resilience. Let's get into that now that we've laid the groundwork around defensive zone and what happens and how that's sub-optimal. I really like the framing that you had in the video that you sent me, the optimal zone hygiene versus optimal zone first aid, versus optimal zone healing. Let's talk about those in turn. Optimal zone hygiene.

[0:35:46] RG: Yeah. Optimal zone hygiene is just things you can do throughout your day. Take a break and do some deep breaths. As ho hum as deep breaths may sound, they're actually one of the great go-to things for stimulating the upper parasympathetic nervous system. I like to find practices that are so simple that you'll remember them when you actually need them. Three deep breaths where the out breath is slower than the in breath. Sounds embarrassingly simple. Yet, if people were to just do that a couple of times a day, I think people would be surprised at the benefits that it brings.

[0:36:43] JS: There were some other things that I thought were really interesting. You also talked about shaking it off. This is really interesting. The animals shake it off. Humans don't. We store it.

[0:36:55] RG: Yes. Yeah. Because that sympathetic nervous system activation charges up the muscles, if the muscles don't have anything to do, they stay charged up.

[0:37:09] JS: This is why dancing and flailing and moving your body is so valuable also.

[0:37:13] RG: Yeah, exactly. Muscle release and breathing and smiling, those are the three key things. It needs to be genuine. It needs to be authentic smiling, not plastic smiling, but those three things tie into the body, speak to the body in its own language. This is as a general practice, hygiene throughout your day to make yourself less likely to move into the defensive zone. Then there's also the things that you can do when you do move into your offensive zone. You've got that great circular diagram that you talk about. This is where the aikido step out of life fits in. Can you say more about that?

[0:37:57] RG: Yeah. When you do get triggered, the really crucial skill to develop is the skill of being aware that you're triggered. Because what happens so often for people is that they just are in the trigger. They're in the reaction. That's the first skill to develop. With that, it's helpful to be able to witness what's going on in you. Learn about yourself when you're triggered. Then the stepping off the line gives you a little more space from whatever the immediate sense of threat is.

With that, it's really important to, as I said, almost always, you can take a few minutes to get yourself out of that triggered state. Even if in a conversation, something comes up and you really get triggered, we need to be able to develop the norms where it's okay for people to say, “I need to take a pause.” Instead of really feeling that, “Oh, I got to respond, just like that.”

[0:39:13] JS: That just speaks to something that I'm personally working on, which is just being more comfortable in the discomfort of something being unresolved. I tend to want to resolve it immediately, versus I'm not in a good physiological state. You're not in a good physiological state. Now is not a good time. I might have to sit with that for days, or even weeks until it's a good time. I've dealt with this in my most intimate personal relationships, but also just even in the context of community with Denizen, being like, okay. Yeah, I feel like that's an important practice for leaders to become comfortable with.

[0:39:50] RG: To help to establish that norm. Then I think it's really important also, to attend to your body. Because with all of that cascade of shifts in the way your blood is flowing and internal body chemistry, it comes on very quickly, but it doesn't dissipate nearly as quickly. You can help it in the process of dissipating. That's where the things like the, again, we're back to breathing and muscle release.

[0:40:24] JS: Yeah, it's interesting. The practices of self-care, which the dominant culture actually doesn't value very much, but also really interesting what I'm finding, I'm seeing a lot of people do right now is just moderating your consumption of social media, or moderating when you're opening your email, because you don't know what's going to be there that might trigger you. A lot of people are needing to take a step back from being online right now to care for themselves about an awareness in that loop as well.

[0:40:51] RG: Yes. Yeah. Definitely being able to reduce the flow of triggers is really helpful. It's important, once you've created that space for yourself to have some idea of what to do, so you aren't just marinating in your angst.

[0:41:12] JS: Because all of your patterns is in this hate step and belief of responding to the trigger. Can you say more about that one?

[0:41:18] RG: Yeah. This is one of those, it's optimal, but it's a great opportunity. One of the keys there, there's a process known as memory reconsolidation. The basic principle of it is that if you have some really charged memory, some charged pattern that you want to change, you want to lower the charge on it. You can't get there by simply coming up with another idea, or saying something that basically tries to suppress it. The way that's much more effective to deal with it is to really feel it, allow the full emotionalness of it to arise. Then make it more complex in the sense of instead of just one emotional association with that incident, look at what were the positive aspects? What were the neutral aspects? What were the ways in which – There's a brain training app called EBT, Emotional Brain Training, that goes through a wonderful set of steps, where they encourage you to bring up some situation and then express your anger relative to that situation.

Then once you've been able to release some of that anger, you go through and look at, but what are the parts of this that I can feel some pride in what I did? Or what were some of the places where actually some good things also happened in relationship with this? What you're doing is you're making the emotional environment around this particular memory more complex.

[0:43:12] JS: I appreciate that.

[0:43:14] RG: As it becomes more complex and it gets re put back in your hard drive as it were, put back in your memory, then the next time it gets accessed, it doesn't get accessed with a single emotional charge to it.

[0:43:28] JS: this is what's happening with MDNA therapy with PTSD. That's so interesting now how that's how psychedelics are facilitating some of these are very difficult to treat trauma and conditions. There's more neuroplasticity in that state also. More openness. Fascinating.

[0:43:46] RG: How do you evolve your patterns? It’s a matter of becoming aware of them and getting more perspective on them, and seeing their complexity. Understanding, maybe you've got something that trails back to something that your father did, that you just feel really awful about. Now that you're an adult, you can see that, yeah, it wasn't a good thing that he did, but you can better understand what got him to that place. You have a more complex view of whatever that was. This is part of lineage healing, if you will.

[0:44:26] JS: Yeah. That's fascinating. One of my biggest takeaways from non-violent communication is the notion that every behavior stems from a human need. It really helps to see any interaction from an authentic and compassionate perspective.

[0:44:40] RG: Let me just throw in a bit more here that wasn't really in the presentation, but I don't think I don't quite remember. Just to say that because safety is such an important part of understanding both the optimal zone and the defensive zone, a pretty good general rule is that you're either seeking safety, which is what people do when they're in their defensive zone, and it may seem weird in terms of how they do it, but they're really seeking to feel safer. Or, if you are feeling safe, then you're able to act from safety.

[0:45:15] JS: Appreciate that. We talked about optimal zone hygiene, all the things that we can do today in optimal zone in general and be more resilient to staying in optimal zone when the triggers come. Then the other layer of that was just becoming more aware of the triggers and when the triggers are happening, just being able to not fall into them and then have the opportunity to do the group patterning being on the back-end. What about optimal zone’s first aid?

[0:45:39] RG: I would say that the repatterning is –

[0:45:41] JS: Is the part of the first aid.

[0:45:43] RG: Yeah, that's part of the first aid.

[0:45:44] JS: Yeah. Okay.

[0:45:47] RG: I also think of this in groups.

[0:45:49] JS: Yeah, exactly. That's what that talked a lot about.

[0:45:52] RG: Yeah. For instance, in most of the groups I've seen, there is not a shared awareness of what to do when somebody gets triggered. When somebody gets triggered in a group, everybody else goes deer in the headlights. Whereas, if we were –

[0:46:08] RG: Or that cascade starts.

[0:46:10] RG: Yeah. It just gets worse and worse. With first aid, you always prepare before you've got somebody bleeding in front of you. In a similar way, if groups were to set up some norms and some understandings that, okay, so when somebody gets triggered, we need to be able to take a break. We need to be able to shift the energy. We need to avoid going in immediate solution mode. Actually, the first step is helping people get out of the triggered autonomic state. 

Frequently, when somebody gets triggered, I think it's really valuable to look at what's going on with them as a combination of signal and noise. There's some signal that got them triggered. There may very well be something that's going on that needs to be brought to the surface. They also probably are bringing a whole lot of their trauma related stuff to it, which is effectively, noise. It's important not to simply shut someone down. You don't want to have a norm that says, “Okay, let's all take a break so that so and so can come back to their senses.” You can acknowledge the issue. Put it on a white board, or whatever and say, come back to it and really mean that. But come back to it when everybody's in a more curious, calm, clear headed, etc., state.

[0:47:49] JS: Dealing is a third bucket. This is such a front and center conversation right now. Because what we're seeing is there is a human instinct when you are hurt to hurt back. We're seeing this play out at a global scale right now in the Middle East, where Hamas did something horrific. Absolutely horrific. The response by Israel is to do something also horrific, maybe a different type of horrific, but still, thousands of people are dying every day right now. That instinct around punitive response, versus healing.

I want to talk about healing. I want to bring in, because I just brought in the Middle East, I want to bring in a quote that really stuck with me around this in the video. You said, if you brutalize a few people, you can traumatize a lot more. Let's talk about healing. Maybe first at the more personal level, and then let's talk about the cascading effect of very extreme trauma, and how we might think about healing there.

[0:48:55] RG: Yeah. Really, the optimal zone healing is it's just a further and more persistent version of what we've talked about. It's embracing the triggers that come up in one's life as opportunities for really understanding your own patterns. You need to have some kind of approach to be able to not just marinate in it all, but to be able to have some support, whether it's a therapy that really works for you, or whatever. If you embrace the triggers, embrace what you learn in the process of things surfacing in that way, and have that as an ongoing practice, then you can peel back a lot of layers.

[0:49:50] JS: Can you talk about needing a cognitive and somatic component to healing? Same about that.

[0:49:57] RG: It's cognitive and emotional and somatic. All those things. How everyone wants to split them up, but it needs to be a whole body process. Another piece that I like to put in here is it's important often to develop new skills. I don't mean how to make furniture. But skills improving your capacity for self-regulation. The optimal zone resilience skills are an example of those skills. Skills that our culture by and large doesn't teach us.

We have beliefs that bind us in place. It's important to be able to come up with appropriate reframes. Within what we do in the Bright Future Program, we definitely make use of a sub personality approach as well. You can think of the various defenses as various different sub personalities. They get created along your life. Some of them might have been created when you were three. Another one when you were 15, or who knows? All kinds of different times and then they get evolved.

They can easily be stuck in time, so that the things that you have since learned are not incorporated into that sub-personality. When you get triggered, you go back to functioning like you did when you were three. That sub personality came into being with good intent to do the best it could to protect you. It's a protector in various ways. At this point, it's not artful. One of the key things around the healing is to be able to embrace those defensive patterns. Don't try to suppress them. Don't try to get rid of them, but acknowledge them. Listen to them. Be with them. Then help them evolve. Be your own good parent to those earlier sub-personalities.

[0:52:18] JS: Again, this is really what IFS is all about. That higher self. Having a conversation with that sub-personality. It’s fascinating. You sit and you have a conversation. You ask it what it's about. Then it's really interesting. Sometimes your sub-personalities are trying to talk to each other and you need to ask one sub-personality to get out of the way, so that the higher self can have the conversation.

I'm just getting into it. No bad parts are sitting on my nightstand, but it's really transformed people in the community. It seems to be a really a increasingly pervasive practice right now that I'm excited to dive more into. You also said, forgiveness is not about the past, but the future. Changing a relationship to the past. I think it's important to talk about forgiveness. You mentioned something very important earlier, which is that the emotions need to be felt, first of all. Because there is a tendency to dismiss them, particularly for men. It's not manly to feel. First is that they have to be felt, or else they will be stored. Then there's this, I think it's an incredibly important conversation. It's actually one of the very early podcasts is about atonement and reparations asking this question. How do we atone? How do we repair, so that we can move forward? I'm interested in what your response to that question is.

[0:53:34] RG: Yeah. I think of restorative justice. I think restorative justice does a beautiful job of holding the interest of victim, perpetrator, and community and doing what's possible to work. Let's see what kind of reaction I can stir up with this. I think one of the downsides of a focus on justice, the way it exists in our culture is that it tends to be back focused. It tends to be about rebalancing scales from some time in the past. There's value to that. There's an important value to that.

I think that it would be better to focus on healing. On a future oriented sense of how do we get this system that we're all part of to a healthier place? Getting it to a healthier place may very well require some rebalancing.

[0:54:39] JS: Really interesting that you bring in the notion of fairness. Because the eye for an eye addresses that desire for fairness. One of the things that we'll talk about in the second part of consensual non-monogamy is precisely this conversation and how it shows up in these intimate relationships. An insight from that book was that you alluded to it earlier, but I'll say it explicitly is that the empire era. Part of us that wants us to blame, because the criminal justice system is all about punishment. It's all about taking away rights. That story of right and wrong and punishment to achieve justice and spills over into how we think about in our personal relationships. Then there's this, again, this combative nature of punitive justice.

Then, and what's interesting and you see this again, what's happening in the Middle East is that it just creates more violence. Then, the notion of restorative justice is really interesting. Adrienne Maree Brown talks a lot about transformational justice, which is really intertwined in what you were just referring to when you're speaking to transformational justice, which is at the system level. How can we do justice in a way that transforms all of the parties involved? Not just restores to some state, but gets to the root?

I think, again, it was intertwined in what you were saying, but I think that distinction is really valuable. Her little book, We Will Not Cancel Us, is incredible talking about cancel culture and cancel culture is this moment where culturally, you can punish someone very severely, but that just perpetuates the various systems of dominance.

[0:56:16] RG: Exactly.

[0:56:17] JS: That the trauma came from to begin with.

[0:56:20] RG: Right. Yeah. It's totally understandable that for many people, their view of the world is that it's all about power struggles. If that's your view of the world, then you're going to basically engage in dominance behavior.

[0:56:35] JS: What is your sense of how we transform to orientations of power with versus power over?

[0:56:42] RG: Yeah. I think part of the key here is developing real, what I would like to call system consciousness.

[0:56:51] JS: This is a nice bridge now to the course.

[0:56:55] RG: If as long as you're trapped in your skin encapsulated ego, as long as you are really focused in an individualistic way, or even in a my tribe way, then you aren't going to be tuned into what is overall system health and how can I be part of enabling that.

[0:57:21] JS: Wait. Can I ask you a question on that? Because I think this is really important right now, which is this question of identity. We identify with all kinds of different things. We identify with being a parent, that identify with the living in California, identify with the Denizen community. We come together as groups based on some common things that we identify around. That's natural. We have to come in groups of a certain size to be able to function them into fractals upward to the planetary level.

We got into this really interesting conversation on the Denizen thread when we were talking about what's happening in the Middle East. Then it got into this question of, is this just for the subset of us that are Jewish, or is this for a broader group of this? The subset of us that are Jewish have a unique traumatic history that they alone can really understand and support each other in this moment. There is a value in doing that at the same time. How do you hold that identity and check your tendency to other vis a vis that? I'm curious what your thoughts are around that is we're talking about moving to a different level of consciousness, but understanding that identity is central to how we think about ourselves, or even, as I think this is probably going to get into categorical thinking and territories. I know, I think well enough to know where we're going, but I'm curious because it's just the top-of-mind thing for me right now, and the any artisan’s identity and violence sitting on my nightstand. Re-read it.

[0:58:46] RG: I think you're right. As long as we define ourselves as an instance of a category, which is what we do in those identity situations. It's a good step is to at least see your Venn diagram of all the various different groups that you're part of, but actually, the place that I want to go is to talk about safety. Humanly, our very first form of safety is relational and that's the co-regulation with the caregiver that is the first piece of the way that we can feel safe.

Another way, broad category, if you will, of ways that we can help ourselves to feel safe is learning how to handle things. As there are more and more situations that you feel you can handle, then those situations cease being threats. If you can't handle them, they tend to be viewed more as threats. That's an external capacity, developing your external capacity. In our culture, the culture sends messages to girls that the way that you find safety is through relationships and they send messages to boys that the way that you find safety is by handling it. By being able to have outward capacity. Given those two messages, that's one of the things that contributes to the genders not understanding each other terribly well.

There's a third really important arena and that is the inner capacities. Developing your inner capacity, that's what this optimal zone resilience is really about, is developing your inner capacity. It's not like any one of those is the best way. All of us at some point or another really need those relationships. All of us at some point or another need to deal with stuff that comes at us and develop some level of competence with it. All of us would do well, although it's the thing that's weakest developed in terms of development in the culture, to have the inner capacities to be able to have your optimal zone resilience.

It's so different, and the message from the culture is that the inner capacity you need is willpower. Just stuff it, which is not a very good way to really deal with it. Identities are very closely connected with this sense of relationship. We find safety in feeling as though we have a relational connection with others. That's great. If you lean on it too strongly, it easily winds up being my group.

Now, I will say to one of the antidotes to too much categorical thinking that I like to encourage is to instead see, for instance, see each other as these territories that have all kinds of richness to them, more richness than you could ever describe. The willingness to understand that your knowledge of the territory, your knowledge of another person is always partial and selective and provisional. If we could actually see that all of our knowledge is always partial and selective and provisional, we do the best we can. We can't just throw up our hands and say, “Well, it isn't perfect. I'm not going to use anything.” We have to do what we can. Have the humility to recognize that it's partial and selective and provisional. Hopefully, provisional. Hopefully, we each have some willingness for our understandings, our maps to evolve.

[1:02:56] JS: You do have a course called Bright Future Now, which I have done, which I am likely to do again, because I didn't do it as deeply as I would like to, which covers this and a lot of other things. The next cohort is coming together in Gen Feb. Why don't you just tell everyone a little bit more about the course and how the optimal zone things that we've been talking about today and some of the other things we've been talking about, fit into the overarching intentions of the course? While you're at it, let's talk about how that fits into the broader work of the Context Institute, because the things that you're doing, a lot of what you're doing right now is looking at bringing those things into practice and community of practice on the back end of that course. I think that's an important thing to speak to.

[1:03:37] RG: Yes, I'll describe Bright Future Now. I also want to say that probably, one of the best ways to understand Bright Future Now is that it's a journey. It's an onboarding. It's a gateway into the Bright Future Network. The Bright Future Network is on the one hand, it's a really pretty wonderful group of at this point, over 350 people in 34 countries around the world. Pretty committed to it's being international in that way. The course grew out of my decades of watching groups and communities and watching so many well-intentioned efforts stumble over what seemed like repeated places. Some of it is emotional. Some of it is conceptual.

It's an eight-week course. Actually, just seven of the weeks are content weeks, but I'll give you a description of them. The first week is about self-awareness and self-compassion. It really gets into some of this optimal zone territory. It leads you in not so much conceptually, but experientially. It is a place where we get into supporting people exploring their sub-personalities and discovering themselves as complex territories.

Then the second week is objects, categories, territories and maps. Here, we really deal with categorical thinking and what you can do beyond it. Because I like to say that the problem isn't categorical thinking. The problem is the monopoly of categorical thinking. When we don't have a higher resolution form of perceiving and thinking that we can step to when we recognize that our categorical thinking is getting us in trouble.

Then the third week is child development and adult character. In this, we really do get into the very common trauma patterns that almost all of us have in our childhoods and the way that those affect our various sub-personalities. Then week four is the integration week. There's no content that week, because we found that after the first three weeks, people are saying, “I need to digest this a little bit.”

Then week five is about systems and both some general system concepts, but we use those to apply them to how you can change a habit and really look at a habit as a system. Then week six is about collaboration and various skills for collaboration. We're moving out from the purely personal to the intergroup. Then week seven is how change happens. It's really about complex adaptive systems and the way that culture can change. Then week eight is from vision to reality. It's really support for, okay, now that you've been this far along, what can you do to actually better manifest your visions?

This sets you up to then become part of the Bright Future Network. At this point in the Bright Future Network, we're really just starting, but we're starting to build up a cumulative library of skill bundles, if you will, practices that address common challenge areas in the culture, such things as the optimal zone stuff that you and I've been talking about today, Jenny, but also things like, how do we really embody system consciousness? How do we deal with dominator behavior in ourselves as well as others?

[1:07:23] JS: That might be my next conversation.

[1:07:27] RG: There's a whole lot of places in the culture where we don't really have the skill set that we need in order for us to move forward. The focus now in the network is building up the skill set that can really move us beyond our current cultural stuck place.

[1:07:49] JS: Great. Thank you so much for this conversation. It's so timely. I hope it resonated with a lot of listeners around what is happening in their bodies in this moment, and perhaps, gave them some tools for a little bit more resilient as they engage in challenging conversations, or more resilience in their own body as they adopt some of those hygienic practices that you mentioned.

So grateful for our partnership as organizations. The podcast brings this conversation and then as people become more interested in doing the work, I appreciate that I can pass them on to programs like yours and communities like yours to do the work, or tagline this change from within. I just really appreciate the way that our organizations can work together to support this overarching shared mission.

Our first conversation with you beyond the enlightenment is my husband's favorite podcast episode. I hope if some listeners enjoyed this one, you'll go back and listen to that one. You're so wise. We have so much to learn from you. I thank you so much for bringing this one to our community today.

[1:08:55] RG: Great. My pleasure.


[1:08:57] JS: Thank you so much for listening, and thanks to Scott Hansen, also known as Tycho for our musical signature. In addition to this podcast, you can find resources for each episode on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com, including transcripts and background materials. For our most essential topics, like universal basic income, decentralized social media, and long-term capitalism, we also have posts summarizing our research, which make it easy for listeners to very quickly get an overview of these particularly important and foundational topics.

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