Finding Life Through Ignatian Spirituality and Polyvagal Theory

Jun 13 / Tracy Busse
God created us for connection, for love, and for life. After taking the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the Trinity grafted this truth into the fibers of my soul. They transformed me and offered graces that are continuously revealed. Initially, I thought I had experienced an adult version of a summer camp high, but two years later I can tell you that is not the case. This five-hundred-year-old practice revealed the essence of who God created me to be.

Mystery lies at the heart of simplicity. In many ways, the Spiritual Exercises are simple. They take a person through four phases of God’s story, while bathed in the Creator’s love. Every day of my thirty-day Ignatian retreat was soaked in the tender care of the Trinity. From the vantage of love’s embrace, a retreatant explores sin, the life of Jesus, the passion story, and the resurrection. The emotional highs and lows during this time reflected the mountain scape I regarded while on retreat.

Mountains will always rise and fall, and they will always lead us to valleys and plains. To be rooted in the “plains” of life is the crux of freedom. This does not mean our emotions will abate, nor does it mean our circumstances will always be easy, but it means such things will not control us. Freedom comes when we can be fully present to the moment at hand, while trusting the Creator with the rest of our story. It is the gentlest approach to surrender.

I have worked with trauma survivors for the last two decades, and they continue to be some of my most valuable teachers. For years, I have practiced living in the present moment with those I walk alongside, and it is a practice I am still learning. Together we kept one foot anchored in the now, while we mined for treasures from the past. Moments that brought pain, sorrow, and joy held sacred messages that inform who we are and how we want to live in the future. The Spiritual Exercises solidified these lessons and reinforced what I knew about Polyvagal Theory, which is a trauma-informed theory that is a part of every person’s healing.

“Polyvagal Theory is the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living.” [1] Deb Dana’s words rung truer than ever after I took the Spiritual Exercises. I was in love with life and Polyvagal Theory provided the science behind my transformation. The more I studied Polyvagal Theory the more I realized Ignatian Spirituality had unlocked the door to a healthy nervous system. Both approaches keep us rooted in the present but utilize forms of reflection to transform and heal our lives.

As someone always on the go or stuck in replays of the past, God knew I needed to embrace the now. “Be where your feet are, because I Am now”[2] was my mantra.

God is always right now, always present, always with us no matter what. When we stray from the present moment, we abandon our connection with the Trinity and our connection to ourself. Think about a time you were with a friend, but you knew they were not really there. Their mind was elsewhere, and they felt distant. We become distant from God and abandon ourself when we leave the reality of the now.

It is beautiful, Polyvagal Theory and Ignatian Spirituality offer tools for living in the present moment, while also reflecting on the past. Ignatius invites us to journey with the risen Lord, who is always present, through reflection, contemplation, meditation, and a variety of prayer exercises rooted in love. Polyvagal Theory teaches us how to benefit from the hierarchy of our nervous system found in our vagus nerve. We can represent the three parts of the vagus nerve as a place of home, a place of fight or flight, and a place of shutdown. When rooted in love or the home base of our nervous system, we can safely explore what leads us to fight, flee, or shutdown. Each approach is an invitation to return to ourselves, to God, and to one another.

Through connection and love you can live into the fullness you were created for. The Trinitarian embrace beckons you to join the dance of love and belonging. God wants good things for your life and desires to walk with you as a close friend through all your highs and lows. Your need for connection was written in your DNA and plays out moment by moment in your nervous system. When the gaze of love catches your attention, you can come home to who you are and partner with God in the life you desire to live.

Tracy invites you to notice the gaze love in her class Trauma Informed Spirituality: A Contemplative Practice Integrating Polyval Theory and Ignatian Spirituality. She has three, one and half hour workshops this summer, take all three and learn 3 different practices. Sign up here. She also has an in depth course coming this fall to be on the lookout for.

[1] Deb Dana, Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Boulder, CO: Sounds True), 1.
[2]Quote of unknown blogger shared in a conversation with a friend

Tracy Busse

Tracy Busse’s life and work have fueled an ongoing desire to move in harmony with the Trinity and to create spaces where all can encounter intimacy with God. Tracy is a writer, teacher, counselor, and spiritual director. For over eighteen years, she has provided therapy to children and adult survivors of trauma and human trafficking. She also provides consultation and training to a variety of organizations who serve leaders and marginalized populations. Continued growth in Kingdom life and integrating God’s love and presence into her work are the heart of her practice. In addition, Tracy is currently working on a doctorate in Spiritual Direction at Fuller Theological Seminary, which offered the opportunity to enjoy a 30-day Ignatian Retreat. The fruit of this experience continues to grow and reveal greater depths of God’s love and abundant grace. With the belief that God is in all things, Tracy finds delight on her paddle board, hiking, playing the guitar, painting, traveling, and resting in the company of fellow image bearers.