Are You In Survival?

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“The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather that upon mere survival.”     


“There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.”

Thomas Hobbes

Sometimes we hear people say, “That triggered me” or “that sure hooked me.” Their state of mind and emotions shifted dramatically in an over-reaction to something they witnessed. When this is more than a subtle experience, we generally recognize our altered state. From the perspective of neuroscience, a part of our brain has been activated called the reptilian brain or amygdala; the instinctive brain that hijacks priority position over our frontal cortex or reasoning brain. Everything we do from this primitive brain state is based on past experiences. An important thing to know about this is that whenever we are in survival, even in a subtle and therefore to an unconscious degree, we are not in present time and we are not at choice.

A friend of mine described it this way: “I was visiting my aunt and realized a terrible storm was coming. I heard the wind howling, saw the trees bending and I immediately went into a panic where I felt compelled to leave and get to safety NOW! As I was driving, at first I didn’t register this was not a good idea. Hail was pelting my car, numerous vehicles had pulled under viaducts and trees and I had terrible visibility due to torrential rain. Instead of getting to safety, I had put myself in danger.” My friend’s brain had been hijacked into fight-or-flight, impeding her ability to make conscious, here-and-now, or rational choices.

What’s important is not this example, but rather how often we are operating from survival and don’t know it. Why does this matter? When we are not in an empowered, fully present state of mind, we don’t see our options clearly, we become defensive, anxious, resentful, rebellious, and are unable to be responsible and accountable. We do harm to others and ourselves and don’t know we are doing it! Survival mode is often so subtle and pervasive that we don’t see how much of our life we are not at choice. We eat too much, drink or drug too much, work too hard, or otherwise adopt compulsive behaviors from fear. This is why it is ineffective and inaccurate to assume a person acting in an unharmonious way is free to do otherwise or that we even know what we are up to.

Whenever any of us are in survival, we are literally out of our mind! We are in our past and don’t have access to our wisdom, to clarity, nor can we hear or adopt new, relevant information. Until we shift from survival back into present time, we act inappropriately (as my friend did) and most importantly we are unaware of our part in outcomes. We act from our blind spot. So, what can we do?

Start by developing a habit of noticing early signs of dis-ease or fear. For me this is a bodily sensation – tension and tightness. This is usually in reaction to something I witness in front of me or within me. Next, practice curiosity and compassion. I say gently in my mind, “Ah, what’s up?” Then I listen. When I do this, I am amazed at the volume of fearful thoughts, judgments, and predictions of disaster that surface. Next, choose to listen with unconditional love, acceptance, understanding, self-forgiveness and gratitude. In this way, you release the experience and enter the present moment again. I liken it to picking up a crying infant. I don’t need to understand why the baby is crying. I just need to witness and support. It is by noticing, observing and forgiving and loving that we regain our ability to access inspiration and wisdom. We are receptive and build trust.

Some of the greatest inventors, philosophers, teachers, spiritual, business and community leaders throughout the centuries have consciously made space in their lives and adopted practices to prevent and shift out of survival state in order to contribute creative solutions, perpetuate healing and well-being, honor all that is beautiful and achieve progress. So, are you in survival? Need help staying out of it so you can live a life you love? Let me help you with our systems that make life work!

As published nationally in the column Emotional Intelligence in The Women’s Journal, June 2015

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