Like all living things, we are built to grow. We are meant to become the fullest manifestation of ourselves. Sometimes when we are quiet, when we are still, we can hear the soft insistent voice within calling us. Like a whisper, like a longing, like an invitation from someone strong and solid and amazing to be all that.
Of course, as living things, we are also programmed to prioritize survival over all else. Survival trumps growth.
Unless your body knows it is not in a survival situation you are harnessed to a brilliant organism of escape, but it is a very limited version of you. You can run and jump and fight like a ninja but you do not have access to your more sophisticated processes. You cannot analyze clearly, you lack perspective, you have less patience, you have no sense of humour, your compassion is off-line, and reflection is impossible. You have tunnel vision focused on the source of what is perceived as the danger, and you are primed to defend yourself.
And if there is a sabre tooth tiger in the area this is a very good thing.
Unfortunately, too many of us live in that state too much of the time. And there’s no sabre tooth tiger anywhere in the vicinity…
In reality we are rarely in survival situations in our day to day lives. Actual immediate danger is relatively rare. Danger refers to “in the moment threat to life or limb”. It is something for which running or jumping or fighting like a ninja would be a productive and appropriate reaction. It is not something that is imagined or in the past or in the future.
In other words, danger is immediate and physical and an immediate physical reaction is the right match for it. The sympathetic nervous system charges us up with adrenalin and cortisol, gets increased blood flow and oxygen to the large muscles, and gets our brain to simplify itself in order to track the threat and find an escape.
But danger is not the only time the sympathetic nervous system gets activated. The very same system that helps you fight or escape danger also gets activated when we are faced with vulnerability.
But vulnerability is not danger. Vulnerability is the fact that we have limits to control over things that matter to us. We want, and we cannot guarantee our want. Vulnerability is the fact of life. Everything we desire hinges upon the collaboration of other factors, some tiny and some mammoth. Timing, the economy, laws of gravity and physics, the weather, physical aging, viruses, our DNA, our own emotions, the availability or feelings of other people, and so much more can contribute to outcomes we want.
Faced with situations in which we sense limits to our control, our muscles tense up. Our fingers fidget, our feet tap, our chest constricts, our butt clenches, our shoulders hunch, our breath gets shallower… And if we do not slow down enough to check in with the body we will be switched into survival mode. We become like a prey animal. We avoid.
We have many many ways to avoid ourselves when the body gets alerted to vulnerability. We actually have the impulse to move away from the discomfort and without thinking we will find ourselves watching TV or eating or shopping or worrying or busying ourselves or ruminating about the past. All of these (and many more) are ways of absenting ourselves so that we do not feel the discomfort of the feelings o vulnerability in the body.
This is natural. The urge to avoid is wired in to the sympathetic nervous system. Do not fault yourself for that.
But if we are to grow into all we are meant to be we need to do the opposite of our wiring. We need to approach. We need to come towards ourselves in the discomfort in the body in the moment. We need to bring warm interest and nonjudgement and stay present. We need to be precise and slow and notice the feelings in the body. In this way we communicate to the body that its arousal is merely a reflection of our human vulnerability, uncomfortable but not dangerous.
There is nowhere else we need to go, nothing else we need to do. Being present with the physical discomfort is the answer. You are the answer. The body is asking the question “Are we safe?” You are the answer. When you come home with your warm attention the body understands this is not a survival situation. It settles. Your wonderful rich capacities come back online. You access perspective and compassion and reflection and humour and you cope. This uncertainty, this not yet having, this not yet knowing can be managed. This is the heart of resilience.
And this is the heart of growth. By coming home when we have the urge to leave ourselves we become more of who we are meant to be. Your presence in the body is the answer.
You are the answer.
Photo Credit: Sparker