Survival Mechanisms That Were Killing Me
I was lying in bed one night. It was a night like any other night. I was completely at peace, feeling a great sense of well-being, without fear of death or anything else, without any sense of compulsions or addictions towards anything and without much of a story of a person named Scott. The question arose, “How is this even possible, to have such deep peace and well-being?” It occurred to me in that moment that so many of what I would have previously referred to as “survival mechanisms” were bad for my health and that, as those dissolved away or relaxed, this deeper peace and well-being became my everyday experience.
The Story of a Person
I grew up, like everyone else, thinking that I was a story. It’s not that I just had a past and a future. In a very real sense, I WAS my past and future. That was my identity. It wasn’t simply entertaining and dramatic to think of myself as this story. It wasn’t only self-indulgent to be immersed in the story twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. It was more than that. It felt like a matter of survival. Without my past, who would I be? Without a future, there would be no me. The story, then, was a matter of survival not of a physical body, but of a psychological creature named Scott.
By the time I was 25, I had developed several life-changing medical conditions and addictions. Some of the conditions were formally diagnosed and others remained elusive and unable to be pinned down with an exact diagnosis. I remember hearing the doctor say many times, “It’s stress and lifestyle related.” But as I look back now, it was more story-related than anything. The more I thought about myself, ruminating endlessly on who I was, what had happened to me, what was happening to me, and what might happen or not happen to me in the future, the more stress I felt in the body. This constant storytelling seemed like a survival mechanism on the surface. After all, without the story, this very thing called Scott seemed to be under threat of non-existence.
But the constant storytelling was actually causing and maintaining stress and mental and emotional instability. I would think about the past and experience regret, shame, guilt, resentment and sadness. And because nobody taught me as a child how to really feel those energies so that they could release, the energies just stayed around, stuck to certain words and pictures within the story of me. The stress arose like clockwork, each time the sense of “I” from the past arose.
As I would think about the future, I would experience either hope or fear. The hope would create its own kind of physical and emotional stress. Hope provided reason to seek something other than my present experience. And anytime I sought to find some other experience, there was a resistance to what was presently happening. Present thoughts and bodily energies felt threatening, as if I had to escape those things and find a better future, where I wouldn’t feel any of those things. This constant enslavement to hope was very disturbing mental and emotionally. This moment was always “not enough.” I found myself escaping not only by trying to find comfort foods, drugs, and alcohol but also trying to find anything that seemed to hold hope for me including a new relationship, a better job, and a better house. This felt like one big resistance to what is, a resistance to what I was feeling in the moment. That was stressful.
And fear about the future brought its own mental, emotional and physical stress. Whenever the future seemed scary, the fight, flight or freeze response would come in. I would try to control and manage my experience and life circumstances in order to keep the scary scenario from coming true. And of course it didn’t work. Control never works. It just creates more stress. The fight, flight or freeze response also seemed like a basic survival mechanism on the surface. After all, in the face of real danger, like being chased down by a raging bear, fleeing is a good thing. But when it came to the psychological threats dreamed up by the mind, fight, flight or freeze became bad for my health. I wouldn’t stop to feel the energies. The emotion of fear would build up. The mind, acting like a search engine, would get busy trying to fix or avoid the future. The actual feeling of fear could not release in that way. It would just build and build, creating more need to fight, flee or freeze. My heart would race. My body felt contracted. My mind would remain in frenzy mode. And yet there was no raging bear around. All of these threats were perceived by the mind. They did not have a basis in reality. And this was really bad for my health.
Seeing through the story of self has been one of the greatest healing tools I’ve found. It worked better than most of the medicine I took that was prescribed by a doctor. And it was certainly more helpful than all the addictive substances and activities I used to try and medicate the emotional and mental suffering. Those were all merely band aids for a more pervasive cause of stress and dis-ease—the story of me. The story was really not about survival at all. It just seemed that way. The only thing that survives in the story is the story itself. As long as the story is entertained and followed, the story persists. And as long as the story persists, with its intense peaks and valleys of thought and emotion, stress happens in the body. Perhaps heart disease and cancer should be replaced at the top of the list of human killers with “the story of me.” Millions of dollars in health care costs could probably be saved each year by teaching people to rest in presence and let all emotions and sensations to be as they are, without stories and labels.
For more information about seeing through the story, check out the Living Inquiries.
Addiction deserves its own discussion. If you read up on the brain and how addiction affects it, you will see that the brain, once addiction kicks in, doesn’t know the difference between the need for basic survival and the need for the addictive substance or activity. For example, when one becomes addicted to cocaine, the brain’s chemistry treats the substance as being needed for actual survival. The same is true for all other addictive substances and activities from chocolate to caffeine to gambling and probably even to self-improvement and spiritual seeking. The brain gets wired into thinking that these addictive substances and activities are actually needed for survival. Yet no rational human would ever argue that chocolate or cocaine is actually needed for survival. Most would agree that too much of these things actually threaten survival. But this part of the brain that gets hijacked isn’t rational. It’s compulsive. The part of the brain that experiences compulsions does not respond very well to the part of the brain that is rational. Don’t trust me. Research it yourself.
So all that time in my youth, when it felt like I needed this or that addictive substance or needed to engage in this or that addictive activity, the brain was treating that as a matter of survival. This is why it felt so scary and threatening to imagine life without these things. The very idea of living without some of these things was utterly terrifying sometimes.
So addiction is yet another example of where an apparent survival mechanism became bad for my health. All that chasing after sugar, caffeine, drugs, alcohol, and even things like self-improvement and spiritual awakening were products of that part of the brain that got confused into thinking these things were about my personal survival. The brain couldn’t tell the difference between a high from sugar and a high from a spiritual experience. “If it feels good, do it, chase it, find it again.” That’s the motto of the hijacked brain. For from helping me to survive, all that chasing caused more stress and anxiety in my body. Present emotions and sensations were constantly avoided in favor of some future hope seemingly contained in a drug, a drink, a donut, a spiritual experience or a “more improved version of Scott.” That wasn’t about survival. That was about getting pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs. Some seeking of pleasure may be necessary for physical survival. For example, knowing that certain food is pleasurable makes me want to eat. And eating keeps the body alive. But chasing incessantly after chocolate, cocaine, caffeine, and sugar is certainly not about keeping the body alive. Not only is this constant chasing not about survival. It is exhausting and bad for the health.
For more information, check out the Compulsion Inquiry.
Health and the Body’s Strange Reactions and Stories around Illness and Pain
This is perhaps a more subtle area where survival becomes bad for the health. As I said, I’ve experienced many medical conditions through the years, from a nervous system disorder, to chronic pain in my spinal area, to urinary issues and stomach issues, to cancer. Most of that was either cleared up or greatly reduced, not from medicine but from resting in presence and using the Living Inquiries.
I used to experience pain and illness very differently. Every single uncomfortable sensation used to feel like a threat. The body had its own way of resisting these sensations, not only on a mental level but also on a physical level. For example, if pain would arise, the muscles around that area of the body would contract and resist the pain. It was in fight mode. The mind would tell word-based stories about the pain e.g., “This means I have a spinal disease and I might die from it.” The mind would also bring up pictures of the part of the body that was in pain. And these pictures would appear and reappear, almost in an addictive fashion, turning pain into chronic pain. And with all this mind activity, I would experience emotional responses of fear, sadness, shame, and anger. These energies would build and build, feeling stuck to certain words and pictures that would arise, time and time again. I suppose the mind believed that all this incessant storytelling, picture-making, and resistance was somehow helpful, somehow about surviving. But all this activity was creating more and more stress instead. The very way the mind and body was dealing and reacting to pain and illness was seemingly creating more pain and illness, more stress, more mental and emotional exhaustion.
I was fooled for a long time into thinking that all of this suffering around pain and illness was necessary. I thought a cancer diagnosis meant living in fear. I thought chronic pain was a life sentence. I thought the uncomfortable sensations around pain and illness needed to be resisted, thought about, and reacted against for the sake of survival. I could not see that all of this was contributing to poor health.
Resting in presence and the Living Inquiries, again, were the key for me. It is because of those tools that I can lie down at night feeling this deep peace and well-being, noticing that there is no threat anywhere in the body, not in any sensation, word, or picture and no self that is going to die.
For more information, check out the Anxiety Inquiry.