For some time now, I've been listening to myself and others from a curiosity that inquires: "What did you learn early in life about how to survive in the world?" Those early rules had value. They allowed us to belong in the family culture into which we were born. And, as youngsters, in order to survive we had to belong.
Some kids learn to stay small, to be nice and not threaten anyone. Others learn to be safe by being tough and fighting for themselves. Some learn to take care of others and to ignore their own needs – to give and not receive. Others, responding to scarcity, conclude that giving is losing and that they need to take care of themselves, because no one else will. Some discover invisibility as a way of being safe. Others survive by expressing themselves loudly and often. Many kids learn to mistrust themselves. Others learn to place trust in external authority. Still others learn to trust no one.
Because the rules have survival value, we learn them quickly and don't easily release them. We attach to these early conclusions about ourselves, about life and about how to survive. And, because they're so well practiced, our survival strategies soon become automatic, unconscious and as natural as breathing.
But they don't always feel good. At some point, usually not too far down the road, the original strategy presents its limitations. It stops serving us. Typically, our first response is to shore up the old approach by doing more of the same. Over time, as we begin to sense our imprisonment, we try breaking the rules in an attempt to free ourselves. And that's when we feel the fear – a powerful, nameless dread and lack of permission, whose job is to hold us back and keep us in place. At its deepest level, this fear we can't name is about survival. And so, of course, we resist like crazy the very growth – and freedom to be – we so deeply desire.
Fortunately, the story does not end there. Over time, for each of us in our own way and at our own pace, the growth impulse invites us to stretch past the old rules. We expand our tolerance for the experience of dread. We don't run from it quite so fast. We don't return quite so quickly to the "safe" harbor of the old strategies. Eventually, we come to see the fear for the fiction it is. We're scared, of course, but not really in danger. We're just breaking old survival rules and growing into new territory.
In fits and starts, we make awkward and unsteady, graceful and inspired movements toward freedom, wholeness, and permission to be – movements that take us from survival toward vitality.
This is hard, heroic work – requiring faith, commitment, persistent mindfulness, and the regular exercise of spiritual muscle. In my experience, it's an ever-unfolding journey – with no end in sight.