Sermon: Spiritual Survival (audio and text)


We live in the every day. The mundane. The waking and the sleeping, the cooking and the eating, the yelling and the hugging. Even when we know there are fault lines below us, even when we know that the world around us is changing faster than we can keep up, we live among the simple rhythms of sun and moon, plant and harvest, the barest of patterns that keep us

For many years and in many contexts, I have understood that the amygdala, and the limbic system of which it is a part, was a liability. Sometimes called our lizard brain, it is the part of our brain often linked to both fear and pleasure, it regulates our response to threats — fight or flight, survival. It outputs chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine and hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. I learned that my amygdala would serve me well if I were threatened, but that if I let it be part of everyday decision making, I was abandoning reason for emotion, and that was a terrible idea, because emotion is unreliable and dangerous.

Turns out that most of what I learned is mostly accurate, but as I read the book Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales, I began to understand the roles of the amygdala, reason, and emotion differently. The science and practice of physical survival can teach us about how to engage in spiritual survival. Incidentally, I recommend this book highly – it’s a fascinating take on how human beings work – Unless you happen to love someone who is a mountain climber. Then, you should probably skip it!

Claiming my intuition and emotional responses as strengths rather than weaknesses has been a lifelong process, one that involved trusting myself and my experience more than the way I was trained by a largely rational and academic family, church, and community. The bad rap of the lizard brain had a huge impact on my life, and I imagine the same is true for many of you as well.

Have you ever been dismissed by a teacher, parent, partner, or co-worker, and told to come back to the conversation when you can control yourself (by which they mean your emotions)?

Have you ever made a major decision based on a gut feeling and been judged for it?

Have you ever felt like you didn’t have a strong enough argument because your supporting evidence was not seen as concrete or rational?

According to Gonzales, “Emotion is an instinctive response aimed at self-preservation. It involves numerous bodily changes that are preparations for action. The nervous system fires more energetically, the blood changes its chemistry so that it can coagulate more rapidly, muscle tone alters, digestion stops, and various chemicals flood the body to put it at a state of high readiness for whatever needs to be done. All of that happens outside of conscious control. Reason is tentative, slow, and fallible, while emotion is sure, quick, and unhesitating.” (31) “To survive,” he says, “you must develop secondary emotions that function in a strategic balance with reason.” (40)

The research in this book supports what many of us have learned from experience – emotion is not the enemy – it is one tool among many, one human process that works with others to help us make sense of the world around us. The people who survive impossible situations out in the wilderness do not ignore or disconnect from their amygdala, they figured out how to get their emotional processes and their rational mind to work together.

“There are primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the ones you’re born with, such as the drive to obtain food or the reaction of reaching out to grab something if you feel yourself falling. But the emotional system of bodily responses can be hooked up to anything…” (34) secondary emotions are created when we associate a particular experience with a stress response, and it becomes almost instinctual, like soldiers who dive for cover when they hear the whistling sound of an incoming high-explosive shell. And this can happen with any stimulus.

The author suggests that we all go to survival school. Not because you are actually planning to climb in the Peruvian Andes or fly a plane upside down, but because practicing survival gives you tools and experiences that can help you in day to day life AND in a crisis. So, planning ahead, understanding how our bodies and nervous systems work can prepare us to respond in a different way.

“Psychologists who study survivors of shipwrecks, plane crashes, natural disasters, and prison camps conclude that the most successful are open to the changing nature of their environment. They are curious to know what’s up.” (80)
These times in which we find ourselves are deeply challenging both emotionally and spiritually, regardless of how you interpret the political landscape. No matter your position on any of many social issues and governmental actions, there is no doubt that emotions are high, many people feel threatened in both concrete and abstract ways, and conflict abounds.

We have all heard reports of increased bullying and violence in the public square. I can tell you, too, that my clergy colleagues of all denominations are also reporting increased anxiety and conflict in their congregations and in family systems. This is a time of great upheaval globally, nationally, denominationally, and locally. We continue to live in liminal space, for what feels like a much longer time than should be necessary or expected.

Joy shared the story of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly last week — while we can observe from the outside and record the average amount of time that a caterpillar is in that liquid stage before the butterfly emerges, the caterpillar itself — the goo – cannot know how long it has been or will be in the chrysalis. So it is for us. It appears that systems of all kinds are coming unglued and crumbling. We get it. We’re in the in between. But how do we fix it, and SERIOUSLY, WHEN WILL IT BE OVER?! When can I get back to my normal life?

But what IS normal life?! And how do we return to something that may never have existed. The cry of every child and parent echoes in our ears: “But that’s not FAIR!” “Oh but honey, LIFE isn’t fair, get used to it!” This is what we tell ourselves and each other. Life is neither fair nor easy. And yet, we still long for calm and simple days free of stress or threat.

What I wondered as I read the book was how we might use our sense of the sacred, our experiences of holiness, our spiritual practices, to stabilize and temper the process of survival.

When most of us learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it was the version that was published in 1943 – in which Maslow laid out the pyramid with five sections that build upon one another. He posited that human beings had a series of needs, and if your lower needs were not met, you couldn’t reach to engage in the higher ones. Physiological needs (water, warmth, sleep) come first, and if those are met, you can attend to safety & security. If you have both of those, then you can attend to belonging and love needs, at which point you can attend to your esteem needs (prestige, feeling of accomplishment) and then your need for self-actualization, or realizing your personal potential.

If the bottom three needs are not met, one’s energy and attention is consumed by working to meet them, to the exclusion of the top two. This model is a powerful tool for understanding the life cycle of a person — and the impact of things like poverty and abuse on a person’s long term goals and abilities. But even this widely accepted model lacked an understanding of how the sacred and transcendent is part of the human experience. We are wired to try to understand, to make meaning of the world around us, whether or not we accomplish it in religious community.

I recently discovered that by the end of his life, Maslow had amended the pyramid, dividing it into deficit needs and growth needs, adding self-transcendence, or spiritual needs, to the growth category at the top of the pyramid. Deep Survival engages the conversation about how we survive physically, and how our emotional landscape figures into that process. So, I wonder how our spiritual life might add to the picture.

At this time in the story of our country, far more people are experiencing that their deficit needs are not being met or are at risk of limitation, and those people are layered on top of the large numbers of people whose needs were already not being met. How do we weather an ongoing crisis like this? Having a strong connection to that which is greater than oneself is essential. So even when we are afraid and limited by circumstance, if we can stay connected to the big picture — to the holy — to the ways our connections with one another save and support us, we will be stronger and more able to sustain our engagement in the world around us.

According to Gonzales, “Survivors are attuned to the wonder of the world. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses. When you see something beautiful, your pupils actually dilate. This appreciation not only relieves stress and creates strong motivation, but it allows you to take in new information more effectively.” (289)

The practice of cultivating awe and wonder, being attuned to the sacred, literally makes survival possible. It is the experience of transcendence that gives us the tools to solve the most unsolvable of problems. Instead of focusing on fear, we are invited to reach into the abundance around us – the beauty of our relationships, the stunning power of the natural world, the ways that we save each other each and every day.

When I’m experiencing crisis or ongoing stress in my life, and I don’t know how things are going to turn out, I’ve long had the practice of asking myself, “What is the next best step I can take? What is my next best choice?” I may not know long it will be until I can break free, but when I do, I will be able to look back along the path I took and know that I survived, that I had a hand in my own transformation.

“Countless survivors have reported the same thing: by developing a pattern and then fixing on nothing but making the pattern perfect, they were able to get out of seemingly impossible situations… The brain is organized to recognize patterns, language, and numbers among them. They are elemental. Life is, after all, the order inside the chaos. Everything else goes down with entropy. We rise up. And we do it with patterns. Patterns of proteins. Rhythms of breathing and heartbeat, patterns of day-to-night, lunar and menstrual cycles, the regular marks on bone fragments that the first people left behind. To make a pattern, to use rhythms, means quite literally to live.” (233)
And it is the patterns of our daily lives that will save us now. What is the next best choice you can make? What is the next step in front of you? Who are the people you see every day and how can you reach out to connect with them?

May the rhythms of our lives bring us through into transformation.
May we embrace the practice of blessing the simplest things.
May our curiosity bring us to new frontiers.
May we teach our reason and our emotion to dance together.
And while we are alive, may we each survive and thrive.

Amen, and Blessed Be.