When we first chose this question for December as part of our year of questions we figured it would be great for the holiday season. What really matters after all – love, right? Family and friends! Experiences over things! Yes, yes, and yes! These are our standard answers to a question that gets posed more often when one has a fairly stable life with an array of options.

A completely different answer struck me while reading a passage in the book Buddha’s Brain* about why our brains are so focused on the negative. Survival is why, and survival is what matters. Staying alive is what matters. You only have options to choose if you are still alive.

This is not a common yogic response to this question. In yoga we might say that what matters is “enlightenment” or “freedom,” as these are goals of yogic practice. Again, yes, but there’s a little more to it. If we aren’t aware that survival is driving our subconscious and unconscious pretty much 24/7, it continues to run patterns designed for protection rather than expansion, of exclusion rather than inclusion, of fear rather than love.

We can focus on these antidotes – expansion, inclusion and love – but if we aren’t attending to the underside, the unconscious patterning and programming, we will continue to create suffering.

A few weeks ago I took a class on The Yoga Sutra with Jenny Hayo that helped me to tie this survival brain understanding to yoga. She presented the klesas (Sanskrit for obstacles) in a way I’d never experienced – the opposite order to how they are presented in the text. The klesas are five ways that humans disconnect, five ways we block ourselves from the full expression of our presence, from absorption – Samadhi – the eighth limb of yoga. Instead of starting with avidya, ignorance, what is often taught as the umbrella for all of the klesas, she started at the end with abhinivesa – clinging to life, the will to live – and presented that as the core source of our suffering. Because of this need to survive, the other four klesas unfold: raga – a preference for pleasure, for things that feel good (and might be more safe), dvesa – aversion to what is unpleasant or painful (and potentially dangerous), admit – the sense of me or I as separate from other (so I can protect myself), and avidya – ignorance, when we ignore our body and wisdom (to survive a traumatic or overwhelming experience, for example). Spend a few days watching the klesas in your own life and you can track all suffering to these five, and to the core of abhinivesa, the will to live.

Because my life is presently quite stable and comfortable, I don’t really think consciously about death very often (and now realize that this partially due to my privilege). Meanwhile it’s pretty much all the survival system of my brain, and every other brain really, is considering. My survival brain makes me think I need new things. It makes me want to be a human doing rather than a human being. It makes me think I need to win, be right, never mess up, and never let anyone else mess up. And the most effective way I’ve found to stop that patterning in its tracks is to turn to that part of me and be kind, compassionate, patient, because it’s just trying to keep me alive. When I can step back and catch the pattern in action, be it in myself or in others, I can open the space to witness instead of react. Now that’s yoga. That’s freedom.

And that’s how this all actually does come around to love, family, and friends, to connection. This holiday season, may you and yours pause and appreciate the magnificence of your life, and your survival brain, and choose kindness, compassion, and love.

Posted by: Anne Phyfe Palmer, Founder and Studio Director, 8 Limbs

* Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PhD with Richard Mendius, MD. Join Tracy Hodgeman & Ashley Dahl this weekend to explore ways to work with your survival brain: A Day of Kindness.

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