Monday, May 11, 2015

The Animal Within: Retraining the Primal Instinctual Body

A lot of times, I hear people in the spiritual world say that fear is just a word. Well, the word fear is a word, but the experience of fear is obviously much more than a word. It's a whole body experience, which--by and large--we don't enjoy. Some people learn to interpret fear in some different ways such as excitement, and while I don't know if there's a difference in the biochemistry of general fear versus excitement fear from something like bungee jumping, I don't think that most people want to feel that much agitation and intense energy on a regular basis.

Thinking of fear in terms of agitation can also be a helpful road into appreciating the animal body we live in. The animal DNA and physiology that we are built on top of used to need these instinctual increases of certain types of hormones and neurotransmitters to agitate the animal into actions. Some of the most basic actions are fight or flight. I don't know the science behind it, but even the "freeze" response has a quality of agitation and rigidity. Everything is held really tight. It's not a relaxed stillness at all.

The point in all of this is that we have very basic animal instincts still hard at work in us, and they are driving most everything. For as "civilized" as we like to think we are, most of what we do is underpinned by the animal needs within us. The deeper we go on our spiritual path, the more we have to reckon with this. This doesn't mean avoiding these qualities. It means embracing them with awareness to consciously retrain them. This is deep work, and there is only so much I can point to in one little spiritual blog post. But let's get started because to truly be conscious people means that we have mastered the deepest layers of unconscious behavior, including the primal body.

Before We Could Think

I think it's pretty clear from our physiology that our brains have been a work in progress as well as the rest of us built up over millennia. There's a reason that the most basic and oldest part of the brain is called the Reptilian Brain. So in a very real way, there are parts of us that are operating with no more awareness than your average gecko (and not the one in the car insurance commercials).

Most human being don't really want to accept this fact, so I encourage you to read other posts on this site first to get a better understanding of yourself. There are plenty of layers of ego to work through to peel away the many built up desires and interests that we think are civilized and human. And certainly, we have made some progress in engaging in life in a more mindful way than the aforementioned lizard. But it is important to understand this human thinking apparatus and our most basic drives because they are the foundational aspects of how we think and what we are driven towards.

The Many Levels of Ego (Here's a blog post for the newbies on the spiritual path--it's okay to be a newbie, by the way. It's okay to start over too.)

But long before we could make rational decisions, this instinctual body was serving vitally important functions. Along with the basic regulation of bodily functions, the primal instincts that I want to focus us on are the inner directive to survive and the inner drive to procreate. These two directives (and I'm using this term because they are powerful messages that drive human beings) were crucial to the animals we evolved out of, They had no way of determining threats or deciding if it was time to have a baby without these instincts. Without these two messages, human beings would not have come into existence. Our evolutionary ancestors would have been eaten or never produced babies to continue the species. So before anyone gets upset that we're stuck in primitive instincts, let's honor the fact that we needed them for most of known time on this planet.

Learning to Make Conscious Decisions

The spiritual path is a big lesson in learning to make conscious decisions. At the levels of the heart and mind, we have to understand a lot of social conditioning from our families and society. We have to understand how previous experiences and decisions have added onto that conditioning. In short, we have to understand how we're unconsciously seeing and evaluating the world before we can make any kind of conscious decisions. The deeper we go, however, the more basic and more powerful things become. Let's take romance to task first.

Romance and having a family are seen as so natural and so expected that it truly is a major human issue hidden in plain sight. Interests in finding a romantic partner have turned online dating into a $2 billion industry as of 2014 (and I don't think that's going to stop growing any time soon). That's just one corner of romance, and where our money goes is where we put our sense of value. And human beings greatly value romance.

But why? First many of you start off with your socially conditioned answers. Mom and dad (or mom and mom or dad and dad) did it, and so did all my friends. So I should do it too. You want to feel love (which is also a heavily conditioned idea). You get the idea of romantic partnership reinforced from only a bizillion different media sources, so it's easy to not question this issue. Then in the spiritual world, we create these silly new additional ideas such as soulmate, twin flame, twin soul, and so on. This typically makes it harder to find a partner too because you're trying to find someone to match up to a set of ideas or to make you feel a certain way.

And underlying all of this is the primal urge to procreate. Having an opposite sex partner is central to having children to continue the species. This is what the animal inside us wants. It DOES NOT matter if you think you want to have children or not or if you have different preferences for a sexual partner. The drive to procreate is a powerful animal body urge that is present in most people. I won't say everyone because everyone's sex and partnership drives are a little different. But don't exclude yourself until you've worked your way down into the animal body. Most of romantic partnership is underpinned by this drive to procreate as well as to gather resources to successfully raise children to continue the species.

Fight or Flight: Seeing All of Life as a Threat

However, the animal impulse that is possibly the most powerful is the fight or flight impulse. As I've already mentioned, before we could think about situations, the only way to identify threats and react was through our primal body. This mechanism is incredibly rudimentary, but it is alive and well today. It also tends to cause a lot of problems, and through the lens of the unconscious ego, it often leads to all kinds of poor reactions.

Consider a day at the office. You're doing your work, and then a co-worker comes along and says that you made some mistakes. The unconscious ego often interprets this situation as a threat. The more unconscious the person is, the more the person looks at the co-worker as a threat. A person may want to get away from the co-worker (flight) or argue that the co-worker (fight) is wrong. A person may also try to fix the situation as quickly as possible (flight response as well). It's not that everyone does this, but part of understanding the instinctual body is to notice your responses. Whenever you are feeling upset or afraid, you can bet that part of the animal inside of you is triggered and is feeling like you are under some level of mild, moderate, or high level threat. The more unconscious someone is, the more quickly they elevate something such as benign criticism of work to a code red alert. The more extreme of a reaction someone has also points to unhealed trauma and abuse.

Now, as I said, the animal instincts we've inherited have had their uses, but in so many places in society where we are getting defensive and upset over comments about our clothing, haircuts, romantic partners, children, homes, and other things, these are INCORRECT responses. They're incorrect because we are in no immediate danger to our survival that requires an elevation of heart rate and other biochemicals to get us ready to fight off or run from an army or pterodactyls. So, as evolving, conscious human beings who hopefully have already done our work understanding our ego ideas and how full of crap they are, we go to the next level to retrain the primal body.

Retraining Our Primal Animal

So let me be clear if it isn't already that I'm not talking about an animal totem or power animal you have. I'm talking about your animal instinctual body. It is what it is. It is like in parts of the world where there are layers upon layers of civilization built up on top of one another. As you've been excavating yourself, you will come down to this bedrock that pretty much only cares about surviving and procreating. In preparing yourself for this level, I encourage you to journal about what attaches to your sense of survival and what attaches to procreation. Remember that we are honoring some very basic aspects of ourselves, and that is important to remember. Transcendence isn't about getting away from these deep, primal parts of us. It is about embracing and retraining them from a conscious space of awareness.

What Is Transcendence?  (In case you need a little reminder what transcendence is.)

Embracing the Animal One Breath at a Time

The body learns the slowest, and it learns in the most stable way. When the body is relaxed into itself, it doesn't want to be agitated. The mind and emotions are highly changeable and easily agitated. They can bounce all over the place. They may have bounced all over the place while you sat and read this post. But your body was seated in one place for the whole time you read it. Here we see the truth of the body, which is always here and now.

In this way, the body is a powerful ally to reclaim. We are not beating the body into submission. There are some aspects of society that beat the body's unconscious instincts into submission so that people can operate under intense, high-stress situations (going into war, etc.). However, the spiritual path is the path of gentleness. As you identify how your instincts to procreate and survive drive and define different parts of your life, breathe into them. Yes, we're back to the breath once more. In terms of survival instincts (which is the root of the powerful fear of death most people have), the breath starts to de-construct that trigger. Whenever you feel this sense of fear and the multitude of ways it is involved in your daily life, breathe in and out. Reteach yourself how to experience life and what is actually a threat versus a non-threat.

When you breathe, your body is being retrained toward greater relaxation and stillness. You can then come back to a clearer mindset that doesn't see all of life as either a threat or a non-threat. You start to see life simply as it is again. Many egos operate out of that space of survival fear so unconsciously that you'll be surprised to notice that's how you treat all people in your life. They're either a threat to your goals or well-being or not. If they're not, you may ignore them. People have also adapted to use other people to achieve their goals, but this is just another layer of ego piled on top of the drive to survive.

With all that said, keep breathing. It's the start of a long process of re-training.

Deepening into Stillness

Because these instinctual drives are so powerful, so are the releases that come as more and more of your body comes to rest. Your body wants you to take ownership of these things, and you will be glad you did. Otherwise, it's like having earthquakes constantly shaking you up from the inside. These powerful movements such as being afraid you're going to die move a lot of energy and biochemistry. It's not a fun experience, and our lesser "evolved" animal predecessors didn't hold onto the earthquake. A couple of ducks could flee for their lives from a cougar, and then flap out the excess energy to come back to rest. We don't do this. Instead, we keep building up new levels of stress, fear, and agitated energy, and then we pile more ego ideas on top of it to try to keep us safe.

Returning to the primal instinctual body to learn a new way to operate in life and to release energy that gets built up in upsetting moments is a huge part of retraining the primal body. Over time, your body will want to stay in a fluid resting state that allows you to responding consciously from a place of stillness. When we do this, we truly are evolving into peaceful and loving people who embrace our primal heritage and also learn to let go those out-dated responses.

Moving Into Stillness: The Power of Presence
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