From Surviving to Thriving: Lessons from the Jungle

I'm just back from the majestic rainforest in Costa Rica. Hiking in the rainforest let me reflect on how different beings spend most of their existence performing habitual activities to protect themselves. Spider monkeys, who are usually quiet, especially as compared to the vociferous howling monkeys, make a lot of noise and shake branches when they feel threatened. The poisonous velvet snake camouflages itself so well that it becomes very difficult to distinguish it from its surroundings. This lethal reptile stays unmoving for weeks if necessary and then attacks when others least expect it. Little frogs eat toxic insects that give them bright colors and a high level of toxicity. By consuming toxic food, their skin acquire colorful designs that warn off potential predators. Ant eaters hide in trees. Coatis only go out in large groups and when they feel threatened they quickly run away by climbing trees.   These animals engage in all these protective behaviors unconsciously. This is what they instinctively do.

And how about us human beings? How much of our time do we invest protecting ourselves from perceived predators, warning off so called enemies that often include loved ones? How many of these instinctual strategies do we use in our daily life in habitual and unconscious ways even when our existence is not in danger? And what are the consequences of all this?

When we feel fear, most of us communicate unconsciously using protective strategies. Some of us use aggressive words, raise our voice, argue and put on a show of force, as do  monkeys do. Some of us have the instinct to stay quiet or try to blend in with the environment even if that means being untrue to ourselves; once we've had enough we attack others like the velvet snake, leaving those around us in shock. Or maybe we unconsciously take in poisons from our environment and let them influence us so much that we wear it on our skin, like little frogs giving others the message that it is dangerous to get close to us.

Some of us hide like ant eaters by not expressing our feelings, or by literally staying busy or isolating ourselves. Or perhaps when we feel uncomfortable or insecure our habitual communicative strategy is to change the topic, leave the room, or end a relationship. We end up like coatis running away.

Personally, I have used all these various strategies for years.  I recognize that most of those times I was acting on habitual patterns and my actions were not based on what was really happening for me, what mattered to me, or the person with whom I was at the moment.

When we engage in any of these communication strategies, we are speaking what I call the Language of Survival which is based on the paradigm of fear, of right and wrong, and is connected to the flight/fight/freeze impulses. When we speak the Language of Survival we strive to prove we are right by attacking, defending or justifying our point (fight), or we run away -change the topic, make a joke (flight) or  we stay silent (freeze). While the Language of Survival may be useful in situations where our survival is literally at stake, when we use it unconsciously we often experience disconnection and frustration with ourselves, others, or both.

In my experience, it takes time and self-inquiry to notice when these habits are active. Being aware of our unconscious communication habits allow us to choose presence and authenticity.  These moments of noticing feel like gifts to my self and others.  In these instances I have the opportunity to reach into my heart, acknowledge my internal landscape and express myself consciously.  When I speak this language, I am speaking the Language of the Heart.

So I invite you to notice, what happens to you when you feel uncomfortable or insecure? Do you engage in any common habitual patterns such as attacking, defending, hiding, camouflaging, fleeting? If the answer to any of these patterns is yes, then I invite you to make the intention to notice these patterns more often. Perhaps note in your journal what strategies you use most and whether you use certain strategies with certain people. Note what feelings are present underneath the discomfort or insecurity.  As you recognize these patterns and the feelings underneath them, you begin to have more openness towards yourself, and towards others.

Unlike most animals, human beings can choose to move away from instinctual reaction to conscious response.  This is an important step to move from surviving in relationships to thriving.