A number of times I’ve written that we are only two things beyond our genetics; the environment we immerse ourselves in, and what we choose to focus on in that environment. The caveat is that within the span of a single life time these two elements (each within your power to alter) will influence which aspects of your genome are more available than others. Simply, the choices you make effect the behaviors and preferences of the next generation.
“Survival” is a perfect subject to bear out how profound and simple this ‘’power” of yours (choice) actually is. The concept of “living” apart from the concept of “survival” for our species is a new development. Homo habalis, our first known toolmakers, were living within the context of an out door environment. They relied on hunting, gathering, and traveling in response to what was seasonally available and they, like all other flora and fauna, had their population kept in check by the carrying capacity of the landscape. “Life” and “Survival”, it is safe to say, were synonymous. It is from this point (around 2.5 million years ago) that our brains began to increase in size.
With the arrival of Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) the cranium size of our lineage had doubled and was on the increase. We reached the apex of strength and brain size in our evolutionary history in the species before modern man, Homo sapien neanderthalensis. This is a species that is generally understood to have tool making abilities, as well as indicators of culture and ceremony, all supported by physical evidence. Neanderthals existed over half a million years ago and had larger adult sized craniums and greater strength than modern man.
The physiological forerunner of anatomically modern humans, Archaic Homo sapiens, evolved between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago. DNA evidence suggests that several haplotypes of Neanderthal origin are present among all non-African populations, and Neanderthals may have contributed up to 6% of their genome to present-day humans. Anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens in the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago.
The transition to behavioral modernity, with the development of symbolic culture, language, and specialized lithic technology happened around 50,000 years ago according to many anthropologists. Domestication began with agricultural practices some 15,000 years ago. Interestingly, wherever agriculture became an alternative to other population controls the species flourished until the soils and resources were exhausted in that area. The rich flood planes of the Middle East, are now dune and rock deserts. This can be tracked in our migrations through the dust bowl of North America in to modern forestry/cattle dilemmas in the Amazon Basin and de-forestization ramifications around the world. Haiti, with no trees, has lost nearly a third of it’s landscape to erosion and is dealing with malnourishment in 40% of their population. From the perspective of a population that hasn’t fully depleted their supports (i.e. Most of North America) this would be considered “Survival”.
Empowering yourself with these bits of information may take you to uncomfortable places and ugly conclusions, but it is important to fully appreciate the value of your choices and actions to the contrary by recognizing the stark and very real alternatives.
“Survival” is a temporary and unsustainable state. It is meant to be a brief period of transition with a definable outcome. You either recover or you die. The indicators of being in a state of “Survival” are fear, suffering, the feeling of hopelessness, frustration, or panic and elevated stress levels. Awareness and compassion diminish and combativeness and/apathy increase. Dehydration, malnutrition, injury and most commonly, the artificially and chronically triggered “flight or fight” response, are all indicators that one has ceased normal life processes and the body has entered a state of survival.
Remember, “Choice” is often the difference between a survival response and wellness. It is important to differentiate what causes this response from what happens to you when you are “well”. You begin to experience a base line sense of joy. You become relaxed yet aware, compassionate and artistic, and a sense of connection to everything and everyone around you guides you toward actions that cultivate wellness in others and the landscape. We can emerge from this recent chronic state of survival simply by spending more time outside. First, being outside increases our awareness and slows our respiration and heart rate. As our pace slows we notice more and disturb less of our surroundings. This increases the ease at which we can locate and acquire shelter, water, fire, and food. You sense of connection to the landscape increases, allowing you to respond proactively to subtle shifts in the wind, bird behaviors, and cloud patterns to avoid being caught in a storm or by a predator. At night, you are no longer afraid of the shadows because they keep you safe, hidden, silent. You are a shadow. It is a peaceful, non-dramatic, exhilarating sense of belonging and wellness that washes over you when you are literate enough in the environment that sustains you. You can’t get enough of it. No matter how much you pour yourself in to the landscape you always feel like there is so much more to know, to learn, to experience. Before long you want to encourage the landscape to reach its full potential as well. It might start with bird feeders, but quickly evolves to encouraging plant and animal diversity and health. Edge areas, edible forest gardens, medicinal plant propagation; these are just a few of the symptoms of a person recovering ownership of their own overall health.
The spread of “dis-ease” has become the perceived “baseline” of many a chosen world view. Wellness is the stuff of fairy tales and delusional noble savagery in the minds of those ensconced in the flight or fight paradigm. Both wellness and survival take a lot of emotional investment and calorie expenditure. The difference is in the wake that each leaves. In one approach “those with the most toys win”, and in the other, we “leave it better than we found it”. Because these approaches are expressed in different parts of the brain, one “frame of mind” does not make sense to the other until it is experienced. Both are innate, naturally occurring strategies. It is our choice to empower one over the other. By creating stronger neural networks toward manifesting bounty (over the enforcement of fear based reactions in our brains) we improve our life, lessen the severity and frequency of the survival response, and are more apt to survive an actual survival scenario. It is for this reason that survival “instruction” should start from a foundation of wellness and share skills designed to orient folks back toward their own platform of well-being.
Too many schools share simple skills designed to get folks out of a high stress situation only to return to a chronic baseline of stress. This is the result of addressing symptoms instead of root causes. This path is easier, simple to understand, and quick. It also falls far short of effective skill sharing and is the mark of ignorance, laziness or worse, neglect. The good news is that we can make the internal shift from fear-based reactions to being proactive from a place of joy instantly. We may stutter, stop, fall back to our old patterns when tired or stressed, but nature rewards healthy behaviors with beneficial emotions and results. The defaults to old patterns lessen as one learns to laugh at themselves each time it happens. Fear and uncertainty is gradually replaced by gratitude and curiosity. Your physical skills and awareness will also experience explosive growth. If you chose to be offended by this article that is lesson enough. If you choose to try out some of these concepts, please share your results. Learning through shared experience is the next logical step. Only through the shared experiences of folks reclaiming their own expression of wellness can we begin to establish resilient and healthy communities.