The Gift of the Survival Dance

There’s been a Post-It note stuck to my monitor for weeks. I was in Miami when a client asked again about the Survival Dance and the Sacred Dance. She was caught, she said, between choosing what felt like the job she needed to take versus the job she wanted to take. And disconcertingly she was replaying my own words—or rather the words I often quote—back at me.

“So what do I do?” she asked.

“[E]ach of us,” writes Bill Plotkin,

has a survival dance and a sacred dance, but the survival dance must come first. Our survival dance, a foundational component of self-reliance, is what we do for a living—our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically…Everybody has to have a survival dance. Finding and creating one is our first task upon leaving our parents’ or guardians’ home.

Once you have your survival dance established, you can wander, inwardly and outwardly, searching for clues to your sacred dance, the work you were born to do. This work may have no relation to your job. Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fulfillment and extends your truest service to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing. Getting paid for it is superfluous. You would gladly pay others, if necessary, for the opportunity.

Later, back home, another client asked a slight variation on the same question: “What do I tell my daughter?” The daughter is in high school and is just beginning to ask the deeper questions. Knowing what we know about the need to find your passion, or The Element as Ken Robinson calls it, what do we say to our kids who are applying to colleges or graduating into this awful economy where, despite the 13th Amendment, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to pay people nothing for their work?

I’ve a client who’s worked harder than anyone I know to get his idea funded and every day there’s another impediment, another roadblock. And every day the bank account drops, the blood pressure rises, the clock ticks.

What do we tell ourselves about committing to our soul’s work, our Sacred Dance, when we can’t even pay the damn bills?

I struggled with my responses. I began questioning my own work, my own beliefs, the notions and insights I’d gained in so many years of wandering. The questions were especially poignant and provocative because my oldest son is deep in the same struggle now. On an evening walk with with his father in Riverside Park, at the fry station at Shake Shack, he asks himself the same questions.

I hated the place that left me. I felt unable to write.

Slowly, slowly though it’s been coming together. Yesterday, between sessions, I scribbled another note: “Surviving the Sacred Dance.” I thought, maybe that’s it; maybe that’s the deeper question…how do we survive living out the sacred?

I then thought of those who, in manifesting their deepest soul expression, still struggle to pay the bills.

This morning, as I rose from my meditation cushion, I thought, “No. That’s not it. The question is simpler. Simpler and harder: What do we say to those we love, including ourselves, about the balance between the two?”

Of course it’s not enough to say “Get a job and find your passion later.” That’s The Deferred Life Plan. Nor is it right to say it’s okay to ignore the realities of every day. After all: “Before Enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

Re-reading Plotkin I went further than I usually do when I quote him to clients:

Hence, the importance of self-reliance, not merely the economic kind implied by a survival dance but also of the social, psychological, and spiritual kind. To find your sacred dance, after all, you will need to take significant risks… By honing psychological self-reliance, you will find it easier to keep focused on your goals in the face of resistance or incomprehension, initial failure or setbacks, or economic or organizational obstacles. And spiritual self-reliance will maintain your connection with the deepest truths and what you’ve learned about how the world works…

Then I understood. Two weeks ago, I replied to an email from JC suggesting that he try to find the sacred within the mundane, within the survival. Sounds good, I thought, but I knew it was hollow. It’s desperately important to be able to see the sacred within the present moment—even if it’s pulling double espressos at Starbucks. I knew that to be true. Yet, again, it felt hollow, empty. Finally I read this (as if for the first time):

…The first step is creating a foundation of self-reliance: a survival dance of integrity that allows you to be in the world in a good way—a way that is psychologically sustaining, economically adequate, socially responsible, and environmentally sound. Cultivating right livelihood, as the Buddhists call it, is essential training and foundation for your soul work; it’s not a step that can be skipped.

The gift of the mundane, the gift of the survival dance is self-reliance. And self-reliance is as sacred as any vocation, any calling from the divine. Without the ability to withstand the pathology of every day, we’re lost—no matter how inspired our dreams.

  • panterosa,

    Self reliance, as a step to supporting the sacred dance, sounds like asking someone to trust their own heart. Once you trust, then the steps towards the marriage with self begin. You must learn to nurture and be a good companion to your sacred dancer, learn to be alone together, happily, never losing love or faith in the dance or dancer. In this way you can begin to live as many people say they would, poor as a church mouse but terribly in love, with your “work”, your “why”.

    I might add that though this sounds a solitary proposition at first, and inwardly directed, that actually I believe it is when one becomes truly open. And that openness brings people to you, and your sacred dance. It is the first step of your outward journey.

    • jerrycolonna

      Yes. I think that’s all correct, Panterosa. That all feel likes part of that bid for psychologically (and I’d add, spiritually) sustaining self-reliance. But learning to make our way in what Plotkin would call the Middle World of bills and jobs and apartments and such is also very much a part of that process. Even more, learning to do that in a way that doesn’t destroy is a hugely important task.

  • davearkoosh

    Reading this post was an extraordinary way to start the day. I’m glad you expounded on self-reliance. Not just food on the table, but right livelihood is mundane, but sacred, and woefully overlooked. And if not done correctly, it keeps us away from our dreams.

    This reminds me of something I’ve heard regarding conscientious work: the best fertilizer is the shadow of the farmer in the field. As cynical as this is, that image has always made me pity the poor farmer, sunburnt and a slave to his crop. The farmer’s vocation, though, is his or her means for self-reliance. I think the same cynicism that made me dislike that image is what causes us to overlook the value of self-reliance as an end and not just the means to whatever is next. You’ve made me reconsider self-reliance as a vocation today, regardless of what I’m planning for tomorrow. Thank you, again, for your insight.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Dave. I love your image of the farmer and the farmer’s true vocation. Thanks for YOUR insight.

  • Peter Cranstone

    First of all a big thank you to Jerry. This is an incredibly hard post to comment on. It covers many disciplines and requires you to dig deep. I can usually read “The Monster in Your Head” and literally start typing my comment. Not so this time. This one required a lot more thought and even then I may well come up short.

    My style is to go against “Entropy” and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I like simplicity vs. complexity. So how do I simplify the “Gift of the Survival Dance?”. Here goes…

    “To succeed you must first live”.

    Our life is a journey – our soul emerges into this world with a chemical life support system – the body. Before the begging of great brilliance (the sacred dance) there must be chaos (the survival dance). Before a brilliant person begins something great, h/she must look foolish to the crowd.

    As a coach or a parent it is our job to provide what I call “life’s bumper pads”. Each of us has soul that yearns to be part of the world. As we journey through life we must adapt our survival skills to allow the soul to shine. We do this by “failing” (or being told No). Each failure represents a piece of the puzzle that allows our soul to come into being.

    The bumper pads are like training wheels for the sacred dance. We can’t take them off to early otherwise our survival is not assured. Eventually like riding a bike we find that we no longer need the training wheels and we’re free to let our soul work.

    So live – and by doing so you will succeed.

    • jerrycolonna

      Another aspect, Peter, which you touch on lightly here and which I meant to delve more deeply into is the notion of integrating these aspects. When the two are integrated then, like that moment when you suddenly realize you’re riding the bike, you’re finally free.
      At least, I think that’s what happens. [wink]

      • Peter Cranstone

        Personally I think there is “one Ring” that binds both the Survival Dance with Sacred Dance. Again I’m driving for simplicity so this time I will boil it down to a single word – Faith.

        When you start riding the bike all you want to do is stay upright – in short you’re having trouble believing that you have the innate ability to balance. You don’t believe “enough”. So you start out learning the necessary survival skills to become a great rider.

        One day it happens – you cast off those training wheels (the old beliefs) and ride free. You never forget the survival skills that got you to this point, and now you accelerate your skills learning new things along the way.

        I’ve been in the Entrepreneur business now for 20 years. I always wanted to be a business man (ride the bike on my own) I just lacked the skills. So I’ve taught myself to learn, and I keep learning in the belief that one day I’ll be able to ride without training wheels.

        I think I’ve now reached the point where I can cast of the training wheels – I still use all the survival skills I’ve gathered over 20 years to fend off those awkward moments when I’m about to “fall off the bike”, but my new found belief allows my soul to shine.

        When we coach or we parent we try and find a balance where the survival is assured and the sacred can begin. That fulcrum is I believe – Faith. It’s not blind faith, but educated faith. Gandhi said it best – live today like you’ll die tomorrow, learn like you’ll live forever.

        Have faith and never stop learning and very soon the survival dance becomes as automatic as a breath, and the sacred becomes how you live your life.

        • Tereza

          “Gandhi said it best – live today like you’ll die tomorrow, learn like you’ll live forever.”

          Thanks, Peter. Words to live by.

  • jdean65

    Thanks very much for this inspired and inspiring post.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Jean.

  • CarlNelson

    This is a fantastic post and my first introduction to your writing.

    I look forward to following more here.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Carl. And welcome TMIYH

  • Shannon W.

    wow. speechless.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks flowergirl4129

  • meganmatthieson

    Key is knowing what is sacred to you. Well, that’s obvious I guess. And feeding it, loving it every day. Do the stuff that pays the bills (or makes you a good mother) at the same time. No one said this better then you, Hugh. Just keep taking the steps and let the universe put it all together.

  • Aarlo Stone Fish

    Great post as always, Jerry!

    Ultimately, as you say, the goal should be to integrate what is sacred to you with what you need to survive. Entrepreneurs are lucky that their passions can match up with something that pays the bills.

    People often settle in situations where they’re not happy – like a bad relationship or a bad job – because of fear. Fear that they don’t deserve better, or they can’t survive the change. A lack of self-reliance.


  • John Lynn

    In the LDS church it’s often said, “how can we teach people spiritual things when they’re minds are occupied with their physical needs?” So, we first make sure that they are fed physically so that they are ready and open to be fed spiritually.

    Self reliance is a beautiful thing that opens so many doors. Part of the key to self reliance is learning to survive with less. Students are masters at living with less. Then, they get out of college, they get their first paycheck and think they’re rich. Few realize that they’ll quickly miss the ability to require less.

    • jerrycolonna

      It never ceases to amaze me how many spiritual traditions end up offering the same wisdom. Thanks John.

  • bijan

    inspirational post. Thanks Jerry.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Bijan.

  • dgulbran

    It’s going to take me some time to digest this post–and the fantastic comments. I think that’s the hallmark of something good.

    • jerrycolonna

      Are you saying I’m long-winded, dense, and complicated? 😉
      Just kidding.

  • Jeff Walker

    at a recent conference five ceos were asked to look forward and give a vision of what they would be doing after their tenure as CEO. three said they wanted to “find the meaning of life and who they are”, the other two wanted to “improve their golf games”. Which bothers me more? Those that in their younger lives who could have worked to become their true selves and find the sacred path rather than waiting until old age. The students i have advised who didn’t try to maximize their income but worked to find their own path and passions are consistently happier and more satisfied. At Harvard B School we are realigning our leadership programs to have students look more at their sacred, unique, paths. The students are finding it to be the most impactful work in their lives. I have two friends who each focus on their sacred paths…they don’t have much money but they say when they started following their paths that money came when they needed it. They are the happiest people i know.

  • nicole

    awesome, jerry!! thanks for the reminders!! i love that you are doing this now.. and that hollis book is supposed to be amazing!! hope to catch up soon! xo, nicole

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Nicole.

  • Tom Hughes

    A thoughtful post and a great concluding thought, thank you. I enjoyed it particularly because by happenstance it bookended with this article ( in Tech, the MIT newspaper, about an MIT grad working as a consultant in Dubai. What’s best about the piece, I think, is not his expose of management consulting as a cynical sham (but don’t miss his acute description of how hard it is to fake your results); the best part is his struggle to come to grips ethically with his situation. What he thought was his survival dance was smothering his life.

    • jerrycolonna

      Excellent connection Tom. Thanks for sharing.

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