The Survival Mindset

March 15, 2010

“Crisis occurs when our theories about ourselves in relation to the outside world go fundamentally wrong.” It is the dissonance between our expectations and our outcomes that causes the pain—not the outcome alone. Foremost among our expectations is our belief that pain is something to be avoided at all costs; that it is bad for you. Suffering does not fit our theory about what it takes to succeed in life and so we fail to concede that pain is inevitable in each of our lives.” Carol Osborne

Carol Osborne “The Art of Resilience: 100 Paths to Wisdom and Strength in an Uncertain World”

One of the chief focuses of my blog for almost four years now, has been promoting the practice of confronting negative emotions squarely, and working through them in the service of constructive action.

But lately I’ve been asking myself a different question. What are the best mental patterns of thinking for surviving tough times? There are a variety of ways to look at this issue, and one is looking at who survives when bad things happen in the wilderness, or in dangerous recreational pursuits and why. I’ve taken some of the ideas outlined by Gonzales and added some of my own here.

The first are seven qualities of mind useful in all aspects of life. The last twelve are the best mental practices in life and death situations. (page numbers refer to Gonzales’s book Deep Survival.

1. “[A]void the “Four Poisons of the Mind”—fear, confusion, hesitation, and surprise.” p. 264.

That last one, surprise, can happen when we’ve gotten so invested in predicting the future and anticipating the next change, that we stop paying attention to what’s actually happening in front of us, because it stops conforming to our mental image of what we’re looking for. The capacity to watch, clearly and calmly, and then act decisively requires bodily control, courtesy, humility, and confidence. Survival instructors use the acronym “STOP” which should be read in the following order: Stop, Observe, Think, Plan and Act.

Regardless of the training you do, a “plan” has to have an alternative (or several), prompting Mike Ruppert to argue for the working toward “alternatives” rather than “plans.” “Rigid people are dangerous people” in survival situations. To survive means to be able to adapt, and to adapt is the capacity to change, but adapting to the actual environment, and not your pre-conceived notions of what “should be happening.”

Sometimes, sticking to a plan is vital. At other times, abandoning the plan, based on the changes to what is happening, is required. Our cognitive orientation is to make a “mental map” of what we see, and attempt to make our perceptions conform to that map, but the ‘map is not the territory.’ We can’t function without some sort of mental map, but this same mental map can (and does) kill us.

Our endocrinology can work for or against us. A flood of elation or panic can cause a person to ignore caution or signs of danger. For even the best survivalist, there is a struggle to find emotional balance and control. Everyone makes mistakes. The ones that survive in dangerous situations can see the error and adapt in a timely way.

2. Know your stuff:

A little knowledge can be a terrible thing. While Gonzales talks about the natural world and its elements, for other people, it involves exploring the social world by allowing for all points of view, not just the opinions or perspectives of those who you agree with. For every belief you hold, welcome the feedback of those who hold the opposite opinion. Attempt to learn from a broad host of sources, and understand (don’t explain away) why these sources are advocating the position they do. Broaden your social networks, and surrender your self-assurance that you know “what’s what.”

3. Get the information:

Ask questions of those whose job it is to have a thorough understanding of the phenomenon you want to learn more about. Ask: “What are the sorts of mistakes that the average person makes when they try to learn more about this topic?” Don’t reject the information from people whose job it is to know, just because they are paid by agencies, corporations, or governmental bodies you reject. Be open to all points of view, especially those who are paid to know.

4. Commune with the Dead:

Here Gonzales talks about reading accident reports in your chosen field of recreation informing you of the mistakes that others have made, and to be on the lookout for similar situations, and avoid them.

Behavioral researcher Wendy Joung participated in a study to determine whether certain types of training programs would be better than others in reducing errors in judgement for firefighters. They found that firefighters who reviewed case histories of fatal errors showed improved judgement, and a higher order of adaptive thinking than firefighters who went through “positive” training, which reviewed case histories of accurate decisions made in a similar situation.

The implications of “communing with the dead” are useful. You may, for example, want to investigate how circumstances such as unemployment, homelessness, or economic collapse, have led to death or disease (mental or physical). How did these conditions impact their family life, marriages, or community life? Who were crushed and who persevered? What were some contrasts in each? I’ve written about the types of social events that happened during the last Great Depression, and how they affect women and minorities. Learn as much as you can.

5. Be Humble:

“The Rambo types are the first to go” a Navy Seal commander told Al Siebert. p. 267. You can be very successful in one arena, but it may not help you in another. There is a danger in success: fantastic victory at one point, can lead to overconfidence in the next. For example, you may have landed a bigger and better job after your last layoff a decade ago, but this is no assurance that THIS job layoff will provide you with that same opportunity now. You are more of a danger to yourself and others when you get some of the basics down and get overly cocky, than you were when you first begin to learn about something. Try to keep a “beginner’s mind.” True experts practice their learning in the basics, as well as the more advanced techniques. “’There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.’ That is true in all hazardous pursuits.” p. 268.

6. When in Doubt, Bail Out:

“Boone Bracket used to say, ‘I’d much rather be on the ground wishing I were in the air than in the air wishing I were on the ground.’” Know in which direction you tend to err. If you often allow your impulses to get the best of you, and throw caution to the wind, slow down and re-examine just how sensible your current plan is, and how open to adaptation it is. If you find yourself ready to run to the other side of the globe, leaving behind your family and all of your support systems, because you are “certain” the world is going to end tomorrow, put your plans on hold and invite more feedback. Have you visited that remote island already? Are you really prepared to leave behind your children for an extended period of time? Have you really provided enough resources to enable them to join you “when they are ready” or are you assuming that you’ll ‘of course’ have that ability when the time comes? Be humble enough to suspend your plans when you begin to doubt that the time, resources, or what have you, are adequate, sound, or sane. If it is a good plan now, it will still be a good plan after you’ve given yourself more time to consider the ramifications, or considered additional input from other people. “[I]t’s better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all.’ We are a society of high achievers, but in the wilderness, such motivation can be deadly.” p. 269

On the other hand, if you tend to be overly timid or reluctant to make any change whatsoever, put your ‘toe in the water’ and try something different. Be willing to make several small changes to how you are currently living, instead of expecting that only ‘massive change’ will be adequate. Then, reassess.

The overly timid and the ‘full speed ahead’ types tend to marry each other. See if each of you can’t attempt to ‘move toward the middle’ toward making moderate changes that are uncomfortable to both of you—to slow for one, and too fast for the other.

7. When Facing Trouble, Self-pity is a danger, but it is also an opportunity.

“Why me?” is a human question, and swallowing the harsh medicine—“because S*it happens…” as the sometimes correct answer helps you build up your ‘failure muscle.’ Becoming familiar with the “natural pain” of setbacks and failures gives you practice at bailing from untenable situations and pressing on. “Fortitude is necessary, and patience and courtesy and modesty and decorum, and a will, in what may for the moment seem to be the worst of worlds, to do one’s best.” p. 270.

Gonzales distilled his observations down to twelve essential mind-sets that define how survivors think and behave when faced with mortal danger. I’ve adapted them here:

1. Perceive, Believe (look, see, believe)

The philosopher, Gurdijeff, referred to this as acquiring an “observing self.”

From the start of trouble, the survivor continues to perceive and process information. They notice details, and can even find humor and beauty in catastrophic happenings. They believe their senses, even if they find themselves wanting to go into denial. They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation. “I’ve broken my leg, that’s it. I’m dead.” p. 270.

If they blame outside circumstances, they quickly come to recognize that they are the ones who have to change their circumstances, or they will die. Whatever emotions initially overwhelms them, they get to the point of going inside, calming themselves down, and getting a handle on what they are facing from a realistic perspective.

2. Stay Calm (use humor, use fear to focus)

“In the initial crisis, survivors are making use of fear, not being ruled by it. Their fear often feels like and turns into anger, and that motivates them and makes them feel sharper. They understand at a deep level about being cool and are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion. They keep their sense of humor and therefore keep calm.” Fear and anger are processed in different parts of the neocortex (in contrast to the popular ‘pop psychology’ believe that one lays underneath the other…), and therefore, these survivors will, if Gonzales is right, drop the fear in favor of the emergence of the emotion of anger. Anger is an “approach” emotion, whereas fear is an “avoidance” emotion. Fear, perhaps, ‘wakes them up’ to the seriousness of the situation, and the critical need to focus. Anger may then serve to motivate them to take the needed action.

3. Think/Analyze/Plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks).

Survivors often experience their consciousness as splitting into two people, and they “obey” the rational one. They are capable of seeing how “hopeless” the situation is, at least to an outsider, but they act with the full expectation that they will survive. They quickly get organized, set up routines, and institute discipline. And the leaders that emerge from the group seem like the least likely candidate. These people focus on the immediate needs, like the small children in an earlier post who stop moving when they were tired, or look for warmth when they are cold. “What will we need to survive the next hour” appears to be the focus, but they are able to anticipate needs that are a bit farther out as well.

4. Take Correct, Decisive Action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks).

Survivors aren’t ‘thinkers’ alone. They think and then act. They take calculated risks to save themselves and others. They break down large jobs to small tasks, setting attainable goals and develop short-term plans to reach them. “They do these tasks meticulously, and do what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. They leave the rest behind.” p. 271

5. Celebrate your Successes (take joy in completing tasks).

Celebrate even small successes to maintain motivation and stave off hopelessness. Celebrations also “provide relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.” p. 272

6. Count your Blessings (be grateful—your alive.)

I’ve mentioned the importance of doing for others, as more essential to mental health than doing for oneself. Gonzales also points to this when he states that survivors always find “someone they are helping more than themselves, even if that someone is not present.” Sometimes it is a family member who is counting on them returning.

7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head).

Survivors can entertain themselves, and can both stimulate and calm themselves as needed. If they are frantic, they can count, recite poetry, a mantra, or even allow movement to be a dance. One survivor counted each step by one hundred, and dedicated each group to a person he cared about. Gonzales stresses the importance of developing a repertoire of images or experiences of art, music, poetry, literature, philosophy, mathematics and so on, as a resource to fall back on.

Trivia evaporates and “with care you can make deep excursions into past recollections…Verses were horded and gone over each day…[T]he person who came into this experience with reams of already memorized poetry was the bearer of great gifts.” p. 272. They cling to talismans, and search for meaning. Crisis itself becomes almost a game, and “they discover the flow of the expert performer.” They balance careful action with joyful decisiveness, and the playfulness leads to invention of new techniques, strategies, or a piece of equipment that might save them.

8. See the Beauty (remember: it’s a vision quest).

One’s capacity to see beauty dilates the pupils, relieves stress, and allows you to take in new information more effectively. Awe opens the senses.

9. Believe That You Will Succeed (develop a deep conviction that you’ll live).

Survivors rally their resources, admonish themselves to avoid mistakes, exercise meticulous caution, and do their very best. These beliefs convince them that if they are successful in these tasks, they will prevail. They consolidate their personalities and fix their determination.

10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: “put away the pain.”)

Survivors can hold the belief that they would probably die, but aren’t preoccupied with fear, or prevented from acting regardless. This point can be quite confusing to grasp to those who insist that allowing any possibility for doubt spells certain disaster. Survivors “store away” information (“my arm is broken”) and accept resignation without giving up. They surrender, and this surrender facilitates their capacity to survive.

11. Do Whatever is Necessary (be determined; have the will and the skill).

“Survivors don’t expect or even hope to be rescued. They are coldly rational about using the world, obtaining what they need, doing what they have to do.” They try things that they know seem “impossible,” while at the same time have a meta-knowledge of their abilities—neither over, nor underestimating them. They believe that anything is possible and act from that knowledge.

12. Never Give Up (let nothing break your spirit).

Survivors aren’t easily frustrated or discouraged by setbacks. They try the whole thing over again, when they fail the first time, but they know the difference between ‘going forth boldly and going forth blindly.’ They know that situations are constantly changing and if they hang on long enough “The king might die, I might die, or the horse may talk.”

They have a rich fantasy life they can use to escape into when times are intolerable. They find thoughts, memories, and ideas that can keep them occupied. They see opportunities in their situation, and embrace the world they find themselves in. And once out of the survival situation, they learn from, and are grateful for, the experiences they’ve had.

True survival is a balancing act of apparent paradoxes—one must have both caution and courage, both realism and the capacity for delusion, a willingness to over-train but the freshness of a beginner’s mind; be both deeply in touch with one’s emotions, while able to compartmentalize them as needed. They don’t ignore the very real likelihood that they will die, but neither do they let that awareness hinder them. They focus on doing the tiniest thing well, while keeping in mind the larger picture. They do for themselves, while always focusing their intention on the welfare of others who are present or not. They fix their determination on a goal, but easily redirect when they need to. They doggedly persevere again and again when they face repeated failure, but respond to the situation as it presents itself, and can change direction quickly.

As Vilhjalmur Stefansson was quoted as saying: “A good hunter , like a good detective, should leave nothing out of consideration.”

“We’d rather focus on the abundance of the universe. On prosperity. Thinking positively, we work to build life structures so big and powerful that it would take an army tank of disappointment to break through. Or we simplify ourselves to the point where there’s nothing left to lose…” The focus is on mastering success to avoid pain, rather than learning to face the pain and rebound from it. We attempt to push through fear and negative feelings to achieve our goals, but we learn nothing about “how to suffer gracefully and productively when we are up against forces we cannot control.” p. 4 Osborn

We are facing personal and collective circumstances that are frighteningly inhospitable on multiple fronts. Our ability to confront and endure misfortune will center on our ability to acquire habits of mind that will pull us through.

Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television. 

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