10/03/2014 09:36 GMT | Updated 07/05/2014 06:59 BST

How to Move From Survival and Struggle to Growth and Contribution in Less Than Two Minutes a Day

The foundation of growth is seeing what keeps you from growing (hint: it isn't your circumstances).

A friend of mine once said to me, "I don't know what God is, but when I look at a butterfly or a flower, I know that I can't do that." It is possible to view the world this way -- with the acceptance of uncertainty and appreciative curiosity for the mundane -- because of a set of networks in the nervous system that I refer to as the "growth function." The purpose of these networks is to see and respond to what is happening as an opportunity for exploration and connection.

Alternatively, the survival networks in the brain prompt you to look for and respond to what is happening as a problem or an obstacle. The world looks very different depending upon which function is most active at any given moment. It is not a question of which function is right or wrong -- it is a question of which is most useful.

My friend's sentiment has reminded me to shift my perspective on more than one occasion -- especially when I am feeling the urge to control the universe so that it will fit my idea of the way things should be. Another friend and I were laughing over lunch about the phenomenon of being in traffic, watching a car switch lanes in front of me, having my nervous system tell me all kinds of unpleasant things about the driver's character, and, by extension, all kinds of things about the problems inherent in modern culture, and then trying to convince me that all of that has something to do with the stranger in the car in front of me. Of course it tells me a totally different story moments later when I change lanes in front of someone else. Hmm...

My point is that the survival function of the brain can kick in at any moment, and the story it tells is very compelling. It feels as though it is the circumstances around me that have triggered this response, but, in fact, the reaction of my nervous system has as much to do with stored associations as it does with what is going on in this moment. Even if I knew when and where this past association was made, I would still have to work with the story it triggers when it shows up in the present.

One of the simplest, most practical, and most powerful skills you can develop is the ability to see when you are struggling unnecessarily in survival mode and to shift into growth mode. You can do this by:

  • Intentionally directing your attention to the area of your body between your chin and your hips and observing the sensations of survival mode.
  • Observing the thoughts that tell you what these sensations mean.
  • Adopting an open and relaxed posture and breathing gently -- relaxing the belly on the in breath and relaxing the shoulders and smiling slightly on the out breath. This is the physiology of acceptance -- the sensations and thoughts of survival mode are not a problem to be resisted, just an outcome of having a human brain.
  • Cultivating some gratitude for seeing what your nervous system is doing and some compassion for the way we all struggle with this.
  • Identifying what is really important to you and the smallest, most valuable action you will take next.

This practice -- being present, being open, being purposeful -- takes no more than 10-20 seconds at a time. If you were doing it 1-2 minutes a day (that's 10-20 seconds at a time, 5-10 times a day), you would be amazed at the difference it would make in your life. Getting rid of the activity of the survival function is not the goal -- that is not possible -- the goal is to see it and accept it for what it is when it shows up. This is the first step of activating the growth functions of your brain. The foundation of growth is seeing what keeps you from growing.

Have an experience being stuck or moving from survival to growth? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.

Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching and supporting the transformational practice of being present, open, and purposeful. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices than can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit

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