Re-solving the Contest Between
Self Preservation and Spiritual Evolution

by Carl Buchheit

Human skulls house a brain which has distinctive parts, some dedicated to reptilian survival, and some apparently directed toward spiritual evolution, namely the pre-frontal cortex. These two purposes can appear to be in conflict and that conflict, or rather that illusion of conflict, seems to causes pain and suffering. Transformational NLP is a methodology for assisting creature self, or creature wiring, to more fully serve our human and spiritual goals.

Our creature brain, (the reptilian is brain found in the brain stem and hind brain plus its newer but still ancient cousin, the paleo-mammalian brain) is responsible for our fight, flight or freeze instincts, and is mainly concerned ensuring our physical survival.  This brain does not know or care about the quality of our experience, only that we survive it, whatever it happens to be.  Although it probably is not conscious in the human sense, and although it has no thoughts and lacks a speech center with which to voice anything, it can be said to be constantly asking one and only  question, “Are we dead yet?” If it finds that we have survived an experience, no matter how difficult, painful, or unrewarding, it will immediately code that experience as survivable, and therefore as part of its overall potential for survival. To this critter brain operates to attract and and stabilize the presence of that which threats it, but which it has associated with survival.  It will then attract and re-create this situations for the rest or our lives.  

For example, a child growing up in an abusive household might find his survival, his self preservation, dependent on how well he can stay invisible, and he would then create a whole set of beliefs such as “I am worthless” in order to be as invisible as possible. Those beliefs will continue to run out of conscious awareness as that child becomes an adult and the reason for being invisible is long past. Since we are committed to maintaining the coherence and constancy of our beliefs (ordinarily a good thing as it prevents us from feeling and acting crazy), that person will unconsciously recreate conditions of abuse in his adult life to support the belief “I am worthless.” Thus we get the observable phenomenon that people who were physically abused as children often partner with abusive people as adults.

This is a survival pattern – an experience we learn to survive that becomes the condition upon which continued survival depends, for the creature itself. Being invisible and believing “I am worthless” is coded as a “success” for the parts of that person in charge of survival.The parts of ourselves that are in charge of survival do not know – or want to know – any other way. Believing “I am worthless” and remaining not visible worked so well for the child that when the question “Am I dead yet?” gets asked by the creature self, we can unequivocally state “No” and proceed to carry on running the survival pattern.

Our human self is generally out of rapport with this whole process. The human wants to experience love, and joy and belonging, not continue to experience the worst of the experiences it has ever learned to survive.

The parts of us that create experience – even experience which we would think of as “negative” or undesirable –  always, always, always have an intended positive outcome for the experience they are creating. In this case the recreation of a “negative” experience has the intended positive outcome of self preservation. Parts of us may choose to re-experience fear, humiliation, or worthlessness because our creature self knows that this is guaranteed survival.

Our whole beautifully integrated system tends to default to the evolutionary wisdom of the creature self which is based on the question, “Are we dead yet?” If we’re not, then whatever that organism is experiencing is regarded as extremely workable. Again, the human gets very much out of rapport with that. When the human gets out of rapport with that process – what the human experiences as suffering, with a small “s”, and the creature/self experiences as survival, or self preservation, then we have a situation – there is an apparent dilemma or conflict that personal development is at odds with their entire system’s instincts towards self preservation.

This situation begins to explain why people sabotage themselves. When they make wonderful and beautiful changes in their life, creature consciousness does not yet have this coded as survivable. So it will seek to restore what it knows it can survive even if other parts of the self are out of rapport with that. The creature does not know that it is safe to endure happiness.

So we’ve got survival/self-preservational patterning that has an intended positive outcome (IPO) and this can feel like it’s in conflict with other parts of us who want to experience joy and harmony and growth. The first task of Transformational NLP is then to understand that this is not actually a dilemma, we do not have to risk our self preservation in order to learn or grow. And we do not have to defeat our self preservation in order to learn or grow.

Many disciplines would ask us to overcome, to overpower the creature self, in service of the human, in service of the learning and growing. If we could only defeat our instincts towards self preservation we could be more alive and well. Unfortunately for us, or fortunately for us, the self-preservational patterning has millions of years of perfection in it and it basically says to us, “Just try it.” And when we try it, we generally fail or we create a mess, because the so called “problem” (which is actually a successful survival strategy) ceases to operate in context A where we’ve been working on our overpowering it, and it moves over to context W and re-erupts over there.

Alas, self preservation seems to be directly opposed to personal growth or development or learning – bummer!

The operation of self-preservational instinct has a small scale daily, weekly, monthly, yearly expression of the patterns of behavior and meaning that continue even when they’re not wanted at all, by the human part of us. The underlying question of all successful changework then has to be: “What is the intended positive outcome of all that unwanted patterning?” At the creature level it’s self preservation, but there can also be other layers, for example involving love and belonging in family systems.

By including the self-preservational instinct, by explicitly including the intended positive outcome of survival while separating out the method by which that is being achieved, we can begin to work with (not “work through”) that patterning and we can begin to create congruence between the different aspects of ourselves.

For lasting change to happen, our creature-self must be explicitly valued; it must not only be  respected but that respect must be so palpable that this creature mind can register that it is safe, undamaged, and whole. (We should note that this is very far from the usual, basically pointless, “peak performance coach” chatter about “destroying your lizard brain” and “murdering our monkey mind.”) We must allow our creature-self to make its contributions according to its programming, rather than our trying to fight that programming, or rather than trying to make it do something else–trying to force it to be a different operating system that produces different outcomes (aka experience) for us.  When we communicate respectfully with both our future-self and our more ancient self, allowing each to contribute on its own terms, we learn to adapt through choice to effectively produce more of the experience we would like. We begin to teach the creature brain how to survive in conditions that also and perfectly support those more “advanced” or “spiritual” aspects of our complex humanity.  

To not get caught up in the illusions of conflict of this apparent dilemma, where self-preservation seems to conflict with personal and spiritual evolution, we humans must learn to not distort or improperly generalize our creature-level feeling signals. We all have some learning to do, so that our feelings are signals and communications, rather than indications of low-ranking cosmic status, or of the snares and traps set for us by a corrupt, functionally evil ego.  To me, most all of this other stuff seems to be basically an entertainment device.  We actually do know what we’re doing, and part of what we are all refining is that art of avoiding inappropriate self-preservation reactions. We really can learn to respectfully, and nearly, instinctively, re-coordinate and choose the most useful combination of physically safe and spiritually beneficial choices.  We are all getting the hang of this. It is actually the most natural thing in the world!

Scroll to Top