Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Trading Aliveness For Survival

Silverado Vineyards, Silverado Trail, Napa Valley, California, USA

September 2, 2013

This essay, Trading Aliveness For Survival, is the companion piece to On Fleas And Piranhas.

I am indebted to Frances Delahanty who inspired this conversation.

It's one of the most extraordinary things we do. Really it is. No, it's not extraordinary in the same order of things as going to the moon or inventing the internet or painting the Mona Lisa or building the Golden Gate Bridge or giving up prejudice. But it is  extraordinary inasmuch as we do it at all  given what else is possible. What it is, is we're quite willing to trade aliveness for survival.

Trading aliveness for survival is so everyday, it's so ho-hum  that it takes sitting bolt upright and confronting it to see exactly how extraordinary it is. And when you've completely confronted it and realized what it costs (both in terms of the quality of individual lives as well as in terms of the quality of Life itself) you soon start asking why would anyone  do that to themselves? Indeed, why would we  do that to us?

We'd rather stay with what's comfortable than look for new ways to expand our lives and to have it all work out for everyone. We actually devolve  into our comfort zones rather than take chances. We choose to survive in the ways in which we've always survived, rather than take on new challenges and risks.

Listen: I'm not saying that as an armchair critic  nor as a Monday morning quarterback. Neither am I saying there's anything wrong with wanting to be (and with staying) comfortable. Rather, this is simply an observation of how we, unchecked, will devolve into survival rather than into aliveness. And they're not equally weighted. The tendency toward survival, if left unchecked, carries a lot of weight, much  more weight that its alternative.

Taking on new challenges and risks (spoken in this context) is never a matter of need, of urgency, of necessity. Spoken in this context, taking on new challenges and risks is simply a matter of joy, a matter of the spirit flying  (if you will), a matter of human Self-expression - just because it's possible, just because we can. This is the triumph of aliveness over survival.


In this conversation there are two possible connotations of "survival".

First, there's the connotation of "survival" as "staying alive" ie as "not (physically) dying". But recognize there's not necessarily any inherent A*L*I*V*E*N*E*S*S  in "staying alive".

Survival / staying alive in this sense simply means "doing whatever needs to be done in order to not die". And again, there's not necessarily any inherent A*L*I*V*E*N*E*S*S in not dying. For that matter, there's not necessarily any inherent A*L*I*V*E*N*E*S*S in being alive either. A*L*I*V*E*N*E*S*S is a generated  quality. Survival / staying alive / even being alive, isn't enough to ensure it. A*L*I*V*E*N*E*S*S as I'm proposing it here is not your birthright. You're not born with it - no one is. If you don't generate it, it doesn't exist for you.

Second, there's the connotation of "survival" as "persisting the same old same old business as usual  going through the motions behaviors over and over and over again". Rather than survival as "not (physically) dying", this is survival of the ego  - if you will.

It's this second connotation of "survival" I'm using in the context of this conversation. This is the connotation of survival ie survival of the ego, I assert for which we're quite willing to trade aliveness.


The question "Why  do we trade aliveness for survival?" can be answered analytically - which is to say psychologically. Psychologically we can come up with a plethora of reasons and explanations for why we trade aliveness for survival, for why we'll so easily throw away  rich, new opportunities which present themselves, in favor of staying comfortable  with what we already got. And if we take the analytical route, there are as many reasons for why we trade aliveness for survival as there are people on the planet. What a morass! What a mess! What's worse is each of us can come up with a different plethora of justifications  and defenses  for holding on to what we already got (which is to say, for holding on to the way we already are), rather than allowing new possibilities, new ways of being to take root in our lives.

That's the bad news. Here's the good news. The question "Why do we trade aliveness for survival?" can also be answered pragmatically  - which is to say succinctly and tersely as an end run  around all the myriads of individual reasons and explanations and justifications and defenses and blather of the analytical answer. Pragmatically, the answer to "Why do we trade aliveness for survival?" is "Because we're machines and this is what machines do.".

Listen: don't knock that answer. It's very, very useful. It's the leading edge of a profound, Life-altering insight. Notice it doesn't come with all the noise  and all the sound and fury  of reasons and explanations and justifications and defenses. Also notice there's a certain quiet  to it - there's all that, and  ... it's valid.

All that said, the answer "Because we're machines and this is what machines do" still isn't the end point of this inquiry.

A more powerful answer, an answer which also provides choice and a new opening for action is "We trade aliveness for survival because there's a payoff  in trading aliveness for survival ie because we get something from this trade, even if it's trading down, even if it's complaining about it (complaining, after all, comes with an audience), even if it's making others wrong.". It takes verve  to tell the truth about this from your own experience. Without the distinctions of transformation, we'll go unconscious ie we'll trade aliveness for survival even when we're in the very presence of possibility as long as there's some payoff in going unconsciousness.

The payoff can be not being responsible - kind of like a "get out of jail free" card  (if you will) for avoiding responsibility. The payoff can be holding others to ransom  by dominating. The payoff can be making others wrong. The payoff can be being righteous in our own version of the story about what happened. What this is, is a simple defense mechanism which bolsters the ego. That's its sole purpose. That's its entire raison d'etre  right there. And it's so, so pernicious!  We get such a payoff from our survival behaviors that we'll do anything  rather than give them up. We'll even trade aliveness for them.

This includes going unconscious and (in particular) making  ourselves go unconscious - literally, killing ourselves to Life.

And that's truly extraordinary.


It takes a big  person to 'fess up to their survival behaviors' persistence having less to do with them being somehow stamped in our brain  and more to do with us choosing to keep them going because of what we get from them ie because of the payoff we get from keeping them going.

Notice complaining about the results of survival behaviors doesn't preclude getting some benefit ie some payoff from keeping them going.


It takes a certain commitment to choose aliveness over survival (because the "pull" of the machine is certainly not in that direction), and to develop a momentum toward choosing aliveness just because it's possible, just because we can. Suddenly you're unconscious less and less and less. For maybe the first time you're alive  to Life by generating aliveness rather than merely being alive as in "not dying" by default. The first step toward no longer trading aliveness for survival is distinguishing between  ie telling the difference between aliveness and survival.

"Trading aliveness for survival":  that's killing ourselves to Life. "Distinguishing between aliveness and survival":  that's transformation.


The presentation, delivery, and style of Trading Aliveness For Survival are all my own work.

The ideas recreated in Trading Aliveness For Survival were first originated, distinguished, and articulated by Werner Erhard.

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