In his book Soulcraft, Bill Plotkin differentiates between our sacred dance and our survival dance. Our survival dance is what we do to pay the bills. Our sacred dance is what we were born to do.
Our sacred dance need not be our survival dance. Trying to make our sacred dance our survival dance causes us to lose the joy of our sacred dance.
I’ve met several people who tried to make their passion into their livelihood. While this works for some, it is not necessarily a formula for everyone. Following this formula blindly causes the joy to seep out of life for many people.
The Sacred Dance and the Survival Dance
Harley Swift Deer, a Native American teacher, says that each of us 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. For most people, this means a paid job… 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.
– Bill Plotkin
Turning the sacred dance into a survival dance
On my first snowboarding trip, I met Tim (all names have been changed). Tim loved snowboarding and decided to teach the sport he loves for a living. As a result, he spends most of his days on baby slopes watching beginners like me fall over endlessly. After two days of lessons, I was ‘independent’ and went off to more challenging slopes while Tim took on another lot of beginners on the same boring baby slope.
On my second snowboarding trip, I met Sandra and David. He loved skiing, she loved cooking. So they started their own little business of running a lodge in a ski resort. During the week I was there, he spent his days ferrying us around in the van, while she spent most of her time on paperwork. She still cooked us breakfast and dinner most days but really looked forward to her one day off a week. He told us he’d skiied only twice that season. They spent most of their time struggling to make the lodge break even.
On my third snowboarding trip, I met Greg. Greg loved to do stunts on his snowboard with his buddies who also worked at the resort. He supported this lifestyle by working as a driver for companies that ran lodges. He said that most of his buddies had injured themselves that season doing stunts, so he’d stopped snowboarding for weeks as he couldn’t afford to break any bones and jeopardize his livelihood.
When the sacred dance is not sacred anymore
Tim, Sandra, David and Greg were really wonderful, cheerful people. However, it was obvious that turning their passions into their careers wasn’t working out exactly as they’d envisioned. Trying to make their sacred dance pay their bills had simply turned the sacred dance into a survival dance.
The irony is that what used to be a passion for them had become just like any other job. They all looked forward to time off from their duties. Life on a ski resort, which was what attracted them there in the first place, was now something they had to escape from when they could.
Making peace with our survival dance
One of the reasons we are tempted to turn our sacred dance into a survival dance is our dis-satisfaction with our current jobs. When we’re stuck in boring meetings or upset with office politics, we daydream about being on the golf course, or fishing on a boat. We imagine a fantasy lifestyle where we could do what we love everyday.
The problem is that people don’t pay us to do what we love doing. We are paid when we add value to others in some way. When we get good enough at our sacred dance, people will eventually want to pay us for the inspiration and value we bring to them. Until then, we still need a survival dance. We make our survival dance more bearable when we accept it as a gift rather than a duty.
Appreciate the gifts of the survival dance
Our survival dance teaches us discipline. Discipline means showing up whether we feel like it or not. It means continuing to practise our craft long enough to get us past the inevitable plateau. Without discipline, we will never get good at our sacred dance either. By doing something everyday, we get better at it. Stephen King said that he wrote ten pages a day even while on holiday.
Another gift of the survival dance is perseverance. When we stick at our job because we have bills to pay, we learn to put up with inconveniences, frustrations, and setbacks. Perseverance will keep us dancing our sacred dance long enough to make an impact on the world. Thomas Edison was known to persevere through 10,000 failures before he found a workable idea for the incandescent bulb.
Perhaps the most important gift of our survival dance is delayed gratification. We live in a fast-paced world where we get impatient if a website takes more than 8 seconds to load. Having to wait a week or month for our paycheck trains us to work 8-hour days or longer without expecting a reward at the end of each day. Being able to delay gratification allows us to work on our sacred dance for years until the world recognises and values what we have to offer.
Make time for our sacred dance
Unfortunately many of us spend so much time on our survival dance that we forget to dance our sacred dance. Just as we appreciate the survival dance that makes the sacred dance possible, we must remember that the point of the survival dance is to support the sacred dance.
“In many shamanic societies, if you complained of being disheartened, they would ask one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”
– Gabrielle Roth
Our sacred dance is what makes us feel most alive. I feel most alive when I feel the wind in my hair. One form of my sacred dance is therefore most kinds of outdoor sports: snowboarding down a mountainside, racing my cycling mates down an empty road, or sitting on a dive boat out on the open sea.
Writing is my other sacred dance. I write because I cannot not write. I’ve filled fourteen journals in my lifetime, and almost 200 posts on this blog. Writing heals me when life brings me to my knees. It also makes me a better person as I research and reflect on what I write about.
The sacred dance should be sacred
Would I want to make a career out of sports or writing? Not really. That would take a lot of the fun out of the dance. While I’ve been paid to write articles for local magazines and gotten small sponsorships in sports, these are just icing on the cake. I do these things because I want to, and if additional benefits come along that’s very dandy. But that’s not the reason I do them.
What makes our sacred dance sacred is that we would do it anyway, whether or not others would pay us to. Doing something for monetary gain somehow makes it less sacred. Dancing for money turns us into entertainers. Dancing for the sake of the dance makes us artists.
The reality is that most artists were not richly remunerated. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard, though today his paintings sell for millions. Franz Schubert lived in poverty though he composed the beautiful Ave Maria that is sung around the world today. Edgar Allen Poe struggled financially and only after death had an entire museum dedicated to his works.
Keep faith in your sacred dance
“Swift Deer says that once you discover your sacred dance and learn effective ways of embodying it, the world will support you in doing just that.
What your soul wants is what the world also wants (and needs). Your human community will say yes to your soul work and will, in effect, pay you to do it. Gradually, your sacred dance becomes what you do and your former survival dance is no longer need. Now you have only one dance as the world supports you to do what is most fulfilling for you. How do you get there? 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 Buddhist call it, is essential training and foundation for your soul work; it’s not a step that can be skipped.”
– Bill Plotkins
Our survival dance is our foundation. Much as our impatient society wants shortcuts, it is not a step that can be skipped. In the meantime, we can continue to hone our sacred dance. Whether our sacred dance is recognised, valued, and rewarded in our lifetime is beyond our control. It should also be beyond our consideration. We dance our sacred dance not for the rewards, but because it is who we are.
If you’ve been feeling pressured into making your passion your livelihood, perhaps the perspective offered in this article can help you breathe easier. Your sacred dance need not be your survival dance. Knowing the difference can bring more joy to both our sacred dance and our survival dance.