The Survival Dance and the Sacred Dance

How to balance livelihood and longing, and discover your true work in the world

In July of 2014 I moved to Seattle and got a job. 

It was a boring, pay-the-bills sort of job, which was what I needed at the time.

A year earlier I’d been living in Uganda, running a social business I spent six years helping to create. But I was profoundly burnt out. And the harder I tried to make things better, the deeper I seemed to sink into depression and anxiety.

So finally I pulled the eject handle. I left the business and moved back to the US with no money, no home, and no real sense of where to point my life.

But the scariest part was how my identity just seemed… gone.

I’d invested so much in being a “social entrepreneur” that without it I didn’t feel like I knew myself anymore.

But moving to a new city means meeting lots of new people. And inevitably one of the first things they’d ask is, “What do you do?”

Every time someone asked me I felt a stab of shame. I didn’t want to be judged by my boring job. But I also knew there was some deeper part of me longing to be known.

I just didn’t know who that part was. Or how to access it.

Permission to survive

It was in the soup of that lostness that—on a sort of desperate whim—I bought a book called Soulcraft, by Bill Plotkin.

Most of what I read in it was way outside my ontological comfort zone at the time. But one half of one sentence caught my attention and wouldn’t let it go:

“…each of us has a survival dance and a sacred dance, but the survival dance must come first.”

That’s it.

In a different moment I might have read right past it like so many thousands of other sentences. But in that season it was like walking by a mirror and catching not just my own reflection, but a clearer view of where I’d come from, and a precious glimpse of the road ahead.

Here’s what I saw:

I’d spent my 20s trying to do survival dance and sacred dance all at once. Somehow I’d picked up the belief that my work had to be not just financially successful, but also the full expression of myself as a human being.

Not a bad aspiration. 

But one that I’d driven myself into depression trying to achieve.

Reading that line gave me space to accept that maybe it was okay to have “just a job” for a while. Maybe it was okay to focus on my financial stability. Maybe it was okay to prioritize my own okayness in the world.

In the years since, it’s helped me build a more stable survival dance. And that’s given me the psychic and financial breathing room to dive into exploring and discovering my sacred dance.

I’m still negotiating the tension between the two. But I think part of my sacred dance is to pass on some of what I received. 

So I’m writing this to share some key things I’ve learned about holding that tension in a generative way, including:

  1. The key aspects of a good survival dance
  2. How to discover and embody your sacred dance
  3. And how to relate to the elusive promise of a survival dance and a sacred dance that are one in the same

I hope you find in it some of the permission and guidance that’s been so helpful to me. 

At the very least, I hope it helps you see that you’re not alone in navigating the tension between livelihood and fulfillment. If you could use some more clarity in that tension right now, book a half hour with me right here and we’ll zero in on it together.

How to build a supportive “survival dance”

I can still remember how it felt to answer the “What do you do?” question during that hard season in Seattle.

Before that I’d always been good at the ‘What Do You Do’ game. When I told people I ran an international social business they were often impressed and curious. 

Now I’d watch them tune out before I even finished answering.

They heard “boring job,” assumed “boring person,” and moved on.

Which makes sense. Because in America we learn to equate people with what they do for a living. Asking someone what they do is our way of asking, “Who are you?”

But you are not your job.

That’s one reason the framing of survival dance and sacred dance is so powerful for me. 

It starts with the assumption that you’re more than your work. Instead of treating your job like the destination, it paints it more like a base camp from which you can launch the deeper expeditions of your life.

But not all survival dances are created equal.

So I want to share a few things I’ve learned about what makes a supportive survival dance.

1. It’s sufficient for your needs and stable enough.

Your survival dance is the platform from which you can pursue what’s most valuable to you. And like any good platform, it works best when it feels steady.

This looks different for different people.

Some feel most steady when they have a job with a regular paycheck. Others feel better when they’re building something alone or with a small team.

The key is that it gives you confidence that your basic needs aren’t at risk. 

That includes your current needs like food, healthcare, and housing for your family. And your future needs, like saving for retirement.

It also needs to be stable enough for your risk tolerance.

So if you find yourself constantly worrying about whether you’ll be able to meet your needs next month or next year, you might want to consider moving towards more stability.

That doesn’t necessarily mean changing jobs or careers (though it could). It might also mean deepening or broadening your skill sets. Cultivating your adaptability. Strengthening ties with the community of people who would help you find work if needed.

All of this is part of your survival dance.

And when it’s working well you feel safe and secure enough to turn some of your time and attention in the direction your longing calls you. To put it another way:

A good survival dance lets you step out of survival mode.

2. It allows you some flexibility with time and money. 

I was listening to an audiobook recently that described the lives of some high-level tech executives.

They made plenty of money. But they spent nearly every waking minute working. And all their money went into increasingly expensive houses and cars and vacations (during which they often kept working).

For all their success, their lives had very little space for themselves. 

Part of a good survival dance is that it leaves you some breathing room. Some time and money that’s yours to use how you like.

There’s a lot of ways that can look…

  • An hour every morning that you carve out for yourself.
  • A job that doesn’t care what hours you work so long as you finish your projects.
  • A line in your family budget for investing in your growth and learning.

Figure out what sort of flexibility is most supportive to you. That’s the space you can use to do the exploration of your sacred dance.

3. It connects you honestly with your community.

A big tension of the survival dance is this: 

  • It’s one of the primary ways you become known in your community.
  • But it often doesn’t feel like a very full or accurate expression of who you are.

And to some extent that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the full expression of you.

But I’ve found it’s important to choose work that has a basic level of coherence with who you know yourself to be. Here are two aspects of that to keep in mind: 

  1. You shouldn’t have to act like someone you’re not. If you tend to be quiet and even-keeled but your workplace expects you to be cheerful and outgoing all the time, that’ll probably drain the life out of you. And it’ll give people the wrong impression about who they can expect you to be in other parts of life.
  2. You shouldn’t have to contribute to something you’re against. It might seem obvious that a nature lover probably shouldn’t work for a big oil company, but lots of people find themselves in similar situations. The toll of daily working against your values is just too great.

There are limitless variations and gradations of each of these. So don’t judge yourself against an impossible standard of perfect alignment.

But the more you bring your work life into congruence with your wiring and your values, the better foundation you’ll have to be authentically known in the world.

Discover and embody your “sacred dance”

When people judged me by my boring job, the hardest part wasn’t feeling unseen. It was that it forced me to recognize an unsettling truth: 

I didn’t know who it was I wanted them to see.

Without work I was proud of to hold up as my identity, I didn’t know who I was. But I knew one thing: something in me had a deep, aching longing to be known.

That’s when my exploration of sacred dance started in earnest. 

Because if I wanted to be deeply known in the world, it was clear I’d have to start by getting to know myself.

In my experience, discovering your sacred dance isn’t something you can do by taking a course or working a system. Those things can help along the way. But instead of a destination you can finally reach and settle down in, I think it’s more like a lifetime exploration you’re continually invited into.

So here are a few guidelines for the journey that have been helpful to me:

Attend to what you love.

One of the most helpful questions I asked myself was, “What is it that I really love in the world?”

Not what I’m supposed to love, or what my culture tells me it’s good to love. But what do I love without reason or justification, just because I’m me?

The honest answer was: I don’t really know.

So I started paying attention.

What did I naturally gravitate to? What did my body lean towards, or away from? Where did paths of curiosity and longing open up? What inspired little hopeful leaps of my soul?

Over time I noticed subtle, wordless knowing I could tune into. Like a compass arrow of longing tugging at my chest.

Build inner relationships.

But instead of always pointing in one steady direction, this compass tends to point either towards or away from things in my life. “Deeper into this thing. Move away from that. Further this way. No, no, not there.”

Only with time can I discern a pattern or direction.

It reminds me of holding a child before they can speak. “Closer to that,” they point. Then when they’re done they arch and cry to tell you, “Enough! Get me away!”.

That inner knowing that comes so naturally to a one-year-old is a skill I’ve had to cultivate. Or more accurately, it’s a relationship I’ve had to rebuild.

Because it’s always been there. I’ve just been drowning it out with my ideas, judgements, and decisions.

As I got to know myself, I started to see a little constellation forming of things that bring me alive and make me feel like I might belong in this world after all. It includes things like poetry, kinship with nature, and deep conversation. But also ways of being, like compassion and a welcoming towards sadness and pain.

Risk conversation with the world.

In some ways I can look back and see how I’d been practicing these things all my life, often without knowing it.

But my days had very little dedicated space for them. Neither my community nor the wider world could probably see them very clearly in the diorama of my life.

So I started to practice them intentionally.

Privately at first. And then, with trepidation, a little more publicly here and there.

One of the most public examples is my poetry, which I often share on Instagram these days. As I brought my love of poetry into conversation with my community, I got to see the poems spread out and start doing their work in the world.

Practice what you love until it becomes service to the world.

Sometimes I get echoes back about how someone found some solace, or inspiration, or just the feeling of not being alone by reading my work. 

In those moments I see how practicing what you love can become service to the world.

I’ve never tried to define exactly what I mean by “sacred dance,” but that’s about as good a description as I can think of right now.

A few reminders for the road…

I’m still in the deep end of this journey. And with any luck I always will be. 

Because I don’t think your sacred dance is something you can master. 

It’s a dynamic between your wholeness and the world that, if you’re willing, will be teaching you new steps for the rest of your life.

So as you move towards your own sacred dance, here are a few reminders that might be helpful. Not because they tell you exactly how to find or embody it. But because they affirm what the journey is like:

  • It’s more like an exploration than a course or program
  • It’s more like a relationship than a plan or a decision
  • It’s more like a conversation than a career or a job description

As you intentionally explore your sacred dance I think you’ll find, like I have, that the more of it you bring into your days, the more alive and at home you’ll feel in the world.

How to bring your survival and sacred dances closer together

It’s tempting to hear “sacred dance” and think it means:

Career that will finally bring me total fulfillment and financial security.

But no matter how much part of me really wants it to mean that, I don’t think it does.

In fact, the first discoveries of your sacred dance will probably bear no relation at all to what makes you money. It’s like it comes from a different dimension than the money world. It speaks a different language.

It’s like bringing a tennis racquet to do some gardening (or a bag of fertilizer to a tennis court): they’re about different things.

But I think the longing to make a living from your sacred dance is natural and good. And there are ways to move closer to that goal. Some people manage it more or less completely—they build a livelihood that has their sacred dance at its center.

But before we look at how that works I want to make this very clear:

Even if your sacred dance never contributes a dime to your ability to pay the bills, that does nothing to diminish its preciousness.

Survival in this world is largely mediated by systems of money and capitalism. And those systems give us only a skewed and partial view of what is actually valuable.

But they’re also the water we swim in. 

So let’s take a look at a few ways you can close the distance between your survival dance and your sacred dance.

1. Bring more of who you are into what you do

Your sacred dance isn’t just the things you love doing. It’s also how you love and long to be. It’s probably how you already show up in your life when you feel most grounded, safe, and present.

But it’s not always easy to bring that into your workplace or community. For one thing those places often don’t feel safe. And your way of being probably isn’t a perfect match for the culture that’s expected or even demanded of you there.

So one practice is to bring more of your wholeness into these spaces. Little by little. Experiment by experiment.

As you do, you get to practice more of your sacred dance even in the midst of your survival dance.

2. Iterate your survival dance towards your sacred dance.

If you were like me when you started off in the work world, you knew very little about your sacred dance. So the job track you chose probably wasn’t very closely aligned with it.

But jobs and careers tend to change quite a lot these days.

As you navigate these changes, you can choose things that are more and more aligned with what you’re learning about your sacred dance.

This might be choosing a mode of work that’s more aligned. For example, I might choose a certain kind of writing. For you it could be working with your hands, working directly with people, or something else that fits for you.

Or it might mean choosing a new field of work like combating climate change, helping heal emotional wounds, or working towards racial and economic justice, just for a few examples.

Prioritizing this kind of alignment could mean making sacrifices in income or seniority. So keep your survival dance in mind, too.

There’s no right or perfect way to do this.

Just be honest with yourself, with your needs, and with your longing.

3. Make yourself known for your sacred dance.

Purposefully or not, you’ve spent the last few years training the world how to see you.

The way you show up, what you share about yourself, what you choose bring into (and leave out of) your conversations—all of it trains the people around you about who you are.

That’s one of the pernicious parts of that question, “What do you do?” It trains us to see each other mostly in terms of our jobs. And if the world only knows you for your job, then the invitations you get from the world will mostly be related to that job.

If you want the world to meet you on the ground of your sacred dance, you’ll have to train it.

When I first started sharing my poetry, people seemed surprised and a little unsure. It didn’t fit who they knew me to be. 

But I just kept sharing.

It’s taken a couple years, but now poetry is part of how the world sees me. I’ve made those parts of myself known. And now they’re included in how I’m met by the world and the invitations I receive.

It can take a little while to retrain people about who you are. 

But if you consistently bring your sacred dance into how you show up and what you share with the world, you’ll start being known that way. Which will open up new invitations and opportunities for those parts of you.

4. Build a survival dance around your sacred dance.

As someone who loves writing poetry, here’s what I wish would happen:

I get up in the morning, make some coffee, go for a long walk, and then sit down and work on my poetry.

Later that night while I’m sleeping, the poem fairy swoops in and gathers up the finished poems.

By the next morning they’re in the hands of readers who love them, and there’s enough money in my bank account that I don’t have to worry.

That’s the dream.

In reality, if I want my poems to reach people and (maybe… eventually…) become part of my livelihood, I need to do a lot of “survival dance” around my poetry.

  • I need to build an audience
  • Maybe submit poems for publication
  • Create valuable structures around them like books or workshops
  • And market them

In other words, even people who “do their sacred dance for a living” are actually doing a lot of survival dance around it.

Which means you can, too.

Once you’re becoming known for your sacred dance, you can start building structures around it to put it in touch with the money world.

For some people, their sacred dance might align pretty well with an established profession or career path. For others it won’t be clear at all how to start aligning the two.

Wherever you find yourself on that spectrum, it’s okay.

You’ve got time.

You’re never gonna stop doing your sacred dance. It’s who you are.

So get playful with it. Be curious. Let yourself stumble through the uncertain beginnings. Be attentive to what feels honest and aligned. Keep moving in that direction. 

It’s bound to get you somewhere.

Wherever you’re at on the journey, start there.

The other day my sister and I were swapping survival and sacred dance stories. One thing became very clear:

It’s not a linear journey.

You don’t graduate from your survival dance into the sacred dance and never return. In fact you never graduate at all.

Instead there are cycles and seasons to life. Some seasons take more focus on the survival dance. Others make more room for your sacred dance.

So whatever part of the cycle you find yourself in, I hope what you’ll take from this article is that it’s okay to be where you are right now. It’s okay to focus on what you need to focus on. Making a living is important and valuable. 

But also your livelihood is a beginning, not the end. There’s a journey beyond it. You can choose to shape your work and career intentionally to move deeper into that sacred dance journey.

If you ever feel stuck or could use some accompaniment on the journey, you’re far from alone. I’ve spent the past few years coaching people through this process towards wholeness.

Sometimes all you need is a good question and a compassionate space to answer it, and you can overhear yourself say exactly what you’ve been longing to know.

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