Story–the Other Currency

By | February 26, 2013

I recently went to a dentist to have a cavity filled.  While he was prepping me, I asked what kind of filler he was going to use.  While he replied, it occurred to me that he might be interested in the fact that I teach wilderness dental care.  I told him and his assistant about filling cavities with spruce pitch, making toothbrushes from hazelnut sticks, using sinew and plant fibers for floss, and making mouthwash from conifer needles.

I had a rapt audience–they asked about the effectiveness of the various techniques and joked about bringing in some extra money by putting their kids to work making twig toothbrushes to sell at the clinic.

When I went up to the receptionist’s desk to pay my bill, the dentist came out and said to her that there’s no charge today.  He then turned to me and said, “I enjoyed talking with you–take the money and donate it to the school you work for.”

We all have a story to tell and a gift to share; however, we become another number–just another paying customer–when we buy into that belief system by passively playing the role.  I paid one-quarter of the regular cost for knee surgery and got an even better break on the services of a heart specialist, by getting to know the practitioners and telling them what I was doing with my life. As poet Muriel Rukeyser said: life is not made up of atoms, but of stories.  We are genetically programmed to respond to stories–they are the original way we humans shared information and taught our young.

Telling your story– along with listening to the story you’ll likely be told in return–may not always save you money, yet it is bound to enrich your experience and get you the best possible service.


How Did That Feel for You?

By | February 19, 2013

Have you ever had an intimate sharing and then had your partner ask how it felt? When you’re obviously distraught, do people ask how you’re feeling?  The rational mind has moved into the territory of feelings–which evolved as a form of nonverbal communication–and reduced them to words.  When extremely distraught we might be given a reprieve, but otherwise we are expected to come up with words to describe as closely as possible what we feel. Still, it is not the feeling itself.

It seems as though sharing our feelings has come to mean anything but actually sharing the feeling. People make careers out of talking, analyzing, singing, and writing about feelings. Why have we become so afraid of raw feeling? Why have we created a culture that marginalizes feelings? We’ve gone so far as to call ourselves rational beings, relegating those who would make feeling-based decisions to a weak underclass.

To be fair, we allow women and children their feelings, but only in their own worlds.  If a woman wants to function in a man’s world, she needs to be objective and have full command of her rational capacities, which means she set her feeling self aside.  And to be fair, a man is allowed the occasional feeling, but only if it complements some rationale.

Every day I see people rationalizing their actions, either trying to convince themselves or others that what they are doing is based on sound logic. It’s obvious to me that they are just justifying their emotionally-based actions, probably because they feel compelled to maintain the illusion of being rational beings.

I believe that nearly all of the decisions that we make are emotionally motivated, and that it would be far healthier for us to admit it and create lives that allow the free and spontaneous expression of feelings, rather than having to resort to bar buddies, best friends, and weekly counseling sessions to allow what’s going on inside of us the light of day.  Imagine your whole life being like those precious moments when you feel uninhibited and allow your feelings to freely flow.  After all, it is the way of all living things–even us humans–if we could allow ourselves to function as we are designed.  Then perhaps those blissful moments could become a blissful life.

The Skinny on Food

By | November 14, 2012

For much of my adult life, I have been obsessed with food—not food per se, but rather the beliefs, preferences, and obsessions that govern what we eat.  My exploration has helped me see through them and make some sense of my relationship with food.  Following is what I’ve found: food simplified.

There are only three ways to prepare food:  raw, cooked, and fermented. All other methods are variations thereof. From a nutritional perspective, the most-preferred methods are in the order listed. Exceptions to eating foods raw are those that that are too tough to chew and can be softened by cooking, such as cartilage and bones, fish skins, and vegetable matter. Cooking can render some roots, stems, and leaves edible by breaking down their cell walls.  Fermented foods are the least desirable for human consumption, as they are such a recent occurrence in our evolutionary that we have not adapted to them. Some of the acids and other byproducts of fermentation are metabolic stress factors.

From a metabolic perspective, there are only four types of foods: sugars, proteins, fats and greens.  Humans have evolved consuming all four of them, however in quite different proportions than Westerners currently consume them.  Sugars, which include starches, are the cornerstone of our contemporary diet. Yet they played a very minor role in our evolutionary past, and in the diets of both contemporary and historical hunter-gatherers.  Fat was their main source of energy, with protein playing a secondary role.  Excessive sugar consumption (starch is quickly converted to sugar in the digestive process) over a period of time usually leads to any of a host of metabolic dysfunctions, which includes obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease.

Fruit, often consumed only seasonally by hunter-gatherers, is an expendable part of our diet.  Our sweet tooth evolved to help assure that we got an adequate supply of Vitamin C and bioflavonoids, which we need on a regular basis but can manufacture or store only to a very limited degree.   Greens can meet our Vitamin C requirement during the off-fruit season.

Fat, our traditional primary energy and fat-soluble vitamin source, came from fish, water mammals, browsers, and insects in pre-agricultural times.  The fat from those sources is low in saturated fat and high in omega fatty acids—the opposite of the typical fats we consume today, which are sourced primarily from vegetables and grain-fed animals.

For the vitamins and minerals greens provide, they are an essential part of most diets. In addition, they provide the fiber necessary for proper elimination. Meats and fats provide very little fiber.

No food type alone will sustain a human in a healthy state for an extended period of time.  However, some peoples have subsisted mostly on animal matter, and almost entirely an animal matter for periods of time. Notice that I said “animal matter” and not meat/muscle tissue.  If we had to live on animals, we would need to discard the meat and eat everything else: skin, organs (including eyes, ears, and glands), connective tissue, and brain. We would then have the variety of nutrients necessary for sustaining life, along with adequate protein and fat.  Eating the meat alone could eventually kill us, not only for lack of nutrients, but because of the depletion of nutrients and the retention of uric acid and other toxins from protein metabolization.

We evolved as omnivores, and all of the historical and contemporary hunter gatherers I have studied follow omnivorous diets.  True vegetarians (most supplement their diets with animal-sourced products) suffer health consequences over time unless they are judicious in providing themselves with the essential nutrients their diets intrinsically lack.

That’s it—the skinny on food as I know it.  Of course there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dietary practices based on beliefs and pseudoscience that run contrary to some of what I have presented here.  That does not surprise me, as our relationship with food has become so disconnected from our core reason for eating: hunger, and our core reason for what we eat: foods that are seasonally available.


Chutzpah Counseling

By | November 7, 2012

Standard psychotherapy practice is based on weekly or biweekly sessions, which generally last an hour. I know numbers of people who’ve been going to their counselors for a year or more, Friday after Friday or Wednesday after Wednesday, with no end in sight.  It’s become such an established part of their lives that it’s like going to church on Sunday.

Once upon a time, counseling was different.  I would have gone to a seer or medicine person, or I would have taken some time to fast in the woods. And I would have been healed.  I wouldn’t just take a shower as I do now and rush to get to my appointment on time—which is usually squeezed between other appointments in a busy day. I would have prepared myself, perhaps by first petitioning the healer, and then fasting, along with crafting ritual objects to focus my contemplation.  The healing itself would have been a profound event, usually involving those closest to me and marked by a feast or other ritual observance.

Nowadays I sit on a couch with the usual box of tissues beside it, hoping this time to spill my heart and leave at the end of the hour as charged as if I were watching a self-help guru on Oprah.

I often wondered why sessions seemed to so conveniently wrap up at right around 50 minutes, and why it was always necessary to come back.  And then I heard a program on public radio about a counselor who claimed that after one session he could tell whether your relationship was going to be successful or not, and why.  What a concept: one-session relationship counseling!  Sure enough, that guy had a knack—not only for asking the right questions, but for hearing what went unspoken.

This morning I woke up with a dream message: all problems—even the most confounding—have simple solutions.  If it appears otherwise, it is because I have made it so.  Yesterday I had the privilege of witnessing five people being guided back to their earliest childhoods to unravel the major behavioral problem that was tripping up their adult lives.  They each left their session with a deep sense of knowing, along with the tools to transform their lives. Why could those people get right down to it, when  it took others months’ and even years’ worth of sessions strung together like so many prayer beads?

Here’s what I observed:

  • The clients came ready and prepared. They demonstrated their trust and gave their all to the session.
  • The counselor sidestepped the chitchat, going right for what he knew was there.
  • The clients left thinking they had done it themselves.  Which, in fact, they did.

They came feeling victimized and left feeling empowered.  Awareness is the first step in healing, and they left with a deep knowing of themselves and their family dynamic, along with the confidence and wherewithal to change them.  It was like my dreamself said: the problem was complex, the solution was simple.

One issue remains: how does a counselor make a living without repeat clients?  Maybe I shouldn’t post this piece—it might cause a major disruption to the economy.


The Zombie Parent Syndrome

By | October 31, 2012

When a parent is with a young child, yet his/her mind is off somewhere else, the child can sense that the parent doesn’t want to be there.  At the same time, the child instinctively knows that she needs her parent’s’ full presence. To get it, she might try to engage the parent in play, ask questions, or tug and pull.  If that doesn’t work, she’ll ratchet it up and whine or throw something. Maybe she’ll get hyperactive and run around, or even get destructive to create a scene that the parent can’t ignore—what is typically called acting out.

It is crucially important for a parent to be fully present with a child when he is with her. A short amount of quality time is far more valuable to the child than a longer time with the parent only physically present.  Distracted presence—especially when it is repeated—causes more harm than good.  The child adopts a state of chronic neediness, where she will automatically act out in her parent’s presence. And I do mean automatically: she’ll act out whether or not her parent is fully present.

Such seemingly irrational behavior can frustrate a parent to no end, sometimes precipitating in child abuse.  The child often carries the acting-out pattern into adulthood, which manifests as  being a controlling parent and getting involved in manipulative, insincere relationships.  The lifelong repercussions for the child can be so severe that in extreme and unmitigatable cases, I recommend that the parents find a family for their child who can be present with her.

When Pain Is Passion

By | October 24, 2012

Why fill the gap, why ease the pain, why quench the hunger?  When I do, I become a couch potato—no passion, no joy of discovery, only a coaster being spoon-fed whatever someone else has prepared for me for whatever reason.

To be unsatisfied is to find satisfaction.  To be cold is to find warmth. Let me clarify: being warm is not the same as finding warmth.  When I seek warmth, I am engaged in my own life process.  I become sensitized to my feelings, my needs.  I explore possibilities, to see what works.  In the process, I gain knowledge, learn skills, and grow in relationship.

When I live in that way (what I call the teaching trail), it feels good to lay my head down at night.  It’s not just the end of another day, but the end of a day that I have lived to the fullest. I feel content with it, and I feel genuinely tired. It’s not just tired eyes, but I have exercised and exhausted my full physical-emotional-mental being. I have taken what the day had to give, and I’ve given with the day asked of me.  At the end of such a day, I know that sleep will come easy, rest will be deep, and odds are I will wake up the next day brimming with passion and anxious to jump out of bed.


Love is Wild

By | October 17, 2012

We like to approach relationship as though we were tending the perfect potted plant—we primp and prune it, we feed and water it, we take it in and out of the sun, we keep it from getting too warm or too cold.  Is it any wonder that most long-standing relationships have so little spontaneity or passion?

What if we were to view relationship as a wild plant, free to fully experience the heat and cold, to grow unfettered and be whipped by storms, to linger ad nauseam the warm summer breeze?  What if we left it free to be chewed on by browsers and nested in by hornets and birds? Free to send roots wherever they wished to go, free to either bear fruit or lie dormant. Free to cast its seeds to the wind, and free to die when it is it’s time.  Would we then not have to life of passion and spontaneity, of mystery and endless potential?  A life enmeshed in the ebb and flow of the greater life—responding to, and at the same time contributing to, it.

As I see it, the choice comes down to this:  A life of comfort and security, or a life of risk and adventure.  A life of routine and predictability, or a life of random surprise and honest emotion.  For me, the first is mere existence, and the second is living.  You can supersize me one wild love and leave the perfect rose to its pot.


Codependency Simplified

By | October 10, 2012

In Western cultures, the ideal is to be an independent individual: think for yourself, be self-sufficient, be a leader.  Yet in the same breath we are encouraged to obey and conform.  The upshot is a stratified society, where a few lead and the rest follow. There is room for only a handful of independent thinkers, while at the same time there is unlimited space for those willing to adopt the thoughts of others.

At least, that’s the way it appears on the surface.  When we take an inside look at the relationships of those who appear to be either leaders or followers, we find a great number of cases where the followers are somehow leading the leaders, and leaders are in actuality following the followers.  Those are codependent relationships, and here’s how they work:

When one person expresses her thoughts and feelings, it is usually no more than a variation of the other person’s thoughts and feelings.  When one person does something, the other person is right alongside doing it as well, or else feeling guilty for not doing it.  When one person is sad, the other person is sad; when one is happy, the other is happy.

In a severely codependent relationship, the reverse can be true.  The sad person’s emotional vulnerability is taken advantage of by his partner, who in essence climbs on his back to feel happy.  In many relationships, the happy-sad roles periodically reverse, sometimes from minute to minute.

Codependency is endemic to our civilization—it is foundational to our beliefs and institutions. I don’t know that I’ve ever witnessed a relationship that didn’t exhibit at least some codependent tendencies. Many traditional cultures have contraries and jesters, whose role is to shine the light on codependent behaviors.  In my next post, I’ll suggest an option that can be practiced, even while being stirred into a codependency stew.

For Maanii

By | September 1, 2012

“Our dear mother, Maanii is terminally ill,” stated the e-mail from her eldest daughter. “It is a matter of hours…” As quickly as we could pack, Lety and I were on the road for the nine hour drive to Canada.

For over twenty years, Maani Assinewe has been our inspiration and guiding elder. Whether it’s traditional lifeway, language, or ceremony, she serves our circle with a sense of presence and passion that belies her years. Lety and I recalled some of our most cherished memories with her. Just a month ago she visited us and said it would probably be her last time. She told us then that she was having dreams saying she was going to leave this realm in the coming white season.

At the same time, we received signs on the drive that lifted our hearts: at a toll booth the attendant waved us through, saying the person up ahead paid for us. Happening to pull up beside her at a stop, we asked her why. “A random act of kindness,” was her reply. The same thing occurred at a pay parking lot, and this time it was the attendant. Later, at the hospital where Maani was taken, the receptionist offered us blankets so we could sleep in our car while waiting to see her.

When we stepped up to her bed, she came to life. As weak and delirious as she was, I’d have been grateful enough if she were only able to recognize us and know that we came to be with her. Lety has a special relationship with her, and they hugged a long time, sharing what was only meant for them.

After being with her for a few moments, her doctor came in and asked how she was doing. “I’m very happy to be here,” she replied. My eyes moistened, and hers closed to a deep sleep as Lety and I sang to her in her in her native language: Maani, we love you; Maani we thank you; Maani we respect, cherish, and bless you.

While we sang, memories of my time with Maani blended with those of another dear elder of mine: Keewaydinoquay. I recalled that I wasn’t present at her Passing Over thirteen years ago, which made me feel all the more blessed to be there with Maani.

After we left the hospital, an eagle flew over us. With eagle being Lety’s animal guide, I took her appearance as a good sign. That, along with Maani’s joy, the fact that she knows it’s her time, and the kindnesses that accompanied our journey to see her, gave me a sense of peace about her Passing Over. Yet even though it may be her time, I’m not convinced that this is her moment. Having raised 12 children, along with running a trap line and setting fish nets, she has come to be a resilient woman. “A matter of hours” has now become days, and her heart and liver are still going strong. I ask anyone who wishes to send supportive energy her way for whatever is intended. If you have a personal relationship with Maani and would like to be kept abreast of her journey, please post a comment and I’ll keep you informed privately.

Do Birds Really Sing?

By | August 22, 2012

To our ears, the songs of many birds are melodic and joyful sounding. They lift our hearts—we write poetry about the haunting call of the loon and the flute-like trill of the thrush. But what is birdsong to the birds?  Do they see themselves as the creators of beautiful melodies, or—as many ornithologists and birders will tell you—are they only carrying out the onerous task of warning other males of their kind that any territorial infringement will be taken as a call to battle?

These options strike me as mainly anthropomorphizing—projecting onto the birds what our motivations would be in similar circumstances. When I attune to the birds’ reality, I find that our reasonings touch on their reality, but for the most part they blind us to what the birds are actually up to. Keeping pigeons and living in the wilds for most of my life, I’ve been able to develop close relationships with birds. In addition, I’ve worked on avian research projects at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve learned that there is only one way to truly understand what a bird is doing and why, and that is to become the bird. Research and study can be helpful, yet to get beyond our projections and romantic notions, nothing beats becoming bird brains. Once we do so, we can understand why birds would get a chuckle out of our calling their vocalizations, songs.

I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned through a process I call becoming, where I let go of my identity and adopt another’s.  Rather than merely observing a bird, I’m able to I fly up to the treetop with—or rather as—him and feel the wind swaying the branch under me.  I go where he goes, see what he sees, and eat what he eats. I feel what he feels—his motivations and reactions become mine.

Becoming is a doorway that I can I step through to enter bird consciousness, and then step back again to regain my human perspective and reflect on what I’ve gained.  And what is that? The first thing is a respect that borders on reverence.  A male bird vocalization can be a combination of ID card, traffic light, advertisement, word of comfort, matchmaker, referee, and hormonal regulator.  As if that were not enough, there is the concurrent intricate pantomime played out by perch location, body language, and even the time of day.  All of that in a single song, some of which are comprised of just a few notes.

Let’s take a look at some of the roles played by a typical male songbird’s call during the breeding season. Yes, the call (usually) gives notice to other males, but not so much for warning as it is to help the singer be a functioning organ within the greater organism comprised of all the members of his species in the area.  They need each other—they find strength in numbers and function in symbiotic relationship with each other.  From our perspective, they may appear to be defining and defending their territories; however, from their view they are helping each other  keep focused on their respective nests.  Rather than being competitive, they’re working together to provide a mutual support network.

One reason they all sing at the same time is that the more voices there are, the less a predator is able to focus on one.  They’re using the same technique as herding, flocking, and schooling animals. Predators generally have a much more difficult time isolating and capturing an animal from a grouping than catching an isolated animal.

I’ve observed that some bird species need a certain population density in order to nest successfully.  When their population falls below the critical number in a particular region, they either abandon it or die out. Yet with other species, isolated pairs can and do nest successfully. If you’ve ever found a solo male calling during nesting season, with no other males in sight or earshot, he may be of one of those species that can nest alone. This raises the question: if he is the only male in the area, why does he bother singing? Doesn’t it contradict what I stated above about symbiotic relationship being the reason for male vocalizations?

Though relationship with others of his kind is an important reason to call, it is far from the only one.  The males of many species will vocalize whether alone or packed together like sardines.  The most immediate I’ve found for doing so is to give comfort to the female on the nest.  Many species choose their nesting niches for the cover they provide, which contributes to nesting success, however at the cost of visual range. When not nesting or needing shelter, most birds choose perches that give them the visibility to cite oncoming predators and the time to escape.  Hearing her mate taking care of things out there allows her to relax into the job of brooding eggs and feeding young.  It is a tremendously draining task—so much so that if something happened to her mate, she might not be able continue alone.  Most females have no choice but to abandon their nests.

I hear some people lamenting the position of the poor female, who they see as having to do nearly all the work of rearing the young.  If only these people could come to see how much—how vitally much—is being done by that pretty little song.  And what risk he takes to stand out in the open and sing it.

I’ve even found an altruistic side to a male’s urge to vocalize: it helps unmated males find unclaimed territories.  When all the pared males call simultaneously, single males can listen for the sound vacuums, which point to open territories that might be suitable for nesting. At the same time, the chorus of calls can steer unmated females away from established pairs and toward areas where they are more likely to find eligible males.


What I have shared is not to give the impression that all is neighborliness and marital bliss in the bird burbs.  Even though parings and territories are solidly established in an area, the observant person can still find scrapping males and a fair amount of hanky-panky going on.  Genetic testing has shown that with some species, up to 60% of the offspring can be sired by males other than the female’s mate.  A bird’s song may not be the equivalent of ours, but when it comes to mating behavior, some birds fit our model quite well.