Why I Don’t Own Anything

By | August 8, 2012

I recently got a birthday card with an illustration of a monk exclaiming as he looked into a box he was just given by his fellow monks: “Just what I always wanted—nothing!” The card sender knew me well: I am a joyful pauper—I don’t own anything other than some clothes and a few personal items.

When I was a young man, I had successful businesses, retail property, and hundreds of acres of land. I may have been rich, but I didn’t feel wealthy. Every morning I woke up knowing that I was going to be doing something business related, that continually sapped my vital energy. One day I gave it all away, and I have yet to regret it. My life was again mine—I woke up nearly every day feeling lighthearted, and when issues came up, they were usually within my immediate realm to take care of.

Perhaps the greatest gift that came from shedding my possessions was the transformation of anxiety and fear into gratefulness. My mate Lety clearly described my new outlook on life with the dream message she woke up with yesterday morning: When I don’t own or think I deserve anything, everything is a gift. I embrace a simple smile as a cherished gift when I’m not expecting exclusive attention, and I cherish a bowl of fresh-picked wild berries as a perfect breakfast when I don’t have a basket full of store-bought fruit beside me. Now I not only understand, but feeling my heart what my elders call the Gifting Way.

Not long ago I interviewed Robert Wolff, author of Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing. “There are a lot of countries where you can’t say you own anything,” said Robert. “In Malay and some Polynesian languages, there’s no word for my. You can’t say ‘my wife, my children.’ The very idea of owning is completely foreign to them. As long as we think we own the world, each of us will want a piece of it for him/herself. The whole idea of property and owning is an evil idea—it’s the worst thing we have invented. ”

Story is the original way of sharing knowledge, and I think it’s still the best. I’d like to close with one from John Heckewelder, that I found in his book published in 1819: Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States.

Some travelling Indians having in the year 1777, put their horses over night to pasture in my little meadow, at Gnadenhutten on the Muskingum, I called on them in the morning to learn why they had done so. I endeavoured to make them sensible of the injury they had done me, especially as I intended to mow the meadow in a day or two. Having finished my complaint, one of them replied: “My friend, it seems you lay claim to the grass my horses have eaten, because you had enclosed it with a fence: now tell me, who caused the grass to grow? Can you make the grass grow? I think not, and no body can except the great Mannitto. He it is who causes it to grow both for my horses and for yours! See, friend! The grass which grows out of the earth is common to all; the game in the woods is common to all. Say, did you never eat venison and bear’s meat?—“Yes, very often.”—Well, and did you ever hear me or any other Indian complain about that? No; then be not disturbed at my horses having eaten only once, of what you call your grass, though the grass my horses did eat, in like manner as the meat you did eat, was given to the Indians by the Great Spirit. Besides, if you will but consider, you will find that my horses did not eat all your grass. For friendship’s sake, however, I shall never put my horses in your meadow again.”


The Living Arrow

By | July 11, 2012

In Western cultures, there is a bow-making profession, with practitioners in English-speaking countries being called bowyers.  People who hunt with bow and arrow are called bow hunters. There are books and magazines titled The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible and Bowhunting Magazine. All of this indicates that more emphasis is placed on the design, construction, and use of the bow than the arrow.

For many Native people, such as the San of the African Kalahari, the focus is reversed—they have arrow makers and arrow holders.  Hunters will be given arrows by various people with the request to hunt for them.  The animal killed with the arrow then belongs to the arrow gifter rather than the hunter.  This tradition begs the question:  Why is there such a stark difference between the arrow-focused hunting tradition of Natives such as the San and the bow-centered tradition of cultures such as ours?

A look at the evolution of the bow and the arrow might give clues to our answer.  The first hunting implements beyond bare hand and foot were probably the stone and the stick.  As the hunting skill and intellectual capacity of our early ancestors grew, they likely invented the club by attaching stone to stick, which increased leverage and blow force. The next advancements could have been sharpening the stone for more effective penetration, and then increasing range by attaching a small, pointed stone to the tip of a longer stick to create a spear for thrusting. As their coordination improved, they must have discovered that throwing the spear gave them even more reach and thrusting power.  With lighter shafts and sharper stones, they gained even more range and killing power.

The next step in increasing speed and range was to throw the spear with the aid of a forearm-length stick, which effectively lengthened the arm. The stick, one end of which cradled the butt end of the spear, was held by the other end and whipped forward overhand to launch the spear.

For the final step, a piece of cordage was tied to the ends of a long, flexible stick to keep it bent, creating a bow. A small spear was held to the string as it was pulled back. The string was released and the bow snapped back, flinging the arrow at an even greater velocity than the spear thrower.

The common denominator in all of these evolutionary steps is the arrow, which you can see is no more than an evolved form of the sticks our far-distant ancestors first picked up to extend their reach. Native cultures have maintained the continuum of relationship with the arrow, while we broke the continuum by giving up hunting for gardening and herding.  We became movers and shakers—bow-like people—and forgot that we used to stealthily stalk and quickly strike like an arrow. Add to that our industrial-age obsession for technology and it’s easy to see why we would put our primary focus on the bow.

My son Rab once had a 32 pound wood laminate bow that he was using for target practice.  He complained that it was slow and inaccurate, and he wanted a more powerful one. I suggested that the problem might not be the bow, as the local Ojibwe typically hunted deer and bear with 30 pound bows and found them quite satisfactory.  I didn’t say anything more, hoping experience would be the teacher.

We planned a trip to a large archery shop that had a good selection of used traditional bows. “Have your son bring his arrows,” said the shopkeeper over the phone.  I knew this was the place to go.

After looking at Rab’s bow and drawing it, the shopkeeper turned to the wall of arrows behind him, selected one, and asked Rab to shoot it after one of his own at a target in the adjoining range.

He shrugged his shoulders and shot his arrow, then looked back at us with a “See, I told you so” look.

With the same enthusiasm, he shot the new arrow. And stood there speechless.

He asked for another arrow and shot it, this time smiling and exclaiming, “This is excellent!” He said that the arrows seemed to hit the target as soon as he released them.  And the accuracy—both of them were within an inch or two of the bull’s eye.  He left with three new arrows and a big step closer to being a Native hunter.

We Westerners are deterministic—we like to get things done through planning and force.  Watching us, you’d think there was no other way. Yet our ancestors somehow made it through millions of years trusting that the plan was already laid and the force was already in motion.  Indigenous people the world over see themselves merely as organs within the great functioning organism that many of them call the Hoop of Life. “Our whole way of looking at life is wrong,” said Robert Wolff (author of Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing) to me in a recent conversation. “We are not special, we’re not superior. We’re not better than any other animal or any other life form. We’re just the same—we’re part of life.”

Occasionally a hunter will embark without a bow.  He’ll fashion a quickie bow on the spot when one is needed, and then he’ll leave it lay.  But the arrow is sacred—it’s a petition from his people, which he carries for them to deliver to the one he hunts. The arrow is the hand of the clan reaching out to help close the hoop of hunter and hunted.  The arrow serves both, speaking the desires of the humans for food and the four-leggeds to stay sharp and keep from overpopulating. When the hunter returns from the hunt, the kill and the arrow are immediately turned over to the clan—the organism that keeps him nourished.

Retirement Announcement

By | June 20, 2012

It’s time to step down—I have reached the pinnacle of my career. There can be no more glory, no more milestones to achieve. Another award-winning book would leave me flat. One more invitation to give a keynote speech, take a committee chair, or do a television special…uh-uh; give them to someone else.

Ahem. I am proud to announce that I have just been awarded the greatest of honors—I have been lampooned on Beavis and Butt-head. Yes, you heard it right. In the midst of a flurry of their signature putdowns, they distinguished me with the title of Gandalf, no less. To share in the moment—the glory—go to this page.

Now I’m sure you see that I just gotta quit while I’m on top. I plan on spending my golden years with a cold beer in one hand, a slice of pizza in the other, and my golden retriever at my feet, watching my moment in the sun over and over.


Life Beyond Calendar and Clock

By | June 14, 2012

Right now, it’s around a mealtime after high sun, and we’re in the waning crescent of the Frog-Chorus Moon, after the Very Early Melt White Season. Do you know where you are in the day and season without a clock or calendar?

I associate with two different kinds of people: one will look down at their wrists when I ask them what time it is, and the other will look up at the sun. When I ask for the day, one will consult a calendar, and the other will refer to the moon phase. I live and work with yet another group of people, the staff and students of the year-long Wilderness Guide Program. They grew up with clock and calendar, yet their hunger to connect directly with the means and ends of their existence has inspired them to leave modern time reckoning behind and look instead to nature’s timekeeping methods. Only we no longer know nature intimately—it exists out there somewhere beyond the concrete and steel—and we no longer know much of our human nature. Here is an example of the students (who are called Seekers) are connecting with their lost natures:

“How long after you set your trap did it take to catch that squirrel?”

“I made the trap about one sleep ago, but I set it only an egg roast or so before I went to check it.”

If you want to join us in reconnecting with the natural rhythms, you already have a start with terms such as sunrise and sunset. Just use early sun, high sun, and late sun instead of morning, noon, and afternoon and first light and last light in place of dawn and dusk. You could use sunsleep for nighttime, and last sun, this sun, and next sun for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Rather than using seconds, minutes, and hours, we find references that are relevant to our lives, such as a breath, a meal time, and a sleep time.

Depending on context, we use either white season or turn of the seasons for year. For Northcountry Natives, the white season is oftentimes the most memorable part of the year because of its deep snow, extended cold, and the hardships it can bring. For an infirm person or elder, surviving a white season might be a feat to be remembered. The long-term passage of time is noted by the number of white seasons. From trapping camp in the Freezing-Over Moon to fishing camp in the Snow-Melting Moon, both sides of the white season are major times of movement for the nomadic North People. Summer is the green season. Most Natives here have no parallel terms for spring and autumn, which are considered just transition periods between the two main seasons.

We follow the Native tradition of naming each moon after its notable event. There is the Falling-Leaves and the Budding-Leaves Moon, the Fish-Spawning and the Goose-Returning Moon, the Freezing-Over and the Ice-Leaving Moon, the Strawberry and the Blackberry Moon. Deep in the white season, there is the Long Night Moon, and in the flush of the green season there might be a Thunderbird Moon. (For more on relationship with the moon cycle and seasonal changes, I’ve written Fat Moons and Hunger Moons: The Turn of the Seasons for Northwoods Natives.)

Where hunter-gatherers account for the passage of time by the moons, agricultural peoples traditionally use the sun cycle, with its solstices, equinoxes, and points in between. With late snows, early melts, and ever-changing weather and animal patterns reflected in moon time, agriculturalists need the more consistent sun-time regimen for planting and harvesting, along with related rituals.

Being creatures of habit and pattern, we’ve found it a great challenge to use conscious and relevant time references rather than automatically falling back on what we are accustomed to. We make a game of it, often times getting a good laugh out of the ludicrous options we come up with. Imagine telling someone it was a good gut-gurgle before you realized it wasn’t sprinkling but there was a squirrel on the branch above you. Life has become all the richer for the challenge—it has given us the opportunity to become more engaged in our communication, more conscious of our surroundings, and more aware of the passage of time. We have adopted the approach to other aspects of our lives, such as the naming of plants and animals. Grouse is now Drumming Bird, Dragon Fly is Mosquito Hawk, and Northern Pike is Water Wolf. Native peoples do the same, even naming themselves with consciousness and regard for their greater relationships.


I’m OK Having Sh…I mean Swiss Cheese, for Brains

By | June 11, 2012

If you noticed that this post is similar to the one it replaced, I encourage you not to dwell in the past. After all, I merely replaced one illusion with another.

It’s all the rage to glorify the now. We’re told it’s the key to success in everything from golf to satoric bliss. The book, The Power of Now, is a perpetual bestseller. Glenn Helkenn has a fresh approach to time and space in his recent blog post, Time: the elephant in the room (I encourage you to sign up for his provocative blog at www.practicalprimitivist.com). He uses a Zen approach to show how imaginary elephants can give us insight on the Stone Age. (Yeah, Glenn’s a little quirky, but you’ll see that it works.) His premise is that our view of the Stone Age being a long-lost era is as much a figment of our imaginations as a pink elephant, and that if there are yet stones and the ability to grasp them, the Stone Age lives.

I’d like to get risqué and throw real elephants into the mix as well. From Zen perspective, we imagine our existence–everything is a mental construct, whether it be fantasy or flesh. Even if I can actually touch an elephant, he is still of my making. So often I have been certain of what I’ve seen or experienced, only to be shown otherwise. And then had what I was shown blown away.

Glenn goes on to show how we create time the same way we create elephants: past and future are just mental constructs. I’d like to throw the present–the esteemed Now–in the mix as well. (See a pattern emerging here?) The Zen mind shows everything, whether we see it as past, present, or future, occurring simultaneously. So whatever we imagine or remember is real and now, and vice versa.

Stone Age, then, never was or will be, yet always is. I can prove it is just an illusion of our past (click here for proof), and at the same time I can prove it is still alive (even if not well) by pointing to Amazonian tribes and Adaman Islanders), and then I can prove the potential for still living it tomorrow, just as Glenn did by touching a stone. Yet all I have proven is that I have an imagination.

Or have I? We can apply the same Zen perspective to show that the concept of imagination is as riddled with holes as our beliefs in reality and the now.

If our mental gyrations around time and matter don’t amount to anything anyway, what fuels our incessant preoccupation with the topics? I think it’s fear. We don’t know where either  ourselves or this mad world are headed, but if we can get a handle on where we came from and what is real, maybe it will point out a direction to head.

Therein lies our quandary: we look for stability and direction to allay our fear, so we set our minds to work creating a present reality and a future envisionment. However, we—and all of life—are designed to survive by continually deconstructing reality and avoiding time constructs. Be as a question. The only constant is change. We intrinsically know this, and we know how to live it. Our only remaining task is to step beside our blinding fear.


It’s Evil–Or Is It?

By | May 16, 2012

Whatever residual belief I held of good and evil was smudged out last night by a dream where several people and I were being detained by a couple of smooth-operating thugs. They exuded such calm, slick professionalism that they didn’t need to level any threats or brandish any weapons to keep us quiet and sitting tight.

At the same time, they displayed a keen sense of rapport with each other. You could tell by their respectful demeanor that they held each other in regard. They exuded trust and a shared sense of purpose. When I woke up, a line from a Bob Dylan song came immediately to mind: To live outside the law you must be honest (from Absolutely Sweet Marie, on his 1966 Blonde on Blonde album).

In my dream, I had the training manual on ESP and other deep listening skills with me that I was reading the day before in awake time. Suspecting the outlaws would relate to the subject matter, I showed one of them the book. He was immediately intrigued.

I woke up from the dream and lay in bed for a while, basking in the feeling of deep kinship I experienced with those two men. There, under the umbrella of evil, I found a wealth of kindness and character, along with exemplary examples of personal empowerment.

Forbidden Fruit Is Created, Not Grown

By | April 16, 2012

My friend Craig’s six-year-old nephew didn’t like carrots and refused to eat them. One day he walked into the kitchen and asked Craig what he was snacking on. “Oh, this is special adult food,” he replied. “You’re too young for it—you’ll have to wait until you grow up to enjoy carrots.”

A while later, Craig was sitting in the living room and caught a glance of his nephew sneaking into the kitchen. Craig heard the fridge open and smiled. From that day on, carrots have been one of his nephew’s favorite foods.

My father did the same thing to me when I was child—only inadvertently—by forbidding me to play with a kid down the block whose family was poor. I just knew he had to be the most fascinating kid in the neighborhood. I used to do something similar with my dog, who hated orange peels. They became irresistible when I created a mock tussle for them—he’d gobble them down.

I see the phenomenon regularly played out in many aspects of life: cultural, economic, religious, even relational. An everyday item or relationship can be given premium value by creating an aura of scarcity around it. Thanks to our scarcity-based culture, we’ve become adept at creating forbidden fruit through advertising, hoarding, taboos, and belief systems.

Whatever distances or restricts us from something creates desire, and desire is far more powerful than need. And more costly: obsessions, addictive behaviors, chronic depression, and insurmountable debt.

If we were living in the natural world as hunter-gatherers, we’d be dwelling in a state of abundance rather than scarcity. When we wanted something, we would forage for it or create it, and any restrictions or limitations would be naturally occurring. Mine is a hybrid life, and I often chuckle at the resulting contradictions, such as $6 a pound organic grass-fed beef versus all the free premium grass-fed roadkill I could ever want. And that fancy bottled water… I don’t think I’ll ever drink my lake dry.

I know, not everyone can live the way I do. Even though there are ways around much artificially created scarcity, most of us will still end up being trapped in our supply-and-demand economy. I treat it as a game, cheating the devil when I can, winning fair-and-square when I’m able, and losing only by appearance. Someone can overvalue or devalue what really matters to me only if I buy into their system. They make it seductive—I need to be constantly vigilant. As long as I live from my heart and surround myself with people of heart, I do fine.

When Differences Become Problems

By | April 9, 2012

I once met a woman with long, dark hair who moved with a flowing grace. She revered Gandhi, listened to Andreas Vollenweider, and treated all beings with kindness. We found ourselves nodding in agreement so much we hardly had to talk. We were the perfect couple, and that first year together I thought we had returned to Eden.

And now for the fairytale ending—it turned out to be the most boring relationship I ever had. The conversation, the sex, even the meals, were so excruciatingly predictable that I felt like Bill Murray caught in his endless Groundhog Day time loop. I laughed at the fact that if irreconcilable differences were grounds for divorce—I was screaming to get out because of irreconcilable similarities. A marriage counselor’s bread-and-butter is resolving differences; who could I turn to? Everyone told me I had the relationship to die for; how could I make them understand that I was dying because of it? Living with my clone might have been fun for a while, and a stroke for my ego to boot; however, how long can one stand gawking at himself in a mirror?

I’ve come to learn that fertile ground comes not from all clay or all humus, but from the blending of many diverse elements. Resolving differences might create stability in a relationship, but along with it comes blandness. It may not be easy to live with diversity, but it’s impossible to live without it.

If I’m in my ego, I perceive differences as a threat. If I’m in my heart, differences sweep me out on my frontier, where I can be wowed by the unknown and tremble with exhilaration from the unexpected. Of course there is one hitch—isn’t that always the case? Living from the heart takes centeredness and trust, not to mention embracing perhaps the greatest fear: abandonment.

All those formula patch-’em-up-and-send-’em-home therapists and self-help books are doing us a tremendous disservice. If they could retool and help us honor diversity, I believe they could not only help us have loving relationships, but a loving world.

The Fast Track to Healing Emotional Pain

By | April 3, 2012

Experiencing physical pain is pretty much a given; experiencing emotional pain is optional. When pain receptors in the body are stimulated, we suffer, plain and simple. However, we are much more in control of our emotional reactions. The mind’s emotional responses are governed by a belief system, which we can consciously choose. Once installed, it becomes the mind’s de facto operating system.

To show how it works, imagine your son is joining the military. Now imagine your emotional response, which could be happy, distraught, or neutral, depending on your convictions or lack thereof. Now imagine someone showing interest in your lover. Perhaps you feel insanely jealous—a common response for people in our culture. Yet if you were a member of a native culture patterned after the gifting way, you might feel honored and glad to share.

Dealing with emotional pain directly is akin to taking aspirin for a headache: it might help you feel better, but the source of your comfort goes unaddressed. Fortunately, emotional pain can be greatly reduced, even eliminated, by going to its source and eliminating it. I’ve watched vegetarians who got sick at the smell of meat grow to savor it, and seemingly heartless soldiers become caring pacifists, simply by changing their belief systems.

The solution may be simple, but not necessarily the process. It most often takes time and tremendous dedication, although it could be miraculously quick. We like to think we are conscious beings, but the vast majority of what we feel, think, and do is just knee-jerk reactions. The usual evolution to a new belief system occurs not as a steady progression, but in fits and starts. The stronger your vision and supportive community, and the more trust you have in them, the faster your transformation. But no matter what the speed, the release from emotional bondage is truly a miracle.

Feelings Just Are

By | February 16, 2012

It is commonly believed that feelings are either expressed, which is healthy, or repressed, which is unhealthy. As a child in a family where the expression of feelings was sometimes traumatic, even violent, I couldn’t buy into the belief. It was a matter of survival—I found safety in stuffing my feelings and insulating myself from the moods of others.

Yet I suffered. My introvertedness isolated me from friends and I dreamed of being part of a family where I could feel relaxed and be myself.

Several nights ago I had a dream that told me feelings are always spontaneously expressed. You can’t argue with dream, so I explored the possibility. Is the stereotypical stoic Indian or unflinching martyr showing feeling? Does one person have to perceive another’s feelings in order for them to qualify as being expressed? And what about the often-expressionless wolves in the pack I lived with, or me the hunter masking all intent and feeling when stalking my prey? I couldn’t imagine all of these people destined to lives plagued with ulcers or repression-fueled violent outbursts.

An image came to me of emotional energy being water that flows freely down a stream. A beaver dam impedes the flow and the water pools behind the dam. Lily pads float on its surface, water birds and fish find it a welcome home, and the beaver find it a safe haven by building their lodge out in the middle.
Only if I held on to the belief that water needs to flow in order to be expressive could I see the water behind the dam as stifled. My prey couldn’t read my emotional state, but another hunter could. The same with the stone-faced wolves: when I had an intuitive connection with them, their feelings came through loud and clear. For a few days now, I’ve been experimenting with the awareness that feelings are always spontaneously expressed. Already I notice my increased sensitivity to people’s moods, even though they give me no overt clues. I’m now open to the possibility I have created a monster by believing in stuffed feelings.