Formula for Health

By | January 23, 2012

I encourage anyone who wants to turn his/her life around and get super healthy—physically and emotionally—to read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich. Along with a new take on human evolution, you’ll learn why there is no substitute for running. Humans evolved as nomadic foragers, always moving, and we naturally stay in optimal health when we do what we are designed to do, the way we’re designed to do it.

The running style presented by McDougall and Heinrich is what we practice here at the Teaching Drum. Every other day, a group of us goes running off trail and through the woods, and we stay in great shape. One reason is that our “run” includes all the bending, twisting, and jumping necessary to go over, under, around and through whatever lies before us. When people ask what we’re up to, I tell them we’re off to do native yoga. Lately we’ve been throwing in push-ups, yesterday we each did 275.

Along with woods running, add a paleo diet, living water, clean air, and low stress, you might hardly recognize yourself after a few months. Even if you think you’re doing well now.

Some people are afraid to come running with us because they’ll incur injuries with light footwear on uneven terrain (we run in moccasins or similar). The truth is we fare much better than running shoe-clad road joggers, 70% of whom sustain injuries in any given year. During my road and trail running days, I ended up spending a total of two years on crutches due to several ankle and stress injuries. With my last injury, I went to a physical therapist to get fitted for an ankle brace. I thought he was joking when he suggested that I get out there and use the ankle as I normally would, only gently to start with. His reasoning was that the ankle, being used, would heal strong and in alignment with the way I used it. Additionally, I would not have to come back for physical therapy to strengthen the ankle or restore full motion.

I haven’t had another injury since I swore off of hard surfaces several years ago. Only I feel guilty for further weakening our economy by steering people away from damaging footwear and useless therapy.

Beauty Is

By | January 17, 2012

Every day a woman elder followed the path down to the stream to get water, which she brought back in two rawhide buckets on the ends of a pole she carried across her shoulders. One of the buckets had a tear in it, while the other was perfect. By the time the woman made it back to her lodge, the torn bucket would be half empty.

Four turns of the seasons passed, and each day the perfect bucket grew more proud of himself for being able to deliver a full measure of water. “I am ashamed of myself,” said the torn bucket. “I am a failure—this tear in my side lets water leak out all the way back up the trail.”

The kind elder looked over to him, laid her hand upon his damaged, water-stained skin, and smiled. “Have you noticed all the herbs and flowers that now grow on the left side of the trail?” she said. “And look at the Mice and Birds and Butterflies who have come to live there. The right side of the trail is still dry and dusty. That’s because I have always carried you on the left—my gifting side—which is closest to my heart. Rather than seeing you as flawed and arriving half empty day after day, I saw you as half full and overflowing with generosity. You trusted, you shared your gift with your hoop of relations. In the way that giving is receiving, you have made room within yourself for the beauty and nourishment that has come from your gifting. And it is not only you, but the perfect bucket, and me, and so many others we cannot know, who have been bathed in your blessings.”

Do We Really Want More of the Same?

By | January 9, 2012

Popular forms of toning exercises, such as yoga and qigong, along with modern martial arts, are based on repetition and memorization of forms. The approach fits well with our civilized training to be mind-centered and lead repetitive task-based lives.

We are designed to function differently, as we evolved in the natural world, where nearly every movement is an adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Such movement does not originate in the mind, and we cannot rely upon memory to execute it. Rather, we must be in communion with the life around us and attuned to its collective consciousness. We are then able to remain centered and move in a coordinated fashion, ever observing and analyzing as we adapt and adjust like a bough to the breeze.

In such a state, we are fully alive—a functioning organ within an organism. We can carry on a continual dialogue with all that surrounds us. No longer just creatures trained to execute cause-and-effect responses, we begin to see new options presenting themselves. Looking around and through situations at hand, we can reformulate them and come up with creative solutions.

Even more importantly, we’ll find that situations will often evaporate. The energies at play are then freed of their structures and lose their identities, and we can align ourselves with them. We will then know the Zen—the essence—of all forms and movements.

Wolves Made Me Do It

By | January 6, 2012

I just did something dishonest—I helped organize a Wolf tracking class and got people from all over the country and Europe to register for it, only I didn’t tell them that all along, I had an ulterior motive.

It all started when I was in my 20s. I lived with a pack of Wolves, and they were my family. I felt closer to them than to the people in my life. Three times people threatened to kill every animal in the pack, and once a group of hunters showed up with rifles-in-hand to do it. Their children were at risk, they said, and the deer herd would be decimated.

The showdown resolved itself without a shot being fired, yet those men left me with a precious gift: they convinced me that the only effective way to change Wolf’s fate was by introducing the public to the real animal behind the big-bad-wolf image. Along with that, people needed to be educated on the vital ecological role Wolves and other apex predators played.

Now Wolves are returning to the Northwest and Southwest, along with regions in Europe, and they are meeting the same fierce resistance they once did here in Wisconsin. Poaching is an issue, just as it was here. A couple of high-profile court cases helped slow it down, but it was mostly changing attitudes that did it. Now our Wolves are doing resoundingly well—they’re moving into what was typically considered marginal territory, and they are thriving.

We who have a passion for wolves can play a helpful role in turning public opinion around. Here in Wisconsin, we now have 30 years of experience running a public relations program that has created an amenable-enough climate for Wolves and humans to coexist. One of our greatest successes is Wolf Awareness Week, a once-a-year-event where Wolf ecology is worked into the natural sciences classes of all primary and secondary schools. Two key figures in the Wisconsin PR program will be participating in the Wolf tracking class, which will offer a prime opportunity for participants to learn firsthand what has worked here and take it home with them.

There, I confessed—now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

How to Win the Pain Game

By | December 5, 2011

Do you suffer from chronic pain? So do I, along with one out of three US citizens, but only one out of eight Japanese. Why the difference? Most chronic pain is self-made, and the way we deal with it is culturally dictated. When pain persists beyond an injury’s healing phase, it no longer has a physiological basis, so drugs and physical therapy can do little or nothing to resolve it. Which of course is no news to those of you who’ve tried.

This afternoon I saw a physical therapist named Robert to get some help for my ever-present sore neck. He examined me and said my neck was fine, that my problem was all in my brain. He had my attention. As he explained why, I nodded in agreement nearly the whole time—he was describing essentially what I had come to realize about chronic emotional pain. We talked for an hour, comparing healing approaches: his to physical pain and mine to emotional pain, and we found very little difference. In fact, what I stated above about chronic physical pain relates to the emotional form as well, so please keep this in mind as we continue.

First, an explanation. Those of you who know me as a storyteller and wilderness skills instructor might be wondering why I would know anything about emotional pain. Anyone who has taught skills in a primitive living situation will tell you that they often end up doing more counseling than anything else. You can’t get very far with skills unless you can guide people through the discomfort thresholds, limiting beliefs, and dysfunctional relationship patterns that typically trip them up shortly after they step out of their comfort zones. In a primitive camp, you have to function independently and responsibly, without the crutches of accustomed routines and escapes. There’s a sign on Robert’s door, “Human primate social groomer,” that could just as easily hang on mine.

Robert and I agreed that chronic physical and emotional pains are both fundamentally incurable. I went to counselors for years before I got fed up with the endless weekly visits and decided to take responsibility for my life. There were a few times when I didn’t think I could make it to my next weekly appointment, so would give my counselor a desperate call. I know numbers of people like I was: they’ve been seeing counselors for years, with no end in sight. Many others who don’t see counselors either self-medicate or use prescription antidepressants. In the past twenty years, the use of antidepressants has increased nearly four-fold—even with teenagers. One in four women between forty and fifty-nine is on antidepressants. I’ve added psychologists and (on the recommendation of my physical therapist) most chronic pain treatment professionals to the ranks of attorneys, politicians, and clergy who enable us with crutches to keep us crippled and limping along rather than helping us take charge of our lives.

Let’s use physical pain as a metaphor for exploring this endless dependency. Most chronic pain, Robert stated, is not the result of injury but of a life where nearly everything we do is repetition-based. We train ourselves to experience an endless loop of pain the same way we train for a routine that makes today no more than a photocopy of yesterday or the day before.

Here’s how it works: when we injure ourselves, we withdraw the injured area to protect it, and pain is our reminder to keep it protected during the healing phase. The pain becomes chronic when it persists beyond the healing phase, and it can do so because it is created in the mind, not the body. This is true whether it’s a headache, back pain, or a sore neck. Nerves in the affected area do not feel pain—they only send data to the brain, which decides whether or not to push the pain button, also located in the brain. Some people with amputated limbs will tell you they still feel pain in that limb (known as phantom pain), and there are others with broken bones and other serious wounds who feel no pain at all. Drugs and therapy do no good, as there is nothing to medicate or manipulate.

Here’s where our repetition-based lives fit in, as neurons that repeatedly fire together, wire together. After my neck injury, I continually held my neck in a position that would minimize the pain, which trained my brain to push the pain button whenever I turned my neck out of that position. Now, long after my neck is healed, my brain still pushes the pain button whenever I turn my neck in a certain way, but now with no neural input from my neck. I have created a self-perpetuating cycle that may never end. The same with emotional pain: after a while those people who keep making me angry or jealous don’t have to do whatever it is that triggers me anymore: their mere appearance—or just the thought of them—causes those programmed neurons to automatically flick the pain switch. Each of us has around forty-five miles of nerves in our body, with a significant part of our circulatory system being devoted to maintaining them. No wonder we can so easily end up being controlled—even victimized—by them.

If I were living a primitive outdoor life, my movements would be continually varied, so neurons wouldn’t wire together. When my neck injury healed, the pain would naturally have left.

However, I lead a hybrid life, where I hold my neck in the same position for periods of time, such as right now when I’m writing. According to Robert, my key to pain cessation—and perhaps yours as well—is to realize that when I hurt, it doesn’t mean I have been harmed. Knowing the pain is all in my head, rather than in my muscles (or emotions), I no longer have to let it limit what I do with my body or feelings. I can resume control of my life rather than being victimized by my pain telling me how to move or feel.

The cure is movement. Rather than reading the pain as a call to limit movement, I’ll now read it as a request to restore full movement. When I move my neck the way my brain warned against for so long by pushing the pain button, I start disconnecting the button’s neural wiring. Even though there is pain, I gently explore the formerly forbidden movement area by allowing my body to intuitively find its own way around it. My body knows what to do: it has the genetic programming from a long evolutionary history of natural movement. Robert stressed proceeding gently, as pushing too hard could cause the brain to further entrench itself in the pain pattern.

“I might not be coming back to see you,” I told Robert as I shook his hand to leave after only my second appointment. “I don’t think physical therapist is a proper title for you: I think you ought to call yourself an awareness coach.” He just smiled and pointed to the sign on the door.

Cold Turkey: No Longer Just for Sandwiches

By | November 27, 2011

I’m a passionate man—a doer. At the same time, I like to approach change gradually. Too fast and I don’t have time to adjust, which usually results in my efforts backfiring. Or so I thought.

Yesterday I read an article in a health report that claimed 90% of those who were successful at quitting smoking for more than a year did it by going cold turkey—on the spot, on their own, with no supplemental medication or counseling. Impressive sounding, but not very believable. After all, everyone knows that those who quit addictive drugs cold turkey break out in cold sweats, hallucinate, and are wracked by insatiable cravings. Besides, how could such a high percentage of people be so successful on their own when most smokers I know are like comedian George Burns, who said that quitting smoking was easy—he’d done it a thousand times.

And what if other smoking cessation methods were as effective as going cold turkey?  In 0.46 seconds, Google handed me a dozen solid research reports that all said the same thing: the drug companies were milking the public with their nicotine patches, gums, and whatnot—they showed long-term success rates of only 3 to 10%, with a near-100% failure rate for those making a second attempt. Drugs like bupropion and smoking succession clinics fared better, reaching 30%.  Not even combination methods could come close to cold turkey.

While perusing the reports, I came across another statistic: two thirds of smokers would prefer to quit gradually. If only they knew the odds, I thought. And then I realized I was one of them—I too favored the gradual approach. Did that mean I was a failure along with all those wannabe non-smokers?

I reviewed the major changes I had made in my life, which included quitting alcohol and becoming a vegetarian, and I did every one of them…cold turkey. So pass the mayonnaise; I’m now an advocate of cold turkey on rye, cold turkey casseroles, and any other way the long-snubbed leftover can be put to good use.

When Depression Is Not

By | November 19, 2011

Why do so many of us of us feel helpless when someone close to us sinks into a state of depression? And why do those of us who experience depression often feel helpless ourselves? I know many people who just want to withdraw and be left alone, or else they turn to medications and therapists.

Both scenarios tell me that we have incorrectly defined depression. People experiencing states of depression usually tell me that nothing matters to them—they just don’t seem to care about anything. Psychologists tell me the same thing: their patients often neglect themselves and shirk their responsibilities. Here we have not an emotional, but an emotionless, condition. Depression, then, seems not to be a state of being, but a disconnect which creates the absence of a state of being.

Therapy for depression is much like trying to correct grammar on a blank page. An editor  can sit down with her dictionary, red pencil, and creative writing degree, and still she will find herself staring at only a blank page. She can talk with the wanna-be author about what brought her to this blank-page state and how her fortunes might turn if the page weren’t blank, but nothing can really be done with the blank page itself.

Here lies my contention with a good share of what the mental health profession spends its time doing: applying band-aids to something that doesn’t exist. If therapists were focused on prevention, they would do much better at justifying their careers. At least the medical profession—in most cases—has something to treat, even as shameful as is their lack of focus on prevention.

Mental health is an everyday affair, which means we need to take personal responsibility for our well-being and that of those close to us. There, the pronouncement was easy; and now for the prescription, which is even easier to state. However, practicing it is perhaps the most difficult endeavor anyone could undertake in this day of disempowerment and isolation: follow your heart.

How the Ancestors Live On

By | November 14, 2011

It is common knowledge that in long-standing traditional cultures, ancestor worship is practiced. Many of us have heard the phrase “Honor the ancestors” spoken by American Indians. However, what we hear may not be exactly what they intend to say. We who record our history and have noun-based languages tend to view our ancestors as actual people, where Native people, whose history is oral and generally have verb-based languages, relate not so much to their ancestors as to their ancestral way.

Part of our misunderstanding arises from the way we perceive culture. The United States has a composite culture, formed from older civilizations having many different languages and traditions. Native people, on the other hand, belong to continuum cultures, where there is little difference in cultural practices from generation to generation. There is little reason to distinguish one historical era from another, or to hold particular ancestors in regard. Instead, the ancestral way is respected—it gives continuity to life by drawing to mind what has worked for untold generations and is thus likely to work now. These vital teachings are not about the people of the past, but about the way they lived—the ancestral way.

There is still cultural change, to be sure; however, it usually occurs slowly and against the backdrop of a long-standing, stable culture.

The continuum perspective carries through to visions of the future. When making major decisions, many traditional American Indians consider their legacy by taking into account the effect of their actions on the seventh generation to follow them. Future generations will likely never know the name of a person who long ago made a decision that now affects them, yet they will know that this long-ago ancestor honored the ancestral way, and that this is why they are benefiting.

We Westerners do things a little differently: we created a me-generation culture that takes from the past what will benefit us in the here-and-now, and we consider our contribution to the future to be the personal material gain we amass in the here-and-now. Rather than honoring our fellow people and the traditions we share, we exploit them to amass the stocks and bonds and real estate our descendants will inherit. Correction: might inherit. In this day especially, our material legacy might not survive long enough to be seen by coming generations. Yet whether it survives or not, we will give them the planet we helped rape to create our wealth. Along with the struggle between the haves and the have-nots we helped ignite.

Can a noun-based culture such as ours become a continuum culture? It has yet to happen, probably because of what they have thrown at their problems: guns and money—both nouns. A continuum culture addresses its problems with heart.

A Heart-to-Heart with Mythical Alaska

By | November 4, 2011

At the Alaska Bioneers conference in October, I attended Jaime Van Lanen’s workshop on regional wild food procurement. Jaime, an anthropologist studying Alaskan subsistence patterns, has a passion for indigenous ways of procuring food. Last year, he successfully hunted a Moose with a primitive bow.

Jaime started the workshop with some myth busting: rather than the land of abundance that many of us envision, Alaska is a biological desert. Typical of northern climes, Alaska has a low biomass and not much diversity of plant and animal species. “But what about all the Moose, and the Caribou herds?” I can hear some of you asking, “and the rivers teeming with Salmon?” Moose hunters have only a 19% success rate, stated Jaime, and it is even lower for Caribou. Unless you are a subsistence hunter, you must enter a lottery in hopes of getting a tag, and for an open hunt you need to go all the way up to the North Slope. The total Caribou population is 950,000, while Michigan, a state only 15% the size of Alaska, has a Whitetail Deer herd numbering twice that of Alaska’s Caribou.

After Jaime and the other participants stated that many residents can take advantage of seasonal protein concentrations such as running Salmon and migrating Caribou, Jaime recounted an interview he did several years ago with an over 90-year-old Athabascan elder who lived his whole life on the Black River. “Tell me more about [life in] the 1800s,” Jaime asked. The elder replied, “Straight meat, you gotta like it.”

In order to live off of such a thinly-spread biomass, Jaime said that all subsistence hunters today, including Natives, rely on four wheelers, motorboats, and snow sleds. Gas is already $10 a gallon in some communities, and when it and the subsidies to purchase it are no longer available, Jaime believes there is going to be a mass population exodus. He says that without fuel and ammo, even the state’s best hunters will go hungry.

What did all of this mean to the workshop participants? Most of them felt strengthened in their commitments to climate-adapted gardening, supplemented by subsistence hunting and fishing. Jaime, on the other hand, said he’ll continue collecting as much as he can of the little-remaining knowledge of regional foraging and preservation methods. He added that that sedentary living and reliance on carbon fuels have erased irreplaceable knowledge in just two generations.

For me, the workshop was further confirmation that if it doesn’t come from your bioregion, it doesn’t contribute to sustainability. In fact, it accelerates the downward spiral to unsustainability. I don’t know of anything better at destroying while creating the illusion of helping than fossil fuels and firearms. As the Elders have told me, Earth Mother provides all that we need within our regional Hoop of Life.

Last Frontiering

By | November 1, 2011

Lety and I just returned from a trip to Alaska, or I should say “almost Alaska.” With its well-kept suburban neighborhoods and typical fast food joints, Anchorage could easily pass for a city in the lower 48. Our hosts were ready with a response: Anchorage is just 15 minutes from Alaska.  Sure enough—right outside of town and we were in the bush.

We were there to take part in the eighth annual Bioneers in Alaska Convention. I think what impressed them most about our contribution was Lety’s gymnastics. During my keynote, I asked Lety to come up on stage and demonstrate bow-and-drill fire making. You’d expect someone—especially a silver-haired woman in a long skirt—to sidle out to the aisle and up the stage’s side steps. But not Lety. She nearly got a round of applause after she hopped over two rows of theater seats and right up onto the chest-high stage (she can do 100 push-ups, by the way, so think twice before messing with her).

The next morning in the convention hall lobby, some children tied a couple of long scarves together for an impromptu jump roping. We walked by and Lety joined in. All heads turned again to catch this elder woman in a long skirt, this time doing fancy double-jumps, spins, and dips. The theme of the convention was resilience,adapting to a changing planet, and Lety certainly showed by example how resilient one can be.

What impressed me most about the conference was the spirit that permeated everything. Here in the lower 48 we have a plethora of conferences, workshops, and rendezvous events of various sorts to choose from, and many of us attend several a year. We may leave one event inspired, but we’re soon on to something else. Not so in Alaska, where the Bioneers event is all there is. Alternatively oriented people of all persuasions come together to network and share ideas, and the inspiration they gain from the event sustains them for the entire year. It feels like a gathering of the clans—people from many regions of Alaska come to participate, and there is a feeling of true camaraderie, with very little wrangling over philosophical differences. We’re looking forward to going back next year.

Lety was asked to give the conference’s closing words, and here is an excerpt that so-well sums up our experience: “I feel really honored and blessed to have spent this time with you. I know that we are never apart—we are always together—and I will always remember you, your beautiful smiles. Let’s stay connected and create that community we envisioned amongst ourselves. We can do it because we become what we surround ourselves with, and the more that we encircle ourselves with people who are living in balance, whether they are  leafed or furred or two-legged or four-legged, the more our light will shine, the more our vision will grow.”