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.”

The Best Time to Quit

By | October 9, 2011

I once thought the odds of kicking a habit would be in my favor if I just waited until everything was right—a supportive relationship, low stress, and a fulfilling activity to replace my habit. There was only one problem: it didn’t work. Instead of a supportive situation, I actually set myself up to fail. How long can one reasonably expect an idyllic situation to last? And what better excuse is there to give up than that inevitable turn for the worse?

Besides, I didn’t have any real motivation to quit when things are going well. My resolve was by far the strongest when I was struggling the most with my addiction—when its fallout was being rubbed in my face and I was so disgusted with myself that I didn’t see any hope. I had nothing more to lose and everything to gain. I could no longer fool myself into thinking that if only I waited until my life was on a smooth track, I’ll be able to conquer my demon. Yet the strongest argument was that if I could start when I was at my lowest, I knew it could only get better.

Still, I had no motivation—when I was depressed, I just wanted to crawl into a hole and be left alone. The driving force came when those who cared decided to quit enabling me and instead join with me. They told me they knew I couldn’t do it alone—nobody could. They said they were going to do it with me, and starting right now. They each had their demons they wanted to purge also, and we would help and support each other.

It worked. And it works for most of people I pass the approach on to. As long as they have the clear and unwavering involvement—not support, but involvement—of the people closest to them.

Nature’s Community, Our Community

By | October 5, 2011

I meet and talk with many people who are looking for a well-organized community that features regular drumming and singing, storytelling, games, and ceremonies. I understand their yearning, and at the same time I am concerned that they are looking to substitute one ready-made culture for another. They are not stripping down to life’s essence in order to shed the old formulas of passive participation and lack of direct involvement in the creation of culture.

Indigenous culture evolves from living the lifeway, not the other way around. A living, vibrant community that is of the people springs forth from the people. This includes all people—animal, rock, plant, and cloud, along with human. Rather than starting a community, indigenous humans join the community of all these people that already exists. The humans listen and learn how to live sustainably in their new surroundings, how to be honorable and respectful of all the life there, and how to function in balance like an interactive organ within a healthy organism. The community teaches its new members its music and rhythms. From the heartbeat of the Mother and the songs of wind, birds, and water, chants and drumbeats spring spontaneously forth. The new people are naturally drawn together in ceremony to honor what is given. This is living culture, and everyone is a creative part of it.

If we tried to follow a book or something we had been told—or even what we already knew—our bowl would be full and we’d have no room for what the new community had to give. We’d want the community to accommodate us, to change in order to meet our preconceived notions. If we came with an empty bowl, we’d find relationship, and maybe even home.

The Ultimate Illusion

By | October 1, 2011

We were born with free will, and we make choices in our lives to direct our destinies. These are the premises upon which the Western way of life is based. We thrive on options, whether they be political, religious, or culinary. When we don’t have them, “Give me the freedom to choose,” becomes our battle cry.

Imagine that what you just read is an illusion—that we are not born with free will, and that our choices amount to no more than changing costumes. By most people’s definition of what makes us human, we have just stepped down the evolutionary ladder and become animals.

But what evidence do we have that we are any different than a Wolf, who is born to run and hunt with the pack, and nothing more. After all, every human once lived that way—hunting and gathering and running with the clan. It is only very recently in our species’ history that we did anything otherwise.

When Wolves live in packs, they dwell in balance with all life. There are not too many or too few of them, and they change only what fits with the rest of life. When some of them abandoned the pack and became Dogs, they lost much of their sleekness and cunning. Tugging at chains and leashes, they cried “Give me the freedom to choose,” and they were given sticks to chase instead of Deer.

Was it much different for us when we abandoned our clan ways? The pack was the life of a Wolf, the clan was the life of a human. There lay comfort, caring, and sense of purpose. The clan and the pack came first, for without them there was barely the chance of survival, much less any use of life or sense of belonging.

With the breakdown of the clan, the individual became predominant. Preferences and prejudices turned into life pursuits. Peace with each other in balance with nature—or some semblance thereof—needed to be legislated and moralized. Even though we became as deformed and dysfunctional as are many breeds of Dogs—and as fat and lazy—we kept insisting on our right to choose such a destiny.

I submit that free will is suicide. The freedom of choice we are designed for is not whether we have ice cream or cheesecake for desert, but rather how we can serve our people, our clan. Yes, the option to indulge in one of 29 flavors of ice cream gives comfort of a sort, but is it the deep, soul-satisfying satisfaction that comes from using our skills and talents to provide for our people? And where do our self-absorbed choices get us but sick and alone?

To the clan, you and I are vitally important. We are each uniquely contributing organs within a living organism. At the same time, we are expendable—organs sacrificed for the wellbeing of the organism. A hand will survive quite well without a finger, but not the other way around. Perhaps our ultimate challenge is to find a way to incorporate clan consciousness into our lives before our species’ suicidal trudge takes this planet with it.

The Human Wave

By | September 20, 2011

I know a number of people who believe we can sustain our present world population level using green technology. They say that organic farming, permaculture, renewable energy sources, and the elimination of garbage and hazardous waste could keep us going indefinitely.

But why? What contribution do billions of us make to the Hoop of Life when it comes at the expense of the countless plant and animal populations we have displaced? Is the planet healthier having 80 million humans on the prairie than 80 million Buffalo? Is the seashore prettier with sunning humans than sunning Seals? And what about the Deer—are they better off being chased out of gardens than being chased by Wolves? Perhaps we would not be so self-possessed if we had someone chasing us.

Food as Metaphor

By | September 15, 2011

For 40 years I have been living with people in extended family and community environments. There have been many differences in configuration and philosophy, yet there was one thing they all shared—a preoccupation with food. It wasn’t the food itself, but what it represented. For some, it was a political issue; for others, it had spiritual significance; and for still others it was about environmental consciousness. And then there were the very personal issues that governed food choices, such as comfort, escape, and even addiction. Groups would come together and break up around food, and between the two extremes there were endless discussions seeking some resolution around the topic. Sometimes I got involved, and at other times I sat back and listened. But I listened with my heart rather than my head, so I could hear what people were saying beneath their defensiveness and rationalizations. Their impassioned statements show how real their world of endless variety and abundance, of beliefs and causes is to them.

While I listen, a memory will sometimes come back of me paddling into a beaver pond and a hundred Ducks exploding out of the sedges in front of me. One stayed behind, floating lifeless on the surface. I gave thanks to the Duck People for remembering my hunger, and I feasted. Another day on the same wilderness stream, the Trout People gifted me similarly, and another day it was the Muskrat People. I didn’t think about politics or preferences, I only gave thanks and ate.

I remember eating at my grandparents’ farm 55 years ago. They raised 12 children on 39 hardscrabble acres. It was down-home, wholesome fare, but not the variety I was accustomed to in the city, and it changed from one visit to the next, depending on the season. Yet from what I saw, there was always enough to pass around the great dining room table a couple of times. And it tasted so good after a hard day in the field—and especially after watching my rosy-cheeked grandma pull it out of the woodstove oven with those stained potholders that told of the many meals they helped serve. We all ate heartily, enjoying the meal and each other’s company. Like my wilderness feasts, there were no issues around the food, only gratefulness and camaraderie.

It seems as though the more we have, the more confused we become. A peasant family with two or three nourishing foods is happy, whereas those of us with choices infuse our foods with the burdens of our minds and the ramblings of our souls.

Fasting is a Middle Class Luxury

By | September 8, 2011

Very few of us in the developed world know hunger. Sure, we might say, “I’m hungry,” as the next meal approaches, but what do we mean by that? Odds are we just had a good meal a few hours before that, and maybe a snack in between. Yet we declare that we’re hungry.

For most of us, missing a meal is unthinkable. In fact, some of us have never missed a meal in our entire lives (other than in sickness). We usually have a choice of foods, and we can eat as much as we like. Even on short trips across town, many of us unconsciously grab snacks for the road. The practice of eating and drinking while driving has become so much a part of our culture that food and beverage trays are designed into virtually all of our vehicles (though not in all opulent countries, and Japan is an example).

Many people I know go on fasts in order to experience hunger. Some do it to cleanse, some for spiritual reasons, and others as a response to excess. But do they experience hunger? If we define it simply as food longing, then perhaps they do. However, for a good share of humankind, hunger is so much more.

For the latter, hunger is not a matter of choice. It has a survival component—families are forced to ration food and children wake up and go to bed hungry. In times of famine and political turmoil, people die. There is not the luxury of choice, there are no aspirations for spiritual enlightenment, and our guilt around overconsumption is to them only a bitter joke. Watch them and they’ll act out their definition of hunger: the gnawing anxiety that fuels an endless, desperate quest for something—anything—to quell the cavernous feeling within.

A student in my yearlong wilderness survival course recently told me that one reason he enrolled was to experience real hunger. He said that he fasted about twice a year, but he knew there was something missing because he could quit at his convenience, and he could elect to do a juice or fruit fast rather than a complete one. He said it was a relaxed way to fast—he was in total control and there was little stress. From former students he had heard about the hunger moons: the period from late spring to mid-summer when stores of food from the autumn harvest and winter hunt have run out and there are only low-calorie fresh greens and lean meat to eat.

This student and his campmates have just come through the hunger moons, as it is now late summer, nuts and berries are abundant, and the animals are putting on fat. Last night I joined them around the campfire while they were reflecting on their hunger experience. They talked about greed and mistrust, guilt and secrets. And they talked about sacrifice and uncommon kindness—putting your campmates first, not because of some grandiose philosophy about circle consciousness, but as a matter of survival. Oh yeah, and food was also a topic, but it was not mentioned until last, and with not near the passion as the rest of the sharing. They now know hunger.

Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address

By | August 30, 2011

I just came across this phrase and wished I had come up with it for a book chapter I’m working on. On second thought, I realized that it would be unlikely to capture reader interest, considering how obsessed we are with the now. From bestselling books to Buddhist philosophy, we are given the message to quit dwelling in the past and projecting into the future, and instead be in the moment. The movement gained momentum back in the sixties with Ram Dass saying, “Be here now,” and popular songs echoing the “live for today” theme.

Unlike much of what the sixties counterculture gave us, the “in the now” message never died, as evidenced by Eckhart Tolle’s 2004 bestseller, The Power of Now. I see the philosophy as a natural outgrowth of the narcissism that has become the underlying theme of Western culture. Self-fulfillment and abundance gurus are making millions, and we are consuming our planet at a rate that would take an Earth four times the size of ours to sustain.

I’d like to point out another fundamental flaw in the philosophy—the now does not exist. The word you just read exists in the past, and already your attention is on the rest of the sentence. This is no fault of yours or mine; it is simply the way we are designed. If I let go of what I just read and do not continually focus on the upcoming words, my reading will be choppy and it will be hard for me to follow a train of thought.

We see the results of living for today all around us: dwindling supplies of everything from petroleum to clean water, and tens of thousands of our fellow creatures who are not here to enjoy this utopian now we have created. We may have even signed our own termination order.

Many American Indians consider how the decisions they make will affect the seventh generation to follow them. Honor and respect is their code of ethics, and they believe that giving is receiving. If I live for today, my focus is only on the receiving—it’s all about me. After all, tomorrow may never come. I’m here now, why would I even think about people seven generations from now? I’ll never know them, and I doubt they’ll ever even hear my name.

“The seventh generation” is the next phrase in my sentence. When I see my life—and life in general—as a continuum rather than a point in time, I naturally cherish the future. Tomorrow becomes my permanent address.

No Commitment for Me

By | August 26, 2011

When someone asks if I am in a committed relationship, I usually reply that if I felt I had to commit myself, I would be in a partnership rather than a relationship. Vows and contracts are for business partners—I wouldn’t think of approaching a loving companionship in the same way. My mate and I consider sharing our lives together to be an opportunity, and we cherish every moment we are given together. Committing to such a relationship would be as ludicrous as promising to eat the wild strawberries in my bowl. If someone asked me to assure them that I would eat those berries, I would seriously question either that person’s sanity or my grip on reality.

At the same time, I can understand the need for commitment. Most people I know are at least to some degree victimized by their relationships, usually because of suppressed yearnings or unfulfilled dreams. They feel trapped by responsibility and the expectations of others, or they are in denial of who they really are and their life’s calling.

If this is the case, then why do we involve ourselves in such relationships? Because suffering is a cultural ideal. We are conditioned to go through life with a martyr complex—to toil and endure for what we gain, and feel ashamed by urges that are uninhibited and blissfully happy. Many of us are in awe of ascetics who live without sex, without eating meat, or even without eating. I’ll save the whys for another discussion; right now, I’d just like to establish the reality of the situation.

For me, the saddest part of this story is that we project our ideal of denial and repression onto our relationships. In other words, self-abuse morphs into abusive relationships. Could this be why sixty percent of us have been divorced and nearly all of us seek escape—or at least numbness—through substance abuse of some kind?

There is an old Irish ballad whose lyrics go:

Oh, the summertime is coming/and the fields are sweetly blooming./Will you go, lassie, go/to pick wild mountain thyme/o’er the blooming heather?/If you will not come with me/I will surely find another/to pick wild mountain thyme/o’er the blooming heather.

And so my mate and I lead our lives. When there is resonance, we do things together; when there is not, we give each other our blessing and go our own ways. She and I reunite fulfilled and happy, with stories to share and new riches for the relationship. We feel little jealousy, likely because one is not sitting back lamenting while the other is off having fun. In fact, we have found it to be quite the reverse—we encourage the other to follow their bliss and revel in the other’s joy. Far from needing to commit myself to such a relationship, someone would have to break both of my legs to keep me from it.

Are We There Yet?

By | August 19, 2011

How do I know when I have achieved Zen?

When I no longer ask the question.

When I am comfortable but not complacent.

When there is no more contradiction.

When truth ceases to exist for lack of an opposite.

When I ever listen and seldom talk.

When I am sad but still joyful.

When I am depressed and grateful for it.

When I see critics as admirers.

When I hear a spurt of anger as a love song.

When I let go of everything and wonder why I don’t miss it.

When the subject of my sentences is no longer “I.”

When the word “Zen” no longer has meaning.