How to be Steady & Well Ordered in Life

How to be Steady & Well Ordered in Life

steady-and-well-ordered

Walking down the busy city streets, I blend in among the crowd. I am about to give a presentation to an important group of people, and while my nervous system is engaging for the upcoming stressful event, with heart rate increasing, palms sweaty, and dry mouth, I have a secret weapon – I have the inner tools to bring myself back to calm. The presentation went extremely well, and I am off to the airport to catch my flight to my next destination.

Landing at Manchester airport, I am met with chaos. A volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland has grounded virtually every flight. The lines of disgruntled passengers are already forming, tempers begin to flare as people realize no one is going anywhere. As I stand there watching the unfolding scene, I feel the frustration boil up inside me. But I have a secret weapon, I have a long practice of being present in difficult situations. Several hours later, I am told, “You won’t be flying out today.”

Stranded in Manchester and unable to get back to Johannesburg, with insomnia as my friend, I roam the city streets at night. Turning down a quiet street corner, I witness a man aggressively pressing a woman up against a wall, hand lifted above his head about to strike. But I have a secret weapon, years of jiu-jitsu training has prepared me for this very moment. The aggressor never expected to find himself on the floor.

Walking away from that incident, instead of feeling anger, I had a secret weapon, I have learned to let go of the fight, both external and internal. Resuming my walk, and as I entered the main street, I blend into the crowd, steady and well-ordered. When you see me, there’s nothing special about me that stands out. I am just another face among many. But I have a secret, I have done the ‘work.’

The Work

My ‘work’ has been ‘fierce’ and ‘original.’ My life has been an inner adventure, searching for the secrets to showing up in life with poise, focus and clarity. Looking at me, you wouldn’t know about the ‘work’ I have committed too. But it shows up in my actions. I decided a long time ago not to conform to the status quo. I was going to follow my own path, on my own terms.

I survived government housing, and growing up poor. I survived government schooling, where the teachers told me I would never amount to anything. I survived severe bullying as a child. I survived an abusive alcoholic Mother. I survived being kicked out of the house at 17 and finding myself homeless, sleeping on the inner city streets. I survived the South Africa military. I survived seven years outside as a doorman outside some of Johannesburg toughest nightclubs. I survived an empty fridge, while I hustled to make my martial arts school a success. I survived having no support in all of this, but I figured it out as I went. In all of this, I was doing the inner ‘work’ so I could thrive.

You see, the steady, well-ordered man that stands before you now, has done the ‘work’ that you have no idea exists. Gustave Flaubert a French novelist, who at his time was highly influential, and considered the leading exponent of literary realism in his country noted: “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

What I take from Flaubert’s words is that the work is done often behind the curtains, and outside of the public eye. As each one of us comes to the work with our own unique life’s experience it is naturally original.

Doing the inner work is never a smooth ride. It’s fierce, and requires ferocity to stay the course. It is to easy to slip into the status quo, and follow the crowd. To be truly self liberated one has to be willing to stand outside what is considered the norm, while being fiercely determined to stay the course of authenticity, while not becoming ensnared by the modern worlds definition of happiness. You know, that lie of the modern world that industrial civilization, along with limitless economic growth, consumerism and material affluence is a pathway to prosperity and happiness.

What Really is The Work

The work is being able to show up in the modern world, and have had done the fierce and original ‘work’ behind the scenes so as not to become a victim or slave to modernities pathologies. The West’s cultural values of competition at any cost, survival of the fittest, keeping up with the Joneses, the endless hedonic treadmill, a focus on material wealth as a marker of success and so forth have contributed to a society that feels fragmented, anxious, stressed out, and suffering from a loss of meaning. We are, if we view it that way or not, cogs in an enormous market-based machine — a machine that care’s little for our humanity.

While it is true, for most of us, that we cannot simply opt out of the modern world, we can however make a conscious decision on how we are going to play the game. This is where the fierce and original work comes in. The simplest way to do the work is to look around and see the most common struggles people are facing and find a way to do the opposite. 


A Thought Experiment

In an attempt to really get to the bottom of what is important, I offered a client the other day this thought experiment. Imagine for a moment we could be transported back to the time of our hunter gatherer ancestors. After we had insured the safety of our band, and had a successful hunt so there was enough food, sitting there what else would be important?



What would be occupying our ancestral minds? All of the things we fret over in the modern world, simply wouldn’t exist, except for what really mattered. We would have a deep connection to family, friends, and earth. Our days would be spent laughing, exploring, and looking up at the night sky with wonder. We would move with the seasons, and our mind would be a mirror of the beauty and awe of the landscape we inhabited. As Emma Goldman, an anarchist political activist argued about our modern life, “With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?” Our ancestors on the other hand were connected to the uncluttered, minimalist embodied wisdom of the human animal and in doing so experienced a natural inner rhythm.

I believe it is still possible, even as we live in the modern world to recapture that natural inner rhythm (although admittingly much tougher). This is the ‘work’ I do daily, and coach to others both individually and at my retreats. The ‘work’ is about being able to show in the modern world with all its uncertainty, chaos, and stress — steady, and well-ordered — in other words with poise, focus and calm.

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How To Free Your Human Animal

How To Free Your Human Animal

freeing the Human Animal

We often take words for granted. However, on closer inspection there meaning, especial there ‘root’ history can have profound influence in how we understand those words. For example, the word ‘human’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus,’ meaning earth or ground, whilst ‘animal,’ is based on Latin animalis ‘having breath’ from anima ‘breath.’ The human animal then, is one that emerges from the earth, breathed into life.

We are therefore not separate from all other life on this planet. We are just another version of animal that occupies the same home. We are as activist and actor Ian Somerhalder suggests “ The environment is in us, not outside of us. The trees are our lungs, the rivers our bloodstream. We are all interconnected, and what you do to the environment, ultimately you do to yourself.”

We Have Forgotten Our Place

We have forgotten, or should we say rather been indoctrinated to believe that being human is somehow far more special — or should we say we have a god like dominion over the Earth and all that live upon it. It is this lie of separation, or excommunication from the natural world by greedy capitalistic thinking that has laid baron and ecologically devastated our planet. We no longer view ourselves as part of the natural order, as co-inhabitants of this beautiful planet, but rather have been told to take ownership of it. People in the modern world, surrounded by skyscrapers believe this to be reality. How can we not think this, surrounded by our glorious manmade objects. On the face of it, it seems clear we do own this place — but we don’t and never will!

We forget all to often that the human who arises from the earth, goes back to it. There is no escaping our end. We are short term visitors on an exquisite planet, that wont miss us when we are gone. In fact the planet really does not need us at all. If every human being disappeared tomorrow morning, the planet, Gaia, will continue on in our absence. Unlike the delicate ecosystems we are destroying at an alarming rate, where every insect, plant, microbe etc al., plays a vital role in the health of that system, we in fact really serve no purpose. The Earth doesn’t need us in order to flourish, but we need her.

This is a sobering thought. 

In fact, we are food. We are being used as a source of life sustaining sustenance ourselves, every moment of our lives. As biologist Alanna Collen notes,

We are so arrogant to believe that just because we are able to walk, talk, and reflect on ourselves, that this allows us dominion over what we perceive to be resources for our own survival. In turn we are strip-mining the earth until there’s nothing left for anyone. And if that’s not good enough, we ensure that we enslave our fellow man, kill him senselessly, abuse him, and hate him for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. I often joke with my partner that I want to sue the world. Am I not a citizen of this planet? Yet, we have to ask permission to go to other parts of the world. We think we are free, but we are in fact enslaved. 

Who enslaved us? 

We did it to ourselves.

As Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk and peace activist so eloquently points out:

Reclaiming Our Human Animal

This is why I am adamant that we need to once again reclaim our human animal. We are part of this amazing planet, along with every single other organism, insect, plant, and fellow animal cousin by decent or otherwise.

When I reflect on growing up, I have always felt out of place. I never quit fitted in. I still don’t. My happiest times as a child was when I was out alone in the African bush or practicing primal skills, from martial arts, to foraging. These experiences in the natural world were also my two sons most favorite times. It’s no coincidence either. Unwittingly we were re-embracing our natural animal human state. We where born to be apart of this world. We don’t own it. No one does. A Haidenosaunee teaching articulates this well, “We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.”

As Cultural historian Thomas Berry in The Dream of the Earth has argued,

Or in the words of Albert Einstein,

We can only free ourselves from this tyranny of domestication in the modern world, and the illusion of separation from the natural world — by stripping away the conditioning it has burdened us with. We are clearly not happy. The self-help industry is larger than it has ever been. A new psychological tool comes out every other year to help us deal with our psychological suffering. New ‘happy’ drugs are being developed at an alarming pace. We plug into virtual reality via video games, to escape the current modern reality. The onslaught of mindfulness practices in all its guises are being shoved in our faces everywhere. Non of this would exist if we were happy.

Modernity, with all its fanciful trappings, has made us ill. No amount of reading that next self help book, taking that next happy drug, or sitting quietly in a candle lit room — alone is going to ease our suffering. We are lost, and we have lost something really important, we know it, but we seem to be searching for it in all the wrong places.

 

How To Reclaim What We Have Lost

To be truly fulfilled requires reconnecting with the uncluttered, minimalist embodied wisdom of our ancestors, our human animal — and in doing so unlock our natural inner rhythm. It’s time to RIˈWILD! To Ri’Wild is to reverse the process of domestication and to return to a more wild or self-willed state.

But as Paul Shepard in, The Only World We’ve Got realizes, “ It is not necessary to ‘go back’ in time to be the kind of creature you are. The genes from the past have come forward to us. I am asking that people change not their genes but their society, in order to harmonize with the inheritance they already have.” Changing society is incredibly hard, but changing yourself, and how you show up in the world is possible.

Ill be honest, even as I close-in on 50, I don’t have all the answers. As you have, I have been pulled by the allure of modernity, and cajoled into the human Zoo, and swayed down the path of domestication. I have fought against it all my life. But as we likely can all agree, when the world as a system works entirely one way, rallying against it is a difficult prospect. I therefore have done, and increasingly so what Paul Shepard noted earlier. Realizing that until there is a mass sway in the direction back to sanity, all I can do for now is be a voice, and activist for the Human Animal. My boys fondly remember me telling them, “Boys we have to be awake and realize we live in the Matrix, but not to be owned by it”. While I readily recognize that I cannot go back to a time of my hunter gatherer ancestors, a time where by all accounts we suffered rarely as we do now in modernity, I am drawing strength from their ancestral knowledge so that I can optimize my life to fit into the modern constraints I face.

This takes the form of recognizing the spirit of Mother Earth, and to be humble within my place upon her. She has gifted me a space to call home, to live, and the opportunity to explore my full potential. While she would not miss me one bit if I was gone tomorrow, I do believe we are here to have an experience of what it means to be in flow with all of life. I often think of it as somewhat like training wheels for the next adventure when we leave this home. Based on how humans conduct themselves here, on this beautiful planet circling the sun, one could only imagine what the human species would end up destroying if they were immediately thrown into the universe as fully fledged citizens. Clearly, we need to go to ‘Earth Kindergarten’ first, before being allowed anywhere near the vastness of space.

As such, I fill my days now with moments of deep connection, and reverence in nature. I try my utmost not to burden to Gaia, doing as a I can to lessen the load on her. I make a point to make all of my activities to honor the natural intelligence that I am. Rather than seeking outwardly for answers or happiness, I look inward, to what I have been given. By applying my breath in the correct way I can manage the flight and fight response of my nervous system. By steadying my mind, I can be at peace exactly where I am, rather than being consumed by self defeating thoughts. Through my martial art practice I am able to experience flow. Through my movement practice, not only can I connect to the natural world, but experience her in way that is not separate from myself, but connected.

In all of the above, what stands out for me is simplicity. As I have written elsewhere, there was a time before the advent of agriculture, where our ancestors lived as part of the natural world, and while lacking all of what modernity offers us now, were happy. Happiness then, or what I prefer to call fulfillment isn’t complicated. The only reason it feels complicated, the only reason so many people are confused on how to achieve piece is mostly down to how we live now. As the anarchist political activist Emma Goldman points out “With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?”

I leave you with these thoughts from John Seed, founder and director of the Rainforest Information Center in Australia and the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Should you want to explore Re-Awakening Your Human Animal with fellow travelers, take a look at my yearly Retreats in Thailand. I hope you decide to come spend some time with us Re’Wilding. 

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Going Silent is Great for Mental Health

Going Silent is Great for Mental Health

stepping-into-silence

Deep inside all of us resides what I call our natural rhythm, a healing rhythm that most of us have forgotten exists. We spend so much of our lives living outside of ourselves, that we have become disconnected from this natural rhythm.

What is it?

Silence!

We are so afraid of being fully alone with ourselves that we fill our lives with endless distractions and activities, searching for fulfillment and wellbeing outside ourselves in wealth, success and power. We distract ourselves with TV, the internet, social media, and of course video games. It seems most people are doing absolutely everything to avoid themselves. In addition many people are afraid of silence because they are afraid of what they might find there — the proverbial skeletons in the closet. In prison for instance the worst kind of punishment is solitary confinement. People literally go insane when left to themselves. For many people silence, being surrounded by quiet activates their fight and flight response, creating a sense of anticipation or anxiety — an expectation that something is about to jump from behind the bushes.

The Cultivation of Deep Patience

Inuit hunters have a word, ‘quinuituq,’ that means a deep patience needed while waiting for something to happen. Inviting silence into your life is a process of ‘quinuituq’ — being patient as we wait to find that which we have lost: our inner rhythm, our balance point. In other-words, finding inner rhythm and balance isn’t something we go out to find, but rather to allow it to reclaim us. This is counter to what our modern society has taught us. Modern society tells us: we need to hustle, we need to get out there and make our mark, success after all doesn’t come to those who wait. But yet, and again, so much of what modern society requires is a distancing from ourselves. Modern society draws out and leaves the best of us on the sacrificial alter of consumerism, until we no longer have a clue of who we are. Learning to be in silence, is in a way reclaiming what we have given up unknowingly thinking it will serve a greater purpose — when it never can — because modernity is built upon capitalistic cannibalism focused on its own selfish desire: profit.

There is no ‘profit’ to anyone when you seek silence, outside of the unmeasurable bounty accrued to your own inner wellbeing. By coming home to silence you step out of the hedonistic treadmill. But, if that’s not convincing enough, here’s some research to back that up. Silence has shown to lower blood pressure, boost the body’s immune system and benefit brain chemistry by growing new cells. For example, Kirste et al. (2013) found that two hours of silence could create new cells in the hippocampus region. The hippocampus is a region of the brain that is linked to learning, remembering, and emotions.

Bernardi, et al. (2006) showed that as little as two minutes of silence can relieve tension in the body and brain. This is the opposite to what noise invokes which is to increase stress and tension in the body. Probably for most of us especially in the modern world who are constantly battling incessant noise pollution, is that time in silence allows the brain to ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. As Stephen Kaplan (1995) has noted, silence allows the brain to stand down from its sensory guard, allowing it to restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excessive noise.

How To Invite Silence into Your Life

There is no right or wrong way to invite silence into your life, other that clearing a path for it to show up. By far the most profound moments of silence I have had in my life are walks out in nature. Walking alone, in silence, just with myself, and the natural world as my wonder is an invigorating experience. The key here is to leave all modern distractions behind, iPhone, EarPods, etc. 



I have found it equally important throughout my walks in silence, to take a seat every now and then and simply observe. Sitting still with my eyes wide open, without having to make sense of what I hear, see and smell, brings me back to the natural rhythm I have spoken about in this article. That natural rhythm is that space between stimulus and response. It’s a place of creativity, inspiration, and awe.

It takes practice of course to stay there. As was noted earlier, with so much of our lives lived outside ourselves, when we stop, breathe, and quiet down, we initially feel pulled: surely we should be doing something else? But given enough time, and practice, you will feel the call to silence echoing inside your soul.

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Building a Meaning Framework Part 2

Building a Meaning Framework Part 2

meaning-framework-2

In Building a Meaning Framework Part One I posited that in finding meaning we should consider three key ingredients. Firstly that of Purpose: in other words, what motivates you, what do you believe, what do you want your life to be about? Secondly the Process, how are you going to embody your purpose? How are you going to bring it to life? How are you going to get there? And then finally the Results: are you getting the results you want? Are you arriving in other words?

I have thought about this considerably in respect to my own life. When I think of my Purpose in this life, I want to flourish. A big part of flourishing for me isn’t about seeking happiness, which I see as transient, momentary — but rather to be consistently content. I see contentment as a state of satisfaction with my life, where it is now, and where I am going. A big part of making this a success I feel comes down to the Process used.

In our modern Western society, it is clear that growth isn’t growth unless it can be quantified. In other words, measured. Things like wealth, titles, acquisition of all kinds, and so forth. This is the hallmark of a capitalistic prism, whereby it is what we can objectively count that matters. Yet, in doing so, we have relegated qualitative growth to the sideline. Even when people say they are working on themselves, seeking self-mastery, one only has to look closer to find that it is often to achieve some quantitative aim. For example: “I know I have succeeded when I have this partner” or “I have arrived when I get that promotion” and in accordance with these aims “only when these things happen will I truly be happy”.

In this sense growth is about more. But growing towards more isn’t always a good thing. Remember when you were a child, free, and unencumbered by the worries of the world? Then you grew, and you have grown older, and now life is about stress, about worry, and anxiety. One day you will grow to be frail to need care, and feel like a burden to others. As a young adult you enter the workforce in hopes of growing into a productive adult, only now to find that you have to inhabit a more masculine creature in order to compete with others, and to continue to win. Growing isn’t always what it is cracked up to be!

Contentment & Meaning May Be About Less

What if I told you that becoming more, about finding the meaning you seek in leading a life of contentment, and your continued qualitative growth may come down to BEING and BECOMING less, not more?

And, what if I told you that this counter cultural, even counter intuitive idea comes straight from research into peak human experience?

This is probably one the most important lessons I can impart on you. I know it made a profound shift in the way I show up in my life now.

Let me explain.

You have likely heard this somewhere:

“we only use 10% of our brain, imagine what we could do if we were able to use all of our brain power — the other 90%”

Is this even true?

It turns out, what we intuitively thought would be required to optimise our brain, in other words using more of it, is not actually true.

It is a common belief that our experiences are produced by this big organ in our heads, called our brain. We have known for some time that most experiences that we have correspond to certain patterns of brain activation. For example computers can now scan your brain and correctly guess what you are looking at. In other words when you engage in certain activities, like looking at a specific image for example, we are now able to see specific parts of the brain light up.

Naturally the thinking then was if we are able to use more of our brain, in other words have our brain light up more in experiences the richer the experience will be.

But in fact the opposite is actually true.

For example, for decades it was thought that things like psychedelic substances worked by lighting up the brain like a Christmas tree. But since 2012 experiments conducted by the University Hospital, Zurich, and Imperial College London, have shown that the opposite occurs.

In other words, you could be having the most mind boggling, rich, powerful peak experience of your life while your brain effectively goes to sleep. This realisation doesn’t end with psychedelics, Vietnam War veterans who previously suffered brain injury have been shown to more likely report rich spiritual experiences. Pilots who have undergone acceleration induced loss of consciousness, which drains the blood out of their brain have reported having rich dreams while seemingly unconscious. In addition people who have recovered from a near death experiences, where their brain was effectively dead — regularly describe extremely rich, even life changing sensations.

Powerful right?

In the next piece of this series, I will begin to unpack what the implications of these realisations are to human flourishing and how you and me can tap into this in a way that can aid us in finding more bliss in our own lives.

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Building a Meaning Framework Part 1

Building a Meaning Framework Part 1

meaning-framework-1

Firstly, I am never going to tell you how to live your life. Please take everything I write as my own personal experiment in living. You will notice that when I write and explore what can be done to overcome certain challenges we all face in life, I do so from my own experience. It is important that you never simply take my word for it and that you try it out. Test everything I suggest within your own experience. Some things I argue for will resonate, others wont. At times you many not be at a certain point on the path to make what I am suggesting happen and it may only become relevant later on.

In addition, think of the pieces I write as ‘works’ in progress. At times, I may come back to some of these pieces of writing and re-work them, even re-write them as I continue to explore my own meaning in life.

Mans Search for Meaning

I realized sometime back that to live a fulfilled live, it was crucial to have a constant waypoint of meaning in my life. As Viktor Frankl has argued meaning serves several important functions in our life. Crucially, meaning provides a Purpose for our living. Secondly, it furnishes values or standards by which to judge our actions. Finally, it gives us a sense of acceptance and resilience to the unfolding events in our life. This is especially true for those events that are difficult and painful.

Now of course, many people default to acquiring meaning through religion. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I have however, always believed that to be fulfilled in life it’s important to develop a personal meaning framework, that although may be inspired or influenced by various spiritual traditions should be uniquely your own. The reason I believe this is so important is that one approach can never encompass the beauty of our diversity. We all come to this moment with our own unique experiences, journeys and life histories.

For better or for worse, where you were born, and the culture you were born in to, and the family dynamics you experienced, shape who you are today. Acknowledging this can either be a crux or liberation. For example, I grew up poor in government housing, without ever knowing my Father, bullied by the neighborhood kids and shunned by my Mother. This created childhood trauma that I carried all the way with me into adulthood and still rears its ugly head from time to time. I could quite easily use my childhood trauma as an excuse to not be able to live a fulfilled life now. But realizing that while no child should ever have to go through what I did growing up, without that experience I wouldn’t be who I am today. This was a profound lesson for me: that within every difficult experience is a salvageable positive and potentially profound lesson if you not afraid to look.

Meaning then will always be shaped by our life’s story. While that may be the case, it is a story and as all stories go we can rewrite, reimagine and reinterpret it. Our life’s story is a story in motion, constantly evolving as we do, and the final page is never written until the very end of our life here on this planet. In other words, we can always reinterpret our Meaning, and change the outcome of our life’s story.

Building a Personal Meaning Framework

Life however is complex. It’s easy to become unhinged, to be lost. Having a Meaning Framework can help orient ourselves to where we need to focus our energy right now. In the end, I believe we are all seeking inspiration in our lives. Are you inspired to show up fully each day? If not, then it’s likely that you haven’t worked out your meaning in life. Said another way, most of us know what we are doing, few know how we do it, and even fewer know why.

Think of it this Way:

  • Your Purpose – What motivates you, what do you believe, what do you want your life to be about (i.e. meaning)?

  • Your Process – How are you going to embody your purpose? How are you going to bring it to life? How are you going to get there? This is where a personal Meaning Framework can be very useful. Your Meaning Framework will always be built off, and inspired by your Purpose. Think of it as the ‘how to’ of ensuring that you are able to live your purpose every day.

  • Your Results – Are you getting the results you want? If not, then either you need to look closer at your ‘Purpose.’ Here honesty is key: maybe what you defined as your Purpose isn’t what you want it to be in the first place. However, if you believe that you are on point with your Purpose, then something is up with the way you are trying to get there (i.e., something in your Meaning Framework isn’t quite right). The easiest way then to get back on track is by tweaking your Meaning Framework so it begins to give you the results you want.

In the next piece, I will continue by looking closer at the building blocks of a personal Meaning Framework.

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Is Violence & Aggression the Price of Progress?

Is Violence & Aggression the Price of Progress?

violence-price-of-progress

I was 5-years old when the bullying started. In those days you were able to go straight into junior primary school in South Africa. But my Mother thought it best that I did at least one year at preschool before heading to ‘big school’. I think she also felt I need the socialization, because up until that point I had been staying at home with my grandmother while my mother went off to work. In reflection, I also realize now that things were financially tough, so my Grandmother had no choice but to find a part-time job herself.

Bullying

I am not sure why I was being bullied. Maybe it was because I was the new kid, with kids already having being together in preschool for sometime and everyone had already made their little tribes and weren’t letting anyone else in. Who knows! 

As much as I tried to make friends, to fit in, it just wasn’t happening. I was subject to intense teasing, pushed around, tripped and so on. This mostly happened during recess when the teachers weren’t around to see. Anytime I went to sit with my lunch with the other kids they would get up and move, so I found myself alone, eating my cheese and ham sandwiches in the corner of the play ground.

It become so bad, that eventually I escaped preschool twice, hiding away until the recess bell had rung, then climbing onto the garbage bins, and jumped the wall. Luckily for me, the two times I did manage to escape my Grandmother was home, only to completely shocked opening the front door to find me standing there having walked the several miles to get home.

Things Didn't Change After That

The rest of my childhood didn’t change much after that. All through junior and senior primary I was bullied, and into the first two years of high school, until I snapped, had had enough, and started fighting back. Fighting back became my life’s work. For two decades I immersed myself in violence, either having to apply it as a doorman outside some of Johannesburg toughest nightclubs, or teaching others how to do the same, from surviving the battlefield, to the inner city streets. 

I never had an aggressive streak as a child. I was quiet, creative, and just wanted to get along with everyone. Looking back however, it is clear to me now that environment informs behavior, so that even a timid kid like me, can become someone skilled in using violence to gain the upper hand.

Even as I write this, I am still someone who at my core disdains violence of any kind, its not in my true nature to be violent, but as I have also learned, when you are cornered by several thugs bent on smashing your skull in to the sidewalk, fighting back and winning is really the only solution.

Why The Aggression?

Pondering my observations above has left me awake at night. How much of the aggression we see in the modern world is just human nature, or how much of it is really a creation of the societies we live in? Have we always been an aggressive species, or is it mostly a byproduct of the environment we find ourselves in?

Before I explore this further, I am constantly struck by our hypocrisy especially in the West (I count myself in this too). We largely as a society deplore violence, yet much of our most popular entertainment is violent, from movies, to the sports we play and watch. If two people get into a fist fight on the street corner, one if not both are going to jail, but if we do it in an Octagon it’s perfectly acceptable. Killing someone in suburbia who has a different worldview to you is a no-no, but if your government sends you to a foreign land, killing someone who has been classified as an ‘enemy’ then it’s perfectly fine. And the list goes on. I could be here all day highlighting all of the hypocrisy with violence and aggression we brush away in modernity. 

Hobbes in 1651 noted that life before the state was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It was argued that when we still lived in small scale societies they were wracked by violence, disease, starvation, the constant threat of predation and natural disaster. In other words humans lived with no control over their lives or their environment. Every day supposedly was spent toiling just to survive, with barely no leisure time. There was simply no time to spend building a culture.

However over the millennia, humans gradually developed the tools to start building civilizations. The major revolution in all of this advancement was the Neolithic Revolution, with the introduction of agriculture. Agriculture allowed us to shift from living in bands of nomadic hunter gatherers, to forming permanent settlements.

But is this picture of our hunter gatherer ancestors correct? The reality is that much of this isn’t true.

Perhaps We Have OUR Past Completely Wrong

Hunter gatherers ‘work’ on average 20 hours a week. Here I am talking about hunter gatherers in the Australian outback or the Kalahari Desert, not exactly plush environments. What we are calling work here for hunter gatherer’s or what anthropologists count as their work are the very things we all escape to on vacation, like hunting and fishing. Hunter gatherers in fact have fairly varied diets, and they have far more leisure time than most of us do in the modern world. In addition their social structure is highly egalitarian. All the basic needs of all members of the band are fairly easily met. In other words, no one goes without what they need to live a fulfilled life.

What about violence, and war?

Doug Fry and Patrik Söderberg, two anthropologists who specialize in the study of pre-agricultural societies, have noted that, “Nowhere in the actual data [on nomadic foragers] are found instances of lethal raiding for trophies or coups ” they continued by arguing that, “the worldwide archaeological evidence shows that war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence.” This all changed and the archaeological record is “clear and unambiguous” on this with the advent of large scale agricultural settlements. It was at this time that, “War developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, slavery flourished, and the social position of women deteriorated.” The conclusion that arises out of this, and many other sources of research that agree is that civilization was not responsible for reducing the ravages of human violence, but rather that civilization itself is the source of most organized human violence. As Brian Ferguson professor of anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark notes, “We are not hard-wired for war. We learn it.”

Violence & Modernity

This brings me back to the question I raised earlier: Have we always been an aggressive species, or is it mostly a byproduct of the environment we find ourselves in?

While of course it would be naive to argue that violence never existed among our ancestors prior to agriculture, what is clear is that it proliferated since the dawn of the Neolithic. This will be unsettling to a lot of people in the modern world, especially those invested in violence in its various guises. We would like to believe as Steven Pinker wrote in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that life in prehistory was marked by violence and war, along with “chronic raiding and feuding… characterized life in a state of nature.” However, this doesn’t seem to hold up. 

Just look around you, especially in the West, people are more unhappier than ever before, aggressive, stressed out, and feeling a sense of meaninglessness. My experience surviving a childhood of violence, and spending the rest of my life in teaching others how to combat it has shown me that on an individual level, people are generally far more aggressive than ever before.

Its my position that much of the aggression we see these days among people is largely due to the scaffolding of modernity. The modern world doesn’t seem to be good for us. For most of our time on this planet we lived as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, in small bands, deeply connected to the natural world. In fact, our brains and bodies still remain the same, except now we have been thrust into a human zoo of our own making. Everything about the world around us now is unnatural, caged into ever smaller cramped spaces of concrete and steel. 


Environment Informs Behavior

To illustrate what the outcome can be when you take a species from its natural habitat and place it in an artificial one here is an poignant example. In the 1930s Solly Zuckerman and colleagues placed a 140 hamadryas baboons together in an exhibit at the London Zoo. In short order all hell broke loose with 94 adults and 14 infants being killed by each other. Initially it was thought that this violent outbreak was due to social discord, but later it became clear that it was likely due to the artificial environment that triggered the mayhem. As has been shown by other researchers captive female baboons are nine times more aggressive, while captive males are more than seventeen times as aggressive, when living in cages. In other words, environment has a deep impact on behavior. Why anyone would think this would not be the same for humans is short sighted.

 

Where Does This Place Me?

As a life long martial artist and teacher the above conclusions places me in somewhat of a quandary. How do I situate myself within this framework? How do I take the above and integrate that knowledge into a way forward, whereby I can still honor the path of being a warrior, while ensuring that I contribute to the modern world in a peaceful way?

I am certain what I have written throughout this article won’t make me popular. No one wants to accept that just maybe as we move further into becoming techno-sapiens things are only going to get worse. Just look around you for all the technical advances we have made, for all that modernity is said to be our savior, more kids are committing suicide than ever before, kids are drugged up, there’s an opioid crisis, the environmental destruction, corporate greed and so forth. I am not sure about you, but this doesn’t seem to be the healthy option. 

I want to make it clear that my personal decisions are my own, and in no way account for those who coach my martial arts programs, and nor do I ever tell anyone how they should live. On the contrary, as a coach, I am merely a guide, sharing my personal insights, and if someone feels it speaks to them they are welcome to take what works.

But over the past several years my entire perspective on coaching martial arts has changed. Looking back, in my beginning years, in my 20s I was a part of the problem I now see. I was using violence to try to overcome the trauma I had experienced as a child. Now that I know better, I continue to train and teach martial arts but only for three reasons: self-preservation, self-development and enjoyment. Not for sport, not as a way to dominate others, and definitely not to perpetuate the violence and aggression I am seeing everywhere around me. Its not easy, as sometimes the lines between right and wrong can become blurred. But I am honestly trying my best. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. 


 

Where Am I Now?

As I continue to develop my own personal martial arts practice, more than ever I believe that martial arts if approached correctly can act as a transformative function, leading each of us to becoming a more evolved self. An evolved self that by using the martial arts experience as a laboratory can overcome our own aggression towards ourselves, whilst showing up in the world peacefully. I finally get what my karate instructor meant when talking to all of us at 6-years old, “Karate isn’t to commit violence, but to end it”.



While our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have not used violence often against each other, their martial art was that of surviving and thriving. The success of the hunt, keeping the band safe, all lent to a hunter-gatherer’s character. We have always held those among us skilled in the martial way as people who (should) exhibit character traits we admire: courage, fearlessness, discipline, honesty and so forth. This is still true today. But to honor our inner hunter-gather is only possible if what we use martial art skills for is in the service of life, not in destroying it.

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Is The Modern World Working For You?

Is The Modern World Working For You?

is-the-moderrn-world-working-for-you

I believe the question we all should be asking ourselves: Is the modern world working for us? All around me, all I see are mostly unhappy people. My own answer to the above question is: mostly No!

People seem to always be sacrificing the present, and working for tomorrow. We have been told there’s dignity in having a job, in working, even if that work is meaningless. At least it’s a job right, well that’s the thinking. To add insult to injury for most people in the West, the attitude is that you don’t deserve to eat, that you are in a sense nothing, unless you are working. Capitalism has convinced most of us in the modern world to forgo experiences that are inherently pleasurable and good for the overall health of the human animal for the good of keeping the cogs of the system running.

You need to work hard, sleep less, focus on achieving, and we will be kind enough to give you two weeks off a year so you can go do some of the things our ancient ancestors did every day for free. Things, such as walking in a beautiful forest, swimming in the ocean, spending a night camping under the stars, fishing, hunting and so forth — oh, and you will likely be charged for that privilege in some way too!

 

The Great Lie of Modernity

We have been convinced that this is what is best for us because we live far better than our ancestors did in the past. Look all around you, they say, look at the advances in technology, in medicine, and the increase in standards of living in general. This is a far cry from those pesky hunter gatherers that we once were, where our ancestors constantly lived on the edge of survival. As Hobbes in 1651 reminds us, life before the state was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The reality is that much of this isn’t true.

Hunter gatherers ‘work’ on average 20 hours a week. Here I am talking about hunter gatherers in the Australian outback or the Kalahari Desert, not exactly plush environments. To add insult to injury again, what we are calling work here for hunter gatherer’s or what anthropologists count as their work are the very things we all escape to on those two weeks of vacation, like hunting and fishing. Hunter gatherers in fact have fairly varied diets, and they have far more leisure time than most of us do in the modern world. In addition their social structure is highly egalitarian. All the basic needs of all members of the band are fairly easily met. In other words, no one goes without what they need to live a fulfilled life. 


So…Why Are We So Unhappy?

Why are we so unhappy, fragmented, and struggling to find meaning if the modern world is so much better than what our ancestors had? 

The truth is the modern world is out of sync with our ancient brains and bodies. Our hunter gatherer ancestors and how we spent 99% of our time on this planet evolved to live in clans. Today most of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names. When it came to survival in earlier societies it was largely dependent on living in harmony with nature. Yet today much of the food we eat, and the work we work, even the light we absorb–is radically different from what our minds and bodies evolved to expect. Not withstanding the absolute devastation we are causing to the natural world, our home, Mother Earth.

All of this has created massive cognitive dissonance, where we are attempting to live in a society we’re not designed or built for and it is literally killing us. In a sense, if we like it or not we are all still hunter-gatherers, same bodies, same brains, and while it would be impossible to replicate the natural habitat of our ancestry, we can optimize our lives to fit into the modern constraints we face. I believe this is no longer optional for us to do, but rather absolutely crucial if we are to turn the tide on the modern malaise of dissatisfaction we are all facing, and I predict likely to become worse (This is why our I created the Instinct {Code} so we can find ways to live in the modern world, without going insane).

Alleviating the Symptoms of our Dissatisfaction

I am going to outline 4 practices that I engage in weekly that has been inspired by the ways of hunter gatherers. For them, the hunter gatherers, these practices were just the norm of everyday living. Maybe they had no real idea on why these practices were so important, or more likely were taught them in one form or another by tribal elders, who through experience realized their significance. These wisdom practices now acknowledged by science and research are incredibly important to the health of the human animal. Luckily many of these practices still remain free. I view them as a way to honor our ancestral roots while still being able to move with the present. Some I do daily, but all show up every week in my life.

Getting Your Feet Dirty: The bottom line, it turns out that walking barefoot on the earth, in the natural environment is good for reducing inflammation, pain, and stress. It has also show to improve blood flow, sleep, and vitality. 20 minutes a day is all you need.

Hug a Tree: If you have trees nearby, a park, a glen or if you lucky a Forrest or wooded area make sure you take time to immerse yourself in this outdoor experience. As I have written about in the below article, it turns out that walking amongst trees reduces stress hormone production, improves feelings of happiness and frees up creativity.

It has also been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, boost your immune system and accelerate recovery from illness. Oh, and if you up for it, hug a tree to say thanks. It’s been shown that much of the above goodness comes from trees via the terpenes (one of the major components of forest aerosols) they emit into the atmosphere.


Stillness: No matter if you do it walking, or sitting, spending time in stillness is crucial to your overall mental health (read an article I wrote about this below).

Most of us are what I call ‘running hot’ with anxiety being a big part of undermining our health. Stillness can reduce the fight or flight response while increasing rest and relaxation. In other words, it calms your mind allowing you to feel more at peace and less stressed out.



Practicing being Present: This is a big one. Look around today and it is clear that most people are finding it difficult to be here. With all of life’s stress, and everything else, from social media, to ads everywhere vying for our attention, no wonder we feel scatter brained. Being more present has been shown to be good for your mental health, relieve stress, lower your blood pressure, improve sleep, and more. It’s even better if you can take your practice away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, into nature.

Conclusion

As you can see from the above, all the practices I outline are simple. Nothing fancy. In my own work in the field of human flourishing I have found that in today’s modern world we have mostly overcomplicated what it means to be truly fulfilled. It isn’t as complicated or difficult as most people believe it to be. But, I will leave that discussion for another article.

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Struggling to Meditate? Try it With Walking!

Struggling to Meditate? Try it With Walking!

walking-on-the-way-to-meditation

I envy my partner. Put her in nature and she can just sit there for hours. However I find it hard to sit still no matter where I find myself. The problem of course with sitting still and knowing that you suck at it, is that those pesky mental gremlins come out and play. This is why I have opted for walking meditation. As Pam Houston, novelist and essayist notes “Movement helps keep me centered. I am a disaster, for instance, at sitting meditation, but I’m pretty decent at walking meditation.”

A Walk Through Time

Henry David Thoreau, naturalist, poet, philosopher and leading transcendentalist of his time noted, “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Nietzsche, a philosopher who became one of the most influential of all modern thinkers argued that, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Seneca one of the most influential Stoic philosophers suggested, “It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze.” Hippocrates, a Greek physician of the Age of Pericles, who is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine suggested, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau a philosopher, writer, and composer who’s political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe commented that, ‘I can only meditate when I am walking.” 

Looks like I am in great company after all and thank goodness that there is an all round consensus that walking is good for you.

There are obvious health benefits to walking as well. Ann Green, past heptathlon world athlete, yoga teacher has noted that, “Walking improves fitness, cardiac health, alleviates depression and fatigue, improves mood, creates less stress on joints and reduces pain, can prevent weight gain, reduce risk for cancer and chronic disease, improve endurance, circulation, and posture, and the list goes on.”

But beyond the health benefits, I believe the greatest benefit to us the human animal – is how walking can improve our inner health. Below I share some ways I have found to achieve this. 


Ways to Walk

There is no right way to take a walk. But here are a few ideas that I have played with. How I decide to take a walk often is largely predicated on how I am feeling that day or what I am wrestling with in my life at that moment. While many times I just walk with no intention, when you struggling internally giving yourself a purpose to achieve out of your walk gives meaning to the experience. The outcome can often be very therapeutic.

It’s hard to feel the real benefits of walking if you have to do it in a big city. The noise, pollution, and hustle makes it less than relaxing. Whenever possible then take your walk out into nature, or anywhere else that it’s green – a park for instance. To add extra depth to your walk, take your shoes off and go barefoot. If that’s not possible, wearing minimal style shoes really aid in your walk as you feel more connected to the ground beneath your feet.

  • 
Deep Walking with a Friend: We spend so much of our lives putting out fires, that we often have little or no time to contemplate the big questions of life. You know, ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What does it all mean?’ ‘What am I truly about?’ 

I love walking in nature with my partner talking about us, our dreams, obstacles and so forth. Here too we are in good company. Aristotle the famous ancient Greek philosopher is said to have taught as he walked while sharing and exploring ideas with his followers. They became known as ‘peripatetic’ philosophers (‘Peripatetic’ meaning “of walking” or “given to walking about”). 

The goal is to talk gently about the topics that arise. You don’t want to get upset, and come back from a walk feeling even worse. Deep Walking is about being open and vulnerable, but also about calming the nervous system. When the walk is nearing its conclusion, its time to be quiet and spend the last ten or so minutes just staying with your breath. Breath in deep and exhale fully. Feel all the tension drop from your shoulders.

  • 

Walking with Pause: I live part of the year on the beautiful Isle of Man. I often see people out and about walking. Most are plugged into an iPod, walking as if they stole something, and oblivious to everything around them. I am sure that kind of walking may be great for their cardio, but I doubt there’s much else benefit wise. I am going to be honest, I have found myself doing this too. Its so easy to fall into the trap of go, go, go from everyday life and find it spilling over to the very things that are meant to be slowing us down: like going for a walk.

It is at these times that I intentionally walk for a while, stop, pause, sit down and take in everything that is around me. I repeat this same process often throughout the walk. I am always amazed what I would have actually missed had I not sat down in silence and looked around me. That beautiful Bumble Bee on that flower, or the Ladybird that decided to come visit me on my hand the other day. I am not sure if you have had the same experience, it is these small moments that really put a lot of things into perspective. Gary Snyder, poet and environmentalist reflects that, “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.”

  • 
Walking Meditation: This is by far my favorite way to walk, and its done alone and barefoot where very possible. No iPod, no haste, just slow intentional walking. And I mean intentionally slowing down, one foot in front of the next, feeling each step as it presses into the earth, while coordinating it with slow breathing. Each time my thinking mind wanders off somewhere else, I bring it gently back to the moment, back to my breath.

It may sound easy to just slow down, to walk slow, but the first few times was really difficult. The more I slowed down, the faster my thoughts seem to speed up. In those moments I realized how much I was living on fast forward. As Buddhist Monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Walk so that your footprints bear only the marks of peaceful joy and complete freedom. To do this you have to learn to let go. Let go of your sorrows, let go of your worries. That is the secret of walking meditation.”

In the end, going for a walk can be beautifully summed in the words of author Rebecca Solnit:

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Inspiration for the Human Animal Project

Inspiration for the Human Animal Project

human-animal-inspiration

As I have continued to learn life’s lessons, matured, and dared to return to my authentic self, the Rodney before the trauma – I have finally settled into how I want to experience life. The {Instinct Code} is the culmination of my life’s quest seeking peace and fulfilment and is now offered as a Retreat multiple times a year, at Tree Roots Retreat in Rayong Thailand.

The development of the {Instinct Code} program was inspired by two primary questions. Firstly, the fact that we undeniably live better lives than our grandparents on average, yet, in our relative excess, why do we still seek fulfilment? Secondly, how much of our discontent can be attributed to the differentiation and environmental changes between ourselves and our ancestors.

I found myself asking these questions, and questioning my history at the same time. My grandmother, the daughter of a coal-miner, left the United Kingdom for South Africa in search of a better life. This search resulted in her never finishing school. Similarly, my grandfather’s family left Scotland for England and then South Africa in the 1800s in search of greener pastures. As these histories collided and culminated into the existence that is my life, I look back on how things have changed. Being the first person in my family to attend university, and having a standard of living that my mother wouldn’t dream of. However, I realize that I am plagued with the same problem that modern society as a whole face’s, unfulfillment. This lead me on a search to ask myself, ‘why do I feel so unhappy’? This generalized discontent begs the follow-up question of whether the change in our environment from that of our primal ancestors has culminated in that discontent? Whether our instincts designed to work in the wild have a place in the hustle and bustle of the cities? This can be observed in other species and humans are most certainly not exempt.

 

The Human Zoo

Think of it in this way: modern society today is comparatively not much different to a Zoo. As with any Zoo, if you take a wild animal away from its natural habitat, and you put them in a completely artificial, restricted environment, it will not flourish as it would have in the wild. Sure, it will survive, but to survive is not to thrive and a wild animal is highly aware of this distinction. Given a choice that wild animal would always return to their natural habitat. It is only in their natural habitat that they will truly flourish and be fulfilled, it is only in the natural world that they can fulfill their purpose on this planet.

From this observation, it is evident that humans have undergone some kind of strange process of self-domestication. We are bears that have forced ourselves to ride metaphorical unicycles and cannot even see that the unicycle is the cause for our discontent. Like a caged animal we experience our own version of ‘Zoochosis’. As such living feels highly repetitive, invariant, with functionless behavior. Spending hours scrolling through a Facebook feed, feeling depressed and consumed with negative stress. We have been sold a lie about humans as superior to all other creatures on this planet, and thus are unaware of what our malaise is caused by. We have been sold happiness through consumption and unbridled capitalism, when we are not happy, it must be because we are not winning in that arena. Most ‘modern people’ wouldn’t even suspect that their unhappiness and disease is largely due to their dislocation from the natural world, and disavowal of ancestral wisdom.

 

1-Second to Now

All of the changes we take for granted today in the modern world happened in a blink of an eye. If we take all the time planet Earth has existed and plotted it on a timescale of one full calendar year, modernity only accounts for the final second. From the perspective of evolution, we have hardly left home. Going from the small hunter-gatherer bands and our communal attachment-based groups — to a society, which is alienating and disconnected. What we now see are societies that are less and less natural to the actual makeup of human beings from an evolutionary perspective. The general zeitgeist of our society is a crisis of meaning.

Even our brains are not coping with the modern environments we now find ourselves in. Professor of evolutionary psychology at the State University of New York, New Paltz, Glenn Geher notes, “Our brains are wired for certain conditions, but our surroundings no longer match those conditions “. In other words “We have stone-age brains in modern environments.” Or as authors, Gazzaley and Rosen in the Distracted Mind argue, “we are ancient brains in a high-tech world.” If we want to acknowledge it or not, we are in what Evolutionary Psychologists would call an ‘evolutionary mismatch’. In other words, we find ourselves in a world we weren’t designed to thrive in. Yet all the while, we look to technology to save us from ourselves, advances in another pill to take our angst away, or yet another version of the next psychological theory breakthrough promising us a way out of our despair. I am increasingly more of the view that we may just have fulfillment and the attainment thereof completely wrong.

Have I ever been Fulfilled?

I have been unhappy since a child. A lot contributed to this: not knowing who my Father was, growing up in government housing on the edge of poverty, surviving an abusive alcoholic mother, and taking the beatings from the neighbourhood bullies. But more than anything I simply didn’t fit in with what was considered the norm, in fact, I still don’t.

I was a sensitive, creative child, who loved being in nature. I had an amazingly vivid imagination, where I could create magical worlds no matter where I found myself. However, the one characteristic that saw me largely ostracized from my peers was that I just didn’t “get” competition of any kind. I was never drawn to competitive games, regardless of the physicality of the game or sport. As a teenager I was forced into competitions by my boxing coach and karate teacher, it was the absolute worst experience of my life. I disliked everything about it.

Rather, than being competitive, I have always been self-directed. I love being personally challenged and measuring myself against my own previous best. I never understood why it needed to be done to outdo others or the idea that your intrinsic value was only seen and valued through competition and winning. It was only later as an adult that I became aware that cooperation in nature is far more widespread than what is defined as competition. Oh, how my life growing up would have been different if I knew then what I now know.

Where Have I Truly Found Fulfillment?

When I have been honest with myself and not finding myself like so many others trying to live up to the constant hustle. Being told to wake up at crazy hours in the AM as the path that leads to success, which is just that, Crazy…

There have been a few moments in my life when I truly felt fulfilled. For example,

  • 

Connected to the Natural World: my time at my Aunt’s smallholding out in the African bush was one of my favorite memories as a child. It offered a sanctuary, a place of calm. I would find myself wandering fully in the present, filled with a sense of ecstasy and wonder to the beauty that was the African bush. A feeling I now know is the outcome of being mindful. Now that I know the research behind why reconnecting to the natural world is so important to our health, it has become part of my daily routine.

  • Rough & Tumble PLAY: I have also felt most fulfilled when I have been on the mat, playing rough and tumble with friends. Martial arts have been an important part of my life, but only the times when we were playing, exploring the fullness of movement, and the limits of our bodies did I feel truly at peace. Without concern for victory or defeat or any of the fleeting emotions of this world. This is why I decided to overhaul my entire approach to training and teaching martial arts.

For far too long, I had been using the experience of fighting to overcome my inner demons. Rather than conquering my demons, I found them fighting back with more ferocity than ever. This experience has shown me: intention matters, why you show up, matters, and what you want out of it will mold your experience. These days unless I am coaching others on how to protect themselves, I only get on the mat to find peace, calm, focus and experience flow. The outcome of this embodied mindful training has been that I have finally found the recipe to access the healing powers martial arts have to offer.

  • Body Efficacy: Along with the rough and tumble play of martial arts, what I have found fulfilling is the ability to move. Everything from making that climb, to taking that jump, and connecting to the environment through every movement. Again, for most of our time on this planet, the ability to move gracefully and intentionally was part and parcel of surviving for our ancestors. As a result, I don’t think it is a coincidence that children love to explore the potential of their body in movement. As we grow older and become more embedded in a society focused on ease, quick fixes and immediacy — we lose touch with the beauty in the freedom of movement, in favor of doing as little as possible. Most people in the modern world travel in straight lines, hardly being confronted with an obstacle greater than a flight of stairs, and then opting instead for the elevator.

  • Embodied Intelligence: Strip away all the complexity, and the next advice on what you should be doing to be fulfilled, look inwards. What you find is the ancient rhythm of living a life of excellence. The tools are simple but profound. For example, Spending time re-educating my nervous system to respond to anxiety, stress and aggression with a calm disposition through the simple act of breathing, something we all do as humans. This act alone has allowed me to deeply connect to the natural wisdom of my body. The outcome to my health has been profound.

  • Sitting Around the Fire: When I think back to my sons, especially my youngest Tobynn, he always asked if he could build a fire in the fire pit I made at my previous home in South Africa. I will always remember those times with fondness, filled with joy and laughter. It is for this very reason I built a fire pit at Tree Roots Retreat in Thailand. While the weather is always hot, I am fascinated by how many people ask nightly for the fire to be built. People inherently seek out this oldest form of coming together to reflect, laugh and be with one another. This is just one of our primal instincts shining through into the modern world.

What Does This All Mean for Us?

There is an unmistakable pattern to all of the experiences I outlined above. I have found that the times when I have truly felt fulfilled, are all ancestral, primitive and primal. They are also the simplest of experiences, stripped to the most human. None of which need much in the way of tools and require no modern technology.

Most of our time on this planet was spent in the natural world. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were deeply connected to the land and the rhythm of the earth. As biologist E. O. Wilson has argued, even modern humans have an innate and genetically determined affinity with the natural world.

Rough and tumble play, or more specifically in adults the ability to protect themselves and those of the tribe has been with us since the dawn of mankind. While there may be no evidence for such, it would be hard not to assume that we have within our genetics the drive to seek out methods of safety. It is for this reason, that even in the safest, least violent places on the planet people still train martial arts. Ironically, it is in these exact places in the world that martial arts are the most popular. Is this some kind of primal tug, ushering us all back toward our ancient forbears?

Body efficacy was paramount to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Hunter-gatherer bodies were lean and stripped from unnecessary weight allowing them to traverse long distances. They walked barefoot, feeling the earth beneath their feet. Their body wasn’t simply a vehicle to carry their heads around but was necessary for their very survival. Body efficacy not only adds to the ability to defend oneself but furthers the ability of our hunter-gatherers to track and stalk prey. Your efficiency with your body as a hunter-gatherer often had a direct correlation if you would eat survive or become some Lions dinner.

Embodied intelligence speaks to our deep connection to our intuition, and the rhythm of our inner terrain. This intelligence then expands outwardly to encompass how we view the world. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors could manage what was happening in their bodies at all times. The necessity of keeping a calm, focused and steady inner state at the moment before the kill was crucial. But even deeper, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there was no separation between us as the human-animal and all other life on this planet. Everything was interconnected. Our ancestors literally moved with the rhythm of nature.

Finally sitting around the fire, or as Paul Shepard in Coming Home to the Pleistocene argues describing it as the ‘Fire Circle’ could be considered the oldest form of therapy. Coming together with other human animals, sharing stories, and creating connection have formed a social bond that is nearly transcendent of cultures. The sense of security we experience when gathering at a fire is universally human.

All of the above, and what I have described speaks to our ancestral ways which have now largely been forgotten or undervalued.

Where Are We Now?

Of course, there is no denying that there are all kinds of benefits to progress and industrialization. But the trouble with all this progress is that we have forgotten the benefits of what we have lost. Instead of combining the progress, with what is best about some of the old ways, we have just thrown everything out. To solve the ailments of the past we have created technologies that present problems unseen and unending. Making us question whether the old problems were so bad after all. Now of course, for almost all of us it wouldn’t be possible to go back to living like a hunter-gatherer. But we can invoke the wisdom from the past, recognize our evolutionary heritage and find the best ways to implement that within the constraints of the modern world. This is what the Human Animal Project proposes.

The Human Animal Project is the culmination of my life’s work, both as a martial arts teacher, embodied philosopher, ecopsychology practitioner and seeker. It’s an experience that I developed, and to continue to develop, to overcome my own roadblocks in life. I have integrated findings from my research: as a social scientist, studying mindfulness-in-action from an embodied perspective; as an environmental psychology researcher, studying the role mind, body and ecology play in healing and meaning; along with my own personal embodied practice, especially as a martial arts teacher for over three decades. The lessons held within the Human Animal experience have enabled me and my students to develop true self-reliance and mastery no matter what life throws at us.

What I teach is that held within your body’s natural instincts, lie the keys to lasting fulfillment. I wrote ‘fulfillment’ throughout this piece on purpose, instead of ‘happiness’. Happiness is often momentary, whilst fulfillment is long term. Unlike the Western Pollyanna notion of happiness, fulfillment doesn’t mean the search for a life free from stress. Rather it is through embracing, molding and shaping stress that poise, focus and clarity is possible despite life’s chaos.

The Human Animal Project is a personal mastery program explored through mind and movement, while fully reconnecting to the energy of the natural world. I hope that those who come along on the journey will discover the positive application of their primal nature, and overcome obstacles in their life.

As you can see, I am not against research or science, on the contrary, much of what I explore and present from the scientific domains has already been foretold in the wisdom of ancient traditions. Science then is only now getting round to validating what has already been known. What I am most interested in is processes, tools and strategies that are natural, innate to the success of the humans animal, unencumbered by artificial methods. In other words, I want to encourage all of us to return as best we can to our innate nature before we become fully domesticated human animals, never to return to natural world until our death. I believe it is through returning to our ancestral heart, that true healing and fulfillment are possible.

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Spending Time Walking in Silence is Great for Your Mental Health

Spending Time Walking in Silence is Great for Your Mental Health

walking-with-stillnes

I spent several years as a social scientist researching the role mindfulness plays in the moment of leadership performance. Mindfulness has now become the ‘in thing’ with it being touted as aiding in everything from enhancing relationships, improving attention, helping a person manage their stress, aiding people in dealing with physical pain, to improving mental health, and the list goes on. The truth is, that at times both journalists and even scientists (who we could argue should know better) have overstated the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness. As such there has been a growing skepticism with scientific data on mindfulness being woefully lacking.



Undeniably there is some solid evidence to show that the practice of mindfulness does in fact have positive benefits for the overall health of the human animal, and my own personal experience, and my research speaks to this. But, early on in my research I began to recognize that while it was one thing practicing being present on a mediation cushion in a quiet room, filled with candles, and the sweet scent of incense — that this experience was very far removed from being present in the chaos we call life. It is for this reason that I focused my research on two important aspects of being present. Firstly the ability to be present while in the action of living (i.e., in everyday experiences that we typically found ourselves engaged in), and in turn that it was done in such a way that one brought one’s entire self to the experience (i.e., embodiment).

For my leaders in my study this meant that they were intentionally at least in the beginning activating a sense of presence in their everyday work environment. The way I got them to understand how to achieve this was through a workshop I designed where through martial arts and other embodied movement experiences they discovered in real time how it felt to not be present, and in turn I then showed them ways to bring themselves back to the moment at hand.

My personal takeaway from this is that the real world benefits of being able to be present comes about by actively doing so, and practicing it as such in the crucible of life and not in some kind of artificially created environment first. Secondly, the success of being present comes from bringing all of yourself to the experience you find yourself in. In other words, its not just about getting your head straight. Drawing from this I have found a few ways to intentionally practice being present that has real world positive effects. One of the most profound is what I call, ‘Walking with Stillness’.

Practicing Walking with Stillness

For half the year I live on the Isle of Man. We have beautiful glens here, which is the ideal place to walk with stillness (if you don’t have a glen, a forest or something similar near by, even a park will suffice). The goal is to go for a walk, but to intentionally slow down. While you slow down, you try to walk as softly as you can, making as little noise as possible.

While you do so, you want to not only be fully aware of your body as it moves from one step to the next, quietly, and softly making your way through the woods, but at the same time be fully aware of what surrounds you. While you do so, you want to focus on your breath. Breathing in bring your attention to your body as it moves, breathing out bring your attention to the outside world. After a while, and with practice breathing in and out begins to merge, and you recognise that there is no longer a separation between inner and outer. 



Crucially while all this is going on your are doing so from a place of curiosity and non judgemental awareness. The step you make is the step you make. The bird you hear in the distance is a bird you hear. If you feel your mind wandering off to some other place, you gently remind yourself to come back to walking slow and soft, while connecting to your breath.

Whenever I have practiced this, 20-minutes in a sense of stillness falls over my entire body, even though all around me the sounds of nature are anything but still.

Stillness Embodied

It is this sense of embodied stillness you want to incorporate into your everyday life. The world can be moving a million miles around you, but you are not sped up by it, instead you feel calm, centered and focused.

After numerous practicing sessions of ‘Walking with Stillness’ I began to apply in all other journeys in my life, from walking to the store, or going into town. And that’s the thing, rather than it simply being a walk to somewhere, my walks became a journey. Each time a journey of self discovery to that place of inner stillness, even though life’s chaos continued as it always has and always will. 



Try it out this week. I would love to hear what you found.

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