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Inspiration for the Human Animal Project


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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