Last night I had a nightmare, one that returns to terrify me from time to time. I’m laying on my back, somewhere in a sterile white room. The light is bright, but there are no windows. Except for a few people who seem to be lurking nearby, there’s no sign of any living thing around me. There’s no dirt, no weather, no animals, nothing. It all feels quite literally, senseless. I can scarcely feel my body, but there’s loud music coming from somewhere, pounding out a beat and growing louder with every moment.
“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”
Terry Tempest Williams
I have the best job in the world and I love it. Let me tell you about it:
I can show up for work whenever I want. I can take as many vacations as I want. I get to set my own pace and pursue my own projects. I can wear baggy clothes and go barefoot. And no one ever gives me any grief about what I say or think. And no, I don’t work at Patagonia, although that would be great. My gig is something else altogether...
“I am fully committed to the idea that human existence should be rooted in the earth.”
The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life
If you’ve ever seen my photograph, you might be surprised to learn that I was born indigenous. Specifically, I was born in 1955, a native son of Turtle Island, otherwise known as North America. Of course, I didn’t look native at the time. My skin was white and I had the basic suite of Caucasian, Eastern-European features. People thought that I was just another garden-variety white infant...
By now, everyone on the planet has some awareness, however dim, of our epidemic of lifestyle disease. The list is familiar: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illness and depression. We wring our hands about the problem, shake our heads and propose solutions, most of them built around diet and exercise. But it’s not working. Most of our so-called solutions aren’t really very effective but even worse, we’re looking at the problem in the wrong way.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
As the tribal elder of Exuberant Animal, I have long been reluctant to offer explicit opinions about politics. I don’t normally endorse candidates or make policy recommendations. My primary focus has been on experiential health education, an enterprise that's plenty engaging as it is. But with the election of 2016, everything has changed. Given the tragic, incomprehensible outcome, I am called to reevaluate my position....
As most of us have now realize, mismatch is a truly wicked problem. Our ancient, aboriginal bodies just don’t fit this frenzied, chaotic modern world. As a result, lifestyle disease is rampant. Fear, depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes and other illnesses now afflict millions of people around the planet. Our minds, bodies and spirits are suffering.
Naturally, everyone seems to have their favorite explanation for our distress. For some, it’s simply a problem of sedentary living. For others, it’s a matter of sugar, gluten and glow-in-the-dark foods. For still others, it’s a failure of government, culture or institutions. We talk and discuss the problem as if we just discovered it, but in fact, much of our distress was anticipated nearly a century ago by the late, great Carl Jung...
Experience is transformational, especially when it's organized around movement, meditation, presentation, great food and wonderful people!
Our October 2016 Long Body Training was a big success. Just see for yourself....
(Registration is now open for our Spring 2017 Long Body Training. Limited to 20 participants. Act now to secure a spot.)
Rumor has it that things aren’t looking good for the biosphere, which of course means that things aren’t looking good for us. Even people with their heads in the sand have a suspicion that something just isn’t right. To put it simply, all the curves are bent in the wrong direction. Population, climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, loss of fresh water, lifestyle disease, social inequality, mass migration and dislocation: all these trajectories point towards a deepening crisis. There’s no need to rehash the specifics. Let’s just say that the entire human/biological system is under immense, unprecedented stress.
At times like these, many of us resort to metaphor. Some speak of lifeboat earth or spaceship earth. Others say we’re at a tipping point. But I prefer to take a page from academia. That is, I like to describe this predicament as our final exam. If we’re going to get the diploma that says Homo sapiens in a fancy typeface, we’re going to have to step up and start exercising some practical, courageous wisdom.
But beware: this is no ordinary mid-term. This is the ultimate high-stakes test and it’s a real monster. It’s not multiple choice and it’s not open book. You won’t be able to cheat off your neighbor or download someone else’s essay from the Internet. You won’t be able to get the answers in advance or game the system with some kind of tricky algorithm. No, this one is strictly practical and performance-based. There will be no sliding scale, no grading on a curve, and no grade inflation. This one is strictly pass-fail.
Some will call it an intelligence test, but that’s not quite right. In fact, if we approach this biospheric final strictly as a matter of data-gathering and number crunching, we fail. Intelligence counts for something, but it’s only necessary, not sufficient. All the analysis in the world isn’t going to count for much unless people actually change their behavior. And behavior will only change when people find the courage to face our predicament head on.
Ultimately, this exam is really a spiritual test. It’s a test of courage and adaptability, creativity and culture. It’s a test of our willingness to challenge the status quo and live in some new way. It’s a test of our ability to relinquish some measure of security in exchange for our continued existence.
If this makes sense to you, you might be inclined to wonder what exactly we’re doing in our educational institutions. The final exam is looming, but we persist in teaching things that have nothing whatsoever to do with it. We teach “subjects.” And we profess to prepare our students for the “real world.”
But the “real world” is on the verge of collapse and it’s calling for skills and aptitudes that are relevant to that condition. No matter how events unfold, our students are going to need the personal, physical and spiritual skills of adaptability, creativity and resilience. And these reside in the body, not in the abstract domain of cognition. In other words, our training needs to be both neck-up and neck-down. We need more experience and less information, more time in the world and less time in our heads.
Meanwhile, the days are counting down and exam day is looming. Unfortunately, our collective exam prep is looking sketchy. Some of our fellow students have actually been practicing their skills. They’re keeping their eye on the challenge and making actual changes to their ways of living. They’re taking notes and staying up late in study sessions with their colleagues. They’re actually curious about the course material.
But sadly, most of our classmates have been on extended spring break. They’ve been down on the Gulf, living on the beach, intoxicated around the clock, amusing themselves while the clock runs out. In fact, we might well describe our entire culture as one extended spring break, lost in distraction, avoidance and willful blindness. Say what you will about the current candidates in our presidential race, the most notable and disturbing fact of this election cycle is that journalists aren’t even asking about the hard realities of climate change, habitat destruction or threats to the global environment. We are all on a protracted bender of denial.
It remains to be seen how many of us will sober up before exam day.
It seems like a stupid question: What could be healthier than health and fitness? Likewise, What could be healthier than the health and fitness industry? It seems like a slam dunk. By definition, anything we do in this industry should be healthy. We say it, therefore it must be true.
Such assumptions aside, all is not well in our industry. In fact, there is a deep contradiction that lies right at the heart of what we do. The problem begins with this thing we call the self, our sense of individual identity. We all know this sense and most of us understand that it’s a flexible thing. Sometimes our identity feels solid, other times we forget about the self entirely. It’s also true that our training practices affect this sense: some practices increase our sense of self, some help us transcend it.
But what are we to do with this understanding? Should we as teachers, trainers and coaches help people strengthen their sense of self? Or should we help them get over it? If this seems like yet another stupid question, consider the wisdom of our spiritual teachers through the ages. No matter what tradition you like to draw on, one pattern consistently emerges. That is, most teachers agree that the spiritual path lies in giving up, overcoming or transcending our focus on the self.
Obviously, this presents a contradiction: Spiritual development begins when we abandon our focus on ourselves, but here in the health and fitness industry we see a powerfully concentrated effort to do precisely the opposite. Bodybuilding is the classic example, but most of our training and athletic competition is driven by a similar desire to maximize individual accomplishment and glory. We encourage our clients to focus on themselves first. We shape their bodies and take pictures of the results. We put them in front of mirrors so they can focus more intensely on themselves. We display perfect individual bodies on Photoshopped magazine covers. We devise ever more sophisticated training programs to maximize the welfare of the individual. We are nothing if not selfists.
Most of us mean well, of course. We’re trying to do the right thing for ourselves and our clients. But we’re like Russian dolls, nested inside a vanity culture that’s bigger, wealthier and more vocal than we are. And that culture has a laser focus on the welfare and status of the individual.
This is where the trouble begins. Over time, our laser focus on individuality actually becomes corrosive to health. It creates a world of isolated individuals, divorced from habitat and one another. As our sense of individuality solidifies, we begin to lose contact with the very things that give us life.
Of course, focusing of the self is not entirely negative; much depends on where we stand in our lifespan. For young people, building up the self makes sense. Strength, competence, power, control and independence are vital qualities for building happiness and yes, health. Likewise, adults need periodic refreshers in individual power, challenges that strengthen our bodies and our will to meet the demands of a crazy and chaotic world.
But the dose makes the poison. Self-focused training, in moderate doses at the right time, is appropriate and health-promoting. But in large doses over long periods of time, it becomes destructive. Exclusive attention to personal welfare and achievement, sustained over the course of a career, is a perfect formula for misery and suffering.
And thus our folly. The modern corporate gymnasium has become an artificial paradise of delusion in which people are led to believe that “it’s all about you.” What people really need are reminders of what really keeps them alive. Our job as trainers and coaches is to show them the connections between their bodies and their life support systems. If people lose sight of those continuities, it won’t matter how many sets, reps or miles they do.
The antidote to our narcissism is to shift our focus from self to world, from identity to integration, from self to bigger-than-self. We need new imagery, new tag lines and new advertising slogans. People want to feel integrated with the natural and social world. They want to feel part of something larger. They want meaning in their movement. And this, as much as any exercise machine or protein shake, will improve their health.
Watch Frank Forencich's presentation to the Ancestral Health Symposium, August 2016, Boulder, Colorado: "The Case for the Long Body."
The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.
Everyone knows the standard narrative of aging in the modern world. In a nutshell, it sucks. According to the dominant story of our day, getting older is one long, depressing decline into degeneration, illness and irrelevance. Certain events are said to be inevitable: decreased physical and cognitive function, massive medical bills and possible bankruptcy, neurological melt-down and perhaps worst of all, social and cultural irrelevance. In short, getting older is a disaster to be avoided by any means possible.
The outlook is grim, so we medicalize the process with every power we’ve got. We treat aging like a disease and conjure up all manner of treatments and substances to slow, stop or reverse the ravages of time. Time becomes our enemy. Gripped by fear, we promote the virtues of “healthy aging.” A flood of books, magazine articles and experts tell us how to get older without well, getting older. We try to stop the clock, reverse the damage, delay the onset, reduce the effects and dampen the symptoms. What we really mean by “healthy aging” is not aging at all.
The personal and social consequences of this narrative are catastrophic. Not only does it make us increasingly miserable as time goes by, it also drives the widespread practice of ageism. Under its influence, we begin to see seniors as nothing more than a drag on society and the economy. Old people are a burden and an inconvenience; they become progressively less valuable to us with every passing moment. Human value, in other words, decreases over time.
This chrono-phobia is both dangerous and counter-productive. Not only does it devalue much of human life, it also puts us under an insane level of stress. If you believe that your “golden years” are your 30’s and 40’s, followed by a progressive decline into illness and irrelevance, the clock is going to be ticking loud and hard. Your sense of urgency will magnify with every passing year. You’ve got to hurry up and make something happen because once your body starts to slow down, it’s game over. Even worse, you’ve got to make yourself a big pile of money right now because once you hit 50, the medical-industrial complex is going to step in and take most of it away.
Sadly, the modern health and fitness industry is a powerful enabler of this destructive narrative. We are enthusiastic partners in the medicalization of aging. For every age-related insult to the human body, we claim to have a solution. Diets and substances galore, exercise programs for every ailment, the list goes on. Magazine covers and websites glorify youth and the promise of eternal life. According to our marketing, aging is not inevitable. It’s simply the failure to eat the right things and move the right ways. If you get on a program with us, you’ll never have to suffer the ravages of time.
Viewed in the context of human history, today’s narrative is distinctly abnormal. In the Paleolithic era, tribal survival was highly dependent on the experience and wisdom of tribal elders. The “old ones” knew how to stay alive. They had witnessed the cycles of weather and seasons. They had participated in many hunts and had seen the waxing and waning of animal life. They had seen the tribe suffer and flourish. In this world, the words of the elders carried considerable weight. Far from being a drag on society, they were essential to survival. As the keepers of vital knowledge and wisdom, they were the most valuable and respected members of the community. In the Paleo world, human value increased over time.
Tragically, we are the first culture in human history to devalue its elders. Likewise, we are the first culture in history to reject the very people who might help us choose the best path forward. To make progress, it’s essential that we turn this narrative of aging around, but where shall we begin? A good first step would be to give up our obsession with youth. Yes, there’s plenty to be said for the vitality and exuberance of young adulthood and all the pleasures that go with it. But to cling to this at the exclusion of all else is to go blind to bigger possibilities. The wiser course is start taking responsibility for becoming tribal elders. This means learning the ways of the world and sharing our knowledge with those within our reach. It is not acceptable to simply long for retirement on the golf course or worse yet, a retirement home. We must step up.
In primal world, the elders were fully aware of this role. Their experience made it clear: their primary purpose was to act on behalf of the tribe, to share their knowledge, to give away their insights so that the tribe could live another day, another season, another year. There would have been no thought of retirement, no notion of self-pampering or hoarding. For the Paleo senior citizen the primal directive was simple: give your knowledge away so that the tribe can live.
And with all due respect to the seniors in today’s world, there’s no escaping the fact that many older people have hitched their star to the wrong narrative. They’ve bought into a belief that one’s senior years ought to be a time for relaxing at the second home, taking golf lessons, lounging in the shade or touring the country in a gigantic RV. Retirement, in other words, is about pampering the self. But in the traditional-native-indigenous view, this behavior would be seen as self-indulgent, narcissistic and profoundly anti-social. In fact, the duty of the senior citizen is to take leadership, to assume responsibility and show the way forward.
As chronically aging people in the modern world, we have been dodging our responsibility. The urgency of our time is to teach what we know, to pass our knowledge to the younger members of our tribe so that they might live. So take a new look at your body and your life: Your wrinkles, your aching joints and your diminished athletic performance are not downsides to be eliminated; they are badges of authority and reminders of your sacred responsibility.
You have a job to do.
Get on with it.
“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flown. How did it get so late so soon?”
A popular health and fitness blog suggests that "You are entirely up to you." It sounds motivating and challenging, this notion that the trajectory of our health and our lives is entirely up to the choices that we make. But is this really the case?
Like most people, I want to be healthy. And like many, I turn to the Internet on occasion to find out how to do it. All goes well at the beginning, but after awhile I start to get a creepy sense that something’s backwards.
Crimes Against Nature is an extremely improbable story of a backpacker in the Pacific Northwest and his chance encounter with some highly litigious animals. You'll see your role in the natural world in an entirely new light.
Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished. If you fight the ecology of a system, you lose - especially if you 'win.'
~ Gregory Bateson
No one on the playground seemed to know where it came from or what it was all about, but it sure was fun. Just square off with a friend and off you go. Rock smashes scissors, but can be covered by paper. Paper covers rock, but can be cut by scissors. Scissors cuts paper, but can be smashed by rock. Maybe you called it ick-ack-ock, ching-chang-cholly, zig-zag-zog or ro-sham-bo.
Clips from our October, 2015 training in Leavenworth, WA
As 2015 winds to a close, it’s time to reflect on who we are and what we’re doing in this world, but sadly, it’s easy to get discouraged. Our culture puts physical training and education at the bottom of just about every hierarchy. In schools and universities, we’re at the bottom of the academic totem pole. In gyms and clinics, we’re constantly under pressure, our jobs vulnerable to the youngsters who’re willing to work for free to get started in the business.
If you don't have a med ball, you should probably get one. Med balls are one of the greatest movement toys out there. We can use them for functional training and they're also great for games and fun. But what to do with the ball on your own?
When it all comes together, magic happens. On October 16-18, we gathered in Leavenworth, WA for a weekend of movement, meditation and outdoor exploration. We talked about the mismatch between our ancestral bodies and the challenge of the modern world, we explored solutions and we lived a rhythm of striving, friendship and rest. This event set the stage for more Exuberant Animal Training to come: April 29-May 1, 2016. More soon...