dan o'neill cartoon
ow that I am no longer spending the bulk of my waking hours doing what my boss tells me to do, I’m beginning to entertain some heretical thoughts.

I am beginning to believe that civilization has so warped us that, to a greater or lesser degree, we have all forgotten who we really are. Perhaps some of us never knew. Who are we? We are each our own story, a culture of one. Our story begins at birth with a discovery, an exploration, a connection with the world around us. Whether we are human or animal, we are at first profoundly connected to the rest of the world through our senses. We are filled with wonder. We are incredibly vulnerable, but we are not helpless. It will take several years before the brainwashing of those who have forgotten who they really are convince us that without them, we are helpless. The real truth is that we are brilliantly equipped for survival. Evolution has seen to that.

If we were living outside of our terrible civilization, the first things we would learn would all be through our senses. Our senses are there to give us joy, to make us want to live, and to help us survive and thrive in communion with the rest of life on Earth of which we are a part. As animal babies we immediately start to move around and see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. We do the things that give us sensory pleasure. Our instincts guide us — they tell us to smell our Mother’s breath to learn what is good to eat, and find those things to eat, and, for reasons we don’t really understand, or need to, not to eat other things. And our instincts also tell us when to flee and what to flee from, when to migrate, and when to stay and, if need be, to fight. We learn enough language, depending on our species, to communicate the location of food, our presence, and the presence of danger, and to express ourselves. But most of our time for our whole lives is spent just experiencing sensations and enjoying life.

Those of us born into civilization soon start to follow a very different path. As our animal kin’s brains are forming to reflect the memories of sensation and place, ours are forming to reflect the language we our taught. Our sensory exploration and learning is interrupted, from a very young age, for abstract lessons of language. We are taught definitions, that what a thing is, is its word — kitten, puppy, Mommy. Bizarre learning that has no resonance in the three million years of instinctive knowledge wired into our DNA. And then, immediately, we are taught, and taught and taught what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, what is ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’, ‘logical’ and ‘foolish’. And we begin to be judged not on who were are (or, as the lessons proceed, who we used to be), but rather on what we’ve ‘learned’, what we ‘know’, and what we ‘possess’. And we are judged on how our behaviour reflects and reinforces that terrible learning — on our conformity (tellingly, we actually use this word in describing pet training ‘success’). For the rest of our lives we will be taught, and told, what to do, how to do it, and how to behave, learnings that are utterly abstract and disconnected from who we are (or were). We will, as we have been taught and told, fill our lives with arduous, full time work, with fearsome consequences if we ‘fail’ (poverty, being labeled and shunned as a ‘failure’, the shame and terror of not having enough). And finally, we become that abstract other that is our strange learnings and behaviours. We learn to live outside ourselves.

I will leave it to others (at least for now) to pass judgement on why we do this. I am, as usual, more interested in the solution than the definition or cause of the problem.

How can we reconnect with the true self that we leave behind when we take that strange abstract journey into otherhood? How can we remember who we are (or were) before this terrible world stole that identity from us? There are many ways to reacquire some of that subsersive knowledge. If you’re a woman, you’ll probably find it easier than men, because in my experience men are, for the most part, more enthusiastic about abstraction and all its rules, and less attuned to and comfortable with the sensory world.

Probably the easiest way is to spend time outside of civilization. Walk in the forest or the park, unassisted by and as far away from man-made artifacts as possible. Slow down. Stay, or keep doing it, until you feel yourself changing, until your abstract brain gets bored and turns off and your senses take over. Take along an animal friend to show you the way. Look Until You Really See: Move in close, so you divert attention from individual objects and start to see instead colour, texture, shape, shadow, reflection, pattern. Find an unusual perspective from which to look — get down on the ground and look up, look at something through trees, through a microscope, or by candlelight, anything that will let you see things differently from usual. Look at things under unusual conditions — in the fog, at night, right after a heavy rain, just at dawn or dusk. Stimulate your other right-brain senses — get your nose up close to things, listen to birds, or insects, or train whistles, or music. Walk in your bare feet. Walk or bicycle without a pre-determined destination, direction or time limit. Study something — birds at your bird-feeder, time-lapse of a flower over the course of a day or a week, a spider-web, how moving or dimming the lights in a room changes its character, how a bottle looks different when viewed from different angles.

Or turn off the buzz at home. Spend an hour, or an evening, or a day, without the distracting sensory inputs of civilization. Burn candles instead of lights. Turn off the TV and the radio and the PC and spend the time doing something that requires no electricity. Then invite some friends over and do it again. If you can’t get rid of the background urban noise, put on a CD of natural sounds or instrumental music. Or grow something from a seed or seedling. Or meditate, or use some other exercise (ideally, outside) that focuses your mind on the here and now, and makes it still. Or eat a meal (ideally, outside) that consists entirely of natural, organic, uncooked, unprocessed foods.

What other ways have you found to re-connect with who you really are, or were?

It is hard to describe what happens to us when we do regain connection with our true, instinctive selves. It is liberating, warming, exciting, stimulating. But it is also deeply unsettling. It can irrevocably change you, make you dissatisfied with that other you that you had become. It can cause you to question everything you believe, radicalize you (in the true meaning of that word — taking you back to your roots). It can make others afraid of you and angry at you, and even, alas, dissociated from you. Human kind cannot bear very much reality, as Eliot said. It is like getting a day pass from a prison you have lived in all your life, but never realized was a prison because you had nothing to compare it to.

But be careful with this new knowledge, the knowledge of who you were before our well-meaning civilization made you like everbody else. It’s dangerous.

Cartoon is by Dan O’Neill from the 1970 Jefferson Airplane CD ‘Volunteers’.

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  1. Marijo says:

    Our sensory exploration and learning is interrupted, from a very young age, for abstract lessons of language. We are taught definitions, that what a thing is, is its word — kitten, puppy, Mommy. Bizarre learning that has no resonance in the three million years of instinctive knowledge wired into our DNA.There is some evidence that the learning of spoken language is genetically assisted– the rate at which young people acquire new words (from age 3 to about 17) is simply incommensurable with any notion of plain learning or teaching. It is a real struggle, for example, for many children to learn to read, or to master some of the other tasks that we give them in childhood. No one even tries to teach them to talk, and they learn it anyway, and they get the grammar right far more often than they get it wrong. Just a small point, though. I’m planning a trip to a state park in March, and I can hardly wait. Being in the woods will feel good.

  2. Myke says:

    Thanks for reminding us that when we are separated from Mother Nature, we are separated from our natural self, and we feel estranged.

  3. Conor says:

    Your either a romantic or have a serious case of cabin fever, or both – but glad you seem to put it to good use. I can tell, winters where you come from are very long.

  4. Denis says:

    Great article. Change is always “dangerous”, I think… But in this case, stagnation might be even more dangerous.

  5. Kevin says:

    I heard an interesting piece on NPR’s This American Life the other day about a writer who decided one day that he would live as if you’ll die in six months. While it’s easy to say, and everyone thinks about it every once in a while, he did a pretty good job of it. Such a good job that when he described waking up in the morning after he was scheduled to die, he was overcome with emotion and broke into tears on-air.I wont give you all the details, but when he decided the date on which he would die, instead of climbing mountains, and sky-diving, what he did was get rid of his possetions, go home to his parents, bum around the house, talk with them, eat with them, just live with them. He also took a bike trip across America, visiting friends along the way that he would like to meet one last time.The thing that struck me about this, was the fact that even after having truely lived as if there was no tomorrow, he did not destroy his future. We are told that if we slow down, we will fall so far behind that we can never catch-up. In Japan it is very common for workers to never even use their vacation days from work. There is tremendous pressure not to. It is similar to the school system here, where children spend days in school, and evenings in cramming school, everyone afraid that if they don’t keep up they are failures. Everyone seems to have an “If I take a break I am a looser. One failure brands me for life. I will fail my whole life through” attitude. My favorite part of the NPR story is that the writer who took a year out of his life, living with no thought of the future is now is now a sucessfull editor at Wired magazine.On a personal note, I too found how great it is to just take a break. I quit my own job last year to work for myself, and at one of the scariest times, when I felt I should be working the hardest to build up my own client base, to not loose any momentum I had after jumping off the company gravy train, I took a month off. I went home to spend a month with my family. This was by far the longest vacation with no school or work responsibilities since I was in University. I did almost nothing that would be considered productive. I went shopping and cooked with my mom. I watched videos with my dad. I went to the bar with my brother. Through it all did have a nagging, sinking feeling, as if I was destroying my future. That I am not keeping up. I am loosing momentum. I am loosing what I have gained so far.But in the end, nothing bad has happened. My busy life was still waiting for me when I got back, and in fact too much was waiting for me. What I should have been worried about was not “loosing what I had gained” but “no longer wanting what I had gained”. Just one month with time to concentrate on something other than someone-elses work gave me the time I needed to research and explore what life was to me, and my outlook on everything has changed drastically, and I am turning down “opportunities” that I thought I would have been greatful for before. I think that just taking this month off, not for a vacation in Thailand, or the Caribean, but rather to go home has really helped me to connect to who I am, and where I want to be headed. Almost as if I went back to before I headed off to Universtiy, before my “real life” began. By doing that, I came away with a sence of starting over, I once again have all the choices I used to have about what to do next. I was able to shake off the feeling that I am on path and the only thing I can do is follow it. I lost momentum, and this gives me more agility, I can make a quicker turn now. I am once again in control of my own life.So is it a conspiracy by civilization? Not wanting us to take a break, to think with our senses, because if too many of us do, that civilization will fail, as more and more of us realize that there are alternatives? Maybe it is the evolutionary survival mechanism of our current civilization, trying to keep us busy enough, and re-enforce the idea that the only other alternative is failure.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    Quitting a job helps a lot. Travelling to other places, too. The French have a verb for taking a vacation elsewhere – se depayser – literally, to take oneself out of one’s country (one’s context).Women have to deal with the biological imperative/instinct to grow another natural being, an organism, inside themselves – no doubt that is an advantage in staying more closely connected to Nature and the ancient rhythyms of life.We live in a society where the denial of death, and therefore of life, is at the root of most of what we consume as marketing. We are made to be dissatisfied with natural life.

  7. Philip says:

    Dave there is a whole spiritual movement attached to the ideas you are presenting here. They are not new or revolutionary. Meditation works for me. Others use extreme sports or exercise. You are talking about a level of understanding about humanity/self that millions have. Heady stuff when you first come to the realization. Some people even manage to live in this space but they are not very effective with dealing with their environments, blissed out child like souls are cool but changing their diapers is a bitch. I kind of got clued in back in 1971 with Be Here Now by Richard Alpert/Ram Dass. Thing is you still need to chop wood carry water. Living in the joy of the moment while attending to the needs of your society is the challenge in modern life.

  8. Rob Paterson says:

    Dave thanks to Chris Corrigan I have been introduced to the work of John Holt – worth a look – he rebels against the abstract complexity of how our schools work.I am off next week for 2 weeks in Toronto where I will have to get up at a fixed time every morning and join the herd on the subway – the work at the other end is great but losing myself in the world of the commuter is very hard for me now. I am so free here. Even losing the septic tank last week was an adventure!

  9. Steve says:

    Howdy Dave, following your advice as I always do, I got my nose right up close to this cute woman in the checkout line at the IGA. …long story short, for the next cupla weeks you can reach me at Rm 119, Fulton County Health Center.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Your didn’t read carefully enough, Steve. The advice said not to try to eat anything you can’t smell on your mother’s breath ;-)

  11. Jim says:

    Have you read David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous? Beautifully written book discussing human connection and disconnection to the non-human world.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Jim: Sounds great. I will add it to my “to read” list. Thanks.Kevin: The big question is, have you regained that lost momentum again (and the correct answer, of course, is ‘no’). I have no doubt that the fact the average American manager works 60 hours a week has a great deal to do with his/her inability to learn or remember who they really were. Not a conspiracy, perhaps, but certainly an explanation for a very widespread ‘mental illness’.

  13. Paris says:

    Other tips to stay connected with one’s true self:Dancing barefoot, stretching, sleeping on the floor, walking only during week ends (no bus, subway, car), cooking raw organic foods, eating with fingers sitting on the floor, fresh sprouts grown in the kitchen, indulging in home made ‘cosmetics’ so natural you could eat them!and I do lick my face mask!(lemon juice+honey)Washing your dishes with a hint of lemon essential oil, and windows with pine, having wooden floor & furnitures, and some natural fur (sheep or deer) instead of carpetswearing shells instead of diamonds, or ornamenting your house with dried flowers and stones, instead of plastics…There are SO many tricks to stay tuned to our real self, they key is to take control of your body and home step by step : replace the processed food in your fridge with organics raw stuff each time you run off something.When an item is broken, damaged, or finished in your house, find, exchange or buy an alternative which is more natural: you can’t see crude oil in the plastics, neither the stone in metal, but you can count age lines on the wood, smell it (if properly processed) and feel its warm life!

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