Category Archives: human development

Who’s your tribe?

A prime motivator of the human species, right up there with safety, is comfort. Over millennia we have developed creative ways to provide ourselves shelter from weather extremes, food at our fingertips, soft places to sleep and sit, and ways to travel great distances with ease. Ah, comfort! 

Conformity is comfort, too. We feel safer if we make the same choices as people we respect.  We may define ourselves by our choices of brands of clothing and technology, for example. We are drawn to people with shared interests or outlooks, for both the stimulating exchanges and the sense of being at ease with shared viewpoints. In this way we have a sense of tribe.

We are tribal by nature, so when our ancestors migrated around the globe in search of food, safety and freedom from persecution, each generation had to expand its understanding of tribe. Nations arose not just to define physical boundaries but for a sense of belonging to a tribe. A tribe might have shared physical attributes, but as our sense of tribe grows, it is more dependent on a sense of shared experience, regardless of whether we look alike. For example, the shared experience of surviving a war, a famine, a drought, a depression or the assassination of a leader, will bind people together in a sense of a tribe. 

Each of us longs to be part of a ‘we’, however that ‘we’ is defined. Think about the word tribe for a moment and see how you feel it in your own experience. You might start with your family, then your friends, perhaps your coworkers, the people in your community, the citizens of your country, people with shared beliefs or practices around the world, etc. See where this exercise takes you and take your time with it.

When we look at the past century in the U.S., it’s easy to see the patterns of comfort-seeking conformity. Mass media set the standards of what was ‘in’ and all anyone had to do was dress the part. When I was an adolescent we read magazines like Seventeen and Glamour and followed their cues like maps to happiness, not just what to wear, or how to style our hair, but how to be in the world and in relationships, how to find true love and meaning. The boys read Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, MAD magazine and Playboy, finding comfort in shared interests and opinions.

But some didn’t find mass market media comforting at all and felt alienated from it, so revolted against it and appeared to be non-conforming. 

If it is our nature to seek conformity, how can we explain the non-conformists? They are still seeking comfort. They just have a different tribe, a tribe that seeks itself out. Look at all the gatherings, festivals and conferences that draw like-minded people together.

Recently I saw the PBS documentary Woodstock. (It is not the original Woodstock movie, which was also great but was focused more on the music. This one focuses more on how the festival came about, how it was received by the locals (the kind and generous townspeople of Bethel, NY and environs) and how 400,000 managed to be fed, etc.. Fascinating.)

Festival attendees from all over the country and the world were so elated to find their tribe, a tribe they couldn’t be sure existed beyond their own immediate experience since they only had a few newspapers like the Village Voice and Berkeley Barb. They looked bizarre to the majority of society, but together they looked much the same, their hair and clothes an expression of their desire to be free from the predefined conformity of their parents’ generation. They conformed to their own tribe.

The beatniks before them also found their tribe. I remember how happy I was when hippies happened because the beatniks that some of my school friends aspired to imitate in the early 60’s were just too dreary and depressing for me.

There have always been non-conforming tribes. I recently read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, about the tribe of artists in New York in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with Lee Krasner, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. at the center of it all. They painted all day in studios that often failed to provide even the minimum of comforts, some lacking heat or electricity. Their diets were so minimal that some struggling artists died of starvation. They would rather die than give up their art! I was fascinated in part because my father was one of them in the late 1930’s and I remember him saying that he and his friend figured out that a diet of dates and peanut butter was the cheapest and most nutritious way to survive. I wish I had asked him more about his time in New York back then.

According to the book, what kept the group of artists going, were the late night co-mingling with their tribe of artists and poets while nursing cups of coffee that had to last all night at the cheapest cafeteria in their down and out neighborhood. That is the strength of tribe and the powerful comfort of conformity, even when the tribe seems from the outside to be non-conforming, even when all creature comforts are sacrificed for the greater comfort of self-expression and the community of likeminded people.

What has described tribe in our massive culture is often generational, defined by the music we listen to, the entertainment we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the way we groom our hair, and what we are upset about — the Vietnam War, gun violence, student loan debt, climate crisis, etc.

Adults choose communities, a particular style of home, kinds of food, the online communities to join, but whatever we are doing, we are always seeking the comfort of our tribe.

With the advent of the internet, geography has ceased to play a role in this tribalism. Every morning after I meditate, I am greeted with ‘Thank you for meditating with me’ notes from all around the globe on the Insight Timer app. Reviews on my guided meditations also remind me that this is a worldwide community. How comforting! How supported I feel in my personal practice!

At its best, the internet has provided the possibility to be a true world community, to overcome fears and perceived barriers, to celebrate the wonder of being alive on this beautiful planet. At its worst, it has made it easy to self-define tribes of fear-based hatred, emboldening incivility and violence. If we succumb to the negativity, perceive our tribe as under siege and in need of protection, then we have tribal warfare that destroys us all.

So what we are doing in meditation is making internal peace, recognizing the fear, listening with respect, and then giving comfort, kindness, compassion to all aspects of our inner world. In this way we allow a spaciousness of mind that can hold all of what arises in ourselves and in the world in an open and loving embrace.

And what our practice leads to is an awakening to a deep understanding that we are intrinsically interconnected with all life, that our sense of ‘tribe’ does not have to be limited to just those whose opinions match our own or those who look like us. All the world’s great religions lead to the same place of deep understanding that there is no ‘other’. We are unique expressions of all that is in its infinite loving variety. We are not alone. We are all one. Our tribe is here and now and infinite, interconnected and inseparable.

Image by Speedy McVroom from Pixabay

Nature: Honoring Our Wisest Dharma Teacher

Like all animals we are programmed to go toward what is pleasant and to back away from what is unpleasant. Our chemistry is set up to flush our brains with a sense of pleasure when see something valuable for our survival – a brightly colored vegetable that will nourish our bodies or an attractive potential mate with whom we might procreate and continue the survival of our species. In the same way, we are set up to be flushed with fear when we come near anything that might threaten our survival, and programmed to run, hide or do battle with it.

This system has worked pretty well for most species. The fact that we are not extinct seems to imply that it is working for us humans as well. But when we look around we can see how much misery we as individuals continually cause ourselves and others, how our collective behavior, especially over the last two hundred years, has brought many species to the brink of extinction and beyond. We can see how many cultures we have lost, how much devastation and degradation to the environment we have caused. Given all of this, it seems that we have, in fact, lost touch with our natural survival instinct.

While few of us are proud of this course of events, many of us are so uncomfortable with the emotions that come up around this knowledge that we avoid it, push it away or deny it. We cling to what we have that tells us we are doing well. But we need to be with what is arising in our experience. We need to face it with clarity, compassion, courage, integrity and equilibrium in our words and actions.

This is not easy when we are coping with remorse, guilt, shame, disgust, dread, anger, wishful thinking and denial. So let’s look at how it is that we as a species got so off track so that we are in a constant state of fear and looking for every possible distraction to keep ourselves from effectively coping with what is arising in this moment, personally and globally.
Humans have a highly developed pre-frontal cortex, a more recent brain development that enables us to imagine the future and dwell in the past. With this addition to the brain, our species is uniquely able to remember, record, celebrate and sometimes even rewrite its complex history. We have created architecture that doesn’t just shield us from the elements but satisfies our longing for beauty. We have developed institutions for self-governing, education, edification and socialization. We have created literature, visual art, myths, beliefs, theories, science, deep understanding of the world we live in, all of which we are able to transmit from generation to generation through writing, and through audio and visual recording. We have created means to carry ourselves around the planet, and to communicate instantaneously with people in any part of the world.

Wow! One little tweak of the standard mammalian brain and we get all this! When you think how we humans start out the most helpless and naked of creatures, without the benefit of fur or feathers, claws, speed or strength, without even the ability to stand or walk until a year into our existence. And yet, through the two gifts we have – our opposable thumbs and our highly developed brain – we have compensated for all our other lacks. Perhaps we have over-compensated!

We not only can fly like birds, we fly to the moon and beyond. We not only can dig like moles and gophers, we dig deep into the earth, mining its resources. We not only can build nests, we build cathedrals and soaring skyscrapers.

In this over-compensation there’s been the creation of separation from wild nature. Many people in the modern world go from their insulated homes with interior garages by way of their cars – isolation chambers on wheels – into the basement garages of their workplace with its non-open-able windows, and never leave the building because there’s a company cafeteria for food and a company gym for exercise. At the end of the day, having returned home, they can go to bed without ever once having breathed fresh air or felt the natural outside temperature.

Cut off from nature, we get out of synch with the natural rhythms. We lose touch with the seasons, the tides, the phases of the moon, the myriad ways nature has always cued behavior in creatures.

The cost of being so out of synch with nature is high on a personal level and devastating on a global level. Out of synch with nature, we make misguided ill-informed choices that cause misery for us, the planet and the rest of the species who inhabit it.

Instead of the circular rhythms of nature, we have created a linear view of passage of time. We do this in order to accommodate our unique human ability to dwell in the past and imagine the future. But you can see how it gets us out of synch with the rest of nature. We have isolated ourselves, believing ourselves to be a species apart, and yet everything we do affects all other species and the planet. We have denied this connection, and deadened ourselves in that denial. Why?

Perhaps we think that in our encapsulated state we are protected from the vagaries of life. If we can set up a routine, a series of habits, and just keep them up, maybe we can keep the threat of change at bay. We don’t want our state of denial to be punctured, and we intuitively know that walking out into the wild will do just that. It will bring us to the basic truths inherent to life on earth. It will remind us of impermanence with every fallen leaf and every fallen tree. It will put us face to face with our own mortality, with the fact that our bodies are no different from those of any other creatures on the planet.

But if we stay in the wild a little longer, we start to understand that the fallen tree feeds the forest. We see the cycles of life with no moment in that cycle better or worse than another. We see creation, destruction and decay all serving the whole. We see that change is the only true constant, and that the natural rhythms of the earth and the stars bring a deeper comfort, a deeper sense of connection, than all the constructs we’ve created to ‘protect’ ourselves from this intrinsic truth.

Meditation, like a silent walk in nature, functions as a tuning fork that re-attunes us to the natural rhythms of our own nature. We learn to find a balance that allows us to use the gift of our highly developed brains without running amuck into seriously unskillful behavior. But it is not enough to meditate. We need to give ourselves as many opportunities as possible to be in nature. When we attend a meditation retreat, it may be hard to know how much of the value of the retreat was sitting on our cushion, and how much was the slow walks we took, communing with trees, grasses, lizards and birds.

In a couple of weeks Will and I are heading out on our annual camping trip up into the mountains. It’s not that I love pit toilets, going without a shower, dealing with mosquitoes and other potentials for discomfort. It’s just that my daily walks in nature get me into nature for short periods of time before I retreat back into my isolation chamber and check my email. Yes, in the summer we have a wonderful screen room where I can sit for awhile reading and enjoying the birds in the waterfall. I am so fortunate! But then I go back inside. So camping is like a forced nature retreat to get me outside my box. If I don’t occasionally take myself far from the comforts of home, my habitual nature sends me back into the house for something to eat, a more stable temperature or a whole slew of other reasons. When I’m camping, there is no inside to go to. And that’s the idea!

But after a few days I am ready to come home. Just as after a meditation retreat, I am ready to return to my regular life. I return with a more balanced, attuned understanding of my place in the natural world. The wild world has so many lessons to teach me, has so many answers to any question I might ask. It is an ever ready dharma delivery system, providing truth after truth, and requesting only a deep and abiding respect in return.

I had an employer once who was a devoted follower of the nineteenth century political economist Henry George, who believed that property should be taxed more heavily in its undeveloped state to encourage development and improvements. This kind of thinking, this seeing nature as a kind of blank canvas for human creativity to unleash itself, is still alive and well in the 21st century.

I was reminded of it last weekend when a dear relative of mine was visiting from rural Washington. She told a story of her neighbor whom she asked to stop driving his four wheel drive ATV all over her grassy meadow.
“But you aren’t using it,” he said, totally baffled by her request. After all, she had allowed his horses to roam the meadow without complaint. In his world view, an open meadow is not a rich vibrant network of living systems but a vacant lot serving no purpose until a human designates one.

Thank goodness there are people like Dr. Marty Griffin, a friend whose 90th birthday party I attended this week also. He put his well-developed brain, his deep sense of connection and any other resources he could find to good use to save wild nature, particularly the Marin and Sonoma Coasts. The Audubon Canyon Ranch, that amazing nesting ground for blue herons on the Bolinas Lagoon that he founded decades ago, has just been renamed The Martin Griffin Preserve in his honor.

Through spending time in nature in a meditative way — really being present for what arises in our experience, being open, receptive and curious — we start seeing and understanding the role of wild nature in supporting all life, including our own. And we start seeing our role in the natural world. When we insulate ourselves from nature we have a distorted view of the world and who we are in it.

So, what is your relationship with the wilderness? Are you muscling through it, focused on burning calories and building endurance or on getting somewhere? Are you talking with friends or listening to the music plugged into your ears, staying in sensory disconnect from the nature that called to you?

How many questions do you have that nature could answer if you opened yourself up and listened? About impermanence, about comparing mind, about judgment, about connection, about self-acceptance, about just about anything!

Over the coming week, if you haven’t already done so, add to your meditative practice at least a few minutes of being completely alone in nature. You could spend a few minutes star gazing before bed. You could sit in your garden and listen to the birds. You could ask your walking companion to participate, each taking at least five minutes to walk in silence at a distance from each other. The minute we are alone, that powerful energy field of another human dissolves and frees us to really sense our connection with the rest of nature.

While experiencing nature, let go of any sense of goal. The desire to capture nature in a photograph or a memory can deplete the power of the moment fully experienced. The hope to recreate a past experience or to make this somehow an ultimate experience gets in the way of simply being present for whatever arises. Noticing all the thoughts that pass through, and letting them arise and fall away too. Letting go of a need to judge the experience as to whether it measures up to your idea of what a moment in nature should be. This is not some romantic notion. This is simply the reality of this moment.

Unplugging, creating silence and solitude, breathing and releasing tension, opening to whatever is in this moment: What a gift!

I’ll end with the a poem by Li Po, titled Zazen on Ching-tnig Mountain:

‘The birds have dissolved into the sky.
The last clouds have faded away.
Here we sit, the mountain and I,
‘til only the mountain remains.’