Ropes of Connection
Hi, this is Jon Young for the Origins Project and I'm asked to share a story with you, the listener, and I first want to start by saying thank you for taking a little time out of your life, and maybe getting into a place where you're not distracted so you can go on a journey with me.
This is a journey of health and wellbeing. Really, it's a story about some people who are maybe far away from you and maybe not familiar to you, and in some ways their way of life might even seem irrelevant. I heard one of my friends who works very closely with these people say we have to find that bridge, [whereas] people perceive the San culture as ‘these irrelevant little dusty people living in a desert, and have nothing to do with me’, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.
This was a great filmmaker and documentarist, who has deep love and deep understanding of the Bushman culture and way of life, and significance to us in an ancestral sense.
I want to start by saying that what I'm talking about is not a request for you to leave your existence as it is now and seek some ancient primitive way of being. I was speaking with an audience at E.F. Schumacher College in Dartington in the southwest of the UK very recently as part of a course on our natural leadership, in a sense. I was explaining to them that if we think of water as a technology - I know that's a weird way to think about it because obviously it's really important to our life - but I want you to think about [water] as a technology for a moment. The most ancient and most simplest and what you might call primitive cultures - these old indigenous cultures that are very rare on the planet now, but still exist - they need the technology of water to thrive, and in modern times we also need the technology of water so that we can thrive. We know - I want you to just relive this for a moment with me - we know that when we're really thirsty, maybe our water bottle ran out and we had to walk a little further than we thought and it's a very hot and dry day. And then when we finally reunite with water, and we're able to access the technology that brings water to us, clean water, maybe even water that's slightly cool and really thirst quenching.
And when we drink it in that moment, we feel this, “Oh man, this is so good. I'm so glad I have water.” Right? So I wouldn't want you to think that you have to be a primitive indigenous person to benefit from the power of water. In the same way, when we discover good food and we begin to eat the good food and we feel the change that it makes on our bodies and in our well-being, we want to have good food from that point on. And maybe we discover healthier foods later in life and we have a kind of transformational moment around it, and having food and bringing it to ourselves and having it available is a technology also.
The ancient cultures also have deep relationships with food, but modern people also do, and what I'm about to tell you is in that same realm, there's ergonomic realities about what it means to be a healthy and happy human being. That will be reflected in the story. And it's a story about all of us. It's not about these people who are far away living in a very different lifestyle than you and me. So my friend and colleague Lonner who works on the Origins Project with us, told me about something he heard from his teacher Mary Burmeister. She said that ‘once we connect with [the] breath, we never turn back’. Breath is essential to all of us, and once we realize that - mindfulness about breathing and working with our breath - once we become aware of that and the influence it has on us, we can't ignore that. So these three critical things: food, water, breath are in the same realm as what I'm sharing with you now.
So imagine a people who have lived a way of life for 230,000 years in one place. They've never left that way of life. They've never been told that their way of life is wrong or irrelevant or not pertinent to the “real world” that we all relate to. They have a very different perspective, but they have a continuity of understanding that is directly related to our well-being - just like the water, food and breath examples I was just giving to you, because these are things that are true of the human nervous system. True of our neurobiology. Just like water is true to all of the cells of our body. These are direct, biological, relevant things.
My [filmmaker] friend who worked a long time with the San Bushmen in Botswana experienced them when they were living free in their land. He spent lots of time with them, 10 years living with them and he was very much connected, very much adopted as family with them. He was doing scientific research there in the Kalahari, and he was realizing that these people had an immense amount to contribute to science, and he noticed how many researchers in that region where utilizing Bushman trackers and Bushman elders to inform them in their basic research. So they were already mentors to the scientists and helping them understand the ecology.
So if I go back to that story from this man, he said to me, "I once asked one of my Bushman friends, ‘What does it mean to be Bushmen?’”, and he answered with the story.”
He said, ‘You know, when I wake up in the morning, I walk around and I look on the ground around me and I want to see what tracks are there. Did the leopard walk around us while we were sleeping by our fire last night? What different game animals were moving around; what small insects and animals are moving around?’ They liken it to reading the morning paper. When we wake up in the morning, we walk around and we look at the headlines, but [their] headlines are etched in the ground - who’s been moving around during the night?
And most of them do that. They wake up and they wander around and they don't talk much to each other at first. They just look around to see what's been happening and then they share what they've seen with each other and they build the story of the night, and they gather the stories from the land and they share them with each other.”
[The Bushman] said, “I might be waking up in a place that I haven't been before and maybe my family has recently moved in here, and we're going to live here for awhile (because they are hunter gatherer, nomadic people)”.
He said, “But when I go off for a walk in the morning, I see a small bird and that small bird, it looks at me, makes eye contact with me in that moment of recognition between us, I feel a thread form.“
When I [Jon] say recognition, I want to translate for you that what they mean by recognition isn't recognizing a species, but it's recognizing an individual. Just like when you make eye contact with somebody and you give a little head nod, there's a moment of recognition between you and that other that has a certain dignity, a certain presence to it. So this is what I mean by recognition.
[The Bushman continues], “And so tomorrow when I'm out walking around in that same area, and I'm reading the signs and the stories and the ground, I see that same little bird in the same area. And it looks at me and I look at it and it's like I've suddenly seen someone that I've seen before and that little thread gets a little thicker. We both realize, ‘Hey, it's you again.’
And the next day when I'm out walking, I see that same little bird in the same area, and this time I realized that it's a male of its kind, and I know that because I see it sing for a moment when it's making its rounds. And then I think to myself, ‘Huh, that little bird sings in the same way that I like to sing’. And it brings me joy and wonder if it brings that little bird joy. And suddenly my thread grows thicker, still. And soon I discover in my daily walks that that bird, that “man”, he has a friend that is the one that he loves. I see him feeding her an insect and I realize that he's courting her. And then he makes me think about how I once courted my wife and brought her special things. And now that thread, that thicker thread has become a string.
And then I began to notice as the days pass by that they're raising a family. They have a little nest and I see them going back and forth with insects to the nest, and I think about me and how each day I go out and gather things and bring them to my family and that string is growing thicker; it’s becoming a cord. One day I'm out in my morning walk and I hear a great agitation coming from that little bird. Both he and his wife seem very troubled and they're shouting, and their body language is nervous, and I see other birds have joined them, and I go over to investigate what is the trouble over here with my friends, and I see a mongoose run away. They were yelling and shouting at the Mongoose that was coming too close to their nestlings and that's when I realize this is exactly what we Bushmen do when the hyenas come around our fires at night looking for our children. We all stand up together and we shout and we have great anxiety and great fear for our children, and we chase that Hyena off - and now that that cord has become a rope. I feel so connected with this being, and that's what it means to be Bushman. We make ropes with everything. We make ropes with the birds, with the little plants and the trees and the bushes. We make ropes with the little insects that move around in the night, the spiders and the scorpions and the snakes and the lizards and the tortoise's. We make ropes with all of the beings that share this Kalahari with us. We make ropes with the sand, with the soil. We make ropes with the moon, with the sun, and with the stars, and with the changing weather. This is what it means to be Bushman. We make ropes with everything.”
When I tell this story, I also want you to know that that is a story of neurobiology as well. I've been doing a lot of research and a lot of study in this field and recognizing that in modern times there's a great epidemic of sensory process disorders among the youth, among children - that it's contributing profoundly to an epidemic of anxiety disorders and PTSD-like symptoms, and the inability for people to show up even into kindergarten in an emotionally regulated state anymore. My friend and colleague, Kathleen Lockyer, who's an occupational therapist, explains that that's because emotional regulation, the ability to be healthy, happy and functional, sits on a foundation of sensory integration, and she says, “Jon, your work, what you've learned from the Bushman, is so important and we've been working together as colleagues for the last 15 years.” She said, “It seems like what the Bushman have taught you is the most powerful version of sensory integration available.”
These are people who share our neurobiology. They are the ancestors of all human people on the planet. The genetic studies of the human family have pointed that we all came from one trunk, and that one trunk is the DNA of the San Bushmen. So these people who are living now in the ways that they are and holding onto these old ways of connecting and knowing and integrating our senses, these people are showing us what good water tastes like for our nervous system, what good food is like for our bodies, our nervous system. What breathing and being conscious of breath does for our consciousness in our well-being. They're showing us this for our sensory systems. They're showing this for our relational bonding needs.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was surprised when he wrote that book [that] it became a New York Times best seller, and out of that so many parents were concerned about what the research [said]. He said [to me], “Some of this research was 30 years old, Jon, and it's not new. It wasn't new stuff I was saying, but the way I put it together in the way that story landed and the way people picked it up at that time, created this wave of interest and concern among parents because they could see that when my book came out in 2005, they could already see the evidence of changes in the well-being of children that were showing up in so many ways, physically, biologically, emotionally, spiritually. There was definitely a crisis emerging.”
What he explained to me was that what seemed even more dangerous was that the parents were also experiencing this nature deficit disorder, and they couldn't role model to their children anymore - what healthy nature connection looked and felt like. He was deeply concerned about that. He went on to write a book called The Nature Principle where he said “The future belongs to the nature smart”. He was speaking in reference to when people are fully sensory integrated and fully connected to nature - using the language of occupational therapy - when they’re sensory integrated, they’re also emotionally regulated. They are also creative and ingenious - they have deep creativity; they have deep self confidence; they’re independent researchers and thinkers. In other words, they can get along great in the world. He saw that nature connected children were shining head and shoulders above their peers, not because they were superior, but because they had more resources developed and activated in their neurobiology. So certainly the future belongs to the ‘nature smart’ or maybe we should say, ‘the deeply nature connected’.
I’ve been working for the last 30 plus years guiding various community leaders on how to bring these models of nature connection to their children effectively. I've gotten to know the children who have grown up in this work who are in their twenties, thirties, and forties now. And they are literally shining in their fields no matter what field they occupy. They don't all become nature instructors. In fact, very few do. They go on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents. But they have something going, they have that ‘nature smart’ quality.
These Bushman, they understand things that we have all forgotten. They know how to raise children in a connected way. They know how to encourage full sensory capacity. They know how to encourage relational bonding with the elements of nature.
Richard Louv’s third book in the series about nature connection is called Vitamin N, because he pulled together all this research that basically proves now that humans need nature connection just like they need water and certain nutrients of food, so ‘Vitamin N’ meaning ‘Vitamin Nature’.
But what I've come to understand is that getting ‘Vitamin N’ needs to be done in specific ways. It needs to be brought into the body in a way that the body can absorb. We need to surround the ‘Vitamin N’ with the right processes and systems and modalities for early childhood, for middle childhood, late childhood teen years; early adulthood into the various stages of life - all the way to elderhood. The Bushman, they understand this, they still know how to do this at every stage of life.
Over the years, I've collected information about what does it look like when someone is fully connected in their neurobiology, what does it look like to be in that highly refined state of emotional regulation? What is the highest form of it and how do you measure it? How do you know you've achieved it? We've developed a pattern called the Eight Attributes of Connection. The attributes are, happiness of a child; vitality and abundance of electricity in the body is the second one.
The ability to listen deeply to other stories is the third one. The fourth one is empathy, deep empathy and care that comes from connection. The fifth one is having an intrinsic desire to be helpful, to really want to make a difference not only for the others around you, but maybe for your community and maybe for the future generations - a lot of people who get deeply nature connected start to think in terms of, “how can I be a better citizen on this planet and ensure a good life for the people coming after me”. This is a natural intrinsic response that comes from deep nature connection. People become fully alive, and this is the sixth one where they have this deep and abiding love for life itself. They know that life is precious and they feel this in their bones, and they know that every moment counts, and they bring themselves fully to everything. The seventh attribute is loving, compassionate, forgiving hearts - that they become really sensitive to the need for more love on our planet and they learn to be forgiving; they learn to be compassionate and understanding of other people. The eighth attribute is the quiet mind. They develop this ability to be in the silence within themselves and to access their deepest qualities of creativity and leadership, ingenuity. You can say that they have access to their genius.
These eight qualities are rare, but we see them in the children who have grown up in the deep nature connection modeling that we learned directly from the Sun Bushman.
When I visited the San Bushmen for the first time 10 years ago, it was the first time in my life where I was with a community of people where all of the people present at all ages and stages of life exhibited these attributes, and I knew then that these people were our teachers and guides. I knew that this community of people that we work with in western Botswana were great collaborators, great consultants and advisers to us, to help us bring methodologies and training's and processes that will help us get good water for our senses; help us get good food for our beings; help us become aware of our breath for our entire existence by activating full sensory capacity, full sensory integration, and developing relational bonds with the beings around us so that we can experience that powerful well-being that comes from deep connection.
We can do this in a modern context. We can start right now by walking outside our homes and looking for that little bird, making that eye contact and having that moment of recognition, and building day by day threads into strings into chords into ropes, and you'll know for yourself what I'm talking about. Thanks for listening.