I am passionate about challenging our definition of wild and dispelling the myth that the natural world around us is fundamentally unsafe. From those central themes, my work branches off in two directions:
I write – novels, poetry, and journalistic articles.
I also facilitate the creative and therapeutic process of others. Part of that is through Wild Words. There I turn traditional creative writing teaching methods upside down. According to the London School of Economics, I’m revitalising traditional creative writing teaching.
Whatever I do, it’s a delicious fusion of evolutionary psychology, conceptual metaphor, embodied cognition, and body-based therapies, facilitated (whether it’s between me and a blank page, or me and an other) with warmth, humour, honesty and clarity.
Everything begins, for me, from the premise that, as human beings, we are always orienting towards wellbeing, and happiness. We are doing the best we can do, in any given moment, given the resources available to us, to find the tracks that will take us back to, and maintain, health.
To know that health, we must embrace the part of ourself that is animal. Often, that’s a way of looking at things that doesn’t make us very comfortable. In order to approach building a relationship with our animal nature, it can help to understand the functioning of animals in the wild. We can regard them as base and dangerous, when, in fact, they are often altruistic, co-operative, and in-tune with their surroundings. They respond effectively to any threats and opportunities presented by the environment.
Many of the behaviours that we consider animalistic, or wild, are actually the outcomes of disconnection from our animal nature, rather than a result of it.
When we make start to make good contact with our animal selves we begin to appreciate our extraordinary ability to function from instinct. To act instinctually is to take action based on signals passed to us by our body sensations, as well as our thinking minds. Body sensations are on a continuum with, but not the same as, emotions.
In fact, when we begin to look closely at how we work, we find that instinct is already guiding us in many situations. That is despite our best attempts to ignore or sabotage it, and identify solely with the conscious, thinking mind. More than that, there’s now sound scientific support for the view that physical actions are taken, before we make a conscious decision to act! However much we’d like it to be different, it’s the unconscious, body-based processes that come first.
It’s worth knowing too, that instinct is as much learnt, as given. Although we are born with predispositions to certain behaviours, we can choose whether to train and develop them, and if so, how.
Human beings, as any animal, are designed to return to equilibrium after disturbance to the system. Contact with body sensations enables that. When we allow that instinctual, holistic process, then we come alive. We not only survive, but we thrive. That inbuilt guidance is available on tap to us, if we choose to take up the offer.
So, what does it take to get out of our own way, and function from a place of wild?
Wild, or Caged?
As human begins we have highly developed thinking minds, which we default to whenever we are faced with a dilemma. In doing so, we sabotage, and forget how to listen to, our instinctual drives.
We also confuse emotion with body sensation. We falsely believe that to re-enter (and re-enter again) into strong emotion, to cathart, solves problems, when mostly it doesn’t. There is good evidence for emotion being an outcome of uncompleted instinctual urges, a distortion of them, in a way. Whilst helpful, emotions aren’t the whole answer.
An ability to drop down and touch base with body sensations, rather than only the thinking mind, and emotions, is fundamental. Only then can we act from holistic wisdom of our organism.
The problem is, that, as human beings, we have become increasingly distanced from our embodied selves, both in terms of contacting sensation, and taking action motivated by it.
To some extent that’s a tendency that is observable in other animals as well. In the 'higher' apes, stillness is seen as high status. If you’re still it means you’ve reached a place where you can order others around, you have servants. Aspiring to the same, human society trains us to ‘sit still’ and ‘stand still.’ Simultaneously we are learning not to act on instinctual urges.
Survival in any animal pack or tribe depends on being part of the group. That means fitting in and not being shunned. Human animals are not exempt from that. Perhaps partly as a result of the need to belong, but also because of our overactive active frontal lobes, we too frequently censor, suppress and limit our speech and physical movement, to the detriment of our health. The messages given to us, by our family, and/or community, about what we should be achieving, and how it’s appropriate to behave, are internalised. Ironically, we are the ones (emotionally or physically) beating ourselves up, even if others ceased to do it long ago.
It seems to me such a crying shame that, given the internal safety, and resources available to us, here and now, we are an animal that (metaphorically speaking) shoots itself in the foot at the slightest opportunity. My reminder, to my clients, students and at times myself too, is that we remember the animal that we are.
The Power of Storytelling
One of the ways, we can listen to our instinctual animal self-orienting towards health, is by writing and telling stories.
In my work with writers, I describe human being as natural storytellers. Writing and storytelling are being a fundamental way in which we discharge energy from the nervous system, process emotions, rehearse problem solving, connect and communicate. We need to tell stories in order to survive and to thrive.
I believe that we each have a story we need to tell. However, it will be different on different days, and even in different moments. It may manifest as fiction, or autobiography piece, as an article or a poem. Whatever shape it takes, that system of signs will be representative of an emotional, biological, psychic journey that we need to do. When that story shows up, its form may surprise us, as it’s often not the same story that the rational mind was planning to tell on our behalf. However, we will know it, instinctively. If we listen to the sensations in the boy, and our global sense of that, we feel it.
If we don’t listen, we can spend our lives trying to express a single story… a story that our body has not only been offering clues about, but literally shouting at us for years. And feeling frustrated is the least of it. If we don’t find a way to tell our stories, if that energy remains trapped in the body, then it leaks out, in a myriad of ways that sabotage health and relationships. To briefly name some of them: we project parts of ourselves we can’t own, on to others and the environment. We somatise, and become stressed or ill. We ‘act out’, for example, we are aggressive towards others.
Storytelling is only one of the ways in which we process energy from the nervous system, communicate, and come back to organismic equilibrium. We also do it when we dance, or make love, or just when we tremble after being involved in a traffic accident. My work with others involves helping them to spot, and to stay in contact with, the body sensations and urges. It’s also about supporting people to notice how and when they circumvent that process. There’s a learning in containing, and channelling the flow. I bring people back to the trail.
So, taking a dose of my own medicine, I frequently ask myself what’s the story I need to tell, now, here, today? Certainly I have a sense of something biting at my heels, jostling my elbow, sliding in beside me, roaring to be heard.
My creative process involves separating out of the stories I need to tell, from the stories I’ve been persuaded, along the way, I should tell. It necessitates a turning out of those messages that aren’t mine.
I train (because it is a training), to stay steady enough with my embodied experience, without diverging from, or drowning in, the emotions concerned. It’s only then that I can tell the stories I need to tell – in fiction or fact, poetry or prose, about the environment, about ‘wild’, about health, about storytelling.
It’s about trusting that I’m always doing it right, and that there’s nothing I can get wrong. When I truly function from my holistic, instinctual, wild self, my voice* emerges naturally.
As my ideas evolve, my job is to keep speaking up, to engage with the debate. Even when that takes courage. Sometimes I disagree with what I’ve said in the past. Sometimes I change my mind about what I think. And I’m ok with that. It’s a conversation.
When we can stand proudly in the fullness of who we are, and are witnessed in that, then we’ve found our voice. To speak from a place of truth, what an utter relief that would be.
We take from the melting pot of myth and story, and we feed back into it. The stories keep evolving.
I believe that it is time to let ourselves out of the cage, to be unashamedly ourselves, to re-wild ourselves. Writing and the arts, body-awareness, and contact with nature; those are the tools to get us there. Ironically, it’s in finding what we have in common with all other animals, that we find our unique voice as storytellers, and as human beings.
*In writing circles teachers and mentors often wax lyrical about ‘finding your voice’ as a writer. In my experience, almost no one explains what that means with any depth or clarity.