Becoming Human

Today we begin a new series, ‘Becoming Human’, exploring the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament. In this first installment, Steve Wheeler introduces the series, suggesting that sometimes it is necessary to return to the body, to emotion, or to the still waters of the psyche in order to remember what it means to be human.
is a writer, Dark Mountain editor and natural medicine consultant. He has been involved in creating the Dark Mountain Project's books, workshops, festivals and performances for the last decade. Steve lives in the Dyfi Valley in mid-Wales.
Every morning, I get up, stretch, adopt a seated position, and remain motionless for an hour or so. After this, there’s some more stretching, some body-conditioning exercises, perhaps a few breathing practices. Then I take up a precise standing posture and run through a sequence of slow movements for another hour. If my mind wanders, I bring it back to the details of the movements, and the feelings they evoke. There are many details. The feelings change from day to day but, in general, they are becoming more interesting, complex and involving over time.

I have been doing this, every morning I’m not travelling or waking perched on a mountainside or otherwise indisposed, for the last five years. Before that, there was a different set of exercises, with slightly different aims and methods. Before that, there was yoga. Before that: aimlessness, lethargy, illness, confusion.

Years ago, when no-one had heard of Dark Mountain (in fact, counting back, it may have been just when the manifesto was being written), I spent a day with a couple of friends in London. Dan and Ian were the first people I’d ever connected with online and then met up with in person – I’m old enough to remember when that was an unusual proposition to everyone.

We had all bonded over our mutual interest in what we would have called ‘uncivilisation’ if we’d known the word yet. We traded books on ecology, anarcho-primitivism, anti-imperialism, and the wisdom of tribal peoples. We discussed the ills of agriculture, modernity and industrial civilisation, and how we’d all be better off without them.

But only two of us were interested in ‘the other stuff’: meditation, Daoism, paleo diets, Carl Jung, and martial arts. At one point, as we were crossing through Finsbury Park and Dan and I had stopped to trade East Asian fighting styles in a handy earthwork amphitheatre, Ian asked us a question that stumped us both: ‘I don’t get it,’ he said. ‘How come you two are into all this stuff? I mean, it can’t be coincidence that you both share those interests as well, but I don’t see the connection with the rest of it.’

I’ve been working on my answer for ten years now.


On the 19th of August 1939, Dr. Wilhelm Reich left Oslo on the SS Stavangerfjord, the last ship to sail for America before the outbreak of war. A Jewish psychoanalyst and a former member of the Communist Party in Vienna, he had fled the Nazis after their condemnation of his activism around youth sexual education and the publication of his work The Mass Psychology of Fascism – first to Denmark, then to Norway, and finally to the United States. But in every putative safe haven he arrived in, he encountered attack and animosity against his theories on sexuality and human psychology. A former protégé of Freud, he had broken with his mentor over his belief that the neuroses usually addressed through talking therapy, engaging only the mind, were actually embedded in the patterns of chronic muscular tension and emotional resistance in the body – the ’character structure’ – and needed to be engaged at that level as well.

The work that had so enraged the Nazi party argued that this embedded pattern of neurosis had a political as well as a personal import: ‘It is not difficult to see that the various political and ideological groupings of human society correspond to the various layers of the structure of the human character… After social conditions and changes have transmuted man’s original biologic demands and made them a part of his character structure, the latter reproduces the social structure of society in the form of ideologies.’

Reich contrasted the sadistic, violent impulses of the fascist character structure with that of the Trobriand Islanders, as described by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. These tribal islanders were egalitarian, averse to ideas of social compulsion, free from neurosis, sexual repression or perversion, open, friendly and tolerant. This, Reich believed, was the natural state of human beings, which had been corrupted by a slow, insidious process of interaction between body, emotion, mind, and culture.

The fall from this Edenic state, he suggested, must have taken place when a pattern of tension and anxiety installed itself permanently in a critical mass of individuals. Once so established, it was able to reproduce itself. The perspective of the society began to mirror the neurosis, changing the patterns of culture that recorded its values and beliefs. Violence and hostility were directed towards the more-than-human world that had once been the great locus of their gratitude. The practices of child-rearing and the regulation of sexual activity became harsher, less tolerant, embedding the pattern of fear yet deeper into the next generation. Societies became divided within themselves, with some condemned to deprivation and abuse; violence became institutionalised within religion, education, and political life.

And all the while, the stories and ceremonies kept pace, justifying the new order, suppressing memory of the pleasures that had been lost, filling their minds with complex constructs to drown out the feelings rising up from below: the patterns of tension and pain in the body that grew ever deeper and more rigid, until movement and sexuality and physical expression themselves took on new forms that would have been unrecognisable to those that went before.


I went to see the Canadian cultural activist Stephen Jenkinson speak in London the other week. A teacher, storyteller and raconteur, Jenkinson spent 30 years in what he likes to call ‘the death trade’; managing hospital programmes, counselling grieving families, advising hospices and palliative care organisations. He has come to believe that our attitude to death and ageing is characterised by pathological denial – and that, by holding this attitude, we are in turn being denied the benefits of wisdom and elderhood that arise from their acceptance.

At one point, he leaned close to the microphone and said: ‘I’ll let you in on a secret: when they tell you they don’t know how long you have to live, they’re lying. There’s a simple formula. We don’t look at how quickly the patient’s symptoms or test results are changing; we look at how fast that rate of change itself is changing.’

There was a sting in the tail of this notion: the ‘rate of change of change’, he suggested, can be applied to whole societies as well as individuals. It seemed to me a very elegant description of where we are at as a society right now. Not only are things changing – environmentally, politically, socially, technologically – far faster than many would like, but the pace of that change is itself accelerating. In the wildfires burning in the Arctic circle, in the rise of extremist ideologies we had thought consigned to the history books, in social mores around gender and identity, in the impact of social media on young people; there is a sense for many people of losing track, of it becoming harder and harder to keep up with the destabilisation of prior certainties.

Not only are things changing – environmentally, politically, socially, technologically – far faster than many would like, but the pace of that change is itself accelerating.

Even those fighting to hold the line against the breakdown of order often feel obliged to mirror this hectic pace. Climate activists tell us to panic; that this is an emergency. Politicians who dream of resetting society to the stability and certainty of some past era present themselves as the mavens of change and disruption. Responses to the problems of hyper-capitalism are proposed that could only be funded through the proceeds of more economic growth.

It seems strange, in a way, that so many people’s responses to problems that have arisen from various versions of too much, too fast, too soon would be to do more, more quickly, and with a greater sense of urgency. But, of course, as any meditator will tell you, this is the very essence of mental disunity and distraction. Meditation fails not when the mind wanders away from the central focus of awareness – this is natural, and expected – but when it wanders so much that it is not even aware that it is wandering. ‘The centre cannot hold’, as W.B. Yeats put it (and there seems to have been a marked uptick in people quoting this line in the last few years); ‘mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world’. The faster the world changes, the more panicked people become, and the less likely it is that they will have the presence of mind to interrupt the process, bringing themselves back together to a single point of focus; to a moment of clarity, a felt sense of unity, or unwavering and decisive action.


It’s always curious to meet someone who agrees at the intellectual level that civilisation has cut us off from the body, from emotion, from meaning and flow and the more-than-human world, but who resolutely refuses – knowingly or not – to do anything to reverse these processes in themselves. That is, to do anything more than engage in more thinking, more reading, more discussion. It does not seem to occur to them that more words may not be the answer to a society made ill by the words it has already swallowed.

Thinking is a useful tool, and bad ideas can be defeated by good ones. But thoughts, and words, can also form a veil between ourselves and the real world. They can pull us out from a centred sense of our life as a single, meaningful, present and vital reality towards a distracted multiplicity of notions and imagined debates that we are never quite finished with – that fragment our being into a cacophony of civilised chatter. Sometimes, it is necessary to return to the body, to emotion, or to the still waters of the deep psyche, in order to remember what it means to be human.

Many people who just read that sentence – and agreed with it – would experience a strong sense of resistance if I suggested they now stand up and walk to the window, coming back to read the rest of this later. Some would struggle if I simply asked that they switch from considering these ideas to feeling their present emotional state. And a few might detect a perturbing unease even if I just suggested they pause in this cascade of linguistic input and think of nothing for a moment. Quick now – did you actually do any of those things? Or did you imagine someone doing them, while you let the flow of words carry you on a little longer?

The world of words is often a kind of trance-state – it can separate us from the immediacy and texture of physical reality

The world of words is often a kind of trance-state – it can separate us from the immediacy and texture of physical reality; it can draw us into haste, urgency and compulsion; and it is only when we actually try to step away from it that we realise how difficult it is to do so.

But it is important to try. There are things you can only know when you abandon the constant hum of the word-machinery. The very effectiveness of that trance is one of them, unknowable while you are still within it. To anyone who has experienced the silence behind the words, and the insights that arise from touching upon it, it can be a frustrating experience trying to get others to look at it. ‘You should see what it’s like to stop thinking for a moment’; ‘Yes, that’s a very interesting idea, it makes me think of…’; ‘Try interrupting the continual internal monologue’; ‘Ah yes, that’s mindfulness, isn’t it, I’ve read all about that, one book was called…’.

The Zen masters carried sticks for a reason. Sometimes the shock of the physical is exactly what we need to startle us out of our incessant mental chatter and into sudden stillness.


So this is as close as I have got to answering that question that caught me unawares, half-way through showing off the Tai Bird Hsing I form in Finsbury Park a decade ago. All this ‘other stuff’ I am into is not actually ‘other stuff’ at all. It just looks like it to a mind that has been trained to flee from the centre, away from the body, from emotion, and from the pure pleasure of being. The story of civilisation the Dark Mountain Project has done so much to interrogate over the years is also the story of our alienation from the core of our own humanity. It is often an alienation so total that we can no longer imagine being any other way – can no longer remember that we have wandered away from the centre, or even that there was ever a centre to wander away from.

This is why, alongside the words and images and ideas, Dark Mountain has always valued the physical and the immediate, whether in craft, in live performance, or in the emphasis on face-to-face meetings at festivals and gatherings. It is why we have run scything, singing, running and ‘Human Rewilding’ workshops at those events, giving word-weary participants the chance to reconnect with breath and body. Perhaps it is also one reason why we have touched tentatively on the topic of the sacred in our publications – because, for uncivilised humans, that notion too is not separate from the unified experience of presence, connection, and physicality.

Indeed, ultimately, all this ‘other stuff’ is not really separate from the words and ideas either. Just as it is important from time to time to step back from the screen and remember the bigger worlds around and within us, so too is it vital that we share our understanding of how we have been cut off from those worlds, and hear how we might find our way back. And, for this, words are an excellent tool.

So, over the coming weeks, we will be running a new series here, exploring the physical, experiential and psychological aspects of our current predicament. We will be hearing of the strange lessons to be found in learning to thrive in the forest, the human craft of merging with the animal, and how the sensations of wild swimming in the Medway are tangled up with politics, poetry and coal.

We’re calling the series ‘Becoming Human’ – because we believe that is a laudable ambition in an accelerating age of alienation and fragmentation, and because we believe that it might yet prove to be something we can succeed in doing.


If you have suggestions for future posts in the Becoming Human series or an idea for a post of your own that might be right for us, get in touch with our online editor Charlotte Du Cann  ([email protected]). Our submission guidelines can be found here.


Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.


Read more
  1. At Dark Mountain Basecamp a few years back, by Saturday night, my head was aching with all the words. I couldn’t stand any more earnest discussion. So, the next day I spent outdoors in a rewilding the human workshop with Steve. It was brilliant. We lay on wet grass, made noises without words, paid close attention to ourselves as part of the non-human world and generally had a fine time. Steve is right. We need to feel rather than know, experience rather than understand, align ourselves with body more than mind. I look forward with great excitement to this new series.

  2. As you say, stopping doing the ‘things’ which contribute to civilisation’s stronghold over us – but which are nevertheless ‘things’ we are comfortable with / may well be blind to / even entranced by – is immeasurably easier to talk about than to actually stand back and desist from.


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