The Way Back to the Wilderness Within

Today we begin a second round of our series Becoming Human, exploring the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living systems. Max St John tells the story of his journey back to the wild through the Daoist body practice Nei Gong.
is living on a smallholding in rural North Cornwall where he's remembering what it is to be human by getting very muddy, teaching Daoist internal arts and being a forest school practitioner. Now and again he works as a leadership trainer and facilitator across Europe.
I remember seeing mountains for the first time when I was eight years old, travelling down into Northern Italy on a family road trip. The distant forest valleys and cloud-covered peaks felt like another world, one that promised something I couldn’t describe but wanted so badly. It’s the same feeling that I have today walking above the savage North Cornwall coast by my home, imagining what I might find in the folds of the rocky outcrops, you can only get to at low tide.

A fascination with exploring unknown territory seems to be one of the things that defines human beings as a species and has led us to find our way into even the most inhospitable regions of the planet. 

It might have been part of our in-built survival instinct – to push into new territories in search of resources as those of our immediate environment dried up, or seeking out sovereign ground, a safe place to call our own.

Through the lens of our current social and environmental crises, it would be easy to pin it all on insatiable greed or a need for glory but I still think there’s something else that’s driven humans to embark on life-threatening journeys of hardship with no promise of safety or riches at the other end.

I think it’s a longing for the wilderness: a sense that wilderness  is part of us somehow. Perhaps we feel that it offers us a way into knowing more of ourselves, into the fullness of what it means to be human. I can feel it in my bones. It’s something that’s been there since I was very young but my ’civilised’ self had lost sight of.

At the age of eight, talking about the ‘wilderness’ of being human wouldn’t have made sense but I would have known the feeling of it – an unboundaried space that I trusted I would live and grow into. A natural extension of myself.

Some of us are still lucky enough to hear its call and know how to respond. But for many more, we’ve cut ourselves off. We’ve forgotten how to look for and listen to the wilderness inside.

Losing sight of the path

I remember when it started to drift from my life. There was no one pivotal moment; it was more an ebbing away that I hardly noticed until its absence became the defining problem.

As I grew up, life in the grey suburban Watford landscape seemed to slowly eat away this wilder side of being. School and achievement became increasingly dominant. There was more emphasis on structure and routine, on meeting external standards of approval. I was being trained to ignore the fact that I didn’t enjoy something or find it interesting, but to put my time and energy into it anyway.

As I grew up, life in the grey suburban Watford landscape seemed to slowly eat away this wilder side of being

From school to university and on to the world of work, I spotted each hoop I needed to jump through and mastered the art of doing it with minimal effort. From the outside I was one of those people that seemed to continually progress in the right direction. But I wasn’t doing well at all. 

Looking back I can see my breakdown circling ten years before it really bit down. There was a building sense of emptiness that started in my late teens. A vacuum that I’d fill with whatever distractions and numbing strategies I could find.

My internal world increasingly felt like the equivalent of a barren, concreted-over industrial estate and I just didn’t know how to name what was missing, let alone what to do about it, so I just played the game with more intensity. 

Into my twenties, this meant jumping to the next rung on the career ladder, landing a bigger pay rise or interesting-sounding job. The satisfaction that each brought faded just as quickly, so in the margins I continued to numb myself as best I could with booze, mindless TV and more work. 

The one connection I retained to the wilder space inside was my martial arts practice, which I’d started in my late teens, primarily as a means to feel safer or be more of the man I thought I should be. There was something deep-rooted in my body that wanted to be heard, but couldn’t find its way through the narrow confines of language and what was socially acceptable for a young, suburban male. 

But no matter how many pads I hit, moves I learned or people I threw on the floor, that hard and tangled lump inside wouldn’t shift. Even my black belt certificate that I worked towards for years didn’t offer me the relief I was searching for.

I can see now that I was heading in the right direction but not yet picking the right path. I knew that there was a voice that needed listening to, but I still didn’t know how to hear it. But one day, waking up to another day in a high-pressure job that had little meaning to it, the voice decided it was time to shout. 

I find it hard to describe what happened next, but that morning my mind seemed to turn on itself. I was bombarded with destructive thoughts. It felt like part of me was trying to escape from my own body, regardless of what damage it would do on the way out. I was paralysed by anxiety, fear of what was happening to me and what others might think.

I felt even less well-equipped to talk about what was happening to me than when I was in my soul-destroying corporate rut, but I was now terrified of talking to anyone about it for fear of the consequences. 

In a way I felt like I was back in a wilderness. But not the one I recognised – of gentle, expansive mystery. One that was hostile and tangled and that threatened to swallow me up. Every day felt like living in a body on the edge of terror.

Slowly I found my way towards some kind of path. I had my first counselling session a few months after the worst of the symptoms showed up, though I was so scared of opening up to what was in my head, and so clueless about what counselling actually was, that the effort of doing it once was all I could muster.

Over the next six years I would pick up with different therapists at different times when I could afford it and when I sensed things were tipping in the wrong direction. Just making some space to talk about the dense, thorny mess inside was a massive relief and allowed some of the shame to lift. But there was still some level of felt-understanding that I just couldn’t reach through talking therapy. I’d explored and unpicked story after story, but the deepest unease remained.

Getting under the mind

In the end it was by complete chance that I found the thing that I didn’t know I was looking for. 

One morning in Brighton I saw a group of people sitting outside a cafe and there was just something about them that told me I wanted in on whatever they were up to. With uncharacteristic confidence, I walked right up to them and asked what they had been doing. 

It turned out to be Daoist Nei Gong – a bodywork practice associated with the Chinese internal martial arts and by the end of that week I was standing in my first class.

At first I thought it would be a breeze. Years of learning how to imitate movements meant I could wave my arms around gracefully with the best of them. But I soon discovered that this wasn’t what it was about and that my martial arts experience had not prepared me at all for confronting my physical being in this way. Standing for long periods of time, or moving repetitiously through slow patterns of movement was intensely frustrating. My teacher would offer direction towards what we were meant to be feeling: ‘Let go of your sacrum’ “Open your ribs!’. 

I had no idea how to do this – I had only just learned that I had a sacrum at all. But at some point I started to realise that it wasn’t about trying at all, more a matter of learning how to let go.

Very slowly over the coming weeks and months, things started to shift. Connections were being made in my body that I’d never felt before. A growing sense of space inside was starting to affect how I experienced myself and the world around me. 

I’d have glimpses of that unbounded ease I’d felt in childhood – I could tell something was working away at the knots which talking therapy, combat sports and the numbing strategies of the past just hadn’t been able to touch.

The final session of an annual 10-day Australian intensive Nei Gong training in Denmark, WA. (Photo: Roy Jenzen)

It wasn’t always a pleasant experience. There were residential workshops where, in the middle of a long period of silent standing, I’d suddenly experience waves of grief or shame. I’d have to go and sit in a corner and cry for reasons I just couldn’t put words to. Things that had been buried, scrunched up and shoved into the corners came to light and passed through. 

What I was learning through this practice was that the open, wild space inside was still there. All that had happened was that I’d tensed up against it in some way. That it had been pushed down and covered up by layer upon layer of embodied rules and judgements that were intended to somehow keep me safe.

Over the years, I came to realise that the ‘Dao’ in Daoist arts is that unnameable space I felt inside when I was young and began to reconnect with through this practice. It’s the force behind nature that is nature itself. Through letting go within the structure of these methods, the body is able to experience itself as part of this whole that it was never really separated from. Refinding the connection to this sense is the first step on to a path that leads back to the wilderness.

Wired into our being

My story might be very personal but the narrative is one that I see playing out all around me – I can see it in aspects of my parents’ life stories, I hear it in the experiences of my friends and the students that come to learn with me. I see it reflected in a society where most people are no longer even aware of their basic needs instead swapping them for the wafer-thin security of stressful jobs and the myriad distractions that consumer society offers us.

We have developed a systematic way of ‘civilising’ humans that, through our obsession with control and order, with results and achievement, with extraction and ‘value creation’ – disconnects us from our innate wildness. The reason these ‘civilising’ ideas gain such a hold over our individual and collective lives is because they get into the fabric of who we are.

Our mind – the self that is able to experience itself – is shaped by our early childhood experiences. We’re born with brains that already have every possible connection that they could. It’s only through our interaction with the world that some of these connections are eliminated, until we’re left with the neural pathways that steer us through the rest of life.

At least this is the way we’ve come to think about being human – as a brain on legs. But our brains are only one small part of this multifaceted thing we call mind. It’s our whole body that feeds into and shapes our experience. However, the culture many of us have been brought up in is one that’s fundamentally disembodied. We’ve misplaced our ability to feel all parts of ourselves, but by finding it again, we can reconnect more deeply to self and to nature.

We’ve misplaced our ability to feel all parts of ourselves, but by finding it again, we can reconnect more deeply to self and to nature.

The largest organ in the body is our fascia, a 3D network of mesh-like webbing that wraps over our muscles and organs in various layers, thick and thin. It allows – or disallows – the free functioning of our nervous system and blood flow around the body.

Just like our brains, in our early years our fascial network is loose and alive, allowing for the kind of connected, uninhibited movement and experiencing that we see young children embody. 

But as we develop and grow, feeling the bumps of significant traumatic events and persistent, difficult experiences (like being forced to do something you don’t enjoy every day) our fascia can become knotted and tangled. It constricts our muscles and organs, changing how we function, which in turn affects how we feel, think and behave.

Retelling and unpicking the stories that led to this entangling might bring some relief but the thinking mind can only really understand itself and we, just like nature, are so much more than these conscious processes of thought and understanding. 

In order to disentangle our whole selves, we have to get ‘under the mind’ and go to the source of it: our physical body with its own complex neural networks and delicate hormonal balancing act it has to perform on a daily basis.

Untangling these knots opens us back up to the space beneath them – a vast, open wilderness that I believe we’re all trying to get back to. It’s that same feeling of pre-conditioned childhood or the millisecond after waking up but before the mind kicks in. It’s the deepest sense of open awareness you might experience in meditation or that I find in my Nei Gong practice. This is the wilderness we all once knew, one that was free of the discomfort that we try to numb ourselves against. 

Not knowing how close we are to finding it again, the distance can feel too great, too scary to cross. Instead we impose control upon ourselves and those around us, and create distractions in case any gaps show up. All just a lack of willingness to sit with what’s really in here, under our skin and let it unravel.

A dawn Nei Gong class in late-summer, Sussex. (Photo: Becky Rui)

The wilderness within

Despite whatever seems to divide us in this world, fundamentally we are all these lumpy, tangled beings of flesh, blood, bone and marrow. And we all live on this one lump of earth, with its own pulsing, organic, interdependent network of life.

So when I read about the countless examples of how our species is devastating the natural environment, the only way I can make sense of destroying the ground on which we stand is if, as a global culture, we don’t yet value and trust this wilderness that’s inside of all of us, that was once mirrored in the natural world and is disappearing, fast. 

Like our ‘childish’ selves, we want to put nature in its place, create order and structure, put it to work for us – extract value from it.

When I looked out at those distant mountains as a child, it wasn’t that I wanted to one day own the land around them, be the first to climb one of them or create a detailed map of the topography. I was happy to just long for them – to sit with that expansive feeling they offered me.

Nearly 40 years later, my experience is that once we have reconnected with our own inner wilderness – learned how to give it space and to shape our attention – something in us changes. We intuitively know how vital a healthy, flourishing ecosystem is to our existence and our experience. We just understand how nature has its way – the endless, interdependent complexity is at once a simple truth. We can feel it in our blood and in our bones because it is also us. 

As a result we want to spend more time with this ‘outer’ nature, we want to protect and restore it. We can also see what’s happened to it nearly everywhere we look and, in my experience it can really hurt, in a way like nothing else does – at least in part because it’s a direct reflection of what’s happened to us all at some level.

This is why extracting, refining and packaging up the wildness of nature destroys everything it has to offer. Our basic need for a connection to wilderness can only be met while it remains a free and living thing, because that’s what we seek in ourselves.

I don’t believe that our current epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression are ‘mental health’ issues any more than global temperature increases are ‘environmental’. 

My experience of these ‘conditions’ has been that they are at least in part an expression of a body that needs to be free – that will make itself free one way or another, to find its way back to a vast and open space, regardless of what’s in its way. 

That voice we ignore inside is the voice of nature itself and as I found out, if its whisper is not listened to it will begin shouting louder and louder until nothing else can be heard. We can see this inner struggle reflected in what our climate and ecosystems are screaming at us now.

But in order to reclaim our inner, human wilderness, we need to reclaim the sovereignty of our bodies. Not from ‘the system’ out there, or some secret cadre of billionaires, but from the stories which got into the very fibre of our being and tied us up in knots.

Externalising our experience has been the modus operandi of the culture we find ourselves in, the one that’s allowed us to imagine we are separate from nature, and from each other. The one that’s taken us to the place that we all stand on in this moment. It might feel hard to accept the idea that the way to deal with the tangled, difficult mess ‘out there’ might be to gently unravel the tangled, difficult mess inside.

But as the great naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir said: ‘The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.’

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

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Comments
  1. I’m deeply grateful to Max St John (and Dark Mountain) for this, it spoke very directly to me and came just at the right moment.

  2. Such a wonderful, moving article – it definitly hits the spot. Thank you so much for your wise words… I feel they go ‘under the mind’.

  3. I must object to the following paragraph:
    “But in order to reclaim our inner, human wilderness, we need to reclaim the sovereignty of our bodies. Not from ‘the system’ out there, or some secret cadre of billionaires, but from the stories which got into the very fibre of our being and tied us up in knots.”
    This ignores the influence of “the system”, billionaires, et cetera on creating these stories and shaping our culture and “tying us up in knots”, through governmental and corporate propaganda. Entertainment media forms an underappreciated part of this propaganda, as it can (whether it means to or not) implicitly instill and reinforce values and codes of behaviour into viewers, often to the benefit of the corporations and governments that fund it. It also serves to leave the viewer passively entertained and therefore unthinking and psychologically dependent.

  4. Hi John – I hear you, I agree and I’m not intending to ignore that influence at all – I see that as massive. But for me it’s also about knowing *where* I have influence. Where is my real locus of control? Because those stories and propaganda are there and will be there for a very long time to come – there’s little to nothing that I can do about that, whether I like or agree with it or not. Of course I can disconnect from it (to an extent) and that is something that I try to do. But beyond that, it’s already ‘in’ – it’s inside my neural networks and the very fibre of my body. So my way is to let go of that, bit by bit, through my practice. But that’s my way and it doesn’t have to be true for others. Thanks for your comment and the chance to reflect/clarify.

  5. I think John makes a good point. It’s alright to gently unravel the tangled, difficult mess inside. That’s the first necessary step. But it is much more urgent to unravel the tangled, difficult mess outside, gently or not. It is necessary to kick a conscience into the system.

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