[Back to the Wild] Kenton Whitman on ReWilding As a Path to Mindfulness, More Happiness and Inner Peace
This transcript is from an interview with Alison Ramsay and Kenton Whitman as part of the Back to the Wild Summit: Inspiration for Sustainable Living. You can access the audio recording for this interview here. Subscribe on iTunes to receive all our podcasts and interviews.
Alison: The clock ticks, the bell rings and academia beckons. You head to your lecture hall packed with students fulfilling their worldly duty of higher education. Stuffy fluorescent lit rooms, Wi-Fi, projectors, notes and lecturers dishing out the newest nuggets of wisdom. This is university.
But what if there was a different kind of scholastic adventure to be had? One without pencils, papers, textbooks or tutorials. A university where the wilderness is your classroom, the forest your cafeteria and the teacher – the wild nature that is you. Here to talk with us about what happens when we take our learning outside of the classroom is Kenton Whitman, adventure, mindfulness and re-wilding instructor and founder of ReWild University. Kenton, thank you so much for being here to get a little wild with us.
Kenton Whitman: Thank you, Alison, for having me.
Alison: I’m so excited that you’re here.
Kenton Whitman: Oh, me as well. This is great. I’ve been looking forward to it.
Alison: Great. So your life took an interesting turn at some point and led you on this new path. I’d love to know more about how you came to be the founder of a re-wilding university.
Kenton Whitman: All right. Let’s see. So, picture a 17-year-old kid who is in the middle of a swamp in Wisconsin. It’s deep in the middle of the night, he’s in a cotton sleeping bag – nothing else – and it’s half soaked through and he’s crying. And that’s me. Earlier that month I had signed up as an apprentice at a wilderness school in Northern Wisconsin and the school was fairly new.
And the teacher was testing out, I think, you know future classes on us.
And this class he had named Song of the Mosquito. So maybe you can start to see where this is going. The idea was – and understand, I mean he had paying customers coming to do this. You wander out into the middle of this swamp at dusk when the mosquitoes are at their worst. You remove as many of your clothes as you’re comfortable with in a group situation and then you sit there for about an hour and just let the mosquitoes suck your blood.
Alison: Oh, my goodness.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. And you know there are a lot of things that he was hoping people would get out of this. But at that time as I said I was 17 and, you know I only wore leathers and I went barefoot. I had come up to this camp feeling like a real kind of re-wilding hotshot.
And the mosquito experience actually was fairly easy.
I mean I made it through that hour and watching the other more, you know civilized people squirm and feeling pretty proud of myself. And then they all went and got into their tents because of course they had all brought tents, which looking back was a pretty sensible thing to do. But I thought tents were the – I mean you might as well bring an RV and a microwave, right?
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. I was very extreme at that point. And so I got into my little cotton sleeping bag and that’s when this long kind of dark night of the soul began.
It was, you know not just an hour of mosquitoes, but hour after hour, and I of course could not get to sleep because they were all around my ears and buzzing into my mouth and biting me and I’d go under my sleeping bag to try to find some peace. And then it would be too hot and I couldn’t breathe and I’d feel like I was smothering. And it got later and later and the emotions started to run high. And I started to get really scared. And I didn’t feel like there was anybody I could go to.
You know I didn’t know the teacher well enough.
But what I wanted to do was crawl over there and say, you know I’m scared, this is – I feel like I’m starting to go crazy, there’s spiders crawling in my sleeping bag and the mosquitoes won’t stop and there seems like there’s no escape.
But I didn’t feel like there was anybody there, so I just sat there and hour after hour after hour – and it built up to this sort of crescendo where I just felt like I was going to break. And all of my, you know from my domesticated or civilized life, all of the tools that I had to deal with a situation like that, you know my discipline, my forcing my way through the situation had just – it wasn’t working.
And I was crying and I just wanted to go home.
Kenton Whitman: And then something snapped. And I don’t quite know how to explain what happened except that the – you know the teacher’s name for this experience was sort of apt in this situation because the mosquitoes buzzing suddenly became like music. And I felt this tremendous relief, like a giving up, almost like a spiritual death. And when the mosquitoes were biting me it just felt like these little sensations, like a little you know spark here and there on my face.
And it wasn’t driving me into insanity anymore and I – I can never wear clothes when I sleep so I – that’s probably too much information – so I got up out of the sleeping bag and I started walking into the swamp.
And I really don’t have any memory of how far I walked – if it was ten feet or a kilometer or what. But I just was walking through this swamp and felt like I was completely one with the environment. There were things moving in the darkness that should have frightened me, but they didn’t. And when I finally got back and crawled all muddy into my sleeping bag I felt so at peace and went right to sleep despite the mosquitoes having, you know not changed their attitude at all – I mean still coming at me.
But it was being interpreted differently. And that stuck for that whole summer – the three months that I was up there. Just this feeling of complete interconnectedness.
And when I came back into civilization I knew I had to find a way to bring that gift with me. Because I couldn’t go back to being the fearful kind of creature that I was before – quenched and stressed and scared.
And furthermore I wanted to bring that gift back in a way and learn enough about the transition that I could give it to other people who wanted it and help them to find that wild nature. And then, you know hopefully to find it in the woods and then to bring it back into their daily life, you know in regular society. So that was my – that was my story and my turning point and everything else has built upon that.
Alison: Yeah. That is such an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing that with us.
Kenton Whitman: Oh, thank you. Yeah.
Alison: How was your face afterwards? Was it swollen and eaten or did your body cope with the bites, or –?
Kenton Whitman: Oh, my brother has a saying that once you get 10,000 mosquito bites you don’t react to them anymore and I think we got ours by the time were probably six years old. So luckily in my remembered life I don’t react to them at all.
So I don’t suffer any ill after effects.
Alison: Yeah. Oh, that was lucky.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: So then you made it your mission to share the possibility of this experience with other people.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. And it – you know it started out as sort of serendipitous. I had a website out that had to do with mindfulness. I mean when I came back into the regular world I started reading books on Zen, Taoism and a lot of those traditions were talking about something that felt very similar to what I had experienced out there. And so I started this website called Zen-inspired self-development at kentonwhitman.com, and I started sharing – you know it’s basically mindfulness – routes to mindfulness. And –
Alison: So tell – sorry.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: So just tell us what mindfulness is before you carry on because there’s some of us out there who won’t have a clue.
Kenton Whitman: Sure. Absolutely. So I think probably the easiest description is that, you know usually in our modern day life our mind sort of operates on autopilot. And you know we have a – most of us have probably had those moments when we’ve been driving down the road and we just drove ten miles and we sort of did it without even noticing we were doing it. And we’re not even sure what happened.
And so the concept behind mindfulness is that when we’re living on autopilot like that, we’re missing most of the vibrancy of life. And mindfulness invites us to come right into this present moment that we’re in. So, you know we’re eating a meal, we taste the food, we experience the textures, we’re talking to somebody, we listen to their words, we appreciate the, you know the facial expressions and gestures that they’re making. And sort of getting out of our thinking head and into our sensuous body or sensuous mind that can experience the world through our senses instead of just through our concepts and our ideas.
Alison: That’s so good. I love that. And it seems to be such a difficult thing for us to do to get into present time and in the present moment and really engage with what’s happening around us.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: Because we are so much in our heads, aren’t we?
Kenton Whitman: It’s so true. And the more we start to delve into mindfulness, the more we discover how much of our life, you know our emotional responses to people, our eating habits, you know our perceptual habits, the way we look at the world around us – we start to notice how much of that is really running on autopilot.
And to get back to that is – to that mindfulness, it is difficult. Especially in our world because there’s so much distraction, there’s so much entertainment that asks us to be passive and just sort of, you know watching it passively without any engagement.
You know we have movies that just take us on emotional roller coasters, and you know our brain’s up there, you know spitting adrenalin and just reacting to the stream. But our creative process or our interaction with it, you know in a way that can affect the outcome, is negated in those situations. We just are sort of passive watchers. So how do we find mindfulness living in this world? And that’s – you know there’s a lot of meditation practices that people use and yoga and there’s some great routes there.
For me I found that this idea of re-wilding – of going out into nature in a certain way, which I suppose we can talk about that later – but going out into nature in this way really connects me with that mindfulness. And I’ve found over and over that it happens with other people. Nature does a lot of the work for us and opens us up to this incredible, you know present moment vibrancy of life that we all – that we all possess. It’s our birthright. And it’s just waiting for us there.
Alison: I love that. And I’m so with you there. And that is a really great way for me to get into present time and in the present moment is when I’m in nature as well. And our lives are designed in such a busy way.
I’m a single mom and I work and there’s always something going on, there’s always something that’s challenging my attention. But when I get the kids and I go to the beach or I just sit in the garden, you know nature is so present and so beautiful and it’s just all around you that it really pulls you into that moment. It’s almost like because it is so present and because nature’s in the present moment, you know.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: That it just draws you into that and – yeah, that’s probably why people feel so connected in that way when they get back into just, you know facing the forest and out of their busy lives and they see themselves for the first time again.
Kenton Whitman: Absolutely. And that’s so beautiful, especially to hear that, you know you bring your children with you and they’re getting that direct interconnectedness of nature.
Kenton Whitman: And you know as you mentioned, it doesn’t have to be – that doesn’t mean it has to be a month-long, you know wilderness survival excursion into the deep wilderness. It can be just right there in your backyard or in a garden where you’re, you know feeling the soil and you’re smelling the scents of the plants and you’re hearing the birds and – wow.
Alison: And kids are just wild anyways, aren’t they. They’re just little wildlings.
Kenton Whitman: Oh, my God. Yeah, we have a two-and-a-half year old and it’s been amazing to watch her grow out here at ReWild U. We have a great big piece of land that she has access to, you know to go out and catch turtles and catch snakes and toads, and she knows I think probably more about what plants she can eat than most adults.
So she’ll be out, you know with her grandparents and, oh, that’s wood sorrel, you can eat this.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah, kids are amazing like that.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah, that’s before we begin that domestication process, but –
Alison: Yeah. I’m always looking to my two and-a-half year old for when I’m getting caught up in my head and things are really happening. I just look at what he’s doing and I kind of try and join him because he’s usually having a lot of fun. You know no matter what he’s doing it’s fun, so –
Kenton Whitman: Right. They can be our teachers. That’s –
Alison: They are great teachers. Well, let’s get back to what happened next for you and how did ReWild University come into the world?
Kenton Whitman: Well, as I mentioned I had put up that website and I started to be contacted by some people that were basically looking for health and wanted to reconnect, you know with their most essential selves. And specifically there were some interesting situations where some parents had asked me to take their teenagers out into the woods.
So one example was a young man who was a meth and heroin addict and prescription opiates actually, and had been for many years. And he wanted to stop, but he, you know had been through programs and just couldn’t bring himself to. And so, you know we went out in the woods and really nature did the magic.
You’re right there in that present moment as you said when you’re in nature, and nature is always present. So, you know if we’re going to be warm this night he was going to start a fire with the bow drill. And if he didn’t we were cold. And it wasn’t, you know a matter of trying to force his behavior to look a certain way, but just for him to discover what it was to be – to develop, you know some self-capability.
I don’t think he had ever had that before. He had felt like a victim. And he got out in nature and started to feel like wow, he can do things, he can provide for his – you know for his warmth. It’s not about turning a dial; he starts the fire and he gathers the food that we’re going to eat and helps to build the shelter that keeps us warm. And when you provide for yourself in those most basic ways and you provide for yourself in a way that has to be cooperative with nature, there’s this transformation that happens.
And so – you know in short he kicked his habit and experienced some really powerful transformations and went on to, you know stay straight after that.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. And so, you know more and more people started filtering in like that. And then Rebecca and I – because it’s really Rebecca, my wife, and I. I think of both of us as the founders of ReWild University. And we started our Metamorphosis Program and that started out as an 11-month kind of mentoring program. And from there ReWild U was born.
And that was probably – boy, only about a year, year-and-a-half ago when we formalized ReWild University and sort of took all of our offerings and programs and put them under that umbrella and started to reach out into the world a little bit more.
It had been all word of mouth up until then and we started to, you know put ourselves out on the web and tried to reach out and touch more people. And so that’s where we are with it right now.
Alison: Wonderful. I’m so glad you did that.
Kenton Whitman: Thank you. It’s been a great journey so far.
Alison: I’m sure it has. So, can you tell us about your different programs? Because you have a few. There’s the Metamorphosis like you mentioned, and there’s – is it the Spirit Fire Vision Quest.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. Spirit fire Vision Quest. And so that’s a new one we just started in the spring here. And you know it’s in the United States here, it’s offered in a few places throughout the country, but we couldn’t find anything, you know local in the Wisconsin/Minnesota area. And so we wanted to make it available for people to have a safe guided way to get out into nature solo for, you know a number of nights.
And those invariably lead to some really powerful experiences. And the Metamorphosis Program as I said started out as that 11-month sort of mentoring program and now we’re offering everything from three-hour workshops to – we have a weekend-long, a week-long, a month-long, a three-month and then the 11-month. And those just allow different levels of immersion basically. And – yeah. So we really tried to make it, you know mentor-based instead of class based. It’s very unique.
You get to have the ReWild U teachers – there’s really three of us now – paying very personalized attention to you. So it’s either one-on-one or with a small group of your friends or family. And for every student we create a customized program that’s always going to include, you know some basic elements of primal fitness, diet, mindfulness and regaining that primal mindset and wilderness ancestral skills of course.
But from there we have this really diverse menu so people can get tutelage in everything from martial arts to organic gardening, yoga, belly dancing, primal child rearing techniques. Kind of – we have a lot of different, you know programming to offer but always behind that, you know all this stuff is really a vehicle to help people get back to that – what I’m calling right now, like a primal mindset, which is that state of natural mindfulness that belongs to all of us.
Alison: So talk to us a little bit more about that – the primal mindset. Are you referring just to getting into present time or is it more than that?
Kenton Whitman: It’s – you know when I look out at – we’ve got the re-wilding movement and we’ve got the kind of Paleo or primal lifestyle movement out there and often that’s really revolving around exercise and diet. And so I think this idea of a primal mindset has really been overlooked. But to me that’s the most essential element. And it’s mindfulness, but it’s also – it’s this profound shift. If we think of our domesticated mind, it has a very sort of isolationist feeling to it.
You know we have this sensation that we’re individual Kenton or individual Alison and it’s – you know we’re this sort of bag of flesh in a world that is kind of hostile. And we spend a lot of our time trying to protect ourselves, you know make ourselves secure in this world that’s full of things like car accidents and cancer and, you know friends or loved ones getting sick or dying.
And so there’s that feeling. And it leads to a very fear based sort of way of life. And the domesticated mind is very comfort seeking, not that comfort is a bad thing, but with our domesticated mind it can get to a point where we seek out comfort so much that we, you know allow our bodies to start to fall apart because it feels, you know too uncomfortable to move.
And there’s a sort of a low awareness where we feel like we’re really missing I would say 99 percent of the amazement of every moment that’s unfolding around us.
There’s a dullness of senses, and there’s this chronic stress, frustration and often a feeling of resignation. So you flip around to the other side, to that primal or wild mind – that primal mindset. It feels integrated and very interconnected with the world around it, with nature, with other people. It’s – instead of fear-based it’s curiosity-based.
You know it doesn’t see something that’s outside of its realm of experience and go oh my gosh, I have to pull back from that. It says I wonder what’s there.
It’s sort of adventure and challenge seeking instead of comfort seeking.
And it’s characterized by a high level of awareness, sort of taking in the richness of every single moment, vibrant senses and, you know instead of the chronic stress and frustration and resignation, a chronic feeling of joy and compassion and a feeling of exploration.
And so it really flips around this regular domesticated mindset that unless we hear differently we sort of think that’s the only thing that’s out there is, is that stress and frustration are inevitable and the best we can do is kind of fight our way through life and seek out our existence.
And often people think about, you know going out in the woods and survival, and that’s got to be the epitome of that, you know fighting just to get food and fighting just to stay warm. But that’s not what people experience because you start to blend with nature, you start to find that your – you know your boundaries of what you think you can do, of what your body finds comfortable, all that starts to blur.
And you enter into a totally different relationship with your environment, which leads to a totally different relationship with yourself.
Alison: Wow, that’s so beautiful, Kenton. I love that. And so that’s ultimately what you want to teach?
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. I think
Alison: So – but we do live in this crazy domestic world where most of us do not have the luxury of living out in the wilderness or a big country setting like you or I may have. And it becomes a sort of a battle, doesn’t it? If we’re being sent over 3,000 media messages per day telling us how we should be and look and walk and talk and what we should eat and put on our face and what we should buy.
So, you know some of us growing up in cities who are only able to observe nature in a park or, you know it might even be as removed as only seeing it on a National Geographic channel. Like how do we learn this primal mindset? How do we get back in communication with that intelligence that’s innate to us in a world that’s, you know sort of smothering that?
Kenton Whitman: That is such a vital question. And it’s – you know we don’t have to dress in a loincloth and throw away our cell phone. That’s often the reaction that people get, you know what do I have to do to re-wild? I have to turn into a caveman?
And you know that would be one route, but I think that we can blend this life that we’ve created with rewilding.
And I think the most essential thing to remember is that nature is not external. You know that’s the –That’s the core disconnect. It seems like we so often are thinking of nature as something out there that we have to go out into, or something that, you know should remain untouched, and so we set ourselves apart. And then we no longer feel that heartfelt desire to interact with that nature that we perceive outside.
And we forget that there’s this nature inside of us. So there’s – There’s practical things we can do. And those are things like mindfulness meditation practices – that allow us to expand our senses.
If you look at the primal fitness movement, you know they’re taking exercise and turning it into play where we become – we take exercise out of the gym and it’s no longer on a treadmill and we start to play with it and have fun so that we feel that vital feeling of our body feeling alive.
Shifting our diet can be super powerful and make us feel more aware and, you know lead to more health. And I think you know another practical thing we can do is look at that – that life that surrounds us and start to realize the power it does have. I mean I almost see television as a drug. It’s highly addictive, it alters our mental state, and I don’t know the – unfortunately the most recent number in the United States. I should because I just posted them recently on my ReWild U blog, but when you look at the national average for how much time people spend in front of a TV, you know when you said 3,000, you know media exposures a day, that’s for real –
Kenton Whitman: – and that’s an immense amount of stuff coming in. And we can make the choice to, you know if you’re going to check your mail on Yahoo to go directly to the mail instead of, you know going to that main site where there’s all this celebrity whatever news that has this power to draw you in.
And so there can be some self-regulation there. But I think the most essential thing is really starting to see that nature is in you, and that if you are even in a windowless room, you know you are – you don’t have to have a plant there even, you’re the plant. You are nature.
And in taking a single breath in and out and feeling that breath coming into your lungs and, you know your flesh moving and your muscles working and then expelling that air and feeling it pass your lips, that can be a vital experience.
And that can be tough to understand because you know the powerful experiences we think of experiencing are the ones where the movie makes us move to the edge of our seat. But the more we start to delve into mindfulness, the more we start to pay attention to the little miracles in life, the more they start to expand outwards and we start to see that every moment is amazing.
I mean these miracles are happening all over the place. It’s a rainy day and I can be like, oh yeah, it’s a rainy day. Or – I mean water is falling down out of the sky, out of clouds, and that’s amazing.
Kenton Whitman: And, you know I’ve seen people that, you know they start to awaken to that and then they call me up and they say and I stepped outside the door and then I looked up into the rain and I felt that rain falling on my face and coursing over my skin. And suddenly I didn’t care about oh, I’m getting my clothes wet. I just felt so alive. And that is the primal mindset.
That is that feeling of being our natural selves that can emerge really in any moment. Of course the flip side of that is I would say, you know any way, if you can get out into nature it’s – it’s so amazingly healing and it’s great and we can find nature in very surprising places. You know in the city you might see some lichen on the side of a building and, you know there’s a little creature there.
That lichen that has been around since, you know way before humans were around and it’s clinging to that rock wall and it doesn’t care if it’s a building. I mean it’s still just a stone to it. And right there in that lichen you can see, you know our own ability to look around us and see that we are nature.
Alison: Oh, I love listening to you. Oh my goodness. I’m kind of swooning here, Kenton, just looking out at my plum tree. Wanting to get out there and I want to take off my clothes and roll around in my grass.
Kenton Whitman: Right on.
Alison: I love that you talked about the interconnectedness and that we are nature. And that’s something that I find that when I talk to people about that it’s almost like a switch flicks, like because we are essentially animals, you know.
Yes, we have souls, yes, we have spirits, but so, you know so do animals. So do trees, you know. Who’s to say that we’re any different? We sort of look at ourselves as this superior being, but we are all interconnected and when you start to look at nature and you learn about the symbiosis of nature and how – like everything in nature works together. Nothing really works in isolation. And the perfect example of that is breathing and trees, right?
We exhale carbon dioxide, they inhale carbon dioxide, they exhale oxygen, we inhale oxygen. Without each other we do not survive, right?
Kenton Whitman: Exactly. That is it.
Alison: So just – just even looking at that, it just – it awakens something and it’s a beautiful thing. And you see it everywhere from, you know composting leaf litter and sprouting new plants or funguses, and the pollination of bees.
Without bees most of our plants wouldn’t be able to cross pollinate and –
Kenton Whitman: Absolutely.
Alison: – then reproduce. It’s everywhere when you start to uncover it and it’s so beautiful and amazing and intricate and, you know nature’s a – it’s a freaking masterpiece.
Kenton Whitman: That’s exactly it. And I can hear in your voice that amazement and wonder and appreciation that comes with starting to see that. You know it’s not something that we have to force once we start to feel that, it fills us with a feeling of being connected with that. That whole, you know ecosystem that we call the earth. And – wow, that just – it’s overwhelming; it’s amazing.
Alison: But it is a bit of a battle isn’t it? When you grow up, you know sort of with a typical lifestyle and you’re taught, you know you’ve got to make money and get a good job and have a nice car and get the white picket fence, and those things can be, you know great things to if that’s what you want and that’s your journey.
But it’s also good to be able to appreciate the natural world and feel that connectedness.
But it does become a battle, and it’s a battle for me too. I obviously still get caught up in all of that too and I do want to participate in the world and be in service to something greater and share my gifts. But I get caught up in the to-do list and, you know the bills and the kids and getting them here and there and everywhere.
So what are some good tips? Aside from okay, we need to spend more time in nature and maybe for some people they might feel like taking up a meditation.
Is there some simple say basic starting points that people can say, okay, tomorrow I’m going to do this, or something that we can incorporate as reminders throughout our day?
Kenton Whitman: So I resonate with what you’re saying because, you know I have the same thing going on in my life. And especially since we’ve expanded ReWild University, I mean I’m almost ashamed to say it; we have a Facebook page, right?
And so that means time in front of the computer and that, you know creates – in me I can feel it, you know a shift in consciousness. And I’d love to be able to have all of my time out in the woods, but I’m choosing right now, you know to have one foot in each world. And so I still drive a car and have this house and as you say pay bills. And I think – I’m trying to think of something that’s simple without getting too esoteric.
But there’s a great power and relief in letting go of control. You know one of the most pervasive elements of the domesticated mind is this idea of controlling things. And you know we want – we want other people to look a certain way all the time, we want ourselves to look a certain way.
When I say look a certain way, I’m talking about emotionally and you know not just how we physically look, but our emotional beings as well and our mental beings. And so I think with – when you brought up kids – maybe I’ll use that as an example.
Rebecca has this saying where she says “Let them eat dirt.” And I can – I can watch Mirabelle, our daughter, and if she’s manifesting a behavior that for some reason I don’t approve of – you know the domesticated mind wants to jump in there and control it and say, you know, no, what you’re doing is wrong. It also wants to control her reaction to things.
And so there’s a little waterfall over here that we’ll go to with friends sometimes and the water is really icy cold because it’s spring fed.
And you know adults will often be like oh, you know Mirabelle, it’s really cold. Watch out, don’t go in. In a way we’re trying to sort of give her an idea of how it should be and to control her reaction. When in reality, you know she’s just fine with jumping in there and playing and she doesn’t have the same biases that we do as adults.
And so as we start to release control and instead start to watch the things around us and allow them to be – have more of that attitude of allowing, that does wonders for bringing us back into our natural state. I, you know had my own – like right now – I mean if you knew me better, people are always saying Kenton, you’re always smiling, you’re always happy.
What’s your secret?
And they’re looking for some sort of way that I control my emotions and keep myself at a happy steady state. But that’s not at all what I do. And my secret is that, you know there was a point in my life when I said, Kenton, you can’t control your emotions. You’ve tried for years to look a certain way and to be disciplined and to always look like a Zen master and you’re a total failure, okay?
I just can’t get it right.
Alison: Oh no.
Kenton Whitman: So give it up and just feel however you want. And in giving myself total permission to feel however I want, then there’s no built up tension to have to look a certain way. So I – it’s that built up tension that really starts to create, you know the big emotional outbursts that we call anger.
It’s that emotional tension that creates the stress and frustration that becomes a chronic sort of operating system in our life. And when we just can feel, then what we call anger is just this little teeny flash of feeling.
And when you feel it right at its beginning it doesn’t have to go anywhere because we’re not resisting and building it up. And so there is this incredible power that I’ve found over and over again in releasing.
Again, one of Rebecca’s sayings in regards to our daughter, Mirabelle, is “If it’s still a problem when she’s 18 we’ll deal with it then.” And you know to get back to those negative behaviors, if she’s having a, quote, negative behavior and we try to fix it, it gets worse and it keeps, you know progressing. And if we just leave it alone and allow her to be her natural self, it invariably disappears.
You know the children mimic us and they blend with our behavior.
And so they’re just sort of watching and we attack what they’re doing, then I think they find a way to in some way, you know attack back. They’re learning that behavior from us.
And when we are attacking ourselves, you know there’s an emotional and physiological response of defence and attack. And it just sets up this cycle. So release control and explore that concept, you know however it applies to your life. And just give it a day and see what happens if you just sort of let things go.
Kenton Whitman: You know? Yeah, we usually find that all these big problems that we’re trying to fix and solve really aren’t that big a deal and they tend to resolve themselves in beautiful and very serendipitous ways when we let them have some breathing room.
Alison: Yeah. That’s a hard thing to do. I’m a self-confessed control freak and – I’m recovering though.
Kenton Whitman: You asked for a simple thing, I think I just gave kind of a pretty complex one, but –
Alison: Well, it can be simple if you look at it as something that you can just take small steps. Like I said, I’m recovering so I’m trying to do little things especially where my kids are concerned because as you said, kids are completely self-determined from the time that they’re very small or even born. And when you try and work against their self-determinism, all these frictions result and you don’t get anywhere.
So you have to, you know work with their self-determinism. So I’m learning so much from my kids. And one way – one step that I’ve taken to try and release control is if I find myself getting fired up in a moment where my kids are, you know getting a little crazy and running around screaming and, you know wrestling with each other and things are getting out of control, the natural instinct is to intervene and to stop it, and –
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: – you know even raise my voice or whatever. Sometimes I’ll just join in, you know. And just start, you know rolling around on the floor with them. And it turns into such a fun moment that naturally comes to its own conclusion because look at Mommy, she’s joining in and she’s wrestling on the floor and she’s having a bit of a howl. And instead of there being all this tension and sad faces and, you know people going to their rooms, it turns into a family frolic on the floor that then dissolves and morphs into something else. And I think kids then can, you know they see you on the same level and communication lines open up a bit better maybe. If that makes sense.
Kenton Whitman: Oh, yes. I mean that it is – that is it. Just the way that situation can transform and to turn into something where everybody’s laughing, and so easily it could have turned into something where everybody’s crying.
Alison: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
Kenton Whitman: You know? And that’s exactly what you’re talking about there is that release of control. And I’m right with you, I experience it all the time when, you know she wants to be swung around and I’ve got some place to be.
And you know what?
I can take the time to swing her around and it’s fun, and just release into that and be a little bit late. Because it really doesn’t matter and the person’s not going to care that much. And I can call if I’m going to be ten minutes late. You know it’s – but, boy, I can feel that tension of – no, I can’t, Mirabelle, just lay off.
Kenton Whitman: And then that leaves me with a terrible feeling and her with a terrible feeling. And why go there?
Alison: Yeah. And that teaches them things too. And you know there’s years of conditioning that we have to sort of peel the layers back. So starting small and going easy on yourself is the way to begin because that can even turn into a battle in itself, can’t it? You know like I can’t do it, I can’t let go of control.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There’s all these twists and turns in this journey that – you know most of us have a pretty highly developed self-punishment system.
Kenton Whitman: And that’s one of the first things when students come out that I try to turn off. You know probably the first thing I say to almost everybody is when we’re having time together, there’s nothing you can do wrong. You here, can be completely yourself. If you need to fall down and cry, if you need to yell at me and swear at me and tell me what an awful person I am, if you need to have solitude, that is all your right and it will be given to you.
And you’ll be given the freedom to have that. And so – boy, when we can just have that kind of openness and stop making ourselves look a certain way and demanding that, you know again, we adhere to all these ideas in our head, then boom, something starts to set free. I think, you know luckily one of the first things we start to develop in a primal mindset is a deep sense of compassion.
And as we develop that sense of compassion for others, we also develop that sense of compassion for ourselves.
And then our progress can move forward in a different way because it is really easy to get into that self-punishment and say, oh, I should be making better progress. Alison: It’s so – and it’s an epidemic.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: Where we don’t believe in ourselves and we don’t love ourselves. We have to teach it, you know we have to teach self-love.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: And it’s huge and it’s transformational, you know when you have someone who believes in you and someone who loves you and someone helps to guide you into valuing yourself, like the amazing transformation that can ensue after that.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. And I think – I really think that that is – that’s our natural way of being.
Alison: Yeah, I read on your blog – that you – you wrote that blog about humans being innately compassionate rather than innately brutal.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s – I just – I believe that wholeheartedly because I’ve seen this transformation again and again in people. And that’s – to me that’s what children are and that’s what all of us – that’s our birthright. And it’s what we would be if we hadn’t trained ourselves into it. So really what we’re doing in re-wilding is sort of trying to undo, you know what we’ve done. And it’s – you know it’s our entire culture – that we shouldn’t be blaming our parents or ourselves or anybody for, you know creating that domestication process. For so many of us, it’s all we know and nobody has been told there’s anything else. It sounds almost insane to say that, you know you are this passionate, beautiful, incredible, amazing creature and it’s just right inside of you.
Kenton Whitman: That’s not how most of us probably feel. But we can. Alison: Beautiful. One thing I wanted to ask you about, and it’s something that interests me, is fear and fear of nature. We live in a world where, you know one may feel safer to live in a high-rise building, eat plastic-wrapped microwavable pre-cooked food, partake in recreational drugs on the weekend, you know and that seems safer than going into a forest and picking a mushroom or slurping from a wild stream.
So what do you observe as the obstacles and fears that stop people from getting back into communication with nature and their own bodies and their own selves?
Like what are some of the excuses or hesitations or worries that people typically have and how do you help them overcome it?
Kenton Whitman: It’s interesting that you bring that up. Just today a student was telling me that he was trying to show some friends a wild edible plant. And they were – they were pretty frightened about it. They said what if it’s covered in bugs. He said well, I do have eyes; I can look it over and see if it’s covered in bugs. And they said, well, what if a deer peed on it?
And he said what if your doctor prescribes a drug that kills you. And, you know that kind of stopped them because what you’re pointing out is that we, you know we do all these really dangerous things like drive cars and consider them to just be a normal and acceptable risk.
But then there’s this fear of the natural world. And it’s pretty pervasive. You know a lot of us harbor this strong fear about nature in general. You know I don’t think it’s actually a fear of nature so much as a fear of that inner natural self.
And what I mean by that is that it’s – it can be sort of painful to come face-to-face with our natural self. We get a glimpse of the amount of passion and vibrancy that we are really capable of, and at the same time we know that it’s really not socially acceptable to be that abundantly alive, right?
I mean you can’t be at the grocery store and find the fruit you were looking for and start screaming in delight and running around the store.
Kenton Whitman: We’re all supposed to be at this sort of even keel all the time. And so it becomes easier I think to distract ourselves with this sort of constant media and entertainment. And if we’re constantly distracted, then we don’t have to awaken into that fully alive self and we kind of know somewhere inside of us. So that means that people won’t stare at us and think we’re funny because we’re having those emotions in public or we’re, you know going into that bliss frenzy as we – as we eat a perfectly ripe mango.
Kenton Whitman: And so if the social norm is to be in this sort of robotic state, that means unfortunately in our culture that a negative social pressure is applied to anyone who steps out of that norm. And as we encounter our true inner nature then we start to love every moment of life so abundantly that it can look a little bit crazy to the people around us.
And you know when people come to ReWild U, it’s not that we don’t address the superficial fears that they have. People will have a little laundry list that they come with; they’re afraid of bugs or going under water or snakes.
And so they can get over those fears if we use what I call gentle exposure, and gentle is the key word there, meaning that it has to be on the student’s time and the teacher can’t be invested in the student conquering their fears.
So the teacher’s work is basically to encourage like curiosity, for instance about what a snake feels like. And then the student in their own time will decide if they want to touch the snake’s tail. And you know so often with fear we try to transform it in our culture with shame or, you know other methods that are basically trying to force a behaviour of non-fear.
But when fear can be overcome by curiosity, then we’re starting to get somewhere. So that student develops this inner tool that will apply to any fear that they encounter in life, not just in nature. But we bring that fear into our normal waking life too – or normal civilized life.
And so I think the way out of this is by instilling curiosity. Because if we’re wondering instead of judging, then we can break through our preconceived ideas and start to get curious about the world instead of fearing it. So – yeah.
Alison: Wow. I love that. You have so much wisdom. I’m enjoying listening to you so much.
Kenton Whitman: Thank you.
Alison: I want to come to ReWild U.
Kenton Whitman: Well, we have a lot of fun out here and it’s, you know right now because we’re not doing big classes it’s just one-on-one for long periods. We’re not touching a lot of people, but the people we do get to touch it’s really amazing. And so it’s good all around I think.
Alison: Great. So if people want to get in touch with you, how can they do that?
Kenton Whitman: All my contact info is on rewildu.com. It’s just rewild and then the letter U, not y-o-u. So rewild letter u .com.
Alison: Great. And I know that there’s a lot of awesome blogs and videos and you have a You Tube channel.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah. We’re really trying to give people access, you know hopefully an international audience access to the philosophy behind re-wilding and inspiration and ancestral skills and things that they can, you know explore as they get out into nature. So yeah, that’s the idea.
Alison: Yay. We love that idea. Okay, Kenton, there’s just one more question I want to ask you before I can let you go.
Kenton Whitman: Yeah.
Alison: What is your wild wish for the people on this call?
Kenton Whitman: You know, all of us can do this. All of us can break free of that domestication that we’ve had applied to us. So we all have this passionately vital, vibrantly aware wild creature inside of us.
And I realize it’s buried under all these layers of distraction and external validation and shutting down, but it’s in there. And it’s not as difficult to reclaim as we’ve been led to believe.
So, you know, know and understand that you have this vital wild creature inside of you. Get out into nature, practice some every moment mindfulness, shift your diet, begin playing and then your own personal re-wilding will begin.
And the more that everybody can uncover of that natural self, the more that your own innate wisdom is going to start to guide you toward a more alive way of living. And that would be my wish is that everybody hearing this – everybody in the world could really experience this feeling of being fully alive.
And I think that more than any government program or anything else, you know that’s right at the root of it. And then that would have the power to transform this entire world and the way that we’re living.
Alison: That was beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your wisdom and your energy and your aliveness with us. It has been such a pleasure to speak with you today.
Kenton Whitman: Alison, it’s been wonderful. I’m so honored and pleased that you got in contact with me. This has been great and thank you so much.
Alison: Thank you.