Thursday, May 13, 2010

My New Barefoot Shoes -Coming Home to Bipedal Locomotion

I used to hike to my teaching job at the local elementary school, covering about three miles of dirt trails in the local state park here in Topanga, California where I live. Sometimes on my way home I would take off my shoes and walk the trails barefoot. Walking without shoes I noticed that a change occurred after about the first mile. Initially, I was somewhat uncomfortable with these relatively tender feet plodding along over seemingly treacherous terrain. Alternating between uneven dirt and scattered large-rock protrusions, the trail felt alien and unaccommodating at first. By the second mile however, I would start to feel that my individual toes flexing with each step. Freed from the dark, restraining coffin of my shoes, the complex array of toe muscles would come to life, helping to steady me and propel my forward motion. It felt quite literally as if my toes were pulling the earth towards me with each step. It was a delightful sensation. The unevenness of the ground was no longer an annoying challenge to my bare foot, but a wonderfully varied and stimulating exploration of texture. On uphill portions of the hike, I would stride across these large steep boulders, ‘grasping’ the rock with my foot to hoist myself up and over. On down slopes of the trail, my toes would help put on the brakes and guard me from slipping. Walking shoeless in one’s home, as most of us do, simply can’t produce this sensation. The floors are just too flat and smooth, and moreover, we don’t walk for long in the house; we don’t cover enough ground to sink into that long-striding motion of a good stroll or jaunt. As I hiked along without shoes, my feet became these active beds of muscle, engaged in subtle, yet nimble and deliberate movements in response to the terrain.

Last year, a friend bought me a pair of ‘barefoot’ shoes called Vibram Five Fingers that allow for separate articulation of toe movement. I was interested to learn if these strange-looking foot gloves would allow me to feel more connected to the earth. I am pleased to report that when wearing these shoes I do feel as if my toes are actively ‘grabbing’ the earth with each step, much like the experience I had hiking barefoot. Whether walking on streets or sidewalks, on grass or over curbs, up stairs, or across thresholds, carpets, and tile –I feel the textures and irregularities of every surface much more keenly, and my toes are instinctively involved in navigating and propelling my locomotion. With these ‘shoes’ on I am more conscious of the earth underfoot, a simple result of my toes being liberated, able now to engage the ground as distinctly independent digits.

These glorious ten toes evolved to be separate and active participants in our uniquely human bipedal locomotion. For close to four million years –or over 99.7% of our history as fully erect hominids- we walked and ran across the uneven surfaces of our earth with our natural sole to the ground. New studies are suggesting that our modern shoes are responsible for a number of orthopedic problems, and a good body of evidence indicates that barefoot runners experience fewer of the joint problems associated with running because they do not strike the ground heal first, like shod runners.

I’m not surprised at the number of medical studies which confirm the positive health benefits of foot reflexology –the practice of applying pressure to different parts of the foot believed to correspond to nerve endings associated with the healthy functioning of organs and systems of the body. Evolution would certainly have designed optimal health benefits of our physical interface with the earth, taking advantage of the varied, forceful, and consistent ‘massage’ applied to the feet of our ancestors -those shoeless nomads who spent millions of years treading millions of miles, foot to the ground.

Why this long story about shoes? Well, shoes have done to our feet what agriculture has done to human culture. People with shoes on their feet have a layer of sole marking their physical disconnection from the very ground upon which they walk. They do not feel the earth underfoot, neither physically nor emotionally. In the same way, people living in agricultural times have varying degrees of disconnect from wild nature. Instead of shoes, there are history, culture, and concrete which shield us from our tribal connection to the wild earth. History separates us because it does not adequately reveal the story of our long evolution as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Culture separates us because it lacks stories and myths that embed us in nature and in our fellows. Concrete protects us from any intuition or inkling of our real home in the tangible raw earth and its myriad wild things. Agriculture and the cultures it has produced buffers us from our own history and from sensing our human inheritance as tribal peoples. The movie Avatar was not successful because we all admire tribal peoples, but because each of us come from a long tribal past. Tribal existence is in our blood. Our history books have lied to us, deceived us into believing that learning the names of the Egyptian Pharaohs is more important than knowing when we invented fire or hunted the first game. We learn that modern native peoples engage in odd rituals and hold to strange superstitions, rather than learning that we all have a mythic mind capable of fantastic journeys to the soul of Being. Our readily synthesizing Right mind is wildly disenfranchised under the prestigious shadow cast by the rational and linear Left Brain. We have thick shoes over our very Souls, both shielding and blinding us, muffling the voices of many ancestors who had guided us for 99% of our history. Dare we go barefoot again?

My new barefoot shoes have brought me home to a more organic bipedal hominid gait. I love 'em. (Thank you Andrew!)
Vibram Five Fingers. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Some Thoughts on The Mythic Mind

Last fall I stood on a mountaintop in Big Sur, California, just outside the entrance of my tent. The night sky was full of the most dazzling and brilliant collection of stars I had seen in a long time. Even the Milky Way was a clear and broad white sash connecting the horizons. The stars were so vivid that I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. As happens so frequently with me, especially when I find myself transfixed by a wonder of nature, I thought about our ancestors. I imagined what stories they told to both explain and understand the stars. I knew that beyond their ancient campfires, there was no artificial light to distract them from this recurrent nocturnal event. There was no pollution to dim these constellations. I knew that they slept under these stars generation after generation. A million years of stargazing to my scattered collection of special evenings under visible stars. I appreciated how the movement of the entire night sky around Polaris -a fixed rotation of this whole body of stars- became the stuff of myth and legend for the ancients. I also knew that those rogue ‘stars,’ the visible planets whose movements at first seem arbitrary and unregulated compared to the stars, were prominent characters in tribal mythology and cosmology. And then there is the moon. That beautiful orb which never rises twice-in-a-row the same way. I had only slept outdoors for a few days, and I was captivated by the beauty and mystery of this night sky. I understood how important it was for my prehistoric ancestors. Nighttime beckons mystery, traps us all in slumber and dreams, dulls our eyesight, fills the air with strange sounds and cold winds, and reminds us that we do not control the night as we do the day. It is not just that we are tired and blinded when night falls, but we also feel something deep about our nature and our earth, about mystery and magic, about dark wet life. Night is just that way. It is the time of dreams and the lovers’ touch. So when the ancient peoples saw these stars, this predictable blanket of lights, these planets and a moon whose motions and phases began to show their pattern, the ambiguities of life could be grasped in a way, captured as this observable darkness was fed into rich stories. Tribal ancestors watched the night sky and came to know it with an intimacy I cannot yet know. It was a part of them.

What struck me most as I was looking at last night’s sky, was my own personal ability to articulate many scientific facts about these stars and planets, facts which have only very recently come into human consciousness. In another way, I also saw that I actually knew nothing about the stars. I can name only a couple of the constellations, I don’t know but one or two planets. Just as the growing flora outside the window where I sit to write, plants that spoke volumes to the native peoples who lived here in these mountains, just as these same plants look simply green to me, but don’t feed me, don’t support my shelters or provide me with spears and medicine, just as I know nothing about these plants, so too do I say that I know nothing about the night sky. I am not familiar with it. I almost never look at it. I can rarely even see it. And when I am outdoors at night I am going somewhere, driving in a car, surrounded by distracting lights, a man with an agenda, a human ‘doing.” I am not a man who has gazed for years upon these stars. I am ignorant of their deeper qualities, of how they move, what stories might exist to teach me about them. And yet, I can tell you the difference between the stars and planets, the gaseous nature of stars, their relative distances from our earth. I know that planets are solid bodies reflecting the light of our sun and rotating around it. I know that the Milky Way is our galaxy and that the band of light we see is the outer arm of our spiral galaxy. I know Alpha Centaury is three light years away. I know that tens of thousands of galaxies exist beyond ours, and I know about their relative position one to another. I studied stellar astronomy in a walled building in college for one semester over 25 years ago and I know a slew of facts that not a single one of my ancestors had the remotest knowledge of. How strange that I could stand on that mountain last fall and behold the glory of the stars as if I have never seen them before. How remarkable that at once I knew nothing of those strange lights and yet I have this knowledge that is more empirically ‘true’ than anything a nomadic Pleistocene hunter might tell you about them. We live in a remarkable time. The knowledge we posses about our world cannot be taken lightly. And yet we must see both the gift and limitation of this kind of scientific ‘knowing.’ The things we observe in the world, the natural phenomena that captivate us with their mystery so often do not exist in this dancing relationship with our consciousness that characterizes the tribal way of seeing and knowing. We are not in communion with the glowing stars nor the growing plants. We simply see them, and some of us can recite facts about them. Without such facts, would we learn again to tell stories?

The late neurosurgeon and author, Leonard Shlain tells us that the right hemisphere of the brain is image-based, and sees the world “all at once…seeing the parts to the whole… [deciphering] compound and complex images” instantly. Neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte-Taylor, who suffered a massive left-hemisphere stroke, teaches that, “the right hemisphere is all about the here and now” and that as we discover this, “the more peaceful our planet will be.”

Charles Herberger in The Thread of Ariadne, described the thought processes of nature-based peoples. Mythopoetic thought, he says, “orders things within a total context so that terms have meaning only in relation to other terms…through synthesis we come to know wholes.” He concludes that, “Mythopoetic thinking…is by no means inferior to analytic thinking.”

In The Soul’s Code, James Hillman writes, “everyone…is in search of an adequate biography…feelings that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image…You are the essential image…For this is the nature of an image, any image. It’s all there at once.” Several of the biographical sketches in Hillman’s book mention the role of teachers in guiding young people to recognize and embrace their innate gift, their ‘image.’

How do mentors guide initiates in the discovery of their ‘image,’ their calling? Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote, “in my fourteenth year, a huge expectancy arose…poignant and powerful…I was engulfed in the momentous feeling that something universal and awesome was pending…By my early twenties whatever was supposed to have happened long since had not…and I was left with a feeling of loss.”

The knowledge of our history can help us here. Our unique moment in history is not fascinating only because I know about stars, but I also know about ancestors. I know how long we lived as hunters and gatherers. This is powerful knowledge.