Let's have something universal. Whether we create it ourselves, it doesn't really matter.
Bruce Parry has lived with indigenous tribes in Africa, South America and South East Asia, and his documentaries have won awards. The former marine has taken it to the very edge - eating exotic and powerful drugs, testing his physical and mental resilience on a trip the South Pole, and living the high life on the party island of Ibiza.
But he has returned to the UK to share with the world a fundamental insight that could bring each of us individual wellbeing, as well as providing a powerful lesson about our society, and our relationship with nature.
The problem Parry now aces is his lesson is so radical, so transformative that it sits outside what is considered acceptable, or believable, firstly with his former commissioners at the BBC and then also for our culture as a whole.
So Parry has funded and directed his own film - TAWAI - A voice from the forest - so that he can share his new insight unmediated, without being sanitised. Having left the comfort of the BBC, and tapped up his founders, he has risked everything. So what is it that he has discovered from the indigenous tribes that he thinks is so important?
In Part II [read Part I here] of this exclusive interview with The Ecologist, Parry sets out what he believes to be the answer to the most important challenges of the day. It’s about social structures, but it’s also about yoga and meditation, about spirituality and the unknown. This is what his new film addresses.
Let's have something universal. Whether we create it ourselves, it doesn't really matter.
Empathic experiences of connection
Parry tells me: “I pitched this to the BBC, and I can’t really blame them for not taking it. We may have had the mindfulness revolution, but it hadn’t happened at the time. And ‘spirituality’ - these are like red-flag terms. Everyone was like, ‘you know what, I've come to my conclusions about all this - Bruce, you’ve obviously gone a bit crazy.’
“The Beeb didn't give much credibility to these experiences of feeling connected, feeling at one with everything, sort of transcending my own physical limits of my body and having these empathic experiences of connection.”
One of the reasons for scepticism among the media establishment was that some of the insight came from taking drugs. Parry explains: “I had a very rational team behind me, material scientific mindset of people who I very much looked up to who were incredibly bright and helped me write the script. When it came to me doing anything shamanic they would be like, ‘well, you don't really believe in all that’.
“So I maintained a very scientific, materialist world view even though I was living with people, and telling the world that I'm living with these people, and looking at the world through their eyes - but deep down I wasn't really looked through their eyes at all. I was absolutely keeping looking through my eyes at them, and in a sense judging them accordingly. Loving them, appreciating them. But there was always a little bit, ‘well, I know science knows better’.”
At this time Parry was no longer seeking status or success, but instead he was searching for an answer to the question posed by his experience of living with tribes. There was a interconnectedness among the people, and between people and nature, that he was not part of and could not really understand.
The possibility that they are right
“I went to live with a group of people called the Kogi in Colombia who are a very fascinating group of people, who train some of their children in the dark for 18 years from birth, and these people with sensory deprivation learn through meditation to communion with nature. Clearly that's a very complex thing for us to understand and imagine.
“I thought, here is a group of people who could probably prove something - so let's go there. They said, ‘oh, yes you can come and make a film with us - but go away and prepare. Give up sex, drugs, alcohol. Then maybe you will be able to come back and understand a but more’. People said to me, ‘you know they are going to be watching you’. I had met with a girlfriend, and [soon after] I got a text on my phone going, ‘so there's a problem with the film, it is not going to happen’.”
The adventurer spent a long time resisting the idea that interconnectedness could have more profound implications, beyond the known and beyond the material. “I thought, ‘of course it’s just coincidence’.But in that moment I thought, ‘I really want to make this film, because I'm really fascinated by this group of people, and how dare I not allow the possibility that there are right’.”
“So in that moment - motivated by my own anxiety to make the film, I have to admit - I decide I will try this on. Suddenly everything changed. Everything is now full of meaning, and my life became saturated with the most blissful experiences of serendipity at every corner.”
There were very many experiences that convinced Parry that the tribal people knew more about what it means to be human than he does. He is still exploring the possibilities about how this may be about spirituality, and some greater meaning.
Nomadic hunter gatherers
But there are also more grounded, material reasons why many of the indigenous peoples of the world appear to have a deeper connection with each other, and with nature, than many cultures in developed, urban oil-fuelled, capitalist, consumerist cultures.
Parry returns to the Penan. It was this community in particular who held the memory, the experience, and the potential for a different way of living that could bring personal happiness, and the potential for a very different kind of society.
Parry asks, “what was this experience with this group? When I met the Penan I could literally put them in a box: there was them, and then there's all the other groups I had lived with, and then everyone else - they were that different. But what?
“So I knew they were nomadic hunter gatherers, and I had lived with hunter gatherers before, I had lived with nomadic groups before. But. This is the first group who are essentially living without domestication, they were still living in this flow with nature.
“They carry everything they own on their backs. They share very fastidiously. All these things are very rational: it’s in our interests to share the meat if we’ve got nowhere to store or dry the meat, so I share it and in turn you share it back.
No one bought into wanting more
“But why were they behaving differently? Why were they exuding something else entirely. And that was the bit I couldn't figure out for a while. But then through the meditation, through the Ayahuasca, through these other experiences, something came up: the way they structure their society is also incredibly different.
“They have no leaders. They have no Shaman. They were fully egalitarian. This was actually something that was incredibly real and lived in this group. They had tools and methods whereby if anyone is starting to say they were more, the rest wouldn't allow it. With the Penan, that was so ingrained, it was so subtle. No one bought into wanting to be more.”
He adds: “They saw themselves as a collective, they did not have a sense of individual identity in the same way we do, they were absolutely a collective in the group, but also a collective with all the other species in that area, and the collective with the plants and everything else.
“They felt themselves to be fully immersed within it. It wasn't a theory. They felt empathically connected to each other, and to the birds, and to the trees, the river and the clouds. That feeling that I had when I was doing the Ayahuasca, and the mushroom trip, and on occasions with the meditation, that feeling a sense of empathic connection whereby your pain is my pain, your joy is my joy.
“I don't want to be excessively brutal to anything if I know I am going to feel that too. So, that sense of empathy expanding out through the group and into the environment. I feel what what was going on. And I thought, ‘well, how is that? Why are they like that?’
We came to this egalitarian state
“And I thought, ‘well maybe because they're meditating every day, because hunting is a form of meditation. When you learn how to meditate you learn concentration, awareness, [to be] in your senses fully, not drifting off in your mind to other times and places. But in the here and now.”
For Parry, the reason the Penan in particular have such a profound connection with the world is they have not gone through the process of relying on agriculture, and therefore retain an ancient connection with nature, and with the earth.
What this says to be is that the Western assumption that developed cultures are more evolved or adapted is turned on its head. The experience of living in capitalism is one of trauma and loss, alongside the technological gains.
He tells me: “We are waking up now to the fact that we have been so successful at gorging ourselves in the sweetie shop that we are suffering as a result. I think that these groups probably had that a long time ago. We came from an alpha male situation at one point, there was a period where we threw that out and came into this egalitarian state.”
Parry is quick to point out that he is not a Luddite, and is grateful for the advancements in technology and health - and indeed travel - that has allowed him to have such experiences. But there is more all life than all of that. “The memory of how it was and how it can be is still with a lot of these people, but I think we have lost that since agriculture.
The amazing diversity of life
“If we can drive that technology into an overarching wisdom of seeing ourselves not above nature but within it, and respecting it and as one planet and empathic connection to all peoples, whatever different beliefs and colours, and the empathic connection to nature too and have an understanding of this as a universal belief, then this can be the most beautiful journey.
The connection with the immediate, in a meditative sense, and the connection with nature results, it seems, in a greater connection with the future. The appreciation of other living things becomes the motive for living - and the basis for optimism.
“I know that all of us exist by taking from another,” Parry continues. “That’s the cycle of life and death on the planet, I don't believe of transcending out of that. There is pain, and there’s misery and there is joy and love on the planet so I get it I just also would love that amazing diversity that has come about in the four billion years - it’s had its ups and downs.
“This is great, and we are now the first species - or maybe - we are at the space where we can stand back and experience it and enjoy it. And how cool would it be to come back, how cool would it be to know that your kids are gonna get that same experience – that’s just amazing - that’s the drive.
“How cool is it if we still have tigers for my grandkids. That would be amazing. And I am willing to let go of some of my luxuries and comforts and things and live in a more humble way if I think that's going to be still possible for them.
The soil that provides the fruit
“I talk to the Penan and I say, ‘what is your own individual desire for the future?’ They don't want to have a cup of coffee every day if it means [destroying forest elsewhere]. That is genuinely coming from the heart. It is genuinely their greatest desire - because they do not see themselves as individuals but as a collective - that this gig goes forwards.
He adds: “They have so much less stress, in some ways, as a result not needing to be famous, they don't have to be the best. They see themselves as…they know that when they get old they are going to be looked after.
“They know that when they die they going to be feeding the very soil that provides the fruit, and they will be remembered because the ancestors are there amongst them and remembered and the spirits are there among them every day.
“So all of the stresses that we have as we approach old age and death, they not have. They just have they are just happy for the gig to carry on without any individual desire mixed up within that.”
The public relations person that Bruce has hired for the film comes over and explains that we have run out of time. I start to lose the vivid imaginings of the hunter gathers of the Borneo rainforest walking through the flora and speaking to the birds above them. I hear the chatter and clatter of crockery. I am once again in Piccadilly.
Ostracised out of the group
Bruce wants to make a final point: a deeply communal experience of life - beyond individualism, materialism, and the fight for social status - does not have be confined to the dense undergrowth of the deep forest. It is possible in modern, urban, highly populated countries also.
“When I start talking about egalitarian groups, [even with] people who have studied these things, the first thing they often say is, ‘Bruce, we can see why within a small group people can act in this way that you are describing because the limits on their behaviour is by being ostracised out of the group and so that's what keeps them in the group, and the behaviour and all the rest of it.
“‘But don’t forget that they still have, you can say they have no competition within the group but they have massive competition with the group next door, and they have aggression with the group next door. So this is the thing that is often levelled at this.
“And I also have the same question, until I met Jerome Lewis, who is an anthropologist and studies especially egalitarian, instant return, hunter gatherer societies, of which they are only in Africa and south-east Asia.
“I went with him into the Congo and we go and live with the earliest, earliest groups of this kind. And I said to him, ‘how are we going to apply this to a wider space, because of course the in-group it's fine, but externally this is as aggressive as anywhere.
Resistant and sceptical
“But he is like, ‘no, no, you have no idea Bruce. These people here have all come together randomly for this and will go back to different families. This is a flowing, interactive space that goes out to tens of thousands of people throughout the Congo’. And I didn't know that.”
Parry continues: “But the thing is, historically it's only possible - and this is why it only happens in Africa and Southeast Asia where there is abundance of resources and the ability for everyone to be able to have equal access to those resources, so the the problem is if with that sort of idea of egalitarianism can spread it has to come with it also how we go about distributing. That’s our challenge.
“The reasons this ended up ending is probably when we left that tropical belt and were going into more seasonal areas, and is in the seasonal spaces that you have to collect or probably slow down and its then that whoever it is who gets to choose who gets what from the horde has power, then the power came in and then started all the things we experience today.”
The interview is now coming to an end, my mind is buzzing with everything I have heard in the last hour. I want to believe that human being can once again experience this almost euphoric connection with each other, with nature, with the things we find, and the things we make.
But I remain resistant and sceptical. Does the fact some of this ‘oneness’ and ‘interconnectedness’ that Parry has experienced come from his dabbling in exotic drugs undermine its scientific or sociological credibility? His claim that he Kogi could know things beyond their sensuous experience is beyond what I am willing to believe.
Which is the best truth for life?
This is where we end. This is where we must begin. It is about belief and about believing. I ask Parry if he is concerned about believing something that simply is not true. He has spoken about going mad in the South Pole, and the concerns aired by the BBC commissioners about the veracity of his claims. Yet, what he has to say is utterly seductive: a human species no longer traumatised and at war, but instead blissed out on life, and at peace.
I say, ‘the rational, Cartesian belief that birds are little more than automatons has led to the slaughter and suffering of factory farming, while the beliefs of the Penan that we are all interconnected with all life, including the birds they eat, has led to sustainable living.’
“Thank you,” Parry responds. “Thank you. The way I came to it, with me, was I said, ‘well, okay Bruce, you have got choices here - what's the best for this thing that you believe in, which is having a future for your children and their children. Which is the best way, which is the best truth for that’.
“We have all these different belief systems in the world, most of them created since agriculture, most of them have humans at the centre, even if they have had all these amazing of ways of connecting to something beyond we still focus it back on the human.
“Let's have something universal. Whether we create it ourselves, it doesn't really matter. What is the best belief system for us getting through this shit together? Let's enjoy it. It will be fun. Like, this is such a beautiful possible future.”
I’ve come back home…
We stand and I collect my things and slip the recorder into my pocket. I share how incredibly exciting it has been to experience this whistle stop tour of the world, and how it has reawakened my own desire to travel. Parry explains that it might finally be time for him to settle down.
“I'm looking to be in community, and slow down and stop travelling and all the rest of it. That's kind of where I'm at. I think I need to, I said earlier that my lifestyle is going in one direction and my understanding is going in another direction. It's time for me to consolidate. So that's why I've come back to the UK.” He smiles. “I’m here to start an egalitarian hunter gathering society.” We hug and say goodbye.
I’m standing by the kerbside, watching the black taxies and the red busses, the traffic lights and the lights of Piccadilly circus. The fumes tingle in my nose. People brush past me to cross the road. I have that feeling of the traveller returned. I am yet to acclimatise to the familiar. I wonder about the potential for connectedness. The potential loss of these tribes, and with them an important part of our shared species memory, and sensuousness of being, and the dreams for the future.
How can this be made real for people who just need to get through the day to day. I search the route home on Google Maps, check my email, see what’s happening on Twitter, play music through my headphones. I come back down to earth.