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Embracing the Exuberant Animal

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Frank Forencich is one of the few people I know who’s putting it all together when it comes to forging a new narrative for our human predicament. His Exuberant Animal project aims to help humans carve a healthy path through the modern world by integrating movement, storytelling, play, meditation, practical neuroscience and more. I cannot recommend Frank’s work more highly.

A few weeks ago, I spent an amazing weekend training with Frank and an awesome group of people, mostly trainers in the outdoor fitness/ancestral health mold, for one of Frank’s first Exuberant Animal trainings.

I wrote a piece about the experience over at Paleo Magazine; it’s also shared below.


This is a story of mismatch.

On a mostly sunny Friday in mid-October, a dozen souls convened at the home and dojo of Frank Forencich, the man behind Exuberant Animal. Frank had been kind enough to extend an invitation to us to serve as guinea pigs for his first Exuberant Animal training. I knew Frank through his fantastic Paleo Magazine columns, and although we hadn’t met in person before the weekend—just a few phone calls and emails—I felt a strong kinship with Frank and his project.

The weekend would be a mixture of meditation, presentations and outdoor group training, plus some occasional downtime and a fantastic selection of food, in large part thanks to our food sponsors, which included EPIC, Tanka, EXO, Barefoot Provisions, YAWP!, Wild Mountain Paleo Market, Wild Zora and Arizona Grass Raised Beef Co.

The nature of Exuberant Animal largely eludes sound bites. What Frank is after is a holistic and authentic response to the human predicament. As he pointed out early on in our weekend together, we live in “ancient, aboriginal bodies” that “are struggling to adapt in this modern world.” Our environment is alien to us in so many ways: physical, nutritional, circadian, microbial, acoustic, sensory, thermal, social and narrative. We’re dealing with a mismatch—and Exuberant Animal is all about finding a way through this predicament.

This is a story of finding a new-old way.

Frank is well known in the ancestral health community. And although Exuberant Animal draws heavily on what we can learn and emulate from our hunter-gatherer past, Exuberant Animal is not about a return to some Paleolithic ideal. It’s rather about merging the best of our past with the best of our present.

If you look across many traditional cultures, you see a qualitative, circular conception of time, one that aligns human activities with the dictates of the environment—not with rigid notions about when we think things should happen. The world we live in obviously operates largely in the latter way. But it’s also the world we live in, and this is not something we can just ignore, says Frank. Thus, we need to find a way to bridge the old with the new—a new-old way of doing things.

This applies not just to our concept of time, but to every aspect of our lives. We should look to the past and traditional cultures for clues to aid us through our predicament, but we can’t simply turn back the clock and expect to thrive as hunter-gatherers in a rapidly changing world far removed from that ideal.

This is a story of stillness and movement.

Meditation was a recurring activity throughout our weekend together. The modern world overwhelms us with information, and as a result, “we fixate on some things and omit other things, and our scan breaks down.” One potent antidote to this is meditation—or as Frank calls it, the practice of “athletic attention.” This idea of athleticism and practice weaved its way through many of Frank’s presentations, emphasizing how, as author and professor Richard J. Davidson says, “well-being is a skill, not a state.”

The focus on meditation also squared with another issue: the problem of stress and our modern reaction to it. The human body evolved a stress response to survival threats, but that response has morphed into a default, chronic reaction to lesser challenges—and even imagined ones—with dire consequences for the health of the human organism.

Movement was another core aspect of our training. Each day, we trained outdoors as a group, using creative, collaborative routines to build strength, flexibility and athleticism, as well as social bonds and non-verbal communication skills. We varied tempos and strengths, paying attention to our limits and moving together in ways that were playful and fun. We all became more aware of how training together can expand our possibilities for growth, both as bodies in movement and as social creatures.

For Jared Archbold, an integrative health and lifestyle coach, the training routines provided “so much inspiration and access to new realms I can explore with clients!”

We also explored movement indoors, particularly the connection between movement and neuroplasticity—the brain’s capacity to change. As a counterpoint to our vigorous outdoor training, Andrew Heffernan, a writer, personal trainer and Feldenkrais practitioner, led the group through a gentle but powerful movement lesson that gave attendees a chance to “reset” their nervous systems and focus on the nuances of some basic movements.

On Saturday, we hiked a hill in Icicle Canyon, a few miles away. The weather was perfect, and for three hours we navigated up and down the hill, Frank’s dog, Mojo, pacing us as we scrambled over rocks and through brush, even encountering a rattlesnake early on.

This is a story of deep ecology, of public health, of our long bodies.

“Where do you draw the line on your identity?” Frank asked us at one point. In the Western world, we typically draw that line at the barrier of our skin, but this is not how traditional cultures have perceived the “experienced self.”

The long body is a notion in Native American and other traditional cultures that obliterates the Western conception of the body as a discrete organism separate from the rest of existence. Frank discussed the many ways in which our bodies are intrinsically connected to the rest of life on earth, and how we must start thinking about health in the widest terms. The health of the planet is literally our own health. According to Frank, “You may not be interested in public health, but public health is interested in you.”

How can we shed the cultural myopia of rugged individualism and start seeing ourselves as inextricable members of the tribe of the earth, as bodies without boundaries? How can we become interested not just in recycling and conserving resources, but in being proponents and practitioners of a deep ecology that revels in the diversity and connectedness of life on earth?

This is a story about the stories we tell.

As the weekend neared its end, the narrative that guided our time together also wound its way toward a central conclusion, one unifying idea. On Sunday, as part of Frank’s final presentation, we came to this motif, arguably the centerpiece of Exuberant Animal itself: the idea that we’re not telling the right stories to help navigate our human predicament.

Stories move us—they literally change the flow of information in our bodies. Borrowing from terminology common in a training setting, Frank discussed how “stories are reps,” actions “that etch grooves in your nervous system and in your life.”

The ways we frame our experiences and the meaning we accord them—as individuals, families, tribes and cultures—have immense power to direct our health, and the fate of our species. As Frank argued, we need to help people understand the power of story in shaping our human experience, and we need to start telling better stories if we want to thrive in this postindustrial world.

This is a story of challenge, of grace, of fitting in without opting out.

The Exuberant Animal training was an incredibly powerful experience. I didn’t come away mesmerized by some small batch of insights, or with a pocketful of magic bullets. I left, instead, with a deep sense of calm and connectedness. Our newly formed tribe had spent three intense days living, eating, training, learning, meditating and playing together—acknowledging and forging that connectedness.

Attendee and movement expert Skye Nacel found the experience “completely fresh and invigorating”—even though he’d already known and trained with Frank for several years. Tanner Walker, a personal trainer and health coach, recognized “the rhythm of how we moved, meditated, socialized, learned and rested” as “something that must be experienced, not simply read about.” And Alia Joy Shaw, the youngest participant at 13, delivered maybe the most essential line of the weekend: “This should be what school is.”

As Frank himself told me several days after our time together: “Our experience made it clear that people are hungry for a narrative that makes sense of our predicament in the modern world. We’re looking for a meaningful context, better health and a whole-body approach to learning. And, we want to have fun doing it.”

Frank’s ambition for Exuberant Animal is to expand it to leaders of a wide range of constituencies—a group that includes, according to Frank, “trainers, teachers, medical professionals, managers and visionaries.”

This is a story.

The other night, my toddler son was in a tough mood. His mom had left earlier that day for a work trip, and he was upset and indecisive. Nothing I said or did gave him much comfort. But when we sat down on the couch together to read some of his favorite books, his anxiety dissolved. We sat engrossed in the tales on those well-worn cardboard pages. This simple act—of telling a different story—changed everything for him almost instantly.

Want to learn more about upcoming Exuberant Animal trainings? Check out exuberantanimal.com.

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How To Eat Liver

Liver.

You either hate it, or you pretend not to hate it to impress your friends when you’re dropping a couple NorCal margaritas and a bunless burger after an intense CrossFit sesh.

Actually, some people claim to like the taste of liver, but these people mostly consist of those with a rare condition in which they were born with no taste buds. (It’s so rare that it’s not on Wikipedia yet, so don’t try looking it up.)

Liver isn’t much to look at, so here’s a picture of a livery.
Liver isn’t much to look at, so here’s a picture of a livery. Image: autoblog.com

See, the thing about liver is it’s so damn full of nutritional goodness.

The other thing about liver is it tastes like a butt.

That’s why the American Liver Council (also not yet on Wikipedia) asked me to write this post. To help those of you struggling to get past the uh, let’s say the rich, rich, rich umami quality of liver, so you can reap the full benefits of its powerhouse nutritional status.

So without further ado, I present:

8 Ways to Make Liver More Palatable

1. Start really young.

We fed my son liver when he was just 6 months old, and he still gobbles it down. Unfortunately for most of us, developing this kind of easy rapport with liver would require time travel back to our infancies, and time travel is something that’s out of the price range for most folks these days.

2. Combine it with other strong flavors that can mask the liver-y taste.

Sounds simple, right? Hold up! This requires some strategy. The trick is to pick a food or foods that aren’t quite your favorite(s), because their flavor is about to become indelibly linked with that of the liver. And so, for the sake of all that is holy, please don’t chase or combine liver with coffee or chocolate.

3. Hide the liver.

Like in a big pot of chili, or behind the TV stand, where you’ll never have to think about it again until a small rodent discovers it and eats it, makes a nest and has its babies and the whole family lives out the remainder of their rodent lives in that very spot and you won’t know they’re there until several weeks after their quiet passing when the smell becomes alarming enough that its location is undeniable and then when animal control has been called and the whole sordid mess is finally over you’ll collapse on your couch and think, “Well, gosh! Next time I think I’ll just eat the liver, probably.”

4. Rethink your whole attitude toward liver and the liver-eating experience.

Think about the cow that gave you its liver, and how thankful you are to receive the bounty of all those liver nutrients. Think about the beautiful, sacred cycle of sustenance of which we are a blessed part. You will open yourself to a whole new way of thinking about your food, about the circle of life, and about the meaning of gratitude. (Note: The liver will still taste exactly the same.)

5. Eat it really fast.

You know how in some video games you have to tap a button really fast to beat the boss or to run fast enough to jump that crevasse? Think about doing that, except with your jaw.

6. Cook the liver, chop it into bits, then freeze them to make liver pills.

You can then grab a couple of liver pills whenever you feel like choking on something. Just kidding! But really, make sure to swallow them properly, or they might lodge in your throat, leading to painful throat cramps and causing you to taste liver for up to three months.

7. Hold your nose while you chew.

Actually, this works great.

8. Buy desiccated liver.

Desiccated is a fancy way of saying “dried.” This is another easy, effective way of getting your liver in without ruining your afternoon. But please, no snorting.

Did you like this post? If so, please feel free to share it on social media, preferably with a cool hashtag like #liverhacking.

And/or do you have a liver-focused manuscript you need edited? If you do, that’s really strange, but I’ll probably work with you.

Please, Don’t Have an Opinion

But whereas it used to bother me that I was so open to persuasion, now I am perfectly happy to put up with what others might regard as the discomfort of uncertainty. —Mark Palmer, “In defence of having no opinion

There’s been some minor drama in the paleo space lately. I don’t feel like hashing through it all, but it’s involved mud slinging and character assassination and some other crap.

Anyway, the other day I was sitting there reading this long article about this mess, trying to sift through it all, trying to decide who gets my vote, and for what, in this whole thing.

And I did formulate a few pretty clear opinions about elements of what was happening in this mini-drama.

But the story, the bigger picture of it, wouldn’t quit. It was like some overriding internal force was trying to goad me to make up my mind about the whole thing somehow. To land on that larger, deeper idea, that grand cohesive opinion about all of it as it was being presented to me.

You maybe know that voice. The one that tells you you need to get harderbetterfasterstronger at making up your mind and telling the world what you think or this age of miracles is going to pass you by.

I was starting to get antsy.

Image: muppet.wikia.com

Then, a breath of sanity wafted in, and told me to f*** it.

And I threw my hands up in relief and remembered I’m not required to have an opinion about everything everyone writes about anyone everywhere.

Feeling that way too much is just plain disempowering, y’all.

A little later, I googled “not having an opinion.” Unsurprisingly, not having an opinion isn’t exactly SEO gold dust. There was no blast of clickbait—no “7 Mind-Blowing Ways To Not Have An Opinion,” no “You Won’t Believe How Unopinionated This Tea Partier Is!”

The article I quoted from up top was the 10th result on the first page, floating in a stagnant pool of dictionary entries, song lyrics, and Yahoo! Answers, um, confusions. The only other thing that jumped out on the first page of results (coming in at #8) was this: “Not Having an Opinion Gives You Better Judgment.”

Yes, not always having an opinion doesn’t just help keep you sane. Deciding to—or at least figuring out a way to—not always have an opinion is pretty much a skill that can improve your judgment. And it sure can save you some time and stress.

So what do you think about all of this? Don’t answer that.

The Hardest Work

I’m nearly done reading Robert Moss’s The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead. It’s about dreaming and death and imagination and some other far-out things, all mostly topics for another time.

You can read about Robert Moss on his website and Wikipedia page. He’s a fascinating guy who has more to say about dreaming than just about anyone I’ve come across.

Anyway, of the many parts of this book that have stuck with me, there’s one that’s grabbed me and even helped me shift my thinking a little bit about the things we choose to focus our energy on.

Throughout The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead, Moss talks a lot about his relationship with the poet W.B. Yeats. “Relationship,” because Moss claims to have had contact with Yeats through his dreams, and considers him a mentor from another realm.

Moss also talks about the idea of the “daimon,” a demigod or guardian/guiding spirit in Greek mythology—and in particular Yeats’ conception of the daimon, which was, as Moss explains, as a kind of creative energy, “a larger entity that does not permit the ordinary self to slumber when great things are afoot.”

Where am I going with this? In Yeats’ own words, from Per amica silentia lunae, an early book of his:

When I think of life as a struggle with the Daimon who would ever set us to the hardest work among those not impossible, I understand why there is a deep enmity between a man and his destiny, and why a man loves nothing but his destiny.

The hardest work among those not impossible.

Let that sink in a bit. Then hear what Moss has to say about this terrifying and wonderful notion. Some of what he talks about below might make a bit more sense in the context of the rest of the book—and I gladly recommend you read it—but…read on.

The following thoughts occurred to me as I reflected on this:

  • When we are passionately engaged in a creative venture—love, art, or something else that is really worthwhile—we draw support from other minds and other beings, seen and unseen.

  • According to the direction of our will and desire, and the depth of our work, those minds may include masters from other times and other beings.

  • We draw greater support the greater the challenges involved in our venture. Great spirits love great challenges.

  • Whether we are aware of it or not, all our life choices are witnessed by the larger self that Yeats called the daimon. The daimon lends or withholds its immense energy from our lives according to whether we choose the big agenda or the little one. The daimon is bored by our everyday vacillations and compromises and detests us when we choose against the grand passion and the Life Work, the soul’s purpose.

  • The daimon loves us best when we choose to attempt “the hardest thing among those not impossible.”

I find all this daimon business just terrifying enough—but still inspiring. Because, let’s face it, terrifying without inspiring is like, what—really bad decaf?

How would you proceed if you were assured of the existence of an energy like that? One with such a monumental stake in your choice of pursuits, creative and otherwise? One that wanted you to choose the big agenda?

I thought about going on about how you should choose the big agenda, how you should embrace the grand passion, and how you should tackle the hardest work among those not impossible. And I do think that, and I like to think that I am slowly getting better at it myself.

But I also know how hard it is, and I don’t want to disingenuously tell you to just effing do it, so I will mostly let Yeats’s and Moss’s words speak for themselves.

As for me, I’m off to start planning this great new idea I just had for a coffee shop.