Ever since returning from the Further Future gathering out in the desert I have been experiencing symptoms that a psychiatrist pointed out most closely resemble PTSD. Night sweats, fear of being alone, nightmares of floods, constant base thumping in my brain, etc. Sure, the unexpected rain, lack of AC, poor bathroom facilities and constant threat of lightning strikes added drama to the weekend, but were they really war like trauma?
Sebastian Junger in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging has an interesting new theory about the true causes of PTSD. Junger notes that while less than 10% of US troops deployed to Iraq of Afghanistan faced actual combat, over 60% of them are approved for PTSD claims. Since the vast majority of diagnosed PTSD sufferers did not actually experience any direct war based trauma, there must be something else going on. Junger posits that the primary trauma which causes the disorder may not be from any physical trauma, but rather from the psychological trauma of leaving a supportive tribal environment and being placed back into America’s go it alone independent competitive culture. The trauma may be more a loss of community and confidence that comes from being in the military tribe, facing adversity but knowing there are people who have your back. The small group tribal community living has been the natural state of man for millions of years until very recently. When the natural state is experienced, even under duress like in war or at Further Future, then you are pulled out of that natural state and put back into individualistic capitalist America in a minivan by yourself sitting in the Starbucks drive through, the trauma can be significant.
I am feeling some of that loss after Further Future. The event was my first big gathering like that, I am not a regular at Burning Man, Cochella, yoga retreats or any other group events. I did attend as part of a tribe i have been loosely associated with for about 20 years who have a regular Burning Man camp and do a number of other events together each year. My girlfriend Jen (below) also was a first time tribal participant.
There was really something different about the culture in that place for that weekend that is glaringly polar opposite of “normal” life. It makes one wonder, why is “normal life” so great then? A couple of experiences stand out as striking.
- Talking to strangers was 10x easier. How many times do you strike up a conversation in the coffee line? It happened every time at FF. Many times the conversation started over a crazy outfit like this one:
- Adversity brought everyone together, created memories. On Saturday as the clouds gathered and they evacuated the aluminum structures for lightning strike fears, Jen and I were laying in a couch pod waiting for our IVs with two other people we didn’t know. Guys from the Mid East in robes talking about missing their Ferrari and needing a cigarette. Rather than evacuating back to the Airstream, we decided to ride out the storm with our new friends. Suddenly a blue tarp appeared and covered our little pod. Then as the rain started in earnest the IV guy joined us on our little couch arc. As the wind whipped up, we all held down a piece of the tarp to keep out the rain and started telling each other stories of our childhood to pass the time. Looking out the water was running by inches deep. It felt like our couch would float away. As the rain subsided, the IV guy stepped out into the mud, whipped off the IV bags and got us hooked up. We chatted all along with our new-found friends. While avoiding the adversity would have been easy, it would not have created a bonding experience with out fellow travelers, nor provided an improved feeling of community, common cause. It would have been an opportunity missed. Shared adversity gotten through with help from the tribe produces significant positive affect in life. Individual adversity endured alone (the default “normal” life experience) does exactly the opposite.
- Sound can unite us. While there was 24/7 sound walls all around at FF, a couple of experiences really stood out for me in their ability to create massive shared positive affect for everyone there. Friday night, Jen and I were wandering around and stumbled (literally) into the Envelop satellite sound stage. Standing in the middle, the waves of sound hit just the right frequency to cause waves of happiness and love to flow through our bodies. We stood there hugging and slow dancing for over an hour, completely lost in time and space. On Saturday night, the Pharcyde set was truly transcendent. There is really something to sound that can align (for better or worse) the body’s energy and unlock levels of consciousness and experience that are unavailable in “normal life”.
As I make my way through “normal life” back in Seattle, it is clear that there is some feeling of cultural loss when separated from the tribal community. I certainly know plenty of people who spend more time cultivating their tribe and tribal experiences than I do, and now I know why.
In Tribe, Junger also noted how in early colonial America many settlers were leaving the Puritanical western culture to go live with the Indians. Even prisoners who had been captured by the Indians and lived with them for some, when “saved” and returned to Puritan New England, tended to want to go back to the Indians. The Indian tribe was a communal meritocracy where every member had the ability to contribute in their unique way and the rest of the tribe had their back. While the Puritans believed their form of society was the “ultimate society” at the time (we now know very different), the pull to return to the tribe was undeniable and strong enough to make it a leading issue of public debate at the time. There is virtually no history of mental health problems in traditional tribal cultures. Everyone has a place and a value, or they move to a tribe where they fit. Further Future, Burning Man, there are opportunities to return to the tribe today. And loss of tribe is causing much of today’s mental health crisis. The way forward is going to be interesting.