Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. Other primates did very little of either but, increasingly, hominids did, and those behaviors helped set them on an evolutionary path that produced the modern world. The earliest and most basic definition of community—of tribe—would be the group of people that you would help feed and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.
— Sebastian Junger, from Tribe: On Becoming and Belonging
“Of the three phases of a rite of passage—severance, threshold and incorporation—the hardest to navigate, by far, is incorporation.”
This well-practiced line, which I say to most groups at the end of a School of Lost Borders program, is a wake-up call for the initiate. Having just survived the ordeal of a four-day solo—no company, no food, no four-walled shelter—they will now return to a world that, save for a few precious friends, won’t understand much of what they say about their experience.
“Smudging and sacred space . . . intention and vision . . . authentic storytelling and mirroring.”
Back in the world of jobs, 40-hour weeks, paychecks, and all the rest of urban/suburban survival, the initiate may feel as if the intoxicating world of a wilderness fast has soon become dream-like, perhaps even a touch “crazy”. The challenge of incorporation can be summarized in a few short questions—questions that may take a lifetime to answer.
- How do I embody the vision of life that was given to me during my fast?
- How do I re-enliven everyday life with that kind of sacred feeling?
- To whom do I tell my true, authentic life-story?
The last question might be rephrased: Where is my tribe?
Junger offers two contrasting inspirations for his book about tribe: a lifetime of conversations with his father about the complicated blessings of “civilization”; and an opposing view suggested by a friend who told him that, during colonial times, white captives often did not want to repatriate to white society. This set me pondering. So where is tribe in the lives of most people in modern society? Is it to be found in immediate family? A core group of friends? A church group? Or, for some does it simply not exist? As Junger writes, “A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”
Or, as Rumi says more poetically:
Sometimes I forget completely
What companionship is.
Unconscious and insane, I spill sad
How stark those lines read in contrast to what I have known out in the desert with many a wilderness group, beginning with my first four-day fast in Death Valley back in 1999. I entered that first fast with one overriding fear. Not snakes. Not being alone. Not the dark of night. Not even four days of fasting. It was people—“complete strangers” as Junger writes. By that time of my life, I already had done about a hundred solitary retreats in nature, so I knew just how cracked open I would be after the four-day solo. And in that state, I’m going to return to a circle of people?!
Turned out, that returning to this circle of people was the great revelation of that time fasting in Death Valley’s Hanupah Canyon. In that cracked open state, I learned, there’s no better place to go, no better group to receive you, than a circle of fellow fasters. Upon my return to the group, a feeling of belonging bubbled up to the brim of my soul and spilled over. At the time, I didn’t have words to describe that special feeling. Now I only need one word: tribe. It would be a long time, though, before I would attach this single word to that special feeling. Even without the word, I would spend those subsequent years trying to answer the question posed by this short essay: Where is my tribe?
Along the way, I’ve learned a few important lessons, beginning with my own definition of what constitutes tribe. Junger points the way with his “most basic definition of community—of tribe . . . a group of people that you would help feed and help defend.” My definition is slightly different: A tribe is a group of people with whom you would share both food and authentic stories.
If so, then how might you find and create tribe in your own life? I offer six stages for doing just that, each the next step beyond the one before.
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STEP 1: When doing a wilderness fast, include the people you trust most by telling them your intention before you go and your story from the mountain upon your return.
A Story from 1999: In the months prior to my first fast, the lead guide asked each participant to write a letter of intent; I chose to send mine not only to the guide, but also to a group of 8 or 9 friends. The essence of that intent: I want to let die my old way of doctoring, motivated by anger at injustice, so that a new way, inspired by love and compassion, can emerge. Weeks later I invited that inner circle to a birthday party, held a month before the fast, asking them each to bring a symbolic gift that would help me better understand my stated intent. Days after the party, I went to the Lost Coast of Northern California where I did a sunrise to sunset day walk, carrying and contemplating their gifts all day and then writing a thank-you letter that explained all that their gifts had taught me. After the fast, I met with each person one-on-one to tell them the story of what had happened during my fast in Death Valley.
As I said before, I had no words for what I was doing at the time. Now I do. I was bringing together my own rudimentary tribe to support me, through the fast and beyond.
Resources for Step 1:
- Your own address book. Creating a tribe begins with sharing sacred, authentic stories—and good food, of course! Call upon your most trusted friends in this way, before and after a wilderness fast.
STEP 2: Make the leaderless day walk your own personal practice.
A Story from 2000: Six months after my first wilderness fast, a dear friend of mine was preparing to leave on a year-long trip around the world. She had been one of two people who had done a vision fast in the year prior to mine, helping to inspire my own. Once again she offered inspiration, this time in a simpler form. “As a way of saying our goodbyes” she said, “let’s do a day walk together.”
Early on a Saturday morning, we arose at first light and drove silently to Limantour Beach, on the edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The carpark was empty, so we drew a large threshold circle in the gravel beside our car. Standing at the circle’s edge, we spoke aloud our intentions for the day, and then took turns smudging each other inside the circle. After an embrace, we went our separate ways. Late in the afternoon, we reconvened on the beach where we built a fire, shared a meal, and then told our stories from the day. Together we honored her great adventure to come, and my own considerable grief at her leaving.
The great lesson my globe-trotting friend taught me is that the day walk—a simple, yet powerful ceremony—can be created anytime in our lives. The natural world is always waiting. Our inner world is always waiting. All that’s needed is to make the time for the walk, and to call a circle for storytelling after. Over the ensuing years, I have continued doing day walks every few months as a way of both reconnecting with the natural world and staying current with my own inner-vision. Sometimes I have found a single friend to join me; other times I’ve gone out alone and later found a trusted friend to whom I told my story. I had spent decades before my first fast creating quality one-on-one friendships; since that fast I’ve been learning how to deepen those connections with this simple tribal practice.
Resources for Step 2:
- Day walk essay. All you need for a day walk is a free day, a natural setting, and at least one other friend with whom you can share stories. Use this essay to introduce the practice to an uninitiated friend.
- Packing list for a day walk. More support for a day walk novice.
Step3: Call a full circle together for a day walk.
A Story from 2001: That first experience of tribe in Death Valley was so captivating, that months later I assisted the same wilderness guide with her next group of fasters, and the following year I did the two-week guide training at the School of Lost Borders. In between, I began leading weekend day walks for groups of 6-10 people, calling in friends, and friends of those friends. From the beginning almost every program “filled”, even if I didn’t have a set goal of how many. The form was simple: reserve a campground within an hour of my home; feed people dinner Friday night; do an intention council after dinner; smudge people out early the next morning for a solo fast; feed them a “break-fast” mid-afternoon; and then hold a storytelling council that usually ended by 8:00. The form was simple, and the experiences were magical. I still didn’t have that word yet, but that feeling of tribe was coming alive in my life.
Resources for Step 3:
STEP 4: Start “a tribe” of your own—an on-going group that meets outside on a regular basis.
A Story from 2009: After six years of leading wilderness groups at the School of Lost Borders, I was hungering for a way to bring together a group that would support my own inner work as much as the others in the circle. I dreamt of an on-going leaderless group in which everyone would take turns organizing a particular program—be it for a day, a weekend or a whole week. I sensed that the start-up year would require a central organizer of logistics, which I was prepared to do, as long as that wasn’t expected beyond that year. I wrote up a description, just as I would for a regular School program, and sent it to a group of nine—each one a person who lived within an hour of my home and had done a wilderness program with me. Eight of the nine said an enthusiastic “yes”. That first year, we met for a full weekend every season, a day-long council with potluck lunch halfway between those weekends, and then a year-ending week in Death Valley that included a four-day fast. I did most of the logistical work that year, so the great transition came in the second year when the entire group began taking turns organizing each event thereafter.
The group is now in its seventh year. Not everyone comes to every gathering, but we all know each other’s stories so well, so intimately, that any version of our circle is a safe haven, a place for belonging. Somewhere along the way we even gave ourselves a name. Long before Junger’s book appeared we started calling ourselves “The Tribe.” A name had finally arrived to match the experience of belonging that I had been seeking—and this group had been creating.
Resources for Step 4:
- A friend or two to help organize a new group. The start-up year will take some major organizing, which can be done by one person, but even better would be to share this with one or two others.
- Guidelines for organizing a gathering. When we began sharing organizational duties at the start of the second year, I offered the group this template for what was needed to organize a gathering.
- School of Lost Borders address list. The School is creating a database to help link people in different geographic regions. Contact the School at firstname.lastname@example.org to get your name on a list to be contacted when this up and running.
STEP 5: Revitalize and/or reinvent your “tribe” as needed.
A Story from 2016: When our Tribe was nearing the end of its seventh year, a series of events made clear to us that we needed to reconsider who we were, and where we were going. One member of the group had moved to another state, attendance by a few others had waned, while still others were feeling a need for either a renewed commitment from individuals, or new members, or a new form altogether.
We held a day walk, with each person walking with these possibilities, followed by a council to explore what the new group story was to be. A talking piece went around for several hours – one person talking at a time, everyone else listening. What slowly emerged was recognition that all three possibilities—renewed commitment, new members, and a new form—might be needed.
Final decisions have yet to be made, pending our next gathering, but already a revitalization of our tribal connection has happened.
Resources for Step 5:
- Day walk with council: No better way to see whether an ongoing group is meant to expand, to take new shape, or (one day) to die.
STEP 6: Help in the seeding of new tribal groups.
Another Story from 2016: Back in 2013, a few years after our Tribe had started, I helped to start a new year-long program, my co-guide being one of the other members of the Tribe. In a pattern now-familiar, we two co-guides invited the group to continue on as a leaderless group after the first year was over. Only 3 of the 10 people were interested, but that was a fine number to begin creating a long-term group. Each of those three approached friends they knew from other wilderness programs, and a few people were referred on to them as well. Soon they had a new group of 10 people. Now, three years later, they’re still going strong, meeting for an entire weekend once a season. They’re doing so well that a number of other friends have asked how they might do something of the same. That became the inspiration for a move to create yet another longitudinal group – with a couple of that group’s members taking the lead (and me and others giving them the names of people who might be interested).
The form seems clear: A closed leaderless group of 8-10 people. All are familiar with the day walk and council. The group meets seasonally for a full day or a weekend. Each meeting has time alone on the land, followed by the sharing of food, and then authentic stories.
The form seems clear, and that form deeply serves.
Resources for Step 6:
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I close by saying again: A tribe is a group of people with whom you would share both food and authentic stories.
So I ask: Who are your people? And where is your tribe?
All Tribe Resources