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What does it mean to be Human?

To be honest, I am just feeling this question right now. I don’t know where it’s going to take me. I don’t have any lessons for you planned out here. If you read my other posts I am sure you know I usually talk a lot about movement because… well, that is what I do. But here, maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Movement is just a part of the picture for me. So I am just going to start writing now. And, if you are reading this, thanks for going a ride with me. Hope you get something good out of it.

This question obviously does not have a single answer, and in my opinion, there isn’t an easy one either. Maybe not even a plausible one. But let’s start by giving some context to the question before we dive in. Why is it important? 

It has been a question that has been postulated in so many variations, possibly most famously as, “Who am I?”. This question might arise for a variety of reasons. Potentially simple curiosity. Or maybe a sense of inadequacy. Or maybe in a way that could lead one to transcend their current identity or even reality. Let’s assume the latter is the case as we explore further. Because when one is able to transform or transcend (maybe you prefer words like “reframe” or “redefine” ) their identity they have an opportunity to change their mental and emotional states affecting the way they feel, and in turn their behavior, and finally how they engage with themselves and the world. And that’s what gets me excited.

For clarity, the reason I am choosing to ask “What does it mean to be human?” rather than,  “Who am I?” is because I believe the former to be more implicit in referring to the collective rather than the individual.  They both might lead to the same place in the end… but for now, I felt it served more directly looking at who and what we are doing here together.

So, again, what makes us human? On a biological level “being human” is simply defined as a bipedal primate mammal. We could go further and say a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.

But that doesn’t really begin to satisfactory in what it truly means to to be human does it? At least the second part of the definition begins to talk about our “superior mental development” and “power to articulate speech”. That begins to bring a little more into something that could be considered to be remotely adequate in helping us understand what we are. But to be honest, I believe that definition is arrogant as well as ignorant. 

For what are we “superior to” exactly? Dolphins send telepathic images to one and other miles apart under water. They eat sushi, play and make love all day. I even heard they pass around a blowfish to alter their state of consciousness. Sounds like they have things pretty dialed to me. Trees, as well as mycelium networks (which btw often times are found working beautifully together in a symbiotic relationship), can communicate messages from one part of the country all the way across to the other, instantly. Bees work together as a team and make honey. I don’t know humans who can do any of that cool shit (Ok, not totally true. It has been said that the Aboriginal Australians can send images to one and other telepathically part of process they call Dreamtime). 

But, it is systemic thought processes like these that can at first appear subtle and then become blatantly more obvious upon deeper inspection, showing that we have, again, begun to separate ourselves from the rest of life. We have removed ourselves from what we evolved from, what we are still very much a part of. It has created an illusion of being better than, but that same illusion has alienated us from the natural world, from ourselves, and I would even dare to say, life itself. 

And the power to articulate speech? I suppose that in order to point out the flaw I see in this logic we might as well define “speech” first. Speech, as defined in the dictionary, is the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds. My dog does that too. As does the wind, as does a river, as does the sound of the forest. Is not possible that these things might not be expressing thoughts and feelings as well? Many of our ancestors thought so. The wisdom of many indigenous peoples today might also say so. This begs another question that might get us closer to understanding exactly what and who we are.

Where did we come from? I’m actually going to speed through this one. Many have answered this question much better than I intend to here. If its interesting for you, I highly recommend you start by reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s enlightening just as it is utterly fascinating.

Also, while I might appear to be bleak for a moment, I promise I have the intent of finishing with a hopeful outlook and celebrating the beauty that I believe we as humans are, have been, are in the process of becoming (spoiler alert, sorry). So please, stay with me if you can. 

We live in a time where we as individuals and as a culture seem to be utterly lost on so many levels. So many I couldn’t even begin to make a splash in the ocean of our lostness (I hope you see the humor through the words. Not saying it’s not true because I believe it most certainly is, but that to me, makes it more important to be able laugh, otherwise how would we cope?). 

In many ways I see us like orphans trying our best, but lacking good parenting non the less. Aside from the very few tribal peoples left on this planet most of have very little relation to the way our ancestors once lived and perceived the world in comparison with the way we live today. Most of us don’t even know our own histories or where we came from, the story that even allowed us to be here and now to even be asking the very questions we are here. To me, it gets even sadder though. Most people aren’t even interested in the rich history from which we originated and the lessons that are there to teach us. Many people are even grateful that they live nothing like that from which they came or represent a life living “close to the land”. 

Our brains, our bodies, and the way we relate to one and other at this current point in time all stems from a single source. And no, I’m not talking about God, or Spirit, the Cosmos, or Mother Nature. Shit, I really wish I was. I am talking about Capitalism. We have become consumed by consumption itself. And it doesn’t look like there is a way out. Try. Ignore money and paying the bills. Try being free of it. It ironically leads you to anywhere but free, usually hungry, homeless, or jailed. Screw your romantic fantasy if you had one. You cannot just go live off the land, hunt your food and build a shelter. You would be considered a fugitive. No, you need to own or rent that land and you need to own a license to hunt. By the way, I am not an anarchist trying to “tear down the system” here. I don’t want to argue that regulation isn’t necessary as I believe that it truly is. 

I am also not trying to complain. There are amazing privileges in the world we live in today. So many amazing things that have come from capitalism that I love and make my life amazing! Fuck, I am a successful entrepreneur that works from home, freely shares my ideas with and about the world (often in my underwear), has access at his fingertips to as much knowledge as I can digest, and yeah, I’m have a Netlfix account and I am an Amazon Prime member who loves me some “Free 2 day shipping”. Life is good in so many ways. (And while I love these thing in many ways all the above comes at a cost, but thats another blog for another time)

My point is simply this. We have lost the essence and the power of what our ancestor’s once had. The culture that we live in shares attitudes, values, goals, and practices that puts money above all else. Money. Not life. Not our rivers, oceans, lakes, streams, forests, jungles, none of it. Not natural resources that sustain life as we know it. Sure, there are people and organizations that care about those things within capitalism, but they are not central or governing principles. Big difference. 

I try and look through more than one frame when I am doing my philosophizing here. But from the perspective of a Movement and Life Coach it’s hard not to miss that we are ruining our the earth along with our bodies through the capitalist culture that we are inextricably a part of. Because, mic drop, they are one thing. While we are inextricably linked culturally to capitalism we are inextricably linked biologically to our ecosystem, to life itself. (If you would like to read an amazing book about what it might look like if we got our shit together and created a culture and economy that honors our relationship to the earth I recommend Starhawk’s cult classic The Fifth Sacred Thing. If you would like to read an amazing book speaking towards the connection of our body’s health and that of the planet read anything by Frank Forenrich)

Ignoring this hard truth for some, beautiful truth for others, has us paying the price. Our health and overall well being isn’t doing so well. A huge percentage of the population is depressed. A huge percentage of the population is heavily medicated for one reason or another. Experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience severe back pain at some time in their lives. Suicide rates are going up. If you are reading this you have about a one in three chance of getting cancer. So while sure, things are really good in a lot of ways, they could be a lot better. Chances are really good that you, someone you care about, or both have experienced some (if not more) of the things I have just mentioned and are potentially negatively affecting your life right now.

What is it that makes us human? What do we need to feel whole and complete? What do we need to feel true undeniable peace in our hearts? I believe asking ourselves these questions can help each of us on the path to finding the beauty in ourselves and one and other. Help us find humanity if you will. See I told you I would come back to hope.

So back to our question. We have forgotten what it means to be human. And it is not only hurting us, it is also hurting our planet. It is my hope and my belief that not just in asking the question, but by living into the question, we might very well have a better understanding in how we would each like to experience this precious time we have been given here on earth, and even more, use that precious time to honor this life and contribute to making it better for all that we share it with both now and into the future. I know that’s a high order, but I also KNOW that you want the same thing. That the feeling inside my heart is also in yours. I know that the yearning to be of service and make life more beautiful, is in fact, part of what actually makes us human. 

So does music and song, story and dance, family and tribe. Laughter, compassion, joy, adventure, curiosity, sorrow, imagination, anger, fear, frustration, war and fighting, contemplation, ritual, cooking, making art and making love, and so much more… makes us what we call being human. And maybe we can talk about those things in more detail at another time. In fact, I’d like that very much. This is a question that I will certainly keep coming back to, especially in relation to how we move and how our bodies are being shaped by the question itself. 

For now, there’s another powerful question worth asking, “Where are we going?” Sometimes this question scares me and sometimes it excites me. Of course I have my speculations, but I have no idea. We never do. But I truly believe that answer is contingent upon how we define ourselves and what we believe it means to be human.

Written by James Mauk