Guilt Vs. Rewilding

Guilt refers to the feeling we have when we make decisions that go against personal, cultural and mythological pressures. It feels like not doing what you “should” do. It works as one of the most powerful tools of social and cultural renewal. I do not think of guilt as a “bad” thing. I see it as a tool we need to understand. Rewilding goes against all of our life-long civilized programming. Anything we do to rewild could make us feel guilty. Of course, the culture of rewilding creates a new paradigm in which continuing to live in civilization would make us feel guilty since we know that civilization kills biodiversity. In a sense, rewilding involves crossing a threshold into two worlds. This creates a split cultural psyche, leaving us with weird schizophrenic behaviors; feeling both guilty for leaving civilization and guilty for not having left enough.

It works like this. We learn that civilization destroys the planet, our senses and a million other things. We learn that indigenous peoples had their needs met. This gets most people thinking that all humans should abandon the un-working model of civilization and live sustainably like the indigenous peoples we read about. That we shoulnd’t just do this but that we have to or we will die! Though urgent and true, to think that we can merely abandon civilization by ourselves or in a small group and build a culture that has this awareness and sustainability ignores the context in which these cultures had the ability to meet these needs; through the needs of a hunter-gatherer culture. The culture of civilization, which we all live as captives to, makes it extremely difficult to live in a way where one could even have a shred of freedom.

In rewilding, these indigenous cultures represents the human potential; they remind us that life doesn’t have to feel like civilization. And yet, we can’t just throw on buckskin clothes and make a bow and arrow to live the way they did. They owned this space. Not with guns, but through relationships of respect. As long as civilization has a monopoly on violence and the ability to coerce its members, rewilding remains an uphill battle. Without a physical, cultural, social, emotion need for creating a rewilding culture, it exists only as something we can try to live up to. Yet we know that we must defy civilization to save the world. This leaves us with one foot shackled to civilization and one foot to gain footing in the wild.

Rewilding creates two opposing systems of perception in our heads and hearts. One that says we need to buy flat screen TV’s too see the quality of HDTV and one that says we need to sit in a forest for an hour a day to connect more with nature… and one of these systems kills the planet. We can’t simply reprogram our brains. Everyday the brain rewires itself. Every cultural element tells us what to think (or continue thinking). From the newspaper to your tv shows to eavesdropping a conversation on the bus to work, to simply looking at the buildings we have made. Our minds reflect our environment and visa versa. We can’t just read a book on rewilding and change how we see the world. We need to change everything about our world.

Guilt only works to make the journey from civilized to wild harder. My strongest experience with this schizophrenic guilt came from trying to replicate an indigenous cultural ritual known as the “sit spot.” I had trouble making this routine for two main reasons. While sitting in the woods gave hunter-gatherers skills and awareness essential to their survival, it does not relate to subsistence within a civilizational context; your secret spot does not give you an edge if you work in a coffee shop. Generally speaking, having a sit spot will not make you more money, the way it would yield better food results to hunter-gatherers.

As our civilization destroys more and more of the wild environment, we have seen our internal environments, those of the mind and heart, suffer as well. Some people may have trouble functioning psychologically and need a more natural setting to calm their minds. Unfortunately, seeking the wilderness seems to appear as a taboo and the vast majority of people, behaving the way the culture of civilization designed us to behave, choose an easier way to alleviate our minds with the use of drugs.

Therefore the indigenous practices like the sit spot become a ritual for the pure, which feels more difficult to choose than the available alternatives. It takes a kind of will power to go against the grain and choose the harder path to sanity, especially when sanity doesn’t show up on the list of requirements to work at a coffee shop. In fact, I would say that insanity looks like a requirement for us to continue to destroy the land in which we live off. If having a sit spot gives you more empathy towards the earth, which it did for me, it may in fact have the reverse effects of subsistence within civilization, where you have to shut off connection to nature to continue to function in it. In short, it may make you hate your job, hate your current life, which in turn would most likely make you lose money.

Because rewilding works against subsistence in a civilizational context, and it takes more effort to alleviate mental stress than to just simply take drugs (whether prozac, cigarettes, television, video games, etc) it will always fall in the religion of, “self help.” This means that during any kind of increase in level of stress, routines unnecessary to subsistence will get placed on the back burner. For example, if you need to work more hours at your job, that means less time rewilding. This shows us how trapped we become in civilization. This feeling of entrapment feels even worse when compounded with guilt.

The worst part of the “self help” category is not that we ditch the routine when we are faced with an increased level of stress, but the guilt one feels at “choosing the easy way out.” Although choosing the easy way out or picking the path of least resistance feels like a normal human response, we feel a kind of failure when we make this “choice.” Because we want awareness and the gifts that come with it, because of the mythology that surrounds this awareness & lifestyle; that it represents our birth right, that it reveals how the gods meant us to live, etc., when we follow our instincts that say, “follow the path of least resistance,” we feel a kind of guilt I imagine Christians must feel when they commit a sin.

This guilt made me hate the sit spot routine and rewilding in general. For several years the books, journals and field guides filling up a large bookshelf in the center of my room collected dust. I wanted the awareness and knowledge but I, like most people, had no rewilding cultural context for it. I blamed myself for following what civilization has programmed me to do. Every time I looked at the books I felt guilty. I had built a shrine of guilt in the center of my own room. “Why don’t I like rewilding anymore?” I would ask myself.

One day during a moment of clarity and transition in my life my sit spot journals and sold my entire field guide library to a local bookstore. It felt like taking a huge dump after being constipated for years; I felt a release and a great weight was lifted. When I arrived home on that clear winter evening, the sun was just beginning to set and the sky was a beautiful reddish-purple hue. I felt so light and happy that I actually wanted to go to my sit spot; the burden of becoming a super-indigenous-hyper-aware-human now gone. When I finished I looked again to the sky. At that moment a Red-Tailed Hawk gracefully and quietly snatched a pigeon out of the air, not 5 feet above my head. The Hawk landed in my neighbors yard and began to tear the pigeon to pieces. I watched in total awe. It think of it as natures gift to a guilt free heart.

I have always loved this quote by Joseph Campbell;

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are–if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

I would say the difference between suffering and torture appears thusly: that even when suffering you still have that refreshment Campbell speaks of to keep you going. In fact, sometimes that feeling of passion feels its strongest during the harder more difficult moments. But if you have no passion, the suffering becomes torture. Torture looks like suffering for the sake of suffering, without any of the “refreshment” that Campbell speaks of at all. I remember another quote in the same vain by Martin Prechtel who says;

“There are two kinds of suffering, one that creates beauty and one that creates more suffering.”

Guilt, in its context to rewilding, only creates more suffering by distracting people from the important things. Who cares if I watch Battlestar Galactica instead of gathering wapato? Obviously I don’t do that everyday, but everyone needs a break or two or three from “saving the world.” I do not believe in purity, and therefore feel no guilt at indulging in civilization every once and a while. Though I would like to add that addiction works differently than indulgence and needs a different kind of attention.

I still experience this schizophrenic guilt everyday. Right now, even as I type this, I feel guilty for not going outside. I didn’t just write this chapter for others, but mostly for myself. In fact, I’ve written this whole book to myself so I can remember and help myself. As long as we feel guilty for not having the tools or culture to break the shackle that holds us here, we only strengthen civilization’s resolve over us.

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12 Comments on “Guilt Vs. Rewilding”

  1. 3 suggestions:
    Release and Request.

    Release self-judgment that creates guilt, release the assumed self-control (self-civilization), and request guidance from wherever or whomever or whatever you feel called to ask.

    And yeah, I feel it, too, :/.

    Again, I’m curious as to the details of your vision of a rewilded future.

    From Mark Lakeman – let’s forget about “Saving the World” can we “Savor the World”?

    Is humankind and it’s creations natural?

    Can someone savor human creations and still be wild? Can someone savor a bird’s creation (a song) and still be wild?

    Also, thank you so much for publishing this blog, heh – it inspires fruitful thoughts within me, :1.

  2. Scout,

    Thank you for the much needed article. You offer great insights here. I especially feel the dangers of rewilding merely working as “self-help” while ignoring that rewilding takes changing our contexts in addition to our individual skill-sets, habits, ways of knowing, etc.

    keep kicking civilization’s ass!

  3. Matt,

    I think saying “how can we savor the world” misses the whole point of the saving the world ideology. It’s a nice play on words, so I give it points for that, but it also abandons what makes life worth living, at least for me, is a purpose beyond myself. “Savoring the world?” sounds narcissistic. It’s like saying, “Let’s forget about working to help the species we eat continue to stay alive and just really enjoy eating them.” It makes no sense. Don’t get me wrong, I like savoring the world. But I also would like to continue to do so. Perhaps a statement like, “Don’t forget to savor the world while saving it” sounds more complete and rounded and respectful to me.

    I do not believe humans inherently destroy the planet. The culture of civilization, however, does. Indigenous cultures savored the planet while giving back more than they took. Pretty ingenious those indigenous.


    Thanks for the props. I’m glad you liked it. I will keep (metaphorically for now) kicking civilization’s ass! Haha.

  4. God, Scout— This is so so good. It feels like an introduction to your entire body of work / book. It deals so powerfully, so clearly with one of the central themes of this time, and of so many people who know civilization is bad, and still live in it. One foot in, one foot on the land… And what you say above is hugely important. So often, the context of the culture of civ. tricks us into thinking that to live other-than-civilized is about our own lives, when it’s precisely about the context of “___relationships___ of respect”. You really nailed how it works here. Thank you.

  5. Thankyou for writing this. It is really helpful. Not believing in purity is also a good idea!

  6. Urban Scout,

    My yoga teacher says about meditation (which is essentially mindful breathing), “When your mind starts to wander, acknowledge the thought, then gently bring your focus back to your breath.”

    Your journal entry here is amazing. It was incredible to read because your entry puts into words all those deep down thoughts that are right near the core of who I am. These semi-subconcious thoughts are hard to recon with or take proper action with until they find some type of reference point outside of one’s self.

    My civilized life has crashed around me over the last two years. I don’t trust it anymore. I feel good today, but I spend about 10 days out of 20 planning the best way to commit suicide. I think fundamentally it’s because I have let civilization squash my passion to the point where I’m not even sure what my passion is or what passion even means.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I think you’ve said here what so many of us struggle with but could never have put into words.

  7. Hey grand article really got me thinking.

    >>Guilt only works to make the journey from civilized to wild harder.

    For me this is where guilt makes it’s ugly entrance.

    When I compare myself to the ideal of ‘wild’ I find I do not measure up, cannot measure up – all my ideals are based on something outside myself and therefore I can never claim those aspects as my own.

    I see my journey as going from ignorant me to knowing me, and I do not know what knowing me looks like so there is no comparison, or worse yet, competition…

    I want to live in accord with my own way, and in doing that I cannot feel guilt for as long as it is my own it has absolute integrity. In seeking my own way I can learn equally from the despondent eyes of the weary civilized factory worker and the proud stance of the native warrior, and so long as I make neither a standard I have nothing to live up to.

    I haven’t made any effort to go from one to the other, simply learned a valuable lesson, and opened a door for new ideas and new knowledges to wash over me, integrating them as I see fit.

  8. Hey Roxanne & Snowraven,
    I’m glad you liked this one!

    Hey Travis,
    I know how you feel! I’m glad I could put into words how so many of us feel. Thanks for the props, and good luck.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  9. It is easy enough to see that a civilization that damages its own atmosphere and poisons its food and water is self destructive and “crazy”. It is not as easy to see that the state of mind that makes these terrible mistakes possible is a state of suffering. We need to understand that global warming itself is a symptom of a mental illness so widespread it is considered normal.

    We are taught from an early age that our “self” is inside our heads when in fact each breath is an exchange of matter and energy between the self and the living world. What we urgently need is a new understanding of what it means to be human and our proper place in the larger system of the world.

    Thanks- you did a great job verbalizing things that I’ve been feeling as well.

    The best form of therapy for me has been gardening and permaculture. I live at the edge of an urban wetland forest system, and I try to blur the line between the forest, forest garden, vegetable garden and the city. It also solves the motivation problem: the garden is important to provide food and medicine for my family.

    I hope you enjoy your horticulture job- there is much to be learned even from domesticated plants.