Bruce Parry in conversation with David Peters.
Bruce Parry is an award-winning documentary maker, indigenous rights advocate, author, explorer and trek leader. In his films and TV programmes he participates fully in the life and rituals of remote communities, reflecting as he does so on the diversity and beauty of being human.
David: Bruce, thanks for talking to us. We’ve seen your work and your travels on the television. I am interested to hear what draws you into the back-country, into the physical and symbolic parts that our civilisation normally doesn’t get to and doesn’t easily comprehend.
Bruce: You’re talking about the deeper, philosophical kind of backcountry. Is that what you mean?
David: Yeah, that’s what Gary Snyder calls the back-country: the wilder reaches of the human soul.
Bruce: The inner wilderness. Yeah, that’s the real adventure. I call myself an explorer though the term has negative connotations, but I don’t know another one that depicts what I do. Obviously, I’m known for exploring the outer geographical realms. But I’ve also gained so much from the opportunity to look inside. And, of course in some ways, that’s the much harder journey and often it’s a scarier one. I was drawn there because I was invited by some of the tribal groups I’ve lived with. Although it wasn’t a place I would naturally have looked for. I remember as a child my upbringing was ‘don’t go inside, because that’s dangerous…just keep moving’. But when you spend time with tribal people you may be invited to do something like an initiation whose whole point is to go inside and look at who you are. Most memorably and clearly have been the times when I’ve imbibed their plant medicines. This could get especially frightening in the build-up, because I was stepping into the unknown to take a deep, long look in the mirror. Thankfully these guided experiences, though scary, have always been profoundly positive.
David: I imagine you just had to do what a man has to do in those circumstances! But what first drew you into going adventuring? Were you looking to heal something in yourself by journeying into the outer wilds and finding lost tribes?
Bruce: Probably quite the opposite! I was very much a product of a society where that reflective element has gone missing. I went to a very Christian boarding school, joined the Royal Marines…. I was a pretty embedded member of society. The whole idea of personal journeys and looking at self and spirit wasn’t on my agenda at all. In fact, I was on an ego drive to show myself to the world, and to be seen as being someone. So my initial journeys were just to go out and prove myself to the world. I guess like so many people today, I was desperately trying to find my identity within the wider group. I joined the Marines because I thought, if I can become a commando in the Marines then I’ll have become something. I think that most of us have the same drive, that’s why we join clubs or become goths or punks or whatever and fit in. Mine happened to be the Marines. I also wanted to prove myself physically. And in fact, my early expeditions were less about looking inside and probably more about avoiding it. As long as I was being stimulated by a new horizon I didn’t have to sit with myself and feel what was going on inside. I was very friendly but I definitely wasn’t comfortable sitting still. So my journeys were a symptom of that restlessness and wanting to prove myself. I had a lot of internal angst churning away.
David: A lot of the great mountaineers and explorers who survived the traumatic experience of the First World War found they couldn’t sit still. They had to keep moving. They thought they were hunting, but actually, they were being hunted by their past. And, of course, if you spend all your life with the accelerator pedal down, eventually you freeze and collapse. You burn out unless you can find a way to recover in your cave.
Bruce: Yeah, well, what a blessing for me that it happened. I have the indigenous people to thank for that. And luckily I managed to fall in love with people who had very different world views and different values from the ones I was holding onto. One girlfriend persuaded me to take magic mushrooms. It was a horrendous experience, but it basically broke me out of my old way of seeing the world. This was a big moment in my life though I’ve not talked about it much, because these things are illegal in our society and these substances are banned, because we don’t know what we are doing with them. Of course, that said, I’ve been seen on TV with tribal groups who use similar substances in a safe environment, where generations and generations of people do know what they are doing. Whereas, when we burned our shamans and witches at the stake we lost our traditional healers and the old knowledge of substances used for helping to heal the psyche. Small wonder that young, curious people may get it very wrong and have all sorts of problems when their exploring is not done respectfully in safe ritual settings.
David: How can we develop rights of passage for our young people, and help elders walk well into the next world, without the need to be psychedelically boosted on their journey? We need ceremony that reconnects us with the other-than human world to help our troubled species take this necessary evolutionary step. Bruce, I sense you now approach the natural world with a new respect and openness. What could you say about nature reconnection and the re-enchantment our culture needs?
Bruce: Re-enchantment is a beautiful idea. My connecting to nature has been slow. I started out seeing myself as a separate being and only gradually began to realise I am part of a wider eco-system and part of a wider society. And also part of a wider non-material consciousness that connects us. If I’d been told that about myself 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I was talking about. So how have those changes come about? The beginning of the journey was to go inside and to have experiences of empathy and connection to other people. It started with close people and then expanded out to include the natural living world (some of this other-than human world is quite human-like too) and then beyond into a more ethereal sense of the oneness realm. Though many different moments have moved me on, especially when living with tribal groups, at first I was quick to dismiss them as tripped out tribal ceremonies that didn’t mean anything. In our part of the planet, we have grown up with worldview mark one: separateness. But even having realised over time that it wasn’t working for me, it still felt naïve just to dive into another worldview without fully exploring the evidence. I didn’t have a language that could make sense of them until I could also see these experiences through the prism of science. Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist, who features in the film I’ve just made, describes these things incredibly clearly and he has a clinically grounded explanation for some of the experiences I’ve had. I really needed to be held by something I understood before I could accept these experiences more fully. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel enough to assume that the mind is just a manifestation of the material brain and that the impact of the ceremonies I did with the tribes was only dreaming and exploring my subconscious. I also needed an alternate world-view in which consciousness was something more universal; something we tune into like TV sets. I think having this sense of tapping into something beyond myself, and of everything being conscious, gives me a sense of aliveness. I’ve had the experiences of non-separateness and I’ve had the explanations. So here are two competing world-views and I can choose which of them to use because they both make sense. For me, choosing where I put my meaning and my belief has been a big part of the journey. In the more recent worldview, everything is conscious and awake and alert and alive and responsive. The value system that arises from this way of looking at the world means I have to check myself and see myself as part of a wider, living organism in which my actions have many repercussions. This other world-view has so much more depth and richness and puts a greater responsibility on us to be truly human.
David: We need to find a radically different way of understanding what we are and what the world is. This illusion of separateness is something the western mind created in the last few hundred years. But the alternative view isn’t at odds with Christianity. Think about the early Celtic Christians and their beautiful Book of Kells whose swirling interlacing knots speak of a flow between the human and the non-human worlds. I think you are right about an emerging world-view that is ‘spiritual’ but not metaphorical, based as it is in the complex beauty of matter and the awe that science can inspire. It will push us towards a different way of life and we need it to.
Bruce: I am really interested in story and the stories we tell each other. I’ve learned a subtly different story from indigenous peoples. The film I’ve just made tries to show that our real ancestral past was peaceful and egalitarian. It’s a different way of seeing ourselves and why we are carrying so much trauma. Bringing back the story of this other way has been a big part of my journey. A lot of the way I used to behave was due to my carrying around stored up somatic pockets of trauma. Ayahuasca helped me notice ways of re-channelling those pathways to allow for others that aren’t activated by those same old triggers. This feels like a very powerful release.
David: The indigenous view might be that our separation from the world and our separation from the ancestors, and our separation from our own life story, are all false separations; and that all these separations stop something that needs to flow, from flowing.
Bruce: That’s a poetic and beautiful way of putting it. I’ve noticed in myself that a harmonious way of flowing through the world often gets interrupted by something blocked inside of me. Strangely I only notice the pain this blockage caused once I have let it go. Once released, I feel completely different as a human being. I realise just how much these blocks are affecting my behaviour in a negative, reactive or defensive way. In one experience of being born, I felt this huge bundle of electricity behind my belly button and this constriction around my neck. Then I remembered a nightmare I had when I was very young, of regurgitating eggs, and not being able to swallow or breathe. I described it to my mother at the time but she couldn’t explain it. When I saw her after this extraordinary experience of being born again, she told me for the first time that the umbilical cord had been caught round my neck and to deal with this life-threatening emergency they had to cut it. After I let go of the bundle of energy behind my belly button I realised how defensive I had been and how my fear of coming into the world had stifled my empathy. I felt like a completely different human being. After having many moments like this it has become very clear to me that stored and locked memories affect my behaviour. I can’t help but want to share this story. I really understand why some people become evangelists for these medicines because they are tools we don’t have in our medical chest in the same way that tribal people do. I am much more in harmony with myself and with what is around me now than when I joined the Marines. I put this down to the extraordinary healing experiences given to me through indigenous wisdom traditions and medicines outside of our western medical chest. I share this story with people because we are missing some mind-tools that our culture desperately needs. One of the reasons we don’t feel connected to nature is because to feel connected we have to be embodied; we have to be in our senses and able to be still enough to feel empathy with what’s inside and around. But before I could do that, I had to process some of my on-board trauma. To stop and be with the pressure cooker inside of me was difficult even when I was held well in a ritual setting. So if it was that hard for me, imagine how much harder it would be for someone who’d been abused as a child. It’s very hard to go on that journey and lift that lid, but in a controlled loving environment with practitioners who understand what they are doing it is possible. The story I’m bringing back is that we can be healed; that beneath these layers of pain and conditioning and difficulty we all carry there is something incredibly beautiful. My feeling is that for most of its time on the planet humans have lived in harmony with each another and with the environment. If we look at what’s happening in the world (and a lot of it is very good) and inside ourselves and all we see is anger and pain and warfare then it would be easy to think that this is just the way humans are. But it’s not. I have lived with tribes who see violence as a form of mental illness. Some of the most peaceful people are still living out there in huge numbers across the world. And that’s our past. So what I would like to bring home from the backcountry is the story of what’s possible: that beneath those layers of trauma and conditioning that keep us from being all that we could be, there is something beautiful. And that’s what makes it worthwhile to go on our own unique healing journey. But if we don’t believe that, if we carry on with the narrative that there’s only bad stuff inside, and there’s no point in going there, then no-one is going to take the vitally important healing journey that will shape the future of humankind. My film about the Panan tells of these peaceful people, who I think may be a reflection of our earliest time on Earth, as well as an image of our potential. These extraordinary beings live without leaders in a society where everyone gets on. But unless we tell the story of this possibility, how are we to discover that humans aren’t inherently bad and aggressive?
David: I think it’s a good place to conclude Bruce. We need a new story about the original blessing rather than original sin. Well my friend, I look forward to working with you. Thank you so much for your time