Why is a Sexological Bodyworker blogging about Bruce Parry’s film Tawai; the Voice from the Forest?
‘Tawai: A voice from the Forest’ is a documentary film about people living lives very different from our own, the Penan tribe in Borneo. It is about how we are destroying our planet and making ourselves ill and unhappy, and destroying these last remaining tribal peoples’ way of life too. And it asks what lessons they might have to teach us. Could it call us to re-evaluate our own way of life?
It sounds like a tenuous link yet I spent much of the film having tearful ‘Ah ha’ moments and relating it to what I am practicing in Somatic Sex Education and Sexological Bodywork? Why?
Connection to nature
Ecosexuality is included in the Sexological Bodywork curriculum. (https://theecosexuals.ucsc.edu/). ‘Hippie Tree-huggers’ are the butt of many a dismissive joke, and to be honest I did not linger too long over this module. I have been outside at festivals and joined workshops where we tickled our palms with blades of grass, leant into trees, lets branches caress our bodies, let the elements connect with our naked skin. Others wrestle in the mud, go wild swimming and seek out sensational, sensory experiences in nature. Some love to have sex outside, and for many the delight in not being stumbled upon but contact with the elements.
A city dweller, living in concrete structures, surrounded by human-made materials and artificial lighting does not easily commune with nature. The closest thing we might have is…houseplants…our pets… or our own bodies. To conceive of our bodies as part of nature is pretty every-day and unremarkable, and also most profound and magical.
Are people drawn to have sensational and pleasurable experiences outside, sexual or not, attempting to recreate a time of more connection the Earth, possibly as children (if we were allowed) or a collective ancestral past, or evolutionary history?
Connection to ourselves and our bodies
The Penan, as hunter-gatherers, are deeply embodied; hunting and survival depends on this fine tuning, which they learn and inherit from their relatives and elders. Bruce asked a Penan man where this ‘Tawai/voice of the forest’ came from, whether it begins in the mind? He replied that the wisdom comes ‘first from the heart and then into the mind’.
Embodiment and Mind/Body connection are central principles in Sexological Bodywork and other somatic and erotic practices. Our body holds wisdom and that that starting to inhabit the body more results in enhanced health and wellbeing, and connection to our environment and to others.
Connection to each other
Bruce felt when he met them for the first time that there was something unique and different about them (and he has lived with a lot of indigenous tribes all over the world).
The anthropologists featured in the film (Jerome and Ingrid Lewis), experts in the study of egalitarian nomadic tribes, confirmed that the Penan people had a rare truly egalitarian society. There was no hierarchy; people could play different social roles (for example women and men) but they were not valued differently.
Sexological Bodyworkers are informed by the fields of human attachment and relational neuroscience and neurochemistry, which in turn seem to confirm much of what ancient shamanism, spirituality and healing arts have known for thousands of years. Paul Francis in his book ‘Therapeutic Shamanism’ reminds us of the amazing fact that 99% of our ancestors lived in a Shamanic way.
Our Sexological Bodywork teachers reminded us that it’s in our DNA to cooperate, love, calm each other down, regulate each other’s nervous systems in times of stress and distress. We learn how we can do this with our clients. This innate human ability is what we saw in the film.
Bruce observed that in our western world, there is competitive banter, ‘chippiness’ he called it. He saw none of this in this the Penan people. Footage showed an incredibly peaceful and harmonious atmosphere.
Due to the shame we hold about sex (and emotions), as a culture we do tend to drop into joking, humour, quips and innuendo, particularly in the worst manifestations of toxic masculinity. I wonder how different we would all feel about ourselves in the sexual realm of our lives, if the people around us used their natural abilities to make each other feel safe and respected, almost sacred?
A connection to our ‘tribe’
Bruce shared an anecdote from the tribe; a young man in the group started showing ‘Alpha male’ behaviours and showing off. The rest of the group applied negative reinforcement to prevent the development of this attitude. It was vital to them to preserve their tradition of sharing and equality for future generations. This called to my mind the egalitarian environment we are aiming to create in workshops, or in practice space, or within our wider conscious sexuality community.
It particularly made me reflect on the attitude we cultivate bodywork sessions and the way we treat sex and the body with reverence, respect and gentle mindfulness.
The Penan did not coerce their children, they requested that they follow the traditions of sharing and equality because they deeply wish for the future generations to continue with these values. This spoke to me of values around consent, boundaries and respect, which our practices are based on.
In Tawai, the Psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist shared some fascinating ideas about how the differences in the ways the left and right brain hemispheres process information influence how our societies and systems are constructed. We are a Left Brain dominant culture and have spread this all over the globe, including the ‘individual’ and selfish viewpoint this generates. Referring to these ‘lost’ ways of living in connection with the earth and each other, McGilchrist said ‘…we sort of threw it out and now we are surreptitiously bringing it back in again, because there might be some truth in it’.
The Penan had little concept of time, or today, or next week. They very much existed in the moment. Yet they were so deeply rooted to their ancestry and intensely cared about future generations also. This ‘timelessness’ is so different from our own shackling to ‘industrial time’ and to the constant pressure of busyness and achievement.
I am interested in this; a sense of timelessness can be part of the experience of ‘altered states’, including sexual, ecstatic and pleasure states. We might seek this experience as an antidote to modern life, but perhaps we are returning to something we can remember on a deeper level. I think there is something quite profound about awareness of the vastness of time, space and the universe and our place in it.
In the Q&A I was lucky enough to be present at, Bruce talked about Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro anatomist who was able to research the brain from the inside whilst she had a huge stroke which affected the left hemisphere of her brain. She had incredible experiences of perception of connection and ‘oneness’, which Bruce compared to his own experience of using Ayahuasca (Shamanic plant medicine). Her TED talk and book is here – https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight
The ‘spiritual’ in all of this
The film is described as a ‘dreamy, philosophical and sociological look at life and a quest for reconnection’.
Bruce’s 7 year journey making this film led him to explore Shamanic ideas held by the Penan and other indigenous societies, including beliefs about the interconnectedness of everything in our universe. ‘Tawai’ means the voice of the forest guiding their way of life, telling them how many animals to kill and how many trees to cut down. The trees are conscious, as in core Shamanism (there are many universal themes found in Shamanic cultures from all over the world; these are described as ‘core’).
In many traditions including Tantra, sex and pleasure are seen as sacred and about life energy and power: Sex gives us life. Sex can be seen as a way of connecting with ourselves and the energy of life and the universe. Many people have profound experiences in erotic trance states through the experience of pleasure and orgasm and connection with another body or energetic being.
Sexuality and gender in the Penan tribe – a question
I asked Bruce Parry via email what he observed about the Penan people’s concept of sex, sexuality and gender. I was curious about whether these deeply embodied people, so connected with their needs and the natural habitat, have strong connection and beliefs about sex? How do they have sex? Do they inherently have a deeply somatic experience of sexual arousal, pleasure, orgasm in the absence of porn and an education system’s take on sexual education and religious morality? Or are these just assumptions from the mind the product of a culture so incredibly different from the Penan.
Months later, I was happy to receive an answer from Bruce when he was on outreach duties in South East Asia. He told me that the Penan are serial monogamists with a tendency to change partners with little social stigma. There have been people with ‘same sex’ desire and had very little problem with this in the community. They do seem to have quite binary views of sex and gender but respect and encourage individuality, choice and people’s preferences without judgement or shame.
I would love to talk more with Bruce about this!
A confrontation to re-evaluate
The film asks more questions than it answered (a second film will be made; a call to action and possible solutions).
Tawai made me think of Sexological Bodywork (and the sex positive, conscious movement it has its home within) as a form of radical social resistance. It exists in the context and in response to a social and political world that is hostile to difference and to our bodies, emotions and needs.
Bruce asked us ‘Can these people, with lives so different to our own, help us to discover what we might have lost?’ It is an important question. I hope that it isn’t too late, and that as a human race we save ourselves in time. In the meantime, maybe we can be the change we wish to see in the world, starting with ourselves. Connect to ourselves, to each other, to the planet and create and be in community with others.
And see the film! It is released on April 30th 2018, or there are still some screenings around the UK. https://www.tawai.earth/screenings/
If you are curious about this practice of Somatic sex education, or Sexological Bodywork, and want to explore how it can change your life (and possibly your way of life, it has mine), get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
https://www.survivalinternational.org/donate if you feel moved to support the conservation of our natural world and tribes such as the Penan.
Thanks for reading,