• Joe Lightfoot

16. Tawai: Modernities Missing Secret Sauce

For hundreds of thousands of years our species evolved to live in the wilderness, wandering the land with a close tribe of highly proficient humans around us at all times. In todays world, we find ourselves living out comparatively sedentary and isolated lifestyles, with the bulk of our time spent inside wholly artificial environments. If you add in a few thousand years of civilisation induced epigenetic trauma, as well as the inherent stress of trying to staying afloat in our fast paced capitalistic culture, then it’s no wonder that so many of us can struggle to feel truly at ease in the 21st Century.


And yet a few pioneers from modern society appear to be actively rediscovering their inner sense of contentment by living in close communal kinship with people they hold dear. Bruce Parry is one such individual. After leaving the British Royal Marines to explore remote parts of the world, Bruce filmed an award winning documentary series called Tribe. Over a period of three years he lived with over fifteen different tribal societies, learning their customs, experiencing their initiations and deeply immersing himself in their way of life. However, it wasn’t until the very last episode of the series, when he encountered the Penan people of Malaysia, that he seemed to have his worldview truly turned upside down.

As Bruce describes it, ‘time spent with the Penan inspired me to realise that radically different ways of living together are not only possible, but might even be the best way for us to collectively flourish. Perhaps what we need is a new set of values, embedded in a different kind of story. An upgrade, perhaps, away from the belief that champions our individual pursuit of happiness and freedom as an inalienable right, toward one that sees us intrinsically linked to something larger than ourselves, and to which we should also feel a responsibility. Individual, but also a part of the whole.’32


In his search for what makes us human Bruce appears to have stumbled upon a kind of missing ingredient in our 21st Century way of life, what the Penan call Tawai. They describe it as an inner feeling of belonging that is like being held by the forest, a sense of deep and meaningful connection to one another and the natural world around them. And after experiencing a sense of Tawai himself, Bruce appears to have undergone a kind of metamorphosis and now acts as a kind of pathfinder for how we might be able to cultivate something akin to what the Penan experience, but in a modern day context.


His story symbolises the archetypal adventure of our modern age, a journey away from the precipice of alienation, and towards a state of being that will allow us to reconnect with each other and then collectively step into a whole new narrative together. His work shines a light on which ingredients are necessary for us to experience the kind enduring communal satisfaction that many tribal peoples still enjoy with one another. And like most secret sauces, the recipe is surprisingly simple:

  1. A Sense Of Connection - Having regular interaction with a distinct group of people with whom we share the same values.

  2. A Sense Of Belonging - Feeling seen, understood, accepted and celebrated for the many aspects that make us who we are.

  3. A Sense Of Contribution - First identifying, and then offering up our unique gifts to our community, and feeling valued and appreciated for this.

  4. A Sense Of Purpose - Feeling as if the interactions we share with our fellow community members are having a positive impact upon wider society.

Once you combine these elements together you begin the process of cultivating your very own human micro culture. So let’s take a look now at what such life sized communal Petri dishes can empower us to achieve.


Next - The Ultimate Petri Dish: Create Your Own Culture

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2021 Joe Lightfoot

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