In 2000, IONS acquired 200 acres of rural land
for its offices and retreat center. Since then, the Institute has
been collaborating with the Permaculture Institute of Northern California
(PINC) in a volunteer effort to restore portions of the land degraded
by human activity. Last year, tracker and naturalist Jon Young was
invited to the IONS campus to give public presentations on cultivating
awareness of the natural world around us. Jon, who helped found
the Wilderness Awareness School and the Institute of Nature Awareness,
mentors both adults and children in traditional ways of nature perception.
The following article on Jon's unique mentoring philosophy and practice
was drawn from an interview with him as part of the IONS Research
Department's Transformation Project
Tobias Bodine: Jon, what do you do as a mentor to invoke transformation
in your students?
Jon Young: I work with people by using the art of integral tracking,
which really is just using the senses and attuning them to patterns
in nature. This process causes specific and significant impacts
on how they view the world. When students begin the journey of tracking
and awareness, they slowly become more sensitive. Studying the language
of birds, for example, helps them open up to the reality that when
a fox moves in the forest it causes a response in the sparrow. They
realize, "I can actually see the fox through the sparrow."
They're getting direct feedback, and soon they can actually feel
the mood of the environment in their bodies.
My goal is to help cultivate a more sensitive state of being, so
that people make more community-oriented and holistic choices. When
they start to read the language of the Earth with the body, mind,
and other aspects of perception, then I see them shifting their
worldview. They start to see themselves as part of a bigger picture;
they redefine the choices they're making based on larger contexts
and the impact they might have on others. Most realize that they--like
the fox--make waves in the environment. This causes them to ask
the question,"How do I not make such big waves?" I look
at this as a rebirthing of the indigenous or community mind.
TB: What was the path to the practices
you do now?
JY: Like a lot of little kids in
my neighborhood in 1971, I spent a lot of time outside. I'd go fishing,
catch frogs - that kind of thing. I was similar to other suburban
kids and was moving towards more involvement in sports when I happened
to meet a person on a street corner who changed the direction of
my life. He was a tracker who himself had been specially mentored
for eleven years in his early boyhood by an elder Apache tracker.
He began to cultivate awareness in me through a series of practices
that I now call "core routines." One of them was adopting
a particular spot to sit in and explore every day (see sidebar on
page 26). In my case, it was a small clearing on a hill in a forest
with an old ash tree bending towards the west. I used to sit with
my back to that tree for an hour or two at a time, sometimes tending
a little campfire or working on crafts, and then I would go home.
That doesn't seem like much of a practice, but what brought it to
life was that around dinnertime I would often get a phone call from
my mentor. He'd ask me three bands of questions that were designed
to pull me past my edge of awareness. The first questions would
awaken what I knew and felt solidly. The second set brought me to
an edge where I was guessing or hypothesizing about what my observations
and memories were. And the third set of questions would always take
me beyond that edge.
From my earliest visits to my secret spot, I'd come home and he'd
call me up and ask me what I did there. "Well, I leaned against
He'd ask, "Your tree...what kind is it?" I would think
about it and say, "A big tree." That was really all I
was capable of; but I was confident that it was a big tree.
"Is it a pine tree, or does it have leaves that fall off?"
"Um, it has leaves that fall off. "He'd continue, "What
kind of tree would that be?" "I'm not really sure."
In my mind, I'd picture that tree as hard as I could to be sure
I was remembering correctly. This is an important frontier for developing
knowledge and skill--this phase of guessing from experience. That
is the edge of knowledge that naturally inspires research.
He'd go on: "Is it an oak, or is it a maple, or something
else?" "I don't know." So that question brought me
past my edge. Then he said, "See if you can find out for me
what kind of tree it is. I'm really interested." I figured
it out the best way I knew how, and told him the next time that
it was an ash tree. He'd then ask, "What kind of ash tree?..."And
the cycle began all over again.
Little by little, through that questioning, he evolved me. My exploration
of nature, and his commitment to question and monitor me caused
my perceptions to grow. Over seven years my world expanded through
a variety of awareness and other related practices, until I had
developed an "indigenous" perception in a modern body.
Through a series of guided practices that include this "art
of questioning," these same techniques can be used to pull
people out of their self-absorbed mind and into their senses so
that they develop a more meaningful relationship with their environments.
This is pretty much a basic indigenous practice that you find worldwide
in cultures highly successful at tracking.
I was about nineteen when the first development stakes were put
into the ground near my secret spot. Once it turned into a subdivision,
my path really became activated because I started to ask myself,
"Wow, what is the consciousness of this place that still lives
inside me now?" The geography was no longer the same, but the
place was still alive in me. I started to realize that we human
beings have a powerful response to the land in our bodies. And through
our history as humans, we have had that deep relationship with nature,
so our brain still responds to it actively today.
TB: What transformations do you
see in a person who is taught in this way?
JY: It's hard to put a finger on
when or where it will happen, but there are clear changes in a student's
behavior. The process is marked by certain transition profiles that
we can recognize symptomatically just before he or she moves through
one mode of being into a new space--which is really a very old space.
We call these "stages of the rites of passage" or the
When people are on a mentoring journey, one of the first things
they encounter is "child's universal passion." I'll hear
things like "I haven't felt this way since I was eight years
old" from adults who are becoming more aware of the environment
they're in. You can see that their whole body responds with enthusiasm.
They don't quite know why they are excited, but I believe there's
a body memory of what it was like to be young and truly engaged
by the world.
The Secret Spot
We call the practice of sitting in one place the "secret spot"
or the "sit area routine." It's not necessarily secret
because it's hidden, but rather it's somewhere you go by yourself
to activate your relationship with a particular place. Find a quiet
spot near where you live or work. Be sure you are safe there. Visit
this place as often as you can, try and aim for at least twenty
minutes a day. Sit or stand quietly and open your senses; develop
questions about the place. At night, tell the story of your visits
there to friends or to a journal. Get to know the birds, animals,
plants, soils, and even the winds of your place. You are developing
a constant meaningful relationship to all the elements in the natural
world through your senses, and that is our core practice.
In the second profile, they begin to focus sharply on a particular
aspect of the core routines we teach. For instance, they might focus
on bird language or plant identification or practicing wilderness
survival. The student becomes locked on one discipline within a
greater fabric of possibilities. They might obsess over animal tracks
and ignore plants. I say "obsess" because a native tracker
doesn't really have the luxury to ignore plants for animal tracks:
All information is taken in equally for survival and safety. People
at this stage will often put their arms across their chest, wrinkle
their brow in seriousness, and make very stern statements: "Well,
I know the whole path is about X." They become intense because
they think they really know something.
Now I know they can't do that for long. You can't totally control
nature, but you can have a sense that somehow you are fulfilling
something inside yourself by being an expert. Fortunately for the
mentor, this doesn't last too long if the student keeps up with
the core routines in their fullness!
They then enter the third stage. They come back after some kind
of humbling experience and their furrowed brow is gone. Here's what
I mean by "humbling experience": In learning tracking,
students have the misperception that they have a lot more control
over their learning than they actually do. They will "see"
a set of bobcat tracks because they "know" that those
are bobcat tracks. They will "teach" the other "beginners"
around them that those are bobcat tracks. Then one of the beginners
asks, "Hey, farther down the trail here, the bobcat has five
toes. What does that mean? "The "expert," in his
or her intense focus, has forgotten that raccoon tracks, with five
toes, can closely resemble bobcat tracks in certain conditions and
with certain behavior patterns. Awareness training is a journey
fraught with hundreds of examples like this in all subject areas,
at all times of year, and in every ecosystem I have ever explored.
It is almost as if nature is designed to humble us.
When students reach the third profile after the humbling experience,
they relax and open up quite a bit. They start to walk around barefoot.
They often don't have a watch on anymore. They tend to get really
playful and have a twinkle in their eye. The eight year-old that
was remembered in the first stage suddenly is now truly embodied
in everything they do. They don't like commitments at this point,
and we don't expect them to. What they are really trying to do is
to get back to something they truly left behind when they were kids.
Because of all the barefoot stuff, and eating berries, and laying
in the shade, and just really enjoying themselves, they begin to
remember what it is to be "free." They say, "Wow,
the deer and the birds are free.
The whole of nature is free. But what about us humans? Are we free?"
"It's hard to put a finger on when or where it will happen,
but there are clear changes in a student's behavior. The process
is marked by certain transition profiles that we can recognize symptomatically
just before he or she moves through one mode of being into a new
space - which is really a very old space."
They then hit what is called the "wall of grief." Some
people spin down for a while and get real depressed; others get
busy so that they don't feel anything. There are a bunch of different
responses, but we know them all as part of the same phenomenon.
As a rite of passage, this stage is big because the mentor can't
ignore what students are feeling.
We have to help them come to terms with the state of the world
for what it really is, and not what their projections have always
wanted it to be. So we work very closely with people during this
When they come out on the other side of the wall they stand taller.
They become quieter inside, and they've moved into the potential
for real service. This is where their awareness of a larger consciousness
comes in. They realize they are caregivers to a larger community--other
people, the land, the water, and the air--and these choices today
affect their children and grandchildren. They become "big picture"
people, and usually are spurred into action. They're actually thinking
for the future, not just for themselves.
From there they transition into a place of wisdom and leadership,
where they start to recognize universal patterns, and they start
to see those patterns in others. They also develop an awareness
of synchronicity, and they understand that the power of creativity
is one of the greatest gifts that a human possesses. Things in their
life begin to manifest in a beautiful way.
TB: These developments seem to be
the result of longterm practice. Is it possible that they can just
JY: I carefully study the effect
of brain-patterning routines, especially with respect to nature,
and how they affect our consciousness. In more than twenty years
of mentoring, working with students over three or four years at
a time, I've never seen anyone's transformation be spontaneous.
It might happen, but I've never seen it myself. It always grows
out of routines of expanded awareness and deeper inquiry-- directed
not only to the world around a person, but also to the world within
him or herself.
There are times when transformation can seem sudden. Because of
the effects of the core routines, sometimes a particular dramatic
event can trigger the transition to the next phase. It might be
a beautifully powerful or spiritual event--the overwhelming shift
of consciousness that comes in transitions could lead one to believe
that it was spontaneous. But I've watched them go predictably through
all the stages. It's usually not until years later that they start
to look back on their trail long enough to realize that the conditions
for that transition were actually set up when they were young.
TB: How important is the mentor,
and what if there isn't one specifically?
JY: I'm clear that if it wasn't
for my mentor's commitment to me, I wouldn't know the first thing
about bird language and tracking. When he introduced me to a group
in 1994, he said, "This is Jon Young. He's the only one I had
the luxury to mentor exactly the way Grandfather mentored me."
Hearing that, I felt a sudden responsibility to pass this on to
others, so I really analyzed the mentoring process. I began to realize
that it's rare that people just stumble on to this kind of thing.
I've gone on to look for other people who are powerful role models
in indigenous awareness, and I've seen that if it isn't direct mentoring
causing transformation in a child, then it's the culture itself
that's the mentor. We might assume that a facilitator is a living
flesh-and-blood human being, but sometimes it doesn't have a face.
The facilitator might be the village and the practices of the people:
the gathering and the harvesting, the songs that are sung. I believe
the mentor is essential if there isn't a strong culture, and what
that mentor draws from are cultural models.
Also, in my experience, the less visible the facilitator, the more
powerful are the results. It should seem to students that they are
the first ones to discover the world. They make discoveries themselves,
and they think they have created the journey for themselves.
Throughout history, though, behind it are really wise elders who
have always known how to tweak the fabric of the community to cause
that surface area of discovery to be large. It is my vision and
commitment to bring this back again--this time in a way that fits
the times and the challenges we now face as a species.