The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Rafe Kelley. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Rafe Kelley. Rafe’s the founder of an operation called Evolve Move Play. It’s a method incorporating elements of play, natural parkour, roughhousing, movement games, athletic development, body integrity, and anti-fragility practices for resilience, working with fear, and it’s re-patterning, rewilding ecological knowledge and anthropology, systems theory and motor learning perspectives of skill acquisition. That’s a mouthful when I got through it. Welcome, Rafe.
Rafe: Thank you, Jim. Yeah, I appreciate it. It’s great to be here.
Jim: Yeah, glad you reached out to me. Well, didn’t you reach out to me on Twitter and said, “Hey, let’s chat?” I looked into what you were up to, and I said, “Damn, this looks like some interesting stuff.” I think I’m going to be on your podcast next month sometime, as I recall.
Rafe: Yep. Yeah, I’m excited about that as well. I think the Game B conversation and some of the ideas I’m working with, I think, it’s a lot of alignment, so I’m excited.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. Now, a question I got to ask you, Evolve Move Play, how does that relate, if it does at all, to the idea of EMP, electromagnetic pulses?
Rafe: It’d be nice to say that I’m trying to be an EMP through the whole fitness industry to reset it and do something better, but the truth is, that I’m not that mechanical, and I didn’t know that EMP also meant electromagnetic pulse until my older brother who’s an engineer told me after I created the name.
Jim: One of my interests in EMP actually is, it’s one of the scenarios by which our current civilization collapses a fair bit. The famously the Carrington event of 1859, which is the largest solar flares on record, produced a massive EMP type event from a solar flare alone. It’s thought that if that were to have hit the world today, it would probably take all the world’s grids out perhaps for years. EMP’s got lots of interesting meanings.
Rafe: I saw a cartoon about that, about man invents AI, AI enslaves man, sun sends a solar flyer, destroys AI, man worship’s sun god again.
Jim: That could happen. That could happen, could happen.
Rafe: That may be our only hope.
Jim: Oh, I don’t know. I think actually AI will may help us in the short term, but well, you don’t have to watch out for the longer term. You can learn more about Rafe and his work at evolvemoveplay.com, and he also has a podcast called The Evolve Move Play podcast. I think I see a pattern here.
Jim: So tell us a little bit about, big picture, what is it that you’re doing? What is the theme of your work?
Rafe: Yeah, it’s been changing and growing over the years. Essentially, I guess you could say that I found parkour and martial arts both to be transformative practices in my life. I became deeply interested in why that was the case and why other people had those experiences, and also why sometimes people would claim to be transformed and not seem to actually be transformed, or why some people seem to only be hobbyists in a practice, and how did people sustain physical practices late into life when they no longer have the potential to achieve anything from a performance perspective> that led me to digging into the idea that movement practices really at their fundamental level are about meaning in life and how we attain meaning in life. If that’s the case, how would we organize and build a movement practice that sustained that?
Then that started with parkour and then reintroducing the martial arts into my parkour practice, and then also going into nature and spending a lot of time in nature and taking parkour into nature and then taking people to do it, and finding that community had this transformative power that the practices themselves alone didn’t have, and then having students come who came from the wilderness awareness tradition, having them begin to integrate their cultural pieces into it and a deeper recognition and understanding of how to interact to the natural world. Then music coming into it, and then philosophy, and then running the work of Jordan Peterson and starting to integrate his ideas around archetypal maps of meaning, which then led me to John Vervaeke and the meaning crisis and understanding the cognitive science lens on how we develop meaning, which has all led me to this fundamental idea that there are five fundamental relationships we have to our experience of being, which determine how meaningful our life is.
Those are the internal relationships to the south, so how does the different structures of the body interrelate, but also how does the emotion, cognition, body all integrate, and how does that body, mind interact with the physical environment as something we locomote through? How does that reveal itself? Seeing it through the J.J. Gibson ecological psychology lens then how does the environment as something we can manipulate reveal itself? How does the capacity to manipulate constrain and drive our capacity for cognition? Then how do we relate with other embodied agents? Then how do we relate to transcendent principles and powers? If we have better sophistication and depth along all those relationships, those are the fundamental connectedness that I believe determine meaning in life, which John Vervaeke and cognitive scientists, they’ve pointed out that essentially, our experience of meaning in life arises from the sense of connection, and it is along something like these axes. That’s what we’ve discovered through the practices. So we build practices and a structure of practice that incorporates all of these.
Jim: Interesting. One of the things I found quite interesting, it was very resonant in my own experience growing up. You said a natural movement has the key theme in my life since childhood. I was raised at the end of a road surrounded by a forest. Actually, I grew up in a post World War II suburb fairly close to D.C. inside what’s now the beltway, the beltway didn’t exist then. But by odd chance the back of our subdivision where our house was backed on to a couple of hundred acres of woods that had been abandoned for many, many years.
I’ll tell you what, my life, the best parts of everything I remember from being three to being 13 or thereabouts was exploring those woods and just going off and doing things, building tree houses, exploring the length of them. The longest extent was probably over a mile, which was pretty far when you were five or six years old. I was certainly a creature of the woodlands, me and my friends. It was really who we were, and it was fundamental. I noticed later when I started thinking about things more systemically that even people that lived a block away had nowhere near as much of a relationship with the woods as those of us who lived adjacent to it, and those two blocks away, mostly never experienced at all. Very curious.
Rafe: That ecology of behavior thing is really interesting to me. I live in a suburb on a cul-de-sac, but we are 15 minutes away from waterfalls with 30- foot cliffs and amazing places to jump. But my kids haven’t really started going into those woods, and I’m like, “How do I get them to adopt that as their space the same way that the forest that surrounded me as a child were my space?” I think that we don’t understand how deeply our development is actually contingent on our relationship to nature and how much small incentive structures matter tremendously. Kids are highly, highly motivated by the desire to play with other children, and it’s where you can find those other children that is going to drive their behavior. So right now, the buddies that my son has on the street, they play basketball in a courtyard. That’s what they do. They haven’t yet made the jump into the forest, and that’s, how do I facilitate that in a way that’s not dictatorial? That’s the question I face.
Jim: My experience, the gradient that I noticed is you got to live next to it, or in it, that even a few blocks and the attractor of basketball or kick the can or reading comic books or whatever it was that were the competing attractor when I would say six or seven or eight. Now, seven, eight, and nine was probably my maximum woods experience life. As you say, the fact that we had a posse of kids that all loved it and would build forts and have battles with other kids that had built forts at the other end of the woods, so at least in my experience was indicative, you actually have to be there physically next to it and also have a community of fellow travelers, fellow adventurers as we would think of ourselves. There was a while we styled ourselves as Robin Hood and as merry band, for instance.
Rafe: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Jim: We made bows and arrows, I think about how crazy the shit was. We’d get little hickory trees and bend them, and then we’d make arrows by buying cheap target arrows at the local discount store, cut the heads off of them, split the rod, cut galvanized iron with tin snips and tie it on with heavy-duty fishing line. Them suckers, they’d stick into trees. You could kill rabbits with them. They were not bad for homemade bows and arrows when we were eight years old.
Rafe: Yeah, that’s awesome. We’re around the same age. My older brother and I were building catapults out of ropes and chopped down alder trees that we strung the ropes between trees, and it’s a magical thing for kids to be able to have access to that.
Jim: We built tree forts. The best one we built was probably 30 feet off the ground. It was way up there and-
Rafe: Yeah, we built one of those as well.
Jim: We built lots of other ones that were closer to the ground, but that was really something. I think as you point out, if you could get your kids interested in that at an early age, it’s a much better way for them to spend their time than video games in the basement or what have you. Basketball’s not bad. There’s much to be said for certainly basketball is better than a lot of these virtual things kids are into these days.
Rafe: Yeah, that’s one of the big things. It’s interesting, so we were living in Seattle, and we were living in a suburban area in Seattle, and Seattle was very punishing socially. It was just really difficult to make connections with people. Seattle’s famous for the Seattle freeze, but it just felt like nobody lived in their houses. Nobody was ever on the street. You never saw kids out playing. It was a strange environment. So then we moved up here to Bellingham. The first place that we stayed was surrounded by seven acres of forest and field, and that was amazing, but there were no kids within walking distance of our kids. Our kids just, they didn’t take very much advantage of that field because they didn’t have the attractor of other children to pull them outside. So now we have other children which pulls the kids outside, but it’s not yet taking them all the way into nature.
Jim: Interesting. Interesting. That’s some of the thinking when we think about Game B communities, one of the reasons I think that it’s important to actually build on-the-ground communities is you can essentially build that in. You can have a community of 150 adults, and assuming that they’re reasonably fertile, probably at least 150 kids, maybe more. They can be embedded in nature so that there’s both very close at hand, things like garden spaces and beautifully landscaped areas and stuff, but very close at hand. Also, some relatively undisturbed woodlands and such so that you can develop traditions and even have community-based education in the woods.
Also, which reminds me, one of the reasons I think I was one of the more adventurous woodland kids was my father, unlike most of the other fathers, this was in the ’50s, the fathers were classically sit in their chair and reading the newspaper and didn’t pay any attention to the kids. That was the mother’s job basically. My father was a little different. He took groups of us kids on hikes in the woods from very early ages, from four or five, and we’d hike a couple of miles. We’d go check out old abandoned houses and stuff. “Don’t you ever come back here by yourself?” But, of course, we always did. So having the basic introduction to the woods by a responsible adult was also very helpful, I think, for our little posse of people to be woods folks.
Rafe: When I take my son or my kids, my daughters and my sons into the woods here, I point out all the landmarks along the way, and then I make them walk back on their own. But I walk behind them so I can always see them, but I try to be far enough behind them that they don’t see me so they have as much of a sense of autonomy as possible. So they build up that trust to go do it for themselves.
Jim: Also, the mapping capability because yeah, if you’re going to be a woods kid, you better be able to develop that map to find your way back home again right?
Rafe: Exactly. Then think about how that impacts the way that that brain is developing as you then will apply it to the rest of life.
Jim: Yep. Yep. That’s a very, very, very good point. Now let’s get back a little bit more about what you’ve been up to. You mentioned parkour. I know what parkour is, but probably a lot of people don’t. Could you explain a little bit about parkour, it’s history and how you’ve adapted it into a more natural type environment?
Rafe: So parkour is basically just a slang version of the French verb parcour, which means something like to pass through a course. So every military in the world has parcours du combattant, which is obstacle courses. In the 1980s in France, there were a group of young men who started really just trying to challenge themselves in lots of different ways. A lot of them came from traumatic backgrounds, a lot of immigrant kids. David Belle, his father, Raymond Belle, was a really famous firefighter who was famous for his athletic feats and was a great national class athlete. So they were trying to mimic some of the feats that their heroes had done. They were watching Dragon Ball Z and watching Jackie Chan films and all that stuff. So they started going out and doing pushups and pushing cars around and doing all that stuff, but they did a lot of jumps.
They started to jump between buildings, and then they went out in the woods and jumped around in the woods. They developed this extraordinarily skillfulness that started attracting a lot of attention. They ended up in some movies and their video started propagating all over the world. So in the early aughts, they were the first documentaries about the practice that they developed. It took to about 2005 till it started spreading here in the United States through a video called Jump Britain, which is a documentary. So essentially by that time it had become a practice of overcoming obstacles, physical obstacles, using your body, mostly in the urban environment, though the early days of parkour actually included a lot more nature than people now remember. But when it spread outside France, it was highly associated with urban rooftop jumping and acrobatics.
Jim: I remember seeing pictures of people running up walls and alleys and then doing a flip and landing on a roof of a small little thing that came off a building and then hopping up onto the higher roof and then jumping across the alley. I do think of it as very urban in what I remember from that period.
Rafe: So urban obstacle coursing is something that a lot of people have called it, but fundamentally, like David Belle said, the parkour exists the moment that the human being uses his limbs to overcome an obstacle. So I think from a really scientific point of view, and my wife actually did her master’s thesis on this in anthropology, parkour is just an expression of exploratory locomotor play that we see in all human children and all primates and basically, all animals. It’s a way in which you map your environment and the affordances available in that environment and that you test your character and you’re strengthening your capacity and feed your kinesthetic system and map your environment. So it’s something every child did. You were doing parkour in the woods when you were a kid, but we lost it as we moved into the cities, as we became dependent on video games. So there was this ignition moment where it got named, where it came down from being something that was just a background aspect of childhood towards something that people could actually take on as a fundamental practice. That would be my description of parkour.
Jim: Yeah, interesting. Now the one thing that does differentiate it from at least our experience as kids in the woods from say, age three or four up to 13, was we were not heavily into rapid fire athleticism. We hiked through the woods, we’d climbed trees. We cut down trees, we built stuff, but we did it in a fairly I would say, non-bursty, non-hyper kind of mode. I went back and looked at a couple of videos preparing for this. I said, “That’s a very different thing, doing it as a high-active, high-speed gymnastics type activity.”
Jim: Do you think that’s of the essence of what parkour is versus the interaction with the natural world and the obstacles and climbing steep hills and such, the bursty athleticism of it?
Rafe: Yeah. In some sense, you can see parkour as a evolution of, or a reflection of the same kind of underlying principles as gymnastics. You go back to yawns gymnastics, early gymnastics, it’s really trying to achieve a lot of what parkour does. But parkour is a, it’s natural in a couple of different senses. It’s much more self-organized. It’s much more driven by flow and intrinsic motivation, as well as using movements that mostly are more fundamental to actually locomotives through the environment. Parkour practitioners in general tend to be highly biased towards explosive performance. If you look at studies of the physiological characteristics of parkour athletes, they are more extreme anaerobic athletes than sprinters or gymnasts. They’re the most extremely anaerobic adapted athletes and elastic adapted athletes. But in theory, the idea of parkour of overcoming obstacles using your body doesn’t have to be done at high speed, but that is how it is tended to be practiced.
Jim: I would say that probably would not have been a good fit for me. I was never a prime athletic specimen, a very middle of the road. I could be reasonably good at sports via adaption of skills, football and baseball principally. But I was never much of a basketball player, not athletic enough, et cetera. So I looked at those things and I go, “That would not have appealed to me as a kid at all, not my kind of thing.” So it would seem like this is the kind of thing that would appeal to the more naturally-gifted athletic sorts.
Rafe: Yeah. I can see why it would look that way from the outside. One thing we notice is that it doesn’t attract everyone. There’s lots of people, I have a surprising concentration of women in their 50s who remember climbing trees as kids who come in and are super excited about being able to do this and having the freedom and the social permission to do it. We work with students who have traumatic brain injuries, who have serious mobility problems and find that the practice of getting up and down over something, getting under something, using their hands is really healing and helps grow the brain for them. So I definitely was like this as a kid. My mom noticed very early that I was naturally explosive and could jump really well, and we were talking about fort building.
So we had this really epic fort that we had out in the woods. One of the things that we did as part of that fort is we actually took us, I think, three months to chop down a giant Doug fir tree using hatchets and machetes, a bunch of eight to 12 year olds. We dropped this tree across a canyon in the woods, and then we built a giant zip line. So we would sprint through this course where we’d run down the hill, jump on to the zipline, zip across the zipline, vault up on top of the log and run to the other side of the log. This was part of our paramilitary training for fighting off the other gang that didn’t actually exist.
Jim: Yeah, I do remember the chopping down of trees. I still recall we were pretty amazed that we could actually chop down a pine tree, a pretty good size one in an hour with a hatchet, right?
Rafe: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: They may be an eight-inch pine tree. It wasn’t monster, but a good size. Then we quickly discovered that a bow saw you could take down an eight-inch pine tree in 10 minutes, right?
Rafe: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: Particularly if you had two people working it, and we built actually a long cabin ourselves when we were 10 or 11 back in the woods from trees we felled ourselves. Of course, our if parents had known that we were felling 40-foot high trees, they probably would not have been all together pleased, but that’s all right.
Rafe: I don’t know how we thought it was safe to fell a tree that was probably at least 60-feet tall and must have weighed thousands of pounds, right?
Jim: [inaudible 00:22:35]
Rafe: If something had gone wrong there, it would’ve been real bad, but-
Jim: But it didn’t most of the time, yeah.
Jim: Yeah, speaking of which, you did a conversation with Jordan Peterson, I’ll confess to have not watched at all, ’cause I generally don’t watch podcasts, but I did get into it enough to see that it was in about one of my favorite themes. That is the combination or the idea of rough play and how important that is to combating infantilization of humans.
Jim: But that’s one my pet peeves, actually, is that we’ve infantilized so many people by, its things like zero tolerance for fighting. I make the point again and again, young male mammals spar. Just look at some kittens, look at some puppies, look at some rabbits, they all spar.
Rafe: Yeah. Right. Right.
Jim: Mostly the males and then some percentage of the females out on the far right part of the curve, but mostly males. This idea of zero tolerance for fighting amongst kids is one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard. No wonder we have school shootings, right? If you-
Rafe: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Jim: … attempt to suppress the natural tendency for the 11, 12, 13, 14-year-old males to spar and to find their place and just to learn how to co-adapt with each other through structured, but real combat and such, in fact, nobody ever got hurt ’cause we had a code. It was never written down, but if someone was on the ground, you didn’t hit them. If they didn’t get up, fight was over, at least for people from our town. You didn’t engage in extreme tactics like eye gouging or ear ripping or things of that sort. There was definitely a code. So you could have combat, and the worst that would ever happen is a broken collar bone or a tooth knocked out or something. That was just the way it was. That was part of how we grew up, but today, not so good. So talk to us about infantilization and how your approaches might help combat that.
Rafe: Yeah. So basically my best relationship with my dad was through this kind of rough-and-tumble play from the time I was very little. When I was six months old, maybe my dad was lifting me up over his head and carrying me in one arm and running. I was an airplane. We called it the airplane game. He would swing me around and throw me around. Then I had an older brother. I was wrestling with my older brother. I have a cousin who’s three months older than me who lived across the road, we were wrestling. We had other boys who lived in that neighborhood, so that was really powerful for me. Then because of my ADHD and dyslexia, which my dad shared, when I reached school age, he found it really hard to watch me struggling and disconnected from me emotionally. So at that stage, a couple of years later, I had a mentor who came into my life. I had become very angry and was fighting a lot and dealing with a lot of issues.
He stepped in and basically roughhoused with me a lot, which helped me recover and then get interested in education again, so that was something that was important to me from a young age. I went into to then mentoring young kids, starting my 12, 13 years old, I was watching other people’s kids and noticed they just had this incredible hunger for rough-and-tumble play. Of course, by this time I’d already been doing martial arts since I was six years old as well. So that all was there for me as I started thinking about parkour from an evolutionary anthropological lens and started looking at play behavior that you see across culture. So I was always interested both in the locomotor play that you see, but also the rough-and-tumble play. I want to make a distinction between sparring and rough-and-tumble play. They’re closely related. The way that I understand this, and this is somewhat of a speculative evolutionary story, but at some point in history, we had to solve this basic social problem, which is you might have resources that I want, and we are going to have to fight over who gets the resources.
If we both fight 100% where we could potentially kill each other, the winner might find that very, very costly, and the loser might find it fatal. So is there a way that we can resolve that conflict that clearly demonstrates who’s going to win in an actual fatal encounter without resulting in major damage to both parties? So we evolved a non-lethal combat system to resolve intraspecies conflict. You see that there’s this common frame across many, many different animals. So rats, you take two juvenile rats, generally male, if you have two male juvenile rats, and especially if they’ve been socially isolated for a little bit, when you put them in a cage together, they’ll immediately want to start wrestling. When they wrestle, one of the rats will pin the other rat’s shoulders to the ground just like we do in. There are wrestling systems in almost every culture where dominance and winning comes from pinning the other’s shoulders to the ground, but you’ll see the same thing in goannas, even predatory or venomous snakes pin the other snake’s head to the ground in dominance battles.
So what you’re describing that you experienced growing up of these fist fights between young men, adolescent males, that’s dominance hierarchy jockeying, and it’s constrained in an important way. We don’t understand how important that is for young men and how in a healthy play culture, it has a place, and it’s not that dangerous. I had that. I grew up having lots of fist fights, and there was a point at which we had … The culture broke down. I lived in a redneck area, and all of a sudden we had a lot of immigrants from the Hispanic community. Because there’s a sense of cultural difference, the rules of fighting weren’t shared, and the sense that you had to agree to the rules disappeared. So all of a sudden people were coming back to fights, bringing their brother, people coming back to fights, bringing weapons. There was a real sense that this game that we had all felt like we had a understanding of was no longer safe within the context of this social sphere. But that thing is almost entirely male, the actual sparring, but the place sparring is something that both sexes do very much.
If you look at kittens or puppies, both males and females are going to jaw spar. They’re going to pounce, they’re going to stalk, they’re going to wrestle. My children do that. This is something like the original title of that interview with Peterson was combating over-feminization of the West. I wasn’t a big fan of that because I think it’s a little too simplistic. One of the points that I make in that podcast is that in our work, when we work with groups of people, it’s often the female students who actually find being given access to rough-and-tumble play the most profound. If you get a group of boys and girls together, the boys will roughhouse longer, they’ll roughhouse more. If you start roughhousing with a group of kids, the boys will request more of it from you generally, but the girls will get involved. I have two girls and one boy, and my girls love to wrestle with me. So I just think it’s really important to not over-gender, I don’t like the word gender, I don’t even really believe in gender, but over-sex role that particular aspect of play.
Jim: That guy has a good point, cause while the curves aren’t overlapping, they’re not disjoint either, right?
Jim: That’s always important to keep in mind when you talk about sexual differences of behavior ’cause they’re not black and white. There are tendencies, but that’s all there are. One of the recurring guests on my show is a fellow named Tyson Yunkaporta. He’s a Australian Aboriginal, and he’s made the point again and again and again that in his culture, the women are almost as good a fighters as the men, and some of them are better fighters than the average men. That’s just the way it is, right?
Rafe: Yeah. I’ve had a lot of people recommend his book to me. I haven’t yet got into it, but-
Jim: Oh, I’d give it the highest recommendation. It was the best book of over a two-year period of, in two years, I would typically read 200 books. So it was best book out of 200 during that epoch.
Rafe: That’s pretty good, and you’re a trustworthy guy. I’ll pick that up soon.
Jim: By the way, for listeners, the book’s called Sand Talk. The book is just brilliant, and it’s wonderfully well written as well. There’s, I think at least three podcasts I did with him around the book. So if people want to preview it that way, feel free at jimruttshow.com.
Rafe: Sounds good.
Jim: Let’s see, what next? Oh, just something, just to get your reaction to, and I was, again, looking around at some of your things today. I found a really nice little short video called TreeRunner, which I just go, “Wow, this is really cool.” it’s relatively extreme, but not super extreme. It just looks like you’re doing such cool stuff. Maybe you could tell people about TreeRunner and what you were doing there.
Rafe: So human beings are capable of the types of things that we see in parkour because we’re our arboreal animals. The most agile animals that exist on the planet are all arboreal animals. We know the human lineage spent between 60 to 90 million years is primarily arboreal animals. That’s why we have eyes that are binocular. That’s why we have grasping hands. That’s why we actually evolved upright stance. Even bipedalism probably evolved first in the trees, not the full suite of characteristics that make us super effective by bipedalists, but the basic structure of bipedalism, and our shoulders, the capacity to have full range of motion shoulders and all this stuff comes from the trees.
So you can imagine a cheetah, a cheetah’s an incredible athlete. It can’t really do a back flip. It’s not going to be able to swing around on bars and do what an Olympic gymnast does. So I think that the trees actually are the root source of these extraordinary capacities that we have that we see in parkour. So there’s a certain point in my journey where I was doing parkour skills, and I loved being out in nature. In Seattle in particular, there wasn’t woods with fallen logs and big rocks and stuff. What there were were these really cool trees that had been grown in the parks. So I started going into those trees and I just fell in love with them.
It was a very interesting experience because I was trying to compete in parkour and all the competitions had moved indoors. So I would be wanting to go train indoors and see my motivations, or not my motivations, my goals were around succeeding at these competitions. The specific adaptations that I needed were available in the gym, but I had so much more joy when I took my movement out into the trees. So I did that for a couple of years and fell more and more in love with the trees. Eventually it felt like a, that video was an ode. It was a love poem to the trees that I had had shaped me. So I wanted to share how much joy I experienced from moving that way, and how unique the affordances in that landscape were and what came out of me there. So I did it barefoot and flipped and bolted and swung and it was a very joyful time.
Jim: Yeah, it’s on YouTube. Search for Rafe Kelley TreeRunner, and you’ll find it, and the joy came through. You could just tell this was somebody just having a peak experience of wonderfulness.
Rafe: Yeah, yeah, that’s-
Jim: It really did just shine through. Now let’s hop on this, ’cause one are my pet peeves about extreme sports is how people ruin them by turning them into overly technical exercises, right?
Jim: Think about the poor fools that are doing snowboarding, which started out as a really cool thing. In fact, I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was a professional ski acrobat in the late ’70s, and then they turned it into this idiot counting, and, “Did you spend three-and-a-half times versus three-and-a-quarter times? Like, “What the fuck? Here’s something that that is so much fun and such a very amazingly interesting thing human to do, and they turn it into this pettifogging technical horse shit.” Now, of course, that’s the Rubian point of view. What’s your point of view on that kind of stuff?
Rafe: Well, it actually makes me think about one of the core points that I was listening to you talk about with Game A and the quantification of all values. People come to these sports because they’re joyful, but then we want to be able to devote our life to them. In order to devote our life to them, then you have to be able to create a revenue stream from them. So what are your means of creating a revenue stream? You can make really cool videos and then you can maybe sell product off of the videos, or if you create competitions and people will pay to be in the competitions, people will pay to see the competitions, people will pay to get products that the athletes do. Now we have a financial structure that actually can support athletes. Now in all the extreme sports, there’s a tension between the fact that people are primarily attracted to the intrinsic joy of the activity.
As soon as you quantify it, you lose some of that. Snowboarders are not. Most really high-level snowboarders, they’re not getting their greatest joy out of carving exactly this 360-degree spin right off that. They’re doing their greatest joy off of finding a new jump in a unique spot on the mountain and hitting a tree with their board on the way and trying some trick that they’ve never done before. Many great rock climbers you’ll see go through the competitive circuit and get burnt out on it, and then are able to build their fame enough that then people will just pay them to go travel and do what they want. You see the same thing in parkour right now. The best parkour athletes who go out and compete, they last about two years, and then they burn out because it’s not what they really came in for. I think it’s very different from something like basketball where the joy of winning is you get to win over the other guy. But parkour athletes don’t want to win over the other guy, they want to do something really cool.
Jim: This is so Game A, that everything has to be turned into money. This is late-stage Game A since 1975 when things just went really off the rails. It’s important to remember that until the 1980s, it was illegal to fund Olympic athletes at all, or they had to be 100% volunteer, and they had jobs. Of course, the East Germans and the Russians violated that, certainly in the [inaudible 00:38:39]
Rafe: And the Chinese.
Jim: And the Chinese later, not until later, and that became … but by then it was more borderline. But until the 1980s, Olympic athletes all had day jobs. A lot of them were gym teachers, or UPS hired a lot of Olympic athletes, ’cause hey, running around delivering packages is a good kind of training. Yet, you could still have your joy of going to the Olympics and doing great, but you didn’t turn it into this thing where you had armies of nutritionists and blood oxygenators. What the fuck, right? Why would you turn joyful physical movement into this ultra optimized crunch down to the ultimate? It just seems like an insane thing to do and a sign that our society is in a seriously bad place.
Rafe: Well, I think one thing that’s really profound that was pointed out to me and has really helped me think about these things is the word amateur itself comes from the root word amore, love. An amateur is not someone who’s unskilled. An amateur is someone who is motivated for the love of it. So the amateur movement in the Olympics was about making it about joy and love. There’s a lot of interesting cultural history around the Olympics because it arises also during the romantic and nationals period. So people were not just competing for the love of the sport, they were competing to showcase the virtue of their nation. So the German gymnastics movement was very much about German gymnastics, German spirit, German nationality. All of that, of course, was wrapped up in the claims that the Germans were the actual … well, it wasn’t just the Germans, the Germans, the French, various other people all felt like they were the real descendants of the ancient Greeks who had been Aryans like them. So there’s all these interesting cultural frames that are built into those movements.
There is this underlying potential for drive, and we go back to the Greek compete itself. The word compete comes from to strive together, and in the Greek city states, it was contrasted against war. The experience of the Greek city states was that they were at war all the time. Virtually every male citizen at least knew somebody who’d served in a battle against one of the neighboring poleis. So they understand that when we are wrestling, it doesn’t matter who wins very much, because the reason we’re wrestling is ’cause we may need to rely on each other to survive in the future. That’s that idea of competition, which gives rise to the sporting culture. The Greek gymnasia, which actually is where philosophia comes out of as well. That’s been forgotten as it’s been colonized. The nationalist romantic frame of the original Olympic movement has been colonized by the capitalist frame, the late-stage corporatist frame, which is not a healthy frame for human beings either. But it is important to note that the frame that preceded it is also corrupted in a very interesting way.
Jim: That’s an interesting hit history. I did not know that. That’s cool. Of course, the other example is our pro sports. I just laugh my head off and go, “All right, dudes playing kids games in short pants making $25 million more than CEOs of most companies. What the hell is that about? What kind of weird ass world do we live in where we would essentially infantilize adult men and now women to play kids games for money?” How weird is that?
Rafe: Yeah, it is a fascinating thing. I think that you see within it the need for ceremony, for ekstasis, communitas, CITAs and how it’s found through the body, it catalyzes a common identity. I think it clearly has to do with the fact that we are warriors. We descended from cultures and as an animal, from situations where being able to cohere around a common identity and meet some other common identity on the field of combat was central to our survival. So we’ve subsumed that in these sports. Yeah, it’s a kid’s game, but especially if you look at something like grid iron football, the military analogies are incredibly obvious and clear, and it is very beneficial for us in a way to have these outlets. It’s better that we are Yankees fans than that we’re woke or anti-woke and actually physically battling it out on the streets ourselves. So I think that there’s a very interesting role that they play. I also think that it is corrupted by the collapse of everything into financial value.
Jim: Yeah, and attention, ’cause attention in sports case is not so much internet as eyeballs on the TV. Right?
Jim: It’s one of the last things people tend to watch live. When I think about Game B, I would expect that there’d be lots and lots of community sports leagues for the reasons you just laid out. They’re great for building coherence, they’re great for learning how to operate together with rhythm and a common mission, et cetera. But this idea that there’s a few hundred people in the world playing basketball or football for mega bucks and that we’re all riveted, watching it on the idiot box just strikes me as one of the most deranged examples of late-stage Game A, much better for us to all be playing these sports at the community level. Watching sports itself is a crazy thing as opposed to participating in it.
Rafe: Yeah. One of the things that’s interesting for me is how my interest in watching sports is very, very negatively correlated with how much sport I can personally do. So I tore my Achilles tendon in 2010, and I got really into NFL football that year. Then once I healed, it was like, “I don’t have three hours. I can’t sit down for three hours on a Sunday.” So I still really like and follow sports, but what I’ll usually do is watch the last 10 minutes of a game [inaudible 00:45:48]
Jim: I used to be quite a sports fan too, NFL football and baseball. But over time, it’s just the absurdity of it and the fact that it is part and parcel of information capture and late-stage financialization of everything. You have these really obnoxious shit birds buying the teams like this horrible guy, Danny Snyder. That bought the Washington Redskins 20 years ago. I was a real Redskins fan, but once he had bought the team, it’s just like, “Screw that. What the fuck is wrong with these people?” He’s a creepy, greasy dude. Turns out he is also a sexual predator, I don’t know about predator, but shall we say a not friendly workplace for women and just on and on and on and on. It’s just yet enough to turn sports into yet another arm of creepo capitalism. It seems to be just another sign that we’re on the wrong road.
Rafe: Well, I think to me, it goes into this broader pattern of the loss of all elements of culture to capitalism, right?
Rafe: So we were talking before we started recording about how you’re from Appalachia, and I had this mentor from Appalachia. So I went out to visit him when I was eight years old, and I met his grandfather. His grandfather had four brothers, and he and his four brothers, their father had been a traveling pastor and doctor. So they’d traveled through the backwards of Appalachia with him giving people medicine and taking care of their ailments and preaching the gospel. Then they’d all gone on to fight in World War II, and then they’d all gone out and been a bluegrass band together. So when I met these guys, they had houses that they’d built, they hunted, fished, gardened, made their own food, cured their own hams. They could all play music, they could all do all these things, and it left this huge impression on me. I came back six years later and they had all passed away.
You could see how the culture had collapsed as those elders left the system, and nobody plays music anymore. Nobody sings traditional songs. Most of the food comes from Walmart. The social life revolves now not around stories that descend back from all through that history of the Appalachian region, it comes from social … Literally, most of the stories you hear are social events that happened at the local Walmart, and so you see this cultural climate. So that always stuck around for me. Over the years, I started to notice that I was very leery of self-esteem culture, this idea that if we just say we like ourselves enough our psychological problems will go away. I started thinking about how we need to build selves that are worth esteeming.
What that means is that you have multiple ways of interacting with the world, which produce value. The problem that I see with the capitalist system is that what it does is it incentivizes you taking advantage of comparative advantage wherever possible. So you should spend all of your productive hours on the one thing that you have any kind of marginal advantage on. The problem with that is that you end up then essentially moving all of the other activities in your life into professional classes. So we end up with a situation where nobody knows how to grow their own food. We put that into a professional class. People don’t even cook their own food. We move that to a professional class. People don’t play sports. We watch sports. That’s another professional class. We don’t dance. Think about the world, before 1920 approximately, you’re not listening to music on a stereo.
Jim: Or the radio, even, radio didn’t exist yet.
Rafe: Or the radio. Someone has to play music or you have to sing to experience music.
Jim: Almost every house had a piano in those days.
Rafe: And so people have that, but now music is something professional class people … People are ashamed to try music. Karaoke is like a, what’s the word? Dirty pleasure, right?
Jim: Yeah, slumming kind of thing.
Jim: By the way, I do a pretty good House of the Rising Sun, right?
Rafe: There we go. Yet, this would’ve been a huge thing that would’ve been a value that you had to your local community. Then literally, I think that this has gone so far that we are now moving our sexuality into the hands of a professional class. We don’t have sex anymore. We watch manicured people built by surgery, propped up by drugs, have sex on screens.
Jim: Yeah. I do not get this porno thing, frankly. Maybe I’m too old to appreciate it, but it’s just like, what the fuck? Fake tits, shaved beavers, tattoos, nasty, nasty fucking people. I just don’t see what the attraction is, frankly. It’s just like, “Blah.”
Rafe: Yeah, that’s probably a healthy normal reaction. But what’s happened is that it’s like junk food, it’s hyper-stimulating. If you’ve never had a Twinkie before, your first reaction might be like, “What the fuck is this weird thing?” But if you eat it a few times, your body’s like, “Oh, it’s hyper palatable. It’s hyper rewarding.” Now it manipulates your reward mechanism in your brain around appetite, and now you stop finding fruit that tastes good, right?
Jim: Yep, and I’ve been very concerned because I think, again, I’m very lucky that the porn I got exposed to as a kid was Playboy magazine or something like that. But what that must be like to be 11 years old and see triple penetration Romanian pornography at your fingertips 7×24, and you know you couldn’t resist it when you’re 11. I tell the story sometimes, when I was 11, between sixth and seventh grade, my buddy Billy W., his uncle was moving out of the little shack that he owned, which he was selling to a developer with the two acres of land. He was a merchant marine. He would be gone most of the time, and he had a collection of smutty magazines. As I recall, they were called Nugget.
They were just basically big-breasted gals with their tits hanging out. His uncle said if we’d come over he’d give them to us. So it was a hot D.C. area summer in August and 92 degrees and humid. Old Billy and I walked three miles each way to come back with a cloth sack full of these titty mags, and which we then buried the ground in an old milk box, so from the old milk delivery days. That was like a treasure. We’d sell the pages for a quarter each or whatever. If we were willing to do all that for some titty mags, what would 11-year-old boys do to watch the most vile imaginable pornography? Now they don’t have to do anything. They just type in triple penetration with violence and choking. What the hell is that going to be doing to their understanding of reality?
Rafe: Yeah, that’s very concerning to me. I know you’ve been doing a lot of research on the ChatGPT stuff and the new AI stuff, and that’s actually my biggest concern right now is given how online dating and pornography and OnlyFans have disrupted the mating market and basically the normal developmental trajectory of young people, how bad is a AI-generated OnlyFans account with a unlimited, perfectly personable chatbot that is designed to fulfill your specific fantasies? How damaging is that going to be to the developmental patterns of young people who are exposed to it? How can we possibly control it?
Jim: Yeah, it’s going to be bad. Now, things I work on in GPT, I’d say are in the pro-social side of it. There’s lots of cool things you can do with GPT that are great, but with inevitably every technology gets monetized on sex first that will happen, and that’s not good. Of course, and again, this is to the Game B idea, in reality, responsible parents should not let children under 18 have access to this shit, basically. But it’s impossible to do and to your comment earlier about how the friends context is so important. So it has to be a community of people who have shared values and shared norms who agree that everybody in this community are not going to have kids on the internet period. Think of it like the Mennonites or the Amish, they all agree, “We’re not going to have electricity,” or, “We’re not going to drive in cars,” or, “We’re going to only drive in black cars,” or whatever variety of Mennonite or Amish you are, that will work if you have a community.
But it’s impossible for individuals to make these kinds of commitments, or at least it’s impossible for anything less than about 2% of nut cases, probably including people like you and me who are capable of being a bit aberrant. But most people are not able to violate the norms of their local on-the-ground community, which is why we have to build alternative communities with alternative, clearly stated strong norms that don’t have to be the same as each other. That’s one of the things I always say, that beauty of the idea of organizing strong norms locally is, “You don’t like the norms there, move to another one.” No big deal to move from one community of 150 to another. While on the other hand, I’d hate to have strong norms at the national level where everybody to do X, ’cause chances of me to agreeing with even some reasonable proportion of anybody’s nation state level X is pretty small. But I’m pretty confident I could find a community of 150 people that would be a pretty good fit.
Rafe: Yeah, that subsidiary idea, I think about a lot. We need to devolve as much as possible to local control while also building up systems that can help. Jordan Peterson says something that I like. Well, he says something that I think is profound and also deeply incomplete. He says that the solution to the problems of the state is the virtue of the individual. I think that what I see on the left in this country is often a sense that it’s all systematic. Everything is just a bad system. At this point, it’s like a religious thing, if you just check your privilege enough, somehow the systems will dissipate and then utopia.
But in general, even the leftism that I really respect has this systematic focus. Then where you see more on the right is the idea that we need to build communities or things that are alternative to top-down control and then build up the people. My sense is that you’re never going to get a whole community of individuals who are sufficiently virtuous to resist a very badly set up incentive structure, but you’re also never going to create a set of incentive structures that are sufficiently good that bad actors can’t break them down, so [inaudible 00:57:33]
Jim: Well, that second part, I think is with a question mark. Can we build with modern approaches with radical transparency, for instance? Suppose every checkbook in the world were world readable. That would make a big difference right there in the ability for bad actors to do their things. The blight of corruption, which ruins everything, a huge amount of that’s based upon financial opacity. If there weren’t no such thing as financial opacity that if you’re going to use money, it’s got to be on the public record. That would be, I think, a step towards the possibility at least of building institutions that were much more resistant to capture than the ones we have today.
Rafe: Yeah, that’s interesting. My first reaction and my first thought is that if that system goes corrupted at the top, that the level of power that a top-down control has once those systems of hiding go away is really dangerous. If you think about James C. Scott’s ideas in thinking like a state [inaudible 00:58:43]
Jim: Seeing like a state, seeing like a state.
Rafe: Right. If you see like a state a world of total financial transparency is a world that potential … My first reaction is intuitively that’s a world that states would really like, and that the people who have power, if they can create some opacity around themselves and that it’s always going to be easier to create opacity when you’re at the top.
Jim: So that’s why I absolutely agree with you. In fact, I put this on Twitter yesterday, the only thing worse than the systems we have today is that the government controls it all. So think instead of something like-
Jim: Holochain that allows you to build, you’ll say coordination signaling modalities, including monetary ones and other kinds of currencies that are operated in a decentralized fashion that nobody can attack and nobody can control, and that are probably going to be multiple of those built around bioregions or communities of interest. Those will interoperate with each other through the equivalent of currency exchange, et cetera. So I do think that ironically enough, our long march to Game A has built us tools to allow us to surpass Game A and not fall into the other bad attractor, which is various bad attractors, which are fascism, neo-feudalism, new Dark Ages that the religious nuts take over or just plain old collapse.
So I have not yet given up on a possible road to getting the incentives and the institutions, the institutions are important, but also the virtues, values and norms all together. They’re one of them is enough, the people that say, “Family values, that does it.” Wrong. “Diversity, equity and inclusion, that solves all problems.” No, it doesn’t. There’s a much, much, much bigger move that has to be made if we’re going to get to a place where humanity can survive past the end of the 21st century and continue to prosper.
Rafe: Yeah. So this is the crux of why I’d like to have a conversation with you and like to have a conversation with Daniel Schmachtenberger and the Game B and what I’m doing with EMP, because I don’t understand defi currency and all that stuff exceptionally well. I’m not going to come in here and think that I’m going to say anything brilliant in that area. What I’m curious about is I believe that what I’m doing with EMP is oriented towards the ramping up of virtue in the individual. That-
Jim: Yeah. Let’s talk about that a little bit and then we’ll wrap it up, and we’ll continue it on your show in a month or so.
Rafe: Okay, sounds good. So we need to ramp up the virtue of individuals as we are trying to rebuild the incentive structures. One of the first times I ever heard Game B was actually Brett Weinstein on Joe Rogan talking about parkour as an exemplar of Game B. It’s a Game B to the traditional fitness systems. It’s a Game B to gymnastics. I thought that was profound, and then that got me down the line of thinking about this stuff. But you talk about we need virtue norms, all those things, if you look at Vervaeke’s model, you have propositional knowledge. So we can have an ethical theory, and we can agree on the ethical theory, but what you find is that having a well-developed propositional ethical theory doesn’t actually improve people’s ethical behavior.
We actually have to have practices that help those ethical insights penetrate to the levels of procedural perspectival and participatory knowing. I believe actually that that’s what we’ve built with Evolve Move Play. It’s, in many ways, reflective of lots of things that have come before it. I think of it as a system of Gong Fu. Gong Fu just means good work. But one of the profound insights that’s come through communicating with John is going back and looking at the origins of Greek philosophy, the Greek philosophers met at the gymnasia. Plato was a wrestler. Socrates was a stone mason and a soldier, and they were probably wrestling with each other in the in the gymnasia-
Jim: Probably a little sodomy thrown in there too.
Rafe: Possibly. I actually have a whole line of thinking around the disruption of male sexuality because of violence and how warfare interrupts society that could be interesting to get into, and how we account for that and why chivalry is a miracle. But that’s a whole nother topic. Like the academy, Plato’s Academy-
Jim: Right. Right.
Rafe: He doesn’t name The Academy The Academy. The Academy is the name of a grove where people meet to worship Athena. It’s an olive grove. At that olive grove, people start playing games. Those games, this is a most likely scenario, they become a place then that people organize the traditional activities that strengthen young men to be soldiers. So they run, they do races on horses or chariot races. They throw things, they do jumps and they wrestle. Through that, then you end up in dialogue, and those dialogues are where we get the foundations of Western philosophy. If you look at the idea of internalizing the sage, if you look at the stoics, they’re talking about the idea that that philosophy itself is wrestling in the mind.
Somehow our intellectual tradition has lost this connection between the body and the embodiment of virtue and its relationship to these things. So what I’m trying to forward in these conversations is, yes, we have to think deeply about these things. Yes, we need to build about incentive structures. Yes, we need to build defi currency. I don’t believe you can actually make those communities that you’re talking about with Game B run until you have systems of practices that cultivate the virtue of the individuals that are involved. I think that what I have to offer along with John’s work is a schema for why specific areas might be important and how those relate to the virtues that we want to cultivate.
Jim: I can see how that plugs into John Vervaeke’s broader idea, which is I think pretty well been adopted by Game B in toto, is that we are going to need to develop a set of psycho technologies and an ecology of practices to reinforce our more intellectual sides of things. ‘Cause truthfully, I’ll confess, I’m an intellectual at heart. But again, I know that that’s not how most people are, and most people are going to need, like John talks about, singing together. There are few things more powerful for building coherence and building love between people than regularly and for a purpose singing together, even if you don’t believe in the God in the sky, but you’re doing it for reasons of building that sense of community. There’s a reason that so many traditional religions have had music at their core. As you know, John is a great believer in martial arts. Aikido I think is one that he’s big on.
Rafe: Tai chi. He’s into tai chi.
Jim: Tai chi, that’s it. Yeah. We put that in our list too, that martial arts also clearly have that combination of personal virtue and movement and philosophy all brought together. So I definitely welcome you extending this into the kind of work you do, which is again, a different practice. That’s the beauty of an ecology of practice is that any given community can have a palette of practices to select from that together provide coherence and meaning in life, as you say, very important and can connect the propositional to all the way down the stack, all the way down to the, what’s the part of the brain that modulates repeated motion? The basal ganglia, right?
Jim: So all the way from the neocortex to the basal ganglia, it all has to be integrated if it’s going to hang together. So I’m really happy that folks like yourself are digging in here and trying to figure out how to take their particular practice and connect it up to some of these broader ideas.
Rafe: Yeah, it’s interesting you talk about intentional community building. We build a community every time we have an event. It’s a community of 20 people, but we actually screen everyone who comes in. So we don’t let people buy without talking to us. We have ethics. We say that you’re not going to use mind-altering substances, and you’re not going to sleep with anybody new at the event. It’s a week. It’s not that big of a deal to try and enforce these kind of ethics, but they’re important aspects of the container. Through the years, we’ve seen things like what happens when music is added to an event. So I do this event for four years. Then someone comes who has a musical skill. A couple of people come, and I was actually sick the day music was introduced. I had Lyme disease. So I come back and the next day it’s like they’re a completely different set of people.
It’s like they have superpowers because the social connection is so vital to human beings that literally you have access to just a stronger capacity to move once you feel physically properly connected in a group. It all happens because overnight, while I’m resting and having fevers, they’re playing music together. So then after that, we actually intentionally bring in people and look for people who can be song leaders at every event. Then people come back and write songs about their experiences at the event, and you start to see it. You start to see why it is, and then you start to do the research. Then you realize song probably precedes language. So you’re starting to see how all these things stack in the catalyzation of identity and of community and how if we want these, people need just friends. Forget intentional communities of 150 people, how do people actually even form friendships anymore?
Jim: Yeah. When you read the statistics today, it’s pretty staggering how few friends, how many true friends people have anymore. In my day, you had a dozen real friends. Now you see that the number of friends people have is somewhere between zero and three, right?
Jim: That’s a pretty scary thought.
Rafe: Yeah. The last time I looked at that statistic it was something like on average of three close friends 15 years ago has dropped to an average of one now. So we’ve had a 66% reduction in friendships to the point where also, it’s in an absolute sense it’s like almost none now. What we’ve found is that profound experiences that integrate all those different levels of connection that we’ve talked about that catalyze adaptive of friendship, that’s really, really valuable to people. It’s hard to form those kinds of friendships. So if we have systems that can afford that to people, you can start bottom up building capacity for community right now through-
Jim: Yes, absolutely.
Rafe: … adopting the right kind of practices.
Jim: Very good. Well, let’s wrap her up there. This has been a great conversation. I look forward to continuing it on your podcast next month.
Rafe: Sounds good. Thank you very much, Jim.
Jim: This was a lot of fun and a lot of new, interesting ideas.