MEN AND OUR PACK INSTINCT
by Kevin Smith
One of the most profound influences on our behavior as men is not something we think about very often, because it is hardwired into us on a deeper level of the brain. Humans, like dogs, wolves, apes, zebras, and many other mammals, experience “packing instinct.” We tend to form tight, closed groups, especially when we feel threatened or insecure.
You can read volumes on the packing instinct and its ramifications, but there are a few that are particularly relevant here:
- Animals who pack tend to assume that any animal within their own pack represents a friendly force, while every animal belonging to another pack, an outsider, represents a potential enemy. (Watch for this in groups of Republicans and Democrats, or Christians and atheists, for example. The behavior is easily identifiable. People begin from already formed senses of “friend” or “foe,” and most of what poses as “discussion” simply acts out what packing instinct has already established.)
- Packing instinct amplifies differences. People in groups tend to behave in a more extreme manner than individuals from those groups would act if they were making decisions alone.
- Packing instinct is part of what makes intergroup conflict much more difficult than interpersonal conflict. Making peace between a Palestinian guy and an Israeli guy is relatively doable in a short period of time, if they’re both willing. Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is another thing.
- Animals experience a sense of safety when they are surrounded by members of their own pack, and anxiety when confronted by animals from another pack. We are not hardwired for diversity. Packing instinct encourages us to suspect others who are not like us. Those of us who practice opening to diversity do so against our instincts (we are actually using a process called cognitive dissonance to pit two parts of the brain against each other.The packing instinct is stored in the limbic brain; the knowledge about the value of diversity is more of a function of the cortex.)
- Contrary to popular opinion, not all discomfort with other races, religions, or orientations is learned behavior. Our discomfort with differentness is hardwired from birth. Whether that instinctive anxiety is developed into outright hatred of others, or whether it is countered by learning about the value of diversity and an awareness of our instincts, depends on the ways we are socialized, and on our ability to become self-aware and self-reflective.
What the heck does all of this have to do with Touch Practice? Everything!
How is pack established? Through physical proximity and contact. Animals learn the way other animals smell, and there is a lot of touch that goes on as part of that. There is often physical contact such as nuzzling, rubbing the scent glands of the face from one animal to another. There are complicated hierarchies and authority structures established; there are leaders and followers. Animals in a pack often lie down together and fall asleep together at night, offering each other comfort and safety. All of that helps to establish the sense that “this pack is my pack; this is the herd that I belong to, the animals that smell and look and feel like this.”
One of the very common reactions a man will have after a first Touch Practice with me is that he will look up, open his eyes, and say something along the lines of, “wow, I feel like I have known you for a hundred years. I feel so close to you that it seems like I’ve known you from the beginning of time.” That reaction is essentially a packing instinct reaction; it says “we’re of the same tribe, the same team. I feel safe being physically close to you without needing to feel defended.”
And, curiously: one of the ways that continuing Touch Practice partners will playfully express gratitude, or even greeting, is to “nuzzle” me, to rub the side of their face against mine. I find this behavior remarkable because it is the same behavior wolves use to get their scents onto each other, to establish a sense of pack.
Occasionally I will lead a group experience for 30-50 men called a puppy pile. Puppy pile is a sacred ritual for me; it’s one of the most important spiritual practices I carry. For others it is often just a lot of fun, but for me it is a very serious matter.
Puppy pile is a clothing-on, non-sexual, non-genital-contact, guided group touch experience. After a warm-up period, men very carefully lie down with each other into a large heap (if you’ve ever seen puppies fall asleep against their mother, that’s the idea.) It is very still, quiet, restful. There is deep, slow breathing and sometimes there are sighs or little sounds that indicate happiness from one part of the pile or another. Arms gradually and gently find their way around each other, so that most people are “held” in one sense or another. Not infrequently, men will fall asleep in the pile. Sometimes men will cry from a sense of feeling safe and loved and “belonging” which they have not previously had.
Puppy pile is a physical exercise in forming pack — not with a small and select group, but with everyone in the room, everyone in the community, everyone who will show up. Puppy pile is a sacrament (yes, I will use that word) which allows us to transcend whatever arbitrary boundaries we have constructed, and use our physical bodies to get on the same team. It is very difficult to lie next to someone in a puppy pile and then feel competitive with him once we stand up again. It is almost impossible to have someone fall asleep or cry while you have your arms around him and then perceive him as an enemy agent the next day.
So conscious, mindful Touch Practices, whether individual or group, are one of many ways in which we can deepen awareness of packing instinct and explore it. Packing instinct can be a powerful force that draws us closer together, makes us one tribe, one team, rather than an instinct which divides us into the gay/straight, liberal/conservative, older/younger, in-group/out-group constructions in which we so often live.