Review: The Primal Connection

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Now and then I receive emails from new readers or viewers with a question that goes something like this:

I’m interested in trying a low-carb/paleo lifestyle, but I’m not sure how to get started.  You have a lot of interesting books listed on your Recommended Reading page, but I don’t have time to read them all.  If I wanted to start with just one book, which one would you recommend?

I always give the same answer:  If you’re only going to read one book, it should be The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson.  There are some excellent how-to books for starting a low-carb diet (A New Atkins for a New You fits that bill nicely), there are some excellent examinations of the science (Good Calories, Bad Calories would top that list), but of all the books I’ve read, The Primal Blueprint still does the best job of providing an easy-to-read explanation of both how and why a primal lifestyle can give you back your health.

To summarize the book in one paragraph:  Millions of years of evolution shaped our genetics.  When we eat and move as Nature designed us to eat and move, we express the genes for health.  When we don’t … well, look around and you can see the results. Here’s how you need to eat, here’s how you need to move, and here’s the science to back it up.

Sisson’s latest book is titled The Primal Connection, and perhaps the best one-sentence summary would be the line made famous by radio icon Paul Harvey:  And now, for the rest of the story …

Sisson realized there was more to the story when he heard from readers who told him how much their health had improved since they began eating and moving like Grok, his mascot for our Paleolithic past … but while they felt better, they still didn’t feel good.  They still didn’t feel fully alive and content and happy.  Something was still missing.  As Sisson explains in the book’s introduction:

That diet and exercise are ways in which we can harness gene expression to rebuild, renew, and regenerate ourselves every moment is obvious to me.  But in a short time, I came to believe that there was much more to uncover.  Maybe we are wired for happiness and contentment just as we are for fitness and health.

… Moving away from the trappings of and stresses of modern life is one of, if not the, key goal in the Primal Blueprint approach.  However, when our relationship with our primal ancestors gets distilled into just how we diet and exercise, we lose sight of that ultimate goal.  Considering that our more advanced natures have been evolving over some two millions years, what else might our genes expect from our environment?  Specific sleep conditions?  Certain models of socialization?  Interaction with nature?  Play?  Beyond these questions of what, there’s the question of how these inclinations unfold in modern humans in a modern world.  Are we meeting them?  How do our innate expectations conflict with our contemporary lifestyles?

Grok didn’t just eat differently and move differently than we do.  His life was different from ours in many ways.  He was connected to his neighbors – they were, after all, his tribe.  He was connected to his surroundings.  He was connected to the plants and animals that fed him.  His daily activities were connected to the rising and setting of the sun.

In modern society we’re digitally connected to the entire world, yet disconnected from much of what made us human in the first place.  We can’t sell our houses, cash in our 401ks, and go live in small bands in the woods, but we can, to a large degree, reconnect with the rhythms, habits, and experiences that were part of our primal ancestors’ daily lives.  That’s what The Primal Connection is about.

The book is divided into six major chapters.  Here the titles of those chapters and my (extremely brief) summaries:

The Inner Dialogue Connection.  Grok couldn’t survive by spending half his day listening to negative “monkey chatter” coming from his own brain.  You need your internal dialogue to work for you, not against you.

The Body Connection.  Nature designed us to be active, to touch each other, and to walk barefoot.

The Nature Connection.  Concrete jungles don’t provide the sights, sounds, smells and experiences your genes expect.  Nature does … and getting down and dirty is actually good for your health.

The Daily Rhythm Connection.  Grok didn’t check his friends’ Twitter feeds at midnight and then watch TV for an hour before going to bed.  We were designed to wake with the sun and live by its daily rhythms.

The Social Connection.  For most of human history, we lived in relatively small, close-knit groups.  Having a thousand friends on Facebook won’t do as much for your health as honoring your relationships with the people you actually know.

The Play Connection.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  Grok understood that energetic play was good for his body and his brain.

The Primal Connection is full of good ideas for living a more fulfilling life by finding ways to reconnect with your primal nature.  It’s also a pleasure to read.  If you’ve read The Primal Blueprint or Mark’s Daily Apple, you already know Sisson is a gifted writer who can take complex ideas and translate them into clear, easy-to-follow prose.  I never find myself re-reading one of his sentences to try to figure out what the heck he was trying to say.

For much of the advice Sisson offers in the book, I don’t have to wonder if it actually works.  I know it works.  I’ve already adopted many of the habits and practices he suggests — partly because I’ve read books by some of the authors he references, and partly because in 54 years of trial-and-error living, you learn a few things.

My favorite chapter is The Inner Dialog Connection, in which Sisson spells out what he calls The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers:

  • Take responsibility
  • Be selfish
  • Build a tribe
  • Be present
  • Be curious
  • Trust your gut
  • Pick your battles
  • Get over it
  • Sharpen your spear
  • Be affluent

If you read self-improvement books – financial, spiritual, relationships, artistic development, etc. – you’ll see essentially that same advice over and over.  (Being selfish doesn’t mean living a me-first life, by the way; it means finding time for yourself and not letting other people dominate your life or walk all over you.)  I try to follow that advice because it works.  It didn’t really occur to me until I read The Primal Connection that it works largely because it fits our primal template.

I can’t claim that I’ve perfected all 10 habits, but I can tell you that the more I’ve adopted them, the happier I’ve become.  To me, a tribe is what author Chellie Campbell refers to as Your People in her book The Wealthy Spirit.  If you want to be happy and successful, you need to hang out with Your People.  You need to do business with Your People.  As much as possible, you need to avoid getting tangled up with people who are definitely Not Your People.

Putting that advice into a primal perspective, you could think of Your People as Your Tribe.  If you don’t already have one, Sisson explains how and why you should build one.  I couldn’t agree more … and I’d add the suggestion that if you’re in a tribe that doesn’t feel right for you, get out.  Get out now.  When we lived in Los Angeles, I remember complaining up one side and down another about all the whiny, self-centered, scheming, lying, me-first types I was trying to work with in Hollywood.  After listening politely for awhile, Chareva finally said, “Honey, these aren’t Your People.”  She was right.  That’s partly why we don’t live there anymore.  I needed a different tribe.

I learned about trusting my gut the hard way.  I once took a job as a software contractor even though I got a bad vibe from the owner of the company.  I couldn’t figure out what exactly about the guy bugged me, and the terms were right.  So I took the job.  Months later I found myself threatening legal action if he didn’t pay me the thousands he owed me.  Then, and only then, he admitted he was going bankrupt and couldn’t pay me.

At least I haven’t repeated the mistake.  The couple of times since then that I’ve picked up a bad vibe when meeting with a potential client for some software work, I’ve simply turned down the job, even when I didn’t have another one in the works.

In one of his lectures, Tony Robbins asks a question along the lines of “Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a battle, and after awhile you can’t even remember what you’re fighting for, but you keep right on fighting because you just know you have to win?”

That’s a case of not picking your battles.  If you’re going to get into a fight, there should be a good reason for it.

Now and then some fan will alert me to a hit-piece about Fat Head or me personally that someone posted on the internet, along with a call-to-arms of “You’ve got to respond to this!”

Respond?  Not a chance.  To respond, I’d first have to waste some of my valuable time reading the hit-piece, thus dumping someone else’s garbage into my brain.  (Good way to start a round of monkey-chatter.)  Then I’d have to waste more of my valuable time writing a response.  And in the end, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.  The people who’ve already decided they don’t like you or don’t agree with you aren’t going to be persuaded, no matter what you write.  I still receive the occasional hate-mail in my inbox, and as soon as I realize what it is, I delete it without reading it.  There’s no need to do battle.  I don’t care if some goofball who happened to get my email address doesn’t like me.

Or as I put it to my daughter Sara a couple of years ago when she came home all upset because some dumb jock-type was making fun of her, “Sara, you’re a smart girl.  Smart people don’t waste time worrying about what stupid people think of them.  If he says you’re ugly, or weird, or whatever, just say, ‘Yeah, I know’ and walk away.  Trust me, it’ll frustrate him so much, he’ll give up.”  (He did, by the way.)

I don’t spend much time going barefoot and I’ve been a night-owl for as long as I can remember, so I’m not good at following Sisson’s advice on those fronts.  (Perhaps even in paleo days, there were people like me who stayed up late, tending the fire and watching for predators.)  What I have managed to do is arrange my life so I’m not waking up with an alarm clock.  The company where I work as a software contractor encourages flextime.  So I go to bed when I’m ready, wake up when my body decides it’s had enough sleep, then go to work.  If that means working until 6:30 PM, I’m fine with it.

But since moving to our little farm in Tennessee, I have spent much more time following Sisson’s advice of getting dirty, enjoying natural surroundings, and engaging in energetic play.  I’m definitely happier now than we lived in Los Angeles, but I figured that was simply the result of leaving an area I grew to loathe.

That’s probably part of it, but as Sisson explains, happiness is (like health) often a matter of gene expression.  Sunlight, grass, soil, and the sights and sounds of nature trigger specific biological reactions that enhance our health and our moods.  Perhaps those chickens are providing me with more than just high-quality eggs.  Perhaps those weekend rounds of disc golf in the front pastures are giving me more than just some fresh air and exercise – and if they aren’t, I’ll pretend they are.  “Chareva, I need to go play another 18 holes.  My happiness genes need expressing.”

The chapter on social connections ought to be required reading for the wired-in generation.  It annoys me when I’m in a restaurant and see four young people sitting at a table, with three of them texting or checking their Facebook pages while the fourth sits staring off into space, ignored.  To get in on the conversation, the ignored friend would have to go outside and send a text.  A buddy of mine (a wise father) doesn’t let his teenage daughters take their iPhones into restaurants or social gatherings.  As he tells them, “You’re going to talk to the people you’re with, not people you know on Facebook.”

I’m a blogger and I enjoy the ongoing conversation with people from all over the world.  (So does Sisson, obviously.)  I also like being able to catch up with friends across the country.  But sometimes we need to pull away from our electronic tethers and connect with people who aren’t currently in a different zip code.  I mean seriously, has anything you’ve ever experienced online even come close to the happiness you feel after a lively dinner conversation with a small group of good friends?   Have you noticed that no matter how much you enjoy watching a performer on TV, it never quite matches the experience of actually being there?

Being there was something Grok understood because it was just part of his life.  Being with friends, being with family, being with nature, being in the moment, and being with himself, comfortable in his own skin.

The Primal Connection doesn’t urge you to throw away your iPad or move to the country and raise chickens.  But it does encourage you to be more like Grok.  We don’t know for sure if Grok was content and happy, but I bet his vocabulary didn’t include a word for “angst.”

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52 thoughts on “Review: The Primal Connection

  1. BaldandAngry

    Excellent article and great review of the book. I adopted the Primal lifestyle in May of last year and then unfortunately strayed around October. Honestly I learned a lot about myself, healthy living, and lost a few pounds in the process. I still seek out organic, pastured, and grass-fed products almost exclusively. Currently I mostly just eat steak and eggs. I always lift heavy things and on occasion will do sprints.

  2. BaldandAngry

    Excellent article and great review of the book. I adopted the Primal lifestyle in May of last year and then unfortunately strayed around October. Honestly I learned a lot about myself, healthy living, and lost a few pounds in the process. I still seek out organic, pastured, and grass-fed products almost exclusively. Currently I mostly just eat steak and eggs. I always lift heavy things and on occasion will do sprints.

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