The Caveman Bucket List: 20 Peak Experiences for a Priceless Life

That’s just an awful selfie

I mean, with all of Japan’s beautiful architecture and stunning mountain-top views, why would zen master Hakuin, known to have travelled far and wide in search of enlightenment, choose to depict himself sitting in his boring old zen seat, with grandma slippers and a feather duster? Boring! Everybody knows this image would have earned WAY more likes and follows if he’d struck a pose in front of the Yellow River, panning some duck face and flashing a hand sign. At least put on some sweet new kicks, bro-friend!

Did the poet HanShan exclaim “yolo!” as he left civilization for the hermitage on Cold Mountain? Was anyone there to tweet about it if he did?

While Hildegard Von Bingen was recording all her mystical experiences, why didn’t she ever jot down her bucket list? Or did she

And, why did Henry David Thoreau continue to sit around boring Walden pond day-in, day-out, once he’d crossed off #32 build a shack and # 43 grow some beans? – AND written a whole book about it to humble brag to the Concord elite?

These days, everyone is into “Paleo” diets and “caveman” fitness, convinced that we humans evolved to live, eat and exert ourselves in a certain way, and that despite all their backwards lack of air-conditioning, our ancestors just might have known SOMETHING about how to be human. Why does nobody ever wonder what was on the Caveman’s bucketlist?

Ecologists say each species has its own Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the niche in which they evolved, and in that place, their evolved actions, habits and instincts make sense! But if you remove a species from its EEA, it continues its evolved patterns, but they may no longer fit, and the species may in essence, act insane! Rather than argue over what our most human ancestors ate and drank, why not ask what the cavewoman LIVED FOR and how she LIVED?

For tens of thousands of years (and probably much, much longer) our ancestors went about living their lives, creating memories, discovering untold secrets, having adventures, building life-long deep relationships and romances, busting through personal limits, dancing with gods and goddesses, communing with the raw forces of the universe… often without ever even leaving their own villages. Instead, most of our human cultures marked their lives with journeys into dark, mysterious places, found the empty core of the universe in eachother’s souls, deconstructed the very meaning of life and put it back together in the form of something spectacular, achieved stunning magnificience in ritual and rite. Somewhere way back in your family tree was a shaman great, great, great, great grandmother who dreamt of YOU and her fondest wish for your life was that you would learn to feel the heady power of the sacred grove as she did, that over the chasm of great time and distance you and she would resonate in one-ness there together.

These subtle yet profound life experiences our ancestors lived for are all but forgotten today. We ask: If a tree falls in the woods, but nobody posted it on social media, did it really happen? Did all our human ancestors up to the advent of the zipline and iPhone 5 lead dull, meaningless, unfulfilling lives

Or in contrast, would Henry David Thoreau look upon the jet-setting, world-travelling elite of modern Concord, and still flee their “lives of quiet desperation” in search of his hut in the woods?

In my life I’ve been privileged to travel further than 99.999% of the humans that ever lived, spoken to people in 9 different languages in their own countries, sold original works of art, music and poetry, played in a punk-rock band, sung Opera on professional stages in Europe, starred in plays (good ones!) and movies (terrible ones!) written 3 novels (yup) slept in a castle, played in a marching band, visited some of the great gardens, art and architecture of the world..

But these are not among the most profound moments, experiences and lessons of my life. Nor do they mean that I have “lived” more than those who haven’t had these experiences. Sure, I’ve had some profound experiences while visiting exotic places, but the profound parts could have just as likely (probably MORE likely) happened without ever leaving home. And what one discovers on a real adventure is found inside, and has little to do with the scenery

None of the following fundamental human experiences require belief, none require drugs, none of it requires meeting the Dalai Lama or attending expensive beach-side retreats in the tropics with world-renown “gurus.” These are not things to be bought at any prices. And these are experiences that are found in all traditions, and are open to anyone, from Christians, to Pagans, to Muslims, to Buddhists, and Atheists. I can fully believe in these fundamental human “spiritual” experiences without having to believe in anything supernatural.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not kicking the bucket list idea entirely. At its best, the bucket idea taught a generation to live their lives, to value experiences over buying stuff, and being adventurers over being consumers. Rad. But at its worst, it makes us into consumers of our own lives, looking to buy experiences, approval and wisdom from others. 

So here’s a new section for MY bucket: the vital human experience, the Caveman list, aspirations most of our human ancestors likely shared in. I really don’t ever need another selfie sipping umbrella drinks on an exotic beach, and neither did Captain Caveman. I want to journey to far darker, more mysterious, more hidden places: the room of the wolf-mother wallpaper, the room where the antler carved the drum… and shit. I’ve personally visited enough of these places to know that they are real, and well worth the price of admission. But I’m not gonna put a big checkmark next to them to show off, because they’re the sort of things you build a truly fulfilling life upon, not the kind you cross off once you’ve got the selfie.


1. Being still enough long enough that the “world rolls in ecstasy at my feet,” as Kafka said. This is a fundamental experience, sought after in all the world’s mystic traditions, because it is both a profound experience in itself, but also something that is said to deepen the every other potential experience. When one can quiet the mind, it is said we can experience our lives more directly, instead of having to squint to see reality through the tint of our own rose-colored glasses, and we can hear the song of the world without struggling over the noise of our own mental chatter. This is an experience that can be had both alone and with company, such as in the Japanese tea ceremony, or participating in contemplative arts.

2. The breakdown of perception of time. Mystics across many traditions wrote about this experience and modern science is confirming the possibility. Some highlight destinations in the time-travelogues of mystic literature: “to see my own face before my father was born,” to spend a “few eternities” as the god of the sea as the Buddha did, and to finally understand that line in Revelations about “a time, times and half a time.” Seriously, wtf? 
3. Sympathetic joy. To experience the joy of others opens us up to a whole world of joy! Infinite joy! It also defends us from the boring grumpiness of jealousy when our friend gets a promotion. It can even deaden the sting of enmity and hate. But it is also said this deep form of compassion is the basis for experiencing the arts more fully. Imagine feeling what the great painters felt as they put the final touches on their masterpieces?
4. To co-evolve in my own forest garden. This is another fundamental human experience, intimately connected to spiritual traditions and religious rites in many cultures. It’s an amazing thing to grow inside such a system… like “the Doctor and her TARDIS,” or Doc Brown and his DIY time machine!

5. I am my ecology. My ecology is me. Sacred connection with nature. This is something far more profound than the common new-agey version: “We’re all one, we’re all like connected, man!” This is an experience born of both insight and deep understanding.. 
6. The care of magical creatures. One of the lies we tell oureslves in our culture is that “animals” are not the same as us, they do not feel, do not have their own romances and adventures, hopes and dreams. And so we de-vitalize them. It takes a sort of renunciation (renouncing this lie) to begin to see our non-human animals as the vital, living, amazing creatures they actually are. Once we do, we’re surrounded by magical creatures more magnificient than anything in Harry Potter. Look!
7. Deep, life-long relationships such as those formed in folk societies and horticultural villages. It would be amazing to share a cup of coffee with a friend over 50 years of time.
8. The Epicurean Life: Self-reliance, living with friends, Contemplation. Epicurus wanted to learn what made the ultimate human life. His bucket list was real simple, yet so profound that ideas about the good life still bear his name today!
9. Getting un-carved: Daoists call the human ideal “the Uncarved Block.” How it’s often described: To get up, stretch, breathe, eat while reading a few lines of a book for inspiration, mindfully practice some kind of useful, simple work, take a meal with friends, spend some time in quiet contemplation, walk in the garden….
10. Life in “Dunbar’s village.” The Dunbar Group researches relationships in horticultural societies and folk villages. They describe the kind of relational landscape humans evolved having and it is again, beautiful, profound and simple. It would be an amazing accomplishment to get to experience that! For most of us, this will mean getting creative about how we engage in village building and community organizing. 
11. A life-long path of spiritual development. It’s said these tools can be sharpened over a lifetime of use, polished into sublime states of refinement and radiance. What an opportunity!
12. Freedom from possessions. Hard work in the modern age, yet quite a worthy accomplishment! This might take me some time to fully get to. But I hope to work towards this the rest of my life, making a goal to own less, and less and less, to make room in my life for what’s really valuable. 
13. The freedom of self -reliance. To grow my own food, grow my own medicine, be able to live off the land, to be as trusting and care free as the “lilies of the goddamn field.”

14. To stop trying to control the world, to stop “aspiring” to exert “power” over others and over society, and instead lead by example. To fully “let go” into life and “trust” the world. That sentence has a bunch of worlds with a bunch of quotation marks, because our society has all sorts of bad ideas about these things. I’ve come to think that what I was taught was “power” is actually a complex of delusion, agression and insecurity. “Aspiration” as we use it too often lacks any genuine self-knowledge, which leaves it as nothing more than settling for conformity to a sick society. Finding what it means to “trust” humans in such a sick society is its own challenging quest. 
15. Deep trust and true love. Awe, I’m a romantic like that. But I’m also not limited by conventional ideas about what any of that means. 
16. The Djanas. These are the states of concentration the word “zen” is derived from, and they’ve often been compared to mind-blowing orgasm, but timeless and infinite, and subtle. While this word comes from the Buddhist world, one can find similar descriptions of states of deep concentration and contemplation across many of the world’s mystic traditions. 
17. The outright ecstasy of creative, artistic revelry, to “lose myself” in song and dance. The great experiences of life lie along the extremes of the spectrum of “pleasures subtle and gross.” According to the great mystics, it is the experiences at the “sublte” end, found through simplicity, that are the greatest experiences a human is capable of. But, surely there’s something to be said for “gross” bold, hedonistic overwhelming pleasures, too!
18. To commit to and follow a culturally relevant spiritual tradition. Tough for a skeptic like me. But I wish to be more than a consumer of spiritual products. I wish to experience that fundamental of following a spiritual path. Many paths lead to the top of the mountain. Only one moon shows in the sky. 
19. To eat really, really good just-picked fruit at that magical moment before the sugar starts converting to starch and the complexity of flavor is so profound you literally see technicolor. Or at least I do.  
20. Lucid dreaming. 

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