Tag Archives: indigenous

Calendars, Seasons & Cycles

There are four types of calendars:

  • A lunisolar calendar follows both the cycles of the moon and sun. Because the days, weeks and months are fixed, holy-days determined by the lunar cycle fall on different calendar days each year. (e.g. Hebrew, Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, and pre-Christian Germanic tribes)
  • solar calendar like the Gregorian and Julian ones we are most familiar with follows the cycle of the sun only. It tends to be used by agricultural cultures. (e.g. Christian, Berber, Tamil, Bengali, and the French Republican calendar)
  • mooncalendar.jpgA lunar calendar follows the cycle of the moon only and may have 12 or 13 months in honour of the number of moons in a year. (e.g. Islam, Igbo & Yoruba of Nigeria)
  • A seasonal calendar is based on elemental (earth, air, fire, water), floral (plant) and faunal (animal) patterns throughout a year. The number and types of seasons are dependent on specific places, so even tribes near each other may have different seasons if their land has a river that floods during a “wet” time, or if an animal migrates through their land at a specific time of year. (e.g. Aboriginal Australians)

You may think that four seasons a year has been standard in European cultures, but the old Norse calendar had only two: summer began in mid-October, and winter in mid-April. The “Wheel of the Year” is a common calendar used by modern-day pagans of European ancestry and is based on the equinoxes and solstices, and the half-way moments between them to mark changes of a four-season calendar. The images below are of Heathen (modern-day Germanic and Norse pagan) and Celtic pagan calendars. If you are in the Southern hemisphere and wish to honour this calendar, Glenys of Pagaian Cosmology translates it so your celebrations are seasonally appropriate.

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wheelofyear

 

There are many ways of acknowledging seasons and cycles because of the diversity of environments, traditions and beliefs that influence a culture. The term “pagan” may make you think of someone in pre-Christian Europe who worships multiple gods, but it actually refers to people who are “fixed or fastened” to the land, i.e. villagers and country folk. In other words, pagans are people who have not yet experienced cultural genocide and disconnection from their ancestral homelands and whose culture is indigenous to, or rooted in, a specific environment and place. Aboriginal Australians offer us a reminder of how all humans once lived “fastened” in sacred connection with our environments:

(Clip from here.)

Exercise: Wherever you live, consider how to describe a seasonal calendar in your area. You may want to use the image below as a blank canvas, and an Aboriginal seasonal calendar as an example. Consider how this may be different to the environment and seasonal calendar of your blood ancestors from another land. Consider how you might honour this knowledge in your life today. (Image from here.)

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Peace Circles

earthethospeacecircle“Stories are medicine…embedded with instructions” that guide us about how to live our lives (Estés, 1997). Practices of talking circles, or peace circles, have emerged within many cultures throughout known human history, though most modern Westerners don’t understand underlying cosmological foundations of these practices, which come from indigenous cultures. The talking circle is a metaphorical life tool of the medicine wheel. Being aware about what we are doing allows metaphor to bring ceremonies like talking circles to life (Rael, 1998). It is no mystery why, in Australia for example, when people with indigenous ancestry facilitate yarning circles, a type of talking circle, it feels different than when Westerners do. I learned why while working for a decade in the field of restorative justice. When we encouraged people to put altars in the middle of their circles, I had quite an aha moment when I saw what people were using to metaphorically represent the heart centre. “A common mistake when examining myths of other cultures is to interpret them with symbols and values of our own culture” (Gleiser, 2012). Common values of the dominant Western cosmology such as competition, hierarchy, individualism, and the primacy of the nuclear family greatly limit our ability to embody indigenous wisdom (Thibodeau & Nixon, 2013). When this happens, ceremonies can “become empty of their power” (Rael, 1998).a

Consider the difference between participating in a plant medicine ceremony in the jungles of Peru with a shaman who spent decades apprenticing with a teacher and working with plants and spirits of the jungle deeply connected with the land and its ancestors, versus participating in a plant medicine ceremony in an apartment in a Western city facilitated by someone who got the medicine from such a shaman and perhaps studied with the shaman for a short period of time. (Image is a screenshot from an online gallery of Amazonian-Andean artist Juan Carlos Taminchi of ayahuasca visions.)taminchiartThe depth of relationships, and the experiences, feel quite different to participants. Similarly, instead of peace circles as a tool to help control behaviour or improve the way people speak and listen to each other as is common in westernised restorative justice practices based on a Judeo-Christian worldview, an Earth Ethos peace circle is an opportunity for a communal spiritual experience based on an indigenous cultural cosmology. Because of the intentional use of metaphor, it ought to feel different to participants (and certainly does to me) than simply sitting in a circle (or around a table where we are blocked from connecting with each other physically) and passing around a talking piece. Many indigenous peoples use oral traditions to preserve cultural wisdom. Verbal repetition and physical embodiment of teachings keeps them pure (Rael, 2015). An important aspect of any medicine wheel ceremony, including a peace circle, is purification or cleansing, opening participants’ hearts for sharing wisdom as a community. Purification is often symbolised through the use of smoke, or smudging.

ent.jpgHealing of, and prevention of, dis-ease requires ceremony. Ceremony is an important human practice connecting the visible material/physical world with the invisible, spiritual world. Life feels empty and unsatisfying when we do not do enough ceremony, and ceremonies are most powerful done regularly and intentionally in community (Rael, 1998). Disease in indigenous thinking is caused by natural and supernatural forces, where natural forces include things like cold air, germs, or impurities in food and water, and supernatural forces include things like upset social relations between people, with ancestors, or other beings such as spirits of the traditional custodians of a place (Sussman, 2004). (Image is a depiction of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s land spirits called the Ent, a tree spirit) Western concepts of unconscious or subconscious drives are similar to indigenous concepts of such spiritual forces (Holliday, 2008). When we focus our energy on cultivating healthy invisible environments based on values such as acceptance, non-judgment, inclusivity, compassion and empathy, we help purify our own hearts and the collective unconscious, or the spiritual realm. Indigenous thinking teaches that our social reality is based on a fundamental understanding of life in which humans are interconnected with all of nature, and by participating in an Earth Ethos peace circle, we literally embody Mother Earth together by sitting in a circle with an altar at the centre honouring the interconnected web of life we are part of. If you’re in Sydney and want to join a monthly Earth Ethos peace circle, please contact me for more information.

Dignity & privilege

One of the basic premises of an Earth Ethos, and of indigenous teachings generally, is an innate worthiness of being. It does not depend on behaviour or social status or species; all beings on Earth are of worth. This is the foundation of dignity, whose root comes from Latin for “to accept, to take.” In the previous post I wrote about how acceptance keeps us in the present moment. And when we’re in the present moment in a state of worthiness, we are strong and we are dignified, even if behaviour of another person is not. Privilege, on the other

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hand, comes from the Latin words for “private” and “law,” indicating an advantage, right or priority over another person, group, or even species. In social justice circles there has been a lot of discussion in recent years of privilege related to race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, age, citizenship, and disability. I know there are real life impacts for many of us because of social privileges, but our focus on these inequities distracts us from the important work of ensuring that we stand in dignity and see others that way regardless of their behaviour or beliefs. It’s our responsibility to remember that regardless of the domination of certain social stories and world views, there is innate dignity in all ways of being. Stories are powerful because we feed them, even if we do so by fighting.

It does not matter if a person has a million dollar home or a high social status job, being in denial and numb to painful feelings is not a privilege, is it disembodiment, disconnection with self, others, and the present moment. It is a disabled and difficult way to navigate the world. I know this because after numerous efforts to ask for help and protect myself from sexual abuse as a child failed, I dissociated, and did not re-member those experiences until my mid-twenties. My life before that was really hard and confusing. It has taken many years and hard work to build a trusting relationship with myself. I have had to let go of and reform numerous unhealthy relationships including my entire family of origin; I have had to ride out decisions based on that denial and numbness and give myself grace in the process; and I have had to dig deep into my psyche to question foundational stories and beliefs that guided me for over 20 years, and replace them with ones that feel and work better. (Image from here. And like skill, you could rank by social privilege as well.)dignity-cartoon.png

Sometimes it feels like we have no choice, because everyone around us is on board; we feel forced to accept global stories like, for instance, capitalism, or countries and borders, or languages we communicate with. These big stories do privilege certain values and world-views. This is Christmas season. How many of us know that Jesus was not born on this day, and that the Catholic Church repurposed indigenous European celebrations for winter solstice over 400 years after Jesus’s death? (Even a Christian site called www.allaboutgod.com knows this. In fact, many of the so-called Christmas traditions have strange histories. It’s okay to celebrate something on another day, like when it’s your birthday on a Tuesday and you have a party the Saturday before, but it’s less powerful than if you celebrated the actual date. It’s the same with solstice. It would be a lot more powerful if we celebrated winter/summer solstice on the actual celestial days instead of the days chosen for Easter/Christmas depending which hemisphere you’re in.Consider connecting with the powerful celestial energy this solstice and doing something to celebrate our planet regardless of what else you celebrate. In the southern hemisphere, Christmas celebrations with fake snowmen, fake pine trees, fake garlands, and sweaty Santas in summer are farcical. (Image from here.)

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It is of course possible to be dignified in celebrating Christmas; it is meaningful to many people. It is also important to recognise, whether you celebrate it or not, that in society right now Christmas is privileged, and to consciously decide how you want to behave given that social reality. Most of us get time off of work for Christmas, and some of us have to use our vacation to celebrate days that are meaningful to us which are not socially privileged. If you have not taken the time to reflect on what the elements of the modern Christmas celebration mean to you and whether your participation aligns with your values and world view, I encourage you to. How could I get out of this if I wanted to?you might ask. Everyone buys presents, decorates houses and offices, makes certain foods, plays certain music, and expects me to join in. Didn’t anyone ever ask you as a kid if everyone was jumping off a cliff if you would too when you used that sort of logic? Christmas celebrations started to feel empty to me as my sex abuse memories were integrating. Christmas memories from childhood were joyful because my dad spent time doing creative things with me, not because there was deep meaning in the specific activities. I didn’t know why I was busily making and buying things, as I am not a dignityquote2.jpgmaterialist or a Christian, so I told people close to me I would focus on birthdays and important life events, and I stopped. I don’t want to deprive anyone of the joy of giving, but I don’t want to feel burdened receiving what is intended as a gift, so I told people close to me if they want to give me something, I prefer personal notes, meals, time together, and handmade art. I dislike expectations to behave a certain way on a day that is not especially meaningful to me, so Luke and I take short trips just the two of us over Christmas to enjoy Mother Nature instead. This all make it easier for me to stand in dignity because I am accepting me and not playing a victim by gracefully navigating a situation where my way of being is not socially privileged. Cultivating the discipline to deny ourselves that which brings us pain and suffering helps us stand in dignity and experience more joyful abundance.

From a pagan friend: Happy Holidays meme.jpg

The cynicism trap

If you’re reading this, chances are you are someone who walks willingly into uncomfortable feelings and values lessons gained through pain. Thank you. Your presence on the planet makes a difference when you walk such a path. I too have been on a hardcore heart-warrior journey for years with an understanding that energy is trans-form-able. I have trusted that being with and creatively expressing painful emotions is a valuable way to be of service. In some respects, this perception is misguided. Mary Shutan reminds us that certain primal energies related to survival are by their nature quite brutal. They are worthy of being with and expressing creatively, but they are not transformable. Most of us have witnessed a predatory animal stalk and eat its prey. Most of us have physically stood near an animal that humbled us and showed us our place in the food chain. (Who wants to swim near this guy?)

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Most of us have experienced forces of nature bigger than we are, such as tornadoes or flash floods. Some of us have faced homelessness or joblessness and been unsure how our basic physical needs will be met. Experiences like these challenge our individual survival and ask us to stand in faith. I define faith like Christina Pratt as “a liquid state of grace”, a free-fall, a letting go and allowing something bigger to steer us for a while.

seattleIn his famous speech Chief Seattle foretold that the way U.S. settlers were treating Mother Earth was moving us collectively into “The end of living and the beginning of survival.” I find it helpful to think of survival as more complex than fight, flight or freeze. One researcher suggests the following survival strategies: rescuing, attaching, adapting, asserting, fighting, fleeing, competing, and cooperating (Valent, 1995). Knowing that a small proportion of people are controlling physical resources, and that through various ways of looking at inequalities physical survival fears are very real, and that legal systems are maintaining many of these imbalances, I can see why some say that trauma-induced behaviours such as hyper-vigilance are actually evolutionary protective mechanisms to help us survive modern life (Silove, 2007). (Image from Wikipedia.)

Across the planet species are going extinct, human languages and cultures are dying, polar ice caps are melting, and lands are disappearing underwater. In an Earth Ethos, we are all interconnected, so if we didn’t feel pain with those things going on, we wouldn’t be living! I think it is important to accept we live in a time filled with survival struggle energy that it is brutal by nature and often seems to have incredibly unfair impact. Accepting this does not mean that we give up, lose hope, renounce faith, or fall into the cynicism trap by giving up on a healthy, balanced future vision for generations to come. While we may not be able to transform primal survival energy, we can transform cynicism and question ourselves when we or others get caught up serving survival strategies. I say “serving” because, years ago Tom Lake said to me there is a difference between “being of service” and “being a servant.” When we are guided by rigid stories in our minds, we are servants blindly acting them out. Consider the “good person” story. We feel the need to do certain actions and avoid others to prove we are “good,” then we judge others’ behaviour as “bad” and justify acting on our righteous anger by punishing them, which is the basis of our criminal justice system. I find this story incredibly destructive, and I agree with Sadhguru that there are no good or bad people, only miserable and joyful people.

imwithher.jpgWhen we are miserable we are rejecting or rebelling against reality, which is destructive and results in existential crisis. When we are accepting we remain in the present moment, however painful. Many of us understandably feel overwhelmed by the depth of pain on the planet right now, so we numb ourselves with substances such as sugar, caffeine or alcohol; run away to our heads to avoid certain feelings; and seek out “light work” or “positive psychology” to create bubbles of security around ourselves. This is so common that a famous social psychology study published in the 80s suggesting that “overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism…promote mental health” has yet to be refuted. So not only are we serving a story (like being a good or bad person) that doesn’t need to survive, we are avoiding the important responsibility creating a vision for future generations of a world we want them to live in, but the cynicism trap doesn’t even improving our mental health! The medicine I find works best when you catch yourself falling into the cynicism trap is to let go of that cynical vision and move into a graceful free-fall instead, living on faith for a while. The more I stand in faith, the more clearly I see that Mother Earth has a beautiful vision she’s desperately trying to communicate to us when we move through our survival fears and make space to listen and act on her guidance and wisdom. (Image from here.)

Exercise: What survival strategies do you most commonly use (rescuing, attaching, adapting, asserting, fighting, fleeing, competing, and cooperating)? Where are you serving a story that does not need to survive? What is preventing you from letting go of control and standing in faith?

 

 

Hope for Change

In Old English, the word hopa, from which modern-day “hope” emerged, meant “confidence in the future.” For me, this requires trusting in natural forces more powerful than I, and a willingness to venture into unknown territory (inside and outside myself) with an open mind and heart. It requires me to set aside what I think I know in order to see what is and will be. Daily contemplative practices like meditation and prayer purify me so that there is space in my world for miracles to occur. In my experience, where I do such practices makes a difference.

hopeflower.jpgAmericans often say, “I went for a walk in nature.” This is crazy, because we are always in nature. A house, a church, an office, a car—these are natural, highly cultivated, environments. A forest, a desert, a seashore, a mountaintop—these are natural, wilderness environments. Think about a spectrum of highly cultivated environments such as New York City, to total wilderness environments such as Alaska, and think about how you feel and behave in different environments. In cities, we tend to cultivate our lives: we carefully groom our faces, clothe our bodies, decorate our houses, cook pre-packaged foods, and schedule our time. In wilderness, we tend to let go and flow more. (Image from here.)

Many of us think that wilderness is meant to be free from human impact. This is simply not so in indigenous cultures. I have heard indigenous environmental advocates say that once there is stronger cultural consensus about respecting wilderness, they will come into conflict with Western environmentalists who want to keep it pristine and virginal. The lyrebird in Australia is famous for mimicking sounds in its environment. In recent years as its environment has been impacted by us modern humans, it has learned not only to the songs of birds and sounds of other animals, but of chainsaws and car alarms. The lyrebird does not judge some sounds as more or less natural, so why do we?

In an Earth Ethos, we humans need to interact with our environment, and in fact we have a sacred responsibility to do so. Taking a few minutes to meditate, pray, or practice mindfulness is a simple way to give back to our environments and express gratitude for all the gifts the natural world gives us. A “sit spot” is a simple contemplative practice for being in wilderness. All that is involved is sitting still in a wilderness environment and being as present as you can. The best “sit spot” is one that you are easily able to access, such as a park or garden near your home or office. Even sitting for five minutes a day makes a difference in how we feel in our bodies and how connected we feel with our wild Mother Earth.

foraging

A Potawatomi elder and academic refers to modern humans as “species poor.” Most of us eat foods and use medicines bought in stores, and if we do grow our own, most of those plants originated in other places. Foraging enriches us by improving our connection with our environment and demonstrating our respect for the land. Indigenous wisdom says that plants emerge to offer the medicine and nutrition we need to survive in a specific environment. A simple practice is to learn some edible and medicinal plants in your current environment, gather and use them. (Image from here.)

organicWhen we change our perspectives, we change the world. When we recognise value in plants and animals in our environments, we act accordingly. Ten years ago few of us knew what “free range”, “grass fed” or “organic” food was. As an increasing number of people saw the destructive impacts of pesticides and other high-yield agricultural practices, collective modern culture began to change. Today, most of us are more aware of what we’re eating than we were ten or twenty years ago. That gives me hope that as we keep growing, more Earth Ethos changes will occur in our lifetimes. (Image from here).

Exercises: Start a “sit spot” practice. Learn to forage in your neighborhood.

Space Clearing

smokeWhen I have lived in big cities such as Mumbai and L.A. I would come home and wipe visible grime off my skin. But I also picked up a ton of invisible psychological, spiritual, and emotional grime, and we often forget about this. Imagine how many people’s thoughts are projected onto you each day, how many people’s and other animals’ emotions you pick up on, and how much spiritual energy (probably mostly negativity) you pick up too. When a friend asked an indigenous elder how cleansing worked, he said the smoke eats us. What that means to me is that the smoke literally eats away at all the energies we are carrying that are blocking us. These days the only serious cleanses of spaces we tend to do are fumigations with toxic chemicals for pest control. Yet cleansing our space is a simple way to shift our energy, lighten our loads, and literally make space for new blessings to flow into our lives. Hospitals, schools, cars and homes are all very different spaces when we release the myriad of projections and energy patterns that build up in them! (Image from here.)

smudge

In indigenous cultures, purification with smoke is often referred to as smudging. Plants chosen for burning carry symbolism for a culture and are local to a place. Native Americans burn tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass and sage. Palo santo wood is burned in the Amazon. Aboriginals in Australia burn acacia, eucalyptus, paperbark and treefern (Guédon, 2000). Plants are burned to symbolise the purification of a space for healing. This reminds us of the sacredness of life and helps us be in the present moment. In Tiwa language of the American Southwest, the word “nah-meh-nay” refers to land, which means “the self that purifies” (Rael, 1998, p. 29). (Image from here.)

Clearing a space by burning incense, plants, or resin is done for similar reasons in many Christian, Buddhist and other religious and medicinal traditions. Scientific studies investigating herbs used by indigenous cultures suggest that smudging may cleanse bacteria from the air (See e.g. Nautiyal, Chauhan, & Nene, 2007; Mohagheghzadeh, Faridi, Shams-Ardakani & Ghasemi, 2006). In fact, as recently as during WWI, rosemary was burned in hospitals for cleansing a space.

In an Earth Ethos, we clear space by working with the four elements (earth, air, fire, water). To honour the earth element, we use incense, herbs, plants or resin; to honour the fire we light it; to honour the air we allow the smoke to spread throughout the space; and to honour water we spritz it (often mixed with an essential oil or infused with an herb or flower) around the space to finish. When cleansing a space, it is important to set an intention that everything unnecessary/not yours be released. Feel free to use specific prayers if you follow a certain tradition. While plants, trees and flowers have unique strengths that herbalists know, using something you feel intuitively drawn to or that you have a relationship with already (like you have grown it in your garden for a while), will strengthen the cleanse. For example, sage is commonly sold and used to cleanse a space, but it is traditionally used not to cleanse a space, but to create sacred space before a ceremony (Mary Shutan, 2018)

bathBefore you cleanse the space outside of you, it is important to smudge your body and walk through a spritz of the water you will use so you are as clear as the room! A full body smudge is often done in the shape of a cross going along one arm across the chest to the other, up above the head and down to the feet, and then the same around the back of the body. For a more thorough bodily cleanse, consider a mindful bathing/cleansing ritual. Spiritual bathing, whether just in pure water or with additional herbs or minerals, is an ancient practice of purification done across cultures and religious traditions. It takes the form of baths, steams, saunas, hot spring soaks, and sweat lodges. Science has shown that the skin is our largest organ, so it helps keep us healthy on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels to cleanse it in an intentional, ritual way. A simple and effective bath you at home is adding salt to bathwater, along with a spoonful of non-piped-in water such as collected rainwater, seawater, or water from a nearby lake or river to strengthen the power of the water. This blog has useful basic information about spiritual bathing. And if you don’t have a bathtub (which I didn’t in my previous apartment), it’s amazing what a weekly saltwater/essential oil intentional foot soak can clear!

Unless you have a lot of stuck energy in your life, or there has been a lot of arguing or pain in your space or your body, a once a month spiritual house cleanse and once a week spiritual body cleanse should be sufficient (Mary Shutan, 2018). It’s a small ask that can deliver big results. 

Exercise: Clear your space and cleanse your body with a spiritual bathing ritual. Even better, do regular rituals for a few months, and see how it improves your life’s flow!

 

 

Gift Economy

A market economy is based on exchange, how much we owe (based on lack) and are able to earn (based on social judgment). A gift economy is based on faith, how much we share (based on trust) and give away (based on abundance). To me a gift economy has always felt natural. Embodying this Earth Ethos of faith, trust and abundance has been a life-long challenge in a lack-based global market economy. It has taken me many years of barely eking out a living, as well as numerous failed personal and professional relationships, to navigate this philosophical conflict with popular culture. Today, many of the services we call “sharing,” like paying to be in a car pool, are still part of a market economy. Charles Eisenstein is an advocate for a gift economy in modern Western culture, and his description of it is as follows:

Many indigenous cultures embody the philosophy of a gift economy. For the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Canada, the wealthiest people are those who give away resources in a potlatch ceremony, which may be planned a year in advance and last for several days. During the ceremony the host distributes wealth amongst guests, including beaded jewellery, leather clothing, and lavish foods. As Elder Agnes Axu Alfred explains:

“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy.” 

In Papa New Guinea, people work for years to be able to give a moka gift to another person, who then works to gather an even bigger moka gift to give, as explained in the following video:

(The full documentary entitled Ongka’s Big Moka is available here.)

While being part of a market economy is currently compulsory for most of us to survive, there are areas of life where we can embody a gift economy. The first principle of abundant giving is that we have to be filled up ourselves and have extra energy to give. We have all experienced someone brimming with kindness so that we feel it in their presence, and another person clearly intending to be kind only able to offer a sheepish smile. Being honest about what we are capable of abundantly giving helps us avoid being in a space of lack. Whether mentally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically, we can only give to another what we ourselves possess. Once we judge/expect ourselves, saying we “should” embody a certain state of being, we have lost the ability to embody what we intend. A strengths-based perspective is the starting point for a gift economy.

Simple acts of kindness without expectation of anything in return (not even a thank-you) embody a gift economy, as do larger acts like doing pro bono work or volunteer projects. Most spiritual traditions enshrine the philosophy of a gift economy into their teachings, such as Christian tithing or Buddhist dana. Some organisations such as Vipassana meditation centres and Brahma Kumaris talks and retreats operate entirely on participant donation. But I have observed an insidious tendency to create expectations for exchange. A “Suggested Donation” of a specific monetary amount carries an expectation of a specific exchange, and trying to prove you are “a good person”, alleviate guilt, or “create good karma” are lack-based intentions. (The image below is from here.)

abundance

In my experience, embodying a gift economy in modern Western culture requires firm boundaries, strong skills of discernment, compassion and deep self-knowledge. We need to be willing to receive no money or expressions of gratitude from the person we are serving, and to prevent abuse, we need to know when to say no, to stop giving when it is no longer a gift. I call this spiritual social work, and there are an abundance of opportunities for all of us to practice it daily, such as giving compassion to a person criticising our behaviour, empathising with a leader struggling with narcissism, or giving grace to an erratic driver. Instead of judging and placing someone in lack, which then requires us to forgive, we can practice accepting and holding both of us in abundance. In my life, the person in whose presence I felt the most abundance, who was a subsistence farm woman in rural Guatemala who had a condition causing her skin to change colour and peel off her face and body. She had such a strong, vibrant spirit she was emanating light and to be in her presence felt joyful. Though I have had dinner with billionaires, this lady remains the wealthiest woman I have seen.

 

Bridging identities

There is increasingly a movement for recognising non-binary gender and sexual identities. I see how much relief it brings people to be able to call themselves bisexual, pansexual, gender non-conforming, etc. There is also increasingly a celebration of multi-cultural identities, which primarily means a celebration of people with different ancestral homelands, traditions, foods, clothing, etc. I see how much relief it brings people to be able to call themselves African-American, Greek-Australian, Russian-Jewish, etc. Something that is very dear to me is a recognition of non-dualist cultural identity.

I see how indigenous and non-indigenous identities evolved from separating the colonised from the most recent coloniser, labelling one as wounded victim and the other as wounded offender. It is important to acknowledge historical trauma and the enduring wounds people carry who experienced colonial dispossession, as well as the wounds of those whose ancestors dispossessed others. I appreciate the modern Australian practice of acknowledging “traditional owners” of a place, though I think stewards would be a more apt word. (I do not know where this image is from and will link it if shown.)

earthhands

We are all humans indigenous to the Earth. We are all indigenous to a land of which we were born; we all have ancestors indigenous to at least one known place, often numerous ones; and we are all in a process of becoming indigenous to a place where we are now living and embodying ourselves and crafting our senses of identity. In fact, I venture that every single one of us on this Earth carries ancestral trauma of being dispossessed of or otherwise removed from a sacred homeland. And we all need support healing these wounds. Despite all of this, I see few people willing to identify as indigenous without being aware of their ancestral connection with a known, existing tribal group. And:

According to the UN the most fruitful approach is to identify, rather than define indigenous peoples. This is based on the fundamental criterion of self-identification as underlined in a number of human rights documents.”

If culture emerges from the Earth below, and I, for example, was born of the land we call North America, then my body, and to some extent my identity, is indigenous to that place. I mean no disrespect to people of cultures that have developed more intimate relationships with a place than I; such people, when willing, have much wisdom to share with those of us of born in or living in a place who are still learning how to live in harmony in our environments. If I, for example, live in Australia and am transplanting my body and being in this environment, I am learning how to be indigenous here and to connect with my husband who is of this land. (Image from here.)

Non-Dual-Thinking

I honour spiritual leaders who see people crying out in pain for lack of connection with place and offer basic tools to help us connect. I envision us all remembering that we are one big human family, that we all are indigenous to somewhere and so were our ancestors, and that to claim an exclusive indigenous or non-indigenous identities is to play a social game that perpetuates separation and pain. By all means, claim an identity with a tribe and be proud of it, please. For those of us who cannot do so because such identities were lost touch with long ago in our ancestral lineage, please find a way to hold us in heart and mind as also indigenous, newly learning how to honour the Earth, our collective Mother, where we are placed now and where we have come from. Here is a poem I wrote about the social conflict I experience:

Land bridge

My heart is indigenous
In sync with the seasons
My feet firmly grounded
In Mother Earth below me.

My spirit is indigenous
Interconnected with all that is
Flaming with animist passion
For peaceful coexistence.

My mind is indigenous
Built upon a cosmology
Of communal integrity,
Wholeness and ease.

My soul is indigenous
Ravished with pain
In States of mankind’s
Civilising war games.

My name is indigenous
Given during a spiritual journey
CloudClearer, who helps release
Dis-eased thinking.

I challenge cultural exclusion,
Indigenous and non-indigenous;
Living between identities
I cry out for community.

Being & Doing

When walking the medicine wheel in everyday life, we choose where to place our focus. The lower world, the invisible, felt world of Mother Earth is a metaphor for our state of being. Out of our state of being arises action in the physical, visible world of Father Sky. By focusing on our deepest values, we feel more solid, like a tree with a strong foundation in the Earth. By focusing on specific actions and situations, we feel more like an individual leaf that may be tossed about by a breeze. treebg

Using the Medicine Wheel as a metaphor for our life path shows us how this works. The concept of the Red Road and Black Road is distilled from numerous traditional tribal teachings of indigenous cultures of North America. The illustration below suggests how to walk the Red Road. Imagining a line drawn across the Medicine Wheel below shows that on the Red Road the majority of our focus is on the lower world of Mother Earth, on letting go. This means we are focusing on embodying our deepest values, such as compassion, empathy, grace, and kindness. It means we are regularly purifying ourselves individually and in community so that we deepen our ability to remain present. It also means that we trust that all of us on this planet are of innate value, that the Earth wants us here because we are being supported to live right now, and that we have gifts to share. Sometimes it takes leaps of faith to be willing to trust that we are valuable. We may get caught up in proving our worth through our intellect or actions. Most of us carry stories from the Old Testament of a God that asked us to do good actions to prove that we are worthy of living another year. When we are behaving this way, we are walking on the Black Road. We are focusing on actions and outcome, often justifying means that conflict with our most cherished values to reach certain ends, because we feel scared, overwhelmed, or confused.

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Many indigenous languages focus on action verbs and vowel sounds to embody this Red Road path. In this kind of thinking, there are fewer labels and fixed ways of being. I am not a noun called “Valerie” or “Cloud Clearer,” I am “Valerie-ing” and “Cloud Clearing” in every moment as I flow through the world. The avoidance of labels like “right” or “wrong” gives us space to exist no matter how we behave, or where we place our focus. Yet, if we choose to be on the Black Road, there are consequences. For example, if we don’t tell the truth, we are in a state of being untrustworthy and create shame. In modern Western culture, we often feel an expectation to have an opinion or respond to a question with an answer. We even talk over each other in spirited debates. On the other hand, to show respect for each person’s place, many indigenous cultures traditionally practiced deep listening in silence, only responding after more silence once the person finished speaking, to show that their words were considered first.

To walk the Red Road has much in common with A Course in Miracles. What we can dream up on our own pales in comparison to the miracles that can occur when we truly let go of resistance and allow our lives to flow. Sometimes we are so full of emotion, stories, and unprocessed past experiences, that what we need most is to create space. Crees teach seven ways of releasing negative emotion: crying, yelling, talking, sweating, singing, dancing, and praying (Ross, 1996). We also need practices to help us return to and retain states of being that we prefer. In my life, meditation is an invaluable daily practice in this regard. In meditation, I listen to my inner voices, practice compassion, honesty, and letting go, and create space so that miracles may occur.

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Exercise: Our hearts are for-giving and for-getting. What are you giving and getting in this moment? If it is painful, remember that you already survived it, and feeling it fully, expressing and releasing the emotion, is a courageous and freeing choice to let it go. May you enjoy the flow.

Confronting Colonialism

Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.–Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Indigenous writers describe colonialism as “a violation of the psychological womb” and  “a great rupture with the Mother [Earth]” (Cervantes & McNeill, 2008). Colonialism has spiritual roots in our ideas about the meaning of life, our nature and place in the world. In Judeo-Christian culture the Earth is often seen less as our home, and more as a place to endure. An Earth Ethos sees the Earth as the source of life from which resources are continually re-cycled around, not a temporary playground for us to use for a period of time. The Earth’s health is reflective of our human health. In Australian aboriginal languages, “land” means “everlasting spirit” or “source of life” (Atkinson, 2002).  To say “I’m going for a walk in nature” shows our modern Western alienation with the Earth and the place where we live. Cities are highly cultivated environments, and a forest is wilderness, but both are aspects of nature–we cannot escape nature except in our own trickster minds!

You know how when you walk into a room, and you can feel that people were just arguing in there? You feel some funny energy in the space. Similarly, places carry trauma and violent energy that reflect into our bodies and psyches, though we are not as conscious of this. We may not be aware that 100 years ago there was a massacre on land where a school is today, and we may wonder why that school has such problems, when a school a few blocks away does not. This is why art and ceremony on land of traditional cultural significance are vital to healing. “The land under each tribe’s feet is the [spiritual] source of its culture,” and is we are responsible for giving back to the Earthfrom which we came (Kimmerer, 2016). An aboriginal elder recently taught me that the night sky and the Earth in that place are exact mirrors of each other, and to live intimately with a particular place on Earth, we learn from our ancestors in the sky.

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Research on trees planted for commercial gain that are of the same species and lack connection with a network of older trees has found that they do not communicate well, and that they compete with each other more and suffer more ill health than when they grow wild in forests (Wohlleben, 2016). In cities full of commercial culture we often similarly experience spiritual lack. We spend a lot of time in rooms and vehicles shaped like rectangles, struggling to feel deeply connected with and nourished by our manufactured environments. We seek distraction (literally un-grounding, a loss of traction) and use substances such as alcohol, caffeine and marijuana that numb uncomfortable feelings or stifle unwanted thoughts in our minds.

According to indigenous thinking, colonisers previously experienced a trauma of disconnection from intimate, reciprocal relationships with their land of origin, and conquering and privatising land is a re-enactment of this trauma (Smith, 2005). Some indigenous cultures describe a psycho-spiritual virus as the root of this trauma. TheAnishinaabe in Canada describe Windingo as a hungry, destructive force that is never satisfied and even eats its own kind (Kimmerer, 2016). The Ojibway refer to Wetiko, “a cannibalistic spirit who embodies greed and excess…an autoimmune disease of the psyche… [in which] the immune system of the organism perversely attacks the very life it is trying to protect” (Levy, 2014). The Zar spiritual disease in northern Africa is described similarly (Monteiro & Wall, 2011). In indigenous Asian cultures, a poison in the mind makes us forget who we are, manifesting as anger, desire and ignorance (Kakar, 1982).

The understanding expressed across the world by such stories is that we humans naturally carry some destructive energy. It is part of nature to create and destroy. Just look at a volcano: it both births new land and destroys existing land. When we regularly purify ourselves, this natural destructive, cannibalistic energy does not grow out of control. But when this destructive energy grows too large, it penetrates our spiritual beliefs. Then we forget who we are, feel disconnected from ourselves, each other and the Earth, and engage in destructive behaviours. I have read an indigenous elder describe that when colonialists first arrived in his ancestor’s community, the amount of such a psycho-spiritual virus that those few men were carrying completely overwhelmed the entire community. We may frame this destructive energy as diseases such as smallpox and syphilis, or behaviours such as raping and pillaging, but the spiritual root of these is considered that destructive, cannibalistic energy.

Purify your Heart(1)Psycho-spiritual purification exercise: Reflect on a relationship where you are trying to make another person see your point of view, or trying to control their behaviour and tell them what to do. What is stopping you from living your own life, and letting them be who they are? What are you avoiding or denying in your life by focusing on them, or on controlling your environment? What do you need to be more nourished right now?