How White Fella Dreaming awakened to Belonging

Have you ever hit one of those points where you knew the next move you made was vitally important to the rest of your life and you weren’t quite sure which direction to take? This year the White Fella Dreaming project took me way outside of my comfort zone and forced me to rethink the reason behind it: how ‘new’ or non-indigenous Australians feel more at home on the land, so that we treat it better, and achieve a more satisfying and respectful reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the process.

Two Humpbacks underewater

The story begins on the remote desert-fringed beaches of the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, where I spent most of June and July this year. I was a long, long way from electricity, let alone mobile phone or internet networks. I snorkeled, fished, cooked over a fire with my lovely little family, and dreamed of what the sands and salt water would say to me if I could be awake enough to listen to them. I meditated in the sand dunes and heard the rustling of the ocean breeze in the desert grasses. I watched bands of olive-coloured budgies flock overhead, chirping a sussuration across the sky as they headed one day south, a few days later back north, on some mini-migration that remained a mystery to me. As I so often do, I wondered what knowledge the original inhabitants of this land would have had to share, if they still lived here on the land. I saw the occasional ’roo at sunset or dawn and eagles seeking roadkill along the endless highways; but there are not many animals out here, where the land is so sparse and the rain so rare.

budgies

In the water, it is different. I snorkeled alongside a manta ray while it fed in spiraling circles, before tipping upside down and swimming away with its under flank exposed, looking down at the sand and reef below. I flipped around with turtles, avoided a sea snake, kept my distance from the bronze whaler sharks, and marveled at the wild variety of other creatures that shared this ocean paradise: colourful fish, of course, but also sting rays, squid (which look almost celestially radiant underwater), cuttlefish, octopus, giant gropers and cod, flashy mackerel and tuna, harmless and beautiful reef sharks … the list goes on. But one amazing experience will stay with me for life. Around 2km out to sea, while free-diving from a boat, two humpback whales approached me, banked around to keep me in full view, and allowed me to swim by them for a couple of minutes. Those brief moments were some of the most special times that I have enjoyed in the company of other animals. I could hardly believe such magnificent creatures would come to me out there in the middle of the ocean. I wished that time would slow down to a stop, at least just for a while … but of course nature keeps moving, and they soon continued their migration towards the Kimberley, where they would calve some 1000km to the north of here.

manta ray

And it was up in the Kimberley – or at least that most exotic of Australian towns, Broome, which serves as the western gateway to this incredible landscape – that my calling became refined by fire. For here, in consecutive meeting with researchers into indigenous knowledge, I came to realize that I needed another way to teach alongside White Fella Dreaming; a way that did not put anyone off side, as I was told that my usage of the term “Dreaming” would, in terms of Aboriginal feelings about traditional and surviving culture. The Dreaming, for me, is a kind of mythology – or powerful story that links the physical world with a sense of the sacred – that listens to the song of the land and identifies people with the rest of nature, so they we are compelled to protect it as well as enter into conversation with it.

But this didn’t cut it on “country” (the “enlivened spiritual cosmos” of the land, as Deborah Bird Rose puts it). It didn’t matter how well I could defend my understanding or aims; the whole idea of White Fella Dreaming was just too close to cultural appropriation. I acquiesced to this and suggested I talk about “comparative mythologies” – which is technically my area, combined with the ecological humanities – but no go. The Kimberley Aboriginal peoples didn’t want their culture talked about in terms of myth, because this could also lead to misunderstandings. Once again, nothing I could do to help ease such confusions was going to be enough to get over that barrier.

So, I had to quit on the idea of working with this research centre and their people and move on. This didn’t mean the end of White Fella Dreaming, because I had seen this controversy coming, in one form or another, and knew I would have to weather such storms. And I had another set of allies who had also helped me to overcome this kind of challenge from a different angle – beautiful friends who had been advising me to find a ‘universal’ value, something in the human heart and soul that any and all could appreciate. While sensed they were right, the problem was that I still hadn’t found that theme. But now I was frustrated and that kind of energy, like anger, can be very productive when it is chanelled right. I was also lucky enough to be in Broome with another of these friends, my colleague Paul Pulé, who was interested in researching with the same group in his own field of ‘ecomasculinities‘. Together we workshopped my dilemma, using some of the phrases I had been advised to throw around: What is it that I do, everyday, that is behind all my efforts in the world? What is my highest, or deepest, calling? Put another way, what vision do I wish to serve, which will lead to ‘generative’ outcomes no matter what? And what word or phrase best describes this value in a way that does not lead towards possible misunderstandings or political disputes, conflicts or arguments (all that stuff we desperately need to resolve!). Finally, Paul helped me to name it. Regardless of who I am talking to or what the topic is – whether it is an intellectual conversation or an emotional support session, about spirit or football, at work or in the park, there is always one thing I wish to leave people with if I can – and that is a feeling of belonging.

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When people feel they truly belong, they are comfortable in their skin. They are at ease with their community. They feel loyal to the earth. They are more likely to do good work, to try and resolve conflict rather than inflame it, to protect what is worthy – including fresh air, clean water, healthy soil and other animals as well as all people (especially the defenseless or oppressed) and other manifestations of life (beautiful buildings, art, the scientific mind as well as the spiritual life, creativity as well as critical thinking – the list could go on forever, to include anything you stand for and love and wish to protect). In belonging I find what is most meaningful to me and to my work – something that underscores and takes priority over the intellectual labour of university life, something coded into the DNA of great stories and humble truths, a feeling that can emerge out of any compassionate interaction between myself and others. When I feel I belong and I share that feeling, all levels of possible conflict can be dissolved. The sense that we don’t totally belong in our bodies? Melted into a tangible sense of at-one-ness. Our experiences of conflict with others in our community, close or far afield? These can lead to a more robust order, a higher level of communications, better ways that allow for opposing perspectives. Our alienation from the rest of nature? Even this dissipates in the face of belonging, like a bad dream that fades as we awaken to a new life, transformed back into what we once and always were – at home, here in our bodies, with each other, born to this incredible fortune on our beautiful jewel of a planet.

For those keen to work with these ideas in a supportive environment, Geoff’s inaugural workshop on Belonging will be held on Saturday 10th October at CERES Environmental Park in Brunswick East. For more information and booking details please go to belonging.org.a

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Transformation Learning – Experience and Wisdom with Jonathan Dawson

Jonathan DawsonJonathan Dawson is Head of Economics at Schumacher College (UK) and appeared at the OASES Graduate School in Melbourne to talk about “What we are learning about transformative pedagogy: reflections on the edge” (Monday 24th August, 2015)

 

About two dozen of us sat in a wide circle to hear Jonathan speak on his experiences of 11 years at the Findhorn community and his last 4 years at legendary home of sustainability Schumacher College. Naturally this included not just listening to a lecture; in fact, we got up and enjoyed a multi-layered, space-changing exercise in the large hall as a group, as a way of shifting our minds out of that passive receptive mode so common to traditional education. This game introduced us to the way quantum fields operate in interpersonal exchanges, as each of us moved around the room in an attempt to maintain the same distance between ourselves and two other people we had chosen at random. With everyone moving to try and maintain this equidistance, we represented a room full of people in a kind of magnetic flow, of constellations that did not follow social norms of reason, kin or bonding, but which nevertheless reflected some of the ways change actually does happen amongst people (and atoms and stars). I was amongst those that felt something profound happen during this exercise; something beneath or beyond words, yet deeply meaningful.

 

Schumacher College

With this in mind, and in hindsight, it should not seem so surprising that Jonathan chose to begin his spoken presentation with an anecdote about the way that ‘closing circles’ inevitably bring about very strong feelings for participants in transformational learning, whether they’ve been together for a whole year or a weekend workshop. ‘Coz this is where people realise what they have gained through engaging in learning that seeks to expand our thought processes beyond what sociologist Max Weber called ‘the iron cage of reason.’ This is where learning is an experience, which opens up the heart, body and whatever we like to call our mostly intangible sense of soul or spirit. When learning experiences ask us to recalibrate the way we think, listen, communicate, reason, feel and be with others, the results can be profound. Perhaps this is the kind of educational paradigm required in an era where everything seems to be changing faster than ever even as we ‘postmodern individuals’ awaken to the fact that we are all connected, to those in our human communities as well as to the world itself.

 

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And just as global challenges require a systemic (or holistic) response, each of us are also effected at some personal level, within, in those places where we experience emotions that are too often marginalised in the ‘management’ discourse that dominates adult education today. This is why transformational pedagogies remain more relevant than ever. Because we need to feel what is happening in the world around us if we are to respond appropriately. We are intelligent, social primates who are capable of reflection upon – and most importantly behavioural change in response to – what is happening around us. Real change will not come from bringing the intellect to bear alone; realistic responses require emotional and embodied engagement, physical experiences of what is happening and what we can do about it. Sometimes this may be as seemingly impotent as allowing ourselves to weep at the realisation of how heavy the ecological footprint is of industrialised societies, an outcome Jonathan says he has witnessed countless times, even when working with corporate and other managerial workers. By circumventing the abstractions of statistics, for example, an exercise like forming groups of people on two sides of the room – one to represent the consumers of ‘resources’ and the other to represent the relatively voiceless numbers of less advantaged peoples (or the even more voiceless earth itself) – can undercut the avoidance of grief that is part of our consumer era.

 

JD at OASES bwJonathan sets us up as consumers and ‘resources’ (Photo courtesy Ben Wrigley)

 

Naturally there is a strong element of phenomenology involved in such exercises and Jonathan mentioned how applying such philosophies in experiential educational contexts can allow participants to revalue personal, lived senses of justice and to dissolve some of our often uncritically accepted loyalties to dominant paradigms of reductionist meaning. He discussed how language can reduce a living subject, such as a tree, to a category box. We look, we define it as ‘just a tree,’ and we move on. This process doesn’t allow for the living being to be appreciated and makes it easier for us to accept that it could be treated as simply a ‘resource’ – something we can use at will and not care about any further. Transformative education asks us to rethink this process; to slow down and appreciate the tree as a fellow subject, another living being, who has the same right to be exactly as it is, where it is, as we do.

 

tree

I took the opportunity in a personal conversation with Jonathan at a later date to point out that I think arguments like the one by David Abrams, which claim that the written language has a kind of soul-destroying nature, may actually be aimed at the wrong suspect. From what I learnt of the agricultural revolution, especially in and around the Mesopotamian region around 8-10 millennia ago, which so strongly influenced the Levantine and southern European civilizations that followed it, written codes followed physical practices a long time later. The written alphabet did not create or even pre-empt a way of thinking that treated the world around the Sumerians as a set of resources rather than as a system of inter-related kin. This transformation, which many ecologically-minded people today find so troubling, occurred in the mind of oral peoples. The agricultural habit of treating the world as a set of resources was invented, developed and carried out for thousands of years before it was ever written down. If we want to find fault, it is with the dangerous creativity of humanity, combined with the temptation of a more managed system that could ensure consistently higher yields. Here is the beginning of capitalism and today’s worship of profit: in the availability of domesticable crops and animals, put to the service of humanity, until the plants and creatures themselves are thought of as chattels, things we own and control, rather than beings with whom we share kinship relations, lives we care for. When we consider indigenous epistemologies and what they have to offer to a 21st century, ecological way of living in the world, this is one of the main facets we must appreciate. Many pre-industrial cultures retain important aspects of pre-agricultural respect for all life and this extends our understanding of kinship and intrinsic rights to those beings, including even the inanimate world beneath our feet, in the rivers and seas, in the air we breathe.

In the circle at OASES, Jonathan also introduced ways to engage with what he called our ‘digital commons’ in the shift towards cooperative, communal learning. On the one hand, electronic and digital media are a great way to gather people together; but on the other, we need to connect with each other beyond the simplified set of senses this mode too often engages. Staring at the backlit screen is entirely visual, with a little tactile manipulation thrown in as we type or swipe. As already discussed, we need to add embodied, spatial skills (as well as the aural practice of deep listening, the symbolic capacity engendered with reflection, the self-trust that comes with feelings of intuition, and more) if we are to reforge the commonalities that bind us together with each other and the earth. One of the ideas that emerged out of this conversation was to ask appropriate questions, to take people from the screen to the event by piquing their curiosity, and to remember to have fun doing so. A morbid movement is one destined to collapse under the weight of its own ponderous fragility and grief; while these things have their place, they do not inspire people to act unless they are counterbalanced with the promise also of pleasurable interaction, wonderful storytelling, and convivial atmospheres. (And yes, we all laughed together that day at OASES.)

 

Joanna Macy quoteA venerable ally, Joanna Macy – saying something i love reminding myself and anyone else about …

 

Finally, Jonathan reminded us to switch the default position of transformational learning back to how people would learn if given the opportunity to share openly in community and thereby to experience themselves as self-aware bodies in relationship with others and the earth. We are primate beings, who evolved in relatively small bands of kin and who are hard-wired for compassion and generosity, given the conditions for these qualities to flourish. Nowadays, conditions favour a different kind of person and this has been developing since the agricultural revolution. We inherit so many bad habits – of reducing other lives to objects of profit and of thinking of ourselves first – that it takes time to dissolve them in experiences of shared support and a community of souls. This is what transformational education can offer today: learning experiences that are fully alive in mind and body – and that remind us we are also, as well, more-than-human and not less.