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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Cacao Ritual – is chocolate sacred?

Chocolate. We all love it. But is this another case of modern society simply farming the land, ripping off the locals, spraying alarming amounts of pesticides around and reaping the profits? If chocolate is so great, is there some kind of super ingredient in it, a chemical that makes us feel love or power, a natural kind of magic that deserves a bit more respect than we grant when ripping off the wrapper to another bar of our favourite variety?

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The cacao ritual altar

I love the move towards more organic, raw, whole foods as well as fair trade. These shifts in consumer sentiment reveal a deepening awareness of and care about the source of our foods and this shows more respect for the earth – a shift that underpins a lot of what White Fella Dreaming is all about. But the next step – the thing that brings us back in line with the source at another level, that hums with the sacred and fills life with meaning – is to perform ritual.

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The chocolate being dispensed

Ritual can be very simple and brief, a silent giving of thanks or a bow, or it can be complex and lengthy, as in many initiation rites. It can help facilitate transformation, from one time of life to another, from everyday to sacred space, from one state of mind (such as so-called ‘ordinary consciousness’) to … something more. A type of awareness that appreciates more of the different levels or dimensions of a thing, or a time, or a feeling. So, yeah, I participated in a cacao ritual.

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Asher and Lydia

Facilitated by Asher Glass and Lydia Marolda, the group imbibed a batch of cacao imported from Guatemala specifically for this purpose. Inspired by his meeting with Keith Wilson, when travelling in Central America, Asher has begun bringing this same amount of respect for the active ingredient in chocolate – and for the place it is from, the people who farm it locally there, the process that goes into transforming it into an edible delicacy for us western consumers – to Melbourne. After discussing how we could allow the cacao, under these conditions of conscious intent, to help unfurl the body’s prayer, we danced. What’s the body’s prayer? Whatever it is for you. Mine, when offered to the group as we all did, was to more deeply embody the sacred mysteries. Yours could be whatever arises – yes, you can try this at home!

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Getting down for chocolate!

The dance session was facilitated in the same style as the Dancing Freedom events that Lydia runs. We dance as if we are earth, which we are; water, air, fire … we dance in the elements and celebrate life. The wind-down included some feedback from each participant following their experiences and their body’s response to the unfurling of its prayer through the ritual. For myself, I felt the usual reawakening of spirit I get from successful ritual; no surprises there, after the vehicle of ritual opened me up to a wild dance with conscious intent.

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Meditating on & sharing the experience

Finally, though, I just have to add: how easy would it be to dismiss this as a laughable new age fad, without some context. Chocolate shamanism, pfff. If I hadn’t shared so many of these kinds of experiences over the years, I might be part of that dismissive crowd. The intellectual field of academic thought and research, for sure, works hard to protect itself from seemingly irrational challenges much of the time. I know, I have spent years in that game. But what that perspective misses is what I had to go outside and look for – or rather, remind myself I always had – direct relationship with the sacred behind all things. To keep that alive, I’m prepared to consider rituals that resacralise any aspect of modern life; especially when such practices also align with the values of environmental justice I support as part of the ecospirituality movement. So enjoy your next taste of chocolate – in the best possible way!

All photos by author. Asher and Lydia are intending to hold this event monthly and the original invitation can be found here.

Practicing Embodied Spirituality

After introducing the idea of Embodied Spirituality recently, i promised to begin to ground it in some actual ideas about how such a thing could be practiced and experienced. When it comes to actually finding a way to experience transcendence while still firmly in the body, I have previously mentioned breath meditation. You can find my introduction to Zen here, if you are interested; it isn’t limited to that particular practice, although that is what I wrote it for (as a member of the Melbourne Zen Group). It’s just a set of simple instructions to help get you sitting right for a meditation practice in general (the stuff on posture and the point of meditation will probably seem most helpful).

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Part of what I think is important about any experiential awareness exercise – this includes mindfulness, which I may discuss in more detail some other time – is what I call ‘synching in.’ I like the play on words, because using this term reminds me that I am both sinking in to the body and to its intuitive awareness of the world around me right now, and I am getting in synch with that world. When I get this flow right – breathing just so, nothing forced, allowing myself to become more deeply aware of being here and all the subtle sensations that often go unnoticed during everyday life – I can also pick up on other dimensions of my experience.

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In this way I can experience immanence, which as I wrote earlier is a more ecospiritually attuned form of transcendence. I’m not looking up or out to some external agency that I hope may help or even save me. I’m looking in, for resources that may enable my abilities to dissolve challenging circumstances – and this means I am often looking through myself, to the more-than-human forces that are active behind the façade of persona or the toolbox of ego. To get to this place means I have to get to know my mental patterns and habits fairly well, so that I can catch the little games I play that maintain my identification with more ordinary states of consciousness, and move on from them when they limit my awareness of deeper levels of self.

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Because I need to attend to such habits, this practice is not always pleasant or easy; and it does not always lead to a feeling of freedom, overcoming or transcendence of worldly limit at all (in fact far from it). Sometimes I may end up crying myself to sleep and needing to let myself be sad (aka depressed) for a while. Telling someone that cares about me often helps at this point, although I am usually more inclined to simply wait it out; not because of some over-imagined sense of independence or fear of burdening others, but because I find such times so close to who I am that I sometimes find I can even cherish them once they have passed. And at other times, this kind of subtle attention to the endless realms accessible through going within leads to the discovery, reconnection and/or building of relationships with guides, guardians and allies that I meet in dreams or these kind of meditation experiences. Such relationships can be ritualised so that these powers can be called upon – silently, not always consciously – as we go about everyday life. Either way, I get to deepen my relationship to other dimensions of the self, whether that seems personal or more-than-personal/transpersonal/archetypal/ sacred or other.

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Part of what can help at these times is the memory that in many traditions, especially native wisdoms of those who live in close relationship with the rest of nature, all life sings. As such, even when parts of the self are in conflict, each part belongs, or finds a home, within the extended psyche. Myth relates powerful stories about such relationships, through conflict and diversity and harmony and transcendence, as a set of models we can use to experiment with transformation. The kind of transformation I am most interested in developing on behalf of White Fella Dreaming is from the limited story of self we are conditioned to accept by modern consumer society to the deeper sense of self we can discover and support that works in alignment with Earth Wisdom and Celestial Intelligence.

Images 1, 3 and 4 purchased from Shutterstock. Image 2 is my photo of the passageway leading in to the central chamber deep in the heart of the magnificent mounded dome at Knowth in Ireland, certainly one of the most impressive megalithic sites in the world.

The Real Meaning of Christmas

Christmas Tree

It’s not just about the birth of Christ and recognising that spiritual generosity, compassion and irrational, beautiful love should guide the way we live. It’s also about the solstice. Like churches built on old pagan sites, most seasonal festivals we know today originally replaced events on the annual calendar that celebrated the turning of the natural cycles. Around December 21 every year in the northern hemisphere, the sun hits the lowest point on the horizon and this means the shortest day of the year. Downunder, here in Australia, this is reversed; but the same cycles operate (obviously life at the equator presents a whole different scenario! Generally, i will take any opportunity to reflect upon inner riches, even if it is summer here!). But think back to the early Europeans, who are my generic and cultural forebears. Winter is closing in, the leaves have fallen from the trees, we’ve eaten all the berries, many animals are hunkered down in dens and lairs to hibernate … life is retreating.

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There is less to eat, less sun to draw us out into the day, more reason to rug up ourselves and hope to survive the coming of a cold, dark period. What I would like, under these conditions, is to remember that everything comes back; that life returns after this symbolic death; that the sun awakens from its slumber, shakes the hoary frost from its shoulders, and beyond its all back to life. And now that I am reminded that we are all in this together, that in order to survive we need people to gather and store, some top stitch up rugs and cloaks, some to nurture little children, some to keep the fire going, some to sing and tell stories … I want to be reminded life goes on in company. I want the tribe to come together, to celebrate this important moment in the year with my kin, to forgive the ones that have annoyed me and to have them get over my own dumb transgressions. Not only because we need each other – which we do, and may do again soon, as the ecological crisis decreases the capacity for industrial society to cater for our every need – but because I need to be able to draw on everything within me to come through this physical challenge.

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And just as importantly, because I can now take this opportunity to do as nature does – to go within, to purify my heart and soul and therefore to breathe more fully again when spring finally arrives, to stretch my arms and legs and move in the world in the fulness of my strength as soon as i get the chance again, to feel liberated in my body and mind, to be free of spirit. When there is so much death and withdrawal in the outside world, it is time to follow suit. Let yourself lose the external sun, for a while, and remember to draw on the powers within. The winter solstice presents us with real challenges and metaphorical possibilities at the same time. And when we give ourselves over to the full story of the inner world, the parallel life we lead in our heats and minds and bodies and souls, we come to know it as just as real as the physical world. These are the kinds of lessons we have too often put aside with the modern world; forgetting to learn from nature, we forget also our deepest inner worlds, our greatest spiritual treasures. Ironically, getting back in touch with the natural world can also lead us directly back to our souls, our depths, the greater realities of the more than human world, the archetypal realms, the gods within and without.
This Christmas, dive in to the ancient truth of your body. Let the solstice remind you of your beautiful spiritual greatness and give freely of this wealth. Blessings be upon all those who align with earth wisdom and celestial intelligence.

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Images: 1. “Weihnachtsbaum Römerberg” by Thomas Wolf (Der Wolf im Wald) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Weihnachtsbaum_R%C3%B6merberg.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Weihnachtsbaum_R%C3%B6merberg.jpg 2. By Goldmann Jo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 3. Russian Bear coming out of winter den. By Photochrom Print Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 4. By Emilio del Prado from Valladolid, Spain, España (Acebo – European Holly) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons