Belonging to the Earth – Deepening that Feeling

Geoff headshot Belonging

While we are working on feeling more at home in our skin and strengthening our sense of community, we are already deepening the sense in which we belong to the earth community. But we can go way further than this, by opening our minds (or soul, or psyche) to the intelligence of the earth itself. You know the saying, that indigenous peoples believe that the earth doesn’t belong to them, but they belong to the earth? Let’s drop into that one, as modern people, together. This can be done with a change of consciousness, the kind you may have felt listening to great music, while dancing, or during any exercise where you felt transported to another place. This is the spirit of Dionysus, who guides us to dissolve the ‘iron cage of reason’ (as sociologist Max Weber called it) so that we can enjoy the sense of freedom traditionally available to all members of society in ritual or other celebrations. Sure, we know how to celebrate modern life – and yes, sex & drugs & rock ‘n roll count as valid expressions of the Dionysian too – but we don’t get enough opportunity to do so within the context of the sacred, where deep meaning dances with intoxicating experience.

To do this, we need to balance the rational with the irrational, the ‘logos’ of everyday consciousness with the ‘mythos’ of the more-than-human world, the calculations of the ego with the archetypal (and humbling) realm of spiritual intelligence. This is where both sides of the mind converse, because there is a logic to myth (once its symbolism can be interpreted), just as there is a mythic aspect to our ‘reasonable,’ everyday lives. In the metaphor used by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Apollo was the god of form, who guided the ‘reasonable’ side of our minds, while Dionysus was the god of frenzy, of unreasonable pleasure such as we might experience while lost to the dance. Both lend us great qualities, but too much measure and logic leads to a frozen heart, while too much partying leads to … well, you know about hangovers and addiction and failing to realize our potential because we got lost in too much intoxication. The trick is to let each inform the other, until we no longer need to differentiate between them: the ‘rational’ is energized by the ‘mythic,’ while the irrational, uncontrollable realm of the dreaming has some measure and meaning brought to it by our human concerns.

dreaming collage

For example, consider this:
My experience of the rainbow serpent rising out of the Yarra River, teaching me how to get more grounded in my work so that I can withstand the pressures of everyday society better, has a certain logic to it. The fresh water of the river cuts through the earth as it travels along the clay pans near my home, just as aspects of our emotional life cut through our bodies. There is an elemental parallel that makes sense: water is a metaphor for feeling and the earth is like our body, the ground of experience. Symbolically, the river brings healing; it refreshes me in mind and heart and body for new growth, just as rivers always do in reality. The logic of this ‘ecomythic’ vision (yeah, I’ve just coined a new thing) can bring another dimension to our everyday lives, where suffering is suffused with meaning and painful wounds open us to more-than-human possibilities, like being visited by archetypal or ancestral spirits with powerful medicinal properties.

Participants in a Belonging Workshop are led in experiential exercises that work with this kind of ecomythic material, to heal wounds, to evoke warrior spirit, to stand tall in our human selves and in our sense of the eternal flow of life that nourishes all things without limit.

If you can’t make it along, try this simple practice at home:

Meditate on your inner wound, while invoking it as an opportunity to open you to more-than-human powers, archetypal wisdom and the ancestral spirits of the land. Finding the logic of mythos draws the deep healing and energizing power of the more-than-human into your body, your mind, your heart and your soul. In Zen we call this opening a dharma gate and I will sign off as does my favourite old master, Yun Men: Take care.

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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.

Belonging-02c_1800p

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

Are people part of the flora and fauna?

What makes human people special? In this context, what makes us stand out from the rest of nature? Why don’t we see ourselves as part of the rest of life on earth? This came up for me recently, as i listened to an Australian Aboriginal lady explain that her people should be thought of that way; that they were part of the flora and fauna of the land, in terms familiar to deep ecology. What was kind of shocking here was the fact that such an argument was once used by early colonists of this country to justify dispossession and settlement. It was allied with the idea of Terra Nullius; there is no real society here, recognisable to European standards, so we can simply take the land. Those black fellas are part of the land – so, no barrier to our possession of it. They literally branded Aboriginal societies as part of the flora and fauna, but meant something very different, and much more horrible, by the same sentiment.

  GB at PinnaclesThe author at The Pinnacles, Western Australia. Standing amongst the rocks, not independent of them.

A similar conundrum faces us when we align the feminine with nature; or with the darkness, or the deep waters of emotion. It’s not that the analogy is wrong – it’s the negative associations commonly held with the imagery that leads to problems. It’s easy to see why the feminine and nature are so easily aligned – we are birthed out of both, the womb of our mother and the matrix of the universe, physical matter itself. Likewise with the easy metaphorical association between the feminine and darkness; the mysterious ways of the world, the intuitive mind that women seem so often more comfortable with, compared to the ‘daylight’ or rational consciousness that has just as often been associated with the masculine spirit, and men in general.

 

Shark Bay beachThe sea, here at a beach in Shark Bay, WA. That sense of oceanic awareness, which Freud resisted and Jung identified with …  the great eternal feminine, the Tao of universal flow

If we were more comfortable with the darkness, with mystery, with the earth as our greater body, we could embrace these associations. We are suspicious of them because they are so often used to denigrate – to assume mastery over them, to remove ourselves from identification with them, to be independent and to feel powerful. It’s an illusion, just as the intuitive sense of them probably is too. Ultimately, matter and intuition could be thought of as masculine, abstract thought and logic as feminine, in a different social order. The moon has been considered masculine in Aboriginal and Mesopotamian cultures, which throws the whole European system out of order; in ancient Sumer, Nanna was the Moon God, a great bull looking over the herds of feminine stars. Symbols are flexible, no matter how true they seem to us. They are part of our consciousness, part of our mythology, so we accept them, just as we accept scientific thinking and the mundane materialism of commercial life in the 21st century.

 

Karijini GorgesThe spectacular gorges of Karijini NP, Pilbara region of WA. A sense of timeless pervades the landscape here, where rocks have been weathered for millions of years

I’d love to be thought of as part of the flora and fauna. I don’t want to assume mastery over the world and differentiate myself from it as part of some patriarchal fantasy of ‘civilisation.’ I’m just as comfortable with the feminine, nature, mystery and darkness as with the masculine, mind, a sense of certainty or logic and light – and i know that these systems of thought are all fluid, as sure as my sense of self and society and just as contingent upon history and environment as any other way of thinking. But i don’t want that to be an invitation to be defined as passive, as part of the land to be used and abused, as a walkover for free market assumptions that reduce everything to what they are worth at the current exchange rate, either. I stand with that Aboriginal lady – and support the positive connotations of her stance, just as i resist the way it can be turned upon her – and upon us. People of the earth, unite.

 

The New Year in Symbolic Context

Omigawa-fireworks

 

In ancient Mesopotamia, the new year was celebrated in style. It took a few days to complete the rites and a main feature was the Sacred Marriage, wherein the gods and goddesses were joined together in a way that ensured the ongoing fertility of the earth. Naturally, the earth meant the land most important to the people, who lived in city-states with now-exotic and evocative names such as Ur. Now while the tutelary deity (or city god) of Ur was Nanna, the moon-god, bull of the sky, provider of plenty, guard against perfidy, naturally the local king would stand in his place and be married to the goddess, most likely Innana. Typical men, huh? Never losing an opportunity to aggrandize the self. Anyway, the point was that the party was taken seriously, there was something sacred occurring, and even if it was used as a way to cement patriarchal and military authority, it was also a way of ensuring that people’s lives stayed linked to the stories that explained to them the deepest meanings of life, the human place in the universe, and our ties to the mysteries out of which we arise and to which we return upon death.

 

WLA_ima_Sharp_Francisco_Martinez_Future_Chief_of_the_Taos_Pueblo

 

Navajo ritual often ends with the phrase “Beauty is returned.” This is a lovely comment upon the successful ritual, which should leave us feeling refreshed in vision, mind and body. It’s the same result we want out of the telling of myth, which can re-place us in the heart of the world, a unique and lucky incarnation as a conscious, self-aware being in an incredible cosmos, capable of learning and teaching our fellow creatures, finding solace in our souls so that we can be at one, or at least comfortable in our skins, enough to be spiritually generous, or at least emotionally stable enough to not be a drain on others. This is what successful myth and ritual offers us, every day, but especially at signal moments in the annual calendar.

 

Dark_night

 

Having recently passed the solstice/Christmas season, we now stand at the horizon of another opportunity for a new start. Once we have settled in to sense the promise of the return of the light, through the dark night of the soul, which we pass through collectively each year and which we experience individually every now and then as passing phases of melancholy, or in catastrophic bursts of mental unease or collapse, or in evenings of emotional turmoil followed by sleepless nights, or in horror at the callous turn of events that sees innocent children suffering horribly or men dying pointlessly, or women harrowed by another gut wrenching chain of events over which they have no influence … the dark soul of the night, whatever version we know, that ends finally, either in a fresh dawning of hope in our hearts or in the birth of a new generation, has been and gone and now we can reset the clock. This chronological metaphor is not unwitting – we set the year by some kind of calculation, even if we don’t see the universe as a clockwork mechanism anymore – and this avails us of the opportunity to consider the end of one cycle and beginning of a new one.

 

Heroesjourney

 

This isn’t always a very comfortable reflection. I’ve been revisiting my hyper-sensitive early teenage years of late, as I recognize a new era in my personal standing ticking over through another cycle of social anxiety and emerging self-assuredness. But we have to just sit with this kind of material and keep on working on ourselves, day-by-day, allowing ourselves into the pit to the extent that we need to be dipped in it if we are to emerge truly refreshed, yet not letting ourselves be fully lost to the night, which will swallow us up and leave us crushed if we are not careful to maintain our sense of self as we go. It’s a matter of balance. Being real to the transformative potential of evernew, reliable myth and ritual, while maintaining a stable sense of self without which we cannot function helpfully on behalf of ourselves of others. I’m going to stay true to my life metaphor, my totemic animal power, my symbolic analogy from within, the Butterfly, this new year, and make sure I am true enough to my time in the cocoon of darkness to emerge completely refreshed, with new and colourful wings, on the other side. Happy New Year from White Fella Dreaming.

 

Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_on_Milkweed_Cropped_2800px

 

Image: 1. By アリオト (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 2. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant “Opal_Art_Seekers_4” [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. American painter Joseph Henry Sharp documented Indian tribal life and ritual. This is an idealized portrait of a seventeen-year-old Indian boy who later became Chief of the Taos Pueblo. The boy is shown drying a bird’s brain to create a talisman that will guarantee his future success. 3. Image title: Dark nightImage from Public domain images website, http://www.public-domain-image.com/full-image/nature-landscapes-public-domain-images-pictures/dusk-dawn-public-domain-images-pictures/dark-night.jpg.html 4. “Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus on Milkweed Cropped 2800px” by Derek Ramsey – Derek Ramsey. Via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_on_Milkweed_Cropped_2800px.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_on_Milkweed_Cropped_2800px.jpg