“We are a people who never made singing or dancing an unrespected way of knowing. All of the five-fingered ways of knowing remained open to us.”
For anyone trapped in Western consciousness, here’s some good news. The Earth has nearly completed a revolution around the sun since Woman Stands Shining, a.k.a., Pat McCabe, a Navajo writer and scholar, spoke those words at the 12th Language of Spirit Conference. That means the 13th annual conference — a dialogue “exploring the nature of reality,” among aboriginal scientists, scholars, healers and artists and their Western counterparts in a wide array of fields — is coming up soon.
This year’s event, sponsored by the SEED Graduate Institute, will be held Aug. 14-16 in Albuquerque, N.M. The topic under consideration: Science, Technology and Creativity.
Shall we dance?
This unique conference, which I attended last year, takes place at the point where Western modes of perception — linear, sequential, dividing the universe into discrete entities — break down, where traditional wisdom meets quantum physics.
These dialogues have actually been going on since 1992. That’s when physicist David Bohm and Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear, former director of Native Studies at Harvard, figured out how much they had in common — physicists were finally grasping what aboriginal peoples had always known, that the universe is animate, in a state of constant flux and whole rather than fragmented — and convened the first world-changing conversation between native and Western scientists to explore commonalities.
Little Bear, when he spoke recently at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, gave a stunning personal example of a different sort of meeting between Western and native worldviews.
For five excruciating centuries, the dominant, smugly certain, world-devouring West had no awareness whatsoever of the wisdom of the natives in the lands they were colonizing.
“All of us are simply combinations of energy waves,” said Little Bear, who moderates the Albuquerque dialogues. “We refer to this as spirit.” And this is true not just of human beings but of everything in creation: animals, trees, rocks. “There is nothing in Blackfoot that is inanimate. Everything has spirit.” Thus when a native speaks of “all my relations, he’s talking about those rocks out there.”
Considering the eco-crisis we’ve helped bring on in our disconnection from and contempt for Mother Earth, this thought — that we are spiritually connected to the oceans, to the mountains, to every crawling insect, to the dust and mud and gravel, to our own garbage — is worth a moment’s meditation. Is another sort of relationship with this planet possible, one that is not spiritually isolated?
“And everything is related,” Little Bear went on. He illustrated this notion with a story from his Canadian boyhood, “when I was in residential school, back home on the res.”
The teacher had just given a lesson on capital cities and called on one of his classmates, a boy named Moses, asking him to name the capital of Canada. Moses, though he knew the answer, had a moment of panic and went into a theatrical struggle of hems and haws. The teacher lost her patience and said, “Next.” She pointed to Little Bear, who was sitting behind Moses.
He immediately thought: “This teacher is really rude, making Moses look stupid in front of the whole class.” Though he knew the answer, he began going through the same theatrical gyrations. The teacher called on the next kid and the next: “She went up and down the rows and did not get an answer.
“Even as kids,” Little Bear said, “we were more concerned with the relational aspect. We did not want anyone to be by themselves. We all had to be together.”
Extrapolating to a larger point, he added: “In Western science, we take and isolate things and never really look at the whole.”
This is not to say that the Language of Spirit dialogues are a “debate” of some sort, to determine who’s right and who’s wrong (though small debates, like eddies in the river, can occur). Rather, the purpose and spirit of the event is to honor “all of the five-fingered ways of knowing” — and, where possible, find ways to merge them and create collaborations. It’s open to all who are interested in attending.
It’s about dancing with ideas, envisioning a different kind of future, shattering all our “nice, readymade understandings of what the world is really about,” as Alfonso Montuori, one of the dialogue participants and a professor in the Transformative Inquiry Department at California Institute of Integral Studies, put it.
He added, in an interview in the journal Integral Review: “We live with this illusion that we know what’s going on — maybe not cosmically, but at least in terms of everyday things, events, and interactions — but nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t think we have a clue about anything. We just live with this delusion of familiarity.”
Shall we let go of this delusion and enter the creative flux?
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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