Taryia is our keynote speaker this weekend at the Women's Wellness Retreat.
Reawakening Indigenous Sensibilities
By Tayria Ward, Ph.D.
It is impossible to go directly on from our cultural state of today if we do not
receive increments of strength from our primitive roots. These latter, however,
we receive only if in a certain sense we go back behind our present stage of
culture to give the suppressed primitive in us an opportunity to develop itself.
How that is to happen is a question in itself.
After the event of the tsunami in the south seas, stories began to surface regarding huge
populations of animals and entire tribes of indigenous peoples who had sensed the
impending disaster before it hit and were able to relocate to high ground in time to
survive without harm. Our billion dollar technologies and great scientific minds were
incompetent and incapable of foretelling what these animals and indigenous peoples
instinctively knew. An article I read in the New York Times describes the fact that
scientists who had dismissed these people as primitive, superstitious and uneducated were
suddenly respectful and interested in learning more about their ways of knowing. Ah.
My heart felt happy to read this news.
Like innocent Persephone who was playing happily in the fields picking flowers when
Hades suddenly abducted her into the world below, sometime during the early 90’s I was
happily going about the work of my religious life as an ordained minister, preparing a
talk on the subject of ritual, when I happened to read a notice announcing that Malidoma
Somé would be speaking that evening in a local bookstore about his new book on ritual.
Little did I know that reading that notice was the tremor of the earth which would soon
open up to swallow me into an underworld of initiation, awakening the sleeping
indigenous person inside. The journey ultimately took me out of religion, over to Africa,
into a PhD program in depth psychology, through a disintegration of nearly every aspect
of life as I had known it, and seems to have plopped me onto a mountain top in North
Carolina with the intention of committing myself to the work of reviving indigenous
awareness in the western psyche.
Eco-theologian Thomas Berry writes of our species that we have tragically become
autistic, listening and speaking only to ourselves, that we have lost “the great
conversation” with the river, mountain, plant, bird, wind, water, fire. The rest of life is
carrying on in vibrant communication, but humans have lost the senses that would hear
and make of ourselves integral participants in the dialogue. In the thrust toward
modernization, a severe condition of anthropomorphic hubris seems to have developed,
and humans in general have stopped believing that plants or trees or the non-human
world have much of anything useful to say to us. The needs of the human took
precedence over those of every other planetary system, and our concerns became the only
ones that ultimately mattered. We began to devalue, and let atrophy, those aspects of the
human self that could hear or care about the cries of nature as we imperialistically
marched forward under the banner of progress. The silencing of our vital capability to
participate in the great conversation, I believe, is what allows us to unconscionably disturb the balance of nature, cut down rain forests, dump poisons into the air and the
rivers, allow unrecoverable top soil to wash away into the waters, deplete earth resources
necessary for our own survival and continue in this pathological trajectory without a clue
that it is not only murderous but also suicidal. As a whole, we have become like the good
Dr. Jekyl of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel who believes himself to be civilized, caring
and compassionate, while remaining completely unconscious of his other aspect, Mr.
Hyde – a part that is actively engaged in heinous murder and destruction.
I have learned that a reunion with the indigenous self is a journey of recovery of
wondrous senses, sensations of aliveness and engagement in an on-going and fascinating
conversation with kingdoms and realms that humans have generally lost touch with. Like
programs in a computer that are completely available if one only understands that they
are there, what they can do, and how to boot them up, these senses await our attention
and willingness to revive them. However the effort requires a strong commitment to the
necessity of the awakening, and the processes it activates. The shadow of who we have
become must be faced and individually owned before these innate capabilities can be
reinvigorated. Like Love itself, because in the end it is Love itself, the process asks for
everything. But it gives everything in return.
Among other signs of the times, the tsunami may be a strong warning that our survival as
a species depends upon the human’s attention to this challenge. But where do we begin?
Like any great work, it begins with the individual. One, one, one at a time. We cannot
wait for presidents and collective bodies to create change. Change begins when one
person commits to the processes of change. Socrates is quoted as saying, “If you would
move the world, first move yourself.” Laurens van der Post proclaims his belief in the
power held by the individual in his book, The Dark Eye in Africa. He states:
It is, for me, no idle coincidence that the most significant discovery in the
physical world of this age has been the fact that the greatest and most
unimaginable power resides in the smallest possible organization of matter. The
force which threatens to blow the world asunder resides not in the clouds or
mountains but in the invisible heart of the atom. The inner force, too, which, like
the power of the atom, can either remake or shatter civilization resides in the
smallest unit of society, the individual.
The holographic model of the universe demonstrates that the tremendous strengths and
capabilities of those we most admire are not only “out there”, in that other, but are also
“in here”, inside each individual, awaiting confident awakening and empowerment. But
so too does it reveal that the worst qualities that most disgust us, all of the Mr. Hyde
behaviors, are just as much “in here”, inside every one of us, awaiting honest recognition
and personal committed effort to recover. It is challenging, rigorous work, and no one
can do it for the individual. And the individual cannot wait for a larger collective body to
wake up and accomplish the task because it simply won’t happen until the individuals do
the work, one by one.
This same holographic concept can also be extended to qualities beyond what we think of
as “human”, to those of angels and animals, rocks and jellyfish. These are also inside the
individual awaiting discovery, activation and integration. Science is learning that the
brain only picks up and registers what it has a concept for. In some ways our senses only see or hear what we expect, what we have a concept for. There is work to do on our
concepts, on re-imagining and re-discovering what it means to be human, and what our
appropriate and creative place is in the general scheme of things.
One morning I was teaching a class about the recovery of the indigenous mind, asking
participants to imagine, and realize, that our cells have eyes, ears, smell, taste and touch –
the five senses are indicators for capabilities that humans also have at a cellular level.
During our break, a woman approached me to tell a story she said she had never had the
courage or a context for telling before. One day she had been in a public restroom stall
and watched a woman come into the stall next to her. She observed the woman going
about her activities, then flush the toilet using her foot, presumably to avoid germ contact
with her hands. Noticing this she thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” Only then did it hit
her, she had just watched this whole scene through the divider that separated them! A
little shaken, she went out to wash her hands, and there was the woman, exactly as she
had seen her – hair, face, clothing just as she had observed “seeing” through the wall.
Once I went into the woods to observe a ten-day solitary retreat, camping under a tree. It
was a desperate effort to try to heal and center myself during radical changes taking place
in my life. About the third day in this wilderness spot, as I watched some hawks soar
overhead, I suddenly heard a voice that spoke to me just as audibly as one hears words in
a dream. I was hearing with the same kind of hearing capability that we utilize in
dreams. The voice said, “Can you get this off? It is irritating me.” Strange message, I
thought. I gazed about the area with wonder. My eyes were drawn to a dead branch that
had fallen from the top of the tree, now draped awkwardly around a lower branch. I
knew immediately that these words had been the tree’s, asking me to remove this
uncomfortable appendage. With great effort it was removed, and then the tree spoke
again, just as audibly, with a powerful sigh saying, “Thank you!” My mind or
imagination could never have conceived of such a strange story. This tree had broken
through my autism and communicated with me.
Some months later I visited this spot again, and remembering our conversation I asked
the tree, “What can I do for you?” My eyes were drawn very quickly to something and I
took care of it lovingly and gratefully. Later that night I was sleeping outdoors about a
mile from the tree when a fog rolled in thicker than pea soup, as they say. I couldn’t even
see the hands at the end of my arms. I awakened and felt pulled, as if I were on the other
end of a rubber band. I couldn’t get my boots on fast enough before I began walking, in
black darkness and thick fog, over wild, bushy and uneven terrain, like in a dream, but
completely awake in every sense. I heard wild animals hiss as I passed them, irritated by
my brazen movement through their territory, yet not even a shiver of fear went through
me. I could have, should have, tripped on rocks, run into trees or bushes, or fallen off of
ridges, but I walked safely on as completely “other” senses were in complete charge of
my journey. Suddenly I arrived at the base of my tree, miraculously knowing exactly
where I was. The tree then spoke to me saying, firmly and sweetly, “What can I do for
you?” There was an urgent prayer weighing on my heart so I blurted it out to the tree as I
wept, feeling more touched and truly seen than maybe I ever have felt in my entire life.
I remember hearing Brian Swimme marvel in his lovely talks on the tape set entitled
Canticle to the Cosmos that jellyfish migrate thousands of miles, without eyes and
without a brain, arriving precisely at their destination, no problem. My experience in the middle of that night being pulled toward my tree causes me to believe that humans have
similar senses to those of the jellyfish. I arrived at my destination without eyes, and
apparently without the use of my brain, no problem. Something operating at a cellular
level seemed to be in charge, and somehow I trusted it implicitly.
It is my belief that the human’s next evolutionary challenge will be to revive such innate
and astounding sensibilities and to follow their powerful lead, without throwing out or
losing what we have gained through painful effort and sacrifice over the last centuries of
human exploration and development. We cannot and should not go back to what we
were before these advances, nor can we afford to ignore any longer the parts of ourselves
that were shut off in order to proceed as we have. The human’s psychological life,
emotional life, spiritual life and the earth itself can no longer sustain the effects of the
autism that has developed.
One person at a time will begin to deeply listen, set the intention, open awareness, and
commit. The journey of discovery and transformation begins with a desire to no longer
be involved in the collective pathology, but to awaken to old and new potentials, and
previously unimagined possibilities. Any pain experienced during the processes is
soothed by the knowledge that we labor in a colossal project of renewal for the health of
all systems on this gorgeous planet. What else is there to do?