How to begin opening such a large, complex, mysterious subject, one that also, inevitably and necessarily, touches on the vast pain of our country’s brutal occupation of Aboriginal lands. Well, we know how to begin. Thousands of events all over the country will be beginning tonight in a similar way to this, because something profound is happening to this nation. We are beginning to acknowledge the truth.
So I begin, I am honoured to begin, by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, the Traditional Custodians of the land where I and most of you are right now, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
Those are the official words for what we now know well as Acknowledgement of Country – I’ve taken them from the Australian Government’s National Indigenous Australians Agency, the latest name for the government department in charge of these matters, and it states that an Acknowledgement of Country ‘should be delivered at significant/large internal meetings or meetings with external participants’. But that one sentence acknowledgement is merely the beginning, the thin edge of a wedge propping open a long-closed door. It started with one sentence yet I watch acknowledgements expanding everywhere, words growing to touch long forgotten places. Words are becoming portals, portals opening into deeper and deeper worlds in the hearts of people all across the country.
Perhaps, with grace, we might enter deeper worlds, together, this evening.
Entertainer Ernie Dingo claimed that in the 1970s he and writer Richard Walley brought the Welcome to Country custom into the mainstream at the Middar Aboriginal Theatre after visiting Pacific Islander dancers insisted on being officially welcomed onto the country they were visiting. Dingo said he got permission from his elders to share the practice with non-Aboriginal people and this event was then taken up by the Australian Tourism Commission, and followed on from there.
In 2010, the Federal Parliament made opening the session with an acknowledgement of country a permanent feature …the Native Title movement and specifically the Mabo decision began to alter the way that official events and gatherings around the country were opened.
Note those words – welcome to, or acknowledgement of, Country. Country is a word in Aboriginal English that means something far more than how it is generally understood. Country means not only land but all the complex and interconnected systems of life that depend on and interact with that land; the plants, the animals, the elements, the people, as well as the stories of place.
As Mick Dodson explains, ‘Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains. ‘
Acknowledgement of Country, then, brings in the more than human world. It brings in the wider community, which is the ecological context, all those beings with whom we participate in this life process. Acknowledgements invoke ancestors and elders, therefore they invoke a depth of time that changes a statement from a political and protocol-driven formality into an invitation to meet an entirely different worldview.
Acknowledgement of country is opening up ritual space in all sorts of cultural forums. People are being encouraged to create personalised acknowledgements, to speak sincerely, to be affected by the sentiments and allow others to be affected also. People are adding that the ancestral lands were stolen, were unceeded. Lands and waters, mountains and rivers and plains are being acknowledged for themselves, and for the way they hold deep memory and significance for Aboriginal people, whose link is ongoing and unbroken. People are acknowledging the young ones, the future elders, and in doing so creating a sense of a future with firm links to the wisdom and traditions of the past. And some people are also acknowledging the ancestors of all the people present, they are invoking the belongingness of all of our ancient First Peoples, people whose physical links were broken when they migrated, willingly or unwillingly, to this land.
I also must acknowledge that I am not in any way up to this task. The questions I was curious to explore when Sheila and I discussed them months ago and wrote something for the website are far too large, too difficult, too painful. Those words were: “Are we able to think psychologically and apply Jungian insights to relationships between Aboriginal and settler cultures? How could Jung’s emphasis on the heart’s wisdom help us sit with our complex histories, and support our capacity to excavate their legacies? What might emerge if we pool our experiences of ancestral trauma and archetypal shadow in the service of healing old wounds?”
I’m not giving myself a hard time about not feeling capable to live up to these ambitious questions. Which is not to say that I think it wrong to seek to explore them. I think to strive to bring a clear eye to our history, while ambitious, is a necessary thing, given how shrouded in shadows it is. But more to the point, this work is community work, and it requires all of us; our combined goodwill, deep listening, striving to learn and stay open to complexity and difficulty. Writer Donna Harraway describes it as staying with the trouble, which I find most helpful. So tonight I aim simply to bring forth some the voices of indigenous teachers and share how their wisdoms have woven something, something loose and full of holes, in me. Maybe we can cuddle up together in this rough and draughty blanket.
I feel it is very important to also acknowledge that everyone will have their own unique experience and history of engagement with these issues. But it’s certainly taking a far larger cultural space that ever before, thanks in part to the international Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing travesty that is black deaths in custody. And also because of the mainstreaming of Acknowledgements to Country.
It’s been, naturally enough, a challenging psychic field to enter, but I’m lucky to have the shoulders of giants to perch on – the extraordinary Indigenous teachers I’ve been privileged to learn from.
I acknowledge, now, the many Indigenous people who have shared their wisdom and from whom I am grateful to learn. These are some of their names. Wurundjeri Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin and uncle Ian Hunter, yuin man dulumunmun, uncle Max Harrison, Yankuntjatjarra man uncle Bob Randall, Arrente Woman MK Turner, Gumbainggir man Gary Foley, The Gagguk, appalech man Tyson Yunkaporta, Gagaju man Bill Neidjie, whose words I want to share here;
Listen carefully, careful
and this spirit e come in your feeling
and you will feel it…anyone that.
I feel it…my body same as you…
This story e can listen careful
and how you want to feel on your feeling.
This story e coming through you body,
e go right down foot and head, fingernail and blood…
through the heart.
(Neidjie, 1989, p.19)
Next I am grateful to acknowledge Jung. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung wrote of his 1920’s conversation with Native American Elder Ochwiay Bianco, as follows: We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad…..They say they think with their heads,’ he said. ‘Why of course. What do you think with,’ I asked him in surprise. ‘We think here,’ he said, indicating his heart. – Jung 1995 (1962) p276.
I place this quote alongside something else he wrote:
Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens. Jung, Letters, 1906-1950,
Jung was early in identifying the wisdom of Indigenous ways of knowing, and his honouring of difference, of depth, of archetypal knowing has left a profound influence on contemporary culture.
And Iast but not least I acknowledge a very important elder of the worldwide Jungian community, David Tacey, from whom I have been learning for decades now. David gave the recent lecture to this Society on Australian Cultural Trauma and Healing. In that lecture, he wrote of the gift that has been offered time and again by many Aboriginal leaders – the spiritual gift of belonging. My work seeks to launch from the base he provided, and explore some of the shadowed reasons why the gift is refused, and some feelings on how we might move through this together.
David’s lecture moved me very deeply, and tonight I hope we can, together, undertake what he states as the essential work of this time – seeking to bring more consciousness to the shameful and tragic aspects of Australia’s history, and perhaps glimpsing what is possible once consciousness is gained. Or if, indeed, it can.
The spiritual gift of belonging – what does this mean?
In David’s lecture he notes anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s work on gift economies:
the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient. Mauss says that not to reciprocate means to lose honour, and that the spiritual consequences of this can be dire.
David goes on to say that ‘For the cultural elites, the spirituality of the gift and the awkward politics of receiving a gift from the colonised, serve as barriers to this process.…‘modern’ institutions are plagued by a political correctness that does not allow colonising forces to look for gifts from the colonised. The Aboriginal people have no interest in political correctness; they are operating at a different level.’ David then quotes Ngarinyin elder Mowaljarlai who said:
“We are really sorry for you people. We cry for you because you haven’t got meaning of in this country. We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by the process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this stuff and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself.”
What I’m hearing here is Mowaljarlai saying that there’s a huge and precious thing alive here in this land that unless you know about it you are in danger of damaging it, so we give this to you, we must give it to you, the spiritual gift of belonging. And that you must take it, or else we are all imperilled.
Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, a Daly River woman of the Ngangikurungkurr tribe, speaks about it exceptionally beautifully. She says:
It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our fellow Australians. In our language this quality is called Dadirri. It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness.
Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call “contemplation”.
When I experience Dadirri, I am made whole again. The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace.
I feel that I have had an experience of receiving the Gift from Aboriginal culture. It was when I walked the length of the Yarra, Birrarung, from sea to source, tracing the ancient Wurundjeri Songline. The gift was given in a number of ways that could be summarised perhaps by the words spoken by a Wurundjeri woman at our departure: may the spirits of the ancestors walk with you. The experience of being a pilgrim for Birrarung was the most powerful of my life, because I was opened to another way of perceiving the world, that of the ancient patterns underlying the temporal forms, the archetypes if you will, which is often termed heart perception.
Our culture shadows heart perception. Profound and intimate nature connection requires heart perception, a biological capacity of the human animal that was brutally suppressed in times such as the witch-burnings. This repression has become utterly normalised, resulting in the great forgetting that is colonial culture.
I introduce the term colonial culture because it enables useful distinctions that the term Western culture cannot. Western culture contains many elements who fought against the colonial worldview, generally, it seems, without much success. Colonial culture is that promulgated by the powerful monied elites who seek to embed the worldview of nature as yet-to-be-realised wealth. Tyson Yunkaporta, author of the essential book Sand Talk, speaks of how capitalism is eating us alive.
I feel it is not often enough understood how it was those in power that promoted de-animating philosophies and practices in order to further the colonial project. Most everyone else were peoples of place. It began in Europe but spread around the globe: people of place were violently extracted from their homes and animate worlds and forced to adopt separation ideologies in order to survive in the cities and industrial wastescapes that replaced the alive world.
And it is also not often enough identified that to become a person of power in this system meant losing, on some level, one’s experience of aliveness in the first place – almost certainly through some form of trauma or violence. Everyone, no matter their cultural background, carries some of the damage.
It doesn’t appear to have yet entered the public conversation in a significant way, but brutality against European peasant peoples and Australian indigenous peoples is a commonality important to acknowledge. The upper classes did not consider peasant peoples to be true people with the same needs or capacities as themselves. The upper classes shaped the military with this worldview, and the British military then went to colonise Australia. With the rationalisation that Indigenous people were a lesser form of life, they could hide from the fact of their blatant thieving of the lands of others.
The irony of convicts stolen from their places and then forced to steal from others in order to survive is a harsh reality of Australia’s past. Because that is what happened – thousands of the people sent to Australia had themselves been forcibly removed from their own ancestral lands by the dictates of the powerful, those in charge of rolling out the industrial revolution, the strong new arm of the colonial project. Not many of us know this history, because, perhaps, the teaching of history has also been part of the colonial project.
There’s a quote from North American Stephen Buhner that moves me. He writes: We have been subsumed by what we conquered. The animism of the native peoples of this land got inside us even as it and they were denigrated, shamed, murdered. The sacredness of these lands is inside us, too, despite all that has been done to them. What are we going to do now? Become the worst of ourselves? Or something better? Will we have the courage to allow ourselves to become indigenous, to become these sacred lands looking out of human eyes? We are the first of the colonized, everyone seems to forget that. The journey back to who we are under our domestication is very long, and very difficult, indeed.
I want to return now to my experience of being given the gift. At the time, I had inadequate tools to interpret my experience. Now, after many years of study, I have a rich, multi-layered understanding, yet writing about it now is still difficult, still emotionally fraught. It may always be so, I don’t know. In saying this I seek to stay real, to stay loyal to complexity, to stay with the trouble.
At the time I engaged in what I now understand as an example of the psychological response of projection. I had what felt like an ‘Aboriginal’ experience, an experience that belongs to indigenous people, of which I am not.
Because I hadn’t learned much of the brutal history of cultural suppression in Europe I had no ownership of the depths inherent in me. Instead I projected it back – I felt great depths in this land and in me, those two things inextricably one, yet on some level I felt as if I had come by them wrongly, as if I had stolen something precious. Even though I had worked so hard to ask permission at every stage, even though I had the blessings of senior elders. And even though, when I came back from the pilgrimage and met up with Auntie Joy Murphy Wandin, and she said to me, you’re the rightful holder of this story, you are one in this generation who has walked Birrarung, so you have obligations to carry the knowledge of this songline forward. There are not enough of us, it’s up to you.
All of these things, plus my growing knowledge of European philosophies and theologies, helped me begin to understand that I had some claim to my experience, and I tasted, sometimes, the peace that Miriam Rose Ungunmerr speaks of. Yet even then I felt afraid, afraid that people would think I had appropriated Aboriginal experience. But I feel there are other, stranger fears here too that are still too deeply shadowed for me to see.
Had I internalised the archetype of the coloniser so deeply through the centuries of de-animation of the European psyche that I couldn’t fully accept the gift?
Euripides, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, said this: “There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land.”
What would it mean if that were true?
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve projected my shadowed longing for and loss of ancestral homeplace onto Indigenous people. Loading them, weighting the psychic relationships with my unacknowledged loss. I wonder too if perhaps folk with indigenous ancestry do that to themselves too out of lack of knowledge of all their various lines of ancestral trauma – they weight their Aboriginal lineage with all the pain of displacement, not appreciating the accumulated losses of their European ancestors and the centuries of steady and increasing separation from what was once, everywhere in Europe, also Country.
The gift, then, is to be given something precious we once had, long ago, yet had almost forgotten.
Americans Francis Weller and John Young have both written passionately on the cultural project of working with ancestral grief. John writes:
– “I commit to healing historic trauma, which I may or may not have experienced directly or violently in my lifetime. It may have happened 1,000 or a 100 years ago in my family lineage, or even 30 years ago, but am I willing to heal that for the betterment of the future generations.” He feels that trauma from a long way back is fundamental to our inability to act in service for the earth at this crucial time.
So he exhorts us to – “Remember we are working on a project that will take 200 years to complete.”
They emphasise that we work with ancestral grief in order to awaken the energy, the love, and the profound connection currently repressed in shadow. Their work could be considered part of the Western Romantic tradition, in that it posits that the human, before the damage wrought by colonial mentality, is naturally full of energy, in love with and deeply connected. Jung is often considered as emerging from the Romantic lineage in European thought as well, as evidenced by his deep and broad, yet wild and mysterious conception of what it is to be human. Romanticism can be seen as the shadow tradition of the West, repressed by the still solidly enlightenment vision that runs our governments, institutions and economy.
Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s important book The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the making of the Western World speaks to this – of how Enlightenment thinking has repressed the Romantic sensibility at great cost. I’m simplifying a complex work, but roughly he equates the romantic tradition with the right brain, which governs full-bodied awareness, including the wisdom and intelligence of the heart.
The intelligence of the heart seems to be what was employed in the inspirational story of the South African truth and reconciliation commission. There was an understanding that they had to choose between justice or healing, and they chose healing. To do that they didn’t imprison the perpetrators of Apartheid. Instead they compelled them to face their victims, to hear their stories and to find it within themselves to sincerely apologise. They sought the transformation possible in truth-telling, rather than punishment.
This reminds me of an event that made a huge impression on me; the day The Gagguk, an Aboriginal man from Southern New South Wales, joined our class called Cross-Cultural Understanding, a masters subject in Social Ecology. It was at the time of John Howard’s refusal to give an apology, and he was responding to the anger many of us felt about this. He spoke of the importance of not shaming John Howard. His reasoning was he felt John Howard was already up to his neck in unconscious shame, and projecting more onto him would only bury the shame further from his awareness.
It is in working productively with the messages shame is seeking to impart – that our behaviour is hurting others, and by extension hurting ourselves, and that by changing behaviour we bring about the transformation that the shame is the messenger of.
There is psychological research that suggests those who exhibit strong racism tend to be more traumatised by punitive childhoods, therefore more angry, more guarded, more acting out their pain, less tolerant of complexity and ambiguity.
So for me it’s an open question as to whether the phrase All Lives Matter, seen on banners waved by white people at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests – is simply demeaning of black deaths. I imagine that within that phrase is a plea that we must all heal together, we must care for everyone. Could that indeed be the shadow of racism, a sense, perhaps unconscious, that my racism hurts me as well as my target, and that my racism is caused by my suffering, and that I need help from the community for this suffering to be alleviated.
An analysis that focuses on individual culpability rather than systemic enforced brutality may have some benefits – it means we might be able to put our individual selves into the centre of a cultural story and to do as much as we can to feel and then redress the impacts of this history. Yet it may also increase the potential for the psychological defence mechanism of displacement to come into play – blame the individual in front of you rather than the unaccountable, amorphous colonial structural system. Many commentators have noted that the wars of political correctness, what has come to be called cancel culture, have become particularly bitter in recent years.
Anxiety about being shamed for inappropriate opinions does seem to be getting in the way of constructive, open-hearted dialogue. But what might we be anxious of, on top of what we’re aware of? Perhaps, I wonder, our own shadowed ancestral trauma.
A friend remarked that now is not the time to bring in stories of white trauma. I agree that there are circumstances in which that is true, because the injustices and structural racism are enormous forces faced by Aboriginal people, forces they cannot simply ignore, or choose to disengage from. White privilege is a real thing. It is the option white Australians have, an option most Australian seem to take, of simply not engaging with these issues.
Yet to this I would add that we are not all operating in the one ‘time’. There is no one cultural moment, although we may often feel as if there is if we’re immersed in a transformational experience – like I did at the Black Lives Matter rally in June last year.
The positive energy in that kind of experience can create, I would suggest, a kind of magical thinking – here we all are, together, and the world is changed – yet leave the rally, the concert, the rousing speech and we go back into a world of multiple and conflicting narratives. The anthemic song Treaty by Yothu Yindi came out over 25 years ago and we’re still waiting. We’re all in this together, yet I think it is also true that every single person is in their own cultural moment due to their unique life circumstances. It behoves us to stay aware of this.
Martin Prechtel, a native North American teacher who lived for decades integrated into the culture of the intact shamanic Mayans tradition of Guatemala speaks of initiation as about sacrifice and education. Europeans sacrificed their ancestral connections and their depth perception. From that sacrifice has come the modern world, with all its wonders, delights and troubles – an initiation, perhaps, into this strange and magical thing called globalism. Deep troubles come from this way of being, troubles that no-one can now deny, climate crisis being perhaps the most heart-stopping. Yet we are tiny mammals amid an infinitely complex universe, and who am I to say that any of it is wrong?
I will not say that it is wrong. But I will feel that it hurts.
I will not say that it is wrong. I will feel that it hurts.
That is heart perception. To allow the fullness of our feelings is a wisdom in itself, as wise elders, Jung among them, attest. Seeking to know a little of wisdom, I listen to my heart. When the heart is fully allowed to do its work of feeling, what comes then? Clear vision, says Jung. That could be useful, right now.
On the other side of the technological bubble we now live in, globalised humans might seek to return to the timeless ways of belonging to place, to re-enter, consciously this time, the web of life. Martin Prechtel writes of the necessity of initiation into this subtle, heart-centred, complex and sophisticated way of being. And he says that ‘Initiations have to come from the place where a people live.’ And he says this:
… ‘true initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins and seeks a true comprehension of the sacred. A tangible relationship with the divine must be found: a relationship to ritual that actively feeds the invisible forces behind all this visible life. Initiation is about sacrifice and education; it must be a learning of the deepest source and yet governed by a wide consciousness of the historical reality of our ancestors’ suffering as well as their stupidity. Only then can a useful spiritual vision emerge from what is most ancient in us all that goes beyond the ancestral response and brings us into relationship with our true natures.’ P356
Lastly, I ask for your indulgence, that I might return to acknowledgements. I began with the official line, but what feels right for me to say, now?
Here I improvised: I felt into my heart, and spoke what I found there…
Jung, Carl. Letters, 1906-1950, Bollingen Series XCV:1
McGilchrist, Iain. (2009) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mowaljarli, David. Ngarinyin, ABC Radio 1995 – speaking to a mostly white audience
Neidjie, Bill. (1989) Story About Feeling. Broome: Magabala Books.
Prechtel, Martin. (2004) Long Life, Honey in the Heart. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Ungunmerr, Miriam-Rose. (2002)
Weller, Francis. (2015) The Wild Edge of Sorrow: The Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic
Young, Jon. Excerpts from Village Builders Toolkit Vol 2, 2015