Direct Knowing

A couple of days ago I was reading the book, Yorro Yorro: Aboriginal Creation and Renewal of Nature and I came across a section that caught my attention. In this section Mowaljarlai, an Aboriginal Elder and co-author of the book, explains his way of relating and interacting with the natural environment to a photographer, who is traveling with him to photograph ancient rock art.

His description reminded me of a perspective Juan Nunez del Prado, a Peruvian Mestizo and p’aqo (shaman/priest), shared with me some years back. I was struck by how Mowaljarlai and Juan help us see how we can know the world through our senses, and what phenomenologists call direct encounter with nature, a way of knowing that is unmitigated by the intellect.

In the Western world, this direct way of knowing has largely been undervalued and our capacity for relying on and working with our subjective experience has been greatly diminished. For centuries, with the rise of industrialization, we have put emphasis on knowledge processes that rely mostly on objective and scientific observation rather than subjective experience. Fortunately, however, this shift in our knowledge processes from subjective to objective now seems to be slowly moving toward a more balanced approach.

From the book Yorro Yorro:

In the graying of dawn Moawaljarlai invites Jutta to join him for a cup of tea because he wants to tell her something.

“You know, Jutta, when daylight starts, it wakes me up. I can’t sleep no more. It wakes the whole body. So I turn around and have a look. There is brightness. Piccaninny (here piccaninny refers to the outback as the aboriginals know it) daylight makes you feel like a different person. Morning gives you the flow of a new day – aah!”

Mowaljarlai’s arms stretch out wide. Against the rising light his chest fills with a long breath.

“With this beautiful color inside, the sun is coming up, with that glow that comes straight away in the morning. The colour comes towards me and the day is waiting.”

After he pensively paces a few circles, he settles again and tugs at the front of his shirt.

“You have the feeling in your heart that you are going to feed your body this day, get more knowledge. You go out now, see animals moving, see tree, a river. You are looking at nature and giving it your full attention, seeing all its beauty. Your vision has opened and you start learning now. When you touch them, all things talk to you, give you their story. It makes you really surprised. You feel you want to get deeper, so you start moving around and stamp your feet – to come closer and to recognize what you are seeing. You understand that your mind has been opened to all those things because you are seeing them; because your presence and their meet together and you recognize each other. These things recognize you. They give their wisdom and understanding to you when you come close to them. In the distance, you feel: ‘Aah – I am going to go there and have a closer look!’ You know it is pulling you. When you recognize it, it gives you strength – a new flow. You have life now.”

Juan Nunez del Prado pursued the traditional shamanic/mystical path after he had been trained as a structural anthropologist in Quzco. He identifies himself as belonging to both Western culture and the Andean indigenous tradition. In an interview with me, Juan described the difference he sees between the Andean and Western ways of knowing and the impact it can have on Westerners who become initiated into the Andean shamanic/mystical path:

“For the past 300 years Westerners have intentionally separated themselves from a connection with nature. Going to the Andes and having a direct connection with living nature is something that introduces a radical change in your approach to reality. From the Western tradition we relate with the cosmos as related to things. But the Andean tradition is an animistic approach to the world. We relate to nature as a living nature. In the Andean tradition nature has personal qualities. Especially the relationship with Mother Earth is very powerful.

A real ecological approach occurs not only by the way of thoughts but also by the way of feelings. For example, you can relate with a tree like relating with a brother. You can hug him, and you can share not only energy but also life and information with the tree. The same thing is with lakes, with trees, with fields, with collective waves of energy, the energy bubbles that surround us. They have to tell you something. As a result your whole approach to reality changes.”

Stephen Victor, who has worked intensely with Juan Nunez del Prado, summarizes the difference between these two knowledge processes like this:

“The mind cannot know anything, but it can understand everything. To know something means to live it, to be it, and to perceive it firstly.”

Australian Aboriginal spirituality is not considered animistic, which is the belief that all natural objects possess a soul, although aborigines of a particular tribe might believe that a particular deity created a natural formation like a rock outcropping during the creation period and that certain animals and plants are interchangeable with human life through re-incarnation of the spirit or soul. During the Creation Period these animals and plants were once people. Even given this difference, there are many parallels between Mowaljarlai’s description and Juan Nunes del Prado’s perspective. Mowaljarlai gives us a rich description of a feeling-based interaction with the natural environment that fills him with knowledge, wisdom, appreciation and life force. The surroundings call and speak to him and give him knowledge. His relationship with nature mirrors the ecological process that Juan refers to. There is an intelligence, perhaps a spirit or “beingess”, beyond him that infuses him with life.

Both Mowaljarlai’s and Juan’s words are very encouraging to me. In them I find an affirmation of a way of knowing that I have been familiar with in my own life. Growing up in Western culture, I have struggled to keep this way of knowing alive as one of my preferred ‘learning styles’. But I have also found that I can make the decision to nurture this way of being, learning and knowing, and develop it.

This post was originally published in my blog Liminal Songlines. The intention of that blog was to help capture my initial understanding of the spiritual healing traditions of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia while I lived in Australia from 2009 to 2012. Much of what I learned there is relevant to my continuing explorations of rites of passages in indigenous and contemporary cultures, the concept of liminality, and working with change in our turbulent times.

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