Direct Knowing

Several days ago I was reading Yorro Yorro: Everything Standing Up Alive. Mowaljarlai, an Aboriginal Elder from Australia and co-author of the book, shares through describing his personal experiences and the many stories he tells how he directly interacts with nature and how the natural world  teaches him and can teach us and feel fully alive.

Mowaljarlai’s description landed for me inside a perspective I’d cultivated studying with Juan Nunez del Prado, a Peruvian Mestizo and p’aqo (shaman/priest) several years back. I am 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, a 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, and conceptual representation rather than subjective, embodied experience. My own work managing the tensions in our knowledge processes between subjective to objective now seems to be moving toward a more integrated approach. Yorro Yorro beckoned me through the door of direct knowing.

From the book Yorro Yorro:

In the graying of dawn Mowaljarlai invites Jutta, the photographer her is traveling with to explore ancestral lands, 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.”

Mowaljarlai’s piccanini morning described direct knowing. From another cultural angle, but clearly resonating with a similar orientation, Juan Nunez del Prado pursued the traditional shamanic/mystical path after he had been trained as a structural anthropologist in Cuzco, Peru. He identifies himself as belonging to both Western culture and the Andean indigenous tradition. One time, Juan described to me 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 thought but also by the way of feeling. 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.”

 Another of Juan Nunez del Prado’s students, Stephen Victor, 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.”

How direct knowing translates into understanding varies greatly amongst indigenous traditions. Living in Australia and participating in the ceremonies with Aboriginal women, I have learned that Aboriginal spirituality is not considered animistic like the Peruvian indigenous traditions. Animism is the belief that all natural objects possess a soul. Aborigines of a particular tribe, however,  might believe that a particular deity during the period of creation also created natural rock formation and outcroppings or that certain animals and plants are interchangeable with human life through re-incarnation of the spirit or soul. They might say that during the Creation Period these animals and plants were once people. However, the difference, in reading Yorro Yorro I saw 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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