As I sped through the verdant rolling hills of New South Wales on my way to Brisbane airport (with temp of 42deg), I wondered whether I’d ever return to Australia. I love the humid heat, the cacophony of birdsong, the unexpected meetings with wild animals and the abundance of colour. The wild life force feels so very strong here.
Yet there is a deep sadness within the human community which I was reminded of briefly on New Year’s Day. I’d gone into Byron for a swim and from a distance could hear distorted music blaring out of a parked car. Getting closer I found a group of aboriginal people looking ‘out of it’, some drunk, spilling onto the pavement. No-one paid them any attention, as if it wasn’t really happening. Yet I imagine that everyone witnessing this scene found it a painful one, being reminded of the tension between the no-worries-white-surfing-culture on the coast, and the aboriginal distress buried somewhere inland, in the land. From time to time that terrible distress bursts out and ruptures the Eden-like scene on the coast. It’s not only extremely disturbing to see their struggle, but it also rumbles something deep within, it’s a mirror for what has been done to the indigenous self within everyone.
I remember this from ten years ago when it took a while before I began to hear the underbelly of the happy white people, many of whom were in search of their origins somewhere in Europe, as if they were cut off and bleeding at the ankles, not yet rooted in the land. Always in the background is this nagging feeling of not belonging, of living on stolen land.
These themes continued into my journey in New Zealand in different ways. I arrived into much cooler air and a gentler land, greeted by Amanda (Garland), an art psychotherapist and ecopsychologist colleague/friend from the UK who returned to settle in NZ a few years ago. Amanda is the person who invited me to offer some talks and a seminar in NZ, and looked after me so well while I was there.
We drove to her home Earthsong, which is a co-housing community in the suburbs of Auckland. This is a diverse group of some 60 people from young to old – all with the intention of living sustainably and in community. Amanda now shares her life with Robin Allison, the co-founder of this community. I returned to Earthsong towards the end of my stay in NZ and I’ll tell you more about that in the next letter.
Heart Politics Gathering: The Power of Nature and the Nature of Power 8 – 12 Jan
A few days later it was time for The Heart Politics Gathering which was held by the sea in Huia, about one hour’s drive west of Auckland. It was the 25th anniversary of this gathering, a 4 day event which attracts a wide variety of New Zealanders (including children and teenagers, two with special needs) concerned about current issues such as peace, social justice, community, family, education, indigenous and the environment.
This event is similar to The Ecopsychology Gathering in the UK which I’ve been involved in organising, now in its 3rd year. However it was obvious from the integration and polished facilitation of Heart Politics (HP) that they have been at this for much longer than us! The opening ceremony included welcoming in the four directions (earth, air, water, fire), thanking the earth, as well as introducing ourselves to the large group which fluctuated from around 45 – 60 people.
We had ‘home groups’ towards the end of each day, a small group in which we could discuss things more intimately. I loved the way this home group came together: we all chose from a range of six love poems , put a tag around our neck with the poem on it, then wandered about to find our poem mates.
In our home group we had Logan, a teenager and Tui, a 12yr old girl and it was so interesting to hear what they made of HP, how they thought it was cool to express your feelings, sadly unlike their experience at school where many children are bullied for this. The smallest children, Izzy and Sky, had the job of gong-ing at the end of sessions and there is nothing like naked fairies coming into your home group giggling wildly and shouting “Dinner Time” in your ears.
Also in my home group were two Maori women – Carol and Iona – so I learned something of Maori culture. Their tradition is to share your Whakapapa which starts by telling of the place of your tribal area – starting with mountain, then river, then sea. Next comes your ancestral canoe (how you arrived) your tribe, a significant ancestor and at the very end, your name. Since I come from the flat lands of Norfolk I discovered that ‘mountain’ really means ‘your land’.
It has been heartening to feel part of a culture, albeit briefly, which embodies the knowing that humans are part of the land. The Māori word for land, whenua, also means placenta. All life is seen as being born from the womb of Papatūānuku, under the sea. The lands that appear above water are placentas from her womb. Traditionally, the whenua (placenta) and pito (umbilical cord) of newborn babies are buried in a significant place. This practice reinforces the relationship between the newborn child and the land of their birth.
In many ways ecopsychology is an attempt to re-discover a modern indigeny. As Jung would say this is about getting to know the two million year old person within. But at times it felt awkward to be talking about ecopsychology beside Maori people who articulate our human relationship with the land with so much more eloquence, sophistication and ancient wisdom. I often wish we had more of an intact indigenous culture here in the UK. Yet the tensions that are inevitably there between the Pakeha (people of European descent) and the indigenous Maori, from so much painful political history, mean that it is far from straightforward for the Pakeha to learn their ways.
The Maori language almost disappeared and then events in 1980’s shook everyone up with a Maori uprising in protest against their appalling treatment at the hands of the white government, the last straw of a long and painful history. Since then there has been a slow turning around of the situation. While there is still so far to go, there is a good deal of integration between Maori and Pakeha cultures, especially compared to the situation in Australia. There was even a move recently to educate children in both languages, but this has so far proved a step too far for the white government.
On Thursday, the second day of HP, we started with a dawn swim from the front door of our bach (NZ cabin) below.
Iona, MJ, Amanda, Robin
Then we went to the first event of the day, a social dreaming matrix at 7am. For those who don’t know this tradition, it’s a space in which anyone can come and share any dream or any fragment of a dream in the large group. The dreams are not interpreted individually, but are understood to be reflections of what might be happening in the unconscious of a community event or conference. Often there are uncanny resonances between the dreams; sometimes people come thinking their dream isn’t relevant, and then suddenly realise that it ties in with what others are sharing. Associations to the dreams are also invited. A record of the dreams was kept for anyone interested.
The next morning session was the 3 guest presenters. The first was Jenny Ritchie an assoc professor at Unitech, Auckland who supports early childhood educators and teacher educators to include an awareness of cultural, environmental and social justice issues. What surprised me was that Jenny included references to The Myth of Progress as well as quoting many well-known Ecopsychology writers, such as David Abram, Thomas Berry and Theodore Roszak. I began to wonder whether my talk would be much different!
During Jenny’s talk the weather changed and the heavens opened. Rain poured onto the outdoor marquee which was on a slightly sloping paved area, and we quickly had a stream running under our feet. So we had to pack things up and sit close together to keep dry and to hear. By the time Jenny had finished speaking the rain had stopped. Everyone stood up and sang a Maori song which honoured what she had given. What a beautiful way to close.
Next up was myself, and I was relieved that the sun came out so that I didn’t have to shout to the audience. I talked about the shift from “power over Nature” to “power with Nature”. How had western culture come to this place of wanting or needing power over Nature? What does it means to come back into power with nature in our modern world? I was taken by surprise when, at the end of my talk, Carol from my home group led everyone into song once again. It was very moving. There were so many songs from both Maori and white culture throughout the gathering.
The third speaker was Iona Winter (below), a Celtic-Maori psychotherapist specialising in the sexual abuse and trauma field. Iona spoke very personally about how she had found her way into this work while she was weaving a bag called a kete out of NZ flax. In Maori culture this is traditional work for women, and is associated both with ritual and convention about preparation of the materials and also with women sharing stories and wisdom as they work together. It poured with rain once again. The Maori say that rain is a blessing. I believe for the English the sun is a blessing?
On Thursday evening David Jacobs showed the film River Dog. This film was one of the winners of the sustainability film challenge for young people The Outlook for Someday, promoted by David Jacob’s company. This film inspired an interesting discussion circling around the question, “How do we talk with those who continue to damage the earth and show no interest in changing their ways?”
River Dog describes how Grant Muir, a farmer outside Wellington, is trying to protect the river on his land from being destroyed by cattle grazing which results in phosphate pollution from cow poo and stripping riverside bare of green foliage. While he is successful at doing his bit, his neighbouring farmers won’t change their ways and they’re at loggerheads.
So every day he takes his pack of dogs down the river to chase away the other cows. Wellington Council seems to be on the side of the farmers and is ineffective in protecting the river. The situation has become so bad that Muir is now being assaulted by his neighbours, who are frightened that changes will mean loss of profit. He is clearly exhausted and feeling very much on his own and some say he should just sell his farm and move on. But he won’t desert the river. This is a microcosm of what is happening in the whole of New Zealand, a situation which has become much worse in the past 10 years due to more intensive farming.
Some were quick to point out that Grant Muir’s situation and how he has been gradually drained to total exhaustion is what the Maori (and other indigenous peoples) have endured for centuries.
An interesting comment was that recent research has shown that organic farming is more profitable. You’d think this would inspire the farmer to change – yet it seems not. Here is a good example of the psychological at work: a fear of changing ingrained habits. Possibly this is made worse by the increasing attempts to try to make them change, so that even if they want to change their minds it may be experienced as losing the battle, a climb down, involving humiliation. Not easy for a macho farming culture.
Someone else commented was that this cannot be done alone. Grant Muir seemed to be setting himself up as the lone male hero, doggedly continuing in his fight…. taking him right back into the old ways of trying to conquer the other.
I followed this up with a workshop in which some people had a go at role playing the different characters engaging in conversation. Very quickly they reached stalemate and another interesting discussion arose about the feelings that such confrontation arouses in both campaigner and farmer (who stands for ‘those who resist change’). It is so easy to get into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation, to brand the other as the enemy, to get into a stand-off. So how to skilfully engage in dialogue as a community where all sides can feel safe enough to empathise with the other? Campaigners know only too well that it takes a great deal of time, energy, psychological skill and patience.
The same questions were being asked when I visited Hugh and Nan Nicholson, the couple who were at the centre of the 1979 campaign to save the rainforest trees in Terrania Creek, not far from Byron Bay, NSW, Australia. These rainforest activists saved that big tree that I so fell in love with – and thanks to that community’s action, so many other big trees were saved in that area. Recently they had been involved in a successful anti-gas fracking campaign and were eager to hear what I had to offer to say about communicating with the gas companies.
Many of the HP community have a great deal of experience to offer on this. Some ideas I’ve gleaned:
– to be able to step into the shoes of the other which begins to break down ‘them’ and ‘us’
-forget trying to change anything or anyone, just start by getting to know the other and finding common ground
– finding inspiring examples of change in action which can dissolve projections onto “the green movement” eg Robin told me that many people are resistant to living in community, as it’s associated with ‘hippie lifestyles’. But visitors to Earthsong soon see that it’s a diverse community like anywhere else – a teacher, a family judge, a therapist, an architect, someone who works for Auckland council – anyone who wants to create a safer and better life;
-understanding just how difficult it is to change – and the more we are told to change, the more we might feel resistant to it;
-there is a challenging exercise offered by ecophilosopher Joanna Macy called ‘Bowing to our Adversaries’ which honours all the things we learn from those who hold radically different points of view.
I’d love to hear more views on this.
Back to Heart Politics! After the talks much of our time was spent in ‘Open Space’ where anyone could offer a workshop or topic for discussion into allotted times. I took part in a Mindful Walk in Nature with Iona (similar to the work that I and others are offering in the UK) slowing down enough to notice the connections between inner and outer nature. I had a touching moment when I was quietly sitting outside thinking fondly about The Women’s Pond at home, imagining cycling there, arriving to see my friends swimming amongst the moorhens, geese and ducks, sitting on the bench and looking out to the view across the heath. When I came out of my reverie there, out of the sky, came a mallard winging its way towards me. It landed a few feet away from me on the tiled floor, and waddled up to say a quack hello. After a few minutes it waddled off again and took off into the air. I haven’t seen a mallard in NZ before or since.
On Friday evening we had The Sharing Circle, a formal space in which the large group gathered to share their stories. In the Maori tradition the Hui could continue all night. Many white people spoke of their distress about not knowing where they come from, not knowing where they belong, feeling disconnected from the land. I found this interesting: I know very well where my roots are and where my family comes from, but it doesn’t follow that I know where I belong, nor does it mean that I am therefore connected with the land. Another person spoke of how she was brought up in a racist family who taught her to disrespect Maori people. And so much more, on into the night.
On Saturday evening, after more workshops, we all let off steam with a spectacular cabaret, great singing, and a touching play from the youngest participants Izzy and Sky. They had created a zoo with various adults dressed up as animals and they asked each in turn if they wanted to be free. They all did! Yeay!!
The ending ritual went as smoothly as the whole event. It was only afterwards that, to our horror, we discovered that a group of older teenagers had been bullying some of the more vulnerable ones. One of them even used a mock gun to frighten a child. By the time we knew this the gathering had dispersed, and it left us shaken up, wondering how it could have come about that the large group had not known about this as it was happening. For me this was especially sad as Logan had been one of the teenagers who was bullied, and he hadn’t said a word about it in our home group.
On leafing through my images of the event afterwards I found this one below – a beautiful sunrise, a swim at dawn, and lurking in the clouds is the shadow of the event, a man with a gun facing to the right (emerging out of the top of the dark cloud).
This was a disturbing image to be left with after such a great event and it is curious how such an unexpected ending can cast new light on what has come before, on the whole story. I realised there had been little tension over the 4 days together, unusual for a large group. There was talk of the many arguments in the HP community in previous years; perhaps now it was in danger of being an institution, a nice supportive community where the grit had been displaced? Were the children acting something out about the nature of power for the adults?
This incident has really given me pause for thought, so this is a bit of an epilogue! Bullying is “power over” and endemic in a culture which is driven by “power over”; is it a reaction to powerlessness? Along my travels I’ve heard many stories of powerlessness and how difficult that is to bear – both a sense of personal powerlessness in the face of climate change as well as the disempowerment of political failure.
Rosalee, an old timer at HP, was telling of her involvement in an anti-mining campaign in the Coramandel Peninsular. A group had worked for 20 years to create government policy to protect the land. At the last minute the government had put in a small clause of a few sentences allowing mining to take place, effectively undermining all their work. Unbelievable really – but it seems like this story is a microcosm for what is happening all over the world. (There are many successes of course, but because they don’t get reported much in the media, it’s hard to see what the balance looks like).
It made me think about, how do we live with powerlessness, without it turning into bullying or infighting within organisations? What sustains us in dark times? This relates to the two questions that I heard most often on my journey: Where do I find hope? What can I do that will make a difference?
Getting on top of powerlessness and despair is understandable – but is that going back to “power over nature”? Most of the great spiritual teachers say that facing into death, surrendering to the unknown and seeing the powerlessness of the ego, is what brings awakening. It seems to me that climate change opens a door to that, to a collective species-near-death experience and a potential collective awakening. But perhaps it’s not a door that many people will walk through willingly?
“Relax. Nothing is Under Control.”