Indigenous Knowledge: A Roadmap to Belonging Again

What can we learn from Indigenous cultures about being better stewards to the natural world? After all, Indigenous Peoples were the original caretakers of the land thriving in complex societies long before the arrival of European settlers.

As a Canadian citizen, my country along with the rest of the world, has been slowly learning about the violence inflicted on Indigenous Peoples and the horrors of the residential school system. As we collectively come to terms with our past, I think it is important to look at the insights and lessons from Indigenous cultures. Looking at Indigenous ways of being can inform a shift towards healthier and more sustainable modern societies.

The core tenant of Indigenous knowledge systems is the need to cultivate a sense of kinship with others and the environment. Relationships are the core aspect of existence. We are shaped and molded through our connections to our family, friends and place. Humans are not viewed separate or isolated individuals but intertwined in a vast array of different living systems. Thus, we are just one component of the greater whole.  As the Indigenous academic of the Apalech clan in Australia Tyson Yunkaporta writes,

Nothing exists outside of relationships to something else. There are no isolated variables…. The relationships between the knower and the other knowers, places and senior knowledge keepers is paramount. It facilitates shared memory and sustainable knowledge systems.

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

Traditions serve to bind us to a collective identity and unite us to something larger than ourselves. They aim to answer the most fundamental questions of existence, namely who am I and how should I live my life? For Indigenous Peoples, as well as other cultures, the answers can be found in cultural stories.

Various Indigenous Peoples in North America carved totem poles to capture their ancestry, identity and beliefs. The duty of each generation is pass on their unique cultural knowledge and wisdom to enable those who come after us to live a good life. Our obligation is not only to respect the insights of our ancestors, but to ensure that we take care of the environment so we can offer a sustainable future. Narcissism and egocentrism is contrary to this spirit. This ethos is reflected in the ancient philosophy of the Iroquos’ seventh generation principle which states that decisions made today should take into account its impact seven generations into the future.

The aim isn’t to forego one’s individuality in service of the collective. Rather it is to value the important role each person plays in enhancing the greater good of the whole. As Tyson Yunkaporta notes,

There is a balance between self-determination and group identity. These two are not contradictory but entwined, and there are names for all the roles you occupy as an agent of complexity in Aboriginal society….Our languages are expressions of land-based networks and facilitate communication across all of these individual nodes and collectives of nodes within and between systems.

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

What resonates with me when I reflect on Indigenous ways of being in the world is the yearning for a sense of belonging.  I am indeed grateful for the benefits and comforts of modern society. However, the excesses of individualism and its tendency towards atomization push one to the emptiness of self-gratification.

What Indigenous cultures understood is that the importance of a developing a sense of reverence for the gifts provided by nature.  Indigenous Peoples aim to maintain a sense of balance and harmony with the natural world.  Natural resources and other species are not to be exploited but respected and carefully preserved. For instance, Indigenous hunting practices carefully observe health of other species by restricting overconsumption through setting limits on how much wild game can be caught and controlling what lands can be accessed. The goal is to establish a healthy and reciprocal relationship between us humans and the world around us.  

We are part of the environment and therefore our wellbeing is directly correlated with the health of other living systems.

The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity — then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective

David Suzuki

As I walk through the forest on a vibrant fall afternoon, I am enthralled by the kaleidoscope of bright colours of leaves gently gliding to the ground. The beauty of the world never ceases to astonish me. There is so much more to life than the narrow demands of my own selfish ego.

What matters to me now is being a good steward and preserving the gifts and beauty of the earth for others and for our future ancestors.

I continue my hike forward and earnestly try to follow the wisdom that Indigenous Peoples offer as a roadmap to a healthier more sustainable life.


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East Versus West: A Look at Two Minds  

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The paradigms, world views and ideas which we inhabit shape how we perceive and interact with the world. They impact our ideals, relationships, and values. That is, who we are and who we aspire to be.

It is the task of philosophy to step back and critically examine the dominant frames and driving forces that influence culture. Exploring other value systems can open ourselves up to different ways of being in the world.

It is not my intention to argue that a certain worldview is superior to another. Rather, this analysis aims to make us aware of the benefits as well drawbacks of a particular mode of thought. In this article I want to compare the dominant ideas in the West with those prevalent in Eastern philosophy. This requires me to make broad generalizations, but the objective nonetheless is to provide a broad overview of the different traditions on a macro level.

Our Place in the Cosmos

The Western tradition places a high degree of significance on the importance of the individual.  The ‘good life’ is one in which strengthens one’s self-determination and control over the external environment. It is concerned with realizing one’s potential and talents as a human being.

Further Western thought emphasizes the separateness and superiority of human beings from the natural world. It grants us the jurisdiction to manipulate and control the environment. This way of thinking is embodied in the Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes who claimed that science and technological advancements could make us “masters and possessors of nature.” In Tao: The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts reflects on the negative consequences that result from the excesses of individualism,

Western science has stressed the attitude of objectivity—a cold, calculating, and detached attitude through which it appears that natural phenomena, including the human
organism, are nothing but mechanisms…… We feel justified in exploiting it ruthlessly, but now we are belatedly realizing that the ill-treatment of the environment is damage to ourselves

In contrast, Eastern cultures emphasize the need to live in balance with the natural world. According to this view, we should strive to live in accordance with the rhythms and flows of the environment. Human beings, like all other living beings, are a part of nature. We are deeply connected to the world around us. Our wellbeing is contingent on that of the welfare of other species and their respective ecosystems. Despite our tendency of boasting our self-importance, the East views the human being as just one component in the natural order of things. The goal is therefore to live in harmony with nature.

In addition, Eastern thought claims that the ‘self’ is an illusion. Who we are both on a biological level as well our temperament, beliefs and character is in constant flux throughout life.  Spiritual practices in the East seek to transcend the self. As life is characterized by constant change, clinging onto our egos is bound to leave us dissatisfied. Freedom and peace can be found through rising above the self-centeredness of our personal identity.

Happiness

In the West, our ideas of happiness are based on satisfying the desires of the individual. Happiness is associated with the attainment of external things – status, trendy purchases and luxury products etc. Subjective wellbeing, pleasure and personal fulfillment are the main priorities for the individual.

Eastern philosophy encourages us to engage in spiritual practice to attain a sense tranquility and freedom. The goal is not to satisfy desires or obtain more things, but rather to attain inner peace. This is achieved through attaining a degree of detachment from the impact that external pleasures have on our wellbeing. As the Zen scholar D.T Suzuki writes,

The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do so in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external

In this view, pleasure is temporary and the constant craving for more is the source of our unhappiness.

Balancing the Two Worldviews

Comparing and contrasting these two different worldviews, we can identify the benefits and shortcomings of each. While the ideas of the West have encouraged rapid technological advancement, the excesses of individualism have alienated us from our connection with others and from the natural world.

On the contrary, Eastern ways of thinking help us find peace and freedom within, but neglect to make any progress on advancing our material wellbeing.

It therefore may not be a matter of choosing one way of thinking over the other, but rather finding balance and avoiding the excesses of each worldview.  The philosophies of both the West as well as the East can help us make improvements in different aspects of human existence – namely our external and inner life.


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Opening Ourselves to Different Ways of Knowing

One of the key themes that I have been trying to get across in A Life of Virtue blog is that ideas matter. How we perceive and look at the world has an impact on our thoughts, relationships and actions. Furthermore, ideas act as the foundation shaping our values, beliefs and aspirations.

Therefore, if we wish to hold agency and realize a sense of freedom in our lives, we must continually question and examine the societal norms and worldviews that we take for granted.

In this series I want to examine different worldviews, paradigms and ways of knowing. The ideologies of individualism, which have become so pervasive in modern society, have allowed us to achieve great technological progress.  Indeed, we have attained dominance over nature. We can now examine the properties of microscopic bacteria to the vastness of the universe.

However, despite our longings for absolute control, we still feel a deep sense of lack. Meaning and fulfilment become more illusive in our mechanized industrial societies.

Why is this the case?

Well, perhaps it is because we have acted in a way that treats the world around us as something to be manipulated, controlled or exploited. We consequently feel a sense of disconnection, alienated from others and the world around us.

However, this way of thinking hasn’t always the case. In fact, many other traditions and cultures see us humans in close interconnected relationships with nature . We are not isolated separate beings. We only can thrive if our communities thrive, and we can only live healthy lives if we actively take care of the natural world.

In this series on Different Ways of Knowing I want to asses the following topics in more detail:

  • The differences in the Western and Eastern thinking;
  • Ian McGilchrist’s model of finding balance between the left and right hemisphere of the brain; and
  • Indigenous wisdom and worldviews.

If we are able to examine unique perspectives, we can begin to rigorously evaluate our unquestioned assumptions and gain a glimpse into the unique possibilities and experiences that life can offer.

We can gain a degree of autonomy over our lives and live more deliberately.

We can then truly be free.