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 tenet 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.
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.
I interviewed Dr. Matthew Galati, founder of the Brain Changes Initiative, to learn about his remarkable recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
In the interview, Dr. Galati offers us a reminder of the importance of resilience and perseverance in overcoming obstacles in order to reach your goals.
Readers of the A Life of Virtue blog will find resonance with Dr. Galati’s timely Stoic wisdom of acknowledging that while we may not be able to control external events, we always have the power to make the conscious decision of how we can respond to them.
Dr. Galati’s story serves as an inspiration to us all. Through his work through the Brain Changes Initiative, he advocates for a wholistic approach for assisting TBI survivors through awareness, advocacy and support.
1. Tell me a bit about your story and how you got started with the Brain Changes Initiative?
In 2013 I was driving back to the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in Windsor in bad weather conditions when I hit black ice sending my car out of control resulting into me crashing into a tree.
The accident left me unconscious with brain bleed, multiple fractures and sent me into a three-day coma. Upon waking up, I realized my cognitive abilities were severely damaged. Basic everyday tasks became a challenge. I initially couldn’t walk or talk.
Nine years ago, the research being done on traumatic brain injury was still in the early stages. The predominant view was that as one matures into adulthood, the brain remains static. Doctors initially told me that the chances of full recovery were slim.
After receiving acute care for my injuries, I enrolled in an intensive rehabilitation program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. In addition to my rehab work at the institute, I took the initiative in working on my recovery. I focused on activities that engaged different aspects of my brain.
To achieve this goal, I did of a host of different physical and cognitive exercises including:
running 5km every morning;
reviewing my notes from medical school;
practicing mindfulness mediation;
proper sleep hygiene; and
eating a healthy nutritious diet.
I took inspiration from the insightful bookSpark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J Ratey. In the book, Ratey who is a MD, presents new scientific insights that demonstrate that an active ‘lifestyle approach’ can be helpful and provide positive outcomes in healing from TBI. He presents a study that looks at the effects that a school districts’ revamped physical education program had on academic performance. Of note, the study demonstrated how aerobic exercise can prime the brain for learning.
When I communicated my ambition to complete my medical school degree, I was met with skepticism and hesitation from my academic advisors. Determined to prove the magnitude of my recovery, I demonstrated improvements in my cognitive abilities by rewriting and receiving better marks on my medical school exams than I previously did in the past.
After graduating and completing my residency I began research on traumatic brain recovery, and the potential of a lifestyle approach on brain health.
This led into the Brain Changes Initiative, a non-profit which I created in 2019 that funds ground-breaking research to improve the standard of care for TBI recovery. The goals of the organization are threefold:
Raise awareness about the possibilities for TBI recovery in the community
Provide education through our webinar series on the benefits of a lifestyle approach to brain health
Support research aimed at finding the ideal dose of intensive physical and cognitive exercise to optimally heal the brain after TBI is sustained
2. Your recovery is an example of what we can achieve through dedication, effort and hard work. I was wondering if you can impart any lessons or advice on how we can cultivate more resilience in our lives?
My experiences have taught me that in life it is important to be adaptable. You have to anticipate that things will not always happen the way that you intend them to.
We should always believe in our potential. Be your best advocate. There is a mantra that I like from the basketball star and Toronto Raptor Fred VanVleet – ‘bet on yourself.’ Despite missing the NBA draft, VanVleet’s hard work and determination eventually led him to signing the largest contract as an undrafted player in NBA history. In subsequent years he was a key component in the Raptor’s 2019 NBA championship.
Ultimately, we can’t control external events. For me, I couldn’t control the accident and resulting brain injury. However, I could control how I reacted to the situation. My determination to improve and reach my goals through research and taking an active role in my recovery is on me. No one except yourself and your family is going to care about your situation.
It is up to you to keep on pushing forward.
3. The rehabilitation process required a lot of consistent physical and cognitive exercises. One thing that I personally struggle with is getting into a routine when I am trying to develop new habits. Any suggestions on how we can stick to our planned goals and reach those elusive New Year resolutions?
For those who experienced TBI, it is common to fall into a state of apathy. This occurs when an individual loses hope resulting in feelings of indifference or a lack of interest in their environment.
There were two key activities that were instrumental to my success and recovery, affirmations and scheduling.
Affirmations are positive statements that boost self-confidence, provide motivation and help you overcome negative thoughts. I would post affirmations on my wall, repeating the goals I hoped to achieve. The more often you do this, the more you reinforce these positive thoughts which help you actualize your ambitions.
Another thing that I did was keep an agenda and planner. This helped me keep track of my progress on completing the daily tasks and routines that I set out for myself such as aerobic exercises and tasks for cognitive development. Implementing a schedule is an important tool for developing strong habits.
We must constantly remind ourselves that anything is possible. Numerous people told me that my goals were unrealistic or unattainable. However, no one should compromise their dreams and aspirations.
The brain is truly the most remarkable and complex things on the planet. We can achieve anything that we set our mind to.
4. You talk a lot about ‘neuroplasticity’, what is this concept and why is it important?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt, heal and change. It is the way we learn new skills. The more you do something over and over again you begin to build stronger corresponding connections in your brain.
Again, this concept runs against the common thinking years ago which claimed that the brain is a static organ unable to change once you mature.
It was through the possibilities provided to me by the neuroplasticity of the brain that enabled me to achieve this remarkable recovery.
5. I’ve been intrigued to learn about the lifestyles of those who live in the Blue Zones which are regions where people generally live the longest. Research attributes their life span their diets (mainly plant based), exercise, limiting alcohol consumption, getting enough sleep and having good spiritual, family and social networks.
There are a lot of similarities with these characteristics and the five-pillar approach for brain health that you advocate for.
Do you think there has been a shift in recent years in the medical community towards more holistic approaches to wellbeing?
In Western medicine there is a strong emphasis on symptom management. Of course, this is very important to treating acute care conditions.
A consequence of this approach however is that it can overlook the significance that one’s lifestyle and habits play in their wellbeing. This is the missing element in dealing with chronic conditions.
As part of my studies, I did some training on functional/environmental medicine which emphasized a wholistic approach to health. Rather than just focusing on ‘band-aid’ reactive solutions, it is shifting attention to the root causes of the illness.
That is to say it is preventative rather than reactive.
These changes to my habits and lifestyle are what ultimately healed me. The longevity of those in the ‘blue zones’ demonstrate how being active, embracing a strong sense of community and making healthy life choices can lead to longer and more wholesome lives.
6. My blog, A Life of Virtue, is about exploring about the deep philosophical questions about meaning and purpose. What do you want to get out of life, and what makes life meaningful for you?
My journey to recovery gives me a lot of gratitude and strength. Yes, I suffered traumatic brain injury but I was able to turn my life around through hard work, perseverance and dedication. You always have the ability to reframe your thoughts. You can turn your weaknesses into your strengths.
The lessons that I learned throughout my healing journey have been invaluable. As a doctor, I want to be able to help others with the lessons I’ve learned.
This has become my mission.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”
Below is part 2 of my interview with Vanessa from Your Mind Matters, hope you enjoy.
1. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been forced into isolation. We can of course connect with our loved ones through technology, but this time may also offer us an opportunity to practice solitude. How can we cope with and feel a bit more comfortable being alone?
This is such an important topic. It’s been eye-opening (but not surprising) to see how many people are totally uncomfortable with the idea of being alone with their thoughts and are doing anything they can to avoid their own company and feeling comfortable with it without any distractions.
The problem with a lack of distractions is that it exposes pain we maybe didn’t know we had. The problem with that is that it’s painful and hard. But, it’s also important and worthwhile. I think the only way to feel more comfortable being alone is to spend more time alone. Humans can adapt very well. If we put ourselves in a situation enough times, eventually we’ll learn to deal with it.
Something I’ve really learned in this time is that isolation does not mean lack of connection. They’re two different things and you can still feel connected to others while being physically apart from others. When people lack a strong sense of connection and security in their relationships with others, being physically isolated or by themselves will make them feel lonely and disconnected because they need the physical presence of others to feel socially connected.
Know that just because you’re on your own in that moment doesn’t mean that you don’t have anyone and that you shouldn’t feel connected to others. It’s still important to reach out and you can still ask for help in this time.
In short, we become more comfortable being alone by being alone more. It’s such a beautiful experience to spend time with ourselves, get to know ourselves and learn more about ourselves and then learn to love ourselves and develop that important relationship with ourselves. We need more of that and so I guess that’s one benefit of the situation we’re experiencing.
The relationship with yourself sets the tone for all the other ones in your life and it’s the only one that lasts from the day you’re born until the day you die. You might as well work really hard on that one and make it a strong and loving relationship. Learning to like yourself is the most important thing you’ll ever do and once you do, you’ll never feel disconnected again.
2. Broadly put, one of the tasks of philosophy is about using logic to continually challenge existing assumptions, thoughts and beliefs. Can this approach be helpful in dealing with mental health issues?
Logic isn’t exactly my best friend, being someone who struggles with mental health issues and is considered to be emotionally volatile, but logic is absolutely helpful when dealing with mental health issues for many reasons.
One thing I learned in therapy that has made such a big impact on me is called “wise mind” and it’s basically the principle of combining our emotional mind and our rational (or logical) mind into what’s called our “wise mind”. It’s merging emotions and logic at the same time to come up with a new state of mind and thought process that is both rooted in logic while also recognizing the emotions that come with it.
A type of psychotherapy used to treat many people with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is literally rooted in the concept of using logic. It comes from the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected and that what we think influences how we feel and in turn affects how we act.
The premise of CBT is to use logic to examine the facts (using reason and logic) of a situation that is causing us distress or evoking uncomfortable or painful thoughts and emotions. It’s important to note that while logic is helpful when it comes to mental health problems, emotions are still valid and serve a purpose and so it’s therefore essential to combine the two and allow both to co-exist and serve you.
3. Lastly, any final thoughts, resources or advice you want to share?
Something I want to say about the current situation we find ourselves in: it’s uncomfortable but also an opportunity to look inward with minimal distractions. I’d take that opportunity every time. Get to know yourself and learn to love yourself. Build those solid foundations and watch how beautifully the rest of your life unfolds and how all the other aspects come together so nicely. Just know that there’s no right way to cope with this and whatever you’re managing is enough and you’re doing okay.
I also want to note that self-awareness is important and so is doing the inner work necessary to grow, but no matter how hard it is it’s always a worthwhile pursuit. Sometimes, it gets discouraging and we wish we could just shut it off and stop overthinking and instead fall into distractions so that we forget about our pain and suffering, but it’s not adaptive. It’s always a better option to sit in the discomfort and use it for growth and learning because pain is always the best teacher. And the best thing about pain is that it’s temporary. It doesn’t last and always passes.
With respect to authenticity, being yourself is the most outward display of vulnerability and is always incredibly beneficial and necessary. Vulnerability is the biggest strength. I always say to err on the side of radical openness and transparency because that’s when we see the biggest benefits as human beings. Showing your human is the most compelling and inviting thing you can do.
And one final thing: have empathy. For others and for yourself. It is truly life altering to learn to listen to others and try to understand them on multiple levels. Learning about what makes someone who they are and what lights their fire is exceptionally rewarding, especially when it’s you learning about yourself.
Take this time to listen to others and to yourself. If you truly try to understand a person and find out why they are the way they are, you’ll always find that if you were them, if you were in their shoes and knew what they knew and had what they had then you would be the exact same. With that realization comes empathy and with empathy comes so much connection, intimacy and the possibility of love.
This sort of thing truly has healing powers. I cannot recommend it enough and particularly recommend the work of Brené Brown if you want to learn more about vulnerability and how to practice it and why you should.
In terms of resources, I have to plug Your Mind Matters first. Our website www.yourmindmatters.ca and Instagram @yourmindmattersorg has tons of resources and information about all things mental health and mental illness.