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February 27, 2012

Day 5 of the Australian Journey 2012

By Lewis Mehl-Madrona

I describe the fifth day of our journey for cross-cultural exchange. Today was primarily a day of our teaching. The days vary from receiving mostly to giving mostly. We focused on the importance for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or indigenous status to participate in ceremony in such a way as to feel closer to the spiritual dimension and to celebrate what's good and positive about one's life instead of tales of misdeeds.


Today is our second day in Warburton with Auntie Jennie and the Karith House of Prayer.   Every morning on the Australian Tour, I get up before the sun and run.   Yesterday I ran along the Upper Yarra River to Martyr Hill (a 27% grade) where I painstakingly ascended to the top, then entered the Donna Buang Trail, a 70 kilometer hike, of which I sampled just the first bit. The songs of the birds spectacularly surrounded me, resembling what I would expect from a rain forest, though in my naivete, I expected monkeys to be part of the auditory scenery.   I had the privilege to see a beautiful red fox, which surprised me since I didn't think foxes lived in Australia.   Later when I asked about the fox, I learned that they had been brought to Australia by the British rulers for their classic fox hunt.   The foxes quickly overran the local wildlife since they had no natural predators and became pests.   (Just like the English, someone at the breakfast table quipped.)   I pointed out that it wasn't actually the fault of the foxes, since they weren't the ones to buy the tickets to Australia and probably didn't enjoy the journey either.   You can get $10 for killing a fox and presenting its pelt.   It's equally not the personal fault of those who have English ancestry for bringing the foxes since they weren't alive when the fox idea was conceived and executed.   I don't think we have to hold guilt for the deeds of our ancestors.   There's enough in the world to make everyone dysfunctional without needing more.   I agree with don Miguel Ruiz and Olivier Clerc that we need to forgive and be forgiven more than we need to blame and be blamed.

This part of Australia superficially resembles Vermont, where I live.   The mountains are a bit higher in Vermont, but that's where the resemblance ends.   There's no rocks here.   The forest floor is thickly filled with ferns and exotic looking plants that resemble large pineapple plants without   the fruit.   The major tree is the eucalyptus or gum.   As one ascends to the higher altitudes, pines appear, but not like any Vermont pine.   Last year we were running when it was still dark and saw a wombat.   I only saw scat this year.   Surprisingly given daylight savings time, the sun rises late in Southeastern Australia.

This morning I took a different route.   I ran up a new road on the same steep hill to get to the O'Shaunessy Aqueduct Trail.   I ran along an old aqueduct for a ways before turning up the hill on the Mt. Victoria Trail.   I wondered how one keeps the water out of the aqueduct even as streams tumbled down the hill beneath it.   Nature was breaking up the concrete and taking back the land.   A short ways up the last trail, I had to turn around and ran back to Karith.   I can vouch that it's quicker to run downhill than uphill but it's harder on the thighs.

Warburton is a small town, barely one row of buildings on either side of the road.   The architecture is one I have only encountered in Australia, a kind of combination between English country homes and Indonesian style.   The closest I have seen elsewhere is the French Quarter in New Orleans.   The Upper Yarra River runs behind one of those rows, flowing all the way to Melbourne and into the ocean there.   I met a woman named Maya who wrote a marvelous book on her hiking journey along the Upper Yarra River from its source to the sea.   I asked her if she was going to honor any other rivers, but she said, "No, this is my homeland.   That is my River.   I wouldn't have authority or permission to write about anyone else's river.   She was obviously aboriginal in her thinking about land and territory.

When we arrived at the Village Hall where we were doing the workshop, the door was locked.   We milled around in front of the movie posters including George Clooney's latest film for the Town Hall doubled as the Village Cinema.   Since "the show must go on", we had to improvise.   Our hosts were frantically trying to track down one of the City employees to open the building.   I suggested we go sit beside the river and at least get started.   We meandered down our side of the river to the Brisbane Bridge and crossed over to the other side where I had spotted a nice grassy area suitable for our group.   Rocky and I proceeded to do the opening song to honor the Four Directions after we had acknowledged the land, the aboriginal people who were attached to this land along with their ancestors, and the spirits who walked upon the land.   Then we did a spirit calling song to make sure that proper notice had been given to the spirits that we were planning to do a ceremony.   Auntie Jennie then spoke some about the importance of men coming into the medicine.   In her family as in mine, there were at least two, if not three, generations which were entirely lacking in men.   All the men were dead or in jail or lost.   My grandfather was the only exception as was Aunt Jennie's.   She continued to talk about the men in her family and her ancestors which inspired me to propose that we do a tobacco ceremony in which we smoke for the spirits and anyone who receives a message from them stands up and delivers it.   This turned out to be a powerful ceremony.   I offered the tobacco and a number of people stood and spoke in Quaker meeting fashion.   In my mind's eye I saw my ancestors crossing the great divide (the Pacific Ocean) and embracing Auntie Jennie's ancestors and all sitting down in a circle and smoking together to signify unity and peacefulness.   One said that war actually hadn't been on the planet all that long and could still be eradicated.   I saw ancestors standing behind each person present.   Several others spoke of similar sightings.   We passed tobacco around the circle for everyone to smoke just as I had seen.   Then one of our hosts appeared and announced that the employee who was supposed to open the hall had finally arrived and we could return.   Many of us did not want to leave the river and its soothing sounds as it moved past the first rocks I had seen in this countryside.

After we settled back into the building, Rocky spoke about the untold and silent stories that become physical illnesses.   These stories need to be elicited.   The organs and the tissues who manifest the diseases need to be engaged in conversation to tell their stories.   The lessons we were learning were not just pertinent to mental health.   He gave an example of working with a woman who was having severe right hip pain.   He used acupuncture and some osteopathy while he encouraged her to let her hip tell its story.   As a surprising but highly relevant story emerged, the pain moved to the left hip, then the left knee, and then left her body.   It had been stuck in her hip.   I suggested Brian Broom's marvelous book, Meaning-full Illness.   Auntie Jennie confirmed that this view was also consistent with what aboriginal people believe and how they heal in her area of Australia.

After lunch we wanted people to experience how ceremony builds community, so we chose a ceremony that I created based upon my readings from ethnographies written before 1900 of a "Welcome to Camp" ceremony.   It hasn't been done since 1880, as far as I can determine.   I can imagine someone getting ready to bristle, so I'll quickly say that I believe it's acceptable to create ceremony for specific purposes as the need arises.   It's not a Native American ceremony because it's not currently done and there's no model to follow or elder to teach it.   It may have some Native American flavor (we can't help infusing our spirituality into the ceremonies we create), but it's really an ecumenical attempt at experiencing some degree of transcendence toward the spiritual, which is exactly what I would call it.   Or, since I'm also a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Church, perhaps I should call it a "U-U greeting ceremony".

   The inspiration for this ceremony comes from Plains peoples of North America, before they were penned into reservations.   In those days, camps frequently moved.   During certain times of the year camps would join each other for celebrations and larger rituals.   A ceremony was done to oversee this process.   In one that I read, seven tipis were set in each of the seven directions so that the person walked a spiral toward the center.   This was done outside and to the East of the main camp.   Those people wanting admission to camp participated in the ceremony along with those who controlled the admissions process.   The supplicant who wished to enter the camp started in the West and passed to each of the directions.   In the original ceremony, the intent was that each person proved that he possessed the virtue of that direction.   In my readings, only men participated, but that may have been a side effect of the gender-nearsightedness of many of the ethnographers writing before 1880 who were often sexist and might not have noticed women even if they outnumbered men.   At each direction, the applicant to the camp tells a story about a deed that exemplifies the virtues of that direction.   In my ceremony, I used courage for the west, strength and endurance for the north, receiving and following a vision for the east, compassion for the south, protecting someone for the sky, and nurturing someone for the earth.   Then he is welcomed in the center and led into camp.   I'm going to guess no one was ever turned away because the incoming group were known and had been previously vetted.   This was just a formal way to say hello.

I use my ceremony with Native American people though, as I said, it is not a traditional Native American ceremony.   I use it especially with people who have drug and alcohol problems because they are not used to saying anything positive about themselves.   The beauty of this ceremony is that it emphasizes one's good traits and deeds.   So many people are quick to tell stories about their faults and misdeeds, but isn't it much harder to tell stories about what we have done well, or times when we have been courageous, or strong, or compassionate, or protected someone or something else?   This ceremony forces people to reflect upon what is good about them and to share it with another person who only listens, standing in the position that symbolically represents one of the Directions.   Participants feel how it changes them to tell good stories instead of bad stories and they feel the camaraderie that comes from being heard without commentary or personal response and being accepted.   Those who have completed the process are led to a nearby part of the room where they can sing, dance, or help each other in some way.   We keep a continual steam of singing and dancing going, because, as a Sari elder told us in Mexico, you can never sing or dance enough for the spirits.   When we did ceremony with her, she would exhort us with "mas bailando; mas cantando".

We did this ceremony with the group and Auntie Jennie agreed that it did succeed in giving them some flavor of the transcendence and sense of group membership that participation in tradition ceremony in community provides.   People also spoke about how difficult it was at first to be positive about oneself and how embarrassed they were.   Isn't it interesting that we are more embarrassed to tell positive stories about ourselves than negative ones?!   They also spoke about how transformative it felt to actually get out the positive story and for it to be accepted. They described the joy of completing the process and being welcomed to the community.   For some that community will continue, since talking circles are held weekly for those who live in the area and efforts are being made to find constructive ways for people to spend time with each other.

Later that evening after the workshop, we talked with our hosts about the problem in aboriginal communities for some people that family gathering was centered around drinking or doing drugs. The physician in our party who worked in the aboriginal community reported that she wasn't permitted by some families to make home visits on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday because of the partying that they didn't want her to see.     In relation to this we talked about the power of ceremony, even the ceremony of drinking together, for it is, after all, a kind of eucharist or communion.   It's no accident that alcohol is called "spirits".   We talked about the necessity of engaging the elders to put healthier ceremonies back into place in communities in such a way that people can notice and can attend.

In Warburton, we finished the day by offering traditional pipe ceremonies for those present.   We left to return to Melbourne to prepare to travel into the East Gippsland countryside early the next morning for Culture Camp 2012.

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Authors Bio:
Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and Narrative Medicine.