Original Content at
March 4, 2012
Day 11 of the Australian Journey 2012
By Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Today is Day 11 of the Australian cultural exchange adventure for 2012. We interacted with Mission Australia in Sydney and were deeply impressed with their services for young people and for homeless adults. They have managed to integrate shelter with education and skills training so that homeless people become able to transition into the work force. One person told us, "I came here a prostitute, and I left an artist."
::::::::Today we interacted with Mission Australia in Sydney, but first, I awoke early and went running down Manly Rd. through 3 km of forest. A sign read, "Wildlife", but I only saw road kill -- a possum, a snake, and a rat. Australian drivers (Melbourne, Sydney, and Gippsland is my sample space) never slow down, not for pedestrians, not for other cars, not for bicycles, not for wildlife. I discovered that Sydney bicyclists at 6 am on a Saturday morning were just as ruthless. Well decked with racing togs, they aimed straight at me and gave no ground along the shoulder of the road. I had to step aside into the bush or they would have mowed me down. Imagine two headlights coming straight at you on the shoulder of the road. What's that care doing, driving on the shoulder? Is it some crazy man trying to kill me? No, as it gets closer, I realize it's two bicycles riding parallel with no intention of sharing the shoulder of the road with me despite catching me in their high beam headlights. Luckily, unlike the wildlife, I survived Manly Road, though perhaps more ignobly than manly, and returned to the house where we were staying in time to shower and pile into the Subaru SUV to make the journey into downtown.
Mission Australia was amazing! I can't begin to say enough about their services and commitment to the homeless and the poor! They provide programming and shelter for homeless adolescents and adults. People come for an initial period of 3 months. Some then transition to other spaces and others continue to stay. Detox used to take place in the basement, but it has moved to another building. Adolescents and actually anyone who lives in the vicinity can take advantage of the many programs offered. They can access a center to help them find employment. They can get dental and medical care free. They can use the computers and the internet. They can take yoga. They can access a number of offerings about the practicalities of life including managing a bank account, playing chess, taking martial arts, writing a resume, and more. They can take college courses through Australia Catholic University's Catalyst Program. On the bulletin board were notices for Intro to Sociology, Intro to Art, Drawing 1, Graphics Art, and more. We entered the building through the art studio which was massive and full of amazing work. I learned that people entered the building as prostitutes and emerged as artists! Their work lined the walls and was deeply moving, highly artistic, and sometimes disturbing. From the art studio, we entered a recording studio where clients could take a course that culminated in their making a CD of their own music. A number of CD's were available for us to take. They were amazingly good! This studio was a project of our hostess's husband, Phil, who is both a musician and a psychologist. He serenaded us the previous evening with his Fender Stratocaster guitar, apparently the same model favored by the legendary blues musician, B.B. King. The amount of program offerings and courses was overwhelming. I have never seen such a comprehensive, integrated program in North America.
Mission Australia serves many aboriginal people in a culturally sensitive manner. Another of our hostesses, Sally de Beche, now affiliated with Life Is"Foundation in Melbourne, used to work with Mission Australia in Sydney. As part of her work she made a DVD documentary, Unsung Heroes, the stories of aboriginal elders in Dubbo, New South Wales, sharing their stories with young indigenous people. The DVD focuses on lost traditions, cultures, and experiences for young people. One of the elders didn't live in a house until he was 10 years old and didn't have electricity. He was concerned about bringing his friends home because he lived in a tent. One of the young aboriginal people commented that he didn't even know how to go camping. It's about sharing verbal stories which the elders were forbidden to pass to the young people. Hence, a lot of young people are just learning these stories which are not written down. These stories explain for young people their feelings of being lost or disconnected from culture. This reconnects them with the source of their traditions. Sally told us how impressed she was with the resilience of these people.
We began our workshop at Mission Australia with a talking circle in which we heard people's wishes and concerns and what they wanted to learn from us. Their focus was to learn new ways for dealing with psychological suffering. Sally talked about using mindfulness and inner child work. She mentioned a grief and spirituality group that she and Tony Gee conducted at Life Is"Foundation. Everyone in that group had lost a child, either to suicide, accident, or disease. Using a talking circle format, people told their stories to each other. Paradoxically, this became an uplifting experience in which they connected with the link to "expansive reality". Another participant wanted to learn about the use of ceremony with clients. A third wanted to explore how to release ancestral pain. I gave a short lecture about the post-modern, narrative paradigm, which is remarkably similar to indigenous thought. I also let people know, as I have done everywhere we have gone during these two weeks, about the Narrative Medicine and Psychology Program we are starting at Union Institute & University in the USA where I teach. I talked about how radical it is to see everything as a story, to move past the idea that some explanations (stories) are more privileged than others or that there is a "truth" out there waiting to be discovered. In this paradigm, I said, we realize that we are forever uncertain about the nature of things. We invent the best stories we can and revise them as we go. In essence, this is Karl Popper's philosophy of science. We make up stories to explain the actions of the world around us. Some of this stories work better than others.
I talked about the Kaua'I Longitudinal Study from Hawai'i, started in 1950, in which young children, living in the most abject circumstances were followed to assess what would happen to them. The study continues today, over 60 years later. In the 1950's, the prediction was that everyone would be scarred for life and would have a terrible outcome. Actually, this happened only to one-third of the children. Another third had perfectly normal lives, and the final third excelled far beyond anyone's expectations and beyond the middle class children of the area. Mentoring made a huge difference, sometimes even only briefly. My point was that trauma is not always indelible or irreversible. Today, trauma is our new devil. "Trauma made me do it," is the contemporary story. My point was that all truth claims are suspect and subject to refutation. What matters is that I enter into the story of the client. My story actually isn't very important and pales in comparison to the story of the client. When I listen carefully to the client's story and enter into it, I can move it along toward healing, toward reduction of suffering.
I also talked about how Native North American culture is very present-centered. The Lakota language does not have past or future tenses. The indication that something is past or future is accomplished by a particle at the end of the sentence, almost as an afterthought. Most of our pain happens when we live in the past or the future. Focusing on the present reduces our pain dramatically for the present moment is usually pretty comfortable. Unfortunately, the default nature of our brain is make stories. That's good and bad. We use our large brains to generate simulations of what people might do in various social situations given various behaviors we could perform. That's really useful for being social animals but we can get carried away. We can make story so much in the past or the future that we drive ourselves crazy. Making story uses the least amount of glucose of any activity we do. To meditate requires much more glucose. Meditation is an effort. We have to work to stop spinning yarns. Though the effort is worthwhile. When we stop making story and quiet our minds, we realize life is good in this moment.
I also talked about the similarity of Morita thought to Native American culture. Morita viewed emotions as weather. If you don't like what you are feeling, he wrote, wait five minutes. Definitely, he said, if you are angry at someone and want to take revenge, wait three days. You will feel differently.
I spoke about the Lakota language having no word for "I". There are me's, but no I's. The implication is that we are defined by the group rather than ourselves. As I have said before in these blogs, Lakota has no self. Being is composed of the nagi (all the stories that shape us and the tellers of those stories), the s'icun (our presence or what we feel when a person leaves the room or when we enter the home of someone who is not there), the "breath of life" which makes the air go in and out and the blood go round and round, and finally, the spark of the Divine which lives within us. "I" is a story we construct to fit the social situation in which we find ourselves. We select from our many "me's" to create an "I" which changes as the social situation changes or as we evaluate the created "I" to see if it got what we wanted. Hermans and Baumberg call this positioning.
I talked about North American aboriginal thought seeing illness as more of a teacher and biomedicine seeing it more as an enemy. We continued our discussions and then a woman volunteered to be interviewed. I wanted to demonstrate a narrative interview and the process by which we arrive at a shared story or metaphor for the illness. This woman whom we will call Ursula had migratory pain which rotated between her lower legs, elbows, neck, shoulders, back, and hands. I asked for her explanatory story. She said the doctors said that she had an autoimmune process had created her pain. Her other story was that she was carrying the pain of her ancestors. Medically she had been diagnosed with celiac disease, sarcoidosis, and Sjogren's syndrome. She said her pain had been present for as long as she could remember. As a small child she spent time in the hospital frequently for injuries. She dislocated joints, cut herself, sprained herself, and on and on. Between incidents she felt ok. I inquired about her carrying the pain of her ancestors. How did she arrive at that idea? She said, from reading, feeling that it fit, and knowing what she knew. "I carry their stuff. Not with my permission except I must have agreed on some level."
"What is this stuff?" I asked.
"Negativity, dysfunction, emotional pain, physical pain." She said that she was carrying something that" I can feel but cannot see. It's a heaviness in body, a weight, a darkness, a blackness." I remarked that this stuff was hard to see. That you couldn't pet it, touch it, or see it. It didn't walk across the lawn. You couldn't eat it and it couldn't eat you. (This was one elder's definition of "real" for me.)
Ursula went on to tell about her childhood physical abuse from her mother and sexual abuse from other family members. Those experiences led her to feel unloved, disrespected, and not allowed to live a life free from danger. At age 17, she left home. From then on, she lived in a manner in which she felt loved, respected, and free from danger. She said she was confused because she'd tried forgiveness and that hadn't worked. She believed this was because she had more healing to do. I asked her if she had talked to her pain or her joints. She had, she said, but they were strangely silent. I poked at her story in various ways, trying to understand her assumptions. I'd have to watch the video or read the transcript to understand how we got there, but we arrived at a shared metaphor of Ursula and this stuff as a painting with her standing in the middle of a dark and gloomy, bleak landscape without any color, and full of shame and pain. The music playing was from Sibelius -- ponderous and solemn. The painting was kept in a back room, away from the exhibition space of the museum. Its only audience consisted of her husband and her two best women friends. Nobody else was allowed to see it. "I have other paintings," she said.
"What are they?"
"I have a beautiful painting of me at the seashore in a tropical environment with deep blue water and light blue sky. I have another painting of me in a forest surrounded by animals and my dogs. These are my happy paintings. We talked about the concept of the desirability of being pitiable, as in worthy of others' pity. I told Ursula that back home on the Rez instead of hiding the gloomy painting out of side, a person might put it up on a billboard outside for everyone to see because of the desirability of being worthy of pity. Aboriginal participants agreed that this fit Australian local culture, too.
"You see," I said, "in dominant white culture you learn to hide your misery and shame and pain, but in other cultures, you bring it out for everyone to see as your legacy, your badges of courage, your medals of honor. You can be proud of how you have suffered because on some level, you do it for the community.
Then we had our lunch break.
After lunch my task was to demonstrate to the participants how I would create a ceremony for Ursula in an office space in which I couldn't burn sage or tobacco or any of my other tricks. All I could do was sing and talk. Rocky assisted me. Her ancestors (insert "My intuition if you don't believe in spirits) told me that they had a hard life and lived in great hardship. Then we sang an invocation song, invited her ancestors to join us, sang an honoring song for them, and then invited Ursula to tell positive stories about them. This proved to be very difficult. "How do you expect them to come if you only tell negative stories?" I asked. This was a new concept to Ursula. She struggled and slowly found positive stories to tell about her mother, grandmother, grandfather, brother, uncle, and great-grandfather. Once we had some positive stories, I could ask them to speak through anyone present in the room.
What emerged was a presentation by Ursula's grandfather that her grandmother and mother had done the best they could. They had hard lives. They were banana and dairy farmers and life was difficult. We suggested that she needed to find more positive things to say about them. Probably, now that they were dead, they had moved forward and perhaps they resented being presented so consistently so negatively. Maybe she needed to tell positive stories about them. I told her about being taught only to speak positively of the dead because they could get mad at negative comments. We announced to her ancestors that the storage shed in which they were keeping their "stuff" was closing and they would have to come get it or it would be sold in auction. I suggested more humor and more respect for her ancestors. Ursula felt much better, lighter, and less dark. What had happened is that we had moved her relationship in the past into a relationship with her ancestors in the present, which could be a very positive move toward health.
We closed with "doctoring", which is energy medicine North American aboriginal style. Following was a discussion of the sweat lodge ceremony we would be doing the next day. That brought us to the end of the day and we left for another marvelous dinner at Pauline's house. Traffic was becoming intense because Sydney was having mardi gras. We pointed out that it couldn't be mardi gras because it wasn't Tuesday. It has to be samedi gras. The Australians weren't amused. This was the biggest gay parade of Sydney. How different from what we knew from New Orleans! Not very Catholic at all! Traditions change across the ocean. Who knew! Tomorrow we will do a sweat lodge ceremony for those who want to come.