Back in 2019, I worked with lead organizer Mariana Velez Laris to support the design of the first convening, held in Bend, Oregon, but was unable to attend. Four years later, again working with Mariana and her team, we found ourselves in new territory, living in a COVID-rattled and fire-and-water-ravaged world with turbulence on many other fronts – political, economic and cultural. We also found ourselves in the midst of many promising developments, including advancements in the realm of braiding, “Indigenous knowledge” with the better practices of Westernized conservation.
This time around I was able to support the team as both a co-designer and co-facilitator with Mariana and the co-leaders of the IPLC, Andrea Akall’eq Burgess and Briannon Fraley, of a gathering that was hosted on Haudenosaunee lands in Buffalo, New York (which also happens to be my birthplace). The decision to hold it in this powerful location (think Niagara Falls, gateway to the Great Lakes, old industrial city experiencing a rebirth, the lands of the oldest standing confederacy in the world) was really the result of Mariana’s vision, and it would yield untold benefits.
We were clear from the outset that this convening was not meant to be a stand-alone event, but would build on the first VCA convening, along with all the work prior to and since that gathering in Oregon. We were also clear that to be in alignment with a “right relations” commitment, as embraced by our Haudenosaunee hosts and other Indigenous participants, we would need to operate in accordance with Haudenosaunee protocols. Much care was taken to establish trust and understanding, including with the host institution, the University of Buffalo, which is home to this country’s oldest Indigenous studies and environmental studies programs.
The agenda itself, under Mariana’s thoughtful and caring stewardship, became a story of spaciousness and flow, a slow moving river that carried us early on into a Haudenosaunee-led opening with the traditional Thanksgiving Address, or the Words Spoken Before All Else. During this time we were welcomed by faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who has seen such immense change in our world during his 93 years on this planet, and who declared our current situation as a deep spiritual battle. And we were greeted over the course of the first two of the four days by other Haudenosaunee leaders, including Gae ho Hwako Norma Jacobs, a Cayuga elder who writes in her recently released book, Odagahodhes, “We have forgotten about that Sacred meeting space between the Settler ship and the Indigenous canoe, where we originally agreed on the Two Row [wampum agreement], and where today we need to return to talk about the impacts of its violation.”
Much of our time made space to dig deeper into this violation, how it was perpetrated in different places in different though related ways, and how it is perpetuated through certain contemporary mainstream (Westernized) conservation practices. Importantly, we also pivoted towards what it would take to heal the rifts and divisions amongst the relations and the nations and to move forward together. Part of this occurred through a ritual that Mariana and I co-led, pulling from the practices of Fierce Civility and Respectful Confrontation, grounding people in their bodies and breath, and inviting us all to honor self, community, Mother Earth and future generations. This was intended to mark a “crossing of a threshold” to open up new possibilities in the community that was gathered. We framed this ritual around some of the teachings we had heard directly or indirectly from the Elders and other speakers to that point, including:
“One of the greatest gifts is to re-member.”
“Everything is built on reciprocal relationships.”
“Nature is one big family, working together to sustain Life.”
“The best way to learn is in ceremony; it pulls you together.”
“Feel our feelings. Feel the love of the Creator. Love ourselves.”
Participants also heard from a couple of powerful panels of Indigenous women leaders from around the world on their visions for reckoning and rematriation, which included these appeals:
Lead with care
Protect bio-cultural systems
Embrace networks and new structures
Support women’s participation and equality
Let Indigenous groups speak for themselves
Recognize more territories that pre-existed current boundaries
In addition, we participated in other Indigenous-led rituals for healing and joy (optional sunrise ceremonies, a Listening to Niagara Falls visit, a high energy Seneca-led social dance) and ultimately to a session on “planting seeds for the future.” It was not your usual conference, to say the least, and I can safely say that it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, in no small part because of our Haudenosaunee hosts, and the invitation to “see” (feel and sense) the world from an Indigenous perspective. And I was not alone.
A few months after the convening, Mariana and I held a couple of follow-up sessions, to share what was gleaned from post-gathering evaluations and learn what had moved for participants since we were together. What flowed from those conversations was quite inspiring and encouraging. In the image above you can see some of the major insights that emerged regarding pathways towards Indigenous and community-led conservation. Beyond this, as we listened to those participating in our two Zoom calls share about what they still carried with them and were committing to in terms of action, this is what I heard and noted on a piece of paper:
❤️ Expand the teachings, rather than simply repeating what and how they were given to us.
❤️ Protect and nurture endangered experiences, beyond endangered species.
In previous posts (see “Life (and Power) on the Resilient Edge of Resistance” and “At the Heart of Regeneration is … the Heart (and the Gut”), I have written about my experiences with the Weston Network and the Respectful Confrontation training and apprenticeship program and more recently with the Fierce Civility teacher training program, which I began in March of this year. This most recent experience, including a 5 day retreat with a small and racially diverse group of skillful practitioners from around the US, again drove home the importance for me of embodied practice generally, and specifically to manage our nervous systems and engage in interpersonal “co-regulation.” To me, Joe Weston is a true magician, a masterful teacher and coach, and someone that hashelped me to develop deeper reverence for my body and its wisdom (along with very adept healers, Dr. Eve Capkanis and Gwen McClellan).
A few weeks ago, Joe gave me a draft of his forthcoming book, currently titled Fierce Civility: Transforming Our Global Culture from Polarization to Lasting Peace, and asked that I do a critical review. I came away with more appreciation for what he and The Weston Network are trying to achieve in these fractured and fractious times. “Civility” has (almost) become a dirty word, seen as naive and impossible by some (at least when considering certain cultural and political divides), and as harmful by others, if “being civil” means not speaking or hearing truths or working for social justice. Joe appreciates all of this (writing at one point – “Even our passivity has taken on a tone of aggression”), and holds the concept of civility in dynamic tension with fierce-ness.
Fierce civility is not about “chronic niceness” or conflict avoidance, but rather advocates for stances of assertiveness (as opposed to aggression) and receptivity (as opposed to passivity). Fierce civility is not about glossing over systemic and structural injustice and oppression, even as it does not shy away from promoting personal responsibility and accountability. This delicate and sometimes difficult balancing act was definitely a topic of conversation this past weekend when our Fierce Civility cohort (whom Joe has dubbed “love ninjas”) gathered on the heels of Friday’s US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. That is a discussion that will continue, no doubt. Joe writes in his book, “We are technologically overfed and spiritually malnourished,” and encourages people to intentionally change their diets (quality and quantity) as a means of effectively making both personal and systemic change. And best if this is work is done with supportive community.
There is much more to say about the book, as well as the practices that the Weston Network teaches (though better to actually read the book and engage in the practices), but for now, I wanted to share (with Joe’s permission) some particular quotes that struck while reading the draft and that have stayed with me.
“True martial artists would say that they learn how to fight so that they can pivot away from conflict and aggression and prevent fighting, and that is true power.”
“Imagine in a conversation if the goal on both sides was to protect yourself, the other and the conversation itself from unconscious reactivity and the lack of civility that can unexpectedly seep in.”
“When we give the extremes all of our attention, our focus is turned towards them and away from the larger majority of people who hold more nuanced, less reactive views of the same issues.”
“What if the most courageous, revolutionary and impactful thing you could do at this time is to cultivate a daily practice of aligning with your humanity, embody a deeper level of resilience, avoid burn out, as well as maintain and deepen authentic relationships?”
“This is what true freedom is: freeing yourself of unexamined beliefs and biases; gaining confidence to stay regulated in challenging situations; opening your heart in safe and empowered ways, and protecting against any threats to civility and non-violence.”
“Many of us have forgotten that debating issues can be fun, not a life-or-death experience. We have become frightened and turned off by the messiness of human interaction and the process of creating something new.”
“The two halves of the heart pump with and against each other. This dynamic interplay might look pretty volatile to the human eye, but the body knows that that level of assertiveness is necessary to keep the system healthy and vital.”
“We are seeing a shift to cyber and economic warfare. The techniques may change, but the primitive impulse for war has not. And while we may have peace treaties, we are not seeing the global cooperation needed to sustain life.”
“If only hanging out with people who already agree with you were going to solve our problems, we would have already solved them.”
(Quoting Gabor Maté): “Safety is not the absence of danger; safety is the presence of connection.”
I love frisbee and have for as long as I can remember. Recently, as I was entering into a few weeks of sabbatical time away from work, a friend asked me what I thought would be most regenerative of my mind, body and spirit during this time. In addition to rest, slowing down, being generally mindful, and taking a break from screens, social media and the news, one of the things that came top of mind was playing frisbee. I have memories of my teenage and twenty-something self in utter bliss and a sense of timelessness, hurling a disk across a vast expanse at a corner lot in our neighborhood in Flint, Michigan or at a lakeside park in upstate New York with my dad or a friend, feeling the breeze, watching the frisbee glide and rotate against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and feeling the grass massage my bare feet as I ran to make a catch. Heaven.
This is a love that I seem to have successfully instilled in my three daughters. And one of them, our eldest, has taken it to another level this season through her involvement in her high school varsity ultimate frisbee team. I have only played “ultimate” a couple of times, and very informally, in my lifetime. Growing up in the Midwest US, this was not “a thing” the way that it is here in the northeast. And it turns out that at the high school level in this community, it is taken quite seriously and is played with great skill. Having said that, the culture and success of the ultimate frisbee boys’ team here has been particularly striking in that it seems so different from what one usually thinks about in terms of high performance athletics. The more I have learned and experienced this current high school ultimate frisbee season, especially in the context of these times, the more I have appreciated what is happening right under my nose, forall that it gives to the teenagers involved and would seem to offer a mainstream culture hurting for lack of alternative ways of being, well, more human(e), especially in adolescent and competitive contexts.
My oldest daughter, Annabel, also plays varsity volleyball, which takes up a lot of her time in the fall. When she got involved in frisbee during the spring, one of the first things I noticed was her overall upbeat attitude and holistic appreciation for her teammates and the ultimate culture. “There just isn’t much drama,” Annabel explained to me at one point, “and people are really kind, supportive and frankly mature.” In a sense, ultimate to her is not just a sport, but a way of life. She went on to explain how in ultimate games there are no referees, that players take responsibility for calling fouls and then talking it out if there are any differences of perspective. I’ve witnessed this a number of times in games and have been impressed that even when there is clearly tension and disagreement, the players manage to work it through – some beautiful self-organization and respectful confrontation/ fierce civility on display!
I also came to appreciate early on in this recently completed spring season, the joy-full, heartfelt, and creative expression that comes up during and around games. After one memorable game, the two competing teams sang songs they had composed to one another, conveying appreciation for the adversary. In another case, after one team scored, the other team gave them a standing ovation as a salute to the level of play and skillfulness on display. In a recent tournament finale, the boys’ team was down a couple of points with not much time remaining and called a timeout. Instead of getting down on one another or into a heated strategic conversation, they played music and engaged in a playful dance circle for a couple of minutes, then went on to win the game. And when someone accidentally hurts someone else during play, they make sure to stay engaged with the injured person, showing genuine care and making sure the person gets the support they need.
The camaraderie and respect on display is really remarkable. The boys’ and girls’ teams come to one another’s games and cheer each other on. “You just don’t see this in other sports at the school,” says Annabel. Each time someone scores from either team there is an outburst of celebration from whoever is cheering from the sideline. If someone makes a mistake on the field they are supported by players on and off the field, and the invitation is for everyone to move on. It is not unusual to see the boys come together in a game to hold hands and take a deep breath together to gather themselves, and for both teams to engage in a mindful moment before a game. Annabel says to me, “We genuinely love each other and enjoy being with one another.” This shows and comes through time spent outside of practice and games building relationships and rapport, including through community service projects. (the most recent being at the local survival center).
There is also a core element of mindful inclusion and paying attention to privilege. The boys’ team recently made the decision not to go to a “by invitation only” national conference because of its exclusivity and tendency to only include mostly white teams and privileged schools. The girls’ team, in light of its multi-racial make-up, has had open conversations about anti-racism and anti-sexism. And there has been an attempt to create across programs an authentic and welcoming community for LGBTQ+ team members, including an open embrace of trans athletes.
One last point worth making. There is a very mature invitation by members of the ultimate teams to take personal responsibility and, as Annabel explains it, “focus on controllables, not uncontrollables.” In other words, to enact the serenity prayer, knowing when to push for change and when to let go and just flow with what is. I can see how this is impacting my daughter and her teammates in a time that begs for this kind of discernment.
In a world that can seem at times so unmoored, this spring ultimate frisbee season and the remarkable leadership of these local teens has given me hope for the present and future.
“Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things – the people on the edge see them first.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
I have used the above quote in a number of cases to illustrate a network principle of thinking and action – Don’t get stuck in the core, make the periphery the norm. As we come to the end of 2020 (as arbitrary as that calendrical designation may be), I am thinking about Vonnegut’s words in different and perhaps more expansive ways.
Seemingly many of us have been asked to live (in some cases, even further out) on any number of edges over the past several months – political, economic, psychological, social, spiritual. While exciting in certain cases, it has also been quite exhausting and for some it has been a push to and over the brink.
It is also the case that many have woken or are waking up to the realization that life can only continue in some form or fashion at various edges, especially in times of considerable change. The Aboriginal artist and complexity scientist Tyson Yunkaporta reminds us that from an indigenous perspective –
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
And it would seem we are at an apocalyptic moment, if we take that term to mean a great revelation, along with a call for reckoning, healing and re-creation. “The Great Turning,” maybe, allowing that transitions take us to the edge, because that is where qualitative growth lies.
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”
– Dr. Rev. Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader)
Earlier this year I joined a beautiful community stewarded by Joe Weston, which has been brought together by a common desire to cultivate deeper shared capacity among people for what Joe calls “respectful confrontation” and “fierce civility.” The Weston Network is grounded in a set of practices drawn from martial arts, mindfulness and somatics, which help practitioners cultivate four core pillars – grounding, focus, strength and flexibility. These pillars support people to express and get their needs met in ways that can contribute to co-evolution (my word, not Joe’s), or mutualistic growth in groups and communities. I can really vouch for the power and the personal test of the practice!
A helpful concept that Joe introduced back in March at an in-person workshop, just before things started to close down because of COVID, was the idea that our individual and collective growth is found at “the resilient edge of our resistance.” The idea is that people tend to be resistant at the edges of their comfort zones, for some good reasons. And yet it is also true that staying hunkered down is not always helpful, and may even be dangerous. People also have the capacity to become more resilient at and over the edges of their perceived comfort zone. Life, in fact, requires this!
“Evolution is what happens when patterns that used to define survival become deadly.”
– Nora Bateson (filmmaker, writer, regenerative thinker and educator)
Through the Weston Network, I have been learning more about how to read resistance and sense its invitations beyond, “Don’t move. stay safe!” … feeling these messages in my body and a complex mixes of emotions, along with the dynamism of dancing on different edges. Resistance when met with a combination of respect, rootedness, receptivity, and recreation can build muscle, confidence, and open up new possibilities. How many people have I heard say that one thing they have learned this year is that they are in fact stronger and more adaptive than they might have thought? Or that they have found meaningful connection in struggle and disruption?
“We don’t have to resist entropy … or push the river. We just need to learn how to get out of the way and cooperate with the direction.”
As I have gone and been pushed to my growing edges this year, seen myself and the world from new vantage points, and tasted “resilient power” (Joe Weston’s words), I’ve been contemplating what this looks like as collective practice. And I’ve been dabbling a bit with both the Weston Network practices as well as those of the PROSOCIAL community in a few different groups and networks.
The ACT Matrix (see above) is a tool that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them, along with aligned behaviors, as a way of laying a foundation for transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. In essence, this helps to normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
I’m eager in the new year to lean more into these different practices with others, knowing that more of us are moving with intention into the “omega” (release) and “alpha” (reorganize) phases of the adaptive cycle (see below). While letting go and stepping into the unknown may not be a very compelling invitation to everyone, I’m hoping that the prospect of finding our resilient power and cultivating regenerative futures will be incentive to keep moving to meet, greet and play on our edges.
Over the last couple of months I have really savored my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. His book met me during found me in these times of disruption when I was searching to further disrupt myself and pry open some widening cracks in my older ways of thinking, feeling and being.
It is important to say that any review of the book or excerpting from it necessarily de- and re-contextualizes the content, which is a key point Yunkaporta makes – many people are caught up in low context cultures that are rather disconnected from the specifics of place and community. With that awareness, I wanted to offer some take-aways that have helped me to bring different, more energizing, engaging and empowering perspectives to multiple contexts in which I move, in the event that they may help others make enlivening shifts.
Towards the end of the book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. He offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct), and only perhaps later capitulating (respect, or “looking again”), if at all, when things do not go according to plan. This “indigenous progression” aligns strongly with a community of practice of which I am a part (Respectful Confrontation/Fierce Civility), which is based in Taoist philosophy and practice, and invites devotees to lead in grounded and focused ways that put one in right relationship with their (multiple) selves and so-called “others.” I can say from experience that this is a very powerful way to prepare myself for engagement, especially in these volatile and unpredictable times.
Yunkaporta also lifts up what Aboriginal and indigenous knowledge asks of those who are attempting to bring about change in complex systems (all living systems). What he calls the “complexity agent protocols” includes:
Connectedness (create bonds to self, others and wider networks)
Diversity (respect and engage across difference)
Interaction (continuously transfer knowledge, energy and resources)
Adaptation (remain open to change, as that is the constant)
This, of course, is the much older wisdom that more recent so-called “regenerative” (agriculture, development) efforts are calling for and building upon, engaging the dynamics of network structures and energetic flows that constitute life.
The rest of what follows is a selection of twenty quotes that I pulled from the book, and that I can continue to read from time to time, to jolt my own tendencies towards complacency and stasis.
“Increase is different from growth, because you don’t want the size of the system to grow, but you want the relationships within the system, the exchange within the system, that needs to increase. And you can increase that quite infinitely.”
“Many Aboriginal stories tell us how we must travel in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy [linear] ways.”
“All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought; that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people.”
“Nothing is created or destroyed; it just moves and changes, and this is the First Law.”
“Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system, or it will stagnate – this applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones.”
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
“People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. But the real understanding comes in the spaces in-between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points.”
“If you live a life without violence, you are living an illusion: outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space. … The damage of violence is minimized when it is distributed throughout the system rather than centralized into the hands of a few powerful people and their minions.”
“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realize your true status as a single node in a cooperative network.”
“There is more to narrative than simply telling our stories. We have to compare our stories with the stories of others to seek greater understanding about our reality.”
“There’s no valid way to separate the natural from the synthetic, the digital from the ecological.”
“Most of us today are living in a state of compliance with imposed roles and tasks rather than a heightened state of engagement. We are slaves to a work ethic that is unnatural and unnecessary.”
“The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal knowledge but in remembering their own.”
“The only sustainable way to store data long term is within relationships.”
“[From an Aboriginal perspective] an observer does not try to be objective, but is integrated within a sentient system that is observing itself.”
“Understanding biological networks appropriately means finding a way to belong personally to that system.”
“Somewhere between action and reaction is an interaction, and that’s where all the magic and fun lies.”
“Your culture is not what your hands touch or make – it’s what moves your hands.”
“Guilt is like any other energy: you con’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends, and let it go.”
“Stop asking the question: ‘Are we alone?’ Of course we’re not! Everything in the universe is alive and full of knowledge.”