Sharing Two World Views of Nature’s Healing Powers

I recently had the pleasure of presenting alongside an Indigenous colleague of mine to a group of health professionals.  We are a bit of an unlikely couple.  Leonie Hunter is a salt water and desert First Nation’s woman with a history of removal in her family.  I am a middle-class Australian with a heap of White privilege.  We view the world through different lenses, but what we share is an interest in the healing power of nature for health and wellbeing. 

Texture Gathering on our Nature and Forest Therapy walk.

In our recent workshop, we had the opportunity to talk about our own worldviews and knowledge systems, with each of us having an understanding and appreciation for the other. 

Leonie presented the case for connection to country being a critical component to improving Indigenous wellbeing.  The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing states that

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing.  Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.”

This is something Leonie knows well through her own embodied connection and the people in her family who are feeling the ongoing health effects of being displaced from their traditional lands and customs.  In our outdoor yarning circle she told many stories; what it is like to just feel the elements, gathering bush medicine to heal physical and emotional ailments, and receiving messages from the animals, birds and other beings.  Leonie was lucky enough to grow up listening to the stories of Senior Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, now passed. 

His words still resonate:

“Tree,
He watching you. 
You look at tree, 
He listen to you. 
He got no finger, 
He can’t speak, 
But that leaf,
He pumping, growing. 
Growing in the night, 
While you sleeping, 
You dream something. 
Tree and grass same thing. 
They grow with your body, 
With your feeling. 
If you feel sore, 
Headache, sore body, 
That means somebody killing tree or grass.  
You feel because your body in that tree or earth. 
Nobody can tell you, 
You got to feel it yourself.”

I, on the other hand, presented the evidence for nature connection for health and wellbeing from a Western scientific worldview.  There is a mountain of research supporting the benefits of green space and being in nature for physical, social, emotional and spiritual health.  My particular focus and interest is on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing).  The Japanese have discovered that phytonicides or the ‘aroma of the forest’ has positive physiological and psychological effects to reduce stress.  They found that a slow, relaxed forest therapy walk, lowered blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and improved heart rate variablilty.   Phytonicides were shown to boost the level of Natural Killer cells in our body, which boost our immune system and fight disease including cancer.  Doctors now offer ‘green prescriptions’ for their patients to go walking on a Certified Forest Therapy trail. 

Science is only really just proving what Indigenous people have intuitively known since time began.  The reciprocal relationship with nature is in their DNA.  In my worldview, they call this the biophilia hypothesis.  We evolved from nature, so we are nature.

In our afternoon session at Holmes Jungle Nature Park, I had the pleasure of co-guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk with Leonie.   Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) is inspired by the practice of Shinrin Yoku and developed in California by the ANFT.  Despite its Western roots, NFT allows those living in the fast-paced world of modern society an embodied experience of the healing power of ‘being’ on country. 

With the words of Bill Neidjie ringing in their ears, Leonie invited our participants to find a tree that is watching them and sit with the tree for a while to share stories.  As is so often the case, the trees always reach out to the right person.  There were two fallen trees for the person who had recently experienced a separation, a tree with two large branches growing upward showing the two possible directions in life for another, and a tree that was begging to be leant against with a message to slow down.  When given the opportunity to just ‘be’ without ‘doing’, to contemplate with our hearts not our minds, the medicine of the forest reveals itself.  Miriam Rose-Ungunmerr’s talks about this presence of sitting on country as the practice of ‘dadirri’.

I feel blessed and privileged to be working alongside people like Leonie, sharing and learning from each other, having healing conversations, developing new levels of understanding and respect.  Ecopsychology allows both worldviews to exist alongside each other at the same time, for all of it is truth.

This is my idea of Reconciliation in action.

‘Nature, Health & Wellbeing’ learning workshop, Darwin March 2019.

Collective Narrative Timelines: Uniting Aboriginal Women Through their Commitments to Children

A HOC Learning Workshop for strong Aboriginal Women in community

Since the Healing Our Children (HOC) project began, I have been responsible for developing Learning Workshops (aka a training program) for Aboriginal women in remote communities.  I was particularly interested in finding ways of engaging workshop participants that fits with a two way learning approach.  The methodology of Collective Narrative Timelines sat very comfortably with me because it powerfully honours the knowledge of everyone in the room.  Cheryl White has said “this was a method that enabled participants to share powerful personal memory and history but in a way that linked to a collective theme.  It brought people together while also acknowledging a great diversity of experience.” (Denborough 2008, p. 144)

The process generally goes like this.
Draw a timeline on a long piece of paper that stretches across a large wall.
Draw a map of the world.
Ask the group to reflect on a wish, a commitment, a hope, a learning or a value that is important to them.  Ask each person to think about:

  • the history of this wish/commitment/hope/learning or value and when it began. What year/date?
  • Where did you learn this or develop this (what place)?
  • Who did you learn it from?
  • Who did you learn it with?  (Denborough 2008, p. 147)

Each person is given a small piece of paper to document this story in a few sentences.  They are then invited to stick their piece of paper on the timeline at the appropriate date/year and briefly share their story with the group.  If the person has a link to a particular place, this can also be marked by a dot on the map with a few words depicting their story.

The focus of my Learning Workshops is on the theoretical and cultural knowledge underpinning understandings of how trauma occurs in early childhood.  I wanted my Narrative Timeline activity to orient the women participants to this topic by moving them into a place of looking through children’s eyes, by reflecting on their own childhood experience.  This was a bit of a twist on the original Narrative Timeline approach in that it is also quite therapeutic.  The following was indicative of the instructions I gave to set this up.

“We’re going to take a moment to think about what it was like for us to be a child and to document some of these memories on a timeline.  For some of you it might be uncomfortable to think about a childhood memory, so if this becomes too hard for you, it’s OK to have some time out.  See if you can think of a particular time when your parents said something to you or did something, that really had an impact on you.  This can be a good or not so good memory but you might find it more pleasant to think about a positive memory you have.  It needs to be a memory you are comfortable sharing with the group.  Try to remember:

  • Where you were?
  • Who was there?
  • How old you were?
  • What was said or done?

A collective narrative timeline of Aboriginal women’s childhood experiences

The timeline that I had drawn up was a Child Age Timeline from 0 – 18 years.  Each participant was invited to stick their paper on the timeline on the age that related to their story and briefly share their reflection.  I also followed up with the question ‘How has this memory shaped the person that you are today in a positive way (emphasizing that both good memories and bad memories can shape us in positive ways)?  This question got the women thinking about how their own childhood experience influenced their current parenting with their own children or grandchildren.  To illustrate this point, I would also share my own childhood memory on the timeline – receiving painful physical discipline with a strap – and how this shaped my own parenting beliefs and a commitment to never use harsh physical discipline on my own children.

As a follow up to this activity, we also reflected as a group on:

  • For those of you that had a good memory….What was it that you really appreciated about your parents?
  • For those that had a bad memory…Is there something you would have liked your parents to do or say instead? What would you have liked more of?

Then everyone was invited to reflect on…

  • What does this say about any hopes you have or had for your children?

These key messages were written under the timeline, as future commitments or as a way of reconnecting with closely held past commitments.

The light bulb moments are usually the connections people make when they reflect on a significant childhood memory and the particular skills, knowledge and values they have taken on from their parents/grandparents and how this has shaped them today.  Simple realisations like:

  • a commitment to ‘taking responsibility’ from the experience of being blamed by a mother for everything as a child
  • the importance of ‘having a joke and seeing the lighter side of life in times of crisis’ related to the carefree attitude of a grandfather who laughed off a near miss car accident
  • ‘being open to different religious points of view’ because grandma went to lots of different churches and cultural events
  • ‘the importance of family above all else’ being raised by a mother who showed so much love.

These realisations although personal for each individual also have resonance with the whole group.  Although diverse, the combined wisdom of Elders, strong women and struggling grand/parents is honoured.  It is through our collective experience of early childhood experience and its influence on us as parents or carers, we are connected and united.  This visual representation of collective history we created together stayed on the wall during the remainder of our workshop.  It is from this shared standing point that we progressed into the meatier, heavier topics of trauma and its impact on children in our LearningWorkshop.

References:
Denborough, D. 2008, Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to Individuals, Groups and Communities who have experienced Trauma, Dulwich Centre Publications.

For more ideas on working with Aboriginal women around parenting using reflections from their own childhood experience, see Rings of Growth.

Why I do Learning Workshops, not training in Aboriginal communities!

learning-workshop

A Learning Workshop on the Tiwi Islands

One of the aims of the Healing Our Children project in which I work involves “building up the capacity of the community to respond to domestic and family violence”.  One of the issues I have with this statement is that it assumes that people don’t already have capacity.  Having worked on the Tiwi Islands for almost 10 years now, I know that there are many people in community actively responding in protective ways and resisting the effects of violence in their families.

So how do we honour what it is that people already know and do, when our aim might be to contribute to the conversation with new knowledge and skills?  My preference is to facilitate ‘Learning Workshops’, however to satisfy the needs of funders and other service providers I find myself using the language of ‘training’ with them.

Perhaps I fell into the concept of ‘two way learning’ because it fit with my values and ethical ways of practising, but there is also a lot written about this from the field of education.  The two way or both way learning approach grew out of the work of Mandawuy Yunupiŋu and Nalwarri Ngurruwutthun in Yolŋu schools in the 1980’s.   Indigenous culture and language was taught alongside the Western curriculum, acknowledging the value and worth of both world views.

One of the strongest beliefs for me is that I have just as much to learn from Indigenous folk as they may learn from me.   By introducing a concept from the Western knowledge system and inviting dialogue about it amongst the workshop participants, so much more can be gained from the experience.  In fact, the results can be quite surprising.

What would this look like exactly?  Well, here’s one example of a simple activity I conducted in a recent learning workshop on the Tiwi Islands.

You may be familiar with the widely used Abuse of Children wheel and the corresponding Nurturing Children wheel developed by Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP).   As you would understand, a learning workshop on abuse of children can get quite heavy, so I am always interested in lightening the conversation and focusing on the strengths, skills and abilities of communities.  I decided to cut up the different parts of the Nurturing Children wheel, a bit like slicing up a pie.  Each participant took a piece and talked with a person next to them about how they see this aspect of nurturing children happen in their own community.  Coming back to the bigger group, after clarifying what some of the Western ideas and words meant (some of them were unfamiliar), we came up with a list of ways Tiwi people are nurturing children.

This represented ‘Caring for Children – Tiwi Way’ and it looked something like this.

tiwi-nurturing-and-care-wheel

Out of this grew a conversation about the importance of Tiwi culture in growing up strong kids.  There was a strong sense of needing to do something for the children and families who had been affected by violence.

The Elders of the group then started sharing stories about the ceremonies and traditional practices they had used for healing and had been taught about by their ancestors.  These included smoking ceremonies for healing the good spriit and releasing the bad, and the use of white clay for strength and vitality, applied to the body in the bush and left there until it wore off.  They reflected that occasionally the traditional practice of applying white clay to the grieving widow was still happening, but there was a sense that these practices were slowly disappearing.  The women began talking about how they might bring traditional healing practices back, to take the children and families affected by violence out bush and to pass on this knowledge.

From learning to dialogue to action.  This is the power of the ‘two way learning’ approach.

I employ the same approach for everything, whether it be sharing new ideas from the field of neuroscience or introducing people to modalities of narrative therapy.  Oh, and another very important thing.  I develop the content and process of the workshops alongside a cultural adviser, and where possible they are employed and co-facilitating the workshops with me.  This ensures the whole things is culturally-safe!  It means a lot of work has already happened behind the scenes sharing the knowledge with the cultural adviser first!

The process is a piece of pie really!  Take a piece of Western knowledge and serve it up in a digestible way, break it up into bite-size pieces, allow people to chew it over and add their own flavour, and see what is spat out.  You are likely to uncover some precious tried and true recipes of community knowledge, skills and values!

References

Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP)

‘About Both Ways Education’ at The Living Knowledge project