Crucial Conversations

Yesterday I had a long telephone conversation with a friend who is an elder and medicine woman. She was a friend of Rolling Thunder and other medicine people who have passed. Lately they’ve been showing up in her dreams, speaking with her about the state of the Earth. Some have turned their backs and ridden away. She’s concerned.

The forces that destroy our environment, bringing suffering to all who are part of Mother Earth, are also at play in hurrying psychotherapy. We cannot know places and people without dallying; perhaps we cannot save that which we do not know intimately and care deeply for.

Shamanism and psychotherapy both hold loitering dear. Hanging out in psychotherapy allows deep stories to rise to the surface, and alternative versions of history to make themselves known. Often this takes the form of circumambulating, walking around a problem or issue, and, over time, viewing it from many perspectives. Narrative therapists call this process “thickening the story”.

Shamanism is seemingly more straightforward in that we approach the spirits directly and request their insights and aid. Still, it is often important to tarry a while, exchanging pleasantries and showing real appreciation for the spirits’ wisdom and support. It is also good to linger in our vision so we may know more about the problem and what might be done to rectify it; this is also thickening.

I am of mixed heritage, urban, and professional, as are many of the Indigenous people with whom I work. Many of us lack tribal status; often our lineages are foggy. Parents or grandparents might have passed as European in order to minimize the impacts of racism in their lives. Some folks were adapted out into European culture. Still others had families that internalized the dominant culture’s racism and rejected their Native identity. Each and every one of these stories is rich in history and meaning, and well worth spending time with.

I believe it is difficult for many Non-Native clinicians to settle into these crucial conversations, to understand and acknowledge the fierce presence of colonialism in the lives of Indigenous clients.  This is true in both community and private practice settings. I imagine some of the problem arises from the cultural image of Native as bye-gone or Western. Light complected, nominally assimilated or passing, Native folks just don’t fit the stereotypes most North Americans hold of Natives. Another issue is the shame and fear held by clinicians; to acknowledge historical and ongoing genocide and racism may require facing one’s own complicity. Yet another cause can be conscious or unconscious racism. Still, the clinician’s task is to find a way to tarry with the client’s story in all it’s confusion and pain.

We live in a racist society and we are all touched by racism. I believe we each hold racist notions; they appear unavoidable. We can acknowledge those irrational thoughts and prejudices and move along the path of healing. It’s not an easy task, but it sure can feel good. Whether we know it or not, there are likely Native people in our practices, classes, and communities. For clinicians, the task of acknowledging Native clients and the real challenges facing Indigenous people, on and off reserves, is crucial.

I hope the next time you find yourself in a conversation, out for a walk, or having a meal, you’ll take some time to loiter. Slow things down and get to know the landscape, your companion, or the taste of your food. If this sounds a bit like mindfulness training, remember that mindfulness is a central tenet of many Indigenous cultural practices. Mindfulness training may well be as old as human culture. It thickens and enriches the story, and opens doors for healing.

Our world is in trouble, in part, because so many of us have forgotten how to loiter, form deep bonds with the Earth and one another, and build and maintain strong communities.  We need one another, the spirits, and the blessings of the Creator. Loitering is a form of ceremony, and as such, it is holy. May we remember to practice it.

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16 thoughts on “Crucial Conversations

  1. This is a wonderful honest insightful post! An old man once told me the importance of this loitering you speak of. I asked how I can influence the mainstream with this concept to which he replied “practice by eating dinner together and telling stories of old ways to the children” I’ve practiced this with my son so when the old people do visit he is comfortable to ‘loiter’ in the moment.

    • Leroy, Oddly, when our family owned the family farm, we worked hard and loitered a good deal. We helped neighbors and they us. We all ate and played together. Adults needed second jobs to keep the farm afloat, yet my cousins became farmers. The life was challenging, the tasks never ending, and the lifestyle rewarding. We told tons of family stories because we did not know the traditional ones. It was good.

  2. Reblogged this on Merlin and the White Eagle and commented:
    My friend Michael Watson put into words what many of us are feeling. The recent developments in Sweden, where the Radical Front looks like the Chiapas Mexican indigenous insurgents against the far-right Fascists, are alarming. When everyone turns to violence (to what they have been taught) as a way to act out their hurt and rage, more violence is created as a reaction. This does not portend well for us humans.

    • Michael, Many Indigenous nations in North America do not view their practices as shamanic. I was trained by shamans so see myself in their lineages.There are many websites that speak about shamanism. I am not particularly drawn to any, as they tend not to reflect shamanism as I understand it. That said, you can get a sense of th enormous range of practices and beliefs held under the rubric of “shamanism” by visiting those sites. I hope this helps a bit.

  3. We live in a 100mph world-it is good to take things at a slower pace.
    Mindfulness reminds me most of the Buddhist tradition,although I know it must be present in others.

    • Hi Andy, Yes, mindfulness is a Buddhist practice. It is also found in many other traditions, and although not called “mindfulness”, is central to much of Native American spiritual practice. t is good, indeed, to slow own and enjoy, and perhaps avoid the moose in middle of the highway!

  4. I love this post Michael! There is much truth in these words. I think I really like this forum for that specific purpose…it feels like a great community here! Blessings….Lorrie

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