… How Aboriginal Wisdom can Inform Therapeutic Practice

Tyson Yunkaporta is a Apalech clan man and author of Sand Talk, an extraordinary book that asks the reader to co-create knowledge in a kinship pair. This idea of pairing is central to the premise of the book, that knowledge can only be created in relation, as meaning is imbued through the sharing and transmission of that knowledge. It is found in this middle ground, this in-between space of us that the object of knowledge dwells – not in the mind, but in reflection.

In Aboriginal culture, knowledge is not the innate province of the human as apex thinker. It was created by the entirety of our existence: place, space, plants, nature, animals, sentient beings, ancestors, spirits, and it followed the laws of nature and its ecosystems.

Sand Talk is Tyson’s treatise on Aboriginal thinking and an analysis of Western systems using that lens. This alternate view to the colonising one considers ways that indigenous cultures can enrich Western modes of doing that leave us vulnerable to linear understandings of knowledge transmission, and the false belief in the permanence and sanctity of information as we know it. I saw Tyson speak in a fascinating conversation as part of the Collective Trauma Summit, where he unpacked this idea, saying that data/information managed and produced in a linear way by machines or even in print is always subject to entropy, always slowly decaying. Online storage gets corrupted or deleted, books are fragile, and everything created in a fixed form is tied to that moment in time, archaic and dated.

In contrast, oral tradition was live, it moved and grew with the people who were its custodians. When questioned about the ‘Chinese whispers’ argument of content subtly changing with each retelling, he categorically rejected that notion. Within oral tradition, he said, there was a strict protocol of perfection in retelling. Unless you had the story perfectly memorised and recounted, and the initiation and authority to speak from it or about it, you did not have the agency to share it. There was a refreshing and surprising moment when he described this discipline around the lineage of story. There are no mistakes, no ‘do it better next time’. You got it right, or you were shamed and mocked by your kinfolk until you could do it perfectly. He said this with a lightness and a humour, but it resonated with me as in and of itself a disjuncture from contemporary thought.

As someone who regularly facilitates conversations around shame through Brené Brown’s  Dare to Lead leadership framework, I had a moment of recognition of how we are caught in this fixed and binary way of celebrating the ‘good’ and disavowing the ‘bad’.

In Dare to Lead, shame is bad, shame is isolating, a casting out from our society driven by an inner narrative of ‘I am bad.’ Shame needs to be acknowledged and spoken, but is not useful or welcome.

When Yunkaporta describes the rigor in which oral tradition is created and maintained, shame transforms to a tool that is used productively in relation. When deployed inside of a culture that is healthy, where people aren’t individuals – they are ancestral lineages linked to myriad sentient beings, place and story – shame is inclusive, it is a tool overseen by elders for aspirational improvement for the betterment of the people through properly representing story. A critical imperative for the perpetuation of culture.

Watching and listening to the conversation with Tyson was so alive with new ideas. There is an indescribable feeling of awakening for me when I realise that there is a new rabbit hole to explore, and I can change my thinking, change my beliefs, fall deeper into a beginner mind of everything I know being fluid and changeable. This is the feeling of meaning being created in relation. Where deep time meets deep listening, it allows processing, not defensive reaction to default ways of thinking and being. What if shame can transform into growth and community? This door to exploring opportunity is now open to me.

As I framed at the outset of this piece, the creation of knowledge in Aboriginal thinking follows nature. I wrote last month in the Mannaz Journal of the power of reconnection to the innate wisdom and intelligence of nature. Of how not only can nature teach us how to be sustainable in connected ways, but of how the rhythms of nature are built to work in lockstep with our nervous systems, regulating us in proximity. In the Collective Trauma Summit conversation, one of the other outstanding learnings was how in nature there is both chaos and violence, and engaging with both is essential to being in relation.

We tend to eschew violence as something that also sits in the binary of bad/good. While it clearly exists, this existence is one that is not sanctioned and we seek to eradicate. From an Aboriginal perspective, violence is part of being in relation, something that is planned for and subject to relational laws, again inside of culture and kinship. Tyson was very clear to put some context around this discussion: he is speaking of violence in healthy, stable communities, and historically (i.e. in long culture, not the short memory of Western culture) violence has not been owned by one dominant gender or culture, it is owned and available to everyone. More importantly, it has consequences.

If you injured someone in another tribe, for example, you were obliged to care for them until they healed. If you killed someone, you were responsible for their responsibilities for the rest of your life. That responsibility tended to put a dampener on wholesale slaughter and maiming. Acknowledging that violence is something that happened as part of the human condition is acknowledging the natural patterns of life and behaviour which need to be worked through relationally. Denying it was as absurd as denying a volcano an eruption or a tree falling into the forest crushing habitat beneath.

But violence occurring in this way had meaning – it evolved relations and in reparation deepened ties and mutual understanding. This is the third space between people where meaning is made. He also highlighted the relationality  aspect – even if you were in conflict, you were in a dance with another, tied to them until you were able to heal and transmute the conflict to mutual understanding. It is a clear visual of the enmeshment of conflict, hands ancestrally entwined, perhaps in violence, perhaps in love, perhaps both, but always relational.

This dialogue Tyson Yunkaporta has surfaced into consciousness is an important one to give time and space to processing as therapists trained in Western ways of thinking and being that valorise science and instruments of assessment based on narrow definitions of humanity.

Therapy is a relational business. We form a relationship with you, as Tyson would describe it, an us-two relationship. We are in the room together, we are sharing in the experience of suffering together, we are sharing in the exploration of the movement towards wholeness together, our experiences inextricable to yours.

The Aboriginal understandings of the central part that all relationships play, beyond the false dichotomy of good and bad, is an invitation as therapists and clients to look to the wisdom that is beyond linear ‘historical’ time. For us to deeply listen to ourselves for clarity where we have our own binary shame and conflicts raging inside, so we can listen as us-two, and be present and in process together, guided hopefully by the pragmatic gentle wisdom of the sentient world and all that lies in between.

Disclaimer: This article contains the views of the author and is not a replacement for therapeutic support. Please reach out to a registered therapist if you are experiencing distress and require assistance.

Photo by René Riegal on Unsplash

This photograph captures part of the Weeli Wolli Creek in Western Australia. It is such a beautiful image and it somehow looks like a painting.  Our country and our wild places are such wonders.  Timeless and iconic.  The relationship between people and place is indeed unique.