Auntie Allie, an Aboriginal elder blessing the labyrinth in Centennial Park, Sydney
In Australia today, it has become the custom to begin public events with a ‘Welcome to Country’ by a local Aboriginal person in recognition that Aboriginal people are the traditional owners of the land that is now called Australia. I chose to begin my paper on indigenous spirituality with this image of blessing with water and some leaves that followed the traditional welcome. This was a Spring Labyrinth Festival that included a number of indigenous influences. This blessing with a choir singing in the background was the first. Auntie Allie in her introduction spoke of how she feels her ancestors’ presence in this vast parkland in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. There are several lakes and many birds and a great variety of plant life in the park and the labyrinth, based on the one in Chartres Cathedral in France is a more recent feature of the park.
As a part of the day’s activities we could walk a labyrinth marked out in chalk based on one in Neolithic Europe, which had the feeling of making a connection with the indigenous culture of Europe. Like other indigenous cultures it is a way to connect to Mother Earth. Another aspect of the day was the variety of music to accompany the walk around the labyrinth. The first group was a circle of frame drums and Native American chants, this was followed by didgeridoo Aboriginal music and then a group of djembes that I participated in.
While we played the djembes a number of people danced their way around the labyrinth, as I had done earlier to the frame drums and the chants. This labyrinth is a way that I regularly connect to Country as it’s located not far from my home, and I usually have a question that I walk with. My question this time was ‘what can we learn from indigenous cultures?’ as I was preparing to write this paper for the Cherag course. The answer that came was that all things are connected. This made complete sense given the Native American teaching of Mitakuye Oyasin in the Lakota language. In our previous dance meeting we danced All My Relations, attributed to Leilah Be, as part of an evening of indigenous inspired dances and peace. We had also danced an Aboriginal dance that has been gifted to us and a Maori inspired dance, Ko Papatuanuku.
Then, when I was playing the djembe, I physically felt that connection through sound and vibration. Not only were we connecting to each other and the Earth through the sound and the dancers in the labyrinth, it felt like the wooden drums were talking to the surrounding trees. The key to such improvised drum circles is listening. Through deep listening to the leader and the doom doom, that holds the rhythm, and through listening to each other, we were able to maintain a synchronised rhythm. This is an indigenous inspired way of working, as there was no written music and no rehearsal, as in most Western music.
This brings me to one the great spiritual gifts of the Australian Aboriginal people, Dadirri.The Aboriginal elder and principal of a local primary school in Daly River, Northern Territory, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr speaks and writes about this ancient practice of her people. In the book, The Aboriginal Gift, by Eugene Stockton, she writes about Dadirri.
It is inner, deep listening and quiet still awareness.
Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call contemplation.
When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the river bank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find peace in this silent awareness. (in Stockton, 1995, p. 179)
Through this deep listening we can begin to hear our connection to all our relations that make up this living planet Earth. For Aboriginal people in Australia everything in their Country is alive and speaks to them. Uncle Max Dulumunmun writes about this in his beautiful book, My People’s Dreaming:
When I take people out into the land I say: ‘Let’s watch the land talk to us.’ And you’ll see some jaws drop. But that’s what it’s doin’ – it’s talking to us without a voice.
Our land does that all the time; our water does that, our wind. Grandmother Moon, Grandfather Sun do it all the time. They show us things, what’s happening. They are talking to us constantly.
(Harrison, 2009, p. 7)
This has been my experience when in the desert. Around 10 years ago I went there at the invitation of the late Uncle Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara Elder and a traditional owner of Uluru (Ayers Rock). He invited me to have an experience of Kanyini, which means to commune with the land in his language. At that stage I was leading a Jewish meditation group and several members wanted to also experience the desert. The book Honey from the Rock, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, had made me aware of Jewish Desert Dreaming and so I was inspired to organise a Jewish Desert Dreaming Journey. In his book, Kushner writes about the deep link between my ancient Jewish ancestors and the wilderness, where they were each divinely instructed to go, beginning with Abraham. It was there that they connected with the divine and my own experience resonated with that desert connection.
Earlier this year, I was one of the organisers of Sufi Journey to the Desert with Allaudin and Yasmin. Our Sufi Caravan of some 19 dervishes met and danced and did Sufi practices in the desert. I wrote an article about this recent journey and it’s now been published on the Ruhaniat Ziraat site. This experience once again involved a connection to Country and to the Divine.
Finally, on the east coast of Australia, we have a direct connection with Pacific Island indigenous cultures through the ocean. In particular there is a connection with New Zealand, one of our nearest neighbours and the indigenous culture of Aotearoa: the Maori culture. We now have a number of Maori inspired dances in our repertoire, thanks to Shafia Maryam and Wendy Hodder. Shafia has Maori ancestors and Wendy has spent much time on the Marae, a Maori meeting house, with Maori elders and artists.
I attended the first Tihei Maori Ora weekend, when they launched their Maori inspired dances in a weekend workshop and have returned for several dance retreats with them over the years. It has been a very inspiring and challenging journey. In Polynesian culture the connection to ancestors is part of our identity and the sessions begin with a Mihi, in which each person present is invited to introduce themselves to the group. To do this we introduce our family as well as our ancestors, our country, our river, our mountain and our totem. It was through this process that I became deeply aware of the depth of ancestral trauma I was carrying as a child of Holocaust survivors. It has sent me on a profound healing journey, in the process of learning to reconnect to my indigenous ancestors in the Middle East.
My attraction to Sufism is clearly linked to these Middle Eastern indigenous ancestors who were desert wisdom masters, as Saadi writes about in his book of that name. That is there in Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s book the Cry of the Earth. In which he quotes the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who also writes about deep listening in relation to Buddhist practice:
The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was asked
what we need to do to save our world.
“What we most need to do,” he replied,
“is to hear within us the sound of the earth crying.”
A view of the whole Labyrinth with Auntie Allie’s blessing walk
Douglass-Klotz, Neil, 1995, Desert Wisdom, London: Thorsons
Freke, T., Shamanic Wisdomkeepers, U.K.: Godsfield
Harrison, M.D., 2009, My People’s Dreaming, Warriewood, NSW: Finch
Kushner, L., 1995, Honey from the Rock, Vermont: Jewish Lights
Lake-Thom, B., 1997, Spirits of the Earth, N.Y.: Plume
Neidjie, B., 1986, Australia’s Kakadu Man, Darwin: Resource Managers
Stockton, E., 1995, The Aboriginal Gift, Alexandria, NSW: Millennium
Turbet, P., 1989, The Aborigines of the Sydney District before 1788, Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo
Rael, J.R., 1992, Beautiful Painted Arrow, Rockport, MA: Element
Vaughan-Lee, L., 2013, Spiritual Ecology, The Cry of the Earth, Cal.: Golden Sufi Center