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PIMA BULLETIN NO 49

Part One: A pluriverse of conversations

Unlearning Separation and Relearning Relationality

with the Pluriverse. Report of PIMA Teach-Ins.

Shauna Butterwick

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The Fall/Spring PIMA teach-ins led by Elizabeth Lange were based on her book Transformative sustainability education: Reimagining our future (2023, Routledge).

 

 

The first event held on September 14th 2023 was recorded (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxuleUU1pD0

Elizabeth began by describing her daily gratitude practice, an earth greeting, and invited us all to sit quietly, light a candle, and acknowledge earth, water, air, and fire and how together each of these elements create life on the planet.

 

 

The Epochal Shift and the Old Story 

Elizabeth then discussed how we are living in a great epochal shift--

the dying days of modernity, some call the Anthropocene. The last

several hundred years of human activity has pushed us to the edge

of sustaining life. Climate change, biodiversity loss, land and fresh

water use, waste control, biochemical flows, ocean acidification,

aerosol particles, ozone depletion, and introduction of novel entities

like plastic, all contribute to the crisis we face. The 2020 to 2030

decade is pivotal; changes to these key activities are crucial. Elizabeth

recommended David Attenborough’s Breaking Boundaries; The

Science of our Planet (https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/81336476).

Modernity is based on the Latin word ‘modo’, referring to the view that the most important time is ‘now’; no regard for the past, spirit world, or our ancestors. Modernity has brought patriarchy, imperialism, and use of force, replacing small agricultural activity and an honoring of female energy. The renaissance brought individualism and humanism, and new technologies, including how we treat our bodies. The scientific revolution promoted a mechanistic view of the world; science was oriented to protecting us from nature. Colonial empires and the idea of ‘civilizing’  

others expanded, destroying land and peoples. Property ownership, technology of efficiency, mobility of peoples, and no limits to progress, were ideas emerging from the French, American and Industrial revolutions. 

Late modernism saw the rise of nation states, human rights, the middle class, and the idea of human exceptionalism. Happiness was achieved by embracing progress, efficiency, power as control, individual autonomy, competition, order, and seeking comfort, affluence and fabulous wealth. The hidden violence of modernity feeds on our fear, greed, arrogance, individual entitlement, desire for power, and a fear of scarcity. World wars, recessions and depressions, environmental degradation, social justice and civil rights abuses are now constant; there is a growing ‘revenge industry’ of rage and hatred. 

These values and ideas penetrate our minds and bodies, and how we think about and organize knowledge, our ways of being, our imagination, our behaviours. Modernity is about separation from our bodies, each other, community, from wisdom and from a creative and active cosmos. 

The New Story

However, these values are being questioned, energies redirected and repatterned, creating something new. We’re between stories; the old one is dying, the new one not yet known or named. 

New photos of space show the stars and the universe not as separate but connected, a dense pattern of energy, a highly sensitive pulsing and moving web of relationality. The earth is whole; the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and geosphere are a networked system of complex patterns. Human consciousness and bodies are also networked. We are made of stardust. Cognition is the process of life; every cell uses perception and cognition; forests are cognitive systems that respond to us. 

A new idea of learning is emerging. Learning is responding to the

intelligibility of the universe. We are tapping into our bodies’ three

major energy fields: the brain, the gut, and the heart. Our hearts

have 40,000 neural cells, like our brains, receiving and processing

information, sending more messages to the brain than the brain

sends to our hearts and generating electric fields (both coherent

and incoherent) around our bodies. Individuals and groups can

direct their energies. Forests also have energy fields, each with

different chemistry. 

The state of our hearts affects all systems; practicing joy, compassion, and gratitude contribute to the new human story, as do the worlds’ spiritual systems with their stories, teachings, and original instructions of the relationality of land, people and the spirit world. In the new story, wisdom is valued; art is an important source of knowing. Our work as educators is to connect to the fate of the human species and midwife the great transformation. 

Breathwork and Relationality

Elizabeth then guided us through a breathwork activity, a form of micro activism, a step towards relationality. Breathing with our diaphragms and bellies creates spaciousness and slows things down. Five minutes a day can bring calm and focus, stills the mind so we become aware of the constant stream of emotions and thought.

            Breathwork helps learners become more receptive, supports natural curiosity, 

            and awareness of other senses. Engaging our diaphragms may be uncomfortable

            at first. Sit with hands in our lap, or lie down, feel the earth underneath, take deep

            breaths, hands on our belly, feel the expansion. Breathe out comfortably, relax our

            bellies, breathe in, your belly rising like a balloon, deflating naturally, lungs and rib

            cage are quiet. Slowly come back, wiggle fingers and toes, open your eyes.

For Elizabeth, this body awareness through belly breathing moves us from a sense of separation to building relations, becoming re-enchanted with all that exists, engaging in an essential ritual of connecting to all things. Each breath includes molecules from the stars. Our need for oxygen is absolute; it enables life on earth. The forests breathe in the CO2s we expel.

 

Elizabeth then shared the Cree word for relationality: wâhkohtowin or all my relations. 

 

Participants were asked to share similar words from their cultures. Here are some of them:

"Buen vivir" or good living (Latin America); Ubuntu: a person is a person through other people  and the spirit world (Africa); Gaia; Awi'nakola (Kwakwaka'wakw);  (Nishnaabemwin language) maawnzondwak: be in a group, be a group that has been called together; Ayni, kichwa refers to the responsibility we have to all of our relations (similar to reciprocity); Heshook-ish Tsawalk (Nuu-chah-nulth word).

Elizabeth drew attention to verb-based Indigenous languages which illustrate how we are in relation to others, including the more than human world. Relationality involves a shift in language towards animacy. Kinship is not about having relations; we are in relations, born into relations, embedded in a web. The land and the earth gifts you every day with what you need. Our responsibility is to honour the relations. 

Elizabeth’s next exercise had us mapping our kinship relations, what it means to belong to the land, not the land belongs to us. She shared her map of where she was born in Edmonton, noting the rivers, mountains, animals, industries such as oil and beef and dairy farming, Indigenous peoples and so on. 

             Using paper, pens, whatever you have, draw simple figures, adding some text,

             creating a map of where you were born or a place special to you, include key land

             forms, major water bodies and water sources, your homes and other major places,

             regional food stuffs, key industries, trees, plants and animals.

Elizabeth shared this image We Conjure Our Own Spirit created by Norival Morriseau (who saw art as both teaching and healing); it depicts Norival’s view of identity as the vibrational field of kinships to all things human and natural, in constant relation. 

                                               [permission granted from Morriseau Estate]

Working in pairs or triads Elizabeth then invited us to introduce ourselves using the kinship map with three questions in mind: 

  1. does this foster a shift in perception? 

  2. how can you stay mindful of all our relations each day?

  3. how does this activity move us towards a pluriverse where we recognize that each person carries a whole system of kin relations? 

Participants then reported back, noting the diversity of places and some commonalities and differences. For some, nature was a significant part of their childhood, while others’ childhood locations were devoid of nature. Childhood memories of water, plants and animals and smells were surprisingly strong. The source of water was at times quite visible, but mostly it was hidden. There was joy and difficulty with this different kind of introduction.

Kinship mapping is a powerful activity showing entanglements and influences, helping to build gratitude, making things more visible, opening possibilities for different conversations and understandings of where people are coming from. Participants noted that this mapping of kinship relations showed them how the more than human world had raised them, and how systems, like capitalism (not created by us), shape our social and economic relations, separating and exploiting the natural world. Some asked if this activity could help us take some control and change harmful relations, confront the discomfort of existing within these structures. One reported on a theory of change, where change occurs in the cracks.

This first teach-in concluded with Elizabeth inviting us, over the next few weeks, to notice and name modernity’s myths of separation around us, how it manifests in our everyday, including how our bodies move. She then instructed us to undertake a second activity:

             Find a ‘sit spot’ in a natural or wild area, not too manicured, and sit for at least 20 minutes, a

             time when we begin to use our other senses. It’s best to sit for 40 minutes as it takes that

             much time for the natural world to return to its natural activity. Let the area befriend and teach

             you. Keep your focus close to you or wider. Do this activity twice and come back to the second

             teach-in with some stories. This activity engages our senses differently and changes our neural

             patterning, how we perceive the world, and our belief systems.

Composting Modernity

On October 5th, the second PIMA teach-in, Elizabeth turned our attention to the idea of composting problematic ideas of modernity, key to unlearning separation and relearning relationality. She again grounded her presentation and guided us through her daily gratitude practice of lighting a candle and greeting the water, earth, and wind. Where she lives, the full moon was waning, a time of maturity and harvesting of food and ideas; these cycles guide her in her work. She reminded us of her settler and Germanic origins, of her living on Indigenous lands of the Plains Cree, and now on Coast Salish territory.

She shared a diagram from the first teach-in depicting the Anthropocene era where humans are changing the composition and functioning of the planet (see image #3 above). The Stockholm Resilience Centre (https://www.stockholmresilience.org/) has just released its new update showing human activities now pushing six, not just five, of the nine living systems outside of their safe and stable operating zone, with fresh water (both blue water and plants’ green water) moving into a zone of risk. Ocean acidification is inching close to its boundary. 

Our Work as Educators

We are engaged in the urgent work of educating others about these planetary boundaries and how the deadline for change is this decade. People must also meet their basic needs (see the sustainable development goals or SDGs from 2015-2030 https://sdgs.un.org/gsdr/gsdr2023). 

Elizabeth responded to a query from the first teach-in about how to approach learners. She described how she rarely comes at it directly, as it can trigger backlash. She first conducts informal and formal surveys to find pedagogical entry points, noting how we often assume peoples’ level of knowledge. She asks these six questions:

  1. What are your key life challenges and concerns? 

  2. What do you most want for the future?

  3. What is your biggest fear for the future?  

  4. What are your reasons for non-engagement? 

  5. What are your barriers and perhaps competing principles? 

  6. What is your knowledge and your attitude to climate change?

Responses help Elizabeth choose which aspects of sustainability and climate change content will be immediately relevant, showing how sustainability and climate change action will help address learners’ more pressing challenges. In her municipality, a formal community survey as well as interviews were conducted; people wanted a slower, more balanced lifestyle. In response, municipal communications were geared toward illustrating how sustainability and reducing carbon footprint can create a higher quality of life. She recently heard a term for this approach, "coyote mentoring."

Elizabeth explained how naming the dying days of modernity is already breaking faith. We’ll encounter some who resist, who still believe in and want access to modernity’s promise, who see it as not yet fully evolved, only needing to be reformed or perhaps radically transformed. For others, it’s time to leave it behind, to fully inhabit this in-between time, not knowing where we are. 

Beth then shared some useful educational resources: 

Our work of exploring the beliefs and structures in which we live, involves both short term and long term thinking. Modernity has many phases: early, mid and late, with evolving beliefs of humanism, individualism, dualism, a clockwork universe, hierarchy, militarism and so forth, all with an underbelly of violence (slavery, the theft of resources, constant economic crisis, and genocide). She reinforced how modernity is about separation from our bodies, emotions, wisdom and creativity, and skills of being in community. We are separated from the creative and active cosmos, and other species.

In Newton and Galileo’s clockwork universe, planets and humans floated in black empty space; atoms were the basic reality. In the new story, we are living in a highly sensitive cosmic web where energy fields transmit information and connect all galaxies and planets. Rather than seeing the earth composed of parts with different functions, we now see the earth as networks, self-organizing and self-regulating systems, not inert. These systems impact each other synergistically as depicted in the Stockholm Planetary Boundary model. 

Learning is Process and Resonance

In the old story, only humans learn and we are self-contained in our bodies and minds. In the new story, cognition is the process of all life, all living systems in which we are embedded. All things have energy fields, including our bodies and our communities. The new model of learning is sometimes called a process approach; humans are nested communal individuals, profoundly related to all that is, made of the same elements as the whole of the universe, constantly resonating with all other things. 

Rather than there being only one truth, the world’s spiritualities are all simultaneously true, each with unique understandings of and instructions for the origin and role of the universe and humans. The mythic stories, including fairy tales, hold old wisdom, instructions for living. The human story is one of diversity and shared wisdom. In order to understand the paradoxes of reality, scientists have turned to mytho-poetic language.  

In this time, our great work is dedicating ourselves to what is required, connecting our education work to the story of the cosmos, the history and dynamics of the earth, the fate of all species and our own fate as humans. Educators can be midwives for this great transformation towards a relational and life-giving way of being. We will likely not see what is being born of our work. 

`All my relations` is a global concept. Kinship is not having relations, a transactional point of view, rather we understand ourselves as being relations. Elizabeth observed how creating our kinship maps already disrupted  normalized ideas of identity, showing how this notion of identity decentres humans; rivers and the land become more central, fueling our desire to fiercely protect what’s around us. Kinship maps can help us find commonality with and deeper understanding of others. 

Our childhood memories are full of sensory experiences. Elizabeth wondered ‘what happens when children no longer have this freedom of movement or experience?’ Kinship maps shift us away from naming our status, titles, money and stuff, towards understanding identity as constellations of natural relations.

 

Elizabeth then guided us again through breathwork, a form of micro-activism and resistance to normative notions of time, an embodied practice of relationality, creating spaciousness, slowing time as we pause between in-breath and out-breath. 

Working in pairs or triads we then met for 20 minutes to talk about our sit spot experiences, introducing ourselves through our kinship relations, sharing our inner observations, noting times of resistance, difficulties, feeling unsafe. We discussed our outer experiences of using all of our senses; what did we notice, experience. Elizabeth invited us to ponder three questions: 

  1. What can we say about the body and the mind’s patterning of modernity from this experience?  

  2. What did you learn about separation and about relationality through this experience? 

  3. What can we say about the languages and intelligibility of the natural world? 

 

Fall/Spring Teach-in Feedback 

Elizabeth’s teach-ins were powerful, insightful and transformative. Many experienced feeling less alone, more hopeful, and relieved to find others were feeling the same way about the importance of connecting to each other and our world in new ways. Participants noted how modernity is all about doing rather than being, how ‘doing nothing’ could be reframed as doing no-thing, not a passive state, rather an active engagement with being. Sharon Clancy came away ‘with a profound feeling of hope in these darkest of times’. <link to Sharon Clancy article>

 

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature

by David George Haskell (2012, Viking) was recommended; the author spent one year observing one square meter of old growth forest. Participants reported on practices that help them feel connected: meditation, physical movement and somatic practices, verbal communication involving circling and authentic relating. 

Thank you Elizabeth for sharing what’s been your life’s work for many years. This has been a very special, powerful and transformative, pedagogical moment.

 

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