The participants in this unique dialogue may have been doing no less than opening the window on the next 500 years.
As scary and stupefying as our world sometimes seems, we are at a place of enormous potential right now -- a transition point of unprecedented understanding among cultures and peoples and worldviews. Pushing that understanding, creating, in the words of the late physicist David Bohm, a milieu of "participatory consciousness" among radically diverse thinkers, is the idea behind the Language of Spirit Conference, sponsored by the SEED Graduate Institute, which has been held in Albuquerque every year since 1999.
Last week I attended the 12th annual Language of Spirit Conference, which brought together Western scientists and scholars and Native North American and Australian scientists, philosophers and storytellers, not to argue, but to grope for commonality at the far reaches of their belief systems. The original dialogues, convened by Bohm and Leroy Little Bear (former director of Native Studies at Harvard) in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1992, came about because Little Bear, who was well-versed in the developments of quantum physics, realized that Western science had reached the end of linear thought and finally got it: The universe is a living, conscious, interconnected organism.
This is how the world's indigenous people see things. They always have. Reverently tied to place, they have been the natural world's caretakers for thousands of years. They are of the world, living not just sustainably but in intimate relationship with their sacred piece of Planet Earth.
"We are a people who never made singing or dancing unrespected ways of knowing," said Pat McCabe, a Navajo writer and scholar who also goes by the name Woman Stands Shining. "All of the five-fingered ways of knowing remained open to us."
And now . . . now . . . 500 years after Western conquistadors subdued and divided the planet, devastating indigenous people on every continent and, while they were at it, pushing the natural world to the brink of eco-collapse, we are turning -- some of us -- to the wisdom of connectedness that has been ours for the asking all along.
This isn't easy or simple. Our disconnect from one another, from ourselves and from the natural world is embedded in the Western languages, which break the world into millions of discrete, manipulable pieces, called nouns ("My name is Matthew. I'm a nounaholic," cried linguist Matthew Bronson). Westerners control reality through language, but they don't evoke it. Indigenous languages are, as I am slowly coming to understand them, verb-based, intrinsically linking speaker and object in a flow of motion that cannot be linguistically sliced and diced.
Just as I began writing this column, the New Yorker arrived in the mail. On the cover of the Aug. 30 issue is a drawing of a middle-aged white guy sitting on a beach chair at the edge of the ocean, smugly pointing a TV remote at it -- perfectly illustrating the disconnected, control-fixated Westerner the Language of Spirit Conference was addressing . . . the one who has done so much harm.
With eerie synchronicity, the water on the New Yorker cover flows back to the dialogue. Speaking about the BP oil spill, SEED founder Glenn Aparicio Parry noted in amazement, "The mainstream world believes that water is dead -- yet we're 70 percent water."
"The assumption of the laws (of science)," said biophysicist Beverly Rubik, "is that we're a non-living universe. We ought to start over. We have a science that starts with deadness. It's time to revision science -- in a living universe."
These words begin to get at the vibration of the conference -- this exercise in participatory consciousness -- which struck at the core of something vital. The ostensible subject of the 12th Language of Spirit dialogue was time. The speakers dismantled linear time, the kind that moves in a straight line and pulls us along on its track. (In the U.S., time wasn't standardized till 1886, when the railroads demanded it.) Nonlinear time -- the timelessness of dreaming, reverence, prayer and awe -- filled the room, and I could feel the living universe pulse. It pulsed with love.
"The eagle is more valuable to you alive" than as merely a source of feathers, said Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan. "The sacred thing is the life force."
It also pulsed with anger. Writer M.J. Zimmerman, speaking about SEED spiritual mentor Leon Secatero, who died in 2008, said: "Grandfather Leon always talked about getting ready for the next 500 years. We're in a transition point. The anger of colonization should not be brought into the next 500 years.
"Hurt people hurt people," she added. "Europeans have moved into every part of this planet and hurt people." She offered the plea that we in the disconnected West find our own roots, dig "way back into our own traumatic history" and begin to heal our brokenness.
And for the first time in my life I found myself groping in the darkness of my own past, beyond a few generations of known ancestors and beyond my identity as an American, toward an ancient tribal commonality that has fallen out of history, and I felt a slow give in the assumptions of my life.
"Everyone is indigenous," said Jill Milroy, dean of the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia. Perhaps knowing this is the first step in envisioning the next 500 years.