Yoga Calm Flashback – Native American Mindfulness: Reciprocity

by | Apr 16, 2016

As we approach Earth Day 2016, we find our thoughts going back to this previous post on recognizing and affirming our connectedness with the natural world, which we’ve updated slightly for the occasion…

Native American basketSeveral years back, a writer for one of our local papers complained about school teachers getting graduate credit to teach yoga to their students. These courses, she mocked, should be listed in the Education Department catalog next to basket weaving.

My thought? “Please do. I’d be honored to have our course listed next to this sacred art!” Such crafts involve the power of concentration, beauty and ecological sensibility – qualities often devalued in our high-tech, wasteful, bottom line-driven society.

A Bigger Kind of Mindfulness

About a year ago, we hosted a workshop with Native American psychologist Dr. Leslie Gray. As she taught us healing tools used by indigenous cultures, I was struck by the deep mindfulness that was an essential part of each activity. It seemed somehow different from the mindfulness practices I’ve learned through yoga and other training. At first, it was hard to identify just what it was. Then she said something that put it into stark perspective:

“People often talk about how things are all connected, but they don’t use this understanding in their everyday practice.”

What she was teaching was more than just mindfulness of our breath, our body and our thoughts. They contained the sacredness of all things. We touched the stones and the tobacco with mindfulness. The stones and tobacco became teachers.

We learned from mouse, bear, and otter. We started to feel the interconnectedness in life, and we practiced this awareness as a group.

It was a bigger kind of mindfulness.

The Circle of Life

Dr. Leslie GrayWhen a student remarked to Dr. Gray, “You are so generous,” she replied that she comes from “a give-away culture.” Indeed, the concept of giving was central to her teaching. With each gift that is given, we learned, there is a way to give back. Reciprocity helps keep the balance in life.

This was yet another facet of mindfulness. You are asked to be mindful of both what you are given and what you give back.

This and the other tools we learned have the potential to free us from some of the crises we face in the next generation. As Dr. Gray states on her website,

“In the 21st century…the specter of planetary destruction forces us to also see “wealth” in wisdom about how to live sanely on the earth, in practices of sustainable land use and in evolved knowledge of community-building — all of which exist in the traditions of autochthonous peoples. Correspondingly, mounting evidence of imminent environmental catastrophe forces us to see “poverty” in the underdeveloped ecopsychology of the technoculture.”

I believe it is possible for the interaction between indigenous and technological worldviews to generate solutions to many of our world’s current grave dilemmas.

plant in child's handsOne of those solutions is to re-connect ourselves with nature. Children have an understanding of this bond and experience the outdoor world as an enchanted place. When a child engages in the outdoors, it’s clear that they have a deep interest in plants, animals and insects that surround them – a natural curiosity about these things.

Given what we learned from brain scientist John Medina, about how the human brain thrives in the outdoor conditions in which it developed, it’s no surprise that we feel a deep affinity to nature, what is has been coined as “ecopsychology”

The Nature Principle

Dr. Gray describes ecopsychology as “an attempt to bring the rest of the social sciences into line with the insights of modern physics about interconnectedness.” A growing body of research supports that attempt, suggesting that a strong connection to nature can improve other aspects of children’s lives. For instance, as ecopsychologist Richard Louv has noted, when kids are given opportunities for outdoor, experiential learning, academic achievement goes up. What’s more,

‘f studies, children in outdoor-education settings show increases in self-esteem, problem solving, and motivation to learn…. Studies of children in schoolyards with both green areas and manufactured play areas have found that children engaged in more creative forms of play in the green areas, and they also played more cooperatively. Recent research also shows a positive correlation between the length of children’s attention spans and direct experience in nature. Studies at the University of Illinois show that time in natural settings significantly reduces symptoms of attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder in children as young as age five. The research also shows the experience helps reduce negative stress and protects psychological well being, especially in children undergoing the most stressful life events.”

This was something Jim noticed back in the 1990s when he was running urban environmental education programs funded by the National Science Foundation. Even in the most developed of cities, simple park, street tree and bird surveys helped to kindle children’s innate love of nature right outside their door and became a springboard for teaching science.

From this love of nature and curiosity, stewardship naturally unfolds – encouraging the reciprocity that’s integral to all wisdom traditions. It’s a concept Louv echoes in his latest book, which explores “how tapping into the restorative powers of the natural world can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds.”

“We are entering,” Louv writes, “the most creative period in history.”

The twenty-first century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world.

Dr. Gray will be back for another workshop this coming fall. Stay tuned for details!

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