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What Indigenous Wisdom Teaches Me

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

~Sue Staropoli, October 2020

In May 2012, I was invited to attend a program whose purpose was “to help create an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on this planet.” Reading those words, I remember thinking: “This is the world I want to leave to my children and grandchildren!”

25 years ago the Achuar, an indigenous tribe living deep in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, put out a request for partners in the industrialized world who would work with them to protect their ancient home and culture. This was the birth of the Pachamama Alliance and the origin of what eventually became the “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream” Symposium.

After experiencing this symposium, something within me shifted. I felt an intense sense of compassion for all creation and a call to be part of its healing.

Every time I went to get gas for my car I couldn’t forget the image of a woman in Nigeria whose food supply of plants and fish were contaminated by oil companies, who were destroying the rivers and land and an entire way of life. She and eight other women in her community had miscarriages after going into the river to help with the cleanup.

Before, it might have been easy for me to blame the oil companies and mega-corporations for the global ecological crisis, but now I was aware that it is the lifestyle of people like me, a lifestyle of consumption and acquisition, that is negatively affecting the world. WE are the problem. We are the ones using oil in its many forms, creating the demand the oil companies are trying to meet.

A few months after that symposium I had the privilege to go on a journey into the Amazon, to meet with the courageous and kind people who are trying to protect their land, families, and way of life.

Being with the Achuar people, who live in harmony with all creation, really challenged my assumptions about my own way of living. Can you imagine how you would feel if someone was threatening to take away your home and family and land? Wouldn’t you be passionate about protecting them?

That was the passion I witnessed in the elders, who told us they would do whatever they had to do to stop the oil companies from taking over their land. One elder in particular made an impression on me: he threatened to close the dirt air strips and even fight and die if necessary to protect his people. I keep a photograph of that elder on my desk, and every day he inspires me to take a stand to protect life.

So many times on that trip my heart ached. Flying over or walking through acres and acres of pristine rainforest, I could imagine it being destroyed by roads and bulldozers and oil rigs and displacing the beautiful, courageous people who had lived on that land for generations, in ways that honor the earth and all living things.

What does a caring person do with all of this information? What can we do in our part of the world to make a difference? We live in a country that represents 5% of the world population, yet we use 30% of the world resources and create 30% of the world’s waste. It is our patterns of consumption that are so painfully affecting the earth and people all over the world. How do we change?

Part of the answer is to understand how our worldview determines our actions. In the dominant western culture people are seen as separate individuals living among other separate individuals, each trying to make a good life for him or herself using the available materials, in a universe that is separate and indifferent. That means that each of us is in it for ourselves. The earth is to be used and exploited for our individual needs, and once our needs are met, for our pleasure and convenience. We measure security and wealth in having things and money.

The view that I glimpsed among the Achuar people is a world of interconnectedness. Theirs is a world in which all living things are one, each uniquely created and valued by the forces of life in the universe. A world where earth is precious, where what matters is family, community, and protecting all life. A world where there is enough for everyone, because people don’t accumulate things but only take what they need, while contributing their gifts, material and otherwise, to the community.

Now, looking at the state of the world, looking at my own community, with its violence, injustice, and environmental devastation, where is hope?

I remind myself: the task may be daunting, yet almost miraculous things have happened. Who imagined that the oppressive system of apartheid would end, or that the Berlin Wall would fall, or that an African American man would be elected president of the United States? How did these things come about?

It was people, inspired by a vision and taking collective action, who opened the doors to freedom and new life. WE are the change we are waiting for, as we stay awake to the world’s needs and our part in responding.

Where do we begin?

When I came back from Ecuador, I tried to keep the deep heart connections I had made. I committed myself to spend some time, every day, intentionally outdoors, in the natural world.

I realized that previously, most of my time was spent in a human-made world – in houses, stores, offices, and cars, with machines, cell phones, computers, televisions, etc., etc. I could go long periods with little connection to the world of plants, animals, sky, earth, insects, all creation.

As I spent more time in nature, I noticed that I was slowing down and taking in the natural rhythms of life, the uniqueness and interdependence of many different species, and the beauty in it all.

So I suggest that the first step in taking action is, paradoxically, to slow down and listen, to be in silence and in nature for a few minutes every day. When I do this, I connect with the power of love for us humans and for all our kin in creation. I sometimes experience moments of wonder and awe when natural beauty touches me beyond words. From that quiet place, I believe that connection and compassion arise, and I am led more clearly to the action that is uniquely mine to do.

The second step is to become more conscious and awake – to the reality of the world now and the destructive effects of the modern western lifestyle on the global family and the earth.

I challenge each of us to stop, before buying anything, and ask, “Which voice am I listening to – the voice of Love or the voice of consumerism?” Ask, “How will this purchase affect the earth and the animals and my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world?” And ask, “Do I really need it?”

Pausing to ask these questions has led me into further questioning. Will having more things or a more “perfect” house really make me happier or give my life more purpose? What are my underlying assumptions, and where do they come from? What is the cost of our society’s so-called “progress” and “growth”? If I consciously live more simply, I can stay in touch with what’s really important, the wealth of meaningful relationships and the natural world around me. If I feel deprived, maybe I can be a little more in touch with those whose basic needs are not met.

Each of us can be an instrument of healing in the world through our daily choices. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “With understanding you will become compassionate, and that will change everything.”

The third step is to become informed and active. I have learned so much through reading articles, books, and websites. I recall how reading World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle enlightened me on how inhumanely the U.S. food system is treating the animals, fellow creatures of life. This invited me into action in my buying and eating habits.

Awareness leads to action. Once you are aware of suffering, this naturally leads to action, not as a “should” or out of obligation, but because compassion calls for care and response. If anyone in your immediate family was hurting you would reach out to do anything you could to help. THAT’S the reality of the interconnectedness of all life. One family on this fragile planet.

The fourth step is to find a community to engage with in this work. The challenges are daunting, and it is only with others that people will have the vision, strength, support, wisdom, and collective impact that is needed. The Rochester area has a number of exceptional groups who offer education in their areas of concern as well as communities to join. It can be life-changing to identify what most moves you and find others who are already engaged in that work.

I believe that each of us is called to do what we can within our own circumstances, knowing we are part of a greater movement toward a future that is just, sustainable, and fulfilling for all life.

I come back to the photograph of the Achuar elder in the Ecuador rainforest. His passion to defend his land inspires me to have courage and to be faithful in my efforts - to be, like him, a fierce protector of life in all its forms on this planet. I have always had a passion to care for and protect my own family, but now my sense of family has broadened to include all people and all creation. This is the indigenous worldview that has become part of my own heart. I am so grateful.



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