There was a lake. In 1924 Sumas Lake (Semá:th) was drained by settlers to create farmland. No prior consent from the inhabitants and now the lake returns, with a vengeance, flooded again with run-off from clear-cuts, by an atmospheric river surging up out of the Pacific, colonialism’s ricochet.
Meanwhile, the RCMP (all the King’s soldiers) in army fatigues, armed with assault guns, sniper rifles, and the K-9 corps invade the territory of the Wet’suwet’en, as the land defenders there stand up against the might of the State and the wealth of corporations.
I rolled these thoughts around, pebbles caught in the pothole of my mind. You could say that moments like these leave me feeling pretty desperate, desolate, and alone. Maybe you feel the same at times.
My history as the settler grandson of settlers, our history, this moment, is fraught, braided through and through with complications and complexities, steeped in violence both visible and invisible but also open to calls of redemption and possibilities of presence. The call that many of us heard as younger, more “idealistic” persons, persists, and deepens. I wonder if the depression endemic in these times is not a symptom of the inability to respond to the great ocean of grief that we are called to. this led us to Vanessa and her remarkable book.
We sit down for some talk, in the former Faculty Club at UBC. I mention to Vanessa that my first visit to the Faculty Club was during the invasion of 1968, with Jerry Rubin and Pegasus the Pig. We both laugh. Now it is 2022.
We begin our conversation with an inquiry into the intention, direction, and audience for the book.
GTEC: We put these books, these texts, out into the world, and who receives them? Do they make a difference? And is it a difference that we want to make?
Vanessa: These are indeed haunting questions! It has been interesting for me to note that many people want to read the book with other people and this is something that I did not foresee. I actually wrote the first part of the book trying to convince people not to read the book!
GTEC: That’s great! I loved that! I shouldn’t have read it! (Laughter) I’m sorry.
Vanessa: I did that because the invitation of the book to sit with difficult and heavy things differently can be harmful for those who are not seeking these practices or are unaware of their costs in terms of disrupting normalcy. If people are very attached to normalcy, then more complexity and more paradoxes and contradictions can create a situation of emotional overload that the person might or might not be able to get out of.
But, equally, for those who are already reaching that stage where normalcy doesn’t work anymore, if you don’t have a vocabulary that talks about the complexities, the paradoxes, the contradictions, then that’s where you also get into depression or anxiety and even self-harm. So the question has been: the book needs to reach those who are already treading the water but not those who are not ready yet or who are treading a different path. For people who are treading water or drowning in complex crises, the book may offer an oxygen tank. But it can also throw you in the deep end if you are not close to the water.
GTEC: Have you come across anyone whose gotten into deep water?
Vanessa: Yes, in the introduction there is an exercise called Education 2048, that lists a chain of catastrophic events from 2018 to 2048 that will likely happen as a result of past and current bad human choices. When we started piloting this exercise, we had a small number of people objecting to the existence of the exercise, saying we shouldn’t be talking about that because it was too threatening to their sense of hope and stability.
We had that conversation with a group of teachers who wanted to give children and young people hope, a specific kind of hope, and they felt that the exercise was taking that away. We also had teachers saying that the exercise was what they had been waiting for: that the students needed that. I think that, on both sides, teachers could be projecting their own needs onto the students. And what I can say is that there are young people who can handle it, and need to handle it right now in order not to check out, and there are young people who can’t, who will need a different approach. So, instead of saying this exercise is necessary across the board, you will have to have a teacher who can be discerning about when, where and for whom, to use any approach. There is no “one size fits all”.
GTEC: And the teachers themselves, that’s so critical – how it is presented, and what is the emotional tone, how is it brought forward, because the kids can deal with stuff, but if the adult is freaking out then it’s not going to go down too well, right? My three grandchildren know what’s going on. They are just kids doing kid things They don’t like it particularly but it doesn’t freak them out. Because it’s not presented by people who are freaked out.
Vanessa: Yeah, I think the modeling of people who can hold it is the first thing. I saw that, on both sides, there was either a relief from anxiety or a heightened anxiety if the exercise is not going in a particular direction. We need to figure out another way. In the collective and the book, we talk about a compass called SMDR, which stands for decolonial forms of sobriety, maturity, discernment, and accountability. We also talk about learning to walk the tightrope between naïve hope and desolate hopelessness with honesty, humility, humour and hyper self-reflexivity. We also need to find another way to show the kids that there is a reason for looking forward to growing up.
The reason for growing up is being able to expand the way you can deal with this mess. The mess is not going to go away. Another member of the collective, who is an Indigenous elder (Cash Ahenakew) has just published a text about that in response to a question coming from a young person: “What is there to look forward to after 40?”. The text is called “Towards Eldering”.
GTEC: Faith is another kind of dimension, another realm of possibility, other than Hope. Hope is very problematic. As you say, every message leads to the message, “well, there’s still hope”!
Vanessa: The difficulty is that Hope, in our mainstream culture is a projection – and it is a projection of continuity of a version of the status-quo. And this image projected into the future serves as an escape from the present, from the difficulties of the present, whereas Faith is a weaving of something in the present that canbuild a different kind of future based on a confidence that doesn’t come from certainty. In this sense, Faith is a compass and the intuition of a movement that can guide us, especially in crises.
Faith gives me the confidence that the knowledge I need will come from being present to everything that is within and around me, that I will know what to do not in advance, or in an articulated knowing way, but in the process of being present and attentive to what is presenting itself – and this includes the beautiful, the ugly, the broken and the messed up. This kind of Faith involves the de-idealization of things, sitting with everything and not being afraid and haunted by what is not pleasant that could be within and around us.
This Faith gives you the confidence that you will be able to hold the spectrum of feelings that are part of not running away from reality into an idealization. You know that it’s not just your being holding things, but it is also what is holding you in the wider context of relations that is strong enough to hold you and to hold what comes. This kind of Faith is not a Faith of belief, but a faith of connection. The people I know who have this kind of Faith – in the intelligence of the Land, forests, medicines, other animals… – they trust and nurture their connections on a daily basis.
We have Hope (or Hope has us) that things will be better in the future. This belief, implicit in “natural” experience of space and time, is endemic in Modernity. Progress is valued by both “capitalist” and “socialist” nations and is generally on behalf of human beings. Though this is unsustainable, we struggle to maintain the known. Thus, there are several orientations to change. “Soft reform” and “radical reform” orientations to change leave Modernity intact, whereas the “beyond reform” position develops the hospicing metaphor.
It “recognizes the eventual inevitable end of modernity’s fundamentally unethical and unsustainable institutions, but sees the necessity of enabling a “good death” through which important lessons are processed.” Not everyone will wish to take this task on at the moment. (“Only when the water is above your knees, do you start to swim.”)
GTEC: Thinking of your movement within education towards the principles of Responsibility and Accountability, the necessity of Clearing Space, I am trying to work that into what might become possible with this vehicle that is undergoing continuous development. Might there be lessons for us, in your work, as we continue to evolve as a non-Mainstream educational institution?
Vanessa: Through trial and error, and seeing what happens when a lot of people are thrown into deep water when they don’t want to go there, I developed a kind of an ethic of responsibility to warn people about what they’re getting into and give them a choice to exit before it is too late. So, there is some work being done, also with the collective, around how do we issue an invitation to deep waters because you can’t simply throw people there.
But having said that, as the water rises, there are more people looking for strategies to survive the floods. And the water can rise both outside of yourself, around you, but also inside. So, that’s the sense when normality doesn’t work, when the neurochemical cocktail offered by Modernity doesn’t work anymore to bring the sense of wellbeing that you are expecting, that’s where you start to feel the waters rising.
And then you can either perceive Modernity’s promises of progress and prosperity as broken (and want them fixed and delivered to your family straight away) or you can see them as unsustainable and violent, and open up the possibility for something else to become possible. . That’s where this work is most useful. The first time that we managed to do something in this direction was in the summer. We had a project funded for an inter-disciplinary course between Education and Land and Food Systems. We proposed a course that would not coddle the students.
We see more and more students being treated as customers and in this kind of relationship you can only give what the student is expecting. So, how do you offer something that the students are not expecting? We had to design an introductory unit where students could test the course pedagogy and then be supported in deciding for themselves whether the course was what they needed at that particular point in time.
We designed a questionnaire where students were asked to identify or not with statements like “I’m looking for answers”; “I feel overwhelmed when there are no answers”; “I feel that certain groups have the answers, we just need to listen to them.”
Then we said okay, if you answered “yes” to certain questions, you need to sit and really think about the implications of being in a course for your mental health because the course is not going to give you the answers. The course is not going to tell you that any group has got it figured out. Do you still want to do it? And you are not going to be coddled or have your ego affirmed… We told students that it would be hard in the beginning, that they would need discipline, stamina and effort, that they would be held accountable for their learning and unlearning.
And that we would not judge them if they decided that this was not the best time for this. We made the invitation much clearer, and it worked well: half of the group decided not to take the course, the other half went ahead and reported having had a deep, difficult and worthwhile experience. A gallery of their final projects can be found here.
Aware of my own enmeshment in the death throes of Modernity I sometimes flounder. Arrogance, guilt, self-doubt, castigation, numbness. If we begin to develop a language with which to understand our dilemma, might we begin to find a way forward? How might we stay with “the trouble” once that intention is formed? How do we develop the capacity to do so, and are there practices that can assist? Hospicing Modernity provides numerous “exercises”, many of which engage the reader’s sense of the multiple strands of voice of which they are composed, “the passengers on the bus.” The exercises teach through experience what the text suggests in concept. Given our conditioning by Modernity, the ability to compassionately, even lovingly, observe each of the “passengers” is very challenging, and painful.
GTEC: One of my ongoing questions as I am reading the book regards the notion of practice. The exercises, the act of “checking the bus.” I have a long history of meditation. I also think of ritual and ceremony and this notion of disrupting the “default mode of modernist neurobiology.” How do we actually begin to be able to do that? I think about kids, being wired to their screens (Vanessa: yeah), the effect of that on their neurobiology, that of the species (Vanessa: absolutely).So that notion of practice comes forward (Vanessa: mm-hm) I take people out on the land and do rites of passage work in the same tradition as Martin (Shaw), the School of Lost Borders. That is profound as it moves people directly.
You have done fasting and ceremony (Vanessa: yeah, ceremony) and the protocol of the School of Lost Borders minimizes the extent to which we would call it culturally appropriative. The whole set up is not about what you are going to get, but what you are going to give, what you are going to surrender to, and open to. Those are elements of “practice” that are really important for people who are trying to move into faith if we think about faith as being open to experience, opening to what arises. What’s your sense of “practice” altogether?
Vanessa: My conversations with Martin (Shaw) have been really useful in the difficult parts of this book. The practices that I am used to and have been initiated in are Indigenous practices both from the family I married into when I came to Canada, and Indigenous practices from Indigenous communities in Brazil. These practices require a lot of discipline in navigating the conscious, the unconscious, and decluttering those internal landscapes, so that the Land can really dream through you. The teachings all go in the direction of accountability, responsibility and the path to maturity – all very contrary to the teachings of Modernity. However, these teachings are delivered in ways that make sense in the context of these communities and may not be effective in a Western context.
For example, some of the stories that carry these teachings take 7 days to be told and if you have been over-socialized within modernity, you won’t have the stamina to listen attentively for that long, or the cultural literacy to interpret the pace, the rhythm, the silences and the changes of tone in that story, or the ability to sense the multiple layers of meaning and movement that the story evokes. At one point, I realized that my role in the field of education was to create experiences that could translate the “compass” of the teachings I was receiving in the ceremonies (i.e. calls to responsibility, accountability, discernment and maturity) in ways that could “land” and move things in non-Indigenous contexts.
The aim of these exercises is to move people to embrace responsibility, accountability, discernment and maturity not as intellectual choices or choices based on self-interest, but viscerally, starting in the guts – the guts change the heart, the head just follows suit (not the other way around).
GTEC: as on an embodied, somatic level.
Vanessa: Yes. And it requires an intimacy with the fact that we are nested in a wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent, which then shows you that the sense of worthlessness that is inculcated by Modernity (so that we keep participating in its economies) is a scam. For this to work, we have to develop a healthy skepticism towards our egos, who are passengers who indeed have a purpose in navigating reality, but who should not be left in charge, especially in charge of relationships and relationship building because they are driven by egocentric desires, fears and insecurities. So the book tries to normalize questions that create a meta-analytical vocabulary and psychoanalytic distance that allows you to hold space for your internal “passengers” differently.
Questions like: “Who is driving your internal bus right now?” and “Who is this driver in service of?” are examples of these types of question. Some of the questions and invitations, in particular the invitations for “radical tenderness”, which is mostly the work of Dani d’Emilia, were designed to help people to scan and sense their bodies differently and to develop sense-fullness, which is the activation of our capacity to feel part of everything else (without choosing the bits that we like) and to enable the Land to guide without idealizing it.
GTEC: Indigenous practices both point toward and embody the disruption of separation. Ceremony invites and manifests community and relationship with Land. Most everyone alive today has been shaped by Modernity as colonialism. Settler folk implicated in colonial violence, must develop a particular patience when attracted to indigenous ways, lest we perpetuate the arrogance, extractivism, and appropriation of Modernity.
Vanessa: Cash Ahenakew and I, together with Indigenous Elders in Kainai, have developed a pedagogy for students at UBC to witness a (Lakota) Sun Dance ceremony happening in Blackfoot territory. The pedagogy is described in the book “Towards scarring our collective soul wound” written by Cash. We have been taking students there for the last six years.
There is a protocol for the students to be there respectfully as they respond to the Elder’s invitation to witness. The pedagogy is one of participatory witnessing of both what is happening around and within you, and there are four things that the students need to remember as the process starts to challenge their ingrained sense of certainty, comfort, coherence and control. Number one, do what’s needed rather than what you want to do. If you are asked to help, do whatever, including cleaning the toilets, cooking, whatever you are asked to do, even if it is not what you want to do and observe your bus as you are doing it.
This disrupts your perceived entitlements. Number two, believe with rather than believe in things. Believing with is about learning to relate beyond identity, knowledge and understanding. If you are gifted at teaching, do not write it down and try telling it to other people. They are your teachings for you alone, according to where you are at. Number three is, practice reverence without “idealization”. This means when speaking with Elders, you may expect great teachings about life, but you may also be given things that are not going to fit your image of a perfect elder and that’s what it is, because holding people to a standard of perfection for humanity is actually violent towards that person.
The fourth is: when it gets hard, dance harder! The dancing can be many different things, including cathartic moments. We also tell them that when someone is experiencing an emotional catharsis, they should not wrap it in a story, just let it out and let it go. There are other types of therapy that require a narrative but this one doesn’t. So let the Land do the work for you. You can do a hundred sessions of therapy in one good cry. So we train people not to ask “why” someone is crying but to ask: “what is it you need right now?” And, “do you need me here?” And if the answer is “no”, you leave without any hard feelings. We take students there for ten days and then they come back. They have a briefing and debriefing here. But it has worked well so far and they can go back if they’ve gone once, they are invited to go back and establish a direct relationship with the community (right).
Pre-natal care of the new
GTEC: While we hospice modernity toward a “good death”, might we hope for glimpses and glimmers of miraculous possibilities that might arise? How might we be preparing the ground, individually and institutionally? Practices of care, communication, and responsibility can be undertaken. One aspect of this is the importance of relating to the south, decentering our experience as people of the north with our rampant and largely unconscious exceptionalism.
Vanessa: In the collective we use the word “hospicing” for the offer of dignified palliative care to Modernity dying as we assist with the midwifery of the new. We insist that we are not “birthing” the new (since this reinforces exceptionalism), but just assisting the Land to do it with enough care not to suffocate the newborn with our own projections and idealizations. Recently, we have started saying that, instead of assisting with midwifery, we are actually just assisting with prenatal care because the new will likely not be “born” in our lifetimes and we need to let go of the ownership of the process.
Having said that, there is a gestation coming to term at the moment that is quite exciting. It is part of a collaboration with the Huni Kui Federation of Acre, in the amazon region. The Huni Kui are guardians of the amazon forest and they have created the “University of the Forest” in their territory. Now they want to expand the initiative internationally, with the purpose of offering a form of education for people in the global north that will support the surrendering of arrogance and the recognition of the debt incurred towards Indigenous peoples and the Land.
This education would focus on our connection with the Amazon and other forests and Indigenous Land and Water protectors around the world who are putting their lives on the line to de-accelerate climate change and prevent humanity’s premature extinction. For example, one of the activities proposed is a week diet called the Amazon diet. Participants receive instructions to go for a week without meat, soy, corn or their derivatives in order to understand how consumption of these things in the global north is connected to the deforestation of the Amazon.
This is not about shaming or guilt-tripping people, but about opening up to the possibility of a different form of existence when the current system cracks: if people can see how we got here in the first place, we may be less likely to take up arms against our neighbours to protect our comforts and perceived entitlements when they are no longer viable.
H.M., p 93
About the Author
Scott Lawrance is a writer who lives in Cumberland, B.C. He has done a lot of stuff, read a lot of books, and is disappointed that the world is getting worse, but it’s still a beautiful place to get born into.