A continent of metaphysicians – and their apprentices

James Cowan (1989 ‘Mysteries of the Dream-time: Spiritual Life of the Australian Aborigines’) has written:


“Recognizing the Dreaming as a living reality, however, demands a fundamental shift in the attitudes of everyone concerned. It requires, firstly, that the Dreaming is seen for what it is: a metaphysical statement about the origins of mankind as a spiritual being.”


Cowan’s words ring true to me. In my analysis of Warumungu systems of relationships – in which Being is signified by Dreamings – it looked to me that the concerns were about relationships of a higher order than those whose conceptions of ‘reality’ were rooted in biology or other Western notions of bodily life.


The origins of mankind as a ‘spiritual being’ however, may suggest that this event was something like the origins of some other cultural feature – say, the acquisition of cooking fire. That is, to suggest a prior condition – some kind of ‘animal’ or otherwise ‘incomplete’ level of existence.


It is far to easy, in these secular times, to ‘blow away’ any reference to man as a spiritual being. Too easy to dismiss. What brand of ‘spirituality’ would you prefer? “Spirituality” is set against materially real in these days – and thus is put in the category of ’unreal’.


In posing the issue as one which smuggles in through the back door what we are attempting to dispose of via the front door, we may fail to properly address the problem which confronts us.


Metaphysical spiritual Being


Rather than man as a spiritual being, with origins as developing out of some prior condition, what happens if we regard Dreaming as a metaphysical statement about life as an existential Being, of which we have always been.


That is, in place of a modern materialist interpretation which dominates our imaginary origins – we need to learn to see our true origins as part of life emerging as a signifying being (and that materialist means of interpreting experience are one of the means by which we signify but not one which enjoys are privileged position vis-à-vis all other contenders).


Cowan goes on to say:


“So long as the Dreaming is regarded merely an as assortment of myths that have little more than a quixotic value for the rest of Australians, then the Dreaming will always be demeaned as a metaphysical event. Men and women of goodwill, both European and Aboriginal, must begin to regard the mysteries of the Dreaming as being important in their own lives in the here-and-now. They must begin to see the Dreaming as a spiritual condition, rather than simply as a word denoting the creation-time of Aborigines. Indeed, the idea that Dreaming is an on-going metaphysical, rather than an historical event is the only way this change can be brought about.” (Cowan 1989:119-120)



While I am personally not inclined to become too ‘spiritual’ about all this, I do agree with Cowan that we need to learn to fully appreciate the great and lasting value of the high achievement of First Peoples in their comprehensive mapping of where things fit into life – and of the corresponding challenge for our comparatively simpleminded means of interpreting experience to transcend our own limitations and come up with new systems.


For me the trans-signification of life which is clear in First Peoples systems of signification demonstrates a through-going respect for ensuring that all aspects of life are categorized in their proper place. While modern Western means of categorization produce ‘things’ First Peoples Ways insist that ‘things’ must be in their proper place.


There is not a system in which a natural or material ‘thing’ has an additional message attached (it belongs in this particular niche) but, rather, a highly polished system of categorization which relates a figure or text to its generative context. This is the highest form of art.


Categories within such systems operate on a higher level – one which respects a host of existential factors of the kind modern science insisted on being jettisoned (in order to better understand life!).


Naturalism is a cultural code which seeks to strip other messages away from our means of interpreting experience.


Life as lived, on the other hand, went in completely the opposite direction to that of the parlor games of modern science. It is crucially important that we relate to the rest of life with systems of signification which do not systematically make a mockery out of the whole of life.


In agreeing that First Peoples Ways can be viewed as the collective work of countless metaphysicians (acting as eco-wizards when restoring balance was called for) the way is not necessary opened up for New Agers to assume they can simply embrace First Peoples as kindred spirits.


Acts of cultural partnership presume that relationships are underwritten, and produced by, genuine systems of reciprocity – that is, the balanced exchange of ‘things’ of real value. Expropriating Dreaming runs contrary to the spirit of cultural partnership. Inserting oneself into the position of expert in indigenous Dreaming knowledge is not the way to go.


Rather, re-balancing life carries ‘lesser’ roles. Learning from life’s masters is one such role.


One aspect to the task at hand is to enable and empower those who – as a result of choices made by life itself – have come to embody Dreaming knowledge and law.