I’ve been fascinated by Aboriginal culture all my life. Although I wanted to learn, I never acted on that fascination and sought out Aboriginal people, partly because I felt that as a white Australian I had no right to intrude on a heritage to which my culture has done so much damage. And I guess I wasn’t ready to hear the message, until now.

Frank smoke(4)

I was privileged to spend the weekend with Frank Ansell – a traditional indigenous healer (nungkari) and lawman of the Eastern Arrernte desert country of Central Australia. Unusually, Frank openly shares some of his ancient wisdom in an attempt to create a bridge of understanding between our cultures. His grandfather gave him permission to teach some of what was previously secret, so that non-indigenous people might develop a more sophisticated sense of the gifts Aboriginal culture offers as a counterpoint to Western culture.

Well actually, those are my words. According to Frank, his grandfather actually said “you go and teach those white fellas something about Aboriginal culture, or they’re going to kill us all”. So the stakes are high for Frank, because his people’s survival may well depend on his success.

I sensed Frank might be able to help me work through my distrust of nature and the fear of living in my own body. I hoped he might have some techniques to help me become more present. And I thought perhaps he might hold the key to simplifying spiritual practice, so that it could become less structured and separate – more like a dynamic and ongoing movement towards life.

What I learned from Frank this weekend I can’t really capture using language. So what I’ll say is that I got everything I thought I wanted, plus a few surprises. I loved that he taught us how to be our own shaman. I didn’t expect to discover that simply repeating “I am awesome” three times will strengthen your aura and feel great (try it yourself). I didn’t know Frank would be so cheeky, self-effacing and optimistic. And I didn’t anticipate a significant healing of my own ancestral line… but with a little 1:1 help from our co-facilitator Andrew, that’s what happened.

“Call in your male lineage” he said. “Call in your father’s line”. And they came – my father and his father and his father. And then two more came – the first of the line, the brothers who came to Australia in the First Fleet.

All I knew about them was that they had acquired land and become pastoralists, founding the two Australian branches of my father’s English family tree. But I knew enough about the history of colonialism in this country to understand that the land they acquired must have been occupied by Aboriginal people, which means at some point they must have used force to get and/or keep the land. I’d felt the guilt, without knowing its origin or explanation, since I was a small child.

So the brothers came and stood either side of me. As they appeared, a line of Aboriginal grandmothers stood in front of us. I heard the words “don’t take the children”. And then I felt it – the grief of a people who’ve lost everything they held most precious. They lost their land… and with it, their source of spiritual nourishment, their source of food and shelter and the foundation of the oldest continuous cultural tradition on this planet. They lost their children… and with them, the kinship system that ensures everyone feels the security of belonging. And perhaps most significantly, they lost their dignity and self-respect… and with that, their will to live. This is what it feels like when the Earth herself has her heart broken.

In response, the brothers poured out their guilt and remorse and regret and shame. It came through my body as I heard them say the word “sorry”, over and over and over again. I wept for them, as them. My tears were their peace offering.

Incredibly, I felt the apology accepted. The flow of energy shifted from grief and shame to gratitude… and then it started flowing towards me. From both sides, I heard/sensed my role in the healing: this kind of trauma cannot be healed in spirit, so it has to be faced and transmuted within the body of someone who is in physical form on this planet. Perhaps this is what Frank means when he says “you are your own living ancestor”.

A few weeks ago, I had asked to be shown how I could help heal the broken heart of my country. My prayer was answered with a clear directive to focus on healing my own heart first… because in so doing, we heal the whole. And I felt humbled by what I’d witnessed – I have never before encountered the generosity of spirit I felt from those grandmothers, who had been stripped of everything and forgave my ancestors anyway.

I want to believe that our ‘more advanced’ Western culture will some day be capable of this depth of forgiveness… and I felt a surge of empowerment as I realised the contribution I can make and the service I can give. I can speak to people – especially women – who, like me, have become separated from our true sources of power. I can tell us, using familiar language, why it’s critical we get back in touch with our bodies and the land. I can show us how we can heal our collective trauma, in and through our bodies. I can encourage us to keep moving down and in – towards the land, into our hearts and back to life. In other words, I can take what Frank taught me and use it well.

I believe Aboriginal people are the first people – the ‘seed’ culture from where all current human races originated. I also believe that if we destroy the first people, we will ensure our own destruction. We’ve almost succeeded – the old people are dying and they’re taking their culture with them – so one version of our end-of-days story is already written.

But I choose to believe it’s not too late for us to change. I choose to believe we can still decide to regenerate the ruined heart of our country through restoring our own hearts to wholeness. And I choose to believe that by listening to the wisdom of the first people, asking them to show us the way home and taking responsibility for our own transformation, we can together write a new story for our world… a story not of catastrophe and complete annihilation, but of graceful rebirth to a new reality.