Mindfulness and Aboriginal Culture by Levi McKenzie Kirkbright

24.07.19 SHARE

Mindfulness and Aboriginal Culture by Levi McKenzie Kirkbright

Koorie Youth Council

Levi smiling at the camera

Young Aboriginal people living in big cities feel as though living in metropolitan areas  prevent them from practicing those parts of our culture based on being “on country” or  “out bush.”

I grew up in Sydney and now live in Melbourne, so I feel the tension between connecting  to nature and the necessity of living in the city for my Western education and career. However, this tension is also an opportunity for young Aboriginal people to explore new  forms of cultural practice while living in the city.

An essential value of Aboriginal people is connecting to country and each other.  Mindfulness originated from spiritual practices in places like India and Japan, especially  in the various schools of Buddhism. In recent decades, European and North American  psychologists have adapted and secularised mindfulness as a therapeutic tool for disorders such as anxiety. Beyond their use for assisting people with their mental health or spiritual exploration, meditation and mindfulness are also new frontiers for Aboriginal people to practice culture in non-traditional contexts. (The terms “mindfulness” and  “meditation” are not strictly equivalent but will be used interchangeably in this article.)

I facilitated two Yarning Circles at the 2019 Koorie Youth Summit, the annual  Summit for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people living in Victoria. Two young men attended the mindfulness-based yarn twice, forgoing the opportunity to participate in another session. And one young woman reported in her feedback that it was the most impactful session for her during the entire Summit. So how can meditation be mixed with yarning circles, and why did this first attempt have such  positive effects?

a group of young people meditating in a circle
What is a yarning circle?

A yarning circle is when a group of people have a discussion sitting in a circle with  assumed or agreed upon cultural protocols to ensure a safe and open discussion.  Yarning circles are becoming more common at Indigenous events because they  facilitate for two-way sharing of knowledge and diverse perspectives. And yarning  circles are designed to minimise the perception of power and status differences  between people, as they are circular and everyone sits at the same height.
We spend so much time talking with other people and talking to ourselves in our heads. But we rarely slow down and share silence with other people, especially at conferences  and events. I was interested in finding out how sharing silence and guided self-reflection through group meditation would change a yarning circle.

My journey with meditation

I first dabbled in mindfulness and secular meditation in 2015 after having panic attacks while I was changing careers from clinical medicine into software engineering. However, I did not seriously start meditating with any regularity until 2018, after three family deaths and going through a separation at the end of 2017.

I have struggled with anxiety since I was in my undergraduate degree. And, over the last  two years, I have had recurrent depression after two deaths in my immediate family. Mindfulness has helped me manage these challenges by developing self-awareness of my emotions, thought patterns, and internal narratives. Meditation has taught me to make space between “myself” and difficult emotions or toxic thought patterns. As you get better at creating space, you can be with your feelings without acting on them, getting sucked into them or pushing them down. As such, over time, regular meditation has helped me approach difficult emotions, therapy, and interpersonal conflicts with more calm and clarity. But, if meditation is so good for you, then who are the world’s best meditators? And how much could we learn from them? Buddhists have been practicing and refining the art of meditation and mindfulness for 2,500 years. So, I recently began exploring Buddhist meditation, including attending group classes to learn a practice called Mēta, or “loving-kindness meditation.” And I plan to attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat to learn another Buddhist technique called Vipassana, or “insight meditation.” What would happen if we were to borrow some of  these ancient Buddhist techniques and use them in a yarning circle for young Aboriginal  people?

Mindful yarning circles

The specific technique I introduced to the participants was one that I use for myself occasionally, that I learned through the Headspace guided meditation app. After following the breath for a few minutes and allowing the mind to calm down, you ask  yourself a question. That’s it! Well, not quite. You should ask yourself in the third-person, not the first-person. This way, you create emotional space between the part of yourself that asks the question and your internal response. So, after allowing everyone in the circle to settle into the silence, I “dropped” the question they should ask themselves into their meditation.

After asking the questions of ourselves, we allowed our internal responses to bubble to  the surface and let them be without denying, judging, or criticising them. I then invited everyone to share their feelings and reflections. We did two meditations of about 10 minutes each time. Below are the questions I asked the participants:

Meditation 1:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Who do you want to become?

Meditation 2:

  1. What does “responsibility” mean to you?
  2. What is your cultural responsibility?
  3. What responsibility are you ignoring?

The two sessions struck a chord with participants, and the discussion that came out of  the meditations was calm, insightful, and very considerate. However, it was also an  extremely vulnerable space in which participants shared intensely personal reflections on their lives, culture, and family. Given a safe and supportive environment, each person is an often untapped wellspring of insight and reflection. The young participants grappled with these questions so profoundly and personally, then extended compassion and understanding towards one another, despite extremely diverse and diverging responses.

Facilitating this “mindful yarning circle” was humbling, thought-provoking, and  educational. For those considering blending mindfulness with group discussions, I  highly recommend at least a brief meditation before starting to calm the often nervous energy that precedes yarning circles. Integrating meditation techniques into a yarning circle gives people time to quietly engage the topic before interacting with and being influenced by other people.

Ancient Culture, Modern Practices?

I was thrilled to be given a crash course in Uncle Jamie Marloo Thomas’ Wayapa Wuurrk at the Summit. Uncle Jamie is a respected cultural knowledge holder of  the Peek Whurrung Gunditjmara and Gunnai people. And Wayapa Wuurrk, “Connect Country” in the languages of Gunditjmara and Gunnai, is a contemporary form of connecting to Country resembling Tai Chi. The practice teaches Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (and non-Indigenous) about reconnecting to traditional culture and knowledge for respecting Country, Culture, and Community.

Secular meditation can be taught and understood without invoking the metaphysical assumptions of other spiritual systems, such as Buddhism. As such, Aboriginal people could adapt mindfulness to develop the cultural strength and emotional health of our young people. For example, could visualisations-based meditation techniques used in Western psychology and Eastern spiritualities be used by metropolitan Aboriginal people to feel connected to Country from their apartment in the city?

Young Aboriginal people need to be empowered to own, express, and practice their Aboriginality in modern contexts, from the city to the campus and from the home to the office. As such, we need to develop contemporary ways of keeping our ancient cultural values alive in 21st century Australia, such as learning Wayapa Wuurrk or running a mindful yarning circle. Meditation is fantastic for people’s emotional wellbeing, it’s accessible, and it’s easy to learn. Adapting mindfulness to our context is a promising approach for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to stay culturally connected and emotionally resilient while walking in two-worlds.

Levi is a proud young Aboriginal man with ancestry from Gadigal, Yuin, Worimi, Biripi, and Gamilaraay, and he belongs to the La Perouse Aboriginal community in Botany Bay, Sydney. Levi moved from Sydney to study in Melbourne and is a tech wiz with a Masters in Software Engineering.Levi McKenzie Kirkbright is the 2019 YACVic Young Thinker in Residence, with sponsorship from Koorie Youth Council.