Towards the end of last year, I was asked to speak during a webinar about Ancient Wisdom, Ritual and Embodiment, convened by the International Association of Creative Arts and Somatic Education (IACASE). The speakers were remarkable, spanning all but one continent, yet speaking with a shared voice about the importance of respecting ancient wisdom traditions and utilizing a Conscious Creative Arts Education and Therapies Approach to support us through this time of turmoil and needed change.
In a vision quest for a more sustainable, healthier relationship with our planet, with each other and ourselves, we are reminded of the wisdom, rituals and embodied practices of ancient cultures.
One participant asked if we can benefit from traditions other than those we are born into, and my brief talk spoke directly to that question. Many readers may already know that, although I am English, I was born in Sri Lanka, then completed my schooling in the UK, before moving to Africa for my working life, in both Botswana and South Africa. It often feels like my feet are grounded in the Eastern wisdom traditions; my head in the West, through my formal education, but my heart found its calling in Southern Africa. This is where I have learnt so much about the importance of community and relationships, and shifted my inner questions from, “What do I know?” to “How can I live well, alongside others?”
The other night I watched a film called Down to Earth, about wisdom keepers the world over, and the next morning I listened to the dialogue between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Greta Thunberg. To recreate a life-sustaining world, the information we need is available; it now feels imperative that we tap back into the global wisdom traditions (indigenous knowledge systems) in order to understand our interdependence and the intimate connections that exist between us and the earth.
Ancient Wisdom Traditions
I was recently told by a traditional healer how wisdom is carried by different continents: the East holds the healing arts, the West has developed science and materialism, Africa teaches about spirit and South America understands our connection with the earth, Pachamama. For the webinar, I was asked to speak about the intersection between East, West and Africa.
My focus was specifically to discuss practices from the Buddhist teachings that have informed my own research, and their correlation with other traditions. The first 10-day Buddhist retreat I ever attended offered teachings and practices to cultivate the Four Immeasurables; desirable human virtues that are recognized in many wisdom traditions and religions globally. Pre-dating Buddhism, they were called the Four Brahmaviharas; the sublime states that allowed one to live with Brahma. In the Taiwanese Tzu Chi tradition, they are called the Four Infinite Minds. But what are they, and how can we cultivate them?
The Four Immeasurables begin with the quality of equanimity (balance and open-heartedness). This gives us the ability to open to everything, whether it is joy or sorrow. The second immeasurable is loving kindness where we wish for the health and happiness of others. The third is compassion; the sense that when we see another suffering, we are moved to engage and help. The fourth is empathetic or appreciative joy, which is the ability to celebrate and rejoice in the success of others.
The Four Immeasurables
Each immeasurable has a far enemy and we have witnessed these in the world’s political leadership. The enemy of equanimity becomes prejudice and discrimination, leaving many communities suffering from anxiety, particularly during the pandemic. In terms of loving kindness, the far enemies are hatred, anger and contempt, and these are the messages that we see polarising communities through social media. The far enemy of compassion is cruelty, while empathetic joy is subverted by envy and jealousy, and a wish to bring others down, instead of lift them up.
The near enemies are aspects that I have been exploring in myself, and also in the world of activists and changemakers. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed by the state of the world, that instead of staying in balance, we become apathetic and indifferent to the world around us. Instead of offering love, we grasp or cling, or succeed only to offer conditional or transactional love. Instead of offering compassion, we engage from a place of pity, sympathy, shame or blame. Empathic joy is replaced by insincerity and comparison with others, instead of rejoicing in their successes and good fortune.
When we practice in order to cultivate the Immeasurables, the fruits are ease, full-heartedness, tenderness and radiance. These are the qualities that I have observed amongst changemakers and healers who underpin their worldly work with a daily spiritual practice, and are willing to transform themselves, while transforming the world around them.
Cultivating these Innate Capacities
How do we cultivate these virtues, and stay watchful for their harmful counterparts?
Although they were referred to by the Buddha in the Tejjiva Sutta (part of the Pali Canon), it is only later, in the Visuddhimagga (5th Century CE) that the techniques for practising these qualities were taught. These techniques are still used today by many contemporary teachers and involve using phrases during meditation to offer the quality first to oneself, then to a loved one, a neutral person, an enemy, and finally to the whole world.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others. May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred.
These are practices I have enjoyed exploring in my own life, and have witnessed a deepening of my relationship with myself and also with others. Yet, the question I have been asking, is how best to cultivate them. Is a still, silent and solitary practice the optimum way to cultivate something that manifests in relationship? And can we use these qualities to heal our relationship with Mother Earth as well?
I have explored a variety of meditation practices during my academic research. My PhD study was on mindfulness, primarily using breath practises to return us into the body for a subtle experience of embodied awareness. Being able to return from emotional reactivity and come back to a centered place is a powerful self regulation technology, and very effective for maintaining equanimity. I have found the ability to return to what is here now, so that I don’t get taken back into memories of the past, or find myself transported so often into the future, with the anxiety that I used to experience.
To cultivate loving kindness and compassion, specific practices have been studied in the field of contemplative neuroscience. Whilst administering a brain scan, researchers asked participants to meditate on photos depicting scenes of tragedy, while making compassionate wishes, using specific phases such as, “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. The fMRI scans discovered that the neuronal activation lit up different parts of the brain than with mindfulness practices. I found it fascinating to learn that compassion activates the same part of the brain as for well-being, affiliation, and social connection. The long term consequence of this is that meditators are able to engage again and again in situations of difficulty with open hearts, whilst finding the resilience needed and the happiness resulting from human connection.
The fourth set of practices relate to joy. When I looked at the etymology of the word, it comes from gaudere, to rejoice. It is an action with a focus on the other, yet once offered outwards, seems to return to the sender. When we rejoice in the success, the talents, the achievements of others, we in turn feel a deep sense of joy. We create a circling energy of love and compassion, and the term ‘immeasurable’ suggests how the experience can expand without end. While our evolutionary need for safety and security means we tend to focus predominantly on our in-group, we can train to expand out into ever-widening groups of connection, to all humans, all living beings and Mother Earth herself.
Cultivating Joy and Holding Sorrow through Dance
Whilst I have undoubtedly benefitted from the silent sitting practice of rejoicing, I have found the most joy in community-based moving meditations, particularly yoga and conscious dance. In exploring dance forms, such as Expressive Movement and African dance genres, I have experienced the upwelling of joy in community. This joy comes from attunement; sensing into the breath and the heartbeat of the group, and allowing our own internal state to shift and to resonate with the inner world of another. Through witnessing their movements and responding, we can feel felt, and feel drawn together in relationship.
All ancient cultures use dance for healing, and for accessing altered states of consciousness. Dancers move rhythmically until they enter a trance state, the world of the ecstatic, swirling and opening into the connection with ancestors, spirits and the natural world. In this moment, they leave behind a fixed identity; healing can happen and then they return to their body and the reality of daily life. As the Zen koan goes: “A sudden crash of thunder, the mind doors burst open, and there sits an ordinary old man.”
African Contemplative Practices
In 2019, I coordinated a Mind and Life Think Tank project to understand Africa's role in contemplative practice. Mind and Life was founded by HH the Dalai Lama, and mainly focused on contemplative neuroscience research. More recently though, it has opened to anthropological and ethnographic studies to find out what gives resilience and allows thriving in other cultures. I convened a group of African contemplative practitioners and explored some of the indigenous healing practices of umgidi wokulingisa (stamping ritual), isicathamiya (the dance genre from migrant worker communities), djembe drumming, and iintsomi (story telling). For me, these practices resulted in a deepening empathic response, and an upwelling of joy in response to the indestructibility of the human spirit. For the umgidi ritual, we took on the role of another, and danced the way they would dance, sensing into the reality of another’s lived experience. During the isicathamiya presentation, I deeply felt the pain of South Africa’s past, as the rhythmic movement and accompanying story revealed inhumane working conditions in the mines, yet extraordinary resilience and group cohesion. The dance somehow held both the deep sorrow of what still requires healing, along with the profound joy that mobilizes the willingness to continue.
Dancing has opened me to the full spectrum of life’s experiences, moving beyond my limited mental cognition, into a place that is far more magical and mysterious, and where I feel deeply content, in the present moment. From this place of contentment, wanting nothing to be other than it is, joy inevitably arises.