The World Transforms in Natural Intelligence

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What do you believe about how hard or easy it is to make your way in the world? What is your perception of the invitation that Being ALIVE makes to you? Could some quality of Natural Intelligence transform our relationship to the world?

It can.

Today we are going to look at how our natural, evolutionary, human intelligence has functioned and allowed us to thrive without struggle for millions of years. Let’s take a journey to Aboriginal Australia.

Every form of life is alive precisely because it is intelligent. We have ideas about the meaning of “intelligent,” but few of us have the sense of the word. For that, let’s go to it’s etymology. Etymology is not only the historical use of a word. The word etymology comes from the Greek etymos- “true, real, actual” which comes from the Indo-European esse- which means “to be” and which, in English is “is.” The second part is logos- “to speak”, from the ProtoIndoEuropean leg- “to collect.” So the etymological sense of a word is that which speaks to the true, the real and the actual. In awareness of the etymological  reality we grow in connection to that which IS.

Intelligence is a word which speaks of reality, not as some idea or opinion, but by way of a precise formula, hidden right in the word, for awakening our intelligence. It comes from the Latin inter– “between” + legere “choose, pick out, read”. To become intelligent we learn to read and to choose between. But what do we read? Aside from reading words, we can also read Living, Natural, Sensible Reality. We can make sense of the world with our senses.

What difference can this capacity to read and choose make in our lives? I’ll share an example.

Coffs Harbour Coast
Coffs Harbour Coast

In 2010 some friends invited me to stay with them in the beautiful town of Coffs Harbour, on the coast of New South Wales, in Australia. After a long flight from the U.S. and a few days in Sydney I finally landed in “Coffs,” as it’s called. I spent three months walking the land around and along this gorgeous, semi-tropical coast. I noticed stone places and inscriptions of the indigenous people. The plants, animals, and even the rocks were very different from the American and Eurasian continents I knew. I’d walk along a lush coast wondering what the Original People of that place ate, the People who knew and loved and lived and grew out of this place so sumptuously ALIVE.


I hadn’t seen any Aboriginal folks in Coffs. I wondered what happened to them. My gracious hostess had a beautiful collection of aboriginal art and paintings. I admired the tracks the painters left on their canvases. When I walked, I saw marks that the Old Ones left on the stones and I wondered about them, I felt their humanity lingering as the human complement to the whole tapestry of Beauty on the Land. I danced my mornings in the plumes of waves crashing and running into interconnected swimming holes on a big rock. I felt the love of the People for that place.

After a couple of months I found out that the aboriginal communities from along the coast of New South Wales were putting on the first Saltwater Freshwater Festival, in Coffs Harbour, on Founder’s Day. The Aboriginal peoples call this day “Survival Day.” That is the day that ships full of convicts from Great Britain dropped anchor in Sydney Bay. On that day the physical and cultural genocide of the Aboriginal people began. That was the day that “survival” entered the reality of the original inhabitants of a very anciently-inhabited land.

Few of us imagine that many of these British “convicts” were essentially convicted of the crime of being indigenous to places in the British Isles. The Enclosure Movement drove people who had been serfs and peasants off of their ancestral lands and into a city life they were ill prepared for. Desperation pushed many people into crime or into the crime of simply being poor, or “peasants,” or “Irish,” or “other.” Under conquest and displacement, survival replaces connection as a way of life.

As these recent arrivals came to Australia, they would soon do to the Aboriginal people there what had recently been done to them and their recent ancestors in the British Isles. Recently-conquered and traumatized peoples make excellent soldiers for expanding empires. Mass migrations generate populations adrift and dispossessed, not only of their land but of their ancestral knowledge. Soon, more than Irish, or English, or Australian, they become “the children of Forgetting.” In one generation, reconnection is removed from our perception of reality. The Romans understood that thousands of years ago. So-called “modern” cultures continue in the Roman tradition.

What’s lost in the process and that goes unperceived by the vast majority of us? Today we’ll find out. Let’s return to the festival the Aboriginal communities of New South Wales invited everyone to.

The festival was not about what the settlers did to the Aboriginal people, on the contrary. It was an invitation to the descendants of those very settlers to experience old and new Aboriginal realities. It was a welcome into their country, as the Aboriginal people say. There was music on the stage, traditional dance and hip-hop, arts, crafts and food, a great atmosphere and friendly, welcoming, smiling people. Having spent time with indigenous people world-wide since 1985, I have always been blown away by indigenous hospitality, even to people occupying their homeland. This was no exception.  I met some very warm and lovely people. 

Among the activities was a plant walk with Gumbaynggir elder Mark Flanders. Our guide was a smiling,

Elder Mark Flanders, Gumbaynggir, Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia
Elder Mark Flanders, Gumbaynggir People, Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia

congenial man in his fifties who led us “into the bush” along the river near the festival grounds. Nearby was a bike path that I had walked along into town just the week before. I had stopped among the plants and wondered at what a person could sustain himself with in that place. I wondered if anybody still knew how.

Here I was, one week later, having my question answered LIVE! I was delighted.

Mark Flanders led a group of about 25 of us for two hours. We’d walk a very little ways, maybe several minutes, and then sample and eat a plant. All 25 of us! It was uncanny. I couldn’t believe the abundance in quantity and flavors of food in that place and our guide’s knowledge as well as what a delightful person he was.

He showed us where edible wood boring Cobra worms hid in wet logs near the tidal river. He explained how to get them to come out by striking the bottom of the log on the ground. He described how these worms, called “jitty” in the local language, taste like oysters. “Bite off their heads, or they’ll bore a hole right through you,” he told us. Then the heads are used as fishing bait.

There were plants which, when crushed and placed in the water, cause the fish to suffocate and rise to the surface to be scooped up for eating.

Pretty soon I realized that people indigenous to this environment never looked for  food. They spent the entirety of their lives looking at  food, unlimited quantities and flavors of food! We literally walked ten steps and sampled one plant. Twenty more steps and we sampled another, but we were also surrounded by the plants we had already sampled. On and on for two hours. I couldn’t believe how the world I was in had changed in Mark Flanders’ presence.

After two hours we ended up back at the festival grounds. I doubt that we walked much more than a mile in two hours. There was, literally, food everywhere!

Before we went back to the music and food and fun Mr. Flanders said,

“Thanks for coming along. As you can see from the last two hours, ‘survival’ was NOT part of our traditional Aboriginal reality. I don’t know of any Aboriginal language that has any word for ‘survival.’ If you enjoyed our walk and the amount of plants we could eat, I’d like you to know that my knowledge of plants, animals and Aboriginal ways is incomplete.

When I was five years old I was forced to attend school, to learn English and forbidden to speak my native language. I did not grow up in the traditional Aboriginal way. So what I have learned I have only learned since getting out of high school. Ever since then I wanted to learn my people’s ways, our knowledge. I sought out elders to learn as much as I could from them.

Our Aboriginal knowledge was not about survival. Survival is not an issue to a traditional aboriginal person. A traditional Gumbaynggirr person would know all the plants and animals I have showed you today at very few years of age. But he didn’t only know about what was edible for humans. He knew what was edible for every other form of Life in that environment. He had names for every single living thing he could see in his environment. He knew the relationships of each living being to all the others in his environment, and their relationship to the seasons, the tides and the weather.

Now I’m in my fifties. I have spent over thirty years learning all that I can from elders all over Australia. I will continue to learn and share all that I can for the rest of my life. Before you go, I’d like to leave you with one thought:

If I were to live to a hundred, and continue learning for another fifty years I still will not know as much as what a ten year old Aboriginal boy raised in our traditional way would have known. Thank you for joining me today.

Those few hours I spent with Mark Flanders, as well as his parting words, gave me a very different sense of Natural, Connective Intelligence and the relationship to Life that humans evolved for. To be human is something formidable and grand. It’s an art none of us will claim mastery of, if we truly seek it. But any true, constant and dedicated apprentice of Life will know marvels that surpass the imagination of those who aren’t really interested enough to go out and seek connection, with Life.

Here was a man who wanted to know, to understand, to learn, to pay attention. Here was an example of someone joyfully and curiously engaged with life, not only the life of his ancestors, but the life around him, as well as his community. He lived the commitment to learning and to sharing his gifts in these times. This was not a man living in the past, but very much in the present, taking advantage of the cars, telephones and gadgets of our age.

But his present is quite different from the present of most people in Australia. He can connect to Life directly. He knows where his sustenance is. He knows the welcome that his world offers him and has accepted the invitation.

Most of us could not sustain ourselves in that place without clearing out all of the plants that we know nothing about and sowing lettuce, onions, cabbage and carrots in rows. Then we would struggle to keep that garden alive among insects and animals for whom lettuce and carrots are not only an impoverishment but an aberration in their environment. We could conclude that “life is a struggle for survival.” Our experience in that place would only confirm it. We might not even imagine that the plants we uprooted offered more abundant nutrition than anything we could plant in their place. Little would we suspect that perhaps the ants and insects who ravage our garden might simply be making room for something way more nourishing -not only for themselves but for us.

To “earn” a living would be an absurd posture toward Life for someone who knows where on earth he is and what Life is, not as some far-fangled idea but as connection from our Life to the Life that surrounds us. Rarely do we imagine the depths of disconnection that a lifestyle rooted in “struggling” and “busyness” reveal. For someone who’s connected, Life isn’t “earned,” it’s received, like a sacred gift that feeds not only our belly but our spirit and the whole of Life through our aliveness. We become participant. We find belonging, find home in our places and journeys.

When I walked around that country without any knowledge that I was surrounded by sustenance my sense of place was altogether different: I would have to DO something to survive there. I would have to get busy!  I could easily struggle for a lifetime, completely ignoring the greater invitation that Life is making to me. Life makes Her Invitation through Being. Accepting it means connecting attentively with what IS.

The very nature of ignorance is that we ignore that we are ignoring anything. We then paste the attributes of our own ignorance onto the world and Life. Whatever Life we evolve without knowing the welcome that Life invites us to, we would just normalize. We’d become experts in that kind of Life and draw up all kinds of conclusions about Life, humanity, etc.  We might conclude that “the land is harsh.” We never suspect that it’s our ignorance of Life and our contentment with living in ignorance of Life that we are experiencing, not “Life.”

All that we complain about reveals the long, ten thousand year road to mastery that awaits us. Maybe we’ve only got a few years or decades to travel it. Maybe after a lifetime of travel we will still be marveling at new simplicities and obviousness that had escaped us for so long and rediscover ourselves, once more, as truly just beginners. So?! Will we still take the road toward Life’s fullness, anyways? Where will we find elders who know? How will we treat them?

With Mark Flanders I had a very surprising experience of the contrast between ignorance and true, connected knowledge. Even though I had spent many decades with indigenous people before meeting him, I realized, in his company, that my view and appreciation of the land, of myself and my capacity to know my welcome in a place were still small. Mark Flanders showed me first-hand how Life’s invitation is much, much grander.

There’s more than just Mr. Flanders’ knowledge that interests me. I saw a man at play in his world, having fun, delighting in sharing a wealth so abundant and real that he could feed 25 of us for hours. I saw a beauty-full man, a true man, a treasure for his People and an elder. The beauty, brilliance and excellence inside of him was consciously, competently and care-fully connected to the beauty, brilliance and excellence around him.

Whereas a week before I saw somewhat pretty, spiny, sharp, unusual, unknown plants in that place. In Mark Flanders’ presence that same place got to be beautiful, delicious, brilliant, generous and excellent in ways it hadn’t been in my presence alone. I experienced how the world itself transforms in the presence of Natural Intelligence. Mark Flanders had opened his eyes and his heart to the world he inhabits. He had sought out elders who could guide him and connect him with Life. He set his feet on the path of becoming as naturally intelligent as the world he inhabits. His was a surprising and rare journey in place.

Dorrigo National Park
Dorrigo National Park

It was obvious that we only got a tiny little taste of his connection to the deliciousness of life. Mr. Flanders also leads such walks up in the highlands of Dorrigo National Park, a totally different ecosystem from the coastal area where we were and about 100 km or 60 miles away.

Imagine knowing your world with such intimate detail that you could walk all through it knowing that sustenance was right at hand. Imagine what it would take to know your world that well. What would you spend the remaining 22 hours of your day doing after you had filled your belly and twenty-five more? What would you notice and learn? How would you and your relatives and friends evolve in a Life of abundance and connection? Would you spend your days inventing refrigerators if you knew fresh, live food was always at hand? Or would you continue to journey further into the apprenticeship of connection that Life invites you to?

Natural Intelligence is the capacity to read and to choose our life in the bosom of Life, wherever we are, to know our welcome, to know our capacity and connectedness. It is the joy of being as ALIVE as we can.

Recently I met a businessman from Texas with whom I had the pleasure to share morning conversations while camping out in the Colorado Rockies. Every day we’d have coffee and a conversation together. He had read vastly, traveled throughout the world and with deep interest in local cultures. He didn’t just have opinions about the world, he had touched Life and allowed Life to touch him. His engagement was passionate and full-on. With him I could talk about experiences that I couldn’t speak about with many others. Why? He was curious and valued learning, seeing new perspectives. He was interested and saw Life as an invitation to mastery, to realization. He had made sufficient contact with Life to discover how fascinating it is.

He traveled around the country and he saw opportunities everywhere. Unlike so many people whose attention wanes after five minutes of conversation about anything they haven’t yet seen on TV, this friend was interested.

When I talk about “Natural Intelligence” I am not talking about “a bygone era.” I AM talking about our capacity today to pay attention and to engage with Life as if the word “ALIVE” really means something. It does. Life connects. Natural Intelligence connects. Through connection we can know our welcome, once again, not only emotionally, but with consciousness and competence. Natural Intelligence is not only a matter of what we know but what we are willing to know, to be curious about, to connect with, to discover and to master. How much contact, how much passion, how much brilliance are we willing to experience IN Life?

Today I see an overwhelming number of people whose knowledge of their world is so narrow and passionless that they live resigned to struggle. It is not only knowledge that is often quite narrow and has had us stuck in survival for over a thousand years, it is also curiosity. We have a culture that breeds passive, lukewarm, spoon fed people.

This is not some mistake. It is a very deliberate aspect of the cultural transformation that follows military conquest. Local, indigenous communities of connected individuals are transformed and stupefied into impoverished and struggling peasants, employees, “human resources” (what a chilling term) and taxpayers. People who can only connect to sustenance second-hand by selling a very narrow band of skills to someone who wants to make use of us.

Empires don’t want to have to keep suppressing conquered peoples militarily over and over again. They install conquest as the cultural operating system until it becomes self-conquest, the art of being content with ignoring who we are and where we’re at. We are instructed that way. Consider an active, alive and alert 6 year-old forced to tolerate sitting in so-called “schools” where everything is learned in the absence of what she learns about. She is going to have to learn to shut herself down in order to “be successful.” We get rewarded for our ability to contain and cut off our longing for connection to the world that’s really alive. We learn to suppress our natural desire, our Natural Intelligence, the kind that grows and discovers and delights.

What good fortune to meet and learn with someone who still connects to living reality and knows it, engages with it, eating, caring for and feeding it. If we pay attention then even a meeting of a few minutes or hours can connect us more deeply, and encourage us to value and pursue this adventure of connection. This is how Life does Life.

I hear many people tell me, “Man! I would love to meet someone like that!” I watch them given the opportunity time and time again and ignoring it. It’s not the invitation that’s lacking it’s the attention and care we give to the invitations we receive that define our lives.

I consider the plant walk with Mark Flanders and I ask:

  •  Could it be that all that we complain about reveals more about the attention, comprehension and skill that remain for us to develop than about anything “wrong” about our world?
  • What is the ten thousand year journey you would be willing to set your years upon? Do you know that Life invites you to such journeys? What are you doing with those invitations?

In further articles we will be exploring qualities, aspects and contexts of this Natural Intelligence which has the power to transform our world and our way of navigating Living Reality.

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Gather Seeds, Sisters, Brothers

of Wisdom (Way-finding)

That We and Those Who Follow Us

Might Find Our Way Back to the Center,

to the Life We Are Designed to Love Living

With Natural, Connected Intelligence.

(story told with permission from Gumbaynggir Elder Mark Flanders)

©2014 – Journeyman –

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  1. Michael Ivan

    I am reminded of the grasshoppers in Uganda, where I just spent five months. Twice per year it is “grasshopper season” and for a few months each grasshopper season, the locals feast on grasshoppers. Its a delicacy that they snack on all day like peanuts and even scoop onto their plates at meal time. To me it was something to escape–swarms of pests in the air, in my room and my bathroom. To them it was food–really good food. Other times of the year it was “white ant” season–same thing–time to feast. Here in Thailand, insects of all kinds are a delicacy, and are in abundance. Life can be easy when I pay attention to the welcome I feel–or don’t feel–with people and places. 2010 was the year I began to pay attention to the “felt welcome” or lack their of with people, and life has been much easier for these five years since. Heroics were needed when there was no welcome, connection was all that was needed when there was a felt welcome. When I was welcome I simply paid attention to what was needed/desired by those around me, and I became a part of their ecosystem/family that they also wanted to give to and care for. Even with clients now, I notice the presence or lack of a felt welcome and invitation for me to show up powerfully in service or not–and if not, I have the wisdom that we’re both better not doing business together at the moment. Heroics in the face of no welcome can mean stress, frustration, struggle. In the face of a deep welcome and invitation, no heroics or struggle are necessary. This is noticing the felt welcome and such is the beginning of a long journey that still brings wisdom and guidance and abundance in my world. Thank you.

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