Our new Inner Transition Coordinator, Claire Milne, met Ilarion Merculieff whilst visiting what is commonly known as Alaska. They enjoyed potent conversations and connection and it quickly became clear to Claire that those of us working for social and ecological renewal could learn a lot from Ilarion and the ancient teachings of his Unangan ancestors. These conversations focused largely on the imperative for us as a species to re-learn how to come into embodied connection with our hearts – and how this differs from so much of what is being taught through modern approaches to social change, spirituality and psychotherapy.
Ilarion Merculieff was born and raised on St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea. St. Paul Island is part of a five-island group called the Pribilof Islands. He is an Unangan (Unungan), Aleut, raised in a traditional way. At a young age Ilarion was initiated into his cultural role as Kuuyux, or traditional messenger for the Aleut people. Throughout his life Ilarion has acted as a bridge from the past to those alive today by focusing on traditional knowledge, wisdom and spirituality gained from culture bearers around the world. He lived on St. Paul Island for half his life and now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
“I miss community and the ocean. One day I will complete my work and live somewhere that has both,” he says. In the meantime, Ilarion continues to take what he knows to the world, wherever he is invited. “I don’t go where I am not invited,” is a refrain he frequently says.
Ilarion’s work has been broad and eclectic. His passions are community wellness, the fate of the planet and elder wisdom. It is reflected in his work on climate change, the Bering Sea and its people, and the work we humans must do to re-establish harmony with ourselves, our families, our communities, and Mother Earth. Claire asked Ilarion what the traditional teachings of his People – and other Culture Bearers, has to teach us about burn out…
Out of the Head; Into the Heart: The Way of the Human Being
I had a fully traditional upbringing where the entire village raised me. I had to spend equal time with the men, the women, the Elders, and my peers. I know that this traditional upbringing is why I have never experienced “burnout” as it is known in western society. I used to work 17 hours a day, six days a week for some twenty years and what kept me centered and “in the flow” was what my people, the Unangan (Aleut) people gave to me.
The Unangan people are taught to live according to laws that have guided Unangan thought and behavior for millenia. Examples of these laws include reciprocity with all living things; humility; respect for all life; honoring Elder wisdom; giving without expectation of a return to me, and more.
Such spiritual principles for living did not emanate from logic or thought, but from a much deeper source of wisdom, referred to in Unangan culture as the “heart.” When Unangan Elders speak of the “heart”, they do not mean mere feelings (even positive and compassionate ones), but rather a deeper portal of profound interconnectedness and awareness that exists between humans and all living things. Centering oneself there results in humble, wise, connected ways of being and acting in the world. To access it, you must drop out of the relentless thinking that typically occupies the Western mind.
Indigenous peoples have cultivated access to this source as part of a deep experience and awareness of the profound interdependency between the natural and human worlds. (Unlike in the dominant culture, the awareness that humans need the earth more than it needs humans has not been lost in Indigenous cultures.) If heeded, this portal provides the inner information to keep us in “right relationship” with all of life, thus ensuring our long-term survival and wellbeing, individually and collectively. When guidance or information comes from the heart, it can be relied upon and has impeccable integrity, whereas our fallible and inherently dualistic thought processes regularly deceive us.
The Womb at the Centre of the Universe
Listening to the heart gives us access to a deeper source of wisdom, “the Womb at the Center of the Universe.” A true story that took place on my home of St. Paul Island, in the Bering Sea off the western coast of Alaska, helps illustrate this point. When I was sixteen, I lamented the loss of the traditional mask-making artistry at the center of thousands of years of Unangan ceremony. I sought out Aggey, an 88 year-old Elder, whose grandfather had been the community’s last shaman. I shared my sadness at the loss of the masks. Speaking in Unangan, Aggey told me that the knowledge had never been lost. To rediscover it, I should go to the sea shore, pick up a stick and rock from along the shoreline, and beat them in concert with the rhythm of the ocean, wind, and grasses, and the sounds of the fur seals. “Get out of the head and center yourself,” Aggey said, “then set your intention and wait”.
Most people these days cannot distinguish what is of the mind and what is of the heart because we have been taught and conditioned to use logic and “reason” most of our lives. I learned that I could get “out of my head” when I was six years old. As one of the last to experience a fully intact traditional upbringing, I was allowed to walk the six miles from the village out to the bird cliffs even as a very young child. There, I could be in the midst of the tens of thousands of migratory seabirds that came to the island to breed: thick-billed and common murres, red and black-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, least auklets, crested auklets, pelagic cormorants, red-faced cormorants, fulmars, and seagulls.
I noticed how thousands of birds darted diagonally, up and down, left to right and right to left, flying at different speeds and in different directions simultaneously without ever even clipping another’s wing. In my six year-old mind, I decided that the only difference between those birds and myself was that they existed in a vast field of awareness rather than an intellectual thought process, although I did not use such words at the time. I wanted to be like a bird, so, after months of effort, I developed the capacity to maintain this state of “awareness without thinking” for several hours at a time. That was when the magic happened: I could sense many things I’d never experienced before, and my world expanded enormously.
I applied what I’d learned from the birds to what the Elder told me. Sitting on the beach, I centered myself. Without thought, I went into my heart, set my intention and waited, trusting that the answers would come. After several hours, a small black dot appeared in my mind’s eye. The dot increased until, all of a sudden, over a hundred ceremonial masks poured out of the dot and into my awareness. Mask after mask appeared, each with a completely unique design I’d never seen before. Afterwards, I wondered if I had imagined the entire thing. I shared his experience with Elder Aggey. The Elder’s response was, “exumnakoxt lakaiyah”, Unangan for “good boy”. “You touched the womb at the center of the universe”, Aggey told me. “That is where we get our teachings from.”
From then on, I understood how Unangan people had received their spiritual instructions for living, principles that had helped them sustain their communities for thousands of years. The “Womb at the Center of the Universe” was and is a source of creativity and creation for all people.
Humans are trying to deal with these issues with the mind alone and not the heart. The heart tells us to focus on making our dreams a reality; the dualistic mind (without heart) keeps us focused on the problems. Indigenous Elders ask the question: “What are you choosing to focus on? Are you choosing to focus on that which you are trying to move away from or that which you are trying to move towards?” Because, they say, what we choose to focus on becomes our primary reality. If we choose to become emotionally attached to that which we are trying to move away from – for example, if we become attached on an emotional and intellectual level to “winning the fight” against pollution and climate change– we may unintentionally perpetuate the violence we are committed to transforming. From the standpoint of the Elders, violence involves any actions, thoughts, feelings, or words that consciously or unconsciously set one person against another, regardless of how well-intentioned we are. According to Indigenous Elders, if we feel, think, or act without compassion, understanding and love, we contribute to that which we are trying to move away from. There may be short term gains, but no real long term solutions. Instead, we must take the same bold actions to protect that which we depend upon and love, but do so from a place of positive vision, intention and compassion. The Indigenous Elders say that nothing is created outside of ourselves until it is created inside (ourselves) first.
The need for balance
The Indigenous Elders say we have reversed the laws for living. In the past, we used to contemplate the mysteries of death; now we contemplate the mysteries of life, probing ever more deeply into life’s mysteries with our technologies and research. The Elders know that, even more important than a scientific understanding of how the world works is a spiritual understanding of human limits and our proper place within the web of creation. They say we need to contemplate the mysteries of death in order to fully live in the NOW with humility and respect for all living things. They say that we once honored feminine energies and capacities in the world (exhibited by both men and women, and by the Earth itself), while now we almost exclusively honor the masculine. We used to respect the Elders and now we excessively venerate youth. We traditionally prioritized process, but today we fixate on goals and outcomes. (From an indigenous standpoint, proper process always produces results that exceed individual expectations.)
In the past, we focused on wisdom and knowledge and never separated the two; now we focus on knowledge alone. The Elders know that knowledge without the wisdom to apply it correctly is useless, if not dangerous. We used to experience the depth and richness of silence in our lives; now there is noise everywhere. We used to engage in genuine interaction with a wide range of people within our communities; now we live alone or in single family units with limited interaction beyond the nuclear family. This isolation destroys relationships, contributes to mental and emotional problems, and separates us from the wider world of which we are a part. And the most significant reversal of our times is that today the mind tells the heart what to do instead of the mind following the heart.
Burnout usually results in exhaustion, cynicism, and/or inefficacy and one of the primary causes is stress, which is the body’s way of telling you that something needs to change. Either you quit the job, find ways to deal with the stress, or change the conditions under which you are operating. I prefer finding ways to deal with the stress and one way is the Indigenous way of being a real human being. It is simple. Be present in the moment, in the heart, have courage to follow what your heart is telling you, then act. It is simple but hard for most people because we are schooled to use logic and be in our heads. Our thoughts are full of deception, ego, and/or someone else’s thoughts, be it family, the patriarchy, friends, business associates, one’s religion, or school. Whatever the case, these thoughts frequently guide us in a direction we do not like. The heart, on the other hand, never deceives or guides us wrongly. It guides us impeccably. But, we have difficulty hearing the heart because the mind is interfering and we struggle as a result. When we are “confused” or filled with doubt, we are in the mind.
Re-learning how to connect with our hearts
So many of us have lost connection with our inherent source of power because we are unable to distinguish what is of the mind and what is of the heart. This is because we have been conditioned to rely on logic and “reason to formulate our knowing and understanding and to make decisions. This disconnection from our hearts means we are ultimately giving our personal authority to others because we have been schooled to accept mind-based authority outside of ourselves, and we never talk about, and rarely have around us those who model personal authority, which can come only through the heart. And when we can access this heart centre and hear what it is telling us, we must have the courage to follow its message to us – and sometimes that feels like jumping from a cliff. But when you do, you will never regret it.