How Just One Rule Changed My Life: No Questions Allowed

My unexpected participation in an Aboriginal ritual in Australia — Part 1 of 3

Photo by Fiona Morrison on ABC News

I was sitting on the sofa in my pyjamas, when my girlfriend came home. Well, what’s so unusual about that you might ask? But I think you will drop the question when I tell you it was 6pm and I had been sitting there since she left for work that same morning. This was just after I had completed my two year assignment as a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan and I was in-between jobs. Though I am not sure if this phrase actually even applies since I did not have another job lined up at that point.

Working in Afghanistan was challenging and it was rewarding. It was adrenaline-inducing work with a lot of dilemmas, learnings, and the subjective feeling of contributing to an important cause. Being a humanitarian worker is arguably one of the most rewarding while exhausting professions you can have. It is a constant drift between realities. Back then, I struggled with the transition into the so-called normal world, which is a term that has since become quite misleading to me.

I, as meanwhile had become standard, started to fill my days with browsing the internet. In between meaningless videos on YouTube and Facebook – I still had a profile back then – I was looking for inspiration until one day I found something that was to change my life, only it would take a while for me to understand that. I came across a site that read MAWUL ROM — traditional leadership and mediation training. Being a trained mediator and having a passion for working with conflicts I thought that sounded like something for me, particularly as it was on an island North of Australia with an Aboriginal community. Despite being way past the deadline, a concept towards which I still don’t generally have strong feelings anyway, I sent my application and thought that at least I had done something and could not be blamed for just sitting around on the sofa the whole day.

To my surprise I heard back quite quickly with the news that they were delighted to have me and that they looked forward to seeing me on the island a few months later.

The unexpected guest

After what felt like forever, I finally boarded the small propeller plane that took me out to the very small island an hour north of Darwin… which is also when I realised that I was not supposed to be there at all. I was the only non-Australian who attended the program and it turned out they had made a mistake when screening my application and not read carefully where I was actually from. Well, in all fairness, Austria and Australia are almost the same.

It was a privilege to be there and we were welcomed by the elders of the community where we were going to stay for the next three weeks without any idea of what was awaiting us. We were informed that there was only one rule during this program: “No questions allowed. Observe. Listen. Learn.” When we heard this, we all smiled, not knowing it would become our biggest challenge.

The first few days we got settled and met under the Ripipi tree, where elders or other representatives of the community would talk to us about different topics. It was challenging to follow at times because aside from English not being their native language, they had a very different approach to explaining things. And us? Well, being taught and trained since childhood that we should ask if we don’t understand something, we asked and asked and asked in order to make sense of things. And the answer to our growing desperation was always and without exception: No questions allowed. Observe. Listen. Learn.

The whole verbal tug-a-war of them talking and us asking had gone over three days, when most reached their limit. We were overwhelmed by impressions, which, combined with the lack of answers and explanations, led to extreme frustration. Many participants were not shy to state their dissatisfaction and their serious consideration to leave because they felt this was a waste of their time.

The magic happened

It was between day three and four when something changed overnight. I certainly felt this but also realised that I was not the only one. It was like our desperation for answers became so strong that we had to find them somewhere and there was only one place left to look, our own selves. This shift in perspective changed everything for me and for everyone else. It was one of the most empowering things I ever experienced and it made me realise how little I actually had reflected over what I thought of certain things.

From a very early age we get trained to ask if we do not know something. That is particularly true for the so-called Western world. However, we underestimate what this actually means. We get trained so well that over the course of time we expect to get the answers externally and we forget how to look in and give them to ourselves.

A perfect example is leadership. It was a term that was also a topic during this time on the island and it was discussed very differently before and after the magic happened. Initially people were asking what the aboriginal elders would define as good leadership and its key characteristics. However, when not given answers, we all had to find our own definition and this was fascinating. It was absolutely incredible to get the chance to reflect over simply the term leadership without expectations, the pressure to explain or argue for it. And it was amazing what we would find in ourselves things we had never considered. Each of us also started to share because, and this was also incredibly beautiful to watch, the need to judge, qualify and ask disappeared naturally. We focused on sharing what we had discovered and it created a natural curiosity for what others had found in themselves.

Our whole way of communication changed into an explorative dialogue that was filled with pride, confidence and curiosity, things that you usually would name in the same sentence as they all bear stereotypical assumptions and interpretations. We eliminated the implicit and underlying power dynamic that arise, when we are ask questions. Besides the incredible feeling of empowerment and confidence shared by all, it was also amazing to hear the different discoveries and how people’s perspectives differed on things. We shared like little children who had learned something new and that excitement made us realise why this was such an important concept within the aboriginal and indigenous cultures in general.

We have forgotten how it is to actually learn for yourself and not be taught. In our societies we tell rather than share. We teach rather than enable learning and we create a culture where people seek answers externally before reflecting what they themselves think about it.

I by no means argue that we should stop asking questions in general, but I learned and I encourage you to reflect over the fact that we are way too quick in asking. Sometimes it might be worth waiting for a bit and first wonder, “hey, what do I actually think about it?”

Observe. Listen. Learn.

I experienced this to be one of the most powerful learning methodologies and it would be tested when we were called in the bush and told that the ritual was about to start….more in part 2.



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