What I Learned About Dealing With Conflicts From The Aboriginies

Thomas Lahnthaler
Oct 7, 2020 · 10 min read

My unexpected participation in an Aboriginal ritual in Australia — Part 2 of 3

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Photo by the author

About a week had passed since I first stepped foot on the small island an hour north of Darwin, Australia. We, 30–40 white Australians and me, had been challenged to our limits by following the only rule presented to us: Do not ask questions. Observe. Listen. Learn.

Magic had happened for us all by actually realising that this rule allowed us to not be dependent on others’ explanations. It also presented us with an opportunity to find out what we were thinking about various subjects, topics, and how we would answer questions we brought with us or that arose during our stay on the island. This was incredibly empowering and completely changed the way we communicated.

Instead of debates with the aim to present your own point of view as the truth, we engaged in explorative and curious dialogues with the aim to find out what the others had discovered in their quests for answers. It was fascinating to hear what they had found within themselves and how they saw the world. This gifted us with different views in addition to our personal perspectives, which would contribute to our own realities and enrich the way we looked upon things.

While the first three days were among the most frustrating I have ever encountered, this change of perspective led to an absolute high. It was a period of joy and growth and little did I or any of us know that it was just the beginning.

We came to the island to experience a ritual about which we knew nothing whilst also not knowing we would be key participants to it, and that the first week, the initial lectures, the empowering self-discovery was but a foundation for what was to come. During this time we also very excitedly built a structure in the middle of the village, which presented a sacred symbol to the tribe and it was to reveal itself as the core of the ritual planned for the coming days.

Leaving the comfort zone

It all started with an unexpected call for us, males and females separately, to meet in the forest area — the bush — that surrounded the village. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the elders and given little to no explanation of what was going to happen other than a clear message to get undressed.

Meaning: take off everything.

We were then given a little brown cloth without any guidance or idea how to use it, except the information that we could cover our intimate parts with it. We (sort of) figured it out eventually and the different creative solutions were highly entertaining.

I remember the inner turmoil about what was to happen and tried to look around for advice, but it seemed everyone felt the same way and was preoccupied with themselves. I could see the exact same uncertainty and insecurity I felt inside myself in the few other eyes that met mine, with answers nowhere to be found.

As with all moments when you are stressed having to complete a number of tasks that you do not fully understand, time flew and uncertainty turned into panic facilitated by an external increase in urgency. We were then told to collect branches from bushes to put in our cloths and to paint each other with white stripes. All this was to only make sense afterwards as at that point we had no idea what was to await us only a few minutes later.

With all the chaos and movement around me, I realised only late that rhythmic singing had started outside. It was a melody and rhythm that when you finally notice, it enters your system and doesn’t leave. I hear it now, while writing this eight years later, as if I was still there in the bushes. We would learn intensely over the following hours and days the origin and how important the songs were for what was to come.

An invitation into the most sacred

Suddenly we were then rushed by one of the older men of the community to get in order and get ready. We still had no idea for what exactly, until he told us in a few words that it was time for the ritual, that all villages had gathered, that it was the annual highlight and one of the most sacred rituals, and that now it was time for our participation.

We were told to observe, listen, and learn and remember to become one with each other and the rhythm they clapped. We were told that the spirits were with us and that they were watching us with the intention that we made them proud, honoured their memory and the whole creation. And with that, he left. No pressure.

When we walked out of the bush, the younger boys who were with us from the community started to move following the rhythm. It was fascinating and all I wanted to do was watch how their feet seemingly did not touch the ground despite following a very clear set of steps and movements. Only I couldn’t because I was supposed to do the same. I remember clearly that I was quite far ahead when we came out and only then it dawned on me what he had meant by all villages; all people on the island and visitors from the mainland were there.

I learned later that the audience was between 500-2000 people a day over the course of five days. The wide field was packed with groups of people sitting and watching us in anticipation. At this point I also noticed where the singing came from as a seemingly never-ending stream of women participants to the ritual made their way out of another area in the bush all moving towards the centre.

The centre, where our way would also lead us many times over the coming days, was what we had built in previous days without really knowing what we were building. It was the sacred eye and core of the ritual. It was a large figure made of small branches we had dug into the sand resembling in shape to a gigantic surfboard with eyes on it. It symbolised the eye of the earth, the origin, the beginning, and the end. It was beautiful and I, right there and then, understood why we had had to keep it clean and meticulous in the build-up to this day.

Whilst I really wanted to inhale every moment of this scene, study every detail and learn all there was to learn, I was not there to do that. I was there to join and become one with the boys that were leading in the first rows. Moving around the representation of the creations and representing what I learned were the spirits and ancestors moving through the creation. It was honouring those who had paved the way for us to be there, their wisdom and their guardianship and paying respects to their lives and achievements represented through the white stripes on our bodies.

That is when I realised this was something so extraordinary that it would take me and all other non-aboriginal participants years if not longer to understand how privileged we were. It was an invitation into their most sacred ritual and they not only allowed us to observe but also let us be part of it.

Unspoken, we all understood that this came with responsibility and was not about us as individuals. In line with what we discovered during the first week, it became so obvious to me that this was all about being part of something bigger. That we are just simple and extremely small elements of something much bigger and the following days would illustrate in a brutal and exhausting way how difficult it is to be part of something big with everyone contributing their part to make it work.

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The dance with me in the center. Photo by the author

My focus and inner turmoil, while still there initially, started to slowly turn into excitement, curiosity, and determination. Our procession moved slowly forward and it was impossible to look around and still follow the dance. We kept getting comments from those watching but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Some people laughed but none of us did. We were neither angry nor serious. We were focused to precisely follow the steps of the young men in the first rows with the singing being our guide.

When we reached the centre we walked up to the three community elders who had placed themselves at one tip of the symbol and were greeted in their language. Nobody translated and no-one asked for translation because we were guests and understood that these words were not for any one of us but for the spirits and ancestors.

The three elders and some of the men around them then started to clap a different rhythm on small wooden instruments and singing with them. And we followed the younger boys who moved towards the other end of the symbol. Once there, they turned around and started to dance a different and more intense dance in synch with the clapping, which we also tried to follow. The aim was to be completely synchronised and we found out the hard way if we weren’t, because the elders would comment with a mix of mockery and laughter before starting the same act all over again, the signal that we were to try again.

However, being synchronised was not the only goal as a young boy thankfully whispered to me when we returned to the starting point after another unsuccessful attempt. We were also to show ourselves in the front rows. This, in my interpretation, symbolised the ability to lead and not only follow. It demonstrated that you didn’t need to observe and learn the steps anymore but that you knew them and were able to show others. What they wanted to see was a competition for the first row spots rather than a group of men hiding behind young boys from the community.

Only if they were satisfied with our performance, synchronisation, and how we showed ourselves, they would change the rhythm, which resulted in a different dance, different steps, and different movements. While the elders would sing and clap, we were surrounded by a long row of women singing the original song and the audience of hundreds of people watching us. Yet, I did not notice any of that. The hours passed by like minutes and the only thing that made me realise how much time had passed was the increasing pain in my legs following yet another attempt at synchronised dancing.

Resolving conflict in the silence

Initially, some of us would make slight comments, hiding embarrassment behind sarcasm about how we were ridiculing ourselves and how we couldn’t dance, but not before long we fell silent and all that was left was rhythm, singing and our increasingly exhausted breathing from the extreme physical and mental challenge.

And so we went through the second step to the main ritual, a cleansing of our mind from distractions. Following the exchange of perspectives and empowering ourselves to trust and discover our own value systems, definitions, and world views, this part tested us on whether we would be able to keep this focus in distress, exhaustion, and unfamiliar territory.

The dancing helped us to understanding that we are part of something way bigger than ourselves, realising that our issues are important, and yet maybe not as important as we perceive them in relation to the creation around us.

It also helped us to focus, to not be distracted by assumptions about what the world around us might or might not think of us. It kept us in the moment, in the specific task with focus and determination on what was important right there and then.

Finally, it taught us not to forget that we are part of a whole system, where each plays a part, and reflect on what role and importance the issues that lead to conflict or negative feelings really have in relation to all the other parts, people, and elements around us.

For the following five days, we danced somewhere between three and eight hours a day and each dancing session was followed by a silent meal around the large eye symbol. We would eat in complete silence with the night slowly approaching and were asked to reflect on the negative feelings that impacted our thinking, feelings, and being. The exhaustion contributed to this as it was impossible to think of anything else and these issues became the only thing I could focus on.

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The final part of the ritual; Photo by the author

After the meal, in an incredibly powerful symbolic gesture, we were to give these feelings and emotions by placing the remains of the meal into a symbol, back to where they came from, the creation. This was not only powerful symbolically but also extremely relieving and effective. I walked away each day feeling lighter and more energised, with the acceptance that I had deliberately decided not to let negative emotions influence me or overshadow my ability to play my role and my part in the system.

This traditional mediation ritual is one of the most important and crucial cultural traditions of the Yolngu and other tribes who have similar rituals to cherish the creation and ensure a positive coexistence. The understanding that we are part of something bigger and that this can only really work if we all work together is a common concept among indigenous peoples worldwide, fuelled by the understanding that we won’t survive any other way.

It was an eye-opening and humbling privilege to be part of this unforgettable experience and I continue to try to honour the spirit and learnings of these days, knowing that all of this is as relevant in my every day as it was there and then on this beautiful island.

And then … I got adopted and received a new name. Next is the third and final part of this short series on my unexpected participation in an Aboriginal ritual.

Thomas Lahnthaler

Written by

Experienced international crisis leader, mediator, mentor, facilitator and speaker. Psychology geek and a little sarcastic at times.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

Thomas Lahnthaler

Written by

Experienced international crisis leader, mediator, mentor, facilitator and speaker. Psychology geek and a little sarcastic at times.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

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