How Colonization Tames Us All (and how to get free)
Someone asked me the other day, “If you were to succinctly summarize what you do with people, what would you say?” I thought for a moment and said, “I help them rewild.” It’s true, if I look back through the coaching, the EQUUS Experience work with the horses, the online courses and classes, there is one thread running through all of it and it is this: to create conditions for people to discover their undomesticated selves. To disrupt the colonized conditioning of their hearts, minds and bodies, and fling open the cage door for them to live another way. To be free, fully alive and joyful.
What do I mean when I write about ‘colonized conditioning’? Some time ago I wrote an essay called Fragile where I described at length the impacts of colonization on humanity. Mostly we think of colonization in a limited framework of settlers’ dispossession of indigenous peoples and their systemic use of slavery to build their empire. We may think of its social impact like race and religion.
But I think few of us realize the far reaching and ubiquitous nature of colonization and how it has shaped our brains in daily life. How we — each and every one of us — have been systematically brainwashed and domesticated away from our true nature, and towards compromise, mediocrity and sameness.
Colonization operates by creating a fundamental split. The split creates a belief in separation and disconnection. The separation creates fear. From fear we tame ourselves into ‘staying safe’. It separates and disconnects through simple binaries expressed conceptually through language — good and bad, right and wrong, God and not God, heaven and earth, success and failure. If something is not good, then it is bad. If something is not right, then it is wrong….you get the idea.
A colonized brain has a hard time wrapping itself around inclusions and paradoxes such as ‘and / and’…someone is good and bad, a project was a failure and therefore a success. Our brains have a hard time working around or finding reframes inside of established labels, for example, that a catastrophe is a blessing, or that heaven is earth.
Just notice in reading the previous paragraph if your thinking balks, stutters or has trouble processing any of the above examples. Or if your mind goes blank. That’s because language — and the values we attach to language — has shaped your brain.
In my book Flying Lead Change I wrote about how most indigenous languages reflect a different relationship to existence. While the English language is noun-based and abstracts integral parts of our environment (making them into things that can be viewed as separate from the rest), most indigenous languages are verb-based, animating a thing into its complex, dynamic being, inter-relational with other beings.
Author and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science Robin Wall Kimmerer states that in her native tongue of Potawatomi, the word for hill literally means “to be a hill.” Similarly, red is “to be red” and bay is “to be a bay.” Her language acknowledges and reinforces sentience, as well as shifts the relationship to time — something is becoming over time, rather than a static object in it.
Colonized thinking calls Kimmerer’s language quaint or primitive and therefore unevolved or insignificant. However no language anywhere is primitive. Her language (and many other languages around the world) is uncolonized, and therefore free and vastly more accurate in expressing the existential landscape.
Pause for a moment here…and look out your window, or look out from where-ever you are right now and regard a tree or a plant or a cloud in the sky. Now suspend your labeling and instead of seeing a ‘tree’ see something “tree-ing” or “being a tree”. How does that shift your experience of that being? Of your being? Of your relationship to that being?
With our right-wrong, good-bad, I-other, us-them, language comes the powerful sticky glue that keeps colonization intact: shame. Once we are made afraid by the colonized split, then we can be shamed into staying ‘in line’. If you are not good, you are bad. If you are not one of us, you are one of them and therefore an outcast. If you are not right, you are wrong. Reflect on your early childhood and the ways you were systemically domesticated — colonized — to fit into what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘successful’ by how you were shamed for being ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ and ‘a failure’.
Shame keeps us bound, like a tiger in a cage, inside the constructs of colonized world views, by threatening us away from that which would render us free. “You can’t go on that trip, you’d let down your team.” “Who are you to write that book? You’d fail and look like an idiot.” “Don’t speak that truth, you’ll offend someone.” “Don’t set that boundary with your mother; good daughters are kind.” “Guard your heart, or you’ll be hurt.” Shame is a sticky, fibrous web whose strands and filaments wrap themselves around and within all that we do, think, say
…and especially what we feel.
Feelings and emotions are the ultimate target of colonization. We are told what to feel, when to feel, and how much to feel it. In some instances, feeling at all — especially for men — is not cool. Why are emotions Public Enemy #1 to colonization? Because emotions are where we are most authentic, alive and free.
The experience of feeling is what makes us human. The infinite rainbow spectrum of weather patterns that gloriously show up in our body as sensation and emotion offers a cornucopia of existential aliveness and intelligence. Colonization cannot tolerate such unfettered expression. To do so would ensure its extinction because feelings allow us to experience and act on the outrage of injustice, the unparalleled joy of authenticity, the devastating grief of loss, the cell-exploding ecstasy of falling in love, the uncompromising yearning for freedom.
For colonized thinking to stay alive, something must be good. And something must be bad. This includes feelings. Happiness, for example, is a ‘good’ feeling. Anger is a ‘bad’ feeling. From the time we are tiny children, we are systematically taught that feelings are to be tamed and corralled — especially the ‘bad’ ones. How are we taught? Through shame. Shame on you for acting like that. Shame on you for being angry. Don’t cry. Wipe that look off your face. Snap out of it!
Enter what I call the Spiritual New Age Industrial Complex…also a product of colonization. The Spiritual New Age Industrial Complex rakes in billions of dollars a year commodifying peace, i.e., the new ‘good’. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, it masquerades as ‘freedom’ when it is merely vanguard of colonization sent in to numb us into submission. As long as there is something to heal, fix, reprogram and transform then the racket ensures its economic stability. It needs a ‘bad’ to make good, a ‘wrong’ to right, a brokenness to heal.
How many billions of dollars a year helping people to transform their anger into calm, their despair into gratitude. I would argue we really need our anger and despair right now. You see, you can’t selectively numb out emotions. You can’t quiet the rage without diminishing the joy. You can’t quell the jealously without killing the serenity. Everything just starts to flatline. Flatlining is a symptom of domestication.
True spirituality does not tame the spirit. It radicalizes it. And then it calls the spirit forth to serve in the liberation of humanity from oligarchy, consumerism, fascism, conformity, fundamentalism, and oppression in all its forms.
“I have seen, over and over, the connection between tuning in to what brings aliveness into our systems and bring able to access personal, relational and communal power,” writes adrienne maree brown (yes, lower case), in her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. “Conversely, I have seen how denying our full, complex selves — denying our aliveness and our needs as living, sensual beings — increases the chance that we will be at odds with ourselves, our loved ones, our coworkers, and our neighbors on this planet.”
In these times when we are collectively facing climate change, school shootings, undemocratized artificial intelligence, viral variants, a disappearing middle class, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the dissolution of the American democracy, we may be wondering, “What of any substance and impact can I do?” I believe the answer is simple. Decolonize your mind, body and spirit. Become so free that just your being here on earth is an act of rebellion and liberation.
And where does one start ‘becoming free’, you might ask. Create room for joy, wholeness, sensuality and aliveness (and less room for compromise, oppression, repression, self-denial and unnecessary suffering). Start with your feelings, right here and right now — feel deeply the outrage at school shootings, experience with every inch of your skin unashamed love and sensuality, dance with unfettered silliness and joy. We have to be brave — really brave — to open ourselves to fully feel again. To be a revolutionary is to support others to be brave also and create community, a common-wealth, of an abundantly feeling humanity.