A number of years ago, while working towards a Master’s degree specializing in Philosophy of Religions, I became particularly enthralled by the works of a 20th century philosopher—Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was a Harvard mathematical physicist who had taken on the challenge of making sense of the diversity of human experience in light of the findings of the new physicists such as Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg . If these scientists were correct, thought Whitehead, our whole understanding of how the everyday world worked, and our place in it, must change. We could no longer accept the mechanistic worldview that saw reality as fundamentally composed of “things” or “substances” that endured unchanged through time and space. We must reject the legacy we inherited from the Greeks and European intellectuals such as Rene Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton. Rather, we must begin to view the world as an organic process of experiential events which are fundamentally constituted by relationships. We are not “things” that have relationships, we are constituted by our relationships, as is the rest of creation. That is what quantum physics, which is widely recognized as the most successful theory humans have ever formulated, appeared to be telling us.
Well that changed everything for me. The consequence of viewing reality as fundamentally relational is that many human experiences which seem completely incommensurable with the popular Western understanding of reality can actually be accommodated! I soon realized that such a way of understanding the world is consistent with a plethora of diverse cultural traditions and perspectives that seemed like mystical fantasy when viewed through a typical Western mechanistic lens. In particular I thought it seemed remarkably consistent with what I understood to be the experience of Indigenous peoples as expressed in their narratives, ceremonies, dances, songs, and traditional relationship with the natural world. So much so, in fact, that my Masters studies turned into a Ph.D. comparing the Indigenous worldview and ways of gaining knowledge, as expressed by Indigenous scholars and Elders, with those articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy.
At the same time I was doing my doctoral research and writing, my wife Jaki was writing The Medicine Path. Her first book, Heeding the Call, documented her struggle to come to terms with a particularly moving experience with nature that did not neatly fit into her previously held view of the world as a secular atheist. It was the type of experience I would later define in my dissertation as “indigenous.” Although when applied to people “Indigenous” is one of those words that have been co-opted for a wide variety of different uses—political, economic, anthropological, sociological, and religious—at its most basic it is about “being born of the land.” Indigenous practices, beliefs, and experiences come directly from the land, developed by and for the people who live on the land. Indigenous people are those that have such practices, beliefs, and experiences. As Indigenous scholar and author Jeannette Armstrong has stated, Indigeneity is a social paradigm, not a racial or political one. It is how you live in the world and understand your place within it.
Even though I lived through those formative years, and knew Heeding the Call to be an accurate portrayal of that period of Jaki’s life, I did not quite realize to what extent that definition described her. This became abundantly clear however, when we exchanged our book and dissertation manuscripts for our usual round of editing—me with her writing and her with mine. We were both surprised and a bit shocked to discover to what extent I was philosophically explaining her actual experience of the world!
Once Jaki had come to terms with that first indigenous experience, her life and healing practice took on a whole new dimension. From that point on it seemed like a day didn’t go by that the lives of her clients weren’t transformed in some way. The healings were diverse in nature—some physical, some emotional, and some spiritual—but almost all were life-altering. Although sometimes the healings were subtle, many clients left her small office in the basement with the deep conviction that, after falling through the cracks of the conventional medical system, Jaki had literally saved their lives. But that was only half of it! Because of these seemingly miraculous successes, and her growing connection to the natural world and the divine, a small community of like-minded people had gathered to learn more about this way of living. Through ceremony, ritual, and teaching, Jaki was also reaching out to others who felt the need for shared community with each other, creation, and creator. More lives were transformed, if in a somewhat different manner than with her regular clients. What had become increasingly clear was that her whole life was ceremony, whether in her clinical practice, her personal meditations, or her connection to her community, both human and non-human. All of this was possible because of her profound relationship with a mountain, and through the mountain, the rest of creation. She had surely become Indigenous.
This then was what we both realized as we read each other’s manuscripts. Jaki was relating her experiences, her ways-of-knowing, and the often dramatic consequences that stemmed from her deepening relationship with the natural world, while I was philosophically attempting to interpret and explain a relational worldview that could accommodate such a life. I believe we were both successful. The substance-based model of reality the rest of us take for granted, despite our own quantum scientists increasingly finding it inadequate, has placed both humanity and the earth in peril. It does not accommodate many of our most fundamental experiences, it does not serve those who are wounded and require healing, and it has brought the world to the brink of ecological disaster.
Jaki’s alternative understanding is not new. It encapsulates a paradigm that the world’s Indigenous peoples have unceasingly held in trust in the face of unthinkable and relentless oppression and opposition. It is indeed “a return to the healing ways of our indigenous ancestors.” If we look back far enough we all had ancestors that related to the land in an indigenous way. By becoming Indigenous, even though she is not “Native,” Jaki represents the human re-indigenization that may be necessary for this world to survive.
The Medicine Path is not merely Jaki’s personal story. It is a vision of what this way of life and understanding can mean, and the healings that can result. Although I, as yet, do not share this path with Jaki, even though I accept the worldview it pre-supposes, I have once again lived through her latest story as it unfolded and know the efficacy of the methods she relates. No matter what imagery, narrative, or interpretation of experience expresses this relational understanding, I have seen first-hand the results of her remarkable journey. Another famous philosopher, William James, once said “The truth is what works.” If so, then this book, and the world it envisions, is indeed true.
Dr. Chris Daniels Ph.D