We have come, dear Relatives,
as fruits for others’ nourishment.
As hummingbirds flutter in joy
and bears rest in awe,
so we dress with the colors of the rainbow
to weave us kin together.
In community circles
Mother Earth welcomes our songs.
Here we gather until we return to Her in service.
We come to stand by each other
to sing to each other
to let the chanting flow
for each other, our kin.
It is life holy who sends us.
We come to make kin here.
I grew up in El Paraiso Coelhá (Wonderland of Flowing Waters) in the heart of the cloud forest of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Coelhá was three-quarters forest, maize, and coffee beans, and one-quarter dreams. During the day, the sun released a scent of moistened glory, lucid greening, and effervescent dynamism. It was the time for action and expansion. Nighttime was more subtle, soothing, moonlit, calm. It was the time for the mysterious and for stories.
My grandma had the gift of balance. She received it from her grandma, who got it from her grandpa, who got it from the very roots of the Earth. They welcomed both rosy-fingered dawns and storms, the same. As medicine people, they listened to the wisdom of the trees, the chants of the wind, the whims of seasons’ breaks, the gossip of the birds. They tended the Earth with the kindest care, as should be done with the dwelling of the Ancestors. Their intimate and expansive senses were fluid, almost elemental. Through them, I learned to let go into the blackness of the Earth and open to the vast brightness of the skies. In the forestland, earthen caves, and starlit skies, I learned about flourishing1 and the contemplative life.
Contemplative studies have evolved into a robust field of inquiry across academic disciplines focusing on human flourishing. The appeal of the humanistic and scientific study of contemplation is encouraging and promising. Now, we see the field thriving in all facets of life and making remarkable progress, demonstrating how practices like awe, gratitude, mindfulness, and loving-kindness promote dimensions of flourishing for individuals.
Among the notable findings2 are reducing stress, improving cardiovascular health, spiritual growth, optimism, purpose, and overall life satisfaction. Contemplative studies are transforming culture, as evident in their integration into schools, health care settings, the judicial system, organizations, and government agencies, inspiring the promise3 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to “Leave no one behind”.
The Lightning and the Rainbow
My family lineage would say that one key to contemplative living is accepting and adapting to the lightning and the rainbow. The pandemic was one of those symbolic bolts of lightning. It shed light on marginalization, historical structural discrimination, racial inequality, and exclusion at home and abroad. The human impact on the Earth became undeniable, as irrefutable as the need for compassion and caring relationships. In the past two years, impermanence became tangible. But just as palpable was the opportunity for reorientation, transformation, and regeneration.
Contemplative studies, with their interdisciplinary approach and emphasis on well-being, may offer crucial solutions4 to our current social and environmental challenges. Realizing the relationships between events reorients our responses towards growing communal benefit. However, in attaining the rainbow of feasible solutions, it is imperative to welcome the lightning that exposes serious concerns within contemplative studies.
To date, empirical studies on contemplation have only represented a select variety of traditions, mainly from Western interpretations of secularized practices, texts, and principles from Buddhism, and to a much lesser degree, Hinduism and the Abrahamic traditions. Although the field has engaged with other contemplative traditions, these studies have been scarce. In other words, the field has indeed left some behind.
Grounded in Western individualism—and due partly to methodological and statistical issues—contemplative research has largely focused inward, on individuals’ physiological, emotional, and thought patterns, as well as outcomes around well-being and physical health. The documented benefits of contemplative practice have yet to include the development of a sense of community, social ethics, and spiritual growth. The recent attention to practices that focus on compassion, loving-kindness, and service reflect this need.5
Another lightning bolt exposes the fact that the benefits of contemplative practices in the West have mainly been studied in (and made available to) White privileged audiences. This kind of appropriation perpetuates patterns of cognitive imperialism, racial injustice, and inequality.6 When imported from other cultures, contemplative approaches can lose the collectivist motivation and ethical pursuit of source traditions, often developing condescending narratives.7 In some contexts, there is a risk of spiritual by-passing,8 spiritual consumerism, extractivism, capitalization of traditional practices, and the corporatization of contemplative traditions.9
Given the loneliness epidemic, climate crises, and the imperiling of biocultural diversity,10 the time could not be better for a piercing examination of these issues, and a reorientation of contemplative studies to include neglected traditions and relational/societal themes of flourishing. The inspiring growth of the field speaks to our need in this historical moment to develop collaborative solutions to repair the damage done to marginalized groups, and the Earth.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the unprecedented ecological crisis11 is increasing precipitously in all regions, with irreversible changes endangering life on Earth. These changes intensify adverse living conditions of all populations. At COP26, such urgency moved 141 leaders to commit to restoring12 forested ecosystems. Flourishing has ceased to be a solely human ideal, and has become a global, environmental one.
Contemplative studies must also look to create innovative designs that promote well-being at a planetary level. Some of the emerging foci must turn toward societies and ecosystems that are bearing the brunt of physical changes in the climate, and the impact on the ecological health of human and other-than-human communities. Mounting research attests to the crucial role Indigenous Peoples13 can play in advancing climate solutions and the recovery of biocultural diversity. The rich contemplative practices of these traditions can enhance the reorientation towards planetary flourishing.
Mounting research attests to the crucial role Indigenous Peoples can play in advancing climate solutions and the recovery of biocultural diversity.
Indigenous peoples represent around 6% of the world’s population, and live within the most culturally diverse and enduring traditions. Indigenous lands and territories make up a third of land-protected areas, which contain almost 80% of remaining biodiversity.14 Indigenous cultures have shown extraordinary resilience against genocide and cultural and environmental destruction, as they have continued to transmit traditional wisdom, ancestral lineages, institutions, ways of knowing, beliefs, history, and spirituality through generations.
For Indigenous Peoples, who widely live in environments harshly threatened by the climate crisis and biocultural loss, learning to understand Nature is a matter of survival. My Ancestors infused my early childhood experiences with a relational identity that views the ecosystem as kin. I have found a very similar ethos guiding Indigenous Nations around the globe—while these traditions are widely diverse in tribal identity, representation, ways of knowing, and being, we share contemplative perspectives about caring for relationships and our environment. This kindred approach reveals a responsive system of belonging, imbued with reverence, awe, responsibility, and a sense of sacred interactions. We recently joined voices from around the world, resulting in a consensus15 paper describing these shared perspectives about the interwoven patterns that result in planetary health.
Integrating Indigenous and Western Science
I hope that my own work can be another way of shining light on what we may not want to see. To encourage decolonization of the settler-colonial lens that has historically excluded Indigenous Peoples and our knowledge systems, my research attempts to reclaim this space within contemplative studies. Specifically, I bridge Indigenous and Western sciences and methodologies in what I have called an “Indigenous contemplative science.” This innovative approach involves a culturally-sensitive knowledge-translation system of collaboration and complementation that can be profoundly impactful and timely for the challenges we face today.
Indigenous traditions have been tested and refined for millennia through traditional ecological knowledge16 for their benefits at the physical, psychological, relational, and ecological levels. My theory on the core focus of Indigenous contemplation is the coherence of narratives, the integration of the community into ecosystems, and the consistency of social relations. My thesis of an “ethics of belonging” involves rigorous qualitative analysis (observation, theorizing, and testing) of empirical experience and phenomena distilled in contemplative storytelling, ritual, and ceremonial practices.
Contemplative studies recognize third-person and critical first-person approaches and validate direct experience. Importantly, Indigenous contemplative practices introduce a second-person relational aspect through narrative, shared ritual, and ceremony as ways of inquiry. As the Indigenous approach is not solely focused on the individual experience but on relationships belonging to an ecosystem, I have argued that it shifts the core focus from an ego to an eco identity.
Indigenous peoples understand ourselves as interdependent, so the perception of self and world is based on responsibility to the environmental community. Indigenous contemplative practices reorient the focus to the larger systems of relationships that humans are only part of, bringing equal emphasis to self, community, and environment through keen awareness of relational networks.
Indigenous peoples understand ourselves as interdependent, so the perception of self and world is based on responsibility to the environmental community.
In welcoming the rainbow of opportunities, Indigenous contemplative science offers new insights into the meaning and pathways to sustainable, collective well-being by promoting a sense of relationality and belonging,17 self-awareness, and social and environmental skills. It does this in two ways, through what I call kin relationality and ecological belonging (see text box), neither of which have traditionally been included in the study of contemplative interventions and flourishing.
Pathways to Sustainable Well-being
Below are two pathways toward sustainable, collective well-being rooted in Indigenous contemplative science.
Kin relationality entails the qualities of interdependence, mutuality, organization, belonging, purpose, and meaning inherent in each being and phenomenon. Living and cultural forms are interrelated in patterns of mutual influence. For example, Indigenous perspectives worldwide share remarkably similar views in conceiving the Earth as a Mother and all creation as kin. Contemplative practices within Indigenous traditions cultivate awareness and orientation of kin relationality vis-a-vis all beings and phenomena, and engender gratitude, awe, responsibility, and reverence.
Ecological belonging is the realization of being part of the collective Earth system, or an awareness of being part of ecosystems and life cycles. It manifests as an Earth-based group identity through affective (compassion), cognitive (acknowledgment), volitive (responsibility), and motivational (stewardship) engagement towards life forms and the natural world. Consequently, from an Indigenous perspective, any person’s flourishing depends on environmental well-being. There is no human flourishing without Mother Earth flourishing.
These practices focus on prosocial acts and Indigenous Earth ethics that arise from actively engaging with the environment. Through these two core focuses, Indigenous contemplative science addresses two critical crises of today: the breakdown of community and resulting rise in loneliness, and the climate crisis. The integration of Indigenous methodologies and Western empirical research envisions scalable, culturally sensitive, and inclusive approaches to planetary flourishing. I believe these practices will enable millions in Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies to understand inter-subjective kin relationality and help the Earth’s restoration, conservation, and sustainability.
Yuria elaborates on the concept of ecological belonging at Mind & Life’s 2022 Summer Research Institute.
A critical note regarding working with Indigenous traditions: I have pointed at the perpetuation of appropriation, exploitation, extraction, and capitalization of Indigenous practices in Western research (e.g., psychedelic research and psychedelic-assisted therapies), which carry devastating consequences to Indigenous Nations. My work on Indigenous contemplative science follows strict Indigenous protocols of proper and respectful approach and dissemination of practices. I have worked closely with local traditional Elders and knowledge-holders who have granted access to the most relevant practices of their region for communal planetary benefit without infringing on culturally-sensitive aspects. Together, we have oriented this research towards a new generation of collaborative work on equal standing with the West respecting the ethical principles of acknowledgment, knowledge-translation, benefit-sharing, and belonging ethical principles.
Research speaks to the promise of promoting kin relationality and ecological belonging. The more deeply relational contemplative practices are (e.g., loving-kindness and gratitude), the more powerfully they produce a suite of benefits18 for the mind and body of self and others. Immersion with the natural environment has proved to be one of the most robust predictors19 of enhanced physical health, subjective well-being, and prosocial, community-enhancing behavior. More specifically, research suggests20 that interrelating with the natural environment increases parasympathetic activity, promotes stress relief, and enhances immune system function.
Indigenous practices benefit multiple dimensions of planetary flourishing towards better relationality and enhanced environmental stewardship. I encourage a broader discourse around these two foundational aspects of Indigenous traditions through large Indigenous and non-Indigenous networks. More importantly, the fruits of this approach are shared back with the source traditions and with the community at large. By advancing the study of kin relationality and ecological belonging, I hope to broaden and strengthen our understanding of contemplation and planetary flourishing, and how contemplative studies can enable our world to meet our times’ mental health and natural crises.
By amplifying and centering the marginalized voices of Indigenous Peoples, my work brings prominence to their contemplative insights as mediators of knowledge systems that respond to today’s challenges. By advancing Indigenous contemplative science, contemplative studies will also be taking steps towards the reparation of the historical-cultural genocide and erasure committed against Indigenous Peoples over the past 500 years, whose wisdom now may be critical for the survival of life.
May the guiding voice of Mother Earth, representing all beings of all directions’ expanse of earth, water, air, fire, and space, grant us the nourishment of body, mind, heart, and spirit to serve Her well. May we vow to honor, respect, and tend to the Lands of our Ancestors and the welcoming Lands we call home. May we acknowledge the beings in these lands as Our Kin. May we acknowledge and deeply bow to the rightful stewards of these Lands and wholeheartedly recognize our human and other-than-human relatives displaced and dispossessed of homes and identities. May we become the flourishing garden for all to call home.
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