Tap into your “deep spring” with transformative spiritual listening

Driving from the small city of Darwin to the community of Nauiyu Nambiyu (Daly River) in the Northern Territory is already an adventure. The roads wind and dip. Wallabies play Russian roulette with drivers. The sparseness then far rarer lushness of trees tells a novice observer where there is more water underground, less or none, even this late in the wet season.

I’m on my way to meet and hopefully talk with a woman who so many have told me, with awe as well as appreciation, “Of all Australians, she walks in both worlds.” That potent phrase, “walking in both worlds” is also used by Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann herself. Even before we have found her – after cheerful community help with our searching – it is evident that she lives it. Or perhaps it’s truer to say that her life-long understanding of white people’s world allows her to speak with quiet conviction about what those of us who are non-Indigenous could be, should be, ready to learn from her infinitely older world: from the art of the many First Nations, from her cultural sophistication, and from her unshakeable knowledge of what nature itself is trying so hard to tell.

In her January 2021 acceptance speech as Senior Australian of the Year, Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann offered an invitation that surely resonated with all who cared to listen. She said, “We have lived in this country for many thousands of years and 200 years ago we began to interact with white fellas.

She walks in two worlds: Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann at the 2021 Australian of the Year Awards in January.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Since then, we have adapted to a new way of living. We learned to speak your English fluently. For years we have walked on a one-way street to learn the white man’s, white people’s way. I’ve learned to walk in two worlds and to live in towns and cities and even worked in them. Now is the time for you to come closer to understand us and to understand how we live and listen to what the needs are in our communities. When you come to visit or work in our communities and leave your comfort zones, I ask that you bring your knowledge and wisdom, but we ask you also to learn and understand how we live and function in our communities and listen to what our needs are.”

‘Now is the time for you to come closer to understand us and to understand how we live and listen to what the needs are in our communities.’

As we grab some shade under a tree behind Miriam-Rose’s modest house, a match for every other in this long-established community, I tell her how struck I was by those words: “Now is the time for you to come closer to understand us and to listen to what our needs are …″⁣. But I do get the irony in coming closer to better understand while also needing to ask her at least some of the questions in my mind and on my notes. After all, she’s on record as saying, “The act of learning [in Indigenous societies] is all about waiting and listening, not asking questions.”

Her tolerance, though, is matched by her sideways laughing and she’s totally without pretensions. I have experienced a similar self-respecting acceptance of others in all the wisest people I’ve met in my long life. From an Indigenous Elder, it is a particular gift of welcome.

We start off with a riff of who knows who and from where and when, facilitated by my paediatrician husband who has lived and worked in Darwin and similar remote communities for 40 years, and still does. They’ve shared friends, colleagues, ideals. He also knows that I can sit close to Miriam-Rose; he cannot. Listening is complicated by a very 21st-century noise from a ride-on mower. We are indeed experiencing not one but two worlds.

Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann (left) and writer Stephanie Dowrick at Nauiyu Nambiyu (Daly River) in the Northern Territory.Credit:Paul Bauert

In this Daly River community, the 500 women, men and children belong to 10 distinct language groups. Miriam-Rose tells me with the skills of a natural teacher about the four languages she herself speaks, in addition to English. She’s highly educated, was the first Indigenous teacher in the Northern Territory, has a Master’s degree in education, an Honorary Doctorate from Charles Darwin University, and is a stunning visual artist. In that capacity she has enriched the iconography of Christian or Western religious art with an Indigenous depth of narrative that makes it singularly tender, as well as inclusive.

It’s quite late in our conversation when we look together at a photo on my phone of one of her well-known “Stations of the Cross” series of paintings. In this painting, Miriam-Rose – herself a mother, aunt, grandmother, sister, aunty to many beyond familiar biological definitions – gives us a Mary holding the body of her dead son, Jesus. It takes her keen eye to point out to us that the hearts of Mary and Jesus are one.

Detail of Stations of a Cross image – Mother and Son- by Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.Credit:Cathy Laudenbach

“Oneness” is a word Miriam-Rose has already used. So is “belonging”. And several times she has emphasised, “Everybody belongs, everybody matters. It doesn’t matter what you have done, you still belong.” It’s more than a belonging to one another. The universe she’s evoking is far larger than that. It’s a belonging to ancestors, to the future as well as the past, and it’s very particularly what she calls, “A belonging into nature”. That’s what makes place as well as people sacred. That’s what makes displacement agonising. It is also what allows us to perceive, however dimly, that the ravaging exploitation of the earth, and the climate crisis we are resisting acknowledging, are symptoms of a crippling disconnection: a spiritual crisis that’s inescapable and may be fatal.

Miriam-Rose’s profound, transformative recognition of multiple layers of belonging, both into the physical and metaphysical worlds, and to one another, makes sense of the world’s mystical traditions which are, of course, mere infant religions compared to that all-encompassing spirituality cherished and lived over tens of thousands of years. This is not about belief. It is about knowing.

As she brings our attention to the oneness demonstrated on her painting of a mother (Mary) mourning a son (Jesus) who has been tormented and hideously murdered, I am left for minutes with tears and without words. Miriam-Rose doesn’t need to point to any contemporary parallels, nor does she elaborate on many of the paintings where endurance and courage are given and received in a glance.

In an earlier painting in the series, where Jesus is met by his mother on the path as he makes his way towards his own crucifixion, Miriam-Rose shows the mother simply reaching her hand towards her son, not embracing him. “That’s our way,” she explains. “After the boy is 10, 11, 12, after the ceremonies, we’re not allowed to touch him, not allowed to sit with him.” She continues, “Some people that don’t understand Blackfella stuff, they’re always on top of you, always talking to you,” (and not listening, she’s kind enough not to add).

We have been talking for more than an hour at this point about the principles of dadirri, the spirituality which Miriam-Rose describes as known to all First Nations, yet simultaneously belongs to us all. This is not a theory or spiritual practice. It is an entire way of seeing and being. “Everybody has it,” she emphasises. “You have it. We all have it. It’s just that you haven’t been given the opportunity to discover it.”

‘Everybody has it. You have it. We all have it. It’s just that you haven’t been given the opportunity to discover it.’

Dadirri could be described in any number of ways: simplest is best. It is, “The deep spring that is inside us.” Better yet, it is the source of our inner wholeness and that belonging with everything around us. It brings non-judgmental healing, even in the hardest of times, even of our own selves. “We can call on it and it calls to us,” Miriam-Rose explains. “This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. When I experience dadirri, I’m whole again. I can find my peace in this silent awareness.”

Miriam-Rose is adamant that she cannot teach dadirri. It can’t be learned as an abstraction or from just reading about it. Like all authentic knowledge, it must be experienced. It comes as a “deep, inner listening and quiet, still awareness”. Her humour again comes to life. “You have to be open to it. And start by slowing down. Stopping to ‘smell a rose’? That’s not good enough! You’ve got to be open in your spirit. Not stopping to smell a rose then rushing off to work.” And open, too, to the equally deep truths of dadirri: that every life matters; that we belong into one another; that we live in oneness with the universe.

Stations of the Cross image by Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.Credit:Cathy Laudenbach

At the worst of times for those in her community and well beyond, when loved ones suicide or are abandoned or have lost their way, it’s the connection to earth through the deep, still, contemplative listening of dadirri that goes some way towards healing. Returning to the bush, to land and family that, Miriam-Rose “belongs into”, restores her spirit and self. It’s what some might call a conscious NOW.

“When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can find my peace in this silent awareness. Dadirri also means awareness of where you’ve come from, why you are here, where you are going now and [most of all] where you belong.”

The disruptions to Indigenous belonging don’t need spelling out. They are lived out daily by all First Nations people. A contemplative listening practice that reconnects us with our own “deep spring” within would indeed be utterly transformative for all Australians, personally and collectively. But it requires a shift in our attitude to time as well as place. Rushing, hurrying, failing to listen or to live without hectic rush, keep wounds open and add to trauma.

Miriam-Rose’s first spiritual teacher was her own mother, Mary, whose understanding of this immensely subtle, complex culture was “very strong”. Miriam-Rose – then Rosie – was the second of seven children. At the age of seven, her father died and she went to live with her uncle and aunt who were also brother and sister to her parents. Her uncle was a famous police tracker and I learned that even in tracking, listening is the primary sense used.

Young Australian of the Year Isobel Marshall, Senior Australian of the Year Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, Australian of the Year Grace Tame and Local Hero Rosemary Kariuki at the presentation ceremony in Canberra.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It was in that Adelaide River community that her education began at a time when the education of Indigenous children was generally extremely poor. But when that maternal aunt died, it wasn’t acceptable for Miriam-Rose to stay with her uncle, so she returned to her biological mother which, because of the elaborate sense of “belonging” to a much wider community than immediate family, seems to have been easy for her to accept. “They instil you in all that [belonging],” was her calm answer to my questions about those times. Which made it hard to look past that one of her own sisters, the only child with a white father, was stolen.

And now, in 21st-century Australia, this truly remarkable Elder (“Though only just old enough to be Senior Australian …!“) is concerned most of all about today’s young people and especially Indigenous young people at grave danger of feeling anything but belonging in a Whitefella world. She was at her most serious when she spoke of her passion for them to know that she and others care. And not just care but act on their caring. Through the Miriam-Rose Foundation, through the remarkable Merrepen Arts Centre where many artists show their work, through her unceasing availability to her community and now to Australia, she demonstrates extraordinary courage. While also offering the most urgent, compelling call to pause, notice and listen.

Stephanie Dowrick’s books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming our View of Ourselves and One Another (Allen & Unwin).

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