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Insights from "Sand Talk"

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta.

Why is this worth your time? “Indigenous thinking” can sound naively regressive: that we need to give up our NFL and air conditioning and go and live in the wilderness. But Yunkaporta’s book is about a future blending of Westernized and indigenous thinking that might already be underway.

Moreover, modern chaos theory, complexity theory, and fractal geometry keep awkwardly “rediscovering” that indigenous wisdom might actually be an accurate description of how the world really works. The fact that it’s still neglected or dismissed makes it even more interesting to me.

The key questions to consider are: what would modern culture look like if it reintegrated aspects of indigenous wisdom? And individually, how can it improve your life?

What is this book about? As an indigenous Australian, Yunkaporta looks at modern systems from a fresh perspective. Aside from a wry sense of humor, he brings a unique ability to write in intellectual terms about indigenous wisdom. This builds an invaluable bridge between worlds. Novel frames are always useful; one of my favorite quotes is from Alan Kay: “a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” (I’ve written previously about multiple alternative ways to think about the world).

Five Practical Takeaways: Yunkaporta discusses five different indigenous ways of understanding. It’s crazy how much they overlap with key insights from unrelated fields:

  1. Kinship-mind: “in Aboriginal worldviews, nothing exists outside of a relationship to something else. There are no isolated variables—every element must be considered in relation to the other elements and the context.” [Reality is conversational, and markets are reflexive. Discussed in more detail below].

  2. Ancestor-mind: “which is all about deep engagement, connecting with a timeless state of mind or “alpha wave state,” an optimal neural state for learning. We can reach this state through most Aboriginal cultural activities. It is characterized by complete concentration, engagement, and losing track of linear time.” [This is resonant with my article on understanding the flow state as an insight generator].

  3. Story-mind: “which is about the role of narrative in memory and knowledge transmission. It is the most powerful tool for memorization, particularly when connected meaningfully to place. This is how songlines have worked in Australia for millennia to store knowledge in stories mapped in the land and reflected in the night sky.” [It’s close to a cliché how effective stories are relative to isolated facts. The connection with place also made me think about how key insights from podcasts I’ve listened to are always associated with where I was walking when I heard them].

  4. Pattern-mind: “which is about seeing entire systems and the trends and patterns within them, and using these to make accurate predictions and find solutions to complex problems.” [More on this below].

  5. Dreaming-mind: “which is all about using metaphors to work with knowledge.” [I’ve written before about how the ability to construct accurate metaphors is one of the most important skills there is. It’s critical in connecting abstract concepts with the real world. Yunkaporta extends the concept to include “images, dance, song, language, culture, objects, ritual, gestures, and more. Feedback loops between the worlds must be completed with practical action.”

Dark matter and hidden forces. I am completely obsessed with the deceptively simple concept of “slack,” or negative space. It’s fascinating to see the ways it’s also central to indigenous thought. It’s also a way of seeing the world that’s foreign to many of us:

“Western thinkers viewed space as lifeless and empty between stars; our own stories represented those dark areas as living country, based on observed effects of attraction from those places on celestial bodies…..
… Theories of dead matter and empty space meant that Western science came late to discoveries of what they now call “dark matter,” finding that those areas of “dead and empty” space actually contain most of the matter in the universe.”

Like black holes, invisible attractors help direct our interests toward personal evolution. Understanding the power of “hidden forces” also allows you to see the biggest pictures and even make better predictions.

“People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. But the real understanding comes in the spaces in between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points... If you can see the relational forces connecting and moving the elements of a system, rather than focusing on the elements themselves, you are able to see a pattern outside linear time. If you bring that pattern back into linear time, this can be called a prediction in today’s world.”

What should we do? The way I interpret his perspective is that the ideal human operates as an evolving node in a network. You allow information to flow through you, sharing it with others and allowing it to also change you in the process. This is the role of the information synthesizer and curator (my primary goal in life):

“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realize your true status as a single node in a cooperative network. There is honor to be found in this role, and a certain dignified agency. You won’t be swallowed up by a hive mind or lose your individuality—you will retain your autonomy while simultaneously being profoundly interdependent and connected. In fact, sustainable systems cannot function without the full autonomy and unique expression of each independent part of the interdependent whole.”

Yunkaporta emphasizes perhaps the central harsh lesson of the last two centuries. That command and control systems on top of complex systems aren’t merely ineffective, but they can create cascading negative consequences. In contrast, whole sections of his book align closely with Taoism; a strategy that seems to offer the best combination of individual action and receptivity to the world.

Final practical takeaway: What was most resonant about Yunkaporta’s book is that it closes with a beautiful guided meditation. The meditation takes your consciousness down into your body and the earth around you. Remarkably, this is a very similar process as the one described by Philip Shepherd in his book on indigenous wisdom, Radical Wholeness. As you move your awareness around your body, both Shepherd and Yunkaporta talk about encountering blocked areas you can’t feel properly, either “shadow” or “scrubby trash.” These prevent us from fully engaging with the world. It seems consistent with the central idea of “dark matter,” hidden forces, and unconscious influences. As I’ve noted before, it’s curious that Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score went unexpectedly viral during the pandemic and spent most of 2021 atop the New York Times bestsellers list. Van der Kolk’s thesis is that trauma can be stored frozen in the body.

The deeper theme here is that Shepherd feels like the reunion of holistic, embodied intelligence with analytic, cerebral intelligence is the culmination of our society’s collective hero’s journey. Yunkporta also believes an aligned individual can play a cascading role in influencing an entire network. But he uses a more science-friendly term “strange attractor,” taken from complex systems theory:

"You must allow yourself to be transformed through your interactions with other agents and the knowledge that passes through you from them. This knowledge and energy will flow through the entire system in feedback loops, and you must be prepared to change so that those feedback loops are not blocked. An agent that is truly adaptive and changing is open to sudden eruptions of transformation, in which the agent may temporarily take on the role of strange attractor and facilitate chain reactions of creative events within the system."

What’s next? Sadly it seems wildly optimistic that we will incorporate indigenous wisdom into Western culture without some kind of transformational shock. That’s despite the stunningly consistent way it seems to correlate with personal and collective flourishing. A union of intellectual and indigenous may indeed be what “saves the world.” Or at the very least helps each of us thrive a little more in a time of transition.

“There is an undeniable pattern in the sum total of all these old stories from around the world, indicating that sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments….
…..Creation is in a constant state of motion, and we must move with it as the custodial species or we will damage the system and doom ourselves.”

I hope that’s interesting. The whole book is short, and I believe it is worth reading.

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