This morning I’ve been reading student papers that have accrued in a small pile during my absence. One of those was a paper about the centrality of audience in healing as discussed in the writings of Michael White and Louis Mehl-Madrona. This set me to thinking about audience in a larger context.
I believe one of my central tasks when working with people is to be a good audience for their engagement with their lives. I also seek out opportunities to enlist others, whether human, spirit, or Nature, to serve as audience for them. In the classroom I try to find balance between imparting information, and drawing out and validating the students’ own knowledge, while encouraging the entire class to witness one another.
Traditional forms of healing, including shamanism, are exquisitely attuned to the centrality of audience and local knowledge. Healings are witnessed by the healer and the person seeking healing. In traditional settings, healings almost always have an additional audience composed of the concerned (family members and friends), those awaiting a healing, and the curious. There is also a larger audience composed of the Creator, spirits, and Ancestors. The effects of the healing are duly noted and referenced later referenced by these observers.
White and Mehl-Madrona challenge the tendency of Western forms of healing to isolate persons seeking healing. In the Western model, the problem or illness resides in the person who is seen as autonomous, although socially engaged. In Traditional healing, the person is understood to be deeply embedded in an alive, aware, responsive world of physical and spiritual beings. These two models hold very different understands of Self, and of the nature of illness.
Western approaches focus on expert knowledge learned through many years of school and demonstrated through protocols of testing. Traditional knowledge is more diffusely arrayed throughout the community or culture. Additionally, the person requesting aid or healing is understood to be an expert in their own lives, although their knowledge of their needs, desires, and purposes may be temporarily unavailable to them. Healing involves reawakening to that knowledge, as well as reconnecting to the worlds of Self, spirits, Nature, and community. An audience of engaged and active witnesses to our lives greatly supports this.
When presenting workshops my focus tends to rest more on the knowledge of the group than on whatever material I intend to teach. When my focus shifts to the material, I risk slipping into the expert role, almost always a mistake from my point of view. In workshops the group is usually better served when I spend relatively little time presenting theory and more time engaged in activities that bring into view the knowledge and skill of the participants. The local knowledge held by those in the workshop provides a context for learning and for usefully employing theory. It also challenges categories of expert knowledge, descriptions of people and the world that all too often ignore and disqualify the skill and knowledge of the participants. These acts of disqualification are well-known to many of us, and may be viewed as colonizing and disabling.
Having been raised in between cultures, I find myself walking a narrow road in my search for balance. I am repeatedly placed in the expert role, and more often than I like find myself enacting the rituals of the role. The expert role is, after all, seductive in its offer of status and prestige. At the same time, I do my best to make traditional and local wisdom and knowledge visible, and to keep Traditional healing at the forefront of my work. I am grateful to the Creator, and the many people, spirits, and Ancestors who bear witness to my efforts to keep to the Good Red Road in this life and work. I am particularly appreciative of those who walk with me in daily life, gently (usually) pointing out those moment I wander a bit far from the path: my family, students, those in spirit, and those who come to me for aid.