Binaries and the Shaman’s Dreaming

DSC01870My mom identified as settler while my dad identified as Native. It seemed that mom had room in her sense of identity for only one part of her heritage. Dad took a more nuanced view of things, making room for his European ancestors while primarily understanding himself as Native. Because of this, there was, in our home, a strange sort of quiet, perplexing warfare.

The world is increasingly a place where cultures and races intertwine, and more and more of us are mixed race. (I use the term race advisedly, given there really is no such thing, race being a useful political construct largely devoid of any genetic basis.) People now come in all shades of red, black, yellow, brown and white! Our bloodlines defy easy binaries, yet politics and politicians lag far behind in recognizing our changed world, often preferring to believe there are still “pure bloodlines,”and heroic, ethnically unsoiled early settlers. Such narratives ignore, or erase, those ancestors, perhaps Native, slave, or freed person, who through some quirk of love or fate, become part of the bloodline and the story. There were many of them!

So often conversation in U.S. culture follows the brain’s desire for binaries. We predictably speak about our “race problem” as one between white and black, ignoring the racism experienced by Hispanics, Asians, and Natives. We build walls to separate ourselves from the “other,” a neat trick in a world where there will likely soon be two billion climate refugees. For the moment, these fenced off others are mostly Hispanic, or more accurately, Indigenous people whose first language is unlikely to be Spanish. Our collective insistence on binaries at the border erases Indigenous people and their/our cultures, submerging them/us in other glosses, conveniently placing Hispanics, Mestizos, and Natives in one pot.

The brain likes binaries, if only because they are less work to decipher. Our brains are lazy; they require an enormous amount of our energy budget to operate, and attempt to conserve resources by taking shortcuts. Binaries are a very useful and effective shortcut; they are also extraordinarily dangerous.

It is almost impossible for children to hold complexity before age seven or so. We just can’t imagine that our parents might exhibit many sides, while being one person. Teenagers, too, struggle to conceptualize complexity that transcends binaries. Sadly, even most of us adults are challenged in our capacity for complexity, only grasping the larger picture now and again, severely hampered in our efforts to imagine the intricacies of the life as the other.

As we have seen repeatedly over the past forty years, politicians utilize this basic human challenge to turn groups against one another, to “divide and conquer.” This appeal to the other as somehow “not I” has been fundamental to governance in the United States since the first colonists landed. It has been utilized to marginalize the Irish, Scots, Italians, Chinese, and many other ethnic and racial groups. The designation of “other” was used to dehumanize and commodify African peoples, disenfranchise the Spanish-speaking communities that lived in areas that came under the “ownership” of the rapidly expanding America of the 1800’s, and to justified the genocide of Native people.

My teachers taught me to notice both the complexity and the simplicity of things. When I journey back through the generations to understand some issue affecting the present day, I usually encounter racial and cultural complexity, for the world has long been a vast melting pot. Genes and memes travel across cultures and races, and make life interesting. It is simple: things are usually complex!

In the shaman’s world, we are all Indigenous at root, and the layers of “civilization” are thin. Our ideas about racial and cultural purity are simply bad dreams, not supporting life in the present, nor creating a livable, majestic world for those who may come seven generations hence. We are the Dreaming of the ancestors, just as our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren are already being dreamed into existence by us. This Dreaming is an awesome opportunity and responsibility! In order to do it well, we must find a path to a dreaming that transcends binaries and embraces complexity, and we must treat ourselves, and one another, with great dignity and compassion.


10 thoughts on “Binaries and the Shaman’s Dreaming

  1. Michael:
    Again your insight has expressed a fundamental failing of civilization. Cognitive dissonance. The ability for the mind to hold two conflicting thoughts. I have often thought why do I/we think in “biniary” patterns when often the more creative way is to set aside the need-to-win endpoint and search for a third way. By this, not compromise, but opening up. And then only to find that traditional cultures had that figured out. Consensus seeking, generational representation in decisions, even a truer definition of wampum representing treaties and agreements -not some abstract idea of money.
    Politics of all kinds today make a show of this in a ridiculous parody of citizenship and noble representation. We are both remembering a time, not even so long ago governing was an honorable – and honored calling or at least the aspiration of service.

    1. Steve, part of the issue is scale. There have always been people who were incapable of empathy. Of course, in very small scale societies they could be largely neutralized. This is not the case as populations grew and governance became less collaborative. What we see is, to no small degree, the result of overpopulation.

      1. Michael,
        Interesting that your comment turned to overpopulation. I can’t help but think it is just an affect of our extraction lifestyle and technological age. It is important to note our first world prosperity dwarfs the populous and impoverished latitudes in causing environmental devastation. Besides, at this rate, a few generations may take care of population all by itself in some dystopian nightmare.
        But back to your original essay, the binary mind – engaged to divide and conquer, may also have a more malleable human response – though, the world is a smaller place.
        In this political cycle it is easy to feel we are at our nadir but that in itself will cause an oppositional response.
        I especially find value in the traditions you often share. (Don’t reply to my comments. Just keep writing)!
        Maybe it is a trick of the mind to use mythology and cultural traditions to produce a desired narrative. Having been a child of the ’60’s I know which hews closer to the American ideal of pluralism. We may not get there to paraphrase Martin Luther King, but that is our journey.

      2. Steve, it certainly helps to have useful stories, and an awareness of something bigger than ourselves, to help us steer our lives. I hope our writing helps.

    1. Andrea, I wonder how much is laziness and how much simple inability. It seems that most people are born with brains that do not do complexity easily. I wonder what we would be like if we were more wired towards empathy and complexity.

    1. Yes, Irene, it is always more magical and complex than we can know. Yet, I still find myself getting sad and hopeless in the face of the present craziness. I guess that is just the human condition.

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