Three spiritual lessons from the Dayak-Benuaq tribe on how to live in the heart of destruction

dance before buffaloMY JOURNEY to Borneo was a pilgrimage into the heart of destruction. It was the darkest place I could imagine, because the Dayak people of Muara Tae were watching their ancestral forest disappear to illegal bulldozing and had been unable to stop it. While I was there, I agreed to help them crowd-fund an ancient vow ceremony on behalf of the forest, which the elders said was their last real hope. Now, with the help of collaborators around the globe, their ceremony has been carried out. In the weeks that have passed since its conclusion, I’ve been reflecting on that process, and here I share three spiritual lessons that I learned from the Dayak, which I hope will be as useful to you as they are to me.

Lesson 1:  Rediscovering our purpose as humans — and the innocence of our failures.

On my first visit to Borneo, I was surprised by how resilient the people were — how they were shored up by their tradition and their ancestry and their unbroken lineage as guardians of the forest. The Dayak say the purpose of all humans is to be guardians of the earth, but most of us have a broken lineage because we were born inside an industrialized society where it seems as though we are more dependent on machines than on the earth. We have intermediary earth-made items that stand between us and the feedback loop that the Dayak still have contact with.

It’s a very direct connection for them: If they cut down an extra tree, it means that their grandchild won’t have a house. It’s that easy for them to see the results. We don’t have that feedback loop. It’s not clear to us that if we buy this item, we just gave our resources to build a mine that will destroy a forest and kill a species. And inside of this realization — that for the Dayak, it’s a no-brainer while for us, it’s a convoluted deal to actually see what we’re doing — I saw beyond the blame I had put on humans for being so stupid and greedy.  I saw our innocence.

We’re making progress on many fronts, but what we are doing has results we didn’t plan on — and one of them is that we don’t have the same consciousness loop we used to have. It’s all happening so fast that we can’t catch up. And we can’t live our values by ourselves — we are born into collectives that limit our choices. In this way, we are all the bulldozer driver — our survival currently depends on the very systems that are destroying our world. I saw the innocence in that, so I stopped wasting energy on blame.

At the same time, I saw the extent of our ignorance and the urgent need for people who live in the industrial world to cultivate deep humility, because we can’t fully trust our assumptions, and so we need to assert less and listen more. As an example, early in the crowd-funding campaign, supporters suggested that we contact a conservation organization and find a way to buy the land that was under dispute. When we shared this idea with the elders, we found they had no interest in it.

In their view, land could not be bought and sold because humans can’t own it — we only manage it for the ancestors and for future generations. They did not want to start a land market in their community, but rather, to have their right to their ancestral lands and their traditional way of managing it respected — not only by government and businesses, but also by the type of environmentalists who would prefer to “save” the rainforest by relocating it’s guardians so that it could remain “pristine.” (This practice originated in America, when the native people were barred from their sacred lands in favor of “pristine wilderness” designated as national parks. You can read more here about how this practice has continued around the world — with devastating results.)

Lesson 2: Taking time for what really matters.

As the campaign to fund the ceremony progressed, I went back to Borneo and saw something else the Dayak have that we don’t have, and that’s the ability to see how important it is to fully dive into what matters.

When they first told us about the ceremony, they said it would take 64 days, but they counted each day as however long it took for them to prepare for that day. This meant that sometimes they had to do a rice harvest, sometimes somebody was sick, sometimes they just had too many children to handle, so “one day” of the ceremony might take two weeks, or five days, or three days, and it didn’t really matter to them. They took the time they needed. They didn’t try to solve something so important in a two-hour session at a weekend conference.

That alone to me was a huge learning: They trusted that even with bulldozers going, they shouldn’t rush the process — and they didn’t.

Lesson 3: Trusting life.

The Dayak tradition says that there are cycles of creation and cycles of destruction — and both are completely necessary to life. During cycles of creation, our job as humans is to nurture life so it can thrive. During cycles of destruction, we are meant to save all that can be saved so that when the cycle is completed, it will be easier for those who come after us to restore things so life can thrive again.

The part of us that wants to stop things from dying, that wants to live forever and have the people and animals and forests we love live forever in the form they’re in now — we need to let go of it. That’s not life, it’s death. Death comes from the need to always know “what is right” and control what is happening: It locks us up and creates despair. Life comes from acceptance and humility: it gives us resilience in the face of devastating change, and the energy to continue to act on behalf of what we most value.

How can I accept that forests die? I love the forest. Without the forest, I couldn’t be anything. I’m a forest animal. We all are. We breathe because the trees breathe. The loss of the forest is cause for intense grief. And yet — right now inside of the chernobyl nuclear reactors, there’s a bacteria growing. How in the world could there be a bacteria growing inside of all this radiation? This is supposed to kill all of life. Guess what? It mutated. Life mutated. And that bacteria is not only growing in there — it’s thriving inside of the nuclear reactor stack.

We don’t know what the larger life wants to do with us. For all we know, it wants to mutate us so we can live off of radiation the way plants live off photosynthesis and it’s an evolutionary process. What do we know? When I let myself live in the not knowing instead of being afraid of it, there’s a deep trust that comes in — and with it, relaxation, clarity and the courage to act on my deepest values.

Do we trust life? That’s the fundamental question. Through their ceremony, the Dayak made the choice to turn things over to the larger cosmic forces and came together in celebration that they’re trusting life again. And I’m joining them in that celebration.

Because I’m trusting life again.

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