Online Sunday Service: Well-Being

There are many ways to think about the idea of ‘well-being.’ In one very basic way, well-being is seen as a material state, like we find in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where each person’s need for food, clothing, shelter, and safety is foundational. If this basic level of need is met, then being loved, being able to love, and to have meaningful friendships can’t happen in a natural and healthy way (the well part of well-being). The next level of Maslow’s hierarchy is healthy self-esteem which comes from accomplishments; and the top of this pyramid-shaped ranking is self-actualization which is attained through creative endeavors and living into one’s unique potential.  

In his book about Theories of Decolonizing Inquiry, Norman Denzin writes:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization and transcendence at the top … the theory is that individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher level needs. However, it has been pointed out that, although the ideas behind the hierarchy are Maslow’s, the pyramid itself does not exist anywhere in Maslow’s original work.

In their recent study, Indigenous Ways of Knowing in Counseling: Theory, Research, and Practice, Lisa Grayshield, Marilyn Begay, Laura L. Luna expand on Maslow’s basic theory, they write:

The human brain is a complex system and has parallel processes running at the same time, thus many different motivations from various levels (within the) hierarchy can occur at the same time. Maslow spoke clearly about these (motivations) in terms such as “relative”, “general”, and “primarily.”

Instead of focusing on a certain need at any given time, Maslow described how a certain need “dominates” the human organism…. thus acknowledging the likelihood different levels of motivation could occur at any time in the human mind, but he focused on identifying the basic types of motivation and the order in which they would tend to be met.

Many of us are familiar with Maslow’s’ Hierarchy of Needs, but how many of us know this popular Western philosophical theory was informed by Maslow’s work with the Blackfeet Nation?

In 2016, the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly published a work entitled,  “Maslow’s Hierarchy Connected to Blackfoot Beliefs” which contends,

His original application of Blackfoot philosophy does not actually reflect the Blackfoot worldview, and has since been criticized by scholars such as Cindy Blackstock and Sarena Johnson for misrepresenting Blackfoot philosophy ….

They contend in Blackfoot philosophy, … self-actualization is community-actualization, otherwise known as the “community’s pursuit of its full potential.” In the Blackfoot tradition, “…(each individual’s) self,  actualizes as a member of a community; the so-called ‘self’ is therefore interconnected and interdependent within a larger structure.”

(If we use the shape of a pyramid and the self actualized through the community is located at the top, then we find cultural perpetuity, rather than individualized transcendence.

Cultural perpetuity has been described as “the idea that the knowledge and wisdom of a community can live on in perpetuity, so long as the individual and the community become actualized.”

Blackstock has referred to cultural perpetuity as “the breath of life.”

… As long as the individual and the community become actualized, a community’s knowledge and wisdom can live on in perpetuity, … this continuum of living knowledge and wisdom is the breath of life?!!

This emerging field of study is called, Indigenous Ways of Knowing (IWOK). According to proponents of these e-pis tem ological frameworks and belief systems,

Indigenous knowledge comes from a community being in interrelated relationships with the land, in particular locations on Earth, over many generations, and continuously passing that knowledge on to future generations.

Since communities of Indigenous peoples exist throughout the world and vary widely in terms of geography, language, and social structure, it is widely recognized there is not a single universal Indigenous belief system. But it is accepted by prominent scholars there are many key similarities among Indigenous philosophical approaches which, together, form the foundation of IWOK (Indigenous Ways of Knowing)

Grayshield, Begay, Luna, and other contemporary scholars cite Chief Seattle’s response to the U.S. government’s demands for ownership of the land during an 1850 treaty negotiation, as a philosophical tenant that is found among the Indigenous communities throughout the world. Chief Seattle said,

This we know, all things are connected like the blood that unites us. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in itwhatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. 

While scholars of Indigenous philosophy bring to light the world-view embodied within Indigenous Ways Of Knowing, Western thought is still embedded in claims to objectivity, rationality, and a decoupling of culture from nature.

Indigenous scholars Lisa Grayshield and  Anita Mihecoby compare and contrast Indigenous and Western worldviews, referring to the Indigenous paradigm as a model of sustainability and the Western paradigm as a model which prioritizes economic growth or Gross National Product (GNP). James  Youngblood Henderson states “the discord between Aboriginal and Eurocentric worldviews is dramatic. It is a conflict between natural and artificial contexts.” 

No separation of science, art, religion, philosophy, or aesthetics exists in Indigenous thought (because) such categories do not exist. (So for example,) Eurocentric researchers may know the name of an herbal cure and understand how it is used, but without the ceremony and ritual songs, chants, and relationships, they cannot achieve the same effect.

Indigenous educator Gregory Cajete  references to what he terms as the rise of the Indigenous mind; that while Indigenous people globally are very diverse, what we have in common is this understanding of connection and relationship with the places in which we live.”

Scholars emphasize while Indigenous Ways of Knowing contrast with Western Ways of Knowing, it is important not to view Indigenous worldviews as opposite of Western worldviews or vice-versa. For example, Western scientists and historians are recognizing that in some aspects Western thought is now confirming what Indigenous peoples have already known. It has been noted however that when Indigenous worldviews conflict with Western scientific or historical accounts that the utility of IWOK is questioned or dismissed as myth because of the Western Ways of Knowing are privileged. 

But, scholar Arthur W. Blume notes that “generalizing about the prevailing worldview of colonial cultures is nearly as risky as generalizing about Indigenous worldview, (but) … colonial belief systems do have common elements that can be discussed, evaluated, and contrasted with an Indigenous worldview.”

If the Indigenous Elders and contemporary scholars are right and Maslow’s theory was incomplete when he determined that individual transcendence is the pinnacle of need; when perhaps, it really is, instead, self-actualization through community – a both/and phenomenon — then how does this incompleteness impact the events and civic discourse we all are experiencing right now?

If anything is glaringly apparent, it is that we, especially Americans, are living in a ‘cogent juncture’ when the need for healing the spiritual wounds still festering from our unjust and violent history are demanding attention and action – as our Native American relations say, the sacred circle is crying to be mended.

As free-thinkers, liberal religionists, spiritualists, rational and objective, caring and compassionate people, how does our Unitarian Universalist community respond? How do we who call Wyoming our home respond?

Are we as a diverse, evolving community finally at the point where we can move beyond white liberal guilt? Are we finally ready to begin naming and lifting up the spiritual and material symptoms of our shared history’s lingering unhealth? Are we finally ready to name the privileges we have inherited but do not fully understand? And if we are ready to listen deeply, are we ready to be changed by the young people who are, today, engaged in a passionate public witness to the symptoms of a society yearning for spiritual health?

Ultimately change, in all its forms, serves the flourishing of life and so the words and deeds of the modern-day prophets have guided the human community and its civic conversation to a better place. Even though most of us are not Native Americans, the wisdom and the lessons to be learned from all the ancestors are the same for everyone. The collective experiences and knowledge each generation inherits not only shape and inform our awareness of now, it is a gift that breaths life into a healthier worldview – one where peace, fairness & prosperity, ecological harmony, and valuing of all of life’s diversity are its center.

In the Indian way, when the end of someone’s life is near, there will be a give-away. It is an honor to be gifted with something from someone’s life. This sense of sacredness and how to receive a gift humbly, is sorely missing from a society where, for too long now, being human has meant being sinful and undeserving – and so as the circle of life turns once more, we are beginning to remember, it is just not true because humans are created to love first.

 Perhaps the gift we are being given is another cogent juncture, a historical moment, when our world-view is experiencing a step onto a better path? Perhaps it is a gift of ancient indigenous wisdom reteaching us the web of creation is more than earth, air, fire and water and a place to make money – that, perhaps this gift is a re-awakening of our aliveness.

Perhaps we are being called to understand the responsibilities we must live up to as an inherited knowledge, the energy of which flows through our own being. This is a living responsibility in the form of each individual having the power to make healthy or polluting, amplifying or diminishing choices which merge into the streams of energy which animate and nourish – which are the strands of creation’s web.

So how does living within a cogent juncture in time inform a state of well-being? Each person’s life starts on the earth, and each person’s life ends in the same place; and the time in-between is lived in relationship. If you are aware, or becoming aware of being in an existential moment, then the answer doesn’t need to be voiced because it is recognized by the individual and collective heart.

Since the colonial times and the signing of the last treaties, the 7th generation is coming of age. Because IWOK is being heard and taken into consideration not just by academia, but by those of us who are beginning to understand, the earth-based spiritual philosophy – it is the circle being mended.

All of us are doing the hard work of coming to terms with all the things, the good and the bad, we have inherited from the western world view; and so it is very important to remember, in the spiritual way, there are no wrong answers, there is just time.

Life always finds a way to break free from everything that does not contribute to its flourishing and so the time has come to think about well-being – and because we are community, what is the state of our own being? The world needs each of us now, like it has in many times when life has coalesced in the past. This is a cogent juncture in time, what medicine do you bring to the healing?