Two Trees (Kaylynn Sullivan): The Practice of Living
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Oct 28, 2017
Guest: Two Trees (Two Trees Sullivan) Host: Pavi Mehta Moderator: Aryae Coopersmith
Aryae: Hello everyone. Before I introduce our speaker, I want to acknowledge and thank all the Awakin Call team of volunteers behind the scenes who make this call and all of our weekly calls possible. And special thanks this week to you, Pavi, and also to Praha, Nikil, Audrey, and Nipun for some special efforts that happened to make sure that we have the necessary web of technology and people in place for this conversation. So thanks to you all.
And Kaylynn Sullivan Two Trees, thank you so much for joining us today, for sharing the heart space, mind space, and earth space for this global conversation. To me the timing seems very special. As we are in the midst of changing seasons here in the Northern hemisphere. Based on our earlier conversation, I also sensed an inflection point on how you are viewing your life journey, which I would like to explore later in this conversation. So welcome.
Two Trees: Thank you so much, Aryae. I'm really honored to be here and I want to start first with immense gratitude for you opening the circle of embrace, as you called it, Pavi, of the Awakin community. And for letting me be in conversation with you all. It is a great honor and I'm really excited to be connected to all of you wherever you are, to the ancestors and the places that you occupy and bring to the conversation.
Aryae: Alright, thank you for mentioning the ancestors, too. So just a little bit by way of introduction to Two Trees. When you read about her on the Awakin website, the first thing you saw was her statement about herself. I'm going to quote that because it is really key.
"“By birth, education and experience, my identity is shaped by a life spent at the crossroads - the place where cultures, ideas and beliefs collide and find both dissonance and resonance. I am most comfortable with those explorers and cartographers whose passion and life is the crossroads. There, at any given moment, what is magic and what is real shifts places depending on where I stand."
Two Trees is an artist, writer, artist in residence at the University of Vermont, and a member of the university's leadership team for the Leadership in Sustainability Master's Program of the university's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. She is also been a Whistenon Public Scholar at the Kettering Foundation and artist in residence for the Vermont Network.
Over the course of the past four decades, Two Trees has evolved a framework of spiritual technology with the input, support, and guidance of many indigenous elders. The current expression of this is called Practice for Living, Living Practice, which focuses on helping humans reorient to our indigenous mind.
To get a flavor for how this is, I want to read you one sentence from her website: "Practice for Living, Living Practice" is a continuing collaboration between Kaylynn Sullivan Two Trees and the earth." So that is her partner--the earth.
One more thing that I want to share from the website. In Living Practice what I noticed were some of these words: dynamic regeneration, we participate in creation, the keys for tapping into this regenerative power are remember, embody, model, share.
So Two Trees, can you say a little bit about that practice?
Two Trees: I could probably go on for pretty much the whole hour. But I'm trying to think of an entry point that makes sense in this context. And I would say that the thing you pulled out about remember, embody, model, and share is something that I've been attending to for a long time. And it has to do with dreaming. Our ability to dream both deep into the past of our ancestors, all the way back to the stars, and also to dream forward into the future that you want for the seven generations following us. We know that the dream state, we can tell deep dream states by REM, rapid eye movements. And that actually made me think about this. What are the REMs for having, living into a dreaming state as a perpetual state or how we live in the world or how we hold ourselves in the world. And that is kind of the framework.
It means that we are paying attention in a multidimensional way to our actions, their impacts in the world. And that we are also gaining insight, inspiration, and learning from the earth that we are a part of. Nature for me is a way of seeing divine energy at work. And when there are changes in the patterns, in the flow of divine energy in the earth, we see it, through the way the earth manifests changes.
So using that as a learning tool for ourselves, in terms of how we might adapt and open ourselves. So it means paying exquisite attention to our larger context, both this planet and all the way into the cosmos, but also down to the minute level, the microphilia, the root systems of the earth, and the way that they can inform us. So that is kind of the first level of intention of the practice.
That is a lot, I know. You have to tell me when to stop!
Aryae: Keep going. Go ahead.
Two Trees: I start in the practice with being aware of ourselves, as a detail of our landscape, human, non-human, and invisible. And how do we ingrain practices in our lives on a minute to minute scale, that reminds us that we are being breathed by this planet. That the breath that is an automatic function of our bodies is a response to the planet that we live on. It is a response to the green on the planet. It is a response to the one breath that connects everything.
Aryae: Ok, so I want to ask something. Let's say that I'm a typical American person living in an urban or maybe a suburban area. And I've been raised in this culture. But I want to tune in more. In a concrete way, what are some things that I can begin doing, to sort of open up those channels, sort of, tuning in to the life of the planet that you are talking about.
Two Trees: The seasons change wherever you are, even in the most concrete place. The place where I started teaching these practices is Manhattan. The weeds in the cracks of the sidewalk. The ivy on abandoned buildings. The movement of the green that you see. The change of light in the sky -- starting with becoming aware of that. And starting to become aware of your non-human neighbors. That is a start. Your context absolutely does not deprive you of this. I've worked with men in prison. And practices for them, even in solitary, to reconnect to that one breath. Our breath is the gateway, and it's an automatic function. So turning our awareness to our breath, to reconnect us to the green, is something that we can do anywhere.
Aryae: So I'm hearing two things. One is start with whatever green or earth is closest to you right now. And two is start connecting with the breath.
Two Trees: Yeah, those are definitely two things. And whatever earth is available to you now can be...I'm sitting here in a desk that is made of wood, and I can connect. I can open my attention to remember that this wooden desk came from a tree. Can I open my awareness to follow this piece of wood all the way back to its home in that tree?
One of the things that people ask me all the time is "Is that really connection or is that imagination? Am I making that up?" And one of the things that I think is really important, and particularly important at a time like we are in the world, is to reignite the imagination in service to the work of the soul.
Aryae: How do we reignite the imagination?
Two Trees: Follow that wooden desk all the way back to that tree. Follow that weed all the way down to the core of the earth through its root system. Follow your sight at night through the glare of lights to the stars that you know are there.
Aryae: So if I want to do this practice, I can start with whatever I might find near me, of the earth, of nature and just imagine it backwards?
Two Trees: I think that that's what works for me. I think that what I would say to you, is to follow your breath to where it leads you, to a connection to nature. And that could be my wooden desk or that could be a memory of a place that I inhabited. I live in a very beautiful place in Vermont, and it is gorgeous. I'm looking out my window right now at a wetland and a meadow and forests behind. But this actually isn't my home landscape. Sometimes, when I'm in deep practice, I'm either back in the plains or I'm at Taos mountain in New Mexico which are two significant places for me that I can reconnect to that earth energy through that remembering.
And then I bring that back here, and I go, "Oh yeah, you trees, you are cousins. You are distant cousins." I'm at a family reunion of distant cousins.
Aryae: Beautiful. Speaking of going back to the plains, can we talk a little bit about your story, about how you grew up? And how living at the crossroads became a dominant theme in your life?
Two Trees: As I said in that statement on my birth, education, and experience -- I was born at the crossroads of three cultures. My father is Lakota. My mother is Congolese and Swedish. And I lived in an African American community in Iowa. And those cultures didn't really have great opinions of one another. There was not a big hurray, when that marriage occurred. And there was not a big hurray, even when I was born.
So I feel like from the moment I came into being, I was at the crossroads between those three cultures. I have family from Congo in the United States. I have family on the reservation. I spent time between those families. My mother was still getting her degree, so she sent me to my father's mother, my grandmother on Pine Ridge reservation. And I spent a lot of time of my growing-up time with her, and then was shipped back to my other grandparents.
Each of them had an opinion about the other that was not positive. I loved them all, and I loved them as my family. And I loved the stories and teachings and ceremonies and the lineages of the ancestors, that I could feel from all three directions and it was not in my nature to discard any of them, but to hold all of them as manifest in me, with all the tension that that implies. And that drew me to places that -- some of which were forced on me and some of which I chose, to constantly be in situations, where I was in that kind of tension between cultures and cosmologies and ideologies. It played out in my artwork. It lead me to a career that started in mediation mostly around indigenous rights both in the US, and in New Zealand around the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations there.
But I found myself really drawn to those places where the tension of difference was a major ingredient of the interactions there. And I really believed that there is a generative energy. The imperative of life, life happens when there is energy generated, and very often that is around the tension of difference. Seed coats break open through drowning and burning or some kind of act of tension. So trying to break open seed coats of consciousness felt like a significant part of my work for a long time. And that is what I call crossroads work, where the standing in multiplicity is...I kind of start a lot of my work and a lot of my teaching these days saying, "We are going to start from the place that all stories are true. And then we are going to live into the tension of that, and see what can be generated from that."
Aryae: Wow, I'm just imagining the little girl loving all of her relatives on mother's side, on father's side, and how they don't necessary love each other. And evolving that, over time, into the wisdom of the elder that you are sharing right now. That is quite a journey.
Two Trees: It is never dull. [laughter] And it is constantly changing. I think we talked yesterday about the crossroads and for four decades at least and for the early part of my life -- for the early part of my life, I was more of a warrior, I think. I was much more really interested in fighting against erasure and invisibility of certain kinds of ways of being -- so the crossroads for me was all about this tension, this generative tension that I just talked about. Then in this last decade, I've been exploring how the crossroads might also be a place of surrender to the flow of grace, in the same way you talked about circles in the introduction. Using the teaching of the circle, that is definitely both in Lakota and Congolese cosmologies and cultural ceremonies, the circle is self-regulating. It regulates itself. It teaches. It has its own teachings.
And so, for me, I have begun to explore how the crossroads may have its own teachings about surrendering as an act of resilience and survivance. I don't mean surrendering to harm, and I don't mean surrendering to oppression. But I mean surrendering to the ways that grace flows through us. And that love is manifest in the world, even in the face of oppression and harm. So there has been a kind of transformation or expansion. I would say expansion, because I still work a lot with the tension of the crossroads, but I'm also exploring this idea of surrender.
I recently discovered the poet Kabir. The Sufi poet, Kabir. And I've been reading some of his poems. And they have reminded me of some of the original instructions of some of my Lakota and Congolese elders that points to this surrender or remembering -- deep, deep remembering.
Aryae: This is wonderful. Yeah, when we were talking about your connecting with Kabir's poetry and then with the music of Prahlad Tipanya, Wendy and I were kind of blown away with how the Universe connects itself. And how many people in our ServiceSpace community in the Bay Area have had the opportunity to listen to Prahlad-ji's music at a concert and to hear the poetry of Kabir. It seems like it is not a coincidence somehow that you are connecting with all of us.
Two Trees: Yes, I was really stunned by that synchronicity as well. Many indigenous ways of learning, at least my own way of learning from my elders, was experiential. And there was less influence or attention paid to the words of something, than there was to the experience of spirit and ancestors and place and land and our kin in the natural world -- our relatives. Our deep relationships and our distant kin in the natural world. So when I discovered Kabir. I thought, "That has a voice, my goodness. This is that articulated. I can't quite believe it." I was really stunned.
In the mornings when I do the morning greetings, after I do my morning greetings, I’ve been listening to Prahlad-ji, as another way of offering gratitude.
Aryae: Well, I want to come back to Kabir. But right now, since you were mentioning learning from Lakota elders, I'd like to pivot in that direction if we may. You lived on a Lakota reservation with your grandmother. And you shared stories about that. I want to ask you now, Two Trees, if you can share a story or two that really stands out for you about that time and learning with the Lakota and with your grandmother.
Two Trees: Well, I will say two things is that I have Lakota and Congolese elders that I have learned from. So remember, I'm not going to forget. And I have teachers in Europe from the old religion. So I don't want to diminish any of those elders.
But my grandmother is definitely one of my deepest bedrock teachers. And I say that the stories of remembering -- the deep, deep body memories of being held up to the directions in the morning, when I was a baby. And of going foraging and wildcrafting with her. And listening to the songs that she sang to the plants that she gathered, talking to them as her relatives and recognizing them in ways that we recognize our relatives.
Also, my favorite memories that I do remember that I talk about sometimes when I'm talking about her is -- she thought I didn't sit still and listen hard enough. So we would sit in the dark of the new moon. She had an old quilt, and we would sit outside her cabin in the dark of the new moon. And we would sit for a really long time, until I thought I was going to fall asleep or jump out of my skin from sitting still for so long. And listening to something that she could hear that I wasn't sure I could hear. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I could tell that the air changed. And in that moment that the air changed, that quilt flicked out into the dark and captured the quills of a porcupine. And that is how we got our quills for quill work in the winter. And so that sense of listening into the dark and listening into the deep silent spaces and having that provide for you -- really that experience, and experiences like that, are really essential to what the practice is built on.
Aryae: Wow! I want to ask you. You were speaking earlier about awakening and activating the imagination. What is the relationship between imagination and listening into the dark? Is that the same or is that different?
Two Trees: We are in the field of language, right now. We are in the field of language, in English, which is probably one of the last places we can do this. And I would say though that -- it is a kind of answer that my grandmother would give -- "In the beginning was the great mystery and out of the great mystery all things were born." And so imagination and that kind of deep listening, all are focussing our attention back into the great mystery. And the womb from which all things come. And so I think in that way they are related. And when the imagination is used in surrender to the spirit’s calling our purpose -- our calling in this life, in this incarnation, in this time around the wheel -- then we are listening all the way back.
Aryae: Ah! Beautiful! Thank You! Wow! I hear what you are saying about language and I get that and duly noted. So you know going back to what you said before then I want to ask you, if there is anything that you would like to share with us, about wisdom that you learned from your other two backgrounds, from the Congolese, from the European Swedish, important wisdom that you learnt from those streams as well.
Two Trees: There is so much I’d really like to, but there is not enough time and my mouth is too small! Both. But I would say that my uncle Bunsen Fu-Kiau was an amazing receptacle and vessel and teacher and sharer of Congo cosmology and ways of being and ways of knowing in his country. And he really taught a lot about the arc of life; in plain sculpture, it would be called the medicine wheel; in Congo it is the Cosmogram. The "four movements of the Sun", it is called in Congo and in Lakota, it would be the "medicine wheel", the ‘Sacred Hoop’
Fu-Kiau and Wallace Black-Elk spent a lot of time with me together. Talking about those things which seemed to really mirror each other, in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. And how those teachings could be shared in the world, in a way that did not diminish the bedrock of those cultures. And what was specific to those cultures. And so I would say that his teachings around the Cosmogram and around the "Four Movements of the Sun" and our journey in days and lives and movements, and the sense of being and re-being, over and over again, around the centre of vital forces, if we remember our source, were essential. And have been essential for me. And I would say also that there are some teachers of mine in the European old religion, particularly in southern France and some near Scandinavia, that reminds me that our understanding of whiteness, my understanding of whiteness is limited. And I need to expand my understanding of whiteness to include some of those ancestors and the wisdom that they carried as well.
Aryae: Oh, thank you. What a tapestry to weave all of that together. You know I'd like to sort of pivot again and ask you a little bit about your work today. You know, some examples of what you're doing and what's most important to you right now, with the programs you're involved with in the University of Vermont and elsewhere. How are you, you know, bringing these strands into these programs?
Two Trees: I think the two examples I'd like to point to are MS/LS program Masters for leadership and Sustainability at UVM and the Vermont Network for Domestic Violence. Those two places are key to my work in the world and one of the things I feel is really unique about the program is that we have...it is only...we are in our third year, but it was designed around the wisdom of nature as the major component of the content. So it was created to actually hold an indigenous worldview and a western scientific worldview as equally valid and complementary to one another and to create an environment that was centered around -- the sacred fire for the program is love, well being and learning.
And so it manifested really different in terms of curriculum. It manifests through a web of relationships, rather than the hiring of faculty. We do have faculty at the university, that are part of the university system. But we also have an enormous network of what we call professional affiliates, that we have developed from traveling around the world and the country through building relationships over time and space and acknowledging their embodied knowledge and a potential for learning for the students. So I feel in trying to hold that within the university system is a little tricky and it’s been challenging, but it has also being incredibly rewarding and it has diversified our student body, well beyond the standard diversity of the university.
We have a wide range of students from around the world. And we have a kind of vibrant, dynamic, learning community that includes those students, the alumni that have now graduated, and these professional affiliates that stay in deep relationship with one another, that are offered the possibility to stay in deep relationship with one another, both through the program and through what we call the ‘Crossroads Leadership Lab’. So the kind of design and birthing is, I feel like I'm a part of this great organism of relationship, that has made this whole thing possible. We continue to steward and shepherd that through and learn from nature and each other. So that feels like a big piece in terms of, kind of, bringing that kind of indigenous mind into a learning environment, in a way that is accessible to more people.
Aryae: Indigenous mind into what'd you say a university environment that's acceptable to more people. That's an amazing undertaking. I guess, I'm curious about the students -- when they come to your program, why do they come, what are they expecting, what are they wanting in terms of their lives that you are offering?
Two Trees: I would say that most of them have been trying something that has not worked. They are passionate about their work in the world. Most of them are mid-career professionals, or a lot of them are. They have tried social change efforts particularly in this world and have not found them to be as successful as they envisioned. And they are looking for a different way of conceiving of network.
And that takes them on a really spectacular journey. Some of them change jobs, change profession, change where they live in the course of a two year program. Some of them redesign their environmental work to really include a social justice department, which was never part of how they were thinking before. And so I think that they're looking for transformation.
Aryae: They're looking for transformation...
Two Trees: Everyone who comes, I think, is clearly passionate about transforming the world. But they are also realizing, you know, that the internal condition that we embody are part of how we transform, and it's an Inside-Leadership Program
Aryae: So you're talking about transforming yourself, transforming the world. Sounds like...
Two Trees: Yeah. Exactly, exactly, and it includes contemplation and awareness practice, as part of the curriculum, it includes creativity as a part of the curriculum. It includes being able to actually build increased capacity to work across differences as part of the curriculum, from a place of love and well-being, which are different, really different ways of getting across these things.
Aryae: You know, a word that is popping into my mind is the word ‘career’ that, typically mostly people who are going to college think about their career as, how is this going to prepare me for a very good, satisfying, rewarding, remunerative career. From your perspective, when you think about career, what is that about for you and what is that about for your students?
Two Trees: We encourage our students to, perhaps put aside this idea of a career temporarily, while at least in the first year of the program, to actually listen deeply for their calling.
And I would say, for me, that's actually all that I want to listen to. I'm not so focused on a career. If you look at my resume (laughs), it will kind of seem...these...from professional artist to...it really runs all over the place! It’s because I’m following something that is my calling, and I'm not following a career path.
Aryae: So when we look at your resume from “the lens of career”, it doesn't make too much sense. If you look at it from the lens of calling, it all is, of one piece.
Two Trees: It's all a body of work, yes, that is a response to my calling. So if you think about the MS/LS program as kind of academic, and working with curriculum design and curriculum development, and the drawing of curriculum and all of that -- that's one thing I'm doing. And the other thing I’m doing is working with the domestic violence network -- to reignite imagination in their staff and our counselors and their lawyers. To help them to renew, find their own interior resilience and also to dream a world beyond that of the adversarial position and polarization, and to have one that is focused on healing for all, and love. And so the work I'm doing with them has nothing to do with curriculum -- it has to do with play and imagination, and opening up the body and learning, understanding that the hands in the body know things that the brain doesn’t know -- so that's completely different kind of work. And it all feels much of a muchness to me.
Aryae: Yeah, thank you! As we're getting close to the top of the hour, in a few minutes, I'll be turning this over to Pavi for questions from the community. There's a couple more questions I want to ask you, Two Trees. And by the way, I want to remind everyone listening that if you would like to ask a question you can dial star six on your phone and you'll be prompted into the queue. and you can also e-mail it. Pavi, what’s the email address?
Pavi: It’s email@example.com
Aryae: Right, I wanted to make sure I got that right. So, Two trees -- one question that I want to ask you, that we were also covering a little bit in our previous conversation is -- Given the world we're living in today, you know you just mentioned polarization -- in this country, in the U.S., there is so much polarization we see. We see a current government in Washington that seems committed to the exact opposite of stewardship of the earth, of tearing down stewardship, of sort of increasing the exploitation of resources, of people, of fermenting destructive polarization So how does, how does what you're talking about, your programs, your work speak about the connection and the relevance in the world and in some of the forces that we're currently seeing.
Two Trees: Ooh, that’s a big question. But I would say that one of the things that is true for me and how I come to my program, because I don’t want to speak for everyone in that network that is a part of the program, but I would say for myself is that -- it is really essential for me -- as the detail of the landscape is undergoing great changes and impact from humans, is that I’m careful -- I’m listening -- I'm careful to not react, because then I will spend all of my energy reacting to the continuous blows.
Rather than finding the place, where I can actually find the true resistance and resilience And so I think that the way that...what we're bringing to the program are the tools for resistance and resilience and survivance, in response to the human conditions and the way that the earth is responding to them. And that does not mean that I think there is only one way to do that.
I think there's direct action, when impact is severe and traumatic. I think that there is a long-game action that requires deep reflection, so that it's not reactive. And that it really sees itself working for the long, for the seven generations coming after us. And I think that there's intervening in harm at the moment. So I think it's a complex set of problems that we have, which require complex kinds of solutions and not single solutions. But I do believe that building people's capacity for states of embodied knowledge and opening to (pauses) Grace, I'm going to call it Grace, is one of the strong tools of social action.
Aryae: Aah! So yeah, we could go there, but I want to go with grace. I want to go with grace and I want to go back to Kabir. To me, one of the most remarkable things that you said to me when we spoke earlier, is that you have, at this stage of your life, decided to learn Hindi. Can you say more about that? That's a big commitment -- why are you learning Hindi?
Two Trees: Well, you know, the culture that I come from and particularly my uncle Fu-Kiau, he always said, “You can never really understand something, or feel the heart of something in translation.” That if you really want to know the heart of Congo, you have to know it in the Congo.
If you really want to know the heart of even the most simple of words in Lakota like O Mitakuye Oyasin, you need to know that in its own language, in its own place in that language. And I'm so fascinated by Kabir and also by Tipanya-ji’s interpretation, and him as a vessel of Kabir, and I know that they have workshops in Lunyakhedi, where he lives. And I'd love to go, but I would only go, one, if I was invited, because you need to be invited onto a land. And two, to receive those poems in some kind of understanding of their language, in their own language. It's from my own training, actually, that I don't feel like I can enter too far into that, without entering into the language.
Aryae: Why Kabir? What is it about Kabir that has connected with you so strongly?
Two Trees: At the Crossroads, he sounds like the voice of the Crossroads to me. Can I give you a couple of examples?
Two Trees: There are two pieces from his poems. One is: 'Within the heart, a mirror but no face shows. You'll see your face when your heart's duality goes.' That to me sounds like a lot of the teachings of Congo that I know from experience, but I didn’t know the language for. And this one: 'Everyone came from one place and took the same road. Half way along, you fell into doubt. Suddenly, twelve roads.' It sounds like the ‘Sacred Hoop’. Grandpa Wallace was always talking about, "Well you'll hear this, they’ll talk about this kind of wisdom, and this kind of that. But it's all because they don't remember that it's all the same.“ So every time I hear a song or a poem, it connects. It could be the lens I'm using, but it connects me back to these teachings of my own elders, in this new way through language. Which is another reason that I want to actually hear them and have some understanding of them in their own language.
Aryae: Thank you. Those quotes are very moving, and your relationship with them is very moving.
Two Trees: And I could be completely misinterpreting. I want to preface all that I just said, by saying that actually my mouth is too small to speak about Kabir, at the moment. Because I'm only getting it through translation.
Aryae: Yes, you're getting it through someone else's mind and you want to encounter it directly. So you said something earlier. For my last thought or question is for you to offer reflections on -- you talked about how growing up, and then for most of your life being at the Crossroads, living at the Crossroads was about the creative possibilities of tension between these various systems, values, cultures that people have. And now at this time of your life, you've shifted. That rather than it being about tension, it's about surrender. So I just want to ask you if there's any further reflections you'd like to offer. What does that mean in a practical sense? What's the difference in the kinds of actions that I choose, if I'm going to choose living in the creative tension versus in the state of surrender?
Two Trees: I actually don't know if I can answer that question in response to the concrete, because I think that that's a spiritual and philosophical shift, rather than a behavioral shift. So I think the shift in the intention has to do with the stage of my life, and I think that when we shift intention, our actions change. But I don't know that I could talk clearly about the concrete changes in behavior, because I'm just living into the shift and intention.
I know that people around me say that something's different. But you know, I'm in my seventh decade and I'm really feeling my responsibility to dream the world that my great-grandchildren are stepping into. And that has meant that I can focus on tension, which has been really generative. Really un-laminating the difference between tension and conflict is a huge piece of work. And I'm happy with all of that work. I think it's been a service and it's also been deeply rewarding. And I also think that at this stage, I want to surrender to the flow of grace through me, in those moments of tension for a new possibility to exist in me. And that's what I can carry with me, which is a little different than being the vehicle for that to happen, for that tension to create possibilities for everyone around me, in situations that are highly charged, which has been my work to date.
Aryae: You actually have answered my question, Two Trees. Thank you. So Pavi, it's that time. I'd like to turn the conversation over to you, if you're ready.
Pavi: Sure, thank you so much, both of you. It's been a fascinating hour listening to the conversation and I'm excited to ask a few questions of my own, and also remind listeners that to add a question to the queue, just dial *6 and you'll be added to the queue. Or you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two Trees, one of the I was struck by, I was struck by many things, but just listening to you -- there seems to be a certain detachment to a typical orientation to our world, whether it's career, or worldly things. I'm sure that a lot of that comes from your indigenous roots, but I was struck by something you wrote in the five questions, in response to the five questions ahead of the call, where you had mentioned a period of being homeless. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that, and how your experiences of loss have shaped you, and also perhaps brought you to some of the richness of awareness that you have.
Two Trees: The tension and conflict and the impacts of colonization and oppression on the communities that I come from is really intense. It creates life conditions that are really challenging, violent and difficult. When my children were small, we fell prey to that, to those circumstances. We ended up in a half-way house. I experienced loss, but I also experienced the power of survivance. I really experienced, I think I have to own that I came in with a warrior's heart, and that kind of loss really fired up in me the idea that you cannot get me down. My ancestors are still here, five hundred years later after all that's happened, and you can't get me down.
And I fought my way out of that. But I think that I fought my way out of that standing on the shoulders my grandmother on the res, who never let me understand ourselves as poor. And I think that I did that standing on the shoulders of my Fuji ancestors. There are a lot of shoulders I was standing on to get there and to fight, because they survived. So there’s something about creating stories of strength rather than stories of victimization that is deeply implanted in me. And I think that it was implanted by my ancestors and their strength. And the practices are ways of expressing and embodying that in the great going forward. But the strength of it is in standing on the shoulders of my ancestors who survived. And I mean human ancestors and distant cousin ancestors. The Black Hills, deserts and plains and all of that as well, all the way back to the stars. I hope that answers your question.
Pavi: It does in a powerful way. Thank you for sharing that. And for the courage that you brought to the difficulties and the challenges on your path. Our gratitude to your ancestors as well. In a similar vein I was struck by something you mentioned briefly in the questions you answered before the call and that was the turning point in 1984 when you had a near death experience. Can you share more about that and the teachings that came from the intensity of that?
Two Trees: Well, a couple of things came from that. One is that - I don’t even know how to talk about it -- what came from it first was - and it’s probably one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Not the collapsing and the out of body experience of the moment itself, but the coming back into the body, filled with such - it was the most joyful experience, it sustains me to this day. The sense of joy, of both the coming and the going. That really is a big part of who I am now. I just have a tremendous joy at being here and a tremendous joy at being able to go home someday. And so I think that that was an enormous turning point, because you know the story you asked me about before was about survivance and stories of strength and it was about being freaked out, terrified and having to find the heart to go forward and fight. And there was something about this experience that changed that, in the same way I was talking about working with tension to working with surrender. It was a pivot point that changed working from that place of fear to working from a place of joy, and I don’t mean happiness. I mean joy in the face of the struggle to get back on my feet again which took about a year, the struggle to not be working for a year, and have no money for a year, all of that struggle, I am not diminishing that at all, but the struggle happened from a place of joy, which was a huge difference.
Pavi: Wow. That seems like another crossroads or a place of creative tension there. Really profound. Thank you for that answer. We do have a caller in the queue I am going to pass the baton on to him.
Kozo: Hi Two Trees thank you so much for sharing this indigenous wisdom with us. I have a question for you, my name is Kozo and I am in Cupertino. I was talking to a Hawaiian elder and we were having a really deep conversation, and she said, “We’re not really talking to each other right now. Our ancestors are talking to each other.” I’m wondering if you’ve had that experience where you feel your ancestors are talking to each other, either in the physical plane - have they ever come together in a way, or also in a more mystical, spiritual plane, talking to you through dreams or experiences you’ve had.
Two Trees: Well as I said earlier, I had the grace for Grant Wallace Black Elk and Fu-Kiau to spend time together and to be my elders together. So that’s my ancestors talking to each other for sure. But what’s true is that every circle that I am in and every circle that I facilitate or even am a part of I’m there with my ancestors. And as the vessel for my ancestors, to be in relationship with and in conversation with and in communion with the ancestors of those who are in the circle with me. And the circle is the vehicle by which that is made possible. So it’s a constant activity actually I don’t think it’s an extraordinary activity. I think it’s both ordinary, extraordinary, mystical and everyday all at the same time.
Kozo: I’m curious - you have ancestors that come from Europe and your indigenous ancestors and your African ancestors. Europeans were in conflict with the indigenous people and through you have those European ancestors made peace with indigenous ancestors?
Two Trees: Oh - well all three of those people have been in conflict with each other over the course of history. But it’s a little bit like that last Kabir poem. Everyone came from one place and took the same road. When the world of the ancestors - I have access to all of them in a way without the conflict but with a multiplicity of flows of grace and perspective from the ancestor world that I wouldn’t have gotten from them particularly in the physical world and even bringing Fu-Kiau together with Grandpa Wallace - it took some doing on the physical. So sometimes when we talk about these things it all sounds so seamless and effortless, and I want to be really clear that all of this happened both in the flow of grace, and with some effort. It was some human effort, born out of intention. And it can be a little spiky at moments. Does that make sense to you?
Kozo: Yeah. It makes a lot of sense to me and it reminds me of a saying from Islam, "Trust in Allah but tie up your camel". It is not just grace -- you don’t just sit and wait and let grace come. You have to tie up your camel, watch over your children. Be active.
Two Trees: Yes. That's a great saying. Yes.
Kozo: I don't want to take too much time, but I just wanted to just honor how, in yourself, you are bringing those tribes together in peace and that is just a beautiful thing to see. Somebody who actually is, the crossroads of all those cultures and living that in peace and it brings me a lot of inspiration and it brings me a lot of hope, and I am just so grateful for your presence in that, you are occupying that space in such a peaceful manner. So Thank you.
Two Trees: You have to be grateful to my parents. Meeting them is unlikely, so thank you.
Pavi: Thank you Kozo, for that question. Two Trees, I was looking at some of the titles of the books that you brought into the world and they have such beautiful titles - 'I to i'; 'Spirits, space and survival'; 'Somebody always singing to you'. And there is one called 'Searching for the 13th moon: a lunar book of days', could you share a little bit about that one? I was intrigued by the description.
Two Trees: My grandmother was kind of embodying the moon teaching so the connection to the moons was really strong and that kind of lives in me. I have always been interested in the shift to the Gregorian calendar of 12 moons from the 13 moons, the lunar cycles. In Lakota, the names of the moons have to do with what's happening on the land. I have been kind of nomadic in my life. This is my 57th move. I wanted to understand how to keep connection to those moons, and to name them in relationship to my own body, in the place that I was, and what was happening in this place. I wanted to see if perhaps it might be an activity that other women might want to be engaged in. To name and count their lives in their place, in relationship to the moon and their bodies because naming and counting are such acts of power, and so I developed these practices for paying attention to the 13 moons in your place, on both the physical and mental-emotional and spiritual levels. I worked with women all over the country, and in the Southern Hemisphere - naming and counting their moons for over 4 years. It was lovely.
Pavi: Wow, what a beautiful gift and is that book available?
Two Trees: That book is out of print.
Pavi: Okay. We will have to talk more about that. We have another caller with a question in the queue -- Wendy.
Wendy: Hi, Two Trees. Good talking to you again and thank you for your wisdom as you share to so many of us. My first question is kind of linked to your last answer. I am curious about any other rituals that you do during these times of blending, times of change both in the physical world -- what surrounds us like we had talked about - from morning to afternoon to evening like today, or even in times of our lives, like a change from one status to another. I would just like to start with that.
Two Trees: Everything that I talk about in relationship to being Earth-centered, starts with being in relationship with the Great Turning and that means the shift of light in the day, change of light in the morning at dawn, and change of light in evening at night but also the peaks of the day like noon and midnight, and then the changes on the planet at the different seasons, whatever hemisphere you are in. Those cross-quarter days, between the equinoxes and the solstices; those moments of transition are the moments when the veil between the spirit world (the invisible world) and our world are the thinnest. So those are the times of deep practice. The first practice in terms of ritual...I think the time and the place calls for their own ritual, and I think all rituals don't apply to all places. It is an act of deep listening in terms of what the place calls for, in response to the Great Turning, whether it's the transition from day to night. So that's kind of my framework for looking at relationship to the Earth and how my own practices or the practices I teach are framed around those moments of transition.
Wendy: Thank you. My last question is based on the conversation we had yesterday. Aryae and I were so impressed that you had spent a portion of your time abroad after Nixon was elected. This time with the difficulties that we are having with what's going on in America right now, you want to stay and it's your place here, not to give up. I was wondering if you would go a little bit into that because we found that very inspiring.
Two Trees: Yeah, 1968...late 1960s, I was working for a news agency, and I was in Chicago, and I was very much in love with the demonstrations, particularly around the Democratic Convention. Lots of my friend were journalists and photographers and news people, and we went through being tear-gassed and being beaten up and all of that. When Nixon was elected, my husband and I decided to leave. We did not want to live in a country like this, and we went to Europe. It was a really important thing for me. Moving to Europe gave me a sense of --I had never seen myself as American. I always saw myself as a Black Indian in America, and all of a sudden, I go to Europe and I was an American, before anything else. I had to reshape myself inside of that, in that time in Europe. We stayed gone for 12 years and then came back. Part of the coming back was the beginning of the European Union, and part of the coming back was being drawn back to the land where my 1:19:50 word was buried. Being drawn back to Turtle Island.
Thinking about now, this many years later, when this last election happened - I am living here in the United States, on Turtle Island, and I have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren here, and there is no way I'm leaving. I am not leaving the place of my birth and I am not leaving my generations after me to dream themselves into the future by themselves. So part of it is life experience and part of it is that I have family now, several generations. It's the first time in our family that someone has lived long enough to have great-grandchildren, and so I am very excited about that and to leave that would feel really unconscionable to me at the moment.
Wendy: Thank you. We are so glad that you are here and you are staying.
Two Trees: Thank you, thank you for the question.
Pavi: So beautiful to hear about the multiple generations that you are anchoring here, Two Trees. I wanted to ask are there particular practices or rituals that you do with your grand children and your great-grandchildren at this point to weave that connection.
Two Trees: For my grandchildren's early life, I owned land out in the Southwest and we gathered and did ceremony every year. Every summer we gathered for three months, and we would do, we would get together and do ceremony. And I had a moment about twelve years ago when I just was not sure that I wanted to perpetuate the idea of ownership any longer, with my own actions, and so I decided not to own anything anymore. And so we have been really working within our extended family or relatives to find ways to gather and pass on teachings and be creative about that in the last twelve years. But it's still going on and we're also looking to...My oldest daughter and I are looking to other elders girls outside of our tribe to pass on teachings and ways of being that feels like they hold the indigenous mind, to my great grandchildren and to give my grand daughter access to other elders in terms of the long haul. I have no idea how much longer I'll be here, and she needs to have elders that she can look to, outside of her mother that are, you know, the generation that dreamt her into being. She needs to have relationship, so we are making relationship with other elders in other tribes.
Pavi: That is remarkable. Two things, first that you would gather as a family three months to honor these ceremonies, and to show up to remember together is extraordinary. And then that you made that decision to step back from ownership is also tremendous. Can you speak a little bit more about that decision?
Two Trees: Yeah, you know the idea of ownership and of land is really not in my current knowledge and it's a little bit like, you know, trying to own your leg. Or your arm, or you know, it doesn’t really...and I've known that from a long time and but I also come with the, you know, your own safety and sovereignty on the piece of land that you own, you know?
And those were tensions within me for a long time, but then if I actually did this, then I am actually saying I’m going to be complicit. And I'm going to be complicit in you know renting, but do I want my primary action to be, being in complicit with that idea? And you know, I teach a course called Indigenous mind. So I trace the legislation and the treaties that kind of bring ownership into the forefront and how decimating it has been to native cultures in this country. And so I kept thinking to myself, how can I teach this and still own this land - this feels really out of alignment. So all of that kind of got me to this moment and I am like, “OK, I'm going to change what I can change, and I can change the fact that I own it. And I want to be in places where I can still steward land and be in relationship with the first people from that place.”
Pavi: There is such an integrity to the way that you have lived your life and have made decisions. It is quite stunning and hard to take in almost. Thank you, thank you for that, and for all that you've shared on this call. And Aryae, before we close did you have any final kind of questions or words that you'd like to share before we conclude.
Aryae: I also just want to say I feel the same of what you just said, Pavi that you are just...Even though I'm actually in years I think I'm a little older than you, Two Trees, but you are an elder to me and your wisdom and integrity and the choices you've made and your journey and just thank you so much. And thank you Pavi, for the wonderful questions that you asked and the depth that you've explored with Two trees.
Two Trees: And I would like to say that I really want to, I'm in it with all of you and and that I really appreciate the chance to speak with you and the way that you have opened up your circle to me, it feels like just more grace in the world, more love in the world and I'm really appreciative of that.
Pavi: Two Trees, we are almost finished and we will let you go on to the rest of your day, but before that we have one final question that we ask all of our guests and that is -- what can we as the extended Awakin ServiceSpace community do to help further and support your work in the world.
Two Trees: The first is, what I would always say is -- practice gratitude. I mean it's amazing that we have the chance to even connect with each other in this way, but gratitude for the gift of life. Just all of us practicing gratitude for one another and for the gift of life and for the planet and the flow of grace towards us. I feel it is a great boost to any work in the world. And the second is to keep remembering that we're connected and that our graph is shared and that also shares this work in the world, in whatever color it is that your breath is giving life force to.
Pavi: An exquisite answer and a beautiful ending note for our call. We end as we began with a few minutes in silence to give gratitude for all that we've received. At the end of our gratitude, I will unmute all our callers so that they can express their thank you verbally before we scatter to the winds today. So first, few minutes in silence.
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