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Ancient wisdom on wellbeing and crises with Uncle Paul Callaghan

I am Paul Callaghan of the Gamipingal Clan belonging to the Worimi nation of Ghattung speaking peoples, of the Mid North Coast of New South Wales.

These days I am primarily an author on wellbeing. I have been a CEO and Executive. I’ve qualifications in accounting, surveying, drafting, and post graduate studies in executive coaching, executive leadership and governance. Most recently, I've been completing a PhD at the University of New England.

My vision is to share with the world the beauty of Aboriginal culture. How this traditional wisdom is not only applicable and has sustained Aboriginal wellbeing for 100,000 years, it’s even more applicable in the Western world – and it’s there for all people to embrace and consider should they choose to.

Ancient wisdom on wellbeing and crises with Uncle Paul Callaghan

Aboriginal wisdom is not meant to be a logarithm or an algorithm or a prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing. It’s meant to sit there as a bucket of knowledge to tap into and harvest to take what suits in terms of wisdom for individual wellbeing; to sit beside other universal wisdoms such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American wisdom, and others.

I see myself as a walker of many different worlds. I try to show people how these different worlds can come together and give us this knowledge base that is individualised and customised, but has universal truths.

What can “Connection to Country” and other Aboriginal values teach us about crisis and dealing with pressures on our wellbeing?

There are lots of great things in this contemporary world, such as our medical system – which is excellent in terms of responsive care when there’s a life threatening or major trauma, transportation and communication. But there are also many things that can take away from our wellbeing. That’s where we can learn from traditional wisdom, because it has lenses that we can use in all sorts of contexts and circumstances. It can relate to individual truths and how you live, but it also provides community and global perspectives.

To understand the concept of Country from an Aboriginal perspective one needs to understand the importance of Dreamtime stories. For Aboriginal people, our Dreamtime stories are our equivalent of a library and our knowledge system, as well as a guide for us spiritually. To understand Country we need to understand the big creation story.

In the creation story, the earth was covered by water. The waters broke and the mother was born. And she rose above the earth. And she was glorious when she rose above the earth. Up in the sky, the father saw the mother being born. And he thought, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. The father came down and spent time with the mother and they fell in love. But he had to go back up into the skies, because he had responsibilities for greater things than his love. But because of their love, she became pregnant. When she gave birth, she gave birth to all things: plants, trees, dolphins, fish, insects… She gave birth to all those things and lastly she gave birth to humans.

If all things come from the one mother, we’re all family and we’re all brothers and sisters. The essence of Country is, Country is our mother and everything on Country is family. The Western world takes us away from family, because it locks us up and disconnects us from all that is around us in terms of nature. When we walk Country we connect with Country, we’re back with family. And that’s why we have a sense of peace, but also a sense of wellbeing, because Country heals us.

The thing about Country is that Country’s always been there, since that creation story, and Country’s patient. The mother loves us because in the Aboriginal way we’re conceived in love, in our way, if we love our mother – the mother earth – if we sing for our mother, if we hold ceremony, if we dance for our mother, if we care for our mother, if we learn about our mother, the mother will always give us what we need. Similar to an unborn baby in the mother’s belly, that unborn baby never has to worry about a thing, because the biological mother will always care for that embryo.

And that’s the same thing for the earth – if we care for the earth she’ll always give to us. With all these crises, what we need to do is remember to listen to the lessons from the mother and also our brothers and sisters. So in our way, the greatest teachers are the birds and the animals and nature. If we go and sit still in the bush that’s when we’ll get our greatest learning. The reason we were born last, was to remind us never to place ourselves above nature.

Learning is a part of our spirituality. The old people say: if you come to me knowing everything, I can give you nothing. But if you come to me knowing nothing, I can give you everything. So when we go bush and when we sit with Elders, we’re meant to be empty. We’re meant to be empty cups and then we’ll be filled with knowledge. And that’s listening to the earth.

How do we deal with crises such as we’re seeing today in terms of global warming and/or pandemics? It’s listening to the earth and the messages of the earth including our brothers and sisters. And it’s listening to the learning of our ancestors who passed on knowledge to tell us these things.

The cornerstone of Aboriginal spirituality is Ngurrumpaa: I must care for my place and all things in my place. And if you care for your place and all things in your place, your place will always give you what you need. And all things around you will be there for the next generation.

Species were maintained over hundreds of thousands of years because we cared for Country. And we had stories about each animal, and we had ceremonies for each animal and plant, and we knew all about each animal and plant because that was our learning mechanism, through story.

Where do you see people coming “unstuck” when dealing with crisis?

Partly the reason we respond badly to crisis is the mind itself is wired to be negative because the brain is conducive to what’s called a negative bias – watching out for danger means that we can handle anything that threatens our lives. So the brain will respond to danger far more quickly than positives and it will remember danger and negative things far more than positives.

Then we also have a tendency in the Western world to awfulise. So when something is going bad, rather than say OK what’ll I do about this? We say, this is awful, why is this happening to me? Aboriginal people traditionally never catastrophised or awfulised. If there was a drought they’d say, there’s a drought, what’ll I do about it? So it was always in a pragmatic way: what will I do about the circumstance before me?

So there’s the crisis itself, which is in the present moment. But in a lot of ways people are always in a mental crisis – because they’re always going forwards and backwards in their mind. Rather than use the past as a mechanism of learning, quite often people allow their self-esteem and optimism to be eroded by the past. Then they project it to the future and they become anxious.

The Western world is continually focusing on the future. As primary school students enter Year 6 they are prepared for high school. When high school students enter Year 11 pressure steadily mounts on Higher School Certificate results as the be all and end all of creating a successful future. When we enter the workforce the focus is on achieving deadlines and creating a future career. Very little effort is given to learning about embracing the present moment.

Really we don’t have a future, because it doesn’t exist. In Aboriginal ways of being, time isn’t a real thing. Past, present and future are all one. In a sense, our place of wellbeing is in the now. Happiness, contentment and wellbeing can only ever be experienced in the moment, given the future does not exist – we don’t know what lies ahead – and the past is behind us. From an Aboriginal spiritual perspective, every moment is an opportunity to connect with and appreciate what is around you. By connecting with the moment in a positive and thankful way, the destination becomes relatively unimportant compared to the journey.

An American workforce study found that 33% of the research group indicated they were chronically stressed from their work, 79% didn’t get enough sleep, 69% had trouble focusing and 52% couldn’t detach from their work.

People caught up in this kind of stressful life can often become trapped in the ‘when-then syndrome’. The when-then syndrome is characterised by thoughts that focus on future events as a source of relief or joy at the expense of appreciating the present moment. Common thoughts might include:

When this meeting is finished, then I can finally get onto finishing my report. When I finish my report then I can do my emails.

When I get home, then I can have a glass of wine and finally relax.

When Friday comes, then I can finally have some time to myself.

When I drop the kids off at sport and my partner goes out, then I can run a bath and spoil myself.

When my holidays come, I am going overseas to a place with no signal so I can finally escape the treadmill.

When I get enough super, then I can retire and do what I want with my life.

There is nothing wrong with looking forward to future events of course. But it should not be at the expense of the magic of what is with us here and now. It’s about harvesting the present, harvesting those magical moments – the ten out of tens. Right at this very second I can see the clouds hurrying across the sky as the sun sets behind a horizon of eucalypts, hear my partner’s voice tinged with excitement as she tries on a dress she has just bought for our daughter’s wedding and feel the amazing sense of touch in my fingertips as I strike the keyboard keys as the smell of dinner being prepared wafts and tantalises my taste buds.

There are things I anticipate doing tonight and for the rest of the week but they aren’t a primary focus of my attention. Rather than get caught up in when-then, I have trained myself to embrace the wow of the now.

What wisdom from the "old people" do you find powerful in shifting people’s perspectives when it comes to taking care of their wellbeing?

Our connection to Country means we’re never alone. Our cornerstone of values, the Ngurrumpaa, explains our LORE: I care for my place and all things in my place. If you live a life where we care for all things that creates this beautiful network where we care and we share. So we’ve always got nurture, we’re never alone, we’re never isolated.

It’s learning about living in the present and knowing that there’s no need to panic. It’s believing that we’ve been here for thousands of generations and that we’re all part of everything. Because when our body goes to the earth, the waters go back into the earth. And the waters then go up into the sky and they rain on everything and so we become part of everything.

So it’s about believing, it’s about trusting and it’s about trying to understand that the Western world has a tendency to isolate. So we go into our houses and we lock the doors and they become these places of isolation and safety and anti-community. Whereas, the traditional Aboriginal way is that everything is about unity and community. Our housing enabled us to see each other, to talk to each other. We never held onto material things because we had no need for them. In the Aboriginal world, everything is about sharing and nurturing and supporting each other.

If you look at the Western world, it’s a very dangerous world. It’s about materiality, it’s future-focused and it’s always talking about how we need to be in competition. At school you’re competing with each other for marks and then you go into what’s called the capitalist market, which is the competitive market where to succeed as a business you need to create a competitive advantage, which is a form of battle. To get a job you need to go through a competitive merit selection-based process. Which again is stressful and it’s all about fighting. Everything in the Western world is a battle.

We know we have to work to earn income in a Western world, so that’s OK. But you’ve got to ask yourself why is stress the norm? Why is the research telling us that over 50% of staff go home stressed from the workplace? Stress was pretty much an unheard of thing in Aboriginal society because we had so many mechanisms of support. Whereas now, when you look at the research, we’ve got more youth lost than ever. We’ve got more youth suicide. We’ve got people in crisis in terms of self-medication with gambling, drugs and alcohol.

So, that’s not everybody but if you look at society as a whole it’s not a garden that germinates and nurtures wellbeing. It’s a garden that germinates and nurtures un-wellbeing. But there are good things that can be harvested. It’s about saying how do we bring these good things into alignment with traditional values so that everybody is able to harvest a life of wellbeing, rather than find wellbeing almost accidentally through the school of hard knocks.

Part of Aboriginal culture is that we’re very much focused on harvesting and uniting. Aboriginal culture doesn’t say there’s only one way to do anything. As you travel Country you might find there are five different stories on how the earth came to be, the mother. You’ll find they’re very similar, but they’re also different. From a Western world perspective of education and scientific methodology, an individual would say you can’t have five stories about the same thing – which one is right? An Aboriginal Elder would say, well no they’re all true.

That’s a different way of seeing the world. So our people are not black or white thinkers. Our culture says if there’s something good that adds to wellbeing – or we call it to the Dreaming – then that’s something that should be taken on board.

How do you see the Aboriginal perspectives that you share making a difference to organisations / corporations?

Our wisdom is multi-dimensional; it’s multi-faceted. You can use it in different ways and that’s the beauty of it. So it’s about using the concepts in a way that relates to your workplace.

When I talk about caring for my place and all things in my place, you can use that in the workplace and you can say OK, this is my workplace, this is my place, how do I care for my place and all things in my place? Do I really care for my colleagues? Do I care for the people that work under me? Do I care for the people that work above me?

Organisation dominant culture at the moment is intrinsically driven by power, by hierarchy, by KPIs, by black and white thinking and by a love of the written word. That culture is also very deficit based. It says we must improve, we must go stronger and we must go harder; well let’s have stretch targets. So there’s very little strength-based approaches to managing organisations and people. It all has a negative context because this whole thing is about competition and battle, rather than nurture and reward.

You look at the successful organic companies in recent times. They’re very fluid and they’re strength-based. They haven’t been built based on Aboriginal philosophy, but if you look at the way they’re constructed it echoes Aboriginal philosophy – which is flow, which is focus on the present. There’s nothing wrong with having goals for the future, but keep them fluid so you can be flexible and responsive to whatever arises around you.

Why do you think perspectives and values from traditional cultures are so important for our modern world?

Because they’re universal truths – you look at love, respect and humility, they’re as important today if not more important than ever. Our people practise those things without even thinking, because they were brought up with storylines that taught them to be humble, to be loving, to be respectful and to share.

I never denounce the Western world, but I do say we need to challenge some of the premises. We need to ask ourselves, what do we believe in and why? The things we do, why do we do them and for what benefit?

Our people, in terms of governance, never made a decision about the now. Every decision made by our Elders was always for the benefit of their children’s children’s children’s children.

Aboriginal people for 100,000 years always made decisions on people they would never meet in physical form. It was always about, whatever we do today, what effect will that have on our children’s children’s children’s children? And that’s the big challenge for the corporate world we have now. Yes we’ve got share markets happening, we want dividends, we want profitability. But at what cost to our children’s children’s children’s children?

What are we leaving behind when you look at climate change for our children’s children’s children’s children to mop up? There’s the big question that we all need to think about in terms of what are our legacies as human beings on this earth today.

The definition of leadership in a Western methodology is about achieving desired outcomes through people in an effective way. From an Aboriginal perspective, leadership is about caring for my place and all things in my place for my children’s children’s children’s children.


Uncle Paul Callaghan regularly contributes to Gone Bush development programs and events, leading keynotes presentations, workshops, virtual sessions and adventures for clients including Madison Financial Group, Commonwealth Bank and more.

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