How can Indigenous wisdom help us cope with COVID-19?

In a challenging time, we turn to one of the world’s oldest surviving cultures for guidance. 

It’s now been almost a month since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. You don’t need us to tell you that in that time, the world has changed significantly. 

Supermarket cashiers stand behind plexiglass. Cafes have morphed into corner stores. Libraries and museums are shut, parks and public spaces empty. 

It’s different. Conspicuously different. 

Fortunately, nobody is in this alone. For one, mental health organisations like Beyond Blue are working to develop dedicated COVID-19 programs. 

And here at Evolve, we’ve been looking for wisdom close to home: from our First Nations brothers and sisters, generously shared by Evolve co-Director Aunty Munya Andrews. 

Here’s what we’ve discovered.

1. We are never alone.

Isolation can be a challenge, particularly if you’re an extrovert. But loneliness doesn’t even have to factor into your self-isolation journey – just ask Munya. 

“Aboriginal Dreamtime teaches us that we are never alone – our ancestors are always with us. And so I’ve never grown up feeling lonely, knowing that ‘the old people’, as we call them, are around us. We can talk to them at any time. I’ve never felt that social isolation that westerners do.” 

Co-Director Carla Rogers agrees. “It’s really interesting working with Munya, because she actually doesn’t know what it is to feel lonely – and I 100% know what it is to feel lonely! So I think that the difference is absolutely what Munya draws from Indigenous wisdom.”

The idea that we are constantly being guided by our ancestors, that we are never alone – it’s incredibly comforting. But if it’s not a familiar concept, it can be a challenging belief to hold on to. 

Luckily, Carla has some words of advice. “For me now, it’s a reminder that we all have ancestors that are there behind us – but we also have people that are on the physical plane. And even if we just see them over a Zoom meeting, they’re still with us in our imaginations and hearts.”

There’s a powerful lesson here. Even if you can’t take comfort in the knowledge that your ancestors are with you, as long as you are able to think about the people you care about, you are never alone. 

2. Just ride the waves (and go with the flow).

Coping with change is one of those life skills that proves its worth, time and time again. Businesses might refer to it as an ability to ‘pivot’ – while on a personal level, we talk about resilience, coping with adversity, and the concept of control (or lack thereof) over our circumstances. 

But how do we cope with a pandemic that dictates how we live our lives, tells us who we can and can’t see, and imposes a gamut of evolving rules and regulations around the things we used to take for granted?

“Indigenous people have had everything thrown at them,” says Munya, “from genocide to restrictive legislation and other things. It’s nothing new.” 

Suddenly, it’s starting to slip into perspective. 

“It’s like, okay, here comes another challenge,” she explains, “and we deal with it accordingly and with our head screwed on tight, because we know that the ancestors will always look after us.”

She continues. “Everything has its place, and its time, and everything moves through phases. So this will pass, and it’s about riding the waves right now.”

3. Seek the answers within.

“Fear porn is dangerous at any time,” says Munya sagely. “And it’s on now, big time. The thing is, people have got to come back to themselves, meditate, go within – go deep.”

We’re discussing the constant flow of pandemic-related news – thanks to social media, nearly unavoidable – and the climate of fear it creates. 

“Fear porn is causing people to run around with their heads chopped off and be really fearful,” she says. “But this is the time when we need to come together as a people and to really dig deep into our hearts, and our souls, and seek the answers within.”

So what do we do, when our fear causes our minds to ask questions we can’t answer? 

How long will this last? When will I get another job? Will I become ill?

 “It’s not about seeking the answers outside, because that’s not available for us,” explains Munya. “The answers are within, and it’s a time to remind ourselves not to be fearful because there are forces out there that will use fear to their advantage to manipulate the masses. It’s about saying, ‘No, I won’t listen to that. I believe in my cultural traditions, I believe in my spirituality.’”

For Carla, seeking the answers within has been made possible thanks to a technique called Dadirri, or deep listening, taught by Nauiyu elder Aunty Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of Dadirri, from Aunty Miriam-Rose, and [her] words keep coming to me saying, “we cannot hurry the river. We have to move with its current and understand its ways.” People must go with the flow of the river. I often think of myself in terms of Dadirri, not only listening to what’s around me, but really listening to myself, and listening to my fears.”

“Also knowing that I am not in control of my thoughts, they pop in spontaneously, but I can be aware of them, and even befriend them. As Aunty Miriam Rose says, there is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.”

You cannot hurry the river – but you can weather the COVID-19 media storm. Indigenous wisdom guides us to listen to our fears, and find solace from within. 

So there we have it – three lessons that have been helping Australians cope for tens of thousands of years. 

But what if you’ve done your best, but you’re struggling? Isolation is wearing you down and you’re feeling vulnerable, allowing fear and anxiety to creep in – what do you do? 

Ask for help, says Carla. “I think now more than ever, it’s a time not to feel shy about accepting help, or reaching out to people,” she explains. “Especially if you’re living on your own. Please don’t feel as though you would be a burden – a lot of people would be tickled pink if you accepted their offer of support. It could be helping them as much as – if not more than – you.”

And Munya has some advice for all of us. “I think it’s really important to reach out to everyone that we love, and especially those who are vulnerable. And just ask them, how are you? Are you okay? Is there anything that I can do for you?” It’s now time to reach out to people so that they don’t feel alone.”

Carla agrees. “The catch cry for coronavirus is that we’re all in this together. It makes me think about how in Aboriginal languages, there are no words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ – because there was no need for them. In Aboriginal kinship, everyone belongs, and looks after each other – that’s just what you do. It’s like breathing; you don’t even think about it.”

“And so now the community in the world is stepping up – and we’re saying ‘We’re all in this together’.”

Which brings us to our final, bonus lesson: 

4. We’re all in this together.

And it’s probably the most important lesson of them all.

 

(c) Evolve Communities, 2020

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Munya and Carla,

    Many thanks for the article, “How can Indigenous wisdom help us cope with COVID-19?”
    With the amount of fear and disruption in the community at the moment, we really need to step back from whatever is causing the anger and appreciate what we really have.
    This is where we all have so much to learn from the 85 thousand years or so, over which the indigenous wisdom has accumulated such resourcefulness. In the several centuries since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, western civilisation has walked away from the grounded sense that you remind us of:
    We are never alone
    Go with the flow; just ride the waves
    Seek the answers from within
    Appreciate the fact that we’re all in this together….assist others who may not be as fortunate as you.
    Thanks again for reminding us of the importance of the country and our connections.
    Together, we can defeat this and much more.

    Best wishes,
    Peter

    Reply
  • Thanks for the article, it was an interesting read. It has made me ponder whether experiencing Isolation the way we all currently are, will provide people with a tiny bit more understanding and empathy for what the impact of various Government policies have had on Indigenous Australians over the years?

    Being removed from your family (isolated), not be allowed to see your friends/family, speak in your native language, and told not to participate in social/cultural events. Unless you are one of the unlucky ones who have caught COVID-19 and are in an ICU, none of us have the added trauma of physically being removed from our family, being scared and not being able to communicate with them at all. For these patients, they will either not make it (like many forcibly removed from their families), or will get to be reunited after just a couple of weeks. Compare that with the Stolen Generation who were permanently removed, often never seeing their loved ones again. Will this Iso experience allow us to empathise with the type impact-full removal has on a person?

    Although this doesn’t come close to what any of the Stolen Generation had to endure, surely we all now have a tiny inkling of how horrendous it must have been for the unfortunate people (and their families) who were on the receiving end of a Government policy which involved the unfair treatment of Indigenous Australians. Mental Health issues and Domestic Violence instances have both skyrocketed, and the effects of this Pandemic will be dissected, examined and discussed for generations to come. And at this point, this situation has really only been impacting us for a month at best. Imagine how much worse things will get for some people if this Iso drags on for months.

    Reply
  • Thank you for this article – in order to stay calm and cope with the current situation, I had been starting to think along the same lines as the lessons, however had not been able to articulate them as simply, beautifully and meaningfully as you have here.

    Reply

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