Relationships: the glue when all else crumbles

I’m attempting to bring together some thoughts on relationship as we work on a booklet (a sort of preparatory guide) which will capture how we see the service providers working together with Nyoongar Elders in our project, the Looking Forward Project. We developed a Handbook in 2013 to help prepare service providers to come into the project and think about what they needed to consider to begin their work with the Nyoongar community. Already we are seeing some activities between stakeholders provide some spaces for conversation and learning, based on the relationships that are bieng formed and deepened!

The booklet will extend our thinking and insights into how people with differing worldviews can effectively work together.

So, these are some first thoughts to get some things down in writing, which is a challenge when so much of this work is deeply experiential!

To be in relationship is to connect, to join together, to get in touch with, or establish rapport (cf. etymology of connect). We can relate a story, or associate with, or relate to others.

Some initial questions:

  • Relationships are key to our work – why?
  • What kind of relationships do we mean?
  • Why are they so important and necessary?

Relationships keep us connected and alive. They bind us to those we know and those we trust in such vulnerable circumstances. They are what keep us grounded when all else crumbles around us. They also enable us to meet new people and try new experiences so we continue to grow and deepen our human capacities. So, in terms of the project, people can trust others more when they know each other better. They care for each other, so remain conscious of one another when in conversation or action together. People are more likely to remain open to new experiences, challenging ideas and different ways of being, working and thinking.

Image by Michael Sarver on Flickr.

Holding is relationship. Being held by others and holding others is an incredible investment in trust and respect, an almost sacred act. There is a deep sense of care and concern for oneself as well as for others. it takes time to not only make such a connection, but to make a commitment to doing so in the first place. We need to understand our own motivations and intentions in order to commit fully. No one can talk us into it, it comes from us alone. I’m reminded here of a quote by James Marcum (2001) from our Handbook about engagement, which points to an intrinsic willingness to connect with others:

Engagement is a “bottom up,” grassroots process that cannot be directed from above. Engagement occurs when [people] undertake tasks related to their interests and competence, learn about them continuously, participate freely with (equal) associates, immerse themselves deeply, and continue the task with persistence and commitment because of the value they attribute to the work.

Relationships – what do they look like? They are dynamic, oscillating, complex, light and shade, generative and integral to our human existence. They include values and beliefs, actions and behaviours, practices and habits, past and present, memories and moments. They require talking, touching, teaching, learning, time, frequency, preparation, mindfulness, reflection, vulnerability, honesty, trust, respect, authenticity, reciprocity and generosity. They require our whole being, and we require whole relationships to truly be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. I like Moustakas’s thinking on relationships in terms of “being with,” together…

Moustakas, Being-In, Being-For, Being-With (1995, p. 70, 71):

In the authentic relationship, there is a facing up to the feelings and issues, an exercise of wills, without the will on either side being negated, impaired, or broken. The will ignites the fires of determination and enables one to face the old patterns of criticism, adversity, and rejection; enables one to live with the negative feelings and thoughts while creating new images and meanings in the process.

And finally why is this all necessary? We have realised, through our project, that for people to manage the unsettled nature of the work they are doing, the relationships they develop help to provide a sort of human glue. Our project is a decolonizing one. It asks people to question their very foundations – the worldviews they hold and the values it supports. This is disruptive, destablising and disconcerting. Relating to others in this contested space enables people to feel safe during such struggle and each feels care and concern for the other.

Conversation is relationship. How we relate to each other occurs through our language and communication (verbal, body, explicit, implicit, coded, power-laden, and so on). A space in which to converse is potentially a decolonizing space – a contested space. It is a space that enables many different views to be shared without persecution and where each voice is respected in the representation of the speaker’s worldview. It’s not easy to maintain such a space but is necessary if decolonizing is to occur. Interestingly, the etymology of “contested” is, “to bear witness together” – I love it! :o)…

Decolonizing work – looks like undoing structures, breaking current habits and pausing current actions and processes – destabilising, ground moves from under us, we can no longer rely on what we know and think of as ‘truth’ and so feel displaced and uncertain. I’m reminded of Iseke’s work with Canadian Elders when thinking about how this work can decolonize, through the very presence of the Elders and their spiritual rites, rituals and knowledge.

More thoughts to come, and though this may not be well structured as yet, I’m feeling the urge to write otherwise it’s difficult to get the words out at all!

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More on patience…or is it action?

Patience alone consumes itself in mere prattle; impatience alone consumes itself in irresponsible activism. Virtue, then, does not lie in experiencing either without the other but, rather, in living the permanent tension between the two. The educator must live and work impatiently patiently, never surrendering entirely to either Freire (1998: 44)

I’m beginning to see how our intentions flow into actions, through the mechanisms that guide our thinking in the social sphere. In his collection of letters to teachers, Freire (1998) talks about the progressive educator having the foresight to stay with the tension between patience and impatience, as he describes in the above quote.

Patience clarifies our thinking (intention), while impatience sparks our actions.

Is it that we must grow in our wisdom to know when one or the other is needed?

I think my quest for patience needs to expand into a quest to tolerate uncertainty!

Being tolerant does not mean acquiescing to the intolerable… Tolerance is the virtue that teaches us to live with the different. It teaches us to learn from and respect the different Freire (1998).

Image: Etienne Valois (Flickr)

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Spirituality as decolonizing: Judy Iseke

Voices in the Wind is a film series produced through Judy Iseke’s research with First Nation Elders in Canada.

Some of the concepts that resonated with me when reading Iseke’s work include

  • spirituality as decolonizing


  • research as ceremony.

These are powerful concepts enacted through the lens of cultural knowledge and everyday practices.

Iseke explains the work of the Elders as decolonizing work, which verifies “understandings of relationships to land, cosmos, and spiritual traditions embodied in their healing and ceremonial practices” (p. 36) that she explores in her paper titled Spirituality as decolonizing: Elders Albert Desjarlais, George McDermott, and Tom McCallum share understandings of life in healing practices (2013).

In terms of decolonizing then, Iseke notes, through her sharing in ceremonial practices with the Elders that

When one enters into the ceremonies and connects with the power of the land and all relations, it is no longer possible to continue to be in a colonized state. One is freed by grandfathers, the spirits, and the connections to Creator to live in a decolonized state (2013: 47).

Attending Noel Nannup’s storytelling series (The Carers of Everything creation story) this past month, to learn more about Nyoongar culture, has helped me realise the inextricable link between people, land and knowledge. Noel describes cultural practices as perpetuating the relationship between spirituality, culture and environment that has served Nyoongar peoples for thousands of years, and these practices are embodied – indeed lived – in ceremonial stories, songs, dance, and art.

Nyoongar Elder, Noel Nannup, talks about Spirituality.

In this regard, ceremony and ritual are profoundly important to enacting spirit and thus living a spiritually connected life, not separated from everyday practices and activities. As Iseke recounts, “life is lived like a ceremony” (2013: 38). The role of the Elders is pivotal to ensuring the authenticity and perpetuity of these cultural practices:

The Elders’ presence ensured that the ceremonies invited and included all those present, including the mostly non-Indigenous [film] crew that learned something about how to live in ceremony from these [research] experiences (2013: 38).

The presence of an inclusive ethos is evident to me in this quote too, another aspect I think is central to decolonizing – there must be “room in the tent” for us all.

Finally, Iseke recounts the advice from the Elders with whom she collaborates and notes that there is no substitute for direct experience; it is the way to truly understand ceremony and cultural practices, and ultimately decolonize ourselves through them:

The ceremonial practice of altering vibrations [eg. through music] helps us to be different and to connect to our understandings of the world at new levels and in new ways (2013: 50).

Our evaluation is seen in a new and different way in light of these understandings, or investigations. I’m curious to talk more with the Nyoongar Elders and understand how they draw connections between country, family and spirituality. No doubt it will be another humbling conversation or ten!

This line of thinking takes my own inquiry into a more spiritual place, and I’m not sure yet what it means (or will mean), but will remain patient and take a leap of faith to explore it further.

Further reading:

Styres, S, 2011, Land as first teacher: A philosophical journey, Reflective Practice, Vol 12, No 6, 717-731:

Land as first teacher is a contemporary engagement with Indigenous philosophies derived from a land-centred culture and based on very old pedagogies. These very old pedagogies are an acknowledgment and an honouring of the art and science embedded in traditional teaching practices (2011: 717).

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From hard work to heart work

In recent times, I have understood that hard work is preceded by heart work, if hard work is to truly pay off for us in a productive and sustained way. I have been deepening my understanding of reflective practice especially in my current work and am sitting with these aspects to do with ‘heart work’.

Creating conditions for ‘heart work’, some initial ‘conclusions’…
Precondition: Be mindful of your intention and sit with it long enough for it to move from your head to your heart. Only then will your work be heart work!

Lesson 1: Get to know the conditions so well that you can describe them to another in detail.
Lesson 2: Be patient and sit with this necessary knowledge growth (or information gathering phase) – this connects your head with your heart.
Lesson 3: Test your understanding of the conditions with others, so that you are not only clarifying your own knowledge, but are – through your interactions – sharing knowledge too (this declares your position to others as well).
Lesson 4: Let your actions be governed by heartfelt intentions rather than that little voice that says “I should…” (this way we are fully aware of our responsibilities for our own actions).
Lesson 5: Enjoy the struggle, because usually it’s something you care deeply about.

Now, here’s the story…

Image from I ♥ Inspiration

I had a lovely and inspiring reflective afternoon yesterday with a dear friend of mine, who facilitated a visual reflection activity with me. I had, the previous week, chosen a series of images that spoke to the question I had, that is, “How did I see my (research / facilitator) role in the project that I am currently working on?” The origin of this question was borne out of the move of the project to the next phase, an evaluation whereby service providers and local Nyoongar Elders would work together to review and reshape the way services were being delivered.

I chose my reflective images without analysis or judgment, but with feeling – that is, my reaction or connection to them. For the rest of the week I sat with the images, peering at their detail and wondering at my connection to them (again, without judgment or analysis). I then began describing the images in turn, which sparked a further connection to them. I grouped them, moved them around, regrouped them, and so on. After a week, I felt I could engage with another in uncovering my thoughts about the images I was working with.

I also began to realise that I needed to sit with my feeling of impatience in understanding their meaning to me. I was aware that I was not yet ready to delve into an analysis until I had really got to know them and become incredibly familiar with them (that is, so that I could describe them to someone else in a vivid and detailed way).

It is from here that I diverge from my imagery story to settle on the focus of this blog post! (Maybe I’ll write some other time about image-based reflection)…

This is about intention. What I realized through this exploration of reflection using images is how we are connected to – or disconnected from – our intentions. Being patient enough to allow these forms of connections to emerge is challenging.

Often we are intent on doing something. We set our sights on it and we work to get it done. However, I think often we are not truly mindful of our intentions when we do things. We get to the end of the day with a sense that we’ve completed many things and “been busy” (which, I argue, is the most overused and least understood phrase in our everyday!), yet often we do not reflect back to how well our actions and engagements matched our original intentions, or whether we were fully attuned to them in the first place. We also need to refine our observational skills so that we can better ‘see’ the world around us, and also realize our place in it.

So, in laying out the “lessons learned” above, I have included a precondition; that is, to ask myself what is my intention, and have I matched my intent with my feelings about them? That is, have I taken the time “to feel into the tone and emotion of that intention as well as stating it verbally to yourself or out loud” (see para: 13, Wise Heart, L. Lowe-Chardé, December 13, 2012)?


Our feelings determine our thoughts and our actions, whether we are mindful of this or not. They also provide us clues to our value positions, add to our personal stories, and echo our assumptions, as well as our histories. Our intentions further echo this and if we are mindful of how and what pushes our buttons, then we can both be triggered by and align with what we truly care about.

If we can align these three rings [What we do – How we do it – Why we do it], we are putting our best selves forward.  We have integrity between action and intention – and with purpose.   We do the right things, in the right ways, for the right reasons.  This reason I’m committed to practicing emotional intelligence is that it gives me a way to create integrity – alignment between who I am and who I mean to be (End para, Freedman,, 7 Aug 2013).

If we can do this, then we don’t need to struggle everyday being busy with hard work, but can struggle intentionally with heart work; doing things we really care deeply about.

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Moustakas: The meaning of relationship

Moustakas, Being-In, Being-For, Being-With (1995, p. 70, 71):

In the authentic relationship, there is a facing up to the feelings and issues, an exercise of wills, without the will on either side being negated, impaired, or broken. The will ignites the fires of determination and enables one to face the old patterns of criticism, adversity, and rejection; enables one to live with the negative feelings and thoughts while creating new images and meanings in the process.

What assists us in overcoming the harmful roots of relationship is a new relationship, the presence of a sensitive and caring human being, a friend, teacher, counselor, or therapist. The new relationship is anchored in the reality of one person’s presence to another, in the being there, and in the safety, security, compassion, and acceptance of this other person.

In his chapter on the meaning of relationship, Clark Moustakas talks about rhythms and rituals and the concepts of reciprocity and attunement, as well as “bodying forth” (pp. 79-81) as the necessary and basic conditions for engaging positively with others in an intimate way. As with the title of his book, he talks about “being” as central to relationships that are full, whole, creative and significant.

And so by way of connection… I was scanning through my photos and landed on this one of a fern frond, and it struck me that relationships are curled and circular in this way. One element must unfurl in order to make way for another, and so on. There is no rushing this. Patience is the key.

My mental ‘note to self’ this week is – patience, to be-with.

Fern frond
Photo by Marg on Flickr

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