In Awe of All Our Relations with Barry Boyce

In this rich conversation, founding editor Barry Boyce shares what he learned about awe, our relationship with nature, and each other while visiting the National Museum of the American Indian.

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Real Mindful: In Awe of All Our Relations with Barry Boyce

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Stephanie Domet: Hello, and welcome to Real Mindful. This is where we speak mindfully about things that matter.

We’ll meet here twice a month to introduce you to some of the teachers, thinkers, writers, and researchers who are engaged in the mindfulness movement. You’ll hear all kinds of conversations here about the science of mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness, and the heart of it. And if you have been a listener of Point of View with Barry Boyce, you have come to the right place. Barry is our guest today, as a matter of fact.

I’m Stephanie Domet. I’m the managing editor at mindful magazine and mindful.org. And this is Real Mindful.

Barry Boyce is the founding editor of Mindful and mindful.org, and in every issue of the magazine, he writes the back-page column “Point of View.” Barry has a deep mindfulness practice developed over decades, and is the author of The Mindfulness Revolution

Barry dropped by my place on a cool fall day recently to tell me about a trip he took, pre-pandemic, to Washington, DC to visit a pair of Smithsonian museums. He wrote about his visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Winter 2020 issue of Mindful. And in the October issue, which is on stands now, Barry wrote about his visit to the National Museum of the American Indian.

We recorded this conversation just after Canada’s first official National Truth and Reconciliation Day, and this episode comes out just after National Indigenous People’s Day in the United States. 

SD: Barry Boyce, hello. 

Barry Boyce: Hello, Steph. Nice to be doing this again.

SD: Nice to see you in person for once. 

BB: Yeah, it’s lovely. A rare treat. A rare treat in the pandemic. World of zooming, indeed.  

SD: And in the pre-pandemic world, you had an incredible opportunity to go to Washington, DC and tour a couple of the Smithsonian museums and write about them for Mindful. I want you to tell me all about going to the I think it’s called the Museum of the American Indian

BB: I’ve been hearing about the National Museum of the American Indian since it first opened. Lots of people know the great things about the building and the exhibits there, and also at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. I made a special trip to visit both of them and it was really quite a wonderful experience. It made me feel so good about America that these museums exist and that people could go there and walk in for free and see these wonderful exhibits. 

First of all, actually talking about the anachronism of calling it the “American Indian”—obviously that’s a heavily-weighted, freighted term. But, at the time they put the museum together, it was still the term of art in the U.S., rather than “Native Americans,” or “First Nations,” or “Indigenous people.” But those are the terms that I would prefer to use to talk about Indigenous peoples and Indigeneity. It was a great visit. 

One of the first things is the architecture, just looking at the building itself. It’s designed by Douglas Cardinal. So, Douglas Cardinal is an Indigenous Canadian architect who did the incredible Museum of History, which sits across the Rideau River from Parliament Hill in  Ottawa.

SD: A phenomenal museum.  

BB: A phenomenal museum and a really special place and inside and out with a curvaceous, organic, earthy feel to it, the inside and outside communicating with each other. Cardinal did something similar with this wonderful building in Washington, DC, and there’s a wetland there, right outside the museum, which is amazing and kind of interesting. The Mall in Washington, all the buildings are white and Greco-Roman with big lawns and this is a distinctly different environment right from the beginning. This building has a lot of color and a lot of earthiness, not the kind of staid and manicured feeling of the rest of of The Mall. 

SD: So even on the approach, you can see that you’re going to have quite a different experience in this building than you might have in any of those other official buildings. 

BB: Yeah, it changes your experience right off the bat. And as I also wrote about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where you start alters your experience immediately because you start deep in the basement and it’s very striking. The National Museum of the American Indian, it transforms what you are seeing and your worldview. 

When you go inside, there are no corners, it’s all curvaceous.I think it’s a principle of biology that nature doesn’t do right angles. 

SD: I love that so much because I imagine the ways in which it must be subtly and also not-subtly working on your own perceptions to suddenly be in this built environment that’s mimicking nature in that way because so few of our built environments do that.  

BB: It’s interesting. You see how nature erupts sidewalks, roads, and houses, they start going curvy.  

Some of these exhibits may change by the time you get there, but you can do a lot of visiting online. The first place they direct you to is Cosmology, which is on the top floor where you see all these different versions of the medicine wheel. When we think of cosmology, we think of something that’s happening far off in space. The cosmos is this big thing and then we’re here leading our regular lives. In Indigigenous cosmologies, earth and heaven are intimately connected. The cosmos is here and surrounding us, as well. You understand your place to be not in a position of control, but of stewardship for a time. You are a steward of the plant life, the animal life, you are subject to the weather and the environment, and you adapt how you behave to that. 

SD: Rather than trying to control it in the ways that we love to think that we can subvert it, control it, and contain it. 

BB: You know, Las Vegas has had to get rid of lawns because Las Vegas was filled with all these lawns. 

SD: Which is incongruous in a desert.

BB: Completely. And using up loads of water resources. It’s a classic example of not being in touch with and adapting to and being a steward of the land. And in this era, we have an awful lot to learn about that. 

In Each of the cosmologies, there was a continuity in terms of the basic medicine wheel that, you know, looks at the world in terms of directions and animals and colors, and sees things in a very holistic and global way. 

I want to say something about traditions and maybe actually spirituality. People who grew up on the land, there’s a natural spirituality that comes along with that. You know, what is your relationship with heaven and earth and other beings around you? So it’s about spirituality, not necessarily religion.  

SD: You connect to this in your column in the new issue of the magazine. You talk with Dacher Keltner awe and our capacity for that and its place in our lives. 

BB: It’s just “Wow, there’s something way bigger and I’m integrated into it.” It can just overtake you in a second. And sometimes around the magazine we talk about “woo-woo”and a lot of people are wary of what woo-woo. And I want to say what we mean by that and what we don’t mean by that. I think it’s important to make that distinction. What we mean by that is a simplistic notion that by meditating for a couple of minutes, sudden transformations are going to take place and if you’re going to hear the music of the spheres and—

SD: —the secrets of the universe will be revealed.

BB: Exactly. The stuff that just feels like it’s an overpromise and a shortcut past doing the work of actually having to settle down and be in the here and now, noticing others, noticing what’s going on in your body and mind, and then seeing what emerges from there, rather than taking some kind of shortcut to an airy fairy promised kind of place. However, indigenous spirituality is not woo-woo. That’s not what we’re referring to. And I’ll give you a pretty good example.My Celtic ancestors had, by all evidence, an incredible spirituality, druid culture and some kind of hermitage culture. I visited some of the hermitage caves that in the pre-Christian era people meditated in, or whatever they did in pre-Christian times in Ireland. At the same time, there are all sorts of books and things promoting Celtic spirituality, but for the most part, the direct line from people who practice those things has pretty much been lost. So, what you’re getting is something that somebody is making up. That doesn’t work so well because you’re not connected to a real tradition. 

SD: Right. That authenticity, receiving those teachings, being part of that lineage, for instance. Solid language. Yeah.  [00:16:39][6.8]

BB: Right. That’s why preserving Indigenous traditions and spirituality is important. Many of them are still intact, some just barely. One can connect with it in an authentic way. Whether one practices these or not, one can learn about them, even just going and seeing these different cosmologies. No matter how much we’ve built up our world and how proud we are of all our institutions, we’re still here on earth. We still eat. The food still comes out of the dirt. It still has to be fed by rain. 

SD: We’re nature. We can be easily convinced that we’re separate from nature, but we’re part of it. It’s part of us. 

BB: And I think that is wisdom we need to connect to and that sense of all that Indigenous peoples preserve and in many cases are trying to return to. We just celebrated the first Truth and Reconciliation Day, also known as Orange Shirt Day in Canada to celebrate Indigenous peoples and to be aware of the attempts to eradicate that world, and what we all need to do going forward. I think with what’s going on with the climate and the resource burden that we’ve put on the planet and heights of technology we’ve reached, not really bringing us into the new golden age, I think this will be an important phenomenon for us all to relate to. 

SD: And for you, as a longtime mindfulness practitioner, bells must have been ringing left, right and center for you. I’m imagining there was deep resonance in what you were seeing in the museum and your mindfulness practice.  

BB: Very much so. I think mindfulness is not a cultural practice per se. Well, many of the practices were highly developed and advanced in Asian cultures. Any mindfulness practice is drawing on basic human capability we have, and it connects us to earth and to our environment and to where we are now. Indigenous practices have that kind of innate, inherent mindfulness about them and I definitely connected with that. It’s interesting to keep learning about Indigenous practices such as storytelling that have a mindfulness component to them that are really true mindfulness practices. 

SD: So once you spent some time in awe on the cosmology level, then what happened to you in that museum? 

BB: The next place I went to was sort of a shock in the other direction. I went to to a wonderful exhibit, a quite detailed exhibit about treaties. Again, I knew a bit going in, but I learned more while I was there. I think one of the most significant things to appreciate is that Indigenous peoples had been making treaties among themselves for a long time. It’s well known that the Indigenous peoples in ancient times went to war over territory. H