In her work, Angeles Arrien seeks to show the interconnectedness of several disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, language, and religion. In addition, Ms. Arrien is concerned with facilitating dialogue between people of different ages and cross culturally, to find creative solutions to world problems. As a result, her work with problem solving has been used by both the International Rights Commission and the World Indigenous Council. She is the president of the Angeles Arrien Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research, an organization which she founded.
Ms. Arrien is an educator who has taught in the University of California system at Berkeley, Los Angeles, Irvine, Davis, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. She is also an associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
Ms. Arrien has published several books, including Signs of Life: The Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them, as well as The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols.
Mount Madonna, Dec 1999 and 2002
Probably the hardest thing for me to describe is what Angeles does, so Angeles, I wonder if you could tell the kids a little bit about how you describe your work, and what propelled you there. And then anything you want to do we’ll do.
Oh my. Oh my, that gives me lots of latitude.
I was raised biculturally. I didn’t come to this county until I was seven years old, and didn’t really learn the English language until I was ten. I was raised in the Pyrenees mountains in Spain, for the first seven years of my life, and then my parents were on a three year visa in the largest Basque community (my heritage is Basque) which is located in Idaho, because of the sheep industry. So I would be in Idaho for three years, and then back in Spain for three years, and back and forth, until my late twenties. And that’s what got me really interested in international work, and cross cultural work, and really what shaped my interest in cultural anthropology, because what I wanted to do was something that was international involving music, art, and philosophy. With cultural anthropology I could then study all the ways that we were really connected as a human species and culturally what we have in common but also how to appreciate the diversity.
So I’ve had the privilege of doing a lot of work internationally in conflict resolution work. I do a lot of mediation work; I did a lot of work with 300 emerging leaders with the youth of South Africa connected with Nelson Mandela’s work of reconciliation.
I’ve been really committed to honoring the perennial wisdoms and the points of unity where we meet, and also how we can honor the rich differences and diversity. I work with people who have long known how to take care of and steward the earth. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Hawaiians who know how to navigate the seas by the stars. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Africans who are the great trackers of the world. They know the flight patterns of birds. They can track any human being, any animal. They know nature. I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan really learning the art of relationships through hours and hours of studying the old art of the tea ceremony. Also I’ve worked in China with the ancient herbs and the healing ways of acupuncture. So it’s been a very interesting life and an exciting life, because I’ve been able to travel and meet different people with different cultures and different ways. I’m just totally amazed with how much we have in common, and how artificial the barriers are–the barriers of color, and those between different ways of living. We could really support each other by honoring the differences, and learn from each other.
So I do a lot of international conflict resolution work. I helped set up the first bicultural law institute in New Zealand among the Maories and the English people there so that their fishing rights and their land rights could be honored. I’ve spent a lot of time with the world indigenous council that’s sponsored by the United Nations. I do a lot of writing, speaking, teaching, and traveling. So that’s been a lot of my international work. And in doing anthropology I’ve also specialized in comparative religions of the world, also my own heritage, I was raised in the Basque mystical traditions, so I also have a doctorate in divinity, as well as a doctorate in anthropology. I also have a doctorate in transformational education, which is one of my great loves.
I’ve written seven books, that hopefully will increase tolerance in the world and help youth be able to make a contribution, and elders make a contribution, because those are the two largest groups that I feel that, especially in this culture, are being disenfranchised. Our youth aren’t being called forward to really be involved in creative problem solving in some of the world issues, and the national issues, and the local issues. We need the fresh creative thinking and energy and the vitality. And neither are our elders being called forward. So that’s why I’m concerned with what I call a three circle council, which is intergenerational, multicultural, and also multidisciplinary. And I’ve found that everyone really wants to make a contribution. And what if we harnessed all those gifts and talents? What if we would all show up and pay attention to what has heart meaning, really go after what has fire in our lives?
I think America is a land where one of the greatest most exciting experiments is taking place, which is the experiment of diversity. We have more diversity in this culture than anywhere else in the world. It’s an experiment really in how we can join in relationship and in community.
So I have been really interested in what are the universals. I think it’s so interesting that every culture in the world has an educational model of some kind. There’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t have a medical model, or an alternative medicine model, or a folk medicine model. There’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t have the creative arts, or the performing arts, there’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t have singing, dancing, and storytelling. There’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t have laws surrounding governance leadership. If every culture in the world has these four things then why aren’t we looking at what works worldwide? Why can’t we take a look at what those have in common and start allowing a place of joining regardless of our diversity? The place that we do join is through music. Worldwide we somehow forget our differences through music. We join through music, the arts, and sports. So my life work is about discovering places where the human spirit joins. Where we can connect and honor the differences.
There are also three universal processes that every human being is involved in whether you’re in Africa or China or among the island people of the world. They are, first, the work with self. That is the longest relationship that you are ever going to have. Who you eat with the most, sleep with the most, shower with the most is yourself. That’s the relationship that you have to really begin to trust. Be a great friend unto yourself. The second universal process is one that we are all involved in as human beings; our relationship with each other; one to one work. Then the third process is a group work, collective work, community work, or teamwork.
The work with self involves attending to character development. Human beings are here for two purposes: one, to learn about love and to express love, and the other is to create. What is it that I am creating? What is my life dream or contribution that I want to make to the world, and how can I express what’s in my heart? The love of friendship, the love that’s found between a mentor and a mentee, or a teacher and a student is where we impact each other, and there’s a lot that can be done in that one to one work. Many of the cultures of the world believe that there is much we can do by ourselves, and that we can do with our partner, or with our friend or colleague, but there are a thousand and one things that we can do in community together or in a team. Many of the old cultures of the world know that you can only survive in community. For example it has been discovered that if you truly want to survive you must be in communities of at least eleven or more people.
Some of us like being by ourselves. We like solitude, enjoy self-containment, and that work with self. Others hate being alone and hate solitude. Some like the one-to-one work, the relationship work, and others love being in groups. Some people hate groups, and love the one to one work and being with themselves. Still others love being alone, love groups, but when they get together one to one at lunch they get all shy and awkward. The mark of a healthy person is someone who is comfortable with themselves, comfortable if they were to just hang out with one other person, and comfortable in a group or team. It might be interesting to see which one of those three processes you’re the most comfortable with, or the least comfortable with.
I think that education has to be a ground that teaches us about life skills, so that it’s relevant. It prepares me to be a better citizen, a better community member. Education should really be teaching people how to be their best selves, and how to lead their best lives. It should be a place of character development, where integrity and honesty are really values.
I am so glad in this time in history because I think it’s an exciting time. It’s a hard time, it’s a challenging time, but I really see a call to creativity, and creative problem solving. Where we can put issues–national issues, or local issues, or cultural issues, or political issues–in the middle of the floor and have places where if you have enough diverse people with diverse minds that we can problem solve that we have. But it needs all of us to be engaged. I just want to encourage you to show up and pay attention to what has heart and meaning, and tell the truth, and plan well, and prepare well, and then be open to the outcome. Really foster the qualities of leadership; patience, flexibility, courage, and honesty. So I hope that gives you an idea of some of my passions
So I want to ask one question, and then they can have at you. In Multiple Modernities, Tu Wei-Ming put forward the notion that there are more ways to be modern then just Western democratic capitalism. So if we strip away modernity, I think that’s what happened with Sobonfu Somé, we really get down to what a human being needs to mature in the village, in the community. So could you say something from that standpoint about what you know about this age group and what it is that this age group needs to have in terms of initiating themselves into adulthood? If we take away the fact that here we are in California, what’s universal?
Well, worldwide, the ages of youth go from 1 to 35. And I think the task cross culturally for youth is to come into their gifts, to come into their dream, and into what has fire for you, what really has heart and meaning for you. And if you could do and explore what you really want to do, especially indigenous cultures, you would choose at least three people you always wanted to learn from. And you’d go after it. So if you were to think about people that you really admire, or that are exemplars for you, and you were to write them a letter, nine times out of ten you’ll get a response, because you’re a youth. Never underestimate that. Who would you want to write to and say, “This is an area that I truly want to explore in my life, and could you give me at least three references that are absolutely essential, or could you spend an hour with me on the phone?” It’s up to you at this age to be proactive in initiating the contact. So how proactive am I in creating my dreams? Are you disciplined? Do you keep your commitments? Will you say that you made a mistake, when you made a mistake?
It’s important that the task for youth is, “Who do I admire? Who captures my attention?” Because that’s part of my dream in some way. And that’s your responsibility, in the initiatory process, to choose your mentors well. And also to place yourself well in what’s captured your imagination, around your own dream. So maybe we’ll do this popcorn style. Who would you really like to learn from?
Dead people. John Muir.
Yeah, John Muir. And that’s where the ancestors, traditionally people who came before us, and historical people that we admire and respect, are also part of our dream, as well as contemporaries. Traditionally people say that our male ancestors–the great-grandfathers, our grandfathers, our fathers, our uncles, our brothers–stand behind us on the right side, and our female ancestors–the great-grandmother, the grandmother, the sister, the aunt–stand behind us on the left side. And they say, “Oh, maybe this one will be the one who will bring forward the good, true and beautiful from all the past generation and the generations to come. Maybe this one will be the one that will bring the end to all the harmful family patterns, maybe this one will be the one.”
You are the one. You are the one.
Who else do you admire?
I’m really into sports. But if I were to go to someone to someone I look up to, an athlete, what do you think I could get from them? What could he give me that I don’t already know? I don’t know what wisdom I could acquire from them.
One of the questions I would always ask the heroes or the heroines, or the people whom I admire, is, “What would you do differently?” Because there’s where you’re going to get the learning: from the mistakes. And they’ll not want you to repeat the mistakes that they went through. So an invaluable question is, “if you had to do it differently, would you do it differently?”
And what would you do differently?
What would I do differently? When I was 23, if somebody had told me I wouldn’t have at least five children, I would have said you were crazy. But the life that I’ve had, it’s a much bigger life. Now instead of having five children I’ve had a thousand children all over the world, people whom I love very deeply. It was just a bigger dream. I think that we put our dreams in small cages but our dreams are huge, and sometimes we get little glimpses of our dream. But what I would have done differently?
I made a vow when I was 33 years old that I would not do anything that didn’t have heart and meaning for me. That I would not teach anything that didn’t have fire. No matter what. And I didn’t want to do things that were boring, I didn’t want to do things like a factory, just kind of going through something because it was expected thing to do. I don’t know that I would do anything different. I feel like somehow I got on the right bus and it allowed me to be able to be exposed to many different people and create those opportunities.
I really liked the metaphor of putting everything on the floor, and everyone has to work it out together. I was wondering if you thought that the whole group should work it out together, or if there would be a leader who would naturally come up from that, or if there should be a leader.
Well I think what’s interesting that happens is that if we were going to work on a problem, and we had elders here sitting in between us, and we also had different cultures represented, we would break up, into internationally you work in problem solving in groups of five and you come up with your best solutions in that group. And then we go around and say these are our best solutions that we came up with for this problem. And then we discuss it as a whole council, and there’s rotational leadership. For the morning there’s always co leadership, there’s always two people who will volunteer and say, “We’ll take the morning.” And then two others take the afternoon, and the evening. So it’s always modeling cooperation and collaboration rather than competition or one-pointed leadership, which is in the old model.
I always make sure that I have at least seven year olds, through eighteen year olds because some of the freshest, most original, ingenious ideas, the most innovative solutions to world hunger came from a seven year old, who said, “well, everybody has pennies. Let’s just collect all the pennies.”
And not to judge the ideas that come in, that’s another thing. And usually the person who has not spoken is the one who has the solution. So it’s making sure to lift every voice, to hear every voice. That’s really important. Also be aware of your critical attitudes towards others. Who is on the receiving end of your silent judgments? Start becoming aware of that before you go because whoever is on the receiving end of that silent judgment is someone who may have the solution at the most important time. You must be able to count on that. Teamwork is really a primary teaching on patience and compassion. Constantly stay open to each other and see who is going to catalyze the learning. Don’t hold back, especially if something excites you and interests you. Really go for it and don’t worry about how you’re coming across. You don’t have to worry about that if you are respectful. The true meaning of the word ‘respect’ comes from the Greek word ‘respectar,’ which means “the willingness to look again.”
You need to have the ability to look again at each other here because it is an awesome fact that not one of you is duplicated anywhere else in the world. You have a unique imprint, fingerprint, which no one else has. If we put all of our voices on a sonogram every voice here would have a very different pattern, so you need to bring your voice into the world. If we were to take our irises in our eyes there are no two irises in the world that are alike, and so we need to bring our unique vision to the world, we need to make an imprint in the world, and we need to bring our voice forward.
You said earlier that you’d like to see youth more involved in national and local decision making, and I was wondering how that could be made possible. And you also said that the most creative and freshest ideas came from youth. So they can still bring forth good ideas without experience of knowledge?
It just seems that in specific situations, especially on a national level, young minds might not have the background knowledge to understand the situation. I suppose maybe, when provided with that they might come up with good ideas. So my follow up question is how can we start to get youth more involved in decision making and problem solving. And I guess one of the answers is, to provide them with the knowledge needed.
Bring the issues forward. One of the things I think is interesting is, “what are five issues that interest me? Do I have five issues that I’m really interested in?” And then it’s my responsibility to inform myself. What’s the information that I really need on these issues, how can I inform myself, who can I talk to, what can I read, and then where can I place myself to be a contributing and creative catalyst?
Every small town or large town has a city council meeting, and they publish the city council meeting. The youth in Mill Valley , CA started going to the meetings, because they really wanted to make sure that the streams that went out into the ocean, to really rework salmon tributaries. And they were responsible for cleaning up and making sure legislation was passed. And it was the youth who made it happen.
This is just something going off Kelsey’s, why we may think that is because we just studied Derek Walcott and he said there’s no such thing as a prodigy poet, and it goes exactly against what you just said. And our class really had a problem with this topic, because we basically can’t have fresh or new ideas, and perfect a skill without having the background and the experience of it.
Well, it’s very interesting because the Zen monks in Japan would totally disagree with that. Every person here could write a haiku in less then ten minutes. Haikus are three line poems. The first and the last lines have to have five syllables, and the middle line has seven. It also has to contain a nature metaphor; it has to have trees or butterflies or lakes or people. Anything from nature. Write about something that really has meaning for you. Something that you absolutely love.
Here are a couple of haikus I have written. When I was in the rainforest, I never wanted to forget this experience so I wrote a haiku.
Jaguar with green eyes
Peers through rainforest and vines
Here’s another one. I think that communication is really a miracle. It’s something that wells up inside and then you speak it and then it goes away. So here’s the poem:
Is like a white flying bird
Rests on bamboo reed
And there’s another that came after I’d been meditation. I was about to give a big speech in Switzerland. And I was meditating about what would be important to say and I came across a great lake of shyness in my nature, and I thought, “I don’t want to forget that because it’s an important part of who I am.” So I wrote
A shy meadowlark
Sings a loud relentless song
So have at it. Three lines, make your metaphor. And remember, there’s a difference between perfection and excellence.
I’m probably the only one who can’t write one in ten minutes.
That’s because it’s the creative one who takes a little longer. But I know there’s something there. And thanks for honoring your timing. It’s an important thing. Many people think we can’t do that.
So, there are two kinds of tracking skills that I’d like to share with you. They are important to keep and review so you can track how you’re internalizing experience and also where you are. Traditional peoples worldwide think about four questions. “What’s strengthened in my nature this year?” And then the second question to track is, “What has softened in my nature this year? Where have some of the rough edges rounded out? Where have I become more flexible? What has become rounder or fuller or more textured?” Because we’re often wanting to be strong, but there’s a potent power in softness that goes with kindness or dignity or grace. “What has softened in my nature, or where have I carried more grace and dignity or refinement this year?” And then the third question, “what is totally opened in my nature?” That would include new interests, new hobbies, new ideas, new relationships. The last one is, “What has deepened in my nature this year? Or what’s fallen into place or come together this year?”
And then to think about as we move into this next year, “What’s calling to be strengthened? Where do I need to strengthen my self this year, this next year?” And you ask the same questions, “What’s calling to be softened? Where have I become protective, or inflexible or rigid?” That’s where softening need to take place. And, “Where do I need to deepen, become more trustworthy and solid and accountable or responsible?” That’s depth this next year. And, “What do I need to open to? What’s calling me, new ideas. What’s calling to be opened in my nature?”
It’s important to become a good tracker, because then I know I’m still alive, and still growing. If I can still be inspired, then I am alive, I’m not settling for less. And you don’t want to settle, ever. Because that is the beginning of walking the procession of the living dead.
Earlier, you mentioned the disillusionment of modern youth in America. A classic example would be in the 60’s and 70’s when the youth took that discontent and that disillusionment and acted on it. It seems to me that this sort of attitude would have been perpetuated into the succeeding generations, and the youth would have become progressively more active, but that’s not the case. I was wondering if you think this outcome is part of a natural cycle, and perhaps in a few decades it will happen again, or if this was a once in history occurrence.
Oh no, not a once in history occurrence. In the 60’s and 70’s there was a great opening that the youth created at that time, and now those people who were the youth in the 60’s and 70’s are now becoming the elders, and there will be another, what’s called “Grey revolution.” They will make sure that their eldering options are different.
I think that probably in every other generation such an occurrence will take place, and your generation is going to make a big difference. During the 60’s and 70’s there was a philosophical opening and a lifestyle opening of giving people other choices of how to be more authentic. I think that right now there is a sneak preview of what we’re moving towards. That is a movement from a power, status, control, and domination oriented society into a wisdom society. What are the choices that will come out of a wisdom society as opposed to a power, status driven society? I think that shift began in the 60’s and 70’s. I think it was the first wave but I don’t think that it is going to be the only wave. I think your generation has an opportunity to create a wisdom society, and a society with strong values that can manifest in community and be creative. It will be based on different values, and is interesting in relationship to the values course you have been studying here at Mount Madonna School.
So I’d just like to take you through one little exercise before we close. Blank sheet of paper, and we’re going to do four signatures. For the first signature, I want you to write your signature, your first and last name like you would every day. Write your name, don’t print you name. Ok? Everybody done? You’ve all had the experience of mastery. This is what mastery feels like, it’s effortless, it’s easy, you can count on it, you didn’t get self conscious about. That’s your gifts and talents, because they are what has ease for you and what has flow for you. That’s where your mastery is. It doesn’t have to be any harder then signing your name
But shouldn’t you still challenge yourself?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Both/and. So now, we are being asked, at this time in history, to apply our skills and our talents in new ways, in different contexts. So now I want you to put your pen in your opposite hand, and you are now being asked to apply your skills, in new way, in a different context. And I want you to write your name. And this signature is very important, because we’ll always be asked to apply our gifts in new ways.
There are three things you had to do with this second signature. You had to slow down, a very important thing to remember when your gifts are being asked to be applied in new ways, and different places is you have to slow down. The signature is either larger or smaller than the first signature. But it is larger or smaller is to say that when we are asked to apply our gifts in a different context we either have to get bigger, larger, or we have to go deeper, if it’s smaller, and we have to trust our mastery, if it’s the same. But you never get smaller. If your signature is smaller it means you are getting deeper. So it’s important not to constrict with your gifts ever, even if you’re asked to apply them in new ways, in different contexts. Get larger, go deeper. But never smaller. And the second signature is often childlike, and it’s important to keep our childlike curiosity, and it’s important to explore with awe and wonder and curiosity.
Now put your pen back in your regular hand that you write with. Sometimes you’re asked, in life, to go into situations blind. You don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, right? So close your eyes. You’re going into this relationship blind, close your eyes.
And it’s very important when you’re going into something that you’ve never done before, that you trust your gifts and talents. All of you could still write your signature even though you didn’t know how it would look. But you can still do it. It it’s important to never say that you can’t do it. You can take your skills and your gifts anywhere.
Ok, the next signature I want you to put your pen in your other hand and close your eyes. This time we’re going into our future. We really don’t know what our future is. We’re being asked to apply our skills in a different way an in a new context and we’re going in blind. This is to recognize that you have a great capacity for testing the unknown, and bringing your skill forward into the unknown, there a lot of trust there.
So this last signature tells us about how we approach change, how we handle change. The only constant is change. We are being asked to go out into the future, we don’t know what the outcome is, we’re asked to apply our skills in a different way that we never have before. So if my last signature is fairly clear, one of the gifts that I have in times of change, is that I know how to bring clarity, and organization, and definition. That’s a gift I have in how I approach change, I approach it with organizing things, or clarifying things, or defining things. If my signature is pretty jumbled up, and you can’t recognize it, is that how can I handle creative tension and chaos without moving to premature solutions? When there’s conflict and chaos, how can I hold the different points of view without moving to premature solutions? And that’s what needed in the future. We need to take action on those things that we’re clear about, that have some structure to them, and when they’re not clear to hold the creative tension until we can host as many different points of view as possible without moving to premature solutions. A lot of creative solutions are stopped because people can’t handle conflict, and one of the great careers of the future, and I think your generation in particular, it’s important to be well trained in mediation work, and in conflict resolution work.
Many people are conflict avoidant, we need to teach them how to stay in the conflict without escalating the conflict, but also not shutting it down because we’re too uncomfortable in it.
Thanks a lot. I really respect you and honor you and I am so excited. Our future will be a better place with you in it.