Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
39. The Knowing Inside

39. The Knowing Inside

It's hard to listen to your own heart in a world that demands you listen to everyone else first


There’s a story told by Abraham Maslow, the psychologist. Back in the 1930s, at the very start of his career, he did fieldwork among the Blackfoot people of southern Alberta. He wanted to test the idea of emotional security or insecurity across cultures. So he camped out for a summer on Blackfoot land and conducted his surveys and interviews.

What he found amazed him. He said that the Blackfoot people were collectively a lot more emotionally secure than ordinary Americans. The Blackfoot were so secure, he said, that 80 to 90 percent of them equaled the most secure people in the US. But these most-secure Americans made up only 5 or 10 percent of the population. Let me repeat that: only 5 to 10 percent of Americans were very secure emotionally, while 80 to 90 percent of the Blackfoot people were.

How could this be? Maslow wondered. What made the Blackfoot people so secure? As he watched Blackfoot parents and children that summer, he concluded that it was because parents showed greater respect to their children. He watched Blackfoot parents shower their children with love and affection and food treats. But while Americans would have said this “spoils” children and ruins their behavior, Maslow found instead that the Blackfoot children were very well behaved. Children almost never needed to be told something twice.

He also saw that parents gave their children respect by letting them take personal responsibility even at a very young age. Maslow remembered one little boy, maybe seven or eight years old. Teddy owned a precious item, a medicine bundle that was very valuable. And one day an adult offered to buy this medicine bundle from him. What did Teddy do? He dropped everything and went out in the wilderness by himself to meditate. Decades later Maslow told the story: “He went away for about two or three days and nights, camping out, thinking for himself. He did not ask his father or mother for advice, and they didn’t tell him anything. He came back and announced his decision.”

Maslow was floored by the story. He commented, “I can just see us doing that with a seven-year-old kid.”

It is hard to imagine any seven-year-old making a decision like this all by themselves, with no word from any adult. No advice, no input. From anyone.

Anyone human, that is.

Because Teddy didn’t exactly make that decision alone. He did go somewhere for advice. He went to the natural world. He made a solo trip to the wilderness to consult with earth and sky. To watch the patterns of hawks and tanagers and stars, to listen to poplars and birch and cicadas. To hear, over the course of a few days and nights, the voices of water and wind and the sound of his own heart beating.

And then he returned with his mind made up. I don’t know what he decided; Maslow didn’t say. But I bet he came back with peace of mind and never had to wonder in later years whether he had made the right choice. He went away to listen; he came back with an answer.

I was in junior high when Maslow published this story. If I had read it then, it would have made no sense to me. Well, part of it would have—the listening-to-trees part. I loved sitting under trees—the peace and quiet, the soft grass under me, how leaves rustled in a breeze when you really paid attention.

But letting a child make their own decision? And even more, expecting that a child will have what it takes to think for themselves? This was unheard of. I was brought up to believe that children must obey parents, that any adult has the last word over any child, and that until a person is an adult we don’t have the ability to make good decisions anyway because our brains are still developing.

Yet the Blackfoot people Maslow knew believed something different: that children can think for themselves. That the ability to make good decisions lies within them: it’s innate. That making a good decision does take time and attention but that kids can do it too.

I have to think that for the Blackfoot young people, just feeling this degree of trust and confidence from the adults around them gave them a sure emotional foundation. And as they practiced making decisions, they learned what did and didn’t work. Over time they developed confidence in their own perception. And they grew up to become the secure adults that Maslow was so surprised to find on the reservation.

This is a theme I hear often among Indigenous writers and thinkers: that as human beings, we have within us everything we need to make good decisions. The ability needs to be cultivated, yes—by keeping a good mind and an open heart—but it’s an ability that comes from within. It’s a native seed sprouting in our own native soil. Knowledge is not something we get from the outside. It emerges from within. And the journey to bring forward that knowledge and share it with others is the journey of a lifetime.

For example, Gregory Cajete, of the Santa Clara Pueblo, writes in his book Native Science, “It was understood that knowledge and creativity have their source in a person’s inner being. . . Self-reliance, even in young children, is based on the belief that all persons have the ability to know and to share, to bring forward great strides in understanding. . . .”

Willie Ermine, a Cree philosopher, says that each person holds “a universe of being within,” what he calls a “priceless core within each of us.” That’s why, in the traditional Native community, he says, each individual had “a right . . . to experience his or her own life. No one could dictate the path that must be followed.”

Alexis Wright, an Australian Aboriginal writer, talks about “sovereignty of mind.” It’s the place of freedom inside, she says, a home base within us that is not to be touched or violated by others. It’s the place where she goes to connect with her physical home—her land, her “country.” She goes inside for knowledge, which means she goes inside to visit the land, to hear it speak in her thoughts and dreams. In that “place of vision,” she says, inspired by the voices of the land, she can work with her own thoughts to bring forward new stories—more redemptive stories to help create a better world.

Sovereignty of mind is exactly what those who would control others cannot tolerate. Colonialism, authoritarianism, fascism, a social fabric woven of obedience and coercion—all these projects erase sovereignty of mind. They are all attempts to invade that place of inner freedom and take it over. To rub out the knowledge arising from within a person and to replace it with the knowledge and authority of someone else.

And Indigenous people are clear that Western colonialism has worked hard to erase inner knowing. Ilarion Merculieff, of the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands, talks about the sharp contrast between what he grew up with among his people and how the modern world works. In a recent Google talk he said, “Every child is a genius when they are born, and they know what needs to be done. And it’s taken out of us as we go along. Because the first thing that happens under today’s paradigm is, You must obey me, the parent. . . . You must do what I tell you to do.” This is “totally opposite,” he says, of how he was raised.

He says the process continues when the child enters school. Students are “indoctrinated,” he says, to give away their personal power to the outside authority of teachers and professors instead of listening to the wisdom arising from within. It’s “a crooked thing to our people,” he says. “It’s not aligned in harmony with all that is. . . .”

Because, he continues, “the only place we can get this harmony is from your heart. The heart never guides us wrong! Each of us has this heart that guides us impeccably correct. . . . [The heart] has love. It has compassion. It has patience. It has understanding. It has all these things, if we just let the heart do what it needs to do. . . .” And, he adds, “I’m only reminding you of what you already know! And the sages of the world have said that since the beginning! That all the answers are in your heart! In you!”

When I was growing up, raised to obey parents and all other adults, no one around me believed that all a person’s answers can be found in their own heart. How many even believe it now? To this day I still hear parents give orders to their children, even to their teenagers, and expect them to obey. We still don’t bring children up to pay attention to what they know within themselves, in the sense that it is not part of the curriculum, let alone a central feature of the curriculum, as it is in many Indigenous traditions. If, as we mature, we do become aware of our own knowing, it likely happens more because we step off the beaten path—getting divorced or going to therapy or taking up meditation—than because we follow the expected channels.

And we certainly don’t instill in young people the idea that knowing starts within. For us in Western societies, knowledge begins in what others say—parents, teachers, influencers, textbooks, thought leaders, politicians. The Western model, as these Native thinkers point out so clearly, is one of arriving at answers more through listening to others than to listening inside oneself.

There’s a long history behind this habit, so long and varied that I’m actually writing a book about it. But, for starters, let’s mention a few things here.

I think of slavery, which was still legal only a hundred years before I was born. A people that can own others is a people that does not believe in sovereignty of mind or sovereignty of body. It’s not just that white people considered Black people less than human; it’s that owning others was a thing that could be thought at all—and then, that rules and laws and whole constitutions could be written to support it.

I think too of our system of policing and prisons, a system built on enforcing good behavior from the outside. You can’t believe that punishment deters crime unless you believe that people can be coerced to be good—that goodness comes from outside a person and can be clamped onto them with ankle bracelets and locks.

Or, going farther back in time, I think of the Protestant Reformation, that seismic shift in Europe that dethroned the power of priests and asserted instead that every person has a direct line to God. It was a strong endorsement of inner authority and inner knowing. But then these very same Protestants practiced something called church discipline, and we talked about this in episode 25.

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Church discipline meant that ministers would visit the homes of members a few times each year to make sure people were living moral and upright lives, and if they weren’t, they could be expelled from the church. People had to be checked up on because they couldn’t be trusted to follow the voice of God on their own.

Why couldn’t they be trusted? Travel back a thousand years before the Reformation to the waning decades of the Roman Empire. There the most influential theologian of his time, a man named Augustine, worked out a new doctrine called “original sin,” and it said this very thing: we can’t trust ourselves to be good because we inherit the original mistake of Adam and Eve. The urge to be bad is born in our bones. We can’t overcome it by ourselves; we need help.

Original sin was a powerful idea, and it has enjoyed a long, long life outside religion as well. For wherever people believe that humans tend toward evil, it cements the need for external authority. The evil within us has to be kept in check by something, after all, and that something is often an authoritarian government. Those who support fascism and authoritarianism, by definition, reject the idea that goodness and knowledge can arise from within.

And then travel even farther back in time, centuries before the Roman Empire to the land of Mesopotamia, where people first arranged themselves in a hierarchy. A hierarchy trains people to look upward for authority, not inward. It cements differences between people into a visible vertical order, leading people to think that those differences actually mean something—that those at the top are intrinsically smarter or more deserving than those down below. And this vertical shape occurs with such monotonous regularity throughout Western cultures that people forget—or can’t even imagine—that there are other ways to make decisions, other shapes for power. We looked at the long life of hierarchy in episode 34, “Facing the Past,”

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and we saw how, compared to four or five thousand years of history, we’re really just in the early stages of challenging those old assumptions about who gets to make decisions within families and groups and governments.

And I think of the very notion that God is separate from the natural world, living way up high in a heaven far removed from Earth. It’s a complex of ideas about the gods that stretches even deeper into human history, back to the earliest sky gods, perhaps the gods of people who lived on the Eurasian steppes, those wide-open prairies where the sky is everything—your daily companion, your source for life-giving rain, the endless orb above where the imagination can roam. But today, thousands of years later, that basic cosmic shape of heaven above and earth below is so taken for granted that when anyone wants to indicate God or heaven, they automatically glance up and point to the sky.

It’s hard to learn to listen to your own heart in a world that demands that you listen to everyone else first. Most of us find our way to the autonomy of our own heart only slowly, over time. And the more benefits we inherit from the traditional channels of authority, the longer it typically takes.

I remember a telling moment in my own life. I was twenty-nine, and I’d been living in Berkeley for a few years and studying at the Graduate Theological Union. That summer I went back home to northern Indiana for a visit, and I stopped in at a seminary where I’d taken classes to see a professor I’d worked closely with.

I sat down in the professor’s office, and we did the usual catching up, smiling and laughing. Then a pause. He leaned back and fixed his eyes on me. “So what have you learned since you’ve been gone?” he asked.

I looked away. How to sum up those years in Berkeley—years of taking classes and writing a thesis and camping at the ocean and feeling earthquakes for the first time and eating spicy kimchi on Telegraph Avenue?

I flashed through it all, but then I knew: It came from a course I’d taken my first semester in Berkeley, a course on the Upanishads, those ancient texts of India, and how the professor, a young woman not much older than me, had quoted Shankara, a philosopher from the eighth century.

Shankara had summed up all that ancient philosophy in only three Sanskrit words: Tat tvam asi: “Thou art that.” We are the All, he was saying. We may look outside ourselves to find that Absolute, but it is not outside us after all. Shankara taught that it’s right here, inside, flowing through every heart, through every creature—even, as he said, in “a clump of grass.”

Such peace I felt when I heard it! The peace of knowing that I and every other being share the same heart and flow with the same life. The peace of healing that age-old divide between the sky-God and an Earth-world. The peace of being able to see all the things of Earth as many faces of heaven. The peace of knowing the divine within.

But how to express all that? Before I could even put a sentence together in my head, I found I was already speaking. “I’ve transferred my center of authority from the outside to the inside,” I heard myself say. There was a finality in my voice, a sense of wonder. I was amazed at this step I had just taken.

The truth was, I was just getting started. I didn’t yet know that it would be a lifelong process—decade by decade learning to listen in deeper ways to that quiet place inside.

I think Indigenous communities have it right. Sovereignty of mind is precious, and it needs to be cultivated from little on up. It is the way to self-reliance, to living with confidence and self-assurance as an adult. It is the foundation of democracy, and of equality.

No one has the right to sit in that place inside us, the place of inner knowing. Not mother or father, not teacher or guru or therapist, not partner or friend has the right to decide for us how to be, how to act, what to do. That place inside is all our own. It is where we can listen to a larger, more-than-human wisdom—whether we call that wisdom God or the land or the living spirit in all things, even in a clump of grass.

And if there’s a tendency toward authoritarianism and fascism in Western cultures—and there is, and we are watching it rise today—it has something to do with our long history of not prizing this inner sanctum. Of not building the skills of sitting quietly in our own center and listening to our own hearts. Of not being practiced in sifting through the weeds in our own minds to find what is truthful and life giving. For thousands of years we have trained ourselves—through our social arrangements, our laws, our education—to listen to the voices of other people first: to begin our knowing in the knowing of others and to fit ourselves under their authority.

Seven-year-old Teddy did a profound thing. When Teddy needed guidance, he went straight to his own connection with the living, breathing Earth. Teddy looked for answers in the largest possible horizon: not the limited scope of human knowing but the horizon of Earth itself. He sought to fit himself not within human authority but within the harmony of land and sky.

Teddy and his people show us just how much work it takes to do our own thinking. It takes extended periods of quiet. It takes wrestling with decisions, not just going with what automatically feels right. It takes leaving behind human voices to listen to a larger community—the community of ocean and grasses, mountains and winds, climate and rivers and forests and tides. And it takes starting early: building within ourselves such a firm foundation of knowing and choosing that when we grow up we are not tempted to hand our power over to others.

Wishing you courage to stay close to that fertile place inside and to keep cultivating it for the rest of your life.


For digging deeper

The Blackfoot Nation that Maslow visited is now the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta. Maslow’s comments on the emotional security of the Blackfoot people come from his 1938 Report to the National Research Council, quoted in the biography by Edward Hoffman, The Right to Be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988), 123. The biography is available at the Internet Research Archive. Maslow told the story of Teddy, the seven-year-old Blackfoot boy who did his own thinking, in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1971), 221. The story is summarized in Hoffman, The Right to Be Human, 126.

Gregory Cajete of the Santa Clara Pueblo writes about the knowing that emerges from each person in Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 102. Cajete offered a presentation on “Native Science: The Indigenous Mind Rising” for the UNE Center for Global Humanities, 2020, and it is available on YouTube.

Willie Ermine’s thoughts on individuals within the Native community come from “Aboriginal Epistemology,” in First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds, edited by Marie Battiste and Jean Barman (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1995), 101–12.

Alexis Wright’s meditation on journeying to the inward place is “The Inward Migration in Apocalyptic Times,” Emergence Magazine, October 26, 2022.

Iliarion Merculieff’s comments on authority and the heart come from a Google talk, “Mother Earth Speaks,” given December 6, 2020, Talks at Google.

I delved into ideas about knowledge in an academic essay, “Being Known by a Birch Tree: Animist Refigurings of Western Epistemology,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture 4, no. 3 (September 2010): 182–205. If you need access, contact me for a copy.

For an introduction to prison abolition, listen to Krista Tippett’s recent conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, "Where Life Is Precious, Life Is Precious," at On Being, March 30, 2023. Most of the interview is not about prisons, for good reason: it’s about all the ways of thinking that tempt us to believe that prisons could be any kind of answer.

I told the story of Augustine in Kissed by a Fox, chaps. 4 and 5, and how the doctrine of original sin crept into secular thought, becoming a pessimistic view of ruthless human nature, and how this idea looked so “natural” that it shaped the development of European social and scientific thought from capitalism through Darwin and beyond. My academic paper pulling these thoughts together is “The Animal Versus the Social: Rethinking Individual and Community in Western Cosmology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, edited by Graham Harvey (London: Routledge, 2013), 191–208. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote about this pessimistic view of human nature in “The Sadness of Sweetness: The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology,” Current Anthropology 37, no. 3 (June 1996): 395–428. A favorite line from Sahlins: “So far as I am aware, we are the only society on earth that thinks of itself as having risen from savagery, identified with a ruthless nature. Everyone else believes they are descended from gods.”

About hierarchy: recent research at the University of Pennsylvania finds that one big difference between political left and right today centers on beliefs about hierarchy. Conservatives tend to believe that the world—including the natural world—is inherently hierarchical: “People high in hierarchical world belief see the world as full of differences that matter because they usually reflect something inherent, real and significant.” Liberals tend to see differences as more superficial, with the lines between them often blurred. See Jer Clifton, “Many Differences between Liberals and Conservatives May Boil Down to One Belief,” Scientific American, March 1, 2023.

Anthropologist David Anthony discusses the sky gods of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and locates them on the Eurasian steppes in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), especially chap. 5.

Shankara’s philosophy is called nondualism: the finite self inside, after all falseness has been flushed away, is the same as the Great Self. His words about the divine appearing in a clump of grass appear in his commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad, in Eight Upanisads, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1982), 2:148. For a lively rendition of the Upanishads, see the translation of Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007).

For a longer version of the story of my conversation with the seminary professor, see Kissed by a Fox, chap. 1, “Cut-Leaf Weeping Birch.”


Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
How can we realize our kinship with nature? 20-minute scripted episodes for rethinking our relationship to nature and cultivating reverence and an open heart.