Before there was writing, oral cultures listened to stories and paid attention to the meaning of things. Meaning attaches to your heart and is easy to carry around all the time. It is easy to remember. The greatest example is the traditional understanding that “we are the caretakers of the land” because the land is the source of life for us. Once you carry this in your heart you know how to behave in an infinite variety of situations. You can apply this value first and then every action makes sense from there.
On September 9-12, 2013, the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) brought together Aboriginal people from all over northern Canada to talk about the opportunities and challenges in their journeys to implement self-government. At a conference John B. Zoe a Tłı̨chǫ Government Negotiator began by noting the common refrain that First Nations must be “strong like two people”. They want to move easily from their traditional ways to the ways of business today and back again.
All aboriginal nations are challenged to walk with their feet in two worlds these days. They want to participate in the prosperity of today and they want to maintain their connection to the land, each other and their ancestors. Every leader searches to find a way to express this concept to their people and to the people they do business with. This is challenging because Western culture places a strong focus on direction. Aboriginal people are placed in the position of trying to describe concepts that are grounded in the importance of meaning to people that assume making progress towards their goal is what needs to be focused on.
However, Western culture is beginning to recognize the importance of meaning as well. Simon Sinek gives a TED Talk on great leadership that is saying the same thing (one of the ten most popular ted talks). He makes the point that success today is rooted in understanding and sharing the meaning of your work, then how you will express that meaning, and finally what the product is. Meaning first.
Sinek makes the point that Apple is a stand out computer company because they started with “we are the company that innovates”. Then they rethought how we use computers, music, television. As a result we buy Apple for a variety of products because we are excited about the innovations and the new, fun things they can bring to our lives. It’s the concept that excites us – the meaning.
I used to take my kids to a small First Nation fishing village named Klukshu every summer where we had a cabin. One day Aunt Kathy came over and said there was a workshop being given at the community hall and they needed people to go. So I went. I discovered the workshop was on building families and the thing I remember most about it was the advice that you need to be able to finish the statement “we are the family that…”. I now realize this was saying you have to hold an understanding the meaning of what brings you together and let everything flow from there. Fifteen years later I still remember that the instructor’s family was the family that danced. They made their costumes together over the winter, they travelled to pow wows together every summer, they hosted other dancers in their home. Their love of dancing kept them active, connected and purposeful.
There is a Tibetan saying, “No matter how far you are down the wrong path, turn back!” It seems to be saying find the meaning before you make progress in a certain direction. Meaning and direction are both very important – you just have to do one and then the other.
Circular thinking is required to find the meaning in what you do. It is through a subjective, inclusive, transparent and responsive dialogue that you can understand what is meaningful to a individuals or group. Direction comes from linear thinking.