Healing the degenerative disease of separation: an on-going regenerative inquiry

Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti is the Dean of the Faculty of Education of the University of Victoria. She is one of the co-founders of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial futures Arts/Research Collective and the author of Hospicing modernity: Facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism. In the spring and summer 2024, she is taking part in the BroadBean Ambassador Challenge where she has accepted the challenge of planting broad beans as teachers of entanglement and adopting their name as a surname for the season, therefore she is referred to in this interview as “Dean Andreotti BroadBean”.

Chief Ninawa Inu Huni Kui is a hereditary leader of the Huni Kui Indigenous People and the elected President of the Huni Kui Federation of the State of Acre, in the Amazon region. He represents 118 communities and a population of more than 16,000 people. He is the ambassador and Dean of the interdisciplinary Faculty of Responsibility of the University of the Forest. The Huni Kui Indigenous People are part of the Amazon rainforest and risk their lives to protect it. Chief Ninawa has been a strong voice against false solutions to the climate crisis and a global advocate for placing the rights of nature and Indigenous rights and lives at the centre of the agendas of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: I have always heard you and others in the T5C network speak of colonialism as a degenerative disease, a form of neurobiological impairment that is based on an imposed sense separation between human beings and the rest of nature and an imposed sense of superiority of humans over nature. At the University of the Forest, the GTDF team and I have been taught that the imprints of separation and superiority in our collective neurophysiology condition us to create hierarchies between species, cultures and individuals and prompts us to relate to the land as a property or “resource”, rather than as a living being that we are part of. Because separability erodes the intrinsic value of our lives, it enforces a sense and fear of worthlessness that compels us to participate in economies of worth that can validate the value of our existence, a process that requires us to put a price tag on everything and transactionally calculate our relationships, exchanges and politics accordingly. This analysis has had an enormous impact in my work as an educator and the direction we have taken with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures (GTDF) Collective’s work and we are indebted to you and the forest for that.

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  The disease of colonialism manifests in different ways, often as greed, arrogance, vanity, indifference, and the insatiable hunger of consumerism .These symptoms can also take many different forms, including the form of machines, like a bulldozer. Fighting colonialism as a disease is different from fighting it as a machine. Because it takes so many forms, there are different things we need to do to address the symptoms, but also the root of the disease. We also have to be careful because the disease is really contagious and, because we are part of the same metabolism, the disease is already in all of us. In this context, we may be trying to treat certain symptoms while unintentionally exacerbating others and completely missing the root cause of the dis-ease, contributing to its spread. For example, in the Amazon, the most visible form of colonialism is in the shape of a deforestation bulldozer, and I am being literal here. Fighting bulldozer-colonialism is not something our communities can opt out of, but if we are only engaged in fighting bulldozers, we are not going to survive because more bulldozers will come and our culture will start to mirror the culture of the bulldozers. We need to find an antidote to and heal the dis-ease alongside the work of stopping the bulldozers. The problem is that this often cannot be done at the same time. 

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: In the Western academic literature around decolonization, colonialism is usually defined as the subjugation of peoples and the occupation of lands, but if we see these as symptoms of a much more profound existential dis-ease that we collectively metabolically embody, we need to approach it very differently and to recognize that trying to fight it using the tools most readily available to us (that come from the same source) often inadvertently reproduces what you are trying to oppose. On the other hand, sometimes you do not have any other option. What this implies to me is that the most fundamental role of education is to enable pathways that can start to heal the wounds of separability and supremacy at both ends: those most directly affected by the worst symptoms of the disease at the receiving end and the inflicting end of most of the violence. When GTDF received the instructions to deepen the educational work necessary at the inflicting end of violence rather than work with those at the receiving end,it was a hard thing to swallow.

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  It is important to remember that, considering non-separability, by interrupting patterns at the end inflicting the most violence, you are also affecting the receiving end, both directly and indirectly. For example, redistribution from the work that GTDF has done at the inflicting end has supported the communities at the receiving end through the pandemic, droughts, floods and other emergencies over the past years. In reciprocity, we guide, support and protect your team and work, as we can, at our end. For us, the ceremonies have made it clear that the digital and physical campus of the University of the Forest are vectors for the political practice of healing that the forest demands. We also have other vectors for political practices that attempt to stop the bulldozers and demand reparations and restitution. For example, we have used the COPs for that. However it is important to understand that the two practices require different strategies and different platforms, otherwise they can undermine each other, although they can also be complementary, but this is still rare.

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: When we started working with communities who are now part of Teia das 5 Curas, our framework was one of 5 modes of justice: cognitive, affective, relational, economic and ecological justice. However, once the ceremonies started to guide the process, very quickly the framework of justice was replaced with a framework of healing: the healing of one’s thinking, feeling, relating, exchanging and participating in the cycles of life and death of the metabolism of the Earth. I remember that, while we wanted to respect the ceremonial directions, those of us who work in the global north were concerned that the framework of healing has already been co-opted in a depoliticised way in our context, manifesting often as spiritual bypassing. In spiritual bypassing, people want to think they are “one” with everything beautiful, while negating their connection with everything that is destroying that beauty. One question we approached collectively was: In what ways and circumstances can a framework of justice be detrimental to the process of healing and in what ways and circumstances can a framework of healing and justice be complementary to each other?

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  A framework of justice is necessary in Western political contexts where we need to be intelligible and where we still need to be represented in our fight for reparations and restitution. However, this is only harm reduction work that addresses the symptoms of the disease. The root of the fundamental existential problem is relational. The framework of justice is  extremely limited because it is still based on separability and human superiority. It does not reflect the reality that everything is inseparable from each other. Entanglement is not just a concept, it is a factual reality, but being able to sense this entanglement and activate responsibility towards it is a neurophysiological issue, not a matter of thinking, but of un-numbing to the pain of the whole and re-activating latent capacities to act wisely and responsibly. People cannot think their way into entanglement because it is an embodied process that is neither individual nor activated only by the individual self. Addressing healing in this way is a political practice, but this political practice is not visible from the perspective of separability. However, when it comes to politics, it is not “either/or” (either justice or healing) – in many places we need both and more, and also to be able to responsibly improvise as contexts change.

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: What I understood from the conversations we have had over the years is that a framework of justice is what is intelligible and what is perceived as political within the house of modernity. It relies on a narrative of villains, victims and heroes. It requires the same architecture of being and relationships based on separability. When we are seeking justice, we tend to invest in a future outcome, a destination point, that we imagine from a position of autonomy and entitlement. This process is often driven by the desires of the ego and prevents it from being a collaboration with the Land. By placing all investment in certainty and control, and a predefined outcome, we are prevented from repairing and healing relationships in the present, which inherently needs to be driven by something other than the transactional calculations of the ego. This is the most difficult work and work that requires consensually relinquishing unaccountable forms of autonomy (that are delicious and that we want to protect). We have mapped this process with the GTDF collective as the 5As and 5Es. There are 5As of modern entitlements: moral, political and epistemic authority, unrestricted and unaccountable autonomy, the arbitration of justice, law and common sense, the affirmation of virtue, innocence and purity, and the appropriation and accumulation of symbolic and material capital through exploitation, extraction and expropriation. And there are 5Es of modern political practice: exceptionalism, exaltedness, externalization of culpability, expansion of entitlements and empowerment of the ego.

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  Figuring out how to interrupt these 5As and 5Es, and to invite people into responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, respect and regeneration (the 5 Faculties of the University of the Forest) is the job for those of you, like the team of GTDF, called to work for the forest in the global north or the north of the global south. When people come to the Amazon expecting Indigenous communities to teach them, they are not really receptive to these teachings because they are used to a form of education that only educates the head. Our educational processes educate the “gut”, which is also where we find the umbilical cord that is connected to the Earth. In the head, the sense of identity and belonging are founded on human constructs. Through the umbilical cord, it is a direct experience of identity and belonging that goes beyond human constructs and the human imagination. We educate the gut, so that the heart can be filled with the message, motivation, direction and vision that the Earth provides through the umbilical cord for the head to follow. When we opened our ceremonies and experiences with the sacred medicines to people socialized in Western cultures, we believed that this would lead them to a state of respect, reverence, and responsibility towards the forest, which then anchors the practice of regeneration. However, people came usually seeking to feel better or more powerful and they consumed the experiences in the forest in the same way they consume everything to feed the 5As and the 5Es. We tried everything, but people did not have the humility, patience or discipline to receive the teachings. When your team came along, the difference was that you were paying attention to the arrogance and entitlements you brought along. You were trying to do something different by mapping these limitations and complexities and challenges of trying to move beyond them.

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: It has not been a seamless process. I remember the many times I wanted to quit the university and just go live in the forest and you telling me to go back and let go of the romanticization of the community and fantasy that I can just escape into a “decolonized” space. We were offered the kinds of teaching and support that we did not expect. We were asked to treat colonialism as a disease that is in all of us and to let go of seeking dopamine through anger and righteousness. We were directed to ground identity and belonging primarily through the umbilical cord with the Earth rather than human constructs of group affiliations. We were instructed to work mostly “undercover” in order to be able to move things with humility, patience, trust and integrity while being vigilant about our own arrogance, insecurities and egological desires (our own investments in the 5As and 5Es). We learned the importance of allowing ourselves to rest, to experience joy and to lean into humour when faced with the enormous, ever growing  and frustrating pile of work that needs to be done. And we were asked to let the ceremonies determine the direction of the process: to trust the invisible to make the impossible possible. This is a tall order for those of us born and socialized into the economies of the house of modernity. Once we started to learn to work in this way, the most difficult part has been to learn to rest and to experience joy without feeling that this is also a form of indulgence in comparison to what the communities of the forest have to go through.

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  I hear from your team how difficult it is to work in contexts of material abundance and existential poverty and I find myself feeling lucky that for us it is the opposite. To me this is like humanitarian work the other way around where we are the sponsors. We will be carrying out ceremonies to support this process with the communities back home while we do what is necessary to protect the forest for the sake of everybody’s future. We are all insufficient and indispensable in this process, which requires humanity to move together towards relational wisdom, understanding that we are all part of the same metabolism. One thing we observed in the ceremonies is that the 5As and 5Es create a desire for and perceived entitlement to escape responsibility. For example, people would encounter the sacred plants seeking the oceanic feeling of being in the womb, protected by a loving parent as an infant. While indeed the plants can support healing childhood traumas of neglect, rejection, abuse and abandonment, most of the ceremonies are about the other direction of life: preparing us to age gracefully and to face mortality with dignity, exercising responsibility as restraint, in order not to compromise the lives that come after us. It seems that Western culture has forgotten this blueprint of survival and that is what is placing us in the current context of mass extinction in slow motion. Cash’s project on Eldering is a very important reminder that life is primarily about the expansion of responsibilities and restraints rather than the expansion of perceived entitlements and pleasures.

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: We have encountered the desire to consume Indigenous cultures everywhere, often in a romanticized way, however Western guts do not seem to have the gut-biome necessary to metabolize these teachings, that is why within GTDF, we talk about probiotic education which is about creating the conditions where the core direction of these teachings can be received and digested  in a cultural context that has got stuck consuming junk food.This requires a lot of translation that happen through trial and error and that is why we call everything we do “an experiment” and treat mistakes and failure as “good data” because what we learn in one experiment feeds the creation of new experiments. One of the experiments we have found extremely useful in many contexts (but not all) is what we call the SMDR compass, which is used to direct our attention towards the need for emotional sobriety (or stability), relational maturity, intellectual discernment and intergenerational responsibility in every situation. Emotional sobriety is about interrupting compulsive patterns of pain avoidance and pain attachment, overconsumption, self-infantilization and desires for certainty, coherence, comfort and control. Relational maturity is about learning to un-entitle, to face the whole spectrum of humanity in all of us (the good, the bad, the broken and the messed up) in order to do what is needed for collective healing, rather than what is imprinted by the 5As and 5Es. Intellectual discernment is the move from narrow-boundary intelligence to wide-boundary-intelligence to relational entanglement wisdom, which requires us to be able to hold space for complexity, uncertainty, difficulty and pain without being overwhelmed or immobilized. Intergenerational responsibility is about interrupting the cycle of immaturity, neglect and irresponsibility that is placing ourselves on the path of premature extinction – well expressed in the sentence “the buck stops here”.

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  My concern is that people will take this narrative of the compass and think they understood the meaning of it and therefore they are already doing it. This compass points to something much larger than the compass – to a way of experiencing life where meaning cannot be a description of reality, but a heuristic that helps us to navigate an unknowable reality. What we can articulate is one fraction of what we think, what we think is one fraction of what we perceive, what we perceive is one fraction of what is going on around and within us and people socialized in the house of modernity tend to think that the narratives they have of things can describe all there is. The compass points to an experience of reality that is attuned with the matter, motion and mystery of the whole, which is Yuxibu or quantum wisdom. However, the map is not the land and generally people choose the experience of the mastery of the form that the map represents over the movement of the experience of being taught by the land and of being part of the land, possibly because they are afraid of the land being both unknown and unknowable. The land does not fit in what we can fathom, it far exceeds what is perceived to be “captured” in human constructs. Metaphors really help people understand the movement and relationship between things rather than focusing on form and perfection, which tend to give people the illusion of certainty and control. The desire for certainty and control are also symptoms of the disease of separation, where we treat everything as separate units and focus on each unit’s identity rather than their entanglement with the whole. 

Dean Andreotti Broadbean: Indeed. We see this all the time. People feel enchanted by the words and they seek association with the work without commitment or capacity to engage with the responsibility “ask” of the work. This part of dis-immunizing to responsibility more closely resembles the difficulty and discomfort of rehabilitation from addictions and requires nothing short of neurogenesis. Rehabilitation only works when there is consent, not only intellectual, but affective and embodied consent and the first step is admitting we have a problem, in this case, it is also admitting the depth and scale of our individual and collective problems. We have tried foregrounding the difficulty, forewarning people and explicitly asking them to check their motivations and readiness for this, before they start the process, and every time, this is the most difficult thing to get across: there is no state of “decolonization”, there is no point of arrival, we will always be in rehab. In the Facing Human Wrongs course we have a questionnaire that asks if the course is a good match for students, but people tend to overestimate their readiness and underestimate the difficulty of the “ask” of being present to the collective disease, of becoming comfortable with the discomfort of a never-ending inquiry (no final answers, no simple solutions, no universalizing formulas and no one telling you what to do) and of infinite accountability (unlimited responsibility). People also want “community”, but this desire is often based on projections of being seen, felt, heard, and cared for in a particular way, similar to the oceanic feeling you described earlier. In this context relationships are transactional and based on calculations of mutual coddling that are not sustainable in the long run. That is why, when people ask us about GTDF, we say that our collective is not grounded on affinity of ideas or identity, but affinity of inquiry, of common questions related to the 5As and 5Es and the disease of separation we engage with in different contexts. The University of the Forest, digital campus, is the latest experiment and we are very honoured to do it together with you.

Dean Inu Huni Kui:  The University of the Forest is a way to open a channel of communication with the teachings of the forest and we are grateful it has brought us together in this way. Haux Haux!