The vulnerable ethnographer

The drive was twenty hours. Long straight stretches of bitumen and heat-hazed horizons, interspersed with the occasional dirt road and the odd truck stop. At the end I’d begin my fieldwork. Partly to stay awake, and partly to stave off my sense of dread (what the hell does ethnography even mean? What do I do when I stuff up? What if I’m not emotionally tough enough? What if I end up hating my research participants? Is it too late to bail? Why didn’t I study something like the effects of beach towel symbols on the taste of mojitos instead?), I started to listen to an audiobook a friend had recommended.

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Equilibrium on the precipice of now – Or, some meandering thoughts on The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras, and putting one foot in front of another.

It was a twisted gum, hollowed out by bushfire, home to tiny flickering animals and support to slow-growing saplings. I’d go there to feel at home. I’d run bare foot along the old cattle tracks that passed by the horse yards and into the scrub. I knew that track so well I could follow it on a new moon, went there so often the horses would only flicker their ears as I brushed past. Once there, I’d sit with my back against the trunk. Just sit. And listen.
Like that, as a scraggly kid with no spiritual upbringing and little moral guidance, on a farm in the heartland of conservative Australia, I somehow, without having ever heard words like ‘yoga’ and ‘meditation’, began to learn about the journey of yoga and meditation.

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A trailer-load of learning

Of all the advice I’ve been given, there is only one I find easy to follow:

Surround yourself with people smarter than you are.

It’s inevitable really; I know some damn smart people, and besides, the way I see it, my knowledge is pretty limited so everyone is smarter than me in some area. And I’m always keen to raid their specific type of knowledge and pilfer their smarts. I see it kind of like an intellectual Robin Hood thing (rob from the rich–them–give to the poor–yours truly–).

But recently, I’ve had some particularly plunderous adventures, and reaped a pretty bounty of learning.

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“I see”, said the blind man who could not talk: Knowing the sensory world

Often, as Western speakers, we say ‘I see’, when what we really mean is, “I understand”. It’s just another of the many dead metaphors we kick around. When I was child, I had a friend who would take such a pronouncement of “I see” as an opportunity to interject with “…said the blind man who could not talk”.

While my childhood friend intended this a nonsense quip, her joke highlights an important question: how is it that an individual might ‘see’—that is, understand—their environment and cultural world through different faculties of sense, particularly if those senses are not, as Western thought would have it, primarily linked to sight or sound? 

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Hindsight: Beginnings and Endings and the persistence of fuzzy caterpillars

“It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

Perhaps.

Perhaps it is the changing times.

Perhaps in the 1960s, when Joan Didion penned those words, it really was easy to see the beginnings.

And perhaps it was then, as Didion herself said, that they were just beginning to find that the center to which they had clung was not holding, that the beginnings were spinning out control.

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