Wednesday, January 1, 2014

PRACTISING MINDFULNESS---GO FORTH INTO THE NEW YEAR WITH PURPOSE AND STRENGTH

Would you like to be a 'colonizer' of a brand new territory---a territory yet to be explored? I will explain shortly ... but first I must digress. (I usually do, you know.)

One of my life-long interests has been Hawaiiana and Pacificana, including a special interest in some 30 or so low-lying coral islands in the central Pacific Ocean, scattered between Hawaii and Samoa, that once were sometimes referred to as ‘American Polynesia.’ That was a term coined in 1859 by the distinguished German statistician and geographer Ernst Behm. I have written a couple of monographs on American Polynesia---one of which found its way into the world famous Bernice P Bishop Museum (the 'Bishop Museum') in Honolulu, Hawaii---as well as other articles on the topic of Hawaiian spirituality. Most of these writings can be found on SlideShare if you're interested in reading any of them.

Anyway, there is a Hawaiian word panalāʻau. Like many Hawaiian words it is an amalgam of a number of other Hawaiian words or parts of words, and I could write quite a few pages on the etymological meaning of the word panalāʻau. At the risk of gross oversimplification, the word panalāʻau has two main, but several more, component parts, namely, pana and ʻau. The word pana means, among other things, to shoot (eg an arrow, or a bow). The compound word ʻau means to insist, to urge continuously, persistently or with great intent or purpose. Conjointly, the word  panalāʻau connotes the idea of striving and going forth purposively. More specifically, the word panalāʻau means a colony, dependency, or territory, as well as a colonizer or colonist. A colonizer is, of course, a person who goes out, and forth, to strive a build a new society. There is often much hard work in so doing, although there are invariably many risks involved as well, including the risk of doing harm to any indigenous population present as well as to the natural environment.

When, over 30 years ago, I first read the books American Polynesia and the Hawaiian Chain and Panalāʻau Memoirs, both written by Edwin H Bryan Jr (1898-1985) [pictured right]I was fascinated with what is known as the Hui Panalāʻau. (Before I proceed any further I want to mention that Bryan, who was a veritable polymath, was the Curator of Collections at the Bishop Museum from 1919 until 1968---that is, for almost 50 years. His connection with the Bishop Museum did not end even then! He became Curator Emeritus and was the Founding Director of the Museum's Pacific Scientific Information Center. Bryan was a landmark scientific explorer of the Pacific and we owe so much to his genius, courage, and his various seminal writings on Pacific Island history (including natural history), flora and fauna, geology, geography, and archaeology, as well as on astronomy and many other subjects.)

Now, back to the subject of the Hui Panalāʻau. Those Hawaiian words have been variously translated as ‘club of settlers of the southern islands,’ ‘holders of the land society,’ and (more commonly) ‘society of colonists.’ In the mid-1930s, the US Bureau of Air Commerce (later known as the US Department of Commerce), and later the US Department of the Interior, was looking for suitable sites along the Pacific air route between California and Australia to support trans-Pacific flight operations.

Howland Island colonists. 1936.

So, the US federal government asserted, or rather re-asserted, its claim to various (then) uninhabited small islands in the central Pacific---that had been previously claimed by American guano interests---and proceeded to establish small American colonies on several of those islands---islands such as Howland, Baker, Jarvis, and Canton (now 'Kanton,' and part of the Republic of Kiribati). Some 130 young Hawaiian men were chosen to be the colonizers. Native Hawaiian men made up the ‘bulk’ (often in more ways than one, no disrespect intended) of the colonizers. 
(E H Bryan Jr, a haole, was an honorary member of this esteemed society of men.) These wonderfully brave and tough men were the Hui Panalāʻau---the ‘Society of Colonists.’ The years of colonization (1935-1942) extended well into World War II, and, in the case of Kanton, considerably longer, but that’s another---and most interesting---story altogether. (BTW, once the War began, all the hard work the colonizers did was very useful for the Allied War Effort in the Pacific, but that, too, is another story.) For those who are interested in the story of the Hui Panalāʻau, you can read more about it here

I have digressed considerably. Please forgive me. (Alright, I don’t mind if you don’t.) Anyway, the story of the Hui Panalāʻau has all been quite interesting---at least to me, and I hope to you as well---and it's all much more than mere backdrop to my 'message' (if that be the right word). As I’ve already mentioned, the word panalāʻau connotes the idea of striving and going forth purposively. I like to think that is the way we ought to face life---and the New Year. Life is never easy, but we do make it so much harder for ourselves than we need to. We can go boldly into the future when we have courage and confidence. How can mindfulness help in that regard? Well, in many ways, but first let's make it perfectly clear what we mean by the term mindfulness. This oft-quoted definition, or rather description, of mindfulness comes from that great 'guru' (yuk) of mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn:


You see, in order to live mindfully, we must ‘pay attention’ in a certain way. More specifically, we must pay attention ‘on purpose.’ We must also pay attention ‘in the present moment’---or, as I often say, ‘from one moment to the next’---and we must do all that ‘nonjudgmentally.’ Mindfulness is a going forth into the future. Now, how does one go forth into the future? By being fully aware---including being aware that one is aware---from one moment to the next. That requires the exercise of what is often referred to as ‘bare attention,’ namely, enough attention to ‘wake up’ to the present moment, to ‘stay awake’ (and 'here and now'), and to observe what is taking place ... enough attention to be able to 'discern' without discriminating or judging … but no more than that. Any ‘striving’ on our part to ‘stay awake’ requires, yes, a certain amount of effort---but, paradoxically, it is an effortless sort of effort. Like the Hui Panalāʻau to whom I made reference above a certain amount of curiosity and energy is required to practise mindfulness, otherwise the mind is dull and bored. The mindful mind is patientflexible, open, even open-ended, receptive and ever interested in whatever is the experience of the moment---from one moment to the next.

Four colonists bid farewell to Jarvis Island.

Please do not get the impression that mindfulness requires the type of effort and striving that would be required to colonize some barren, remote Pacific island or the like. No, I am not saying that at all. But, in a very profound sense, each of us needs to be a panalāʻau---that is, a colonist. What are we colonizing? What is this 'brand new territory'---yet to be explored? Well, it's nothing other than our limited period of space-time in which each of us lives and moves and has our being. We can either be timid, dull, and bored---that is, lifeless, so to speak---or we can go forth into that new territory in courage and confidence---striving on purpose to wake up … and to stay awake ... from one moment to the next ... one day at a time ... indeed, one moment at a time. That is the only way to truly live ... as opposed to merely exist. So, go forth ... strive purposefully ... and 'colonize' your own new territory in space-time.

Happy New Year! In Hawaiian, that’s Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!


Kanton Island from the air

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