I purchased this painting, Tingari Men’s Songline by George Ward Tjungurrayi, in an Alice Spring’s art gallery, during my first visit to Central Australia, many many years ago. I knew nothing about Aboriginal art, or about Aboriginal culture, but I was drawn to this image as an expression of a very different way of knowing. I have since discovered that George Ward Tjungurrayi, along with his elder brother Willy Tjungurrayi, both senior Law Men of the Pintupi people of the Gibson Desert, were founders of the Papunya Desert Art movement.  

Developing a Shared Cosmology

Australian universities, through their various Institutes of Indigenous Knowledges, are making a major contribution to the ability of Australians, especially non-Indigenous Australians, to understand the deep cultural and cosmological roots of our cultural foundations, expressed in First Nations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) knowledges.

I therefore wish to acknowledge my gratitude and indebtedness to the Australian Research Council funded project, Australian Spirituality: Wellness, Wellbeing and Risk. May this research inform the Makarrata Commission process of Truth Telling and Treaty Making, following the failure of the Voice campaign to amend our founding Constitution.

My biggest frustration in the campaign to change our Constitution, in line with the aspirations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, was that the entire debate was mostly framed within the cosmology of the dominant cultural group – Anglo-European Australia. This is a worldview that, via global capitalism, has morphed into a global worldview with its emphasis on consumption-driven economic growth, delivered via technological innovation and resource extraction, and ‘efficiency’ in terms of profit maximisation over ethics and morality. Thus it was frequently about the PRACTICAL benefits of a First Nations Voice to Parliament in terms of measurable socio-economic indicators in health, education and economic participation in the mainstream economy.

In my book, The Regenesis Journey, (2023) I have tried to outline how we can shape a new story for Australia that builds on underlying principles in our Indigenous knowledge systems to embed a new shared cosmology that reframes the ancient Old Testament idea of the radical separation between humans and the rest of Creation (Genesis V26.1) to the Indigenous idea of ‘kinship’ that expresses the radical interconnectedness of all of Creation, including the human species. 

  • Caring for Country – bringing together the multiple level of meaning encoded in Indigenous eco-spirituality and Western ideas of environmental management
  • Multiculturalism – celebration of diversity: ethnically, spiritually, gender identification, in the constant evolution of our sense of personal and national identity
  • Circular wellbeing economy – redesign of the industrial production system to produce a zero waste economy that delivers equitable wellbeing to all its peoples, recognising the importance of social and spiritual wellbeing along with financial-economic wellbeing.

Through the Makarrata Commission and Truth Telling, we need to not only acknowledge the terrible history of colonial injustices, but we need to turn our attention to the growing crisis of this ‘mainstream economic cosmology’ and highlight the ways in which the cosmology of Australia’s First Nations culture has so much to offer us as a way out of our ‘death spiral’ of intensifying and lethal armed conflict, information pollution via technology, and climate change induced challenges to human habitation on Earth.

As Joshua Waters, Senior Research Fellow, Indigenous Knowledges, Deakin University, who is part of the ARC funded project, Australian Spirituality: Wellness, Wellbeing and Risk, has commented in his article in The Conversation:

Australia’s ability to connect with First Nations spiritualities through Indigenous cosmologies may be a doorway into finding deeper meaning in ourselves and the universe – and the vital role of humans as a custodial species and facilitators of a greater cosmological order.

Reclaiming Wisdom

I would argue that Indigenous cosmologies also may give us a way to reclaim wisdom as a domain of knowledge/way of knowing. We need to embrace an idea of wisdom that sits above and incorporates the dominant idea of ‘practical wisdom’ that is the hallmark of modern education.

Mainstream Australian culture places a high value on the ‘practical’. It is time we realised its blindspots that can cripple our imagination and leave us feeling empty with an inner yearning for something we know not what. As acknowledged by the much quoted poet, Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons which reasons knows nothing of”. For on the one hand the heart is a ‘mere’ muscle blood pump, but on the other hand, as mystical traditions attest, it is associated with a different way of knowing and feeling, of intuitive insight, and expansive awareness. 

The Crisis of the Modern Mind

Globally, humanity is spiraling towards a catastrophe of growing ethno-nationalism, driven by the impact of climate change, ecological degradation and increased wealth inequality, as the barriers go up against migration flows of humanity fleeing conflict and eco-collapse. This is coupled with a growing cultural-political crisis driven by the impact of the ‘dark side’ of social media, currently being amplified and intensified by AI. 

When viewing the world that confronted him in exile, Samdong Rinpoche, a Sanskrit scholar steeped in the wisdom knowledge tradition of Buddhism, and a political leader in the Tibetan Refugee community of India, proclaimed in his book, Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World, published back in 2006, page 52, that:

—The crisis we see in the external environment is basically a greater inner crisis.  It is basically the crisis of the human mind. 

—Modern civilization suffers from unmanaged conflict of the mind. Humanity has significantly enlarged its knowledge and know-how, but has failed to acquire a corresponding degree of wisdom.

—Madness is the inability to discriminate between what is harmful and what is not.  And I think that, in this regard, modern people have gone insane. 

And this have got so much worse since then, at an accelerating pace.

The epoch of European cultural expansion via 19th century imperialism, followed by 20th century global capitalism, placed a huge emphasis on knowledge accumulation via the rapid expansion of universities, based largely on Western pedagogy and epistemology.  However it failed to develop a corresponding tradition in wisdom as a particular form of ‘knowledge’ or ‘way of knowing’, even though the modern university grew out of theological interests.

For example, the English Oxford Dictionary defines wisdom as: the ability or result of an ability to think and act utilising knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight. The Ancient Greeks, the foundations of the Western rational philosophical tradition that informs The Enlightenment and Modernity,  claims that that logos, or reason and thought, leads to sophia, or wisdom. We might call this rational wisdomthe basis of scientific scepticism and demands for empirical ‘proof’, over theological dogmatism.

On the other hand, spiritual wisdom has been defined as the understanding and knowledge that comes from a deep connection to one’s inner self and the ‘divine’. It is the ability to see beyond the material world and to understand the interconnectedness of all things. Some religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) see the ‘divine’ as transcendent, while others, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, see the ‘divine’ as an inherent quality of embodiment; a quality that can be developed and brought forth through practices such as meditation and contemplation.  First Nations knowledge systems align with this latter idea of spiritual wisdom, as the sort of higher order knowledge we should develop in our culture, particularly among anyone assuming the mantle of leadership. It is the hallmark of the role of Elders in Indigenous culture, the Senior Law Men and Women who uphold the deep cosmological truths of their culture, celebrated in song, dance and art through ceremony.

Needless to say, the modern university is focused on the project of practical wisdom, either in the service of the growth of economic wealth, or in knowledges that address issues of social justice. On the fringes, schools of Divinity, dealing with theology, incorporate ideas of spiritual wisdom but usually subservient to complex and arcane theologies of belief that defy rationality. It is this split between rational and spiritual wisdom that drew me to Buddhism, because here I found a knowledge system that bridged this divide, distinguishing between two forms of knowing/awareness: that of the ordinary dualistic conceptual mind, and that of primordial non-dual wisdom awareness that ‘sees’ the interconnectedness of all, that mere language cannot fully communicate.

First Nations Spirituality and Eco-Balance – Joshua Waters, Deakin University


Australia’s ability to connect with First Nations spiritualities through Indigenous cosmologies may be a doorway into finding deeper meaning in ourselves and the universe – and the vital role of humans as a custodial species and facilitators of a greater cosmological order.

First Nations peoples have been present on the Australian continent for more than 65,000 years. During this time, they have managed to develop and maintain continuous, unbroken connections with the land, water and sky.

Understanding the deep interrelatedness between humans and their (human and nonhuman) kin and ancestors instilled a sense of responsibility, through custodianship of their environment. The aim of this was to survive, and to promote a sense of ecological and cosmological balance.

Indigenous Australian spiritualities understand this balance, which is essential to living in harmony with all things in creation.

More than two-thirds of young Australians are experiencing eco-anxiety, while almost half of Australians believe our country is in “decline”. First Nations spiritualities may have some answers.

 Dreaming Ancestors

Australia’s more than 250 different First Nations language groups are connected by various elements of spirituality.

In a general sense, spirituality captures the relationship between self, others and “God”.

In an Indigenous context, spirituality is the basis of First Nations peoples’ existence. Essentially, it is a way of life that informs their relationships with all of creation, including plant and animal kin.

The notion of creation itself is informed by cosmologies that are specific to each group. A deeply seeded belief in creative forces that have shaped – and continue to shape – all things is personified as Dreaming Ancestors.

These entities can take many forms and pervade all parts of the universe. They are also said to exist in “time outside of time”, otherwise known as The Dreaming.

The presence of these entities, along with the paths they travelled, the conflict and interactions they experienced, and in some cases, their subsequent deaths, scored Earth’s surface.

The areas and landmarks they occupied in The Dreaming are now depicted as sacred or culturally significant places. The memory of their existence is honoured through rituals and ceremonies that hold the laws and customs for each community.

Cultural practices such as stories, songs and dances have been used as memory aids to transmit knowledge across thousands of generations, and to maintain the Laws and customs handed down by each Dreaming Ancestor.

Kombumerri and Mununjahli law scholar Christine Black suggests these cosmologies define First Nations peoples’ principles, ideals, values and philosophies. In turn, this promotes an overarching Law of Relationship, which teaches us about the importance of Aboriginal protocols for promoting balance and harmony, while also honouring diversity and relational interconnectedness across species.

Songlines, which intersect and connect across the entire continent, support individual groups in trading materials and intellectual properties, propagating spiritual practices and processes that centre social and ecological health.

Maintaining balance and harmony

Despite the vast differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, the primary aim of their spiritualities tends toward developing, maintaining and sustaining cosmological order through balance and harmony.

Balance as a dynamic, fluctuating process plays a crucial role in the workings of the universe. This is also true for many of the fundamental laws of physics, as well as the human body, and at quantum levels. This concept is also reflected in First Nations Australian languages.

Warraimaay historian Victoria Grieves-Williams describes how Yarralin people of the Central Northwest area of the Northern Territory say a person is “punyu” when they are feeling fully alive. This means they are good, happy, strong, healthy, smart, responsible, beautiful and clean.

Similarly, punyu can also refer to the time when people burn off the tall grass in the correct season. Yarralin peoples describe the application of cultural burning in this way as making the country “happy to be taken care of” and “clean and good”.

Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose suggested when the cosmos is punyu, it is homeostatic. This means it is always working towards perfect balance and harmony, of which humans may be regarded as key facilitators (custodians).

Grieves-Williams extends this notion of homeostasis to capture balance in relation to the human body, too. This suggests punyu is the closest word for the caretaking of living systems (both personal and planetary), health and the overall functions of wellbeing.

Australia’s ability to connect with First Nations spiritualities through Indigenous cosmologies may be a doorway into finding deeper meaning in ourselves and the universe – and the vital role of humans as a custodial species and facilitators of a greater cosmological order.

Rekindling our connections

First Nations spirituality promotes a strong sense of interrelatedness and interconnectedness between all things, particularly people and the planet.

Aboriginal Elders have told us we are a reflection of the Country: if the land is sick, so are we. If the land is healthy (or punyu), so are we. Wik First Nations scholar Tyson Yunkaporta says our collective wellbeing can only be sustained through a life of communication with a sentient landscape and all things on it.

In a time when we as a global human population are navigating the complex challenges of modernity, an immersion into First Nations’ spirituality may help us better live in harmony with all things – and importantly, ourselves and each other.

We can explore the depths of these teachings and learn to appreciate them (rather than appropriating them) by reconnecting with the land in meaningful ways, under the guidance of First Nations Elders and Traditional Custodians.

This article is part of a series on Religion and Spirituality. You can read other articles in the series here.

Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation –  Ballardong Noongar artist Rohin Kickett

Let’s start with a definition of cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation is taking something from a cultural group when you don’t belong to that group, for your own financial gain or social gain. Cultural appreciation is where you investigate other cultures to understand them better, to create a better cross-cultural relationship. Appropriation happens when people step over the line and they start adapting things from that other culture for their own benefit. I like to focus on social gain because monetary gain is pretty obvious. Social gain is very tricky and there’s a lot of grey areas that are worth thinking about. 

. . . We have a shared history and it’s the third space and we both have the right to create artworks on this shared history, but it all comes down to, what perspective are you coming from? Are you coming from a perspective from an Aboriginal space into the third space or are they coming from their own space into the third space? So when we look at a lot of our history, when it comes to massacre sites and that history on the dark history, non-Aboriginal people have the right to interrogate that history, but from their side and their point of view. As soon as they go over that line and start to tell it from an Aboriginal perspective, that’s when it’s that grey area and it gets tricky. I’m not saying white artists can’t be involved in creating art exploring this difficult past – they can – it just has to be a collaboration. There needs to be a relationship built. You’ve got to do that ethically. Both people have to be represented equally in that partnership. It’s all about telling your story and not telling somebody else’s story. There is a logic to it.

. . . The difference between appreciation and appropriation comes down to a series of pretty sensible questions. Whose culture is represented? Whose story is this to tell? Who is benefitting from this expression of culture? Who gets the recognition from this art? In terms of collaboration, what is the nature of the relationship? If something is fair and ethical you can look at it from all angles and it will still feel fair and ethical. In some ways it is surprising that we still see so many examples where people are not asking these questions. It seems there is still a lot of work to do.