Thoughts From Within Seven Caves
Coming back from death, Arcia Tecun shares his experiences traversing the metaphysical realms of the PhD.
I recently spent a significant amount of time thinking and writing for a doctoral thesis. I write this as a glimmer of light begins to shine through the seven caves I have dwelled in during this intellectual voyage.
It is said that my ancestors came out of seven caves. I often wonder where they are. Our stories tell us they are northeast of the highlands that we hail from and then further northwest from there again. They are also said to have been by the side of the sea. I wonder if these caves are vessels, seeds, canoes, that carry our people through time and space, from past into future through the precipice of the present. I wonder if it was a tradition of thought, a clan or set of clans that gave birth to our people. Are the seven caves a metaphor of earth and consciousness? Or are the caves literal and underneath our feet? Or is literal interpretation the white man’s way, his compass and view? Sometimes things get so blurry and I can’t tell anymore. The borderlands are foggy, the midpoints of physical and spiritual boundaries. Who drew these lines here again? And who helped them? It starts to get complicated.
The system of dominant Western schooling has some serious issues, including its alignment to violent relationships with Indigenous peoples, knowledge, and the lands it resides upon. Both universities I have attended in two different settler colonial nations literally have imperial infrastructures of fortress walls as part of their campuses. They also have a history of appropriating and reconfiguring the knowledge stored inside their fortress walls. If you pay to get inside, then you can learn the coded language you need to find knowledge. The price is high for access and these resources though, student loans are a blessing and a curse. The contradiction is that much of what is inside was taken from our own ancestors or relatives. How do you sell us what was always ours?
I counter the spell of the individual within the neoliberal university with my own magic
Education isn’t about jobs or economy, and it shouldn’t be, despite the downpressor forces driving schooling in this direction throughout the globe. I ain’t sayin’ we shouldn’t seek to put food on our tables, but that education can be more than what we are forced to make of it. If you let it, the university can consume you, though – that’s what it is structured to do – consume your mind, ‘civilise’ you, and get you to consume one another through competition. I counter the spell of the individual within the neoliberal university with my own magic, derived from an extended support network and heaps of whanaunga to ground me. I’m grateful for my communities, experiences and ancestors that carry me through, despite the struggles in a system of hyper-individualism and anthropocentrism. I’m not sayin’ it hasn’t impacted my health though, I got some grey hairs, extra layers of warmth on my body, and more. Education can be about navigating and understanding life in our unique moments in time and space – that which lies between the future yet to come, and the past that already is. Hopefully for the betterment of all our relations that we must co-exist with, regardless of what language they speak, what form they take, or what role they play in our existence on this cosmic sea of planets and stars we share.
There is something powerful about the opportunity to set yourself apart from everyday life – or rather, to set apart time during everyday life. It allows reflection, thinking and the ability to pay attention to what is going on, and to dedicate a focus on particular questions. People outside of universities already set aside time in whatever way they can, however possible – while grinding in the factory, or when lost in the music. We are creative and resilient people. But imagine if we had even more time. Yet, this is another flaw, or rather intention, of the system – to maintain inequalities to ensure the systems of power remain. It’s borrowed time for someone like me, to reclaim knowledge. Borrowing privilege with school debt. And even as I borrow, it is not enough. I reclaim knowledge by working multiple jobs, having heaps of emotional, spiritual, and material support from community and family – an interdependent system. I transform back into a working-class urban creature seemingly out of place, or rather on the other side of the wall, the border, sitting inside the office this time, instead of cleaning it.
I delve further into the depths of the caves. Transformation is hard. You sleep less and are awake more. Something happens to you when you spend so much time in your mind. It feels like being between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, slumber and awakening.
My dad once told me about when he fasted for several days. He only drank water. It was a turning point in his life, when he needed guidance. He got so close to death, in his focus to find the answers he sought, that he felt more alive. His family said, “Hey you don’t look well, you need to eat.” He thought, “I didn’t realise what I had become physically, because spiritually I was fine.” His family called him out of the caves. He ended the fast and returned to the mortal realm.
I feel like that sometimes, deep in the caves that I’ll emerge out of one day soon. It is like when I have been in the lowland jungles or the misty mountains of my ancestral homeland of Iximulew, when no one else was around. It’s like being out in the Utah desert or up in the Wasatch mountains where I grew up. In moments when no other mortal person could be seen or heard. It’s like the times when I was doing research in Tonga, walking down the quiet paths at night in Haʻapai, where you can see the ocean on both sides of where you stand. When you can sense, feel and taste the crashing waves and the shine of stars reflecting off Moana. When all you hear are the sounds of spirits. Memory and experience is housed within us. The places I am, and have been, are within me. It’s like when it’s so quiet that silence feels deafening with the natural sounds of life. Wind, earth, ocean, sky, birds, amphibians, mammals and fish.
When my ancestors built pyramids and temples, they were digging
We see things differently though, we relate in our own way even through the mess and the blur. North isn’t the top point in our compass, east is – that’s where the sacred colour appears to us, the morning sun, life-giver, the colour of the blood that flows in us. Grandfather sun retires into a cave of night on the opposite side, a balance – there it is black, the deep, the night, renewal, rest, death. The potential for life is prepared in the night of the womb, in the time of Grandmother Moon; Ixchel appears then. The sun and moon are also our hero twins, these stars and rocks are us and we are them. We see multiple realities, names and beings. Didn’t you know you could be more than one? You are yourself, you are relations, you are experience, you are places, and you are your ancestors too.
When my ancestors built pyramids and temples, they were digging. Rachoch means home or temple. One of the meanings of this word in the language of the ancestral land includes within it what has been dug out, moulded and built. I reckon we were digging down into the depths of the cosmos, not building up from the surface of the earth. We look down into space, not the other way around, that’s why the white man was confused with our ‘underworld’ and our obsession with caves. He did not understand. When we go deep into the earth we are travelling deep into space. The particles of space are what made the earth, the first pieces of our mother; the oldest parts are deep inside, deep within, we search for our elders down there, because they take us up where they are. We draw the spiral geometrically in our art, it represents our cosmology. The spiral comes from shells in nature, it’s also on the crown of your head; there’s a spiral that grows there too you know, like the spiral of the Milky Way. When we build pyramids and temples, we build culture, people and posterity, we do it by going up, deep down into caves. I’m in seven caves now, trying to animate the dead inside me, so that I can be a creator too. Will they give me creativity to tell stories and share our knowledge? What awaits me outside of the caves? I am still getting scraped and cut and bruised as I make my way through. Māui, will you share your fire so I can see the way? Xb’alanke and Junajpu, you prevailed here too – may I join you?
It has been a rocky journey, a difficult path, traversing metaphysical realms
It has been a rocky journey, a difficult path, traversing metaphysical realms. I’ve done this while being stationary in one place, while drinking kava or kakaw(a), and I go further into my mind. Is this what blackfella relatives call the dreaming? It must be what we mean when we talk of the dreams of our ancestors. It must be why many cultures the world over have looked to dreams, to hear and see with the eyes and ears that no one else can use but you. Is this the depth of the seven caves, a sea of planets? The cosmic deep, that is deep inside? The voice you hear in your head, the images you see in your mind? When I meet other Indigenous people, and certain creatures, sometimes they can hear and see with me. We are connected. How can there be meaning if not in relation to people and place? Is this not the apex of all human relations and experiences in our history, as a species and people? Is this not also what makes us unique? To think in our way and to relate. Whale, turtle, bee, macaw, deer, owl and rabbit, they tell their stories too, with their own way of speaking. Does Utiw (wolf/coyote) not also speak when howling all alone? Maybe that cry is a hope that someone else nearby will join, will hear. A call for a response from relatives afar.
Who, I wonder, will hear? And who will respond?
I would like to acknowledge Heather Louise Hernandez, Te Whainoa Te Wiata, Moana ‘Ulu‘ave-Hafoka, and Lana Lopesi who proofread this story and gave me valuable insights and important feedback to edit and finalise this manuscript.