Returning to the Country of the Heart

There is a great deal of attention being placed nowadays on the theory and practice of awakening consciousness. The truly good news of these times is that spiritual practices are proliferating that can reliably guide the soul home to the knowing and experience of its true abode. One simple and ageless practice, which I discovered essentially through trial and error, is that of showing up consistently in service, saying YES when asked to fulfill a function, often as part of a team, and then surrendering to the Grace that flows when service deepens into selflessness. This practice permeates my inner and outer work, and it has been a radical accelerant on my journey home.

In June 2017, I had the great good fortune to meet Ben Bowler at a gathering of leaders working to bridge divides between science, spirituality, and activism in this time of deepening world crisis. As we sat outside in the early-morning summer sunshine, Ben shared a vision for UNITY EARTH – a living network of people, organizations, and events with a mission of healing humanity and Earth through experiences of actual Unity. One of the events coming up within a few short months was a concert to observe and celebrate a profound healing moment for the nation and peoples of Australia: the “return to country” of Mungo Man. Ben asked if I would be interested in coming to Australia to participate, and without a hesitation I said YES.

“Mungo Man” refers to a fully modern human who lived approximately 42,000 years ago on the shores of Lake Mungo, an ancient lake in present-day New South Wales that dried up around 15,000 years ago. The remains of Mungo Man were discovered in 1974 by a young geologist named Dr. Jim Bowler. (Ben Bowler, Dr. Bowler’s son, was almost one year old at the time!) The age of the remains, as well as the ceremonial manner in which Mungo Man had been buried, revealed a much longer history of human habitation in Australia than had previously been recognized by science. These insights helped to increase awareness of the immense depth of Aboriginal culture, rooted in place, and contributed to a greater respect for the connection between the Aborigines and their land, or country. However, the removal of the bones of Mungo Man, Mungo Lady, and scores of other ancestors for study at a national university also created a terrible wound, and sense of violation at the hands of nonindigenous Australians, for the native Barkindji, Mutthi Mutthi, and Ngiyampaa peoples of the region.

Eventually, healing and reconciliation are possible, even in the most difficult circumstances, and four decades later the remains of Mungo Man and 104 other Aboriginal ancestors were about to be returned to the land from which they had been taken. After years of challenging negotiations – championed by Dr. Bowler himself – amongst scientists, government and university officials, and elders from the affected indigenous communities, Mungo Man was finally on his way home. The “return to country” of Mungo Man was in the process of making both national and international headlines, and this looming moment of cross-cultural healing and unity was calling me to Australia to serve as a sacred witness.

So it was, toward the end of October 2017, that I boarded the long flight to Australia, not understanding the power and true meaning of the land that I was about to set foot upon, and yet knowing somehow that it was very important, even essential, that I be there. After adjusting to the shift in time zones and hemispheres – skipping from autumn to springtime in a mere 14 hours! – I spent two weeks on the Sunshine Coast falling in love with Australia and savoring, with friends and colleagues, what seemed to me like an entirely new world. Then, rested and refreshed, I was on my way to Mildura, in the state of Victoria, and Mungo National Park, to encounter an entirely ancient world. The experience would prove to be one of the most significant initiations of showing up in service, saying YES, and surrendering to Grace in my life.

Two days before the repatriation of Mungo Man, the UNITY EARTH mob – consisting of the Bowler family, several indigenous brothers and sisters, and guests from North America and around Australia – converged in Mildura, on the banks of the famous Murray River. The next day, the whole lot of us set off to Balranald Aboriginal Cemetery, near the entrance to Mungo National Park, to meet up with the convoy accompanying Mungo Man and the other ancestors on their journey home from Canberra, and to participate in a smoking ceremony commemorating their return to country. In a demonstration of global unity amongst indigenous peoples, Mindahi Bastida Muñoz, a renowned shaman from Mexico and a representative of the Center for Earth Ethics, was invited by the Aboriginal ceremonialists to co-lead the assembled elders, dignitaries, locals, and visitors in a Four Directions ceremony. Subsequently, many of us gathered around “Mungo 1” – a lovingly restored Aboriginal hearse from the 1970s – to pay our respects to Mungo Man and the other ancient ones. After the ceremony, our group departed to take in the magnificence of Mungo National Park, where the repatriation ceremony would occur the following day.

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“Mungo 1” – the hearse carrying the remains of Mungo Man – at Balranald Aboriginal Cemetery
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Mindahi Bastida Muñoz photographs the stunning lake bed of ancient Lake Mungo while Ben Bowler points to where Mungo Man was discovered by his father, Dr. Jim Bowler, in 1974.

The morning of the repatriation, with a growing sense of being a global family, the UNITY EARTH entourage visited a site by the Mungo Visitor Centre and Meeting Place, where 20,000-year-old human footprints had been discovered and preserved. To walk, literally, in the footsteps of Aboriginal ancestors who lived 1,000 generations ago was truly a meeting of ancient and modern realities. In the process, I sensed the presence of a powerful energy system – a feature of the land itself – that was similar to what I had experienced at sacred sites in the United States. Intuitively, I was inspired to offer prayers to connect the continents of Australia and North America, for reasons that only my heart understood at the time, but which I now relate to the prophecy of the Condor and the Eagle, according to which the wisdoms of the South and the North will converge in a mutual honoring, leading to the emergence of an enlightened humanity.

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20,000-year-old Aboriginal footprints at Mungo National Park

Thereafter our group proceeded to the ceremony grounds where we had the incredible privilege of witnessing, in great solemnity, the handover of the remains of Mungo Man and the 104 other ancestors to representatives of the native peoples of the area. The sacred ceremony incorporated speeches of reconciliation from both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, traditional dances, music featuring impassioned vocals and didgeridoo that had been composed for the occasion, a sweet song called “Mungo Man” which had come from the land itself, and various signs of auspiciousness from nature, including a lone eagle circling overhead.

In retrospect, to say that the return to country of Mungo Man was deeply meaningful would be an understatement. It was a shamanic healing of the land and the peoples of the land, which at the same time illuminated now-realistic possibilities of a widespread reawakening to the spirit of place; of national and cross-cultural healing through persistence, collaboration, and love; of reconciliation between Aboriginals and those of European descent, and of indigenous and nonindigenous peoples around the world; and, ultimately, a uniting of the wisdoms of heart and mind, science and spirit, and intuition and reason for the whole human family. On a more personal and interpersonal level, the repatriation was also a tremendous marker and milestone on a long journey of healing for Dr. Bowler and his family, all of whom had experienced in microcosm the struggles and sorrows of the Mungo Man story in their own ways. Surely all of us can relate to the big story of separation and return.

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The remains of Mungo Man and 104 other Aboriginal ancestors are carefully removed from “Mungo 1” and finally returned to country in Mungo National Park on 17 November 2017.

In my case, riding back to Mildura in the afterglow of the repatriation ceremony, no words felt adequate for conveying the raw power and meaning of that experience. I had just witnessed the culmination of a long process of healing and reconciliation that was so far beyond the scope of my own journey up to that point. I would need to be with it, to stay present with the memories and sensations, and to let the significance knead its way into my heart and soul over time. I see now that I had been humbled by the ancientness of Mungo Man and Aboriginal culture, and that I was uncomfortably face-to-face with how little I knew about the experiences of other peoples and their traditions. At the same time, I did feel much more connected to the land, and I paid extra attention to the flora and fauna, to the gum trees and scrubby bushes, to the kangaroos and emus, and to the rough road of reddish clay that could turn into impassable mud with a single rainstorm, if nature wished it. There was a deepening reverence for the Sacred.

My last full day in Mildura was focused on supporting preparations for the “Return to Country” concert and festival at Nowingi Place. The event was co-produced by UNITY EARTH, with stellar leadership from Sam Cook, Dwayne Mallard, and so many others. The concert was to weave dozens of Aboriginal dancers, musicians, and visionaries from all over Australia – including Australia’s most recent representative in the Eurovision Song Contest – and it would all begin with a recognition and honouring of Aboriginal elders from the region. “Return to Country” was an awesomely complex event that I would have been happy to simply witness and appreciate, except that a few hours beforehand, Ben Bowler asked whether I would offer, as one of the international guests, a few words of greeting to the audience immediately following the elders. Still reeling energetically and integrating the impact of the previous day, I gulped and then stepped into the practice: “show up and be of service, say YES, and surrender to the Grace.”

When the time came for me to walk onto the stage with the other international and interstate guests, and then speak into the microphone, the following words emerged, slowly, from my heart:

My name is Jeff Vander Clute. I bring greetings of love and profound respect from America for the traditional owners of this land; for elders, past, present, and future; and for the great nation of Australia. Thank you for showing the way, for leading the way to healing and reconciliation. We, too, in America, celebrate the return of Mungo Man, and we will stand with you [signaling to the elders]. I pray that we all may awaken to our connection to land, to place, and to country. Thank you.

It was my hope and sense that, with these words, a further connection had been made, bridging hemispheres, lands, and peoples. As if to confirm that intuition, after I had spoken and walked over to join with the group of elders, one of the women leaned over to whisper in my ear about a family member who had visited the United States. I smiled at the joys of human connection across continents, cultures, and, as Mungo Man had beautifully demonstrated, oceans of time. I wept inwardly with love. And standing there on stage at “Return to Country,” alongside the elders and fellow guests, looking out over a field of healing and celebration filled with thousands of diverse faces… so many having walked paths of suffering and service, and saying YES, in their own lives… there was a moment in which Grace was offered, and finally received within my Heart.

Perhaps we will never understand the workings of Grace, but I can tell you that on November 18, 2017, at Nowingi Place in Mildura, Victoria, on the traditional lands of the Latji Latji and Barkindji peoples, something shifted in me, and for the first time I KNEW Unconditional Love, through and through, not just in my mind but in my whole being and consciousness. Maybe it was a gift of reciprocation and belonging from the land. Maybe it was the fruit of consciously bearing witness to a great suffering and an even greater healing, or a gift of wisdom from the Aboriginal peoples, or a gift directly from Creator. Maybe it was of all of these and more. Certainly it was a return to country in the deeper territories of Holy Light for me.

At last, it has become abundantly clear that the gift of Unconditional Love must be given in each act and in each moment, in eternal gratitude for life. Since words cannot contain this Love, I share It with you now, in fullness, as a direct transmission from my Heart to yours. Furthermore, in eternal thanks I offer all of my gifts, known and as-yet unknown, in service to our collective return to country. Thank you, Mungo Man. Thank you, dear elders. Thank you, UNITY EARTH. Thanks to the entire Bowler family. Thank you all.

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Aboriginal dancers celebrate Mungo Man’s return to country at Nowingi Place in Mildura.    Photo credit: Bill Pheasant

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