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Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing Paperback – August 1, 2001
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The most trenchant wisdom can be found in some of the most primitive people on Earth, as Robert Wolff demonstrates in Original Wisdom. Wolff, once a government psychologist in Malaysia, fell in love with a Stone Age people called the Sng'oi, a people who "had no neuroses, no fears ... had an immense inner dignity, were happy and content, and did not want anything." But he was mystified by their seemingly superhuman powers of knowing. Finally, in an experience of what he calls "oneness," ordinary distinctions dropped away, and he learned that there was a way of knowing beyond thinking. Wolff also describes his encounters in Suriname, Indonesia, and the Pacific islands, demonstrating that far from being primitive, original tribal societies are the last bastions of true humanity. Wary of both anthropologists and shaman wannabes, Wolff follows a middle path of down-to-earth storytelling, making Original Wisdom an original find. --Brian Bruya
“Each chapter in this book contains help, knowledge, and a new perspective. Even though the author is warning us about many dangers we face these days, this book is full of hope, affirmation, and love. I hope you will plunk it down on your kitchen counter or bedside table and read into it for as far as it takes you. That may be to a new and better world.” (Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of Connect and Human Moments: How to Find Love and Meaning in Your Ev)
“Robert Wolff’s moving autobiographical narrative takes us back to an older, wiser human time, when people knew that spirituality was not apart from the naturalness of things. This book demonstrates how the legendary “dream people” were not at all ephemeral, but vulnerably and exquisitely human.” (Stephen Larsen, author of Fire in the Mind)
“It will fill you with hope for a human future more in line with what it means to truly be human. Read it, dream about it, and share it with your friends. This is a message the world must hear.” (Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight)
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Having spent half his youth growing up among Sng'oi, Wolff says this: "I learned early on to be in two different realities." One reality was oriented around the clock, efficiency, technology, and harsh realism. The other was fluid, timeless, almost dreamlike - a world in which "people touched each other," a world in which "we knew animals and plants intimately." The bulk of this book is spent fleshing out differences between these worlds, in an attempt to teach us Westerners another way of knowing, another reality. Yet in the process of doing so, it quickly becomes apparent that the modern world doesn't quite measure up.
As slaves to an alienating industrial system, we civilized people must pay rent to live. A completely self-domesticated species, we live in a state of complete dependence on big industry and agriculture. We are ignorant of the flora and fauna that support our life, and helplessness to a capricious global market. Thus, the condescending glance "modern" humanity casts at so-called "primitive peoples" is extremely ironic.
Traditionally referred to as "Sakai," or slaves, by modern Malaysians, the Sng'oi do not take offense. Says one Sng'oi man, "We look at the people down below [literally, from up in the mountains] - they have to get up at a certain time in the morning, they have to pay for everything with money, which they have to earn doing things for other people. They are constantly told what they can and cannot do. No, we do not mind when they call us slaves."
At one point in the book, Wolff recounts a number of silent educational trips into the rainforest with his friend/guide, Ahmeed, who was subtly trying to teach him to interact and connect with the forest on his own terms. After days of walking, Wolff became thirsty. It was precisely then that Ahmeed decided to sneak off and leave him to find water on his own. After searching for hours, he not only discovered water - he also discovered another way of seeing. "When I leaned over drink from the leaf, I saw water with feathery ripples, I saw a few mosquito larvae wriggling on the surface, I saw the veins of the leaf through the water, some bubbles, a little piece of dirt... How beautiful, how perfect." His perception suddenly "opened," and a deep feeling of connection enveloped him. "The all-ness was everywhere, and I was a part of it... I could not be afraid - I was apart of this all-ness."
Contrast this with our culture, a culture walled-in with fear; a culture that "learns - has to learn - to shut off the senses, to protect oneself from all the noise." Unlike the Sng'oi, who are brought up to listen, watch and feel their world in depth, our culture inhabits apsychological straightjacket. We are brought up to act like machines only to find ourselves replaced by machines built to act like humans. Perhaps our fear of the natural world explains why our economic system has set out to expand and colonize every wild space left on the globe. In the other world Wolff experienced, every day - indeed every second - was a miracle. Life, by no means perfect, was nevertheless full of smiles, stories, songs and dance. It was a world without fear and domination - until Komatsu bulldozers started coming to clear away the forest.
The topics Wolff address in this book vary from indigenous medicine to education, from dream interpretation to surviving the onslaught of civilization. This is not simply anthropology or ethnology, but a critique of modern industrial civilization and it's "Development Scheme" in the gentle voice of someone intimate with the Sng'oi. In all, the book amounts to nothing less than an alternative way of being. I found it refreshing, insightful and transformative - three criteria for any great book.
Edit: New reports state that Sng'oi culture has been "absorbed" into the Malaysian population.