Removing shoes, sharing breath: The embodied pedagogy of a philosophy and psychiatry conference

The fifteenth International Philosophy and Psychiatry conference begins formally with a Pöwhiri. For the hundred or so academics and clinicians* gathered at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, this beginning is an invitation to inhabit new physical, cultural and conceptual spaces. What does it mean, in the context of a conference on ‘Culture and Mental Health,’ to accept this invitation?

Araiteuru Marae 5 July 2012, photographed with permission.

The Pōwhiri
It is cold, it is sunny, and we are milling, uncertainly, in a car park. Eventually, a young Māori woman calls us together to explain what is about to happen. She elaborates on what has been printed in our conference programmes:

Pōwhiri – welcome ceremony/ritual of encounter. A Pōwhiri encapsulates the formal welcome ceremony onto the marae (traditional meeting place), starting with the initial karanga (call) from the tangata whenua (people of the land, the hosts) right up to the sharing of kai. This process also removes the tapu (sacredness) from the manuhiri (visitors), who are referred to as waewae tapu (literally, sacred feet) if they are first-time visitors to that particular marae.

The young woman asks who among us will respond to the call from our hosts, and an older Maori woman steps forward to speak on our behalf in this unique form of female oratory. Massing together with the women in front, and walking slowly, deliberately, we follow our caller as she sings her replies to the questions and introductions of the tangata whenua. When it is agreed we can enter, we leave our shoes at the door and move inside to sit opposite our hosts. There are speeches, and the presentation of a gift, and then, one by one we gently press noses with each of the people who have now welcomed us onto their marae, an act which ‘signifies the mingling together of the sacred breath of life’.

Marae Encounters
The Pōwhiri is followed by a keynote talk by Professor Sir Mason Durie, a pioneer of Māori health and one of New Zealand’s most respected clinicians. His topic is ‘Marae Encounters, Māori World Views & Dilemmas for Clinicians,’ and the clarity of his presentation is such that I am able to capture verbatim his three key ideas:

  • The philosophical foundations that underpin Māori health are found in marae encounters
  • Mental health attributes such as secure identity, sustainable relationships and effective communication, are largely products of culture
  • 3 phases of therapeutic interventions for Māoris – engagement, enlightenment, empowerment – should reflect Māori values and perspectives

Professor Sir Mason Durie Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Māori and Pasifika) Massey University, NZ. Public Lecture on Maori Mental Health, Thursday 5 July, University of Otago.

Durie suggests that the spatial arrangements of the marae, and the dynamics of the encounter more generally, offer important lessons for people working in mental health; that they constitute a way of understanding how people think and feel and behave. As in the therapeutic context, establishing a relationship, in this case between two groups, involves clarifying intentions, assessing risk, maintaining distance, reading the signs, mutual respect, and an acknowledgement of distinctiveness before there can be a coming together in mutual obligation and responsibility. Communication is multi-modal: in the Pōwhiri, the karanga, whaikorero, karakia, haka, waiata, spoken and sung, have physical, musical and affective dimensions. And, while this ideal may not always be realised in the mental health setting, the encounter should end in a state of enlightenment, a better awareness and understanding, a sense of satisfaction.

The encounter, philosophy and psychiatry
Durie’s talk was a powerful exposition of the marae encounter and its relevance to establishing empowering relationships in a psychiatric setting. But perhaps even more interesting was the almost-audible sigh of relief it occasioned from the conference-goers. Settling back into the conventions of the keynote address, we formed an audience eager to cede our attention to academic and clinical authority (a Professor and a Sir, as was noted more than once), to the familiar comforts of powerpoint, to the more properly academic ‘work’ of analysing what had just taken place. For those conference participants new to New Zealand, the Pōwhiri, which was conducted almost entirely in Māori, marked us as foreigners and put us in the place of not-knowing. Perhaps this not-knowing is particularly unsettling for philosophers and psychiatrists, but I was struck throughout the rest of the conference that people spoke more about the anxieties aroused by the ceremony than, say, their feelings of wonder, or estrangement, or even fascination (Tim Thornton writes about this in his blog here).

For academics and clinicians who had come together to think philosophically about ‘Culture and Mental Health’, the embodied pedagogy of the Pōwhiri was an exceptional few hours in the conference programme. No longer an earnest gathering of talking heads, we became bodies marked by our belonging. Leaving our shoes at the door seemed to upturn academic and other hierarchies, as if the removal of our hardest outer layers and the exposure of socks rendered us all equally vulnerable. For those of us who did not speak Maori, language ceased ‘making sense’ and became a matter of multisensory sense-making, drawing on tone and timbre, gesture and expression, and the imaginative leaps occasioned by not-knowing. While the encounter was a rare and privileged opportunity, enhanced by Mason Durie, to learn about a part of Māori culture, it was also, in a very basic, very bodily sense, an opportunity to learn about my own. The encounter called to my attention and so denaturalised aspects of what Mauss and Bourdieu call ‘habitus’ – the ways in which I move and dress, the ways I interact or not with other people’s bodies, the ways I perform my academic identity.  More than the illicit thrill of observing my colleagues’ inner footwear, it was the chance to become aware, in a felt and not simply in an intellectual way, of some of what makes up the ‘culture(s)’ whose relationship to ‘mental health’ we were assembled to explore.

*While any of the conference participants may have used mental health services, speakers were registered as experts by profession, not experience.

About Angela Woods

Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University
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One Response to Removing shoes, sharing breath: The embodied pedagogy of a philosophy and psychiatry conference

  1. Pingback: On ‘Beckett and Brain Science,’ Breath, Voice and Embodied Learning | Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

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