I was introduced to the word “ngapartji-ngapartji” by my partner Robert (Taffy) Seabornewho had experience and conversation with Anangu elders of Uluru in Central Australia: it is an Indigenous Australian term. “ngapartji-ngapartji” has generally been translated into English as “giving something in return” – taking turns at being given to; but this is really a very poor sense of it. “ngapartji-ngapartji” is more like being pleasure’s source and pleasure’s home at the same time – not knowing when one is “giving” or “receiving”: receiving is a giving, and giving is a receiving. The closest translation of the term (and mode of being) may be “reciprocity”: it is an exchange that happens simultaneously like it does in the peaking of the breath. It is not considered, it simply happens – is done.
My partner has related how it took a long process to come to deeper understandings of the relationship that this term was referring to. He said: “My earliest understanding did not satisfy my curiosity about this apparently universal indigenous principle. It wasn’t until an Anangu tjilpi (friend) explained to me that every story is like an onion with lots of layers to be peeled away before reaching its core that I began peeling away my own layers of this fascinating expression.”
For Taffy, the layers have gone like this:
First layer– dictionary definition: giving something in return, taking turns
Second layer– “golden rule” of ”do unto others what you would have them do unto you”: that is, giving others what you may think is is “good” for them, perhaps what they don’t want, like building them houses and teaching them new religion. It may be altruism disguising imperialism.
Third layer– ‘moral empathy’ of do unto others as they would have you do unto them: this is, giving from within the other’s frame, what they want. Empathy is not “goody-goody” altruistic stuff, “doing” for others for yourself. It is feeling from within the other’s frame … as a mother does, as a new mother/parent may struggle to learn. What are the needs of the child, the needs of the other?
Fourth layer– “what one does to other one does to self’: that is, understanding that we are one globe, one body. One cannot bang on our big toe without hurting the whole body.
It seems a question of understanding who the self is; that self is a nested reality, always within the context of other and All-That-Is (larger Self). It is not thinking of relationship with other as a duality; and thus the need to weigh things – the giving and receiving – up on scales. Each self has complete integrity, and is integral with All-That-Is; each is not “two halves of a whole” – as is commonly expressed and thought particularly in female-male relationships. “nagapartji-ngapartji” may be a place that understands that complete wisdom is within each: a respect for the other’s sovereignty, the other’s inner agency, and their sacred direct participation in the Creative Cosmos. They are a whole person, a whole Universe.
“ToGaianess” is another possible word for such relationship, coined by my partner Taffy. This term expresses an extension of relationship with other, which is always a relationship with Mother Gaia to begin with; that is, all relationship/togetherness is in the Mother/Gaia, our Context. And then any practice of attending, care-giving, nurturing, parental/maternal practice, lends itself to understanding ngaparti-ngapartji. Such attentive relationship as is required especially by tending a child, or dependent other, will nurture understanding of this reciprocity.
I never feel more given to
than when you take from me –
when you understand the joy I feel
giving to you.
And you know my giving isn’t done
to put you in my debt,
but because I want to live the love
I feel for you.
To receive with grace
may be the greatest giving.
There’s no way I can separate
When you give to me,
I give you my receiving.
When you take from me, I feel so
To my mind this seems fraught with danger in a context where each self is not felt as sacred subject: that is, it may result (and does/has) in apparent consent to being plundered. Yet perhaps that is what Earth says to us? She as Mother offers Herself like this? What has been lacking in many cultures for some time is the feeling for Earth or other as sacred subject; so She and other have been plundered. When there is perception of Earth as sacred subject, or other as sacred subject, there may be “receiving with grace”.
What strikes me from the poem are the lines ”my giving isn’t done to put you in my debt, but because I want to live the love I feel for you”: that is, the giving doesn’t operate out of guilt or obedience, “shoulds” and “have to’s”, “thy will be done”, or “I’ve done this for you, so …”. The giving operates out of desire. That is the only kind of giving I am interested in, is one that comes from desire to give. This is an ecological psychology.
Taffy has commented that one of the amazing things about being asked for money or whatever in Northern Territory Australia, by Indigenous persons, was that “if I said ‘No’, it wasn’t a problem – it was my problem perhaps”.
I am reminded also of a poem by Thomas Berry:
To be seen
in her loveliness
To be tasted
in her delicious fruits
To be listened to
in her teaching
To be endured
in the severity
of her discipline
To be experienced
as the maternal source
whence we come
Love may be understood more as a receiving of each other, not so much a giving. “ngapartji-ngapartji” may be a word for “love”? It is a reciprocity that is beyond dualism: “there’s no way I can separate the two” … the giving and the receiving.
Another way of describing this reciprocal relationship, is one suggested by Brian Swimme in his book The Universe is a Green Dragon. He says that “our most mature hope is to become pleasure’s source and pleasure’s home simultaneously”, that we have ripened and matured when we “enter ecstatically into pleasure so that giving and receiving pleasure becomes one simple activity”. The “giver” of pleasure or attention is receiving/enjoying the Beauty of the other. Brian goes on: “So it is with all the allurements of life: we become beauty to ignite the beauty of others.” This self-love is another dimension of the capacity to receive the giving.
This image of the Goddess beholding Herself is one that may express that the Universe is a con-sensual reality. The Deity/Goddess is primarily in relationship with Herself. She sees Who She is. What is a “good mirror”? perhaps one/ones which reflect who we really are, and which reflect that we are primarily in relationship with self. We respond to others from this … and thus co-create the relational web and the Universe.
This “seeing” is complex: we cannot touch without being touched. The seeing of self draws forth the other also at the same time. We co-create each other: for example, this co-creation happens when I recognize how I have called forth the beauty (the beloved/prince/goddess) that I see in the other, that myseeing actually participates in calling that forth. The seeing may call it forth: and there may be recognition of my co-creation of other … my own power in this. And it is received if they desired to be seen in the way I saw them; my seeing drew forth those qualities perhaps dormant in them that they wanted to express and manifest. This is how we co-create this place for ourselves – personally and collectively.
It reminds me of what Sara Ruddick named “maternal thinking”, a style of thought that may arise out of maternal practice – or the practice of ‘care’: wherein one develops a metaphysical attitude of ‘holding’ as against acquiring or posessing, because one knows one cannot possess. It gives rise to a humility – not self-effacement, but respect for dynamic reality, for the transitory Event that this place of being is. There is also acceptance of an independent other – who is an ‘open structure’. This practice of Care – parental/maternal practice, also may give rise to “attentive love”: learning to “love a child without using it or owning it, which is a discipline requiring effort and self-training.” This mode of attention is to see the child’s (or other’s) reality with the patient loving eye of attention … an intense attachment but also a detachment, a giving up, a letting grow.
As I see it, the practice of Care is a mode of learning ngapartji-ngapartji –where one is in deep reciprocal relationship with other. It is recognizing that being is essentially about relationship – one’s existence is not possible outside of Context. We are in Context; “to be is to be related”. There is the need to understand our primary relationship before we can get anything right … which is an empathy – knowing primary relationship. We are primarily in relationship with Gaia – this is not just Earth. Earth Herself is in relationship with Cosmos – there is no seam separating Her. She is a seed in the Womb of Space. So it is a relationship of the small particular self with the whole Place in which we are primarily. This Larger Self that each being always is, is not separate from a primary relationship with small self: this small particular self who is Gaia.
Self-knowledge is essential: regard for the self. It will mean a regard for the self of the other … all selves. Understanding that all selves need “agency” – the power to act, and be the cause of things. Empathy is not possible without this.
On a personal note, when I met Taffy, it was important to me that his CV, his life expeience, was a story of relationship with the elements, and at least three of them were evident: water, fire, and earth – in the work that he had been engaged in. I could story him as a Son of the Mother, and he appeared to like being storied that way: even naming him as “Taffy” and feeling that name as a form of “T’Aphrodite”. I was confident he would support my passion for Her, that he would not distract me or try to compete with Her for my attention. It was important to me that Taffy was himself solidly in primary relationship with his Place – She was Who he was and Where he was.
We cannot be the observer without affecting what we are observing. “Watching” is a participation, “Presence” is a participation. Learning is always two way – a flow in both directions: both teacher/speaker and student/listener are in-formed. It is like the peaking of a breath: there is an exchange of form and dissolution, of self and other. It is a a communion, a “sacred interchange” which this whole Place is/may be, at all times. In this image, the Goddess is emerging, being helped from the water/earth, being received, and She is also receiving them – it is a communion experience of joy.
When one’s passion is poured forth, there is always receiving at the same time – like the peaking of a breath. The pouring forth is not a martyrdom: it is a Radiance, which is a fullness of being and dissolving at the same time. ngapartji-ngapartji is like the peaking of a breath, when fullness is poured forth – there is innate co-incidental exchange.
In the “giving”, in the expressing of a blessing, we receive in the speaking. The speaking is a receiving, as we are heard, It is a blessing to speak the blessing. It is worth contemplating: is self only expressed when the expression is heard/received? Brian Swimme says that “Self-expression is the primary sacrament of the universe.”: the universe itself expands, rushes away from itself with news of itself, an urgency to unfold. Perhaps this urgency, this exuberance of being, assumes a hearer, a receiver. Then there is ngapartji-ngapartji, toGaianess – conscious relationship.
© Glenys Livingstone 2018
This essay is based on a presentation with this title by Glenys Livingstone and Robert (Taffy) Seaborne at the Goddess Association in Australia (G.A.I.A.) conference 2008.
An edited version of this essay has been published in Feminist Gift Economy: A Maternalist Alternative to Patriarchy and Capitalism. Volume 34, Numbers 1,2, a Canadian Women’s Studies journal.
Photo credit: Glenys Livingstone, Radha: Goddess Beholding Herself, MoonCourt, Blue Mountains, Australia.
Berbermeyer, Ruth. “Given To”, from her album Given To, 1974.
Neumann, Erich.The Great Mother. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Ruddick, Sara. “Maternal Thinking”Feminist Studies 6, No. 2 (Summer 1980), pp.342 – 367.
Swimme, Brian & Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. Harper Collins,1992.
Swimme, Brian. The Universe is a Green Dragon. Sante Fe NM: Bear & Co., 1984.