An #EatPlayLaugh Journey into Self-Awareness (Part 1): Learning from Nature

Friday Jul 31,2020 | Social Innovation


By Alan J. Yu

Art has always fascinated me. In 2009, after spending some time working as a graphic artist in large corporations, I decided to pursue a PhD in leadership studies. I had big dreams of creating unique experiences that inspired creativity and changemaking in others. However, in graduate school, these dreams slowly began to fade as I became inundated with theories, policies and case studies. The journey to perfecting my practice as an educator involved lots of readings, with little time to develop those ideas. This made me feel conflicted. Worse, like a fraud. If I was feeling dull, wooden and hollow inside, I thought, how could I inspire my community to feel alive?

Thankfully, I had someone to turn to. This was my mentor, Dr Rose Linda Martinez, a Native American educator who taught creativity and leadership through arts. From our conversations, I learned that she often found comfort in nature and would incorporate it into her teaching practice. Dr Martinez shared that she would spend time just being in the midst of nature, to rejuvenate herself both mentally and spiritually. Through her words, I knew there was wisdom to be found in nature. Inspired by the special connection that indigenous cultures have with nature—alongside my interest in art—my journey in academia pivoted.


Discovering Bali

It took me a total of six years to complete my PhD, mainly because I couldn't decide on a topic, but I eventually left the United States for Bali to pursue my dissertation study on Balinese leadership. This was refreshing, because it was also my first time really living in Asia, apart from the two months I'd previously spent in Harbin, China studying Chinese.




As it turned out, I ended up doing much more than just research to complete my PhD. I befriended a Balinese villager named I Putu Wiraguna (Wira), who was interested to explore his own cultural identity. Wira, who had moved to the tourist areas to work in hospitality since his early twenties, would graciously take me to my dissertation interviews on his motorbike. Those trips gradually led to us travelling and exploring the island together, and connecting with rural farmers. The way these farmers related to nature continues to inspire me in my process of learning and teaching.


A changed perspective on chocolate and rice

Growing up in the US, I knew of chocolate only in the form of Hershey’s candy bars at supermarkets. But it was in Bali that I had my first encounter with the cacao fruit. When I saw how a farmer sliced open the brown fruit to reveal numerous juicy pods bathed in sap, I realised just how disconnected I’d been from the natural world. I was very surprised by its taste as well. Apparently, cacao tastes more like tart lemon throat lozenges than Hershey's chocolate.




I also had the opportunity to observe the entire process of growing rice, which looked like a large piece of richly coloured canvas painted by nature. Beginning from the flooded fields outside my window, I watched the fresh green fields turn golden yellow, and then brown just before harvest. The grains would be collected by pulling the stalks and beating them into a large bin. Following that, the ducks get sent in to eat up the remaining seeds, only to excrete new fertiliser for the next cycle.




Recreation in nature

In rural Bali, the precious land is more than just a place where food is produced. Locals play and rejuvenate themselves in the natural terrains. In the jungle, you'll find children swimming naked in the rivers and diving from cliffs into the deep pools. Watching from afar, I couldn’t help but think about how blessed these kids are, to have the world to themselves. The idea of richness was of a very different kind, but one that greatly satisfied the human heart.




Bringing home the gift of nature

Throughout my journey in Bali, I realised how nature was always intertwined with the process of creating. The cacao fruits and rice stalks grow over time, with little intervention. All humans need to do is trust the process. Just as cells in our bodies regenerate and repair themselves, we are all products of nature. This means that my ability to create art, as we call it, also comes from nature.

With this renewed sense of realisation, I find fresh perspectives in the work I do as a social innovator, programme manager, researcher and educator. In the world of social innovation, we understand that we are part of a larger system of networks and resources. We are the collective force of nature at work, bringing beauty, grace and dignity back to our planet.



When we can operate at this level of consciousness, we realise that there truly is no limit to the miracles we can create each day that we are alive. On a personal level, I am grateful for this journey and everything nature gives me to inspire myself, as well as others around me


All images courtesy of I Putu Wiraguna.



Alan J. Yu is a Programme Manager at the Lien Centre for Social Innovation.