MALIDOMA PATRICE SOMÉ
Malidoma Patrice Somé was born in 1956 in the village of Dano in Burkina Faso, West Africa. His tribe, the Dagara, are a people known for their spiritual practice and visionary ability. At the age of four, Malidoma was kidnapped by a French Jesuit Missionary and taken to a seminary far away from his village. For 15 years, he was tutored and trained to be one of a new generation of black missionary-priests for the Catholic Church. In this profoundly alien environment, Malidoma's mental and emotional survival was spiritually supported by his deceased grandfather, a Dagara healer and medicine man who maintained a psychic link with him.
Malidoma stepped away from the seminary at age 20, and walked the 150 miles back to his home village, only to discover that he now had no real place in his tribal culture. He and the tribal elders soon realized that only through the process of initiation would he find his place in the tribe, and in the world. During the forty-day initiation, he confronted realities unknown to most people in the West, except perhaps through the reports of writers like Carlos Casteneda. The stories Malidoma shares of his experiences in his autobiography, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman, are awesome and inspiring.
Malidoma's name means "One who befriends the stranger/enemy," and his tribal elders advised him to follow through on his destiny by becoming educated in the West (he has three Master's Degrees and 2 Ph.D's) and sharing with us the voice of African indigenous wisdom.
I'm just going to ask the most basic questions, such as why do we here in the west need to have initiations?
Talking with the Ancestors:
Initiation and the Purpose of Life
AN INTERVIEW WITH
MALIDOMA PATRICE SOMÉ
by MICHAEL BERTRAND
It is self-explanatory. As we look around we find that modernity, however glamorous it is, is fostering tremendously challenging problems under it wing. One of them is the turmoil that the youth are plunged into as soon as they reach their teens and the great confusion that creates in the mind of the adult, who's supposed to be the responsible person. That alone is a sign enough that somehow initiations should be tried as one of the alternatives that are available.
The other thing is the fact that the growing interest in the work of the spiritual, that is to say in old wisdom, requires that somehow people become aware of the fact that this is a direct manifestation of an ancient way of living that we cannot afford to let go of. Somehow the thing we deny catches up with us sometime in the course of our lives.
This is why initiation is one of the important things that--Without this return to the ways of living that used to be basic to our forefathers, we'll probably run into a much more chaotic world than we're able to forecast at this time.
I believe that initiation is also necessary because it will help people in this culture know what they're here to do, what they're here for. If anything, a person coming into this world must know first why. Instead of creating career counselling services or professional counselling services, initiation can cut right through these kinds of complexities, allowing people to become clear about what they're here to contribute to.
Finally, initiation is necessary because we're living at a time where community is such an ideal word, which lacks the concrete translation of itself. To put it in other terms, everybody in this culture understands what community is and seems to aspire to a community which is much truer to what the heart and soul wants. I think initiation can help bring the answer to the birth of a true community.
I think these reasons make initiation a compelling must for any person in this culture who is tired of living in denial.
What would initiation look like then? What would the process be?
Well, primarily it would have to start with a basic understanding of the structure of initiation. That is, separation from family, from a village or town; the entrance into a magical world--call it wilderness if you want--and the experiencing of some carefully structured element or thing in that natural setting and eventually a return back to the world, to a bunch of people I'd like to call the village will be there to welcome the initiate.
Now, the part that needs some serious thinking is that which concerns activities that are supposed to happen in the jungle or nature. That requires that there be people who are spiritually minded and socially conscious of what the human psyche desires in order to break into remembering this life purpose. Among the ingredients there will have to be some exercises involving hardship. Things that are demanding to the body so the body can be made light enough for the spirit to crack through that rigidity.
There can be exercises as simple as those done in--(Visions world??)--like sitting and looking at a tree. Why not? If you stare at a tree long enough something is going to happen. The thing that involved travelling in the wilderness, maybe by yourself alone, was nothing to actually make travelling safe, that is to say a context in which there is enough mystery to allow the participant to break into a state of alertness that is sufficient for the ancient self to burst out, providing the kind of membrane that is necessary.
So, basically if at all anything like this needs to happen it can certainly be structured by good thinking people, so eventually exercises like this can follow one another and cover time/space and time frame not exceeding 25 minutes. ( I think??) I believe that after that time a person returning from this experience will certainly be a new person.
Of course, there is a tendency that everything must be safe and assured against all kinds of effects or something of that sort. So, people are so stuck with safety they don't realize the more stuck you are to safety the less safe you are. Looking around in every city at the violence and chaos, the news is about all the bad things that happen yet there is this tendency that everything you do must be safe. There is an irony there.
I think that organized unsafety, namely initiatory experience, is likely to restore the kind of safety that people are looking for, namely a safety that is very practical in that it allows people's psyche and people's spirit to remember why they are here.
Remembering why you're here is one of the main objects of an intiatory experience.
Yes. Otherwise you have to count on somebody to tell you what you are here to do, but how do you know what that person actually means. That memory must be something that is acquired personally in the course of an experiential journey in a natural setting, so it has the power in it that makes a person not budge when faced with adversity. This is the kind of experience that would have what you must--to make a life worth living, a life full of--and a desire to contribute to the healing of the world.
Right. In your culture you have relations with the ancestors. That's something that we've basically lost touch with in our culture, not only how to do it but even why or even if there are any.
That is again a very important point that is tied to the reason why there is a need for initiation. How do you practice something so ancient when you are disconnected? It's just an irony. The connection with the ancestors is a primary requirement for the reconnecting with initiatory practices. It is one of the conditions for the healing that needs to happen for the modern world. We cannot go forward until we look back at those who have preceded us, in an attempt to produce a reconciliation between us and them.
Otherwise, the perpetuation of denial is fostering all kinds of illnesses that indeed are encouraged by the very ancestors that we're forgetting, because that's they're only way to keep ringing the bell in our psyches about the necessity for this connection to happen. It is just as useful to them as to those caught in western phenomena. It is not something that can be avoided. Therefore, it's just a basic acknowledgment of life to acknowledge that one has ancestors.
I've discovered over the years that people prefer to look forward because when they look back they find the memory they have of their ancestors is not that good. Those who can remember are connecting with crime, violence and pain.
With the colonialism
That's right. With colonial violence and so on and so forth. It may then feel very uncomfortable having to relate to figures in that manner. Yet, what we must understand is that being alive at this time makes us the prime healers of the very ancestors who were remembered in this time. Unless we're able to reconcile with them we can be of no use to ourselves as well as to them, because our relationships start in a dysfunctional compost. It is that dysfunctionality that those of us who are alive are therefore able and qualified to fix.
This is why I like to talk about healing the ancestors. In this context it means eventually returning to them with a humble heart to let them know that indeed we're here to help do whatever it takes to repair the energy that has been broken through time and space. We are, therefore, opening ourselves to our suggestions as to what we need to do in order to reconnect or to open the mind with them in a healing fashion.
It doesn't mean we have to invent something. They know from where they are what needs to be done. It's up to us to tell them we're open to receiving that knowledge so we can take the proper action, because we're still caught in a human body. They don't have a human body so they can't do what it takes to fix that problem.
So, we're saying that problem, or the healing of the ancestors, implies that we have to do it because we need their help as much as they need ours.
That's right. It's reciprocal. They need our help because they need to produce a situation where there's continuity. We need their help because we need to resolve the turmoil that we get ourselves into in this modern world. The turmoil in the downtown and the inner cities, the violence that's going on, is all connected with the fact that we're disconnected from the ancestors. They can fix that because they know where it's darkest.
It is mostly in our interests and in the interests of those coming after us that we do that. Otherwise when we die we'll join them and attempt to continue to complicate the (--vision?) here hoping that eventually people will remember where they need to go in order to get a solution to the problems. This is why I insist that it's a reciprocal thing, something that helps both parties.
So, in essence too, you've implied in your book that the ancestors need to be helped along their way so they go where they need to be in the afterlife.
Yes. Unless this happens we'll not have the kind of benefit that they also seek. One thing we need to understand is that their constant interference in our day to day life is motivated by the fact that is would pay us to allow them to join the place that they need to join in order to feel complete, which is the land of the ancestors. Otherwise they will keep sticking around in our cities and creating the kind of turmoil that they think is the only way for them to remind us of what we're here to do, of the necessity of our relationship with them.
Consequently, of course, this is an opportunity to take back and learn from existing indigenous cultures where this leads to a lot of ritualized grief because that grief helps in that journey across to the land of the ancestors. As long as we know that it is in our interest that they go there.
What they're saying here is we are robbing them of their right to journey where they belong, where they can also be a proper source of help to us.
So, one of the way to heal the ancestors is to grieve them. If there were some way in which a day were taken where everybody in a given country spent it in grief for the ancestors so they could go to the land of the ancestors would be positively useful to us. I'm sure that several million tears, a double billion people shedding tears for the same ancestral pole (pull?) would be likely to make a difference.
This is the kind of thing that eventually will have to happen. Maybe this is the only condition that will help us break into the remembering space that allows the understanding of what kind of initiation is needed in order to bring out the birth of the kind of community that people feel comfortable with.
One of the things I know that you stress in the work you do with groups and in workshops is that we need to foster a proper relationship with the earth and the various levels of being. What can we do in a daily way to bring ourselves into some sort of balance?
Well, first of all, the earth consciousness is a mothering consciousness and we're all living on her lap and thriving from her resources. In that context we have an intimate relationship. One of the ways, at least, that relationship can be honored will have to begin with an understanding of the fact that earth is a consciousness. As a result, if anything at all, an earth shrine erected in every village and every town to the earth is a beginning of that honoring process.
Now at an individual level we need to get used to asking mother earth, especially when we find ourselves starving for something and more often than not in the land of abundance I noticed the psyche of the one who is starved. This is what the phenomena of modernity is all about.
We fill up the body and the stomach and leave the soul starving for satiation and fullness. I don't think that fullness can be gained through a rethinking of the kind of relationship we have with earth. That would mean at an individual level we get used to going to earth and ask her for a meal that would satisfy the soul, something that will nourish our souls. Nourishing our bodies is not enough. This is only sharing the responsibility.
When the soul is not nourished we can see that. We can see that in a culture where obesity is rampant, where people get into all kinds of compulsive self-seeking and where also it becomes obvious that there is an imbalance in the manner in which people relate to fulfillment, that is to say to self-nurturing.
Our healing is veryThis is because we think about nurturing in a manner that does not include the earth mother in our lives. I believe that nurturing must be therefore a resource in spiritual terms in order to make the food that we ingest something ritualistic.
intimately linked to the
There is a lot to be said about what earth expects of us because she looks at us as her children and we have to look at her as our mother. The way that can happen is we have an attitude towards earth that is not the same as dirt but as a place that should feel to us like home, a place where we go when we're feeling one discrepancy or another, one problem or another.
This requires the spiritualization of our lives, to the point where it allows us to look at nature and feel the mountains, creeks, rocks and rivers as spiritual or powerful reminder, a symbolic reminder of our deep spiritual link to the earth.
It should be something that is self explanatory, natural and easy to do for everybody. Caught in the concrete jungle we have a way of relating to the earth that is rather concrete and cemented. In order to change we need to go breathe the air of nature in order to understand who is the reason for that fresh air that we are breathing.
If anything at all our healing is very intimately linked to the earth itself.
At least once a year you go back to your own culture to be cleansed of this one a little bit. I guess this is what you're saying right now.
For now I have to go home, not just because I have nostalgia but because I miss the kind of ritual that I know to take here for the hunger of my own psyche, the need for my own psyche to be replenished. I think this is something that every westerner who is at least spiritually aware must deliberately try to create right around here, so that eventually people can benefit from that right here. That includes me working here.
I think the most important beneficial thing that can happen would be the creation of sacred spaces out in nature and a knowledge that a certain kind of--in those sacred places can take care of the soul's desire to be replenished, to be fulfilled. These can be done right here if we make the effort to relate to the earth as the spiritual mother who feeds our bodies, minds and souls. That will lead us to becoming serious about feeding our souls, since this is the one which has mostly been starved over the centuries.
It would at least be a beginning to match the feeding of the soul to the feeding of the body. Until that happens we will continue to develop this hungry romantic hangover about indigenous cultures. Every time we hear what happened there, how life is lived there, how spirit is amplified there our souls are banging at our consciousness saying this is where you need to be, this is what you need to have. That seems strong enough to lead to some serious thinking about how to make that happen right around here, because nature exists.
Instead of battling with nature we need to merge with it in such a manner that it helped shift this whole romance around and bring it home.
Instead of us all looking to become white natives or whatever we need to figure it out right here.
That's right. It's so natural and so much more in line with what it is that the ancestors are expecting us to do. One cannot find fulfillment by becoming other than what one is. It is ridiculous. So, one will not be fulfilled by reconnecting with other types of ancestors or cultures or practice. First, this reconciliation with one's own ancestors can lead to a very clear knowledge of what to do in order to bring about this sacrealization of one's own environment so that environment can become nurturing to the self.
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