Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Healing Power of Ritual: Gifts from Indigenous Africa

Tonight I had the pleasure of listening to a talk given by the healer and academic Malidoma Somé. I thought my whole m.o. was about being in limbo, but this guy wins the prize. He's emeshed in several worlds, including having earned doctorates at the Sorbonne in Paris and Boston's Brandies, (i.e. the modern world) and being a fully initiated Shaman of Dagara Tribe of West Central Africa (the indigenous worlds of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso, himself being from the latter). As a Shaman, he's also a bridge between this world and the spirit world from whence we all came and shall return, as is his belief system. The lecture was held at the Temple Sherith Israel, sponsored by the California Pacific Medical Center's Institute for Health and Healing.

Though he didn't get into his background much, the "official version" runs something like this:

Somé, who was born in the mid-1950s in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), was kidnapped at the age of four by a French Jesuit missionary and raised in a seminary. For 15 years, his native language and tribal traditions were "systematically suppressed" from him until he escaped at age 20. When he got back to his village he was considered damaged goods, stained with the taint of white knowledge. His shaman grandfather arranged a compromise of sorts. Somé submitted to an intense six-week shamanic initiation and was restablished as a tribal member. However, the process and the decree of his elders revealed Somé's destiny: to return to the "modern" world in order to save his tribe from inculturation.

Tonight, in discussing healing as a realignment with one's purpose and sense of community, Somé emphasized the essentiality of ritual and ceremony in the quest for wholeness. He believes that without rituals we lose track of our true selves, noting that many of the physical and mental illnesses of Western or "modern" culture stem from disconnection from ritual and community.

Rituals require space, specifically sacred space. To sanctify a space one needs to invoke one's own ancestors, asking for guidance and inspiration. Out of respect for us, they await our invitation and won't otherwise be active in our lives. It's therefore, extremely important to be clear about our intentions and to challenge the other world, i.e. get emotional. Somé said that if you're meek or indifferent you'll not receive as much as if you rattle the cage. Be adamant about your needs, especially because the other world is in our bones and consciousness. We need only to be reminded, to tune into the same vibrational mode. For example, he pointed out how the young and old—say grandchildren and grandparents—often bond uniquely because the former have so recently left the spirit world and the latter are soon to return. At either of those points, the utility of this world is diminished for those particular individuals.

Although he had plenty of them, Somé is less impressed with stories than with actual spirit-driven transformation—the kind that only happens in times of sustained crises. These authentic ordeals crack open the psyche, letting it fill with "medicine." Embracing one's purpose is the equivalent of embracing one's medicine. In the absence of these rites of passage, we create the absence of a holistic environment in which fire, water, earth, mineral, and nature are allowed to nourish us. If we ritualistically engage with each one and allow the light within us to occupy a bigger space in our lives, we'll receive the message and respond.

Somé used the example of water ritual, stating that our culture doesn't grieve enough if at all. Many of us are filled with buckets of tears that really belong to the person who triggers them. Say someone close to you passes away. As you cry over your loss of that person, you're really giving them the water they need to cleanse their impurities from this life so that they can sail onward. By "donating" your water, you are empowered and made healthier by giving what has been requested.

Somé described those we call "mentally ill" as people who can't withstand the power of the message being received and the disabled as living altars, reminding us of the need to maintain sacredness within the community. He made clear that healers have to be creative and imaginative because each case is unique; healing is custom-made and can't be standardized. Those who go into it thinking they know exactly what to do will screw up; the best healers approach all situations with a blank slate each and every time. Healers occupy both worlds and must accept themselves in that position. All of us have an indiginous, ancestral light within—a gift of healing that needs to be delivered. We moderns doubt it because we struggle to be in the modern world without debasing ourselves, which is impossible.

Somé spoke of the difficulty of translating into English the deep, ancient memories and circumstances of the spirit of self that didn't happen in English, but I think everyone in the room understood him loud and clear. I literally felt energy emanating from my hands for the first half hour that he spoke, until I got tired. (As fascinating and wonderful a speaker as he was, it was difficult to sit for two hours after a full day of work). He played drums for us, he shared his great sense of humor, and at the end he led all 200+ of us in a prayerful song that I haven't stopped humming all night. I took the bus home and was definitely tuned in.

Even before I'd left, several crazy things unfolded all around as I hummed my new song. In fact, when he asked if we wanted to particpate in a ritual with him (i.e. the song) the woman sitting beside me chirped, "YES!" at the exact same moment that I flipped the pad of paper I'd borrowed from work, only to find that some one had scrawled YES! on the top part. Maybe you think that's a coincidence, but I don't really believe in coincidences and that was also just part of a string of minor synchronicities that popped up around me all night.

Plenty has been written about Somé, who has published books and been interviewed extensively. There is a redundancy in his speech, even amongt his book titles—ritual, water, spirit, healing, community, nature, ceremony, etc. These subjects come up repeatedly but as he hammers home his point, it all makes sense.


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