Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Malidoma Patrice Somé, Supernatural is Natural

“Earth is where we belong. She is our home. She gives us sustenance unconditionally and makes it possible for us to feel connected. Earth is where we go to and where we come from. The nourishment and support of the Earth Mother grants us the feeling of belonging that allows us to expand and grow because we feel strong.”

Western civilization superimposes us onto the natural world, as if we are above it, and it is below us. As if it is nothing more than a storage shed for resources at our disposal, and not a living, breathing world we are a part of. We see this viewpoint in the entitled way we dam rivers and when we clear-cut forest dwellers of their habitat, of their trees. We even blow holes in hills and mountainsides to make a way for ourselves and we call it progress.
Along the way, we stopped living with the earth and began to try to tame it to suit our needs and comforts. It is saddening. Yet there are people who walk with feet in both worlds, that of our constructed culture and that of the world we wandered far from as generations of nomads settled into cities. And these people are using their gifts to serve as guides, and awaken our perception to the larger truth.

“Human beings are most of the time unaware of the extent and intimacy of their connection with nature, especially the world of plants and animals. We act as if we are the proud and dominant other and thus can and should manifest our superiority in ways that are rather careless and devastating to nature. Indeed, trees live in harmony, and we create dissonance. Yet we want to live in a world where everyone and everything is harmoniously linked to everyone and everything.”

Malidoma Patrice Somé is one of these remarkable people, straddling both worlds and successfully acting as a mediator and translator between them. He was born to the Dagara people of Burkina Faso in West Africa. Malidoma was kidnapped from his village at the age of four by a Jesuit Missionary who had befriended his father. He was placed in a boarding school, on path to become a priest, to be used as a tool to convert the African people to the white man’s God.
When he was twenty he managed to run away and walked the entire distance back to his village, where he found himself home once more, and yet a stranger among strangers. He had been gone for fifteen years and could not even recall enough of the Dagara language to communicate with his mother and sister.
His Western world upbringing left him inadequately prepared for his return. He and his people did not understand each other. Well past the age of manhood in his village, Malidoma was required to undergo a month-long rite of passage before he could fully become a member of his community.
He had to first unlearn what he had learned.
His trials are compellingly written in his book Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. In its pages he describes one of his first breakthroughs, where he was bidden to sit and watch a tree. He was aware of his own head processing through wondering what the purpose was, of wondering what the correct thing to do was. There had to be more to it than staring at a tree, right? Then he became angry and felt like he was being made to go through a public humiliation, as he was sat in the center of the village. Passed that anger, he broke open and began to speak to the tree. It became a sort of confessional where he poured his feelings of frustration out and apologized to the tree.
What he experienced next was a transformation of the tree into what he calls the green lady- a green human form spirit who felt like love and home. He ran sobbing to the spirit and she held him in her arms. When he came out of the moment and was hugging the tree he immediately tried to blame the vision on the heat and lack of food- which is the Western way of thought- except that the elders of his tribe who were watching had seen the same green lady in the moment he did. How could he explain that?  

“My experience with the green lady raises an important issue, namely, the true identity of the elements of nature. What if they are not inanimate objects, as people in the West have been taught to believe, but rather living presences? How would we need to change if we granted to a tree the kind of life that we usually reserve for so-called intelligent beings? If you peek long enough into the natural world - the trees, the hills, the rivers, and all natural things - you start to realize that their spirit is much bigger than what can be seen, that the visible part of nature is only a small portion of what nature is.”

            What we would call the supernatural, his people call the natural world. They have no word for supernatural. The closest word they have is Yielbongura, “the thing that knowledge can’t eat.” Western thought may have decided that it is separate but that doesn’t make it a truth for the larger world.
In fact, that way of thinking will only serve to separate us more from that which we all want most- to rediscover the sensation of wholeness. Spirit is real. What is spiritual can be explained by science, but not explained away. After all, you can put blinders on a horse so that he cannot see the distractions around him, but the distractions around him are still occurring. He does not see, yet they happen.
That’s true of the fullness of the world around us. Either we are open to it or we are closed to it, but it does not stop existing if we do not believe in it. If we choose to, we can do work to open ourselves up to the spirit world, the larger world, the greater web around us. We can see and hear with more senses than we use. People who have had these experiences, as Malidoma had, often decide in the aftermath that they must have hallucinated. So much of the spirit world is ephemeral that it takes a certain amount of faith and openness to make the connection.

"You can acquire what is usually seen as magical. When in fact the more you dwell in this kind of world, the less you see it as magical because it is the familiar, it is the kind of thing that every human being is entitled to and it is the kind of thing that is at the core of human nature, the search, the intense search for the magical." 

            I can’t recommend Somé’s writings enough. He has two other books The Healing Wisdom of Africa, which chronicles his life after the awakening, and Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. The story of his life’s journey and the purpose his Ancestors gifted him with is laced and woven with a breathtaking, wondrous, and seemingly simplistic awareness of the larger world that stretches beyond our everyday perception. Malidoma’s words act as a gateway, a doorway that the reader can grasp, an opening they can step through.

“Indigenous people see the physical world as a reflection of a more complex, subtler, and more lasting yet invisible entity called energy. It is as if we are the shadows of a vibrant and endlessly resourceful intelligence dynamically involved in a process of continuous self-creation. Nothing happens here that did not begin in that unseen world. If something in the physical world is experiencing instability, it is because its energetic correspondent has been experiencing instability. The indigenous understanding is that the material and physical problems that a person encounters are important only because they are an energetic message sent to the visible world. ... Ritual is the principal tool used to approach that unseen world in a way that will rearrange the structure of the physical world and bring about material transformation.”

            [This article was originally published July 20, 2011.]

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