When I arrived at the modest Oakland home of Malidoma Patrice Somé and his wife, Sobonfu, Malidoma had to excuse himself, saying, “I am trying to calm someone on the phone, someone in great disarray.” After a few minutes he returned, sat down on the couch with a sigh, and said, “Sometimes I think everybody in this culture is on fire.”
Although Malidoma is wary of some of the labels that have been attached to him in the past few years — such as shaman, medicine man, and seer — perhaps he wouldn’t mind being called a fireman: someone who comes to quench the flames of an urgent situation. This fireman, however, is responding to an extraordinary call, for the fire he is attending is consuming Western civilization itself.
Malidoma — whose name translates roughly as “be friends with the stranger/enemy” — was born thirty-seven years ago in the landlocked West African country of Burkina Faso, then known as the French colony of Upper Volta. Taken from his village by Jesuits at age four to be trained as one of a new generation of native missionaries, Malidoma was subjected to harsh religious training and cultural indoctrination for the next sixteen years, his native Dagara tongue literally beaten out of him and replaced with French and Latin. At age twenty he rebelled, punching out a priest and then escaping into the jungle to walk, without food or money, more than a hundred miles back to the village of his birth.
When Malidoma returned home, his mother was slow to recognize him, and he had difficulty communicating with his own people. Many villagers believe that literacy takes up the space in the mind where the spirit is supposed to reside, and therefore they regarded Malidoma as hopelessly contaminated by civilization, which they thought of as “the wilderness.” After a difficult year of adjustment for Malidoma, the elders decided that he should be initiated into the tribe at seven years past the usual age — even if it killed him. They believed the destiny represented by his name was of great significance, and that it could not be completed unless Malidoma was initiated. (In Dagara tradition, unborn children communicate their name and destiny to the elders in a prebirth ritual, while the mother is in a trance state.)
As described in his recent autobiography, Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma’s initiation ritual was a forty-day ordeal of physical challenges, emotional and psychological surrender, and transcendental experience. Some of his story can be understood by Westerners as the stuff of dreams and visions; some of it directly challenges our accustomed view of reality.
At one point Malidoma and his young village brothers entered into an “otherworld” by jumping into a “light hole” created by the elders in the middle of a swinging cowhide. The boys’ bodies first dissolved and then rematerialized a few minutes later, emerging from the light hole bearing tongues of violet fire. As sometimes happens in these initiation rites, a few of the boys did not make it back.
Malidoma tells his story to remind readers of the purpose of indigenous initiation: to help young people recognize in themselves an inborn destiny and purpose, which they are to take up as they enter adulthood. The fact that Western culture recognizes no inborn destiny for its children — and offers them no effective initiation into socially worthy purposes — may explain much about the disaffection of our youth and such related problems as crime and violence.
In Malidoma’s case, initiation crystallized his destiny of befriending the stranger/enemy. Soon after that, his elders sent him forth from the village to live in the modern world. Their prediction was: “The village will be reborn in the heart and soul of the culture that is destroying the village.” Malidoma was to teach village ways and wisdom to the modern West.
Resuming his academic education at the university in Burkina Faso’s capital city, Ouagadougou, Malidoma eventually went on to earn three master’s degrees and two doctorates — one in political science from the Sorbonne in Paris and one in literature from Brandeis University. Several years ago, Malidoma was teaching African culture at a Michigan university — where he had been joined by Sobonfu (whose name means “keeper of the knowledge”) — when he was informed by his elders that a comfortable university position was not what they had in mind for their cultural messenger.
It was then that Malidoma began working with leaders within the men’s movement — Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman, John Lee, Robert Moore — and earning unstinting praise from them as a teacher of ritual and indigenous wisdom. Likewise, Of Water and the Spirit has been praised by poet and novelist Alice Walker, who calls it “a shimmering ‘missing piece’ in the story of Earth,” and by Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, who finds it “an unforgettable book. . . . Once you experience his story you cannot see your world ever again in the same way.”
A “Star Trek” fan who divines with cowrie shells and writes on a lap-top computer, Malidoma speaks of tribal and transcendental experiences in down-to-earth, Western terms that are nonetheless startling in their originality and urgency.
In his autobiography he writes, “There is no doubt that, at this time in history, Western civilization is suffering from a great sickness of the soul. The West’s progressive turning away from functioning spiritual values; its total disregard for the environment and the protection of natural resources; the violence of inner cities with their problems of poverty, drugs, and crime; spiraling unemployment and economic disarray; and growing intolerance toward people of color and the values of other cultures — all of these trends, if unchecked, will eventually bring about a terrible self-destruction.”
In other words, our house is on fire. It might be wise to consider the advice of this exceptional fireman.
Miller: In your first book, Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community, you tell the story of taking one of your elders to the city of Ouagadougou. When the elder saw a tall building for the first time, he pointed to it and said, “Whoever did that has serious problems.” What did he mean?
Malidoma: In the tall building, the old man saw power being dangerously displayed. To him that meant the power on display was going to die; that’s why he said that the builder had problems. Every time you show something mighty in public that way, it means your power is in its death throes, that you are having problems keeping the power alive within yourself. Power comes out this way only when you are on the losing side in some kind of struggle.
Miller: That’s a complete reversal of the Western view in which we see our tall buildings as proof of progress.
Malidoma: The first time I went to Paris — my God, I was so impressed! There were tall buildings everywhere. I didn’t understand my own fascination — and my intimidation — until I took that elder to Ouagadougou. Instead of reacting as I had in Paris, he looked and saw, not the building, but the person behind the building; he saw a person who needed help.
The indigenous world is not interested in the show of power. It is interested in respecting the source of the power. This respect is kept alive by camouflage; the power is protected by hiding it. An elder who has the power to create a light hole — a gateway you can jump through into another galaxy — is not interested in using that power to impress people. He would not use that power to show off.
This has baffled people to whom I’ve tried to explain natural power. They’ve asked, “If the indigenous world is that powerful, why does it let itself be destroyed by the West?” They’ve got a point. Knowing what I do about the West, if I were at the elders’ level of power I would be tempted to use that power to handcuff the West — put the West in jail for a while so the natural world could heal itself from all this so-called progress. But now I’ve begun to understand that when you are in touch with this kind of power, you do not react against things. You don’t try to stop destruction head-on.
Let’s say you realize that you can travel out of your body. You shouldn’t immediately go and tell other people about it or start a workshop in soul travel.
Miller: Is that because using the power to handcuff the West would require showing the power, and therefore dishonoring it?
Malidoma: Yes, you could not deploy the power without showing some of it, and as soon as it is brought out into the open, that power is unusable. You cannot do what you expected to with it.
Miller: In our culture we are always answering force with force. We can’t see our way out of this cycle of violence, in wars around the globe or conflicts within our own country. How can we learn to hold our power inside ourselves, rather than feel the need to show it at every opportunity?
Malidoma: That’s a very big challenge when, culturally, your first instinct is to take your power outward, where you immediately diminish it by display. The answer is to become a servant of your power. Your inner power must be danced with until it yields its own way of being shared with other people.
Miller: What do you mean by “danced with”?
Malidoma: I mean entering into a respectful dialogue with power. Let’s say you realize that you can travel out of your body. You shouldn’t immediately go and tell other people about it or start a workshop in soul travel. That is disrespectful to the unique experience you are having. Your first reaction shouldn’t be to begin a marketing process.
Instead, maintain a certain secrecy around your new ability and have a learning dialogue with it for a while. If you discuss your power too soon with people who do not understand it, they may get just some fragment of it that enters them like a bullet; then their whole life may start to come apart. There will be a kind of hole in them. They will feel incomplete unless they think they can get this power, and that power, and that new experience over there.
Miller: In the sixties many people used drugs in an attempt to have a certain kind of experience or to “see God.” But there was an acquisitiveness to it. There was little sense of coming to comprehend and accept one’s unique role in the human community, an understanding that you have identified as the purpose of ritual and transcendental experience. Now young people take part in “raves” in which they sing and dance all night. Here, too, there seems to be no particular purpose except acquiring the experience or “having fun.”
Malidoma: When you are brought up in consumerism, even your spiritual experience is seen in those terms. When Westerners see that someone else has had a spiritual experience, it is like they are seeing a commercial. They think, “Hey, I’ve got to get this. Otherwise I’m incomplete.” Kids have raves because they have heard raves are fun, and they want to have fun too.
Actually there is some similarity between having fun and genuine spiritual experience. In ritual the fun isn’t physical but psychical. It’s the soul having fun, as opposed to the body. The two intersect, but that intersection is very hazy for many of us. I see people as possibly having a spiritual experience at raves, but without their conscious selves’ knowing what is going on. This is why the elders’ presence is so important to genuine ritual. They bring conscious spiritual know-how to such an experience.
The idea that anything spiritual must be solemn and serious is a big problem in the West. Your religions are full of genuflection, kneeling, and bowing to hierarchical powers. It takes the fun out of it! Western religion seems allergic to fun. So it’s very hard to wake people here up to a liberated spirituality — a spirituality that allows the soul some relaxation and good feeling.
In the village people like to stay in a ritual space, singing and dancing all night, because it’s fun. The spirit within us is like a child. When the child has its proper toys, it can play.
Miller: What are the proper toys for the spirit?
Malidoma: The proper toys are the natural world, the community, a sense of connectedness, a sense of purpose, and a craving to be with invisible friends.
You have to play in a natural place, away from the downtown and the freeway. Your toys have to be the stones and rocks, and the creek running with pure water, and the trees. You have to be in a space that hasn’t been rearranged by civilization. And you have to stay long enough to get over being homesick for the town. Then you start seeing beauty in the trees, and the creek starts to look very interesting.
When you narrow your attention down to nature itself, you can break into a totally different world with as many compelling things as there seemed to be in the city. What starts to happen is what I call “the indigenous person being reborn.” Once you start to see the countless possibilities of nature, you enter the toy store of the spirit. That’s when you can start to have fun. But the spirit will not have fun in the tall building, where sterility rules and a cold, blunt, steel-like energy surrounds you.
There is a part of us that always feels incomplete because it wants to reclaim its connection with nature. When nature is remote from us, we don’t remember how we used to be, and we don’t remember how to let the spirit have fun.
Miller: Do your elders believe there is some kind of destiny being fulfilled in the West’s path — that there might be something the whole human race is learning through our unwise show of power?
Malidoma: I haven’t heard any elders speak of such a cosmic design. What they see is the upsetting of a natural relationship. Modern humanity has broken away from its ancestors, has cut the connection. In our circular cosmology, you cannot go backward to reconnect; you have to go forward in a great circle before you can reconnect with your ancestors again.
Imagine two satellites in orbit, traveling together in the same direction. One of them starts to move faster and breaks away. The one behind will not speed up, and the one moving ahead cannot back up. So the one ahead must increase thrust and go completely around before it can rejoin the other one. Once you have broken with the ancestors, you must circle forward to rejoin them. And while you are traveling around, you will encounter many disasters because you will be on your own.
The West is seeking its past by going into the future. The indigenous cultures don’t need to race into the future because they haven’t lost contact with their ancestors.
Miller: It seems to me that the modern world is interested in virtual reality, computer linkups, and high-speed electronic communication because it’s trying to do a kind of soul traveling.
Malidoma: That’s right! It wants to jump to “warp speed” and get there fast. I’m watching what’s going on with virtual reality and CD-ROM; the hidden spirituality of science is an attempt to return you to your ancestors. It’s a return to the primal way of living, where you are connected with the cosmos. For now, it’s represented by the telephone, the television — tele means “contact from a distance.” The truth is, there’s not much difference between you watching television and my grandfather sitting in his room watching a bunch of antelope eating in the field many miles away.
Miller: Is virtual reality the only way the West can get back to this power?
Malidoma: No, it’s one of countless ways. Right now it’s the fashionable way because you can meter it and bill for it. This contrasts radically with the indigenous world. People there don’t measure how much time they spend connecting with the spirit world. I don’t think the West will be ready to connect with spirit until someone can find a way to bill for it.
Miller: Why is the West obsessed with billing? Is it simply a survival issue?
Malidoma: Not really. It has to do with accumulating power. Some people think that if they get rich and powerful enough, they will jump right over to the other side of reality and be able to connect with the real power of the ancestors. But this is just an illusion, an endless cycle of accumulation that doesn’t get you any nearer the other side.
Miller: In Western religious traditions we have long been convinced that the other side — heaven, or paradise — is very, very far away. Thus, we think it must take a lot of money or power, or even suffering, to get there.
Malidoma: But it’s not far away, really. It’s right here. That’s like thinking your shadow is very far away. Actually you can never get away from it.
When you believe that the other side is distant, you have to think about transportation — a means to get there. You need interstate highways, airlines, shuttles in orbit. You think about speed all the time to figure out the fastest way to get there.
Miller: What are some ways to reestablish a more direct contact with the other side?
Malidoma: It’s not complicated. You can go for a walk in nature and listen. Someone asked me how to hear what nature was saying, and I told him, “Just go out there, put your hand into a creek, and pull out a stone and listen. You’ll hear something.”
The important thing is not to panic when you do start hearing something and don’t know whether or not it’s for real. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. That is what most people fail to do. They have a magical experience, and then they surround it with resistance, with questioning. They will come to me and say, “I think I heard something, but I would like to know for sure.” I say, “What do you mean, for sure?”
Let me tell you, that stone is for sure.
Miller: When I sit beneath a tree and get some kind of feeling or message, the problem is that it’s not verbal. I am always struggling to use words to figure out what it means.
Malidoma: You are trying to bring it into this world.
Miller: But I can’t be sure of what the tree is saying if I can’t put it into words.
Malidoma: When the message resists being put into words, it is very important to respect that. There are many realities that die the moment they are wrapped in words. Verbalization is a massacre of these realities, and that upsets the other realm. That realm is asking you to recognize it by respecting its wordlessness. Sooner or later, you’ll realize that your experience by the tree constitutes an entirely different type of communication. With practice you’ll be able to enter that realm as comfortably as the worded world you are used to.
Miller: When I look at the big addictions of our culture — drugs, violence, money, sex — they all appear to be thwarted forms of yearning. It’s as if addicts are trying to get to the other side through these substances and experiences.
Malidoma: If only they could stop and look at the tree. It’s right there. They could reclaim their right to get to the other side, instead of killing themselves slowly.
The addict misses community. He or she misses home, the village energy that makes one feel whole. That’s why people can’t quit these things on their own; it’s utterly impossible. The overeater, the smoker, the alcoholic — they are all using different means to communicate the same message: “If you don’t bring back my village, I might as well die.” People with addictions take in more and more of the same substance, imagining they can become their own village. But it won’t work. They remain lonely individuals.
We need to shift our point of view on this. The addict is not having a personal problem; he or she is communicating a problem we all have.
People with addictions take in more and more of the same substance, imagining they can become their own village. But it won’t work. They remain lonely individuals.
Miller: That makes sense when I think of our rise in violence and crime, and our approach to criminal justice. We try to lock away all the people we regard as violent, as if their violence were strictly their own problem and responsibility, rather than our responsibility as a whole community.
Malidoma: The driving force behind violence is twofold: there is an absence of adequate community, and also an unanswered need for initiation. Violence is a force that is trying to open up what I call an individual’s “black box” — all the information that was stored within a soul on its journey to earth. Unless we recover that information, it’s very difficult to know what our purpose is on this planet. The individual will do anything and everything to open that black box. Without a proper initiation, this drive can become a very wild energy with the power to kill other people as well as the person caught up in it.
We want to put it away because it’s scary. But our fear should be a reminder that we’re in the proximity of something magical, something very powerful. Violence is an expression of the proximity of magic.
A dysfunctional society instinctively suppresses magic. That society locks up people who are violently trying to understand their own hidden purpose. And it tends to treat illness in the same way: “Just put it away. Put it out of our sight.” The belief is that hiding the symptom will cure the illness.
Miller: Does this explain why the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to violent crime?
Malidoma: The energy of violence is not subject to death. You can kill a container of that energy, but the energy goes on and finds another. And there are so many containers available in a dysfunctional society! We lay the blame on the container without studying what is contained.
Miller: So how can our society understand its violence in a useful way?
Malidoma: First understand that it is a message about an illness of the social body. Then try to trace it to its source and go about making peace with that source.
Miller: Some would say the source is racial and class discrimination, unfair distribution of resources and employment opportunities, and so forth.
Malidoma: In a sense that’s true because there is an industry of inequality that some people profit from, and they don’t want to give up their profits. It’s the historical struggle between rich and poor. But the underlying ailment is spiritual — the disconnection from the ancestors and the spirit world. Inequalities inevitably arise in a society that is alienated from the cosmos, from the grand scheme of things.
Miller: So you’re suggesting that we’re too busy fighting each other to realize that the access to what we ultimately want is all around us. We fight over little bits of power on this side of reality, when the power of the other side is immense.
Malidoma: It’s so huge we can’t even fathom it. But we cannot own it or control it; we can only serve it. To do that one must constantly ask: How humble am I when I approach power? We must be careful not to overinflate our egos, because the West is a showoff culture.
To hold on to power, you must guard against self-inflation or ego-tripping. Constantly envision yourself as servant, not proprietor, of the powers around us all. Honor their mystery. And let them use you.