Daniel Foor, the interviewer, is the Executive Director of the Earth Medicine Alliance. The alliance is an interfaith, earth-honoring, nonprofit in the state of California, dedicated to helping humans repair and renew their relationships with the natural world. For more information visit their website.
D: With the exception of Native American peoples, many Americans are relatively recent arrivals to this continent, and as a culture it's fairly common to relocate from one side of the country to the other. How are Ancestors connected to spirits of place and of the land, and how might the history or tendency towards travel in this country contribute to, or even be a sign of disconnection from our Ancestors?
M: Let me first correct that with an addition, that modern mobility is symptomatic of the psyche's sense of homelessness, more so than the sense of disconnection with Ancestors, because that one is taken for granted. The issue that is in effect now is that these recent arrivals have indeed put on their record the perpetuation of what we may call inhumane atrocities and other things as part of their desire to take over places that have nothing ancestral to do with them, directly at least. The resulting effect of that is something that they've forgotten. It has to do with the fact that having left a place that has the signature of ancestry, and therefore underscoring identity and finding oneself in a place other than that, simply raises the issue of displacement or misplacement. When that takes place, the issue is more about what is the connection between the self as a newcomer and the place of destination, the place of arrival.
In Dagara culture there is the assumption that a newcomer is a stranger and therefore a guest of the Earth's mother---the earth spirit which is why a "stranger" is considered a sacred person. A stranger is sacred because first that person has moved out of one place and has arrived at a different place that bears its own signature and its own energy. My sense is that, although it is possible to become a member of the new place, I'm not quite familiar with the procedural forms associated with that, but I don't reject the possibility of it. One thing that still remains very potent in this maneuver is the need for a certain respectful approach to the new place, given the fact that no place is without its spirit guardian. If that is the common belief, we have first to pay attention as to who should you check in with upon arriving at a new place, as part of the self-care project in order to gain the kind of acceptance resulting in the sort of well-being that perhaps will result in becoming, spiritually speaking at least, a citizen of the new place. So there is indeed a huge problem associated with this that can be seen in the relatively reckless mobility that modernity tends to be associated with.
D: Can you elaborate on what some of our responsibilities are to the spirits of the natural world and perhaps some of the ways in which these obligations or responsibilities get expressed through community at ritual or ceremony?
M: First there has to be an explicit extroverted show of respect and a display of a significant amount of humility and foreignness in association with the place. Now from within this kind of attitude, various ritual choreography can grow, including a way of tending to the pre-existing sacredness that was there prior to the arrival of others. In doing that, do so with the idea as to whether the earth, the spirit of the place, might have some suggestion on where to sign up or sign in, or where to register for maybe something as simple as a blessing that the spirit of the place might have for us---let's start there as opposed to whatever conceived blessing the eye may have for the place, understanding that the arrival at the place was not in response to a letter sent to the self to come over!
I think from a more contemporary perspective the responsibility of anyone, including those of you who are expressing interest in exploring this field, might have to begin with various ritual offerings, gifting the spirit of the place with something that is an expression of the heart, the heart's desire to find a new home, to contribute to certain kinds of restoration, noting that it is indeed part of any kind of culture that when you arrive somewhere as a stranger you bring a gift to show that, "where I come from this is the fruit of that place and I'm bringing this to share here!" The issue is when this is not done, and the resulting attitude is to begin exploiting, eventually the earth spirit, the spirit of the place takes notice and in the immediate, there may not be any kind of reaction, at least it might not feel that way, but in the long term a person might look back and realize that certain things have been happening that are harmful to sustainability and that could be traced to an attitude that was disrespectful in the beginning.
That's why as we speak about that in this time, it is more or less the situation that is prevalent in 21st century America. You must understand that those who are descendants of the displaced, the recent comers have a responsibility to right what was wrong and to do so with a great deployment of humility, to do so with a renewed sense of love and attention to the earth, lest they become the one who pays the price of the mistake of their forebears. It is a calling that those who are awake may pick up at one time or another. That calling is one coming from the spirit of the place which is still willing to extend a welcoming hand to all of us. This is the minimum that can be done, the gifting for the spirit of the place of something purifying, renewing, transforming, knowing that in the end, that kind of purification is ours to benefit from. That's the whole point, and it's a major undertaking!
D: If I understand you, I hear that individuals who are drawn to reconnect and reestablish a relationship with the spirits of the natural world can expect to encounter the history of abuse and neglect that has preceded people today and that in some regards, the work may be more difficult as a result?
D: But that it's worth it to persist and the spirit of listening and gifting and bringing our heart and feeling to the work is critical?
M: In doing so, you are the redemption of the future of this culture. In doing so you are indeed enacting a rather positive representation, taking the blame for what other people did, simply on the basis that you are related to them and you are not to be acting like they did. Instead you show up in all your humility to present an unblemished apology with the willingness to show your entire self, not a divided self, but a totally complete self, a priesthood to mend the wound afflicted upon the spirit of place by the desecration of it. This indeed is a very laudable task, but at the same time one that may span more than an individual lifetime because of the enormity of it and because of it's depth.
This is still the kind of thing that provides a viable dignity, dignity to the place, dignity to the person contributing, to the harmonization or relationship between the self and the spirit of the place. I think there is probably no work better than that, than the giving of oneself so that another place can move as close to its status of the origin as possible. I'm not ambitious enough to think that it could be restored back to where it was six or seven hundred years ago, but at least the simple gesture of a heart willing to take a risk in trying---that registers in the ledgers of the other world very, very vividly.
D: For any individuals who are attempting to respond to ecological damage and social injustice through activism and social change movements, how might their work become more effective or more enhanced through the study or awareness of ritual and drawing on a relationship with their Ancestors?
M: Well, let's just put it this way: the forces of destruction that are intent upon showing an ongoing disrespect to the spirit of the earth and to the environment, etc., are not going to necessarily change as a result of a confrontation with those people who object against such an attitude. The old kind of authoritarian rules that always come up with various logical ways as to why damage should be done to the earth---one of their simple things is "Let's talk about creating jobs," and then everybody will forgive you for all the damage you might want to do!
The point at stake is that those intent on offering themselves as the repair agent of these kinds of damages are people who should first go to the earth to ask for guidance. There is such a thing as the beauty of showing up, even when you don't have any qualification for the monstrosity of the job in front of you---just showing up with your bare hands makes you qualified---that is the skill, that is the highest skill! So people like that should not expect to finally graduate from a school complete with a certificate of ability to conduct a kind of healing ritual that will sweepingly take care of this whole problem, they should first recognize that showing up at the feet of mother earth with a humble attitude that shows recognition for a damage already done, and a damage so big that they don't even know where to start to repair---this attitude alone is a sacred one, it's a ritual attitude. So they have to understand that this gesture alone will trigger intuitive choreography and initiatives, spontaneous engagements with the earth in such a way that they will end up looking back with the knowledge that in fact they've been doing something, something constructive, something positive, injecting the kind of energy that deletes negativity without prior training necessarily.
This is why the willingness to show up, knowing that you don't know, and knowing that the spirit knows that you don't know, is a really laudable gesture, I might say, and it leads to all these doorways and gateways of consciousness that suggests that other forces (from wherever place they are) have been hired to come and assist you in taking the proper initiative, in doing the right thing. So I can't just say, "Those who are doing that, these are the rituals they should learn; this is what they should know!" This is preposterous! I cannot claim to be the one who knows what kinds of rituals you should do in order to repair the relationship with the earth that has been damaged by others, because in doing so I will be claiming better knowledge of this place than you---that's grandiose! What if the very fact that you were born here makes you unconsciously more related to the frequencies of this place and that all it takes is for you to listen to those frequencies and you will hear the voice of the place telling you what you should be doing---what if? So it's an important thing to let people grow by themselves, encourage them to grow to enhance their consciousness towards the environment they're in, noticing that they're not any different from the trees, they're not any different than the plants that are standing there. This allows a little boost to their own consciousness to become more observant, more discerning, more noticing of what is going on.
D: One thing I hear in what you're saying is the importance of someone, for example who is working for the clean up of San Francisco Bay, to ask the spirits of the water what would be helpful, or for trees, to be open to hearing from the spirits of the trees what would be helpful.
M: That's correct! It's a wrong thing to define ourselves as redeemers who are bringing salvation to an otherwise beleaguered and beaten up state of a situation. This is just self-serving! It's another grandiose way. I hear people talk about, "Let's save the Earth!" Well, who messed up the earth to begin with? In order to come across like you are a redeemer, you first must make a mess somewhere while people are not looking and then you turn around and walk in there with all the press looking so that you look like you're the one who is bringing salvation to a dying place? No! It is important to listen and important also to recognize through grief the expression of it, i.e., showing how sorry you are, that somehow people who are associated with you were dead enough to do this. Describe yourself as a person who is just showing up, not knowing what to do, but at least you're there. Then maybe at that time you could begin to hear some voices that are telling you, "Okay, so just clean this one up...put some tobacco there...etc." It might translate in your consciousness as instinct or you felt "called" to do this, but either way it doesn't matter. You don't begin by drawing a map of the choreography of your behavior when you get there because then it's not a ritual, but rather a predictable series of choreographic moments. But the one in which you wholeheartedly submit to the vibration of the space, acknowledging your own mediocrity---the moment you do that, the more likely you might wake up some attention; you might begin to be the spotlight of certain kinds of attention that will result in the beginning of a certain kind of healing.
D: Can you share a little more about how the Dagara tradition understands the ideal relationship of human beings to the rest of the natural world? What is the role of conscious adult human beings in the natural order here?
M: From the point of view of the Dagara, there is a certain kind of hierarchy of consciousness that places the higher consciousness as the plant, the natural world---they are the highest consciousness. The second one is the animal world, which is the next highest consciousness, and we human beings are trailing behind! Of course that doesn't sound right for the normal person who would like to think that he's domesticated the entire world and that there's a manifest destiny to develop everything! Let's just say our connection with the natural world makes us part of the anatomy of the natural world.
If we were to develop a mindset to understand or acknowledge that the world, the plants, the earth, and nature were here long before we occurred, it might be again another opportunity for humility, to wonder what is it that makes me not different from the tree I'm looking at, what is the kind of kinship that exists, what are the frequencies that I have lost that I could have if still alive, allow me to hear the word of the tree as I walk past it as it would probably say, "Hello, how are you doing little one?" because trees are known to be usually very tall. Instead we have lived a life so far away from that, that if by any accident, we walk past a Redwood who says, "Hello little one!" it would startle the bejeezus out of us, correct? And so there's the problem and there's the diagnostic of the issue right there. In my book Of Water and the Spirit, where I relate the story of my own initiation, I mention the deep influence that gazing on a tree, had on me. What I didn't talk about is the subsequent attitude that I've had whenever I would find myself near a tree. That's not the reason why I'm not a vegetarian! (chuckles) The basic thing for us to understand is that our distance from community out of the crisis of identity, intrinsically associated with modernity and the confusion that is now rampant in the middle of the 21st century really has a lot to do with the denaturalization of the human psyche. As long as the gap between us and nature is not reducing itself and it's increasing instead, we might be facing a much deeper crisis ahead.
D: Some people make an assumption, often unconsciously, that any spiritual practice worthwhile needs to be serious and somber. Can you speak to the role of play and fun and spontaneity in ritual work?
M: You must understand that the other world doesn't know anything about seriousness. The issue at hand is that anytime I've had an encounter with the other world, and I mean that literally---we have little people in my culture that we call Kontomblé---every time you meet them, they're playing around. They look like irresponsible people jumping around, finding you rather funny looking and serious. So it has led me to wonder where do we inherit this solemn attitude, in fact, associated with the word "serious." I tried to understand it by way of trying to find out whether there is an equivalent in Dagara of the word "serious"---there is none. There's no word for "serious!" The closest word to it is literally translated as "red eye!" It's funny! But this is as serious as it gets! Because "red eye" means you can't close your eye, you've gotta keep it open, because you might miss out on something! So there is a direct connection between ritual and fun and also play. Where does it come from? We can see it in children whose world is all about play and the choreography of it. Why do we grow up and find this rather childish, as if childish is less important than solemn and serious? I really would try to do be more playful just to see whether in fact there is a greater chance of success than this seriousness.
The bottom line is the further away from the sacred a culture grows, the more serious and solemn they become. That simply suggests that the closer a community or a people get to the sacred, the more access to joy, playfulness, and a lot of laughter! So it's up to us to choose. Modern culture seems to understand that. Even the corporate world understands that. That's why they have such a time as "Happy Hour!" Every time, everyday between four and five is a happy hour where the drinks are cheaper, but it's only between four and five. After that everybody's back to seriousness---I've got a problem with that! The playfulness associated with work has been shrunk so much down to an artificial happy hour that you cannot even be playful or come close to happiness without the help of a couple of glasses of heavy duty liquors! That means the genies of laughter and happiness are becoming really thin, and we're approaching the idea of laughter and joy from a serious deficit and that's why we need the substitute of liquor in order to make that happen.
That being said, the fundamental piece is for us to look at ourselves from the perspective of the amount of joy that we're willing to bring into our lives---how much of that is in there---and to raise the question that puts a balance between what we are able to achieve and the amount of joy that accompanies the initiative towards that achievement. Are our failures due to a rather pathologically seriousness given to life? Or are the things we fail to achieve associated with a deficit in joy due to too many repressions and repressed things within us that are blocking the channel of joy? These are pertinent questions that we should ask ourselves. We just can't make a laconic statement saying, "Well there's not enough joy; there's not enough laughter; there's not enough playfulness!" We have to associate that with our productivity, with our capacity to muster healing and transformation in our culture and see whether it is not the reason why we have an industry called "entertainment." In other words, in order for you to laugh, somebody must be over there making a fool of himself so that you can giggle a couple of times! The point is that it's revelatory of a deep apology that is keeping us away from each other, keeping us away from the healing power of joy and laughter. Anyway, I don't want to be too serious about it! (laughs)
D: Malidoma, as we come to the conclusion of our interview, is there anything you would like to share about what's bringing you joy or passion or excitement currently in your work with spirit and with your teachings?
M: What I do brings me a deep sense of peace inside. The core of what I understand as joy is a deep inner peace, the kind that is really hard to put in words. It has less to do with random laughter and superficial socialization; it has to do with a deep sense of joy experienced whenever change in the right direction is seen in a person in whose life I have intervened. The truth is I derive tremendous pleasure in it, and I think that this is something that everybody should be entitled to. This is radically different from entertainment---I'm not entertained by that, I'm overjoyed by it! At the same time, I can sense the pull to grief and I take that as a sign that my heart is not closed, and that I derive joy! It is the contribution to the sense of peace, which for me is authentic.
I stay in this work, regardless of its turmoil and the fact that, as I said in the beginning of this session---that I hear more bad news than good news---but I stay in it simply because one healing at a time is proportional to a massive influx of joy and peace inside of me. This is something that I see being needed by most everybody in this field who end up taking what they're doing too seriously and as such become a prisoner of very bad weather that they've chosen to lock themselves into. People say my lectures are too funny; that whenever I start teaching something, every minute I've got to add a little joke in it---I can't help it! Just don't take things too seriously! It is true we're all in pain, but sometimes you laugh at pain, and pain gets panicked! You start looking at pain with the strange eye of the clown and the pain says, "Usually this is not how these people behave!" And then the pain wants to go somewhere else!
It is important to realize the healing aspect of this whole thing. For me after gauntlets of 15 years in this work, I realize the best healing for me is humor, to stay within the field of humor. I think this is something that people should entertain. Let's get together and crack ourselves up with all kinds of things, because in the end, it is this inexplicable sound coming out of our throat chakras that sends a message to all---that which wants us to look so weighed down by the bad news, that it can then enjoy watching us. The minute we're cracking up in front of it, then we start creating tremendous discomfort in it. And that's a show of our capacity to heal each other, as opposed to waiting for some kind of salvation agent to come down with a basket full of it to toss around---that doesn't work. Or if it works, only a few benefit from it and the rest are left even hungrier than before. So for me this is what I've ended up embracing because my own salvation, my own well-being rests on that. And I hope it can expand sufficiently to affect as many people as possible. Contagious laughter is healthy!
Listen to the entire 6-part interview on YouTube!
|Malidoma SomÃ© Interview Part 1 of 6|