Goodman: On page one of your autobiography you say: "My elders are convinced that the West is as endangered as the indigenous peoples it has decimated." In part, they sent you to help save us. In what ways is the West endangered? In what ways can Africa teach or "develop" the West?
Malidoma: I learned from my grandfather that any person who goes out to hurt someone is actually a lot more in need of attention, is a lot more in crisis, than the person who is being hurt. That statement brings a huge plethora for consideration here. First of all, let me mention that the desire to hurt or endanger someone or something else can be attributed to the lack of initiation. It's based on an attitude towards the earth that seems to ignore basic ecological rules or environmental principles. It comes from a kind of alienation from self, and from nature-alienation from the basic elements that house our being in this dimension. So I would say that this is the gist of the elements that point to an increasing endangerment of the West.
Goodman: But that's huge.
Malidoma: It is. Troubling, too. Back then in the early '70s, when my elders sent me away from the village, the vision that underscored that statement was in light of the colonial experience that had visited the tribe, and the violence that came with it, and subsequently the systematic abuse of the native culture that came along with the European intrusion into that part of Africa.
Goodman: And hasn't it continued to the point that the indigenous cultures are no longer intact? Or is that an overstatement?
Malidoma: No, it is not an overstatement at all. The Europeans were very successful in that regard. They have indeed altered a rhythm of life sufficiently as to create an inevitable cascade of transformation in the wrong direction. I have in my lifetime seen entire families and households destroyed, and it started with a turning away from the traditions of the ancestors and a forced embracing of a new culture in the name of progress. Today households that are still standing are those that are still keeping as much as they can of the gist of the practice of the tribe, the culture, and the village. So yes, the West has been very successful at destroying a society that was once fine.
Goodman: Well, in addition to apologizing, I want to say that we did it to ourselves first.
Malidoma: Yes, you did.
Goodman: Is there any remedy for it?
Malidoma: If you're actually looking for a remedy, you have to begin by acknowledging that something has gone wrong and, because the world has become fully Westernized, it is no longer a problem of a given culture; it is now a world issue. Left alone, these indigenous cultures that were destroyed will not necessarily remember how to go back to their roots. I have colleagues from my own seminary who still live in the tribe but have no clue about what initiation means. Although they live in the tribe, they live in those islands of civilization called "Mission House," or "Government Administration," and so forth. And so, though they are fully Dagara, they know nothing of who they are. Most of them speak Dagara very poorly. It's a very damaged identity.
Goodman: White people, too, know very little about their own indigenous culture. Once this knowledge has been lost, how can people get back to the roots of their being?
Malidoma: It has to start with the rediscovery of the particular kinds of ritual that were once the connecting rods between the living and the dead; between humans and nature; between humans and the earth. It requires fine-tuning the human ear to hear the subtle vibrations once again, so that they recognize when the sacred is around, in order to show it greater respect. The return will require a remembering of the practices that once held the village and tribe together.
And the question still remains, How? How do you remember? The only thing I can say is that to date there are still a few people who hold on to the traditions. We must turn to them while they are still among us. That's the best hope I can see for now. The new teachers of this return will be those who can synthesize the language of tradition into a model the modern cognitive system can chew on.
Runes, a divination system of ancient Europe
Goodman: I know that when I read Of Water and the Spirit and read your description of jumping bodily through a hoop into the underworld-jumping bodily; not symbolically, not metaphorically, but physically-my mind didn't even know what to do with the words in that sentence.
Malidoma: (Laughing) That's right!
Goodman: (Also laughing) It's not funny; it's horrible!
Malidoma: (Still laughing) That's right, it is.
Goodman: So, help me! You physically jumped through a skin into another dimension, and some of your number didn't make it back. They were lost forever.
Malidoma: They're not necessarily "lost." That's a modern interpretation of what happened to them. They're somewhere else.
Goodman: Let me just ask a point-blank question: Were you speaking metaphorically?
Malidoma: No, I was speaking literally.
Goodman: How was that possible?
Malidoma: Perhaps the best model in modern terms is something like quantum reality. How the idea of dimensionality can become reality. What if a specific cognitive pathway could lead not only to a visual of another dimension, but also the possibility of physical involvement in it? Therefore, you jump from the theory-from theoretical-into the practice of it. It's a place where the laws of nature as we know them through our five senses become collapsed into a new set of laws with the capacity to open endless other types of realities.
For me, my great interest in this has come from my physical experiencing of it, including the fact that I survived it, when others who were more likely to survive it didn't make it. Then my Western self kicks in and says, "What you have experienced can be an asset for you." That led me to go deeper into the rabbit hole, in an attempt not just to understand it from a spiritual perspective, but also from a theoretical, intellectual perspective. Because the intellect, as it is programmed by modernity, is not well-equipped to accept certain kinds of reality. As a result, the modern self has ostracized certain departments of cognition in order to maintain a certain perspective, perhaps even a certain control, over reality.
Two different types of cognition cannot be measured against each other. They are parallel consciousnesses. And it's a mathematical truth that two parallel lines will never meet.
So jumping through the hoop, and the other things that I described in my initiation, were just a very small piece of the sum total of the reality that was made available by Dagara elders and the kinds of reality that the culture encompasses. However, the challenge I've always found in doing this work in this part of the world is one of finding the proper language to convey it. The challenge is of negotiating between one type of cognitive path versus another. Needless to say, it hasn't been easy. But now and then it has been quite exciting.
When I take a group of people to my village to have them undergo various ritual experiences, I witness their emotional breakdown. Part of myself feels rather good to be able to serve as an intermediary through whom people who have been molded in the western context find themselves broken down, dismantled, in the face of situations that they have no language to encompass. As a result the only thing left to them is throwing open the gate to their heart-which in all cases has resulted in tremendous explosions of emotion.
This result prompts the question: "Is the West's hesitation, or confusion, in the face of powerful emotions, such as those produced by indigenous rituals and self-expression, based on fear that giving in to these emotions might completely overwhelm their sense of control? Not just of themselves, but of the society they have constructed?" I would say yes. If Western society authorized full expression of emotion it might throw too many things out of control. The orderly society we know might become rather disorderly if emotion at this level was rampant.
Goodman: Because emotion itself is a direct line to the sacred?
Malidoma: You got it. The analytical mind is a barrier to a direct experience of this type of reality. The sacred operates through the cognition of the heart. That's what I see when I go home and, through various rituals, witness so many people breaking down in tears about situations that have deep social implications-such as death, drought, hunger, and so forth. When the heart is open at that level, something else becomes possible. When the heart is open, the same data are now seen differently. So overall it becomes an exciting new path, a new journey, which has nothing to do with whether you are developed or under-developed. It has to do with you as a human being in a world that is all magical, and that has always been that way...and that is best left that way so that we can read the information that it offers us.
Aboriginal men perform part of the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony with their contemporary interpretation of a creation story from the Yuin people during Australia Day celebrations in Sydney, Australia, January 26, 2011.
Goodman: Are you saying that people who go through Native ritual experience get the gates of their heart blown open, and new possibilities become apparent to them? Does that mean that perhaps even on a global scale we could see some of our problems differently, if enough people had their hearts blown open?
Malidoma: Actually, I believe that is the only way it could happen. There are certain things that we're really not going to be able to get our heads around, no matter how much "might" we apply to them, because we have kept our hearts relatively shut; in some cases totally shut. It's as if we're denying ourselves something. This, in and of itself, is a sad reality, because we know that shutting ourselves down, thereby limiting our cognitive capacities, is actually like sending a message to the other side that we don't want to see, we don't want to experience, we don't want to feel, in that particular way. Yet I believe this is a change that is meant to happen. Certainly not immediately, but over time it is inevitable. Because the greatest gift we have is the gift of emotion. The fact that we have a heart that can feel. There's a great deal of poetry and beauty there to share.
Goodman: I'm also very interested in magic. I want there to be possibilities that my limited self is not aware of. I want to have my mind blown. I don't want to be the one in control. That makes the whole universe and God too small.
Malidoma: I wish, I wish, that your straightforward statement matched an intensity of the heart capable of making such a thing happen. Even I, after my initiation and 30 years of experience, am still learning the how and the why of what I call indigenous technologies, and the biggest thing standing in the way of me downloading all these technologies is how my mind has been shaped by the West.
Goodman: I believe that.
Malidoma: Let me give you an example. About six years ago I decided that I needed to be the recipient of the how of some of these technologies. I needed to know how to open a dimensional space. To know how to defy gravity.
To make a long story short, in December 2008, I went back to my village to learn the preliminaries of dimensional manipulation. I work with a person who first asked me to spend a night at the cemetery, and who gave me very brief instructions before sending me off there: If you see anything, get up and run to the house. Don't look back. When you get to the house, don't enter through the door, but turn your back to the wall and act like you're leaning against it. You will find yourself in the medicine room.
I went to the cemetery and sat in the dark, fighting panic, when, at about two o'clock in the morning, the whole cemetery lit up and here were all the dead, rising from their tombs, dressed the way they were buried. I did as I'd been told: I jumped up and ran for the house. When I got there, I leaned my back against the wall and found myself in the medicine room.
The next morning, I went back to the elder, and he told me that in the last two years he had given these instructions to 22 people and I was only the fourth one to have survived. I asked him what had happened to all the others. "They're all dead," he told me.
I was beside myself. If he had told me that dismal success rate, I would not have gone through with that adventure. I'm 58 years old! I don't take those kinds of risks anymore! So I decided I would not go through with the rest of the training. I needed to recover from just the preliminaries! Maybe if he had not told me about the failure of the others I wouldn't have been so affected. I would have just said, "OK, so what's next?"
I did recall having a very strong inclination to look back, to see how much ground I had ahead of the dead, because that's a very human thing. I could feel their steps right behind me, and the need to turn around and look was getting stronger. But I could remember the teacher telling me, "Don't look back." I didn't realize until later that this was part of what saved me. Apparently, most people can't help it. They have to look back.
We are talking here about a medium of consciousness that has to be accessed by a different educational model than that employed by the West. This is not the kind of learning that is preceded by a lot of explanation. You have to be willing to jump into an experience with the least information possible, such as "Go sit in a very inconvenient place, by yourself, in the middle of the dark, and if anything happens, come back and tell me about it."
The Western Mind
The Western mind likes to ask a ton of questions. There's legitimacy to that, but at the same time, in the didactic we're talking about, the more you know the less you are able to succeed at this type of learning. In the indigenous educational model, you learn things after the experience. Being fully conscious of what you are getting into beforehand will act like a wall that prevents you from being fully swallowed by the process itself. You have to have a certain commitment to the process-a need, really-that overrides even the presence of impending death, thereby making you a casualty of your own undertaking.
Magic requires that you dive into the unknown, and like in the movie, The Matrix, that you go as far into the rabbit hole as you can. That is why it has a lot of emotion in it, including fear. Fear becomes a leading part of the whole thing.
For example, I remember sitting in the cemetery in the dark, the only person alive, surrounded by dead, that the slightest sound on the ground was amplified so powerfully in my head that I was on the verge of panicking. But in a moment of inattention my mind thought about something else, and at that moment I realized that the whole cemetery was now in daylight, and that there were people there. But my mind had to be tricked into distraction so that another form of cognition could become operative.
Goodman: But how do you know if you're ready for this type of experience? Most likely you're not ready!
Malidoma: I think the person who is more expressive of "not readiness," very likely is. The person who is hesitant, who realizes the danger, or who is looking at it from the perspective of the African saying, "We go forward and die; we go backwards and die; so let's go forward and die," is likely to learn something. This person is likely to be swallowed, to be transformed. A proper understanding of this situation usually involves a certain apprehension about it.
(Look for Part Two in the September/October issue of E-Village News, set to come out at the end of this month!)