It was the generous work of Sobonfu and Malidoma Some’ that first helped me articulate what I felt to be true since childhood: everything that is destructive about the modern Western model of society is based on an obstinate refusal to truly feel, and specifically, to grieve.
Sobonfu and Malidoma herald from the Dagara people of Burkina Faso, West Africa, and they have served as teachers, mentors, and bridge builders for their ancestral traditions to bring healing wisdom to our parched world. Like all of the best teachers, they use their knowledge less to impart facts to listeners, and more to wake up what we already know, deep inside of our very cells: this version of “world” isn’t working, but there are solutions available to us if we are willing to broaden our scope of consideration.
Now more than ever, with frightening weather patterns, routine mass murders, and an obviously crumbling infrastructure, I believe that we have to be willing to humble ourselves and consider the possibility that the solutions we seek to address what is wrong with the dominant cultural model will not come from within the confines of the dominant cultural model. It sounds so obvious when it is said simply, in this way, but as a species we still often insist on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
So what does the willingness to grieve have to do with this? Everything.
In terms of a personal, daily, sense of clear direction, a path to service in troubled times, we cannot and will not access our valuable instincts if we are jumbled up with a backlog of unexpressed emotions. From the small but exhausting irritations of daily modern life, to the deep wells of profound grief over the state of the world, feelings have to MOVE, it is simply the nature of the beast.
We have all had the experience of being deeply distracted from what is in need of our attention, right in front of us, by an underlying unresolved issue. Most of us have also had the disturbing experience of the fog of trauma brain descending and clouding our vision, making it impossible to see even the most basic details with an ounce of clarity. Unexpressed emotion obstructs our ability to act from a place of clarity, a place that is in alignment with our values. These examples are personal experiences, microcosmic expressions of an over arching dilemma but this is a cultural, not just a personal, dilemma: our culture sorely lacks healthy models, and safe space, for grieving, and healing, authentically.
One of the notions I was most deeply struck by in Malidoma’s work in The Healing Wisdom of Africa is the notion that the whole of Western culture is based on the refusal to grieve, or even acknowledge, a heartbreaking and tragic chapter in the history of the West; the Inquisition. If we pause for a moment to consider the fact, not alternative fact, but actual historical fact, that our longest lasting legacy as human beings on this gracious planet is one of life in harmony with the rest of creation, then we have to ask how the hell we got here. Even considering the possibility of peace on earth is beyond disorienting and sometimes feels like fiction, but it is not.
Since it is specifically the modern Western model of “civilization” and “progress” that is doing in the planet, the Some’s (and many other Peoples of the Earth) ask that we look at what is at the root of the brutal imbalances that the Western model is inflicting on the planet. We must face what has been buried in an effort to bring our attention, and our energy, to a broader range of possible solutions. There is no skipping from A to Z in this process. We know this to be true on “American” soil when we consider the need for healing from the legacy of racial and environmental violence, of slavery and Native genocide, that are at the foundation of this country. Yet again, we come to the need for the willingness to grieve, to feel, to empathize and to hold safe space for each other so that we may come to our senses and do what is necessary.
During the Inquisition, the root of the modern Western model, which lasted for approximately four centuries, the brutal attempt was made by the ruling class (both Church and State) to wipe out the European Peoples of the Earth. The country people who maintained ancient spiritual and cultural traditions that were reflective of respect for the natural world; midwives, orators, leaders and healers, were largely obliterated. As the raging fury of hatred rolled across the land, it was common for villages to be left with only one remaining female inhabitant. I will never grow numb to this history, nor will I cease to recognize the evidence that is all around us of this brutal, dissociative, model of culture and governance that set our modern reality in motion. At the root of the accelerating violence in this world, there is profound suffering, a festering wound, that has never truly been cleansed, balmed, or addressed.
The Dagara are not, by any means, the only people who have clarity on this cultural dilemma, or rituals and traditions for authentic grieving that can hold space for the deep, collective, grief and healing that needs to take place if we are to course correct. Peoples of the Earth have always understood grief to be potent, transformative, and necessary, but in the world we live in, how do we confront, and change, the fact that the value in authentic grief is entirely denied? Together. We confront this as a community/culture because it is a community/cultural issue.
It has been nearly two decades now since I first sat with Sobonfu and had conversations about collective grief and healing, but the medicine inherent in the willingness to grieve still holds my attention, and as of late, pretty much every day. According to the Dagara elemental system, the fires of destruction that were set in motion during that horrific (and denied) chapter of Western history have continued to burn out of control in the form of unchecked industrial and technological “progress”, and will continue to do so until the floodgates of grief are opened and those waters can heal our world. There are tools available to us people, we simply have to prioritize them.
I have never been able to stand idly by and watch everything I love be threatened to the brink of utter destruction and/or extinction. It is my fierce love for this planet that motivates me, consequently I repeatedly extend an invitation out of collective paralysis and onto a path of true healing because I know it is possible, from experience. In the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest”, but we can open our hearts, stand together to face what is real and beckoning. We can lay our burdens and our weapons down and get to work, but not without grieving.
Our In Sacred Balance community has a long, solid, history of building healing ritual tradition that is reflective of, and responsive to, our modern times. If you are curious about the healing power of authentic grief to bring about personal and/or cultural change, please join us for this Upcoming Class or Contact Us about bringing these teachings, practices, and tools to your community.
photo credit Aemilia Scott 2016