Invoking Spirit and the Power of Ritual
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I speak with Sobonfu Somé. Sobonfu is an author, teacher, and leading authority on African women’s spirituality in the West. Originally born into the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa, Sobonfu is the founder of Ancestors Wisdom Spring, an organization dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of indigenous wisdom. She has written the books The Spirit of Intimacy, Welcoming Spirit Home, and Falling Out of Grace. With Sounds True, Sobonfu has released a six-session audio learning program called Women’s Wisdom from the Heart of Africa.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Sobonfu and I spoke about rituals that are essential for our health and happiness, how different locations have guardians, or what Sobonfu calls “spirits of the land.” Sobonfu also spoke of the tendency in Western culture for people to assume that they’re not capable of invoking spirit directly, and after dispelling this notion, she offered tips on how we can invoke spirits and connect directly with our ancestors. Finally, we spoke about the importance of exploring our wounds as potential gifts, and Sobonfu shared some of the lessons and the gifts she received from her divorce from African spiritual teacher Malidoma Somé. Here’s my very honest and helpful conversation with Sobonfu Somé.
Sobonfu, your name literally means “keeper of the rituals,” and I’m curious how you feel about that. That’s a pretty big job to have, keeper of the rituals! Do you ever feel burdened by that?
Sobonfu Somé: Burdened? Yes, always! I feel always like I have so much on my shoulders. There seems to be no place that I can run to and hide, at times. I often joke about it when someone asks me, “So what does your name mean?” I sometimes say, “Well, you know, there are days I think it’s ‘keeper of trouble,’ and days I think it’s ‘bringer of trouble’!” [Laughs]
It is a responsibility that you really have to be constantly aware of, and also be on it all the time, so even if you’re sleeping [and] someone calls you in crisis, you have to work with them. Yes, it is a very heavy name. At the same time, I also enjoy seeing the transformation that comes out of it when the work is done with the people, or when a new ritual arises. That’s pretty exciting.
TS: Now, of course, we could have a ritual for almost anything we do in our life. What do you think are the rituals that are the most important, the most essential—that there’s no way someone could really have, in your view, a full and complete life without these rituals in their life?
SS: Well, what comes to mind, at the top, is a welcoming ritual. Why a welcoming ritual? Because we all deserve to be welcomed, we all deserve to feel that we have arrived wherever we are, whether it be in a new place, whether it be in a new place in our life, whether it be just because we have taken steps to make some changes in our life, but the welcoming ritual helps us to put an end to something that was happening in the past, or to help incorporate our life with the old, so that there is a smoothness to it. I personally believe that a lot of people feel homeless, feel not together, feel like they [don’t] belong, simply because they don’t feel welcome, or they have never been welcome in their lives. They are still out searching for bits and pieces of themselves that they’re not able to find, despite all of the spiritual work that they do, for the simple reason that there isn’t a community to really welcome them.
TS: Well, let’s talk about that. Let’s say I moved to a new apartment or a new home, or I moved to a new city. What would be the welcoming ritual? What would you suggest?
SS: The welcoming ritual would be that, first of all, you would introduce yourself to the spirit of the place you are moving into, whether it be the spirit of your apartment, the spirit of the land, the spirit of the people who live there. That’s an introduction to open the door for you to be welcomed by them. You know, just like when you move into a neighborhood, you want to introduce yourself so that those people can know who you are, so that you’re safe, so that they can extend a welcoming arm to you. In the same way, you need to be able to introduce yourself to the spirit of the land and all of the beings around, so that they can open their arms to receive you and whatever vision that you might be holding at that moment.
[It helps] to have people come to your home to help clear the space. When you live in an apartment, there are a lot of people who have lived there, and we don’t always know what kind of intention they have held. So we want to clear the space and reactivate the space with our purpose, with our vision in mind, so that we can begin to live in our own energy and not be living in somebody else’s energy. And it’s welcoming because we need to be welcomed by people so that we have arrived in our home, in our apartment, where we can begin to be ourselves, so we stop pretending to be somebody else for everybody else. A good circle of people being able to stand there and to welcome who we are, and welcome what our intentions are, and to celebrate that, drum that, sing that—and of course, with celebration, we know that there has to be food there, so that we can feed the spirit and feed ourselves, as well.
Those are some of the rituals that can be very important in turning someone’s life around, or in helping shift to something that suits them better, because they are creating something that is in alignment with who they are, with the spirit of the place, and so on and so on.
TS: It’s this idea, I think, of the spirit of the place and the spirit of the land that I find most intriguing. You know, people have housewarming parties all the time—gather a bunch of friends over, bring a bunch of food, people bring gifts. I think that fits the Western idea of “We want to welcome you to the neighborhood, to our new town, and decorate your house.” But the idea that there is a dimension to the ritual that needs to include the spirit of the structure, whether that’s an apartment or home, and then the spirit of the land—I think that’s where people might have a question in their mind: Is that superstitious? Are there really spirits of a place, spirits of the land?
SS: [Laughs] Oh, it’s not superstition! It is a real thing, and I’m sure, those people who will be listening to this, you definitely can agree with me. There are places where you go and you absolutely feel that you fit, and there are places that you go that, on the bare land, it feels like, “This is not where I’m supposed to be,” and you know that the spirit of the land is definitely sending a loud and strong message: “What energy are you bringing here?” or “Who are you to be walking into my land? Did you tell me you were coming?” The spirit of the land is as real as you and I. It is an entity that is the guardian of the place. We need to work with that entity, because you can buy the place, you can own the place, but if the spirit of the land does not welcome you, you are not going to feel at home in that beautiful home that you have just purchased. It’s easier for us to work to create an image of alignment with the spirit of the place, so that we can begin to bring our dreams alive.
That is one of the reasons why there are some places that are very conducive, for instance, to having relationships, and some places that are not conducive to having relationships. You know, you can have the perfect relationship, and you move to [a new] place, and you realize that every person in that place is single. There is a reason for it! The spirit of the place is not amenable or is not conducive to relationships. So you need to be aware of the kind of spirit that you are walking into or that you are living with, so you can know how to best formulate your intention, or how to rearticulate your intention, so that at least there is harmony between who you are and what the spirit of the place holds, and so on.
So it’s not a joke. It’s real. It is as real as you and I.
TS: Sobonfu, I’m curious, in your own experience (to make this really real for me), how you’ve encountered a spirit of a place—how it appeared to you, [and] the kinds of conversations or interactions you might have had.
SS: Well, I can tell you, from all of the years of traveling around Africa, Europe, America, and Asia, that the spirit of a place feels very different from one place to the other. There may be places where there are similarities, where you can feel a similar energy or vibration by being in a particular place, but I can definitely tell you, from having lived in Oakland, to living right here in Sacramento, the spirit is absolutely different! It’s like day and night, and there’s no question about it. People who live in the Bay area, when they come to Sacramento, they say, “Oh! This is different!”
That’s the kind of awareness that I’m asking people to have when they’re walking into a place. It’s not just a place where you can do whatever you want, but you should take the time to tune into the spirit of the place to see: What is it saying? What does it hold? And is that the kind of energy that you want to be a part of, or is it the kind of energy that you want to be respectful of, or that you want to remove yourself from? Those kinds of things can be very subtle, and of course, in the fast culture that we live in in today’s world, you can completely misread the energy because you are so busy thinking about what you are going to be doing tomorrow or ten years from now that you’re not paying attention to what is before you, until you are knee-deep, and then you go, “Wow! What is going on here?”
There is uniqueness in different places, and that is also because the vibration is different. We can notice it in the stones, in the trees, in the kind of animals that reside in those places, in the subtleties in the way we feel when we get to a particular kind of place. Those things are very important for us to take time to feel and to see what we can do or work with.
TS: You know, Sobonfu, there’s so much I want to talk with you about, and we’ve only even started talking about the first kind of ritual, a welcoming ritual, but I still have one more question yet about this idea of a spirit of a place, and I think it’s because I’m so intrigued by that quality of aliveness, the vibration of different places. My question is: Why do you call it a “spirit”? Meaning, you could just say different places feel differently, and you have a different sense because of the landscape [and] the climate, but why a “spirit of a place”?
SS: Why a spirit? Because it is an entity. It is a living thing. It is something that is alive, and the spirit is an energy. It is a vibration. It is basically something that interacts with us, whether we are open to it or not. It is definitely in communication with us, and that is what spirit does. Spirit is alive and communicates with us, works with us, guides us. It’s the same with the spirit of a place. It is there to do its work, to be the guardian of the place, and also to work with the people who come to it, or who live there, so that there can be some mutual work—and sometimes multidimensional work for the simple reason that the spirit of the place might connect us to something else that is not of this world, and so on.
That is why I talk about “the spirit of the place,” because it is an energy that we need to learn to be respectful of, and not take it for granted. It’s not because the land is sitting there that it is free. No, that land has a guardian, and that guardian is the spirit of the land.
TS: Very clear. Now, when you talk about welcoming rituals, we’ve been talking about what it’s like when you move from one place to another, but what about being welcomed into the world—the ritual for the birth of a new baby? You mentioned to me that you’re doing work right now with midwives and rituals. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SS: Oh, yes! I’ve always loved birth and children, and that subject is always exciting to me for the simple reason that the first initiation that we all really go through is that of being born. No one comes into this world without being born. We all have to come through that gateway, and so it is a very important step in our life in the sense that it can set a particular tone as to what is going to unfold in our lives. Welcoming the newborn is one of the top, top gifts that we can really give to someone, for the simple reason that a simple welcome can transform the life of somebody else by 180 degrees.
By the same token, we can also change the life of someone by not welcoming them. A lot of us, because we were not welcome before we were even born—because some of were never really accepted before we were born. So while we were in our mother’s womb, we were already experiencing conflict for the simple reason that our parent did not want us, so we are the “mistake,” as they’re called. Some of us feel that we are mistakes, or that we were unplanned. As a result, we carry that energy of being in this state from the get-go, without knowing why we feel awkward, why we never fit, why we never really feel like we belong, for the simple reason that that energy was present. We were never really welcome into our mother’s womb. When you compound to that the fact that you arrive, after this long and difficult journey, you finally arrive at your destination . . .
You know, it’s just like if you were going someplace foreign, and people said, “When you get there, we’ll be there to welcome you!” When you do that, you do expect people to show up, and to at least give you a big, warm welcome, to say, “Welcome!” so you feel like you have arrived. But if after this long and challenging journey, you get there and it’s silence that welcomes you, a lot of us go automatically into defense mechanisms. We go on survival for the simple reason that we realize it’s not safe! A lot of times, our feeling of not being safe can come from that, and it may not be because there is some kind of foreign or unwelcoming energy around, basically trying to harm us, but it is really because the welcoming is missing, and we are looking for it! We search for it in our friends as we grow up, we search for it in our family members, and then we search for it in our partners, and that’s one of the reasons why we go from partner to partner: We’re looking for that someone who is going to notice that we have not been welcomed, and to be able to open those arms—you know, like the huge wings of a bird embracing some baby birds—to take us in.
Welcoming is about that. It’s about taking someone in. It’s about allowing them to rest in you. It’s about allowing them to have a place in your heart, in your spirit, and in your soul. When you can have that, however unfriendly the world can be around you, you still feel at home, because there is a place where you can rest. There is a place where you can go, “Ah!” You can arrive!
TS: Now, Sobonfu, let’s say somebody is listening to this—I can certainly relate to this—and they feel they weren’t welcomed in the world at the moment of their birth. Is there a ritual that could be done to help heal that? What would you suggest?
SS: Well, a couple of rituals come to mind. The first, of course, is a straight welcoming ritual organized by friends and family, or just friends if family is unwilling. There needs to be a surprise element to it—that your friends would basically organize this, and this is a way of them not only honoring you, but also helping you to arrive. Someone would have to create it with the rest of the community so that they can bring you in to welcome you.
The other thing that I also think about, which I have often done in some of my programs, is a rebirthing ritual. The purpose of the ritual is to first release some of the things in our initial birthing pattern that are holding us back from being able to be who we are or achieving our purpose, and the other thing about the rebirthing ritual is to enable us to renegotiate some of our relationships. For instance, if you were born to parents who have not been much of a parent to you, and you had to be the parent for them, at some time, you need to renegotiate that relationship. That may mean that you need to choose a different way of relating to your family and/or to the world, and that means that you do some renegotiation before the rebirth, cutting some cords that have not been functional or that have been a source of drain in your life, for instance, and finding new, healthy ties that you can have in your life. That’s part of the rebirth ritual, so there’s going to be some letting go that needs to happen, some releasing of patterns of thought and behavior that have not been supportive of who you are and your mission in life. Then there’s a reflection on what are some of the things that you see that you can bring with you, some of the gifts that you know are there, but have been hindered because of some of the experiences that you have had.
And you would go through something that is like a birth canal, so we would create a birth canal simulated by people, where the person has to go through the birth canal. It does (I have to say. This is a disclaimer!) trigger people’s memories of their own birth, when they were first coming here, so it’s not just, “Oh, you’re just going to go through this, and then it’s going to be finished.” No. It will bring back some memories that you will need to take time to deal with before you come back through. Of course, you need to have a big welcoming committee at the end, someone cheering you on as you’re coming, having compassion with you as you break down because some memories came to you, someone to act like the big mama welcoming person in your life, continuously cheering you up and helping you on your journey, and to be able to come into loving hands that are ready to welcome you at the end of the process.
TS: Thank you. You know, Sobonfu, I know we could talk about many different kinds of rituals, and there are several that I’d like to talk with you about. But I want to make sure that we, right here, towards the beginning of our conversation, talk about one of the central themes of a ritual, which is this invocation of forces that are beyond the human realm, whether we want to call them “ancestors” or “the unseen world.” I wonder if you could talk about that element in ritual, and how you see it.
SS: Invocation is basically like the element in the ritual that sets the tone. A good invocation has the capacity to bring people together. It has the capacity to give us a clear idea as to what it is we’re getting ourselves involved with, so that even if someone was not there when the ritual was being put on or prepared, a good invocation is like the opener of the door, the one that removes the shades and the clouds out of the room, so that everything is clear. Invocation is very important. It is a way for us to open the doors for spirit to come in, and at the same time, it is also the way to delineate the ritual space, because a good invocation is going to let the spirit know who can show up, and who cannot show up. When your invocation is not strong, it leaves too much room for anyone [or] anything to come in.
That’s why an invocation should come from the heart, and it should also be specific about the kind of ritual that we are doing. So if we’re doing a ritual about welcoming, your invocation cannot be focused on a ritual about saying goodbye. That defeats the purpose of the ritual.
TS: When you say, “being clear about who’s invited and who’s not invited,” what do you mean? Who might show up who’s “not invited”? What does that mean?
SS: Well, let’s say that, when you are doing an invocation, you are not really clear about what it is you are invoking, or you are not clear about the purpose of the ritual. Basically, if you are not clear, that lack of clarity leaves all kinds of room for any kind of spirit to come in.
I actually have a perfect example of something that happened at a conference several years ago. We were in the redwoods in Mendocino, California, and people were asked to do an invocation out loud. There is a reason for it to be done out loud, so that everybody hears what is being called in and who is being called in, so that we know exactly what to do. When you are calling in energy that is not really positive, we need to know what you’re calling so we can correct you and say, “Nope! That’s not what we want. This is what our intention is, so we really need people to focus on bringing that kind of energy.” Well, someone silently called the spirit of the tick, because we were in tick land, so they thought it was very important that we call in the spirit of the tick. Then we realized, for the first few days, that people were very paranoid about ticks, so even though we may be sitting inside, people would be jumping up and down, screaming about ticks! Finally, we stopped and said, “Did somebody call in the spirit of the tick?”
Somebody stood up and said, “Oh, yes. I thought, because we were in the woodland, it would be important to call in the spirit of the tick.”
I said, “Well, the spirit of the tick is very important in this environment. However, for what we are here to do, it’s not very helpful for us, so really kindly ask the spirit of the tick to wait outside, where it won’t be interrupting our process here.”
It’s something simple like this, but it can have a big impact, so that we’re saying, “Be specific about who we’re calling in.” If we’re creating a ritual for peace, we may not want to call in the spirit of the civil war, because of the energy it’s going to bring. It’s not going to be peaceful! It’s the spirit of a war, so it’s going to come with all of its paraphernalia to play out, too. When we call in spirits, who we go to is important. Do I have an ancestor who is strong, and that I can call on for what it is we want to do? Do I have a spirit of an element that I can call into to come and to bring its vibration to support the ritual? Everything, again, is geared to us bringing elements and beings who are going to support the ritual we are going to do.
The purpose of the ritual dictates the invocation and all of the things that will happen. In that sense, the purpose is your theme, your thesis. If you have this theme of creating rain, your introduction has to have something around that. You cannot have the theme and then go right to something else. Your introduction is your invocation, and that’s why it needs to be clear. A good introduction and a thesis helps you know exactly what this is going to be about. That’s basically what I’m saying. It’s not any different.
TS: OK. That’s clear. I think part of my question is that I’d like to know, from your perspective, what kinds of spirits, what kinds of entities, what dimensions of experience are populating our world? When you’re in a room, and you’re doing an invocation, and you’re about to lead a ritual, what kinds of beings, spirits, entities, ancestors can you call on? How do you know they’re there? What’s your experience with that?
SS: First of all, I start with beings that I am familiar with. I start with beings that I have worked with or that I feel very close to. For instance, when I call my ancestors, they are people I know, for the most part. Some of them I know, and some of them I don’t know, but I know at least that when I call them, I have no doubt that they are going to show up, and when I tell them exactly what I am getting myself involved with, their role is to help me achieve that particular goal. Or sometimes I may call the spirit of a place. I love, for instance, water, and I know that the spirit of water will help me have clarity. When I call to the spirit of the water, I will be asking for the spirit of the water to bring me the clarity that I need, and that everyone around her needs, as well.
I’m not going to go out and call the spirit of something I don’t know, because I don’t know how they’ll make me feel. I don’t know how they’ll move me. I don’t know how they’re going to interact with me. But I know specifically, for this energy that I feel close to, how they have impacted my life and how they have moved things in my life. I would start with those elements first. It’s very basic. I’m not asking for someone to go and call in an alien that they have never met before. That’s beside the point, because I don’t know that myself! I’m not going to ask them to call something that neither one of us knows. I want them to start with someplace where they feel familiar. We all have spirit guides. We all have ancestors, known and unknown, from the immediate pool of ancestors or from the larger pool of ancestors. The immediate pool of ancestors is our direct family members, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. And the pool of ancestors would be the trees, the rocks, the birds, [and] all of those amazing leaders who we have loved, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Those are part of the pool of ancestors—not our immediate ancestors, but part of the pool of ancestors that we can all work with. Those are the kind of spirits I’m asking them to bring forward.
If you are very close the spirit of the hawk, that’s the spirit, that would be your entering point to all of the different spirits that surround us. So when you send your intention, the spirit of the hawk is going to turn to all of the other spirits and say, “Look! This is what the intention of this person is, so whoever is able to support this particular intention, then show up and help me.” That’s basically how it works in the spirit world. The seen realm will work with the unseen realm to make things happen for all of us.
Now, to answer your specific question, “How do you know that will work?” they will always work if you really give them room to work. I’ve had people in the past say, “Well, I don’t really believe it, and if this is really real, then I want this to happen!” Then, of course, when things start to happen, they will start to go, “Whoa! I didn’t think it would happen that fast!” A clear and good, strong invocation is what can make things happen. It’s not just by being unclear. I think that the challenge that most of us have is that people tend to be unclear about what it is they are invoking or what they want to achieve altogether. That’s what I call “a self-defeat prayer,” because it’s basically like running around in a pool of mud and not going anywhere, because you haven’t really set your intentions clearly.
TS: I’m curious, Sobonfu, here, having been raised in the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, where what you’re describing, I presume, was just accepted by everybody—we have ancestors, we can work with our ancestors, we can communicate with them, elements have spirits, places have spirits. And here you’ve been in the West; you’ve been in the United States for 20 years, where this idea is not commonly accepted. Of course there’s openness in people, but do you feel, in our culture, living here in the West, the gap, the hole, what we’re missing because most people don’t have communication with spirits as part of their everyday life?
SS: Well, I think the challenge is actually because people have not been empowered to deal with the spirit directly. When I work with people, I often run into this crisis where people don’t feel like they’re adequate or they’re suitable for calling in a spirit, because they have gone to church and it’s usually the preacher, the priest, who usually calls the spirit forward. So people feel kind of clumsy when you ask them to call in a spirit ally. They say, “Really? Can I really do that?” and, “Should I be afraid? Am I going to be hit by lightning or something?” But what I have realized is that people actually are very close to spirit. They just feel divorced at the same time from spirit, because they have been told, “No, no, no! You don’t have the right to call in this force. The only way you can make yourself heard is to lower yourself in front of God, so that God may have pity on you and maybe make whatever you need help with out in his field of examination, and if it so please Him, then your wish may be granted—or not!” and so on.
Once people get over that initial fear that, “Oh my God! I don’t think I can do a prayer!” they go, “Oh! Of course! Of course my ancestors have the capacity to help me. Of course I can call onto the god Pele, because I need the fire to get some work done. Of course the spirit of the snake has always been with me! From the time I was a child, I saw snakes everywhere, and sometimes that’s the only friend I can actually talk to, because there’s no one else I can talk to, and that’s the only thing that always shows up when there are difficulties in my life. Of course! That big oak tree in the back yard was my place of comfort. I can call onto the spirit of the oak tree! Yes! Yes! I feel close to that spirit!”
Once people really start to open up to that knowledge that they can reach out to those spirits, of course those spirits have always been there for them! All of a sudden, it’s like a light bulb turns on for them, and they become someone who is completely different. From this person who felt paralyzed, small, and unable to do anything for themselves, [they become] powerful people who can invoke—and I mean to tell you invoke, do some serious invocation that you can really feel the vibration of, you can feel the doors opening as they invoke. That is really [when] the power comes, when people can see that they are just as gifted as the preacher and the priest, and they can call on the spirit and they can make things happen. It’s like, “Wow! What have I been missing all these years?”
And you’re right: It’s not a practice that is common, and it does take doing some work to get over that initial fear of, “Oh! I don’t know who I’m calling. I don’t know what I’m opening, and I don’t know if I’m able to do this.” If people really open to this, I guarantee you will never make another self-defeating prayer in your life ever again, because you know that what you are putting out there is not just for your own good. It is for the good of the entire world, because we need strong, powerful, positive voices out there to be able to make differences. We cannot continuously live small and pretend to be big.
TS: Sobonfu, someone is listening, and they’re thinking to themselves, “Okay. I want to do it! I want to invoke spirit in my life!” whether that’s an ancestor, or the spirit of an element, or the place where I live. Besides having this fierce, whole-hearted intention, this clear call or cry, what else is needed? Do I need to use any ritual objects? Do I need a shrine? Do I just have the cry of my heart? Do I have to ask for something specific? What are just the basics here to get somebody started?
SS: For a basic invocation, you really don’t need anything except your heart. Really. Your heart and your intention—your clear intention—those are the two things that you really need. You know what it is you really are praying for, you really are clear about what you want to manifest, and you tune into your heart. How would it feel to really be able to put this out? Are you being honest with yourself when you’re saying this, or are you just pretending? You know, calling on a spirit is like calling on a friend. When you call on a friend, and you know you are desperate—oh, you are excited—and you need their help, are you going to say, “My dear friend, you see, the other day, I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, you know, I thought . . .'” No! You’re not going to go around in a circle! You’ll say, “My dear, I am so excited about this thing, and I know that you are also going to be excited about it, and so I want you to come over and to see it for yourself!” You talk about it with excitement, because you want them to feel it, and you know that they’re going to be excited when they come. Really, it’s the clear intention in your heart to speak from its depth. That’s all that is needed, nothing more than that.
You don’t need to go collect any kind of ritual items, because you’re not diving into ritual yet. Again, some of the most powerful prayers I have ever heard have been prayers that people have spoken from the heart—not pieces of paper that they have written, but they have really tuned in, tuned in to the spirit of the place, tuned in to the spirit of the community that’s around them, and really let that prayer rip! Those have been some of the best prayers that I have heard. They move you, whether you want to be moved or not.
TS: We’ve already talked a little bit about what you see as the rituals that are really essential in life, and we’ve talked about these welcoming rituals. I’m curious: What else? We don’t have a lot of time, Sobonfu, so you’re just going to have to give me a couple of the highlights of the rituals that you think are essential for a life to be full and vital and awake.
SS: Wow! [Laughs] There can be many, many kinds of ritual.
There are basic maintenance rituals that we need on a daily basis in order to be able to be well. Those are the rituals that we do on our own behalf, connecting with spirit, connecting with our ancestors and the spirit of the place—something as simple as, every morning, getting up and connecting with them, and saying, “Hey! I’m alive, and here is my mission for today. I need your support and I need you to show up when I tell you to show up, because I need to be able to get the work done.” There are also, of course, the naming rituals. There are the grieving rituals, just to release the everyday tension of whatever is weighing us down or clouding our ways, so that we can function. There are, of course, blessing rituals, rituals to bless other people, but also rituals to bless ourselves. A lot of times, we’re looking for blessings outside, but sometimes we need to bless ourselves, because we know exactly what we need. There are also rituals to empower ourselves, because every now and then, everybody needs their battery jump-started, so those rituals are basically there to help us to get to the next level so that we can feel well. There are bonding rituals, bonding with certain family members. We need those rituals to stay connected, to keep healthy relationships between us. Also, in this amazingly crazy world that we’re in, sometimes we need the letting-go rituals: rituals to let go of the past, rituals to let go of old partners so that we can start fresh, so that they are not becoming invisible leeches in our lives.
Those are different rituals. There are so many of them that we could be here until tomorrow, but that’s, in a nutshell, some of the rituals we really need to be well.
TS: Besides having a sincere heart, which you’ve talked about, and a very, very clear intention, and invoking help from our ancestors and the spirit of place, are there any other ingredients that are mission-critical to creating a successful ritual?
SS: Of course! There’s the creation of the altar. The altar is the gateway to the spirit world. Again, the altar is a direct translation of the purpose of the ritual, just like the invocation helps open the space.
Depending on whether the ritual is individual or collective: If it is an individual ritual, of course, you need to be there! You cannot be absent at your own ritual. If it is a collective ritual, then where is the community? Who is going to be a part of the community? How are you going to get the community involved in the ritual?
There is, of course, the closure. Any door you open, you have to also close, so if you open a ritual, you have to also find ways to close it. If not, you are still going to be in ritual space, and you may be there willingly or unwillingly, but the worst is if you are not even conscious of it. Then you will be interacting with people, and you won’t be on the same wavelength, and you will be wondering what is going on. Any ritual requires a proper closure. By thanking the spirits, by thanking the people who came, by thanking the spirit of the place, and by asking permission to take the altar down (if it is a temporary altar), those are some of the elements that bring a ritual to closure. You cannot open a ritual and not close it!
TS: Very helpful. Thank you! Sobonfu, when I was preparing for this conversation, I was reading various things that you’ve written, and there was one thing that really struck me. I’m wondering if you can comment on it. Here’s the quote: “In the Dagara tradition, where the wound is is also where the gift is.”
SS: Yes. It is bizarre. Some people come to me, and they say, “What does that mean? ‘Where the wound is is also where the gift is?'” Yes, yes. We come into this world, and we bear our gifts, but of course, before we even come here, we need to be reminded of why we are here. The kind of people that are going to be in our lives are not going to be a mistake. Yes, even your crazy family! They’re not a mistake! You specifically chose them to play a certain kind of role in your life, including that first crazy partner that you ever dealt with. That partner was chosen so that you can remember the reason why you are here.
Some of the interactions with some of those people are going to be very, very wounding, and that wound, when we take time to heal it, when we are able to go beyond the poisonous part of it, the poison that it holds—and I say that because a lot of us stay in the poison, and we drink the poison, and then we start to spiral down and down, and we wonder what it is. The purpose for us is to use it like a homeopathic remedy: You take a little bit of the poison to heal yourself, but you don’t drink the poison to kill yourself. You take the wound, and you work on it to heal it, so that by the time the healing happens, you will begin to see why you had to go through that experience. I’m sure a lot of people would agree with me that, a lot of times, some of our most challenging experiences have been some of our best gifts in life. That’s why, in my tradition, they say, “Where the wound is is also where the gift is.” The key is to be able to work on the wound to transform it into a healing force, so that we can bathe in it, so that we can now use that healing to transform things, to change things.
That is one of the reasons why you will never hear someone say, “I have never really had any challenges in my life.” If you didn’t have challenges when you were being born, because you were fortunate to have loving parents, you will go through some life challenges to help you remember why you are here, and that, in itself, is reason for us to go back to thank those people who have created the challenges for us, because they have helped us to be able to embrace our mission, or to get a bigger picture of our mission in life again.
I really hope that you will take this as an invitation to heal, to be able to go beyond the poison, and to allow yourself to go through the transformation that the healing requires, so that you can be healthy, with a bigger eye to see the gift that was in it.
TS: Sobonfu, this is now a personal dimension to that question, if you’re willing. I’m curious, in your own life, if you’ve identified areas that seemed like an area of wounding, and you came to recognize the gift in it. What might that be for you?
SS: Oh, absolutely! When I first came here, and my elders [said], “You will be working with couples, and I meet so many people who are going through divorce, and there’s so much madness around!” and I’m going, “For Heaven’s sake! What is all this madness about?” I had no idea that my own relationship would fall apart so that I could actually learn about the madness so that I could work with people!
When it was happening, I was going, “Oh, no, no, no, no! This is not happening! This cannot be happening! No, no! This is not happening. It’s an illusion, right? Tomorrow I’m going to wake up, and everything is going to be different!” Oh, no! I would wake up tomorrow, and the reality would be right there in front of me. Of course it was the biggest wounding in my life! I had never been betrayed like this before—small betrayals, okay, everybody gets that—but this was like, “Whoa!” like being blown into tens of thousands of pieces. And then you talk about forgiveness? Oh, for Heaven’s sake! You talk about wounding? No, we can’t even have this conversation, because it was too big!
But having to be able to look at the poison, and to be able to take a sip—a tiny sip—of the poison, to allow myself to heal, so that I can turn this wound into a gift, has been one of the most amazing, life-transforming gifts that I have ever had. I have to tell you that, when I was in the thick of it, I hated every single person, including my elders back in Africa. I said a few words that were not nice, for which I had to go back and say, “I apologize. My wound was so big that I became senseless in my wording, and so I want to apologize for those words that I have put out, and I want to say that I appreciate the gifts that I have received in the process.” I have even thanked my partner for the wounding, because if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be who I am today. That is the best gift I have gotten in my life.
TS: Just to be specific, what was the poison, do you think, in the situation, and what is the gift that came from the divorce for you?
SS: Well, the poison for me was the feeling of being let down, and the anger and the hatred. The anger and the hatred had some kind of love relationship there. They came together. Then there was realizing that the real poison was that I was allowing myself to wallow in the poison, and not do the work to heal, and how I became toxic. All of my thoughts were toxic, and I couldn’t find anything positive in this experience. It was like “Wow! That was the biggest shame! For Heaven’s sake, how can I ever lift my head up?”
The poison had wings and arms and tentacles that went everywhere and poisoned other people, as well, because of the way I was sharing how I felt, until the day I really saw that “Oh, my God! I should really begin to take responsibility! I believe that I have played a big role in this, and I need to begin to say, ‘I am responsible for this, as well.'” It was then that things really began to change for me. When I started the journey to heal, I realized that there was a part of me that was in prison. I couldn’t be as big as I wanted. Freedom was one of the things that I experienced, and also realizing that being in a relationship—and for those people who do not know, I came not speaking English, so I had been dependent on my husband for so many years, and I didn’t even know how dependent I was until he left—I realized that I am a strong woman. I like being independent!
I also realized that I can understand where people come from when they come in grief because their life has fallen apart, because their relationship did not work out. I can now understand the pain that they go through, and where the poison is. I can work with them, because it’s like helping someone swim. If you don’t know how to help them maneuver as they’re drowning, you’ll both be sucked down, but if you have actually worked quite a bit with it, you know how to work with them so that they don’t drown both of you. That’s where the gift is for me: to be able to have a different insight. When someone comes and tells you a story, it’s only a grain of sand in the sea of sand. It’s not everything. That’s where I have gratitude for what I have learned in the process.
TS: Was there a ritual, Sobonfu, that helped you let go of the poison?
SS: I did a lot of grieving rituals, lots and lots of grieving rituals, and I think the part that was even more powerful was the part when I went back home. I realized that there was a piece that I could not unhook myself from, because my village had been so instrumental in my relationship, there was the impact that it had on them, and then my failure, my failed relationship also had an impact on them. When I walked into that village and I saw those people running to me in tears (because a part of their life had also changed), it was like a magical thread came, and I could let go of so many things. I had a welcoming ritual, and also I had a letting-go ritual—letting go of expectations, letting go of the things that did not work out in the relationship, and reclaiming myself. Oh, yes! Reclaiming myself: That was powerful, to be able to reclaim the bitch and the different pieces of who I am, so that I can be completely well, and be again a balanced person. I think that was positive.
I have to admit, also, that I did have a divorce party, and it felt very liberating!
TS: Sobonfu, it’s been so wonderful to talk to you, and so empowering. I’m so impressed by the honesty and the transparency with which you’ve shared. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much!
SS: Oh, thank you! It’s always wonderful to work with you!
TS: I’ve been speaking with Sobonfu Somé. She created a six-session audio learning series with Sounds True, called Women’s Wisdom from the Heart of Africa, and it includes quite a bit of teaching about ritual, and also women’s empowerment, and the life cycle, and many, many, many different teachings of Dagara wisdom.
Sobonfu, thank you again. Really. Much love to you.
SS: Thank you.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.