Between Two Worlds:
Malidoma Somé on Rites of Passage
Excerpt of an Interview by Leslee Goodman
SUN Magazine, July Issue 2010
Goodman: In your autobiography you write of jumping bodily through a hoop into another dimension, as part of your initiation into adulthood. Were you speaking metaphorically?
Somé: No, I was speaking literally.
Goodman: So you physically jumped through a hoop into another dimension, and some of your number didn't make it back? They were lost forever?
Somé: They weren't necessarily "lost." That's a modern interpretation of what happened to them. They're somewhere else. Perhaps the best example I can give in modern terms is quantum reality--the idea of multiple dimensions. What if a specific cognitive pathway can lead not only to a vision of another dimension but also to physical involvement in it?
I experienced this other reality and survived, while others who were more likely to survive didn't make it. That led me to go deeper down the rabbit hole in an attempt to understand my "otherworldly" experience not just from a spiritual perspective but from a theoretical, intellectual perspective. I came to the conclusion that the intellect, as it is programed by modernity, may not be equipped to comprehend certain kinds of reality. The modern mind has alienated itself from indigenous cognition in order to obtain a kind of control over the world. Modern and indigenous cognition are like parallel lines that cannot meet. They cannot be placed on a scale to measure which is stronger or more valid than the other.
The challenge in teaching about this other reality in the West is finding the proper language to convey it. Needless to say, it hasn't been easy, but it has helped me understand some of the limitations of modernity. When I take a group of Westerners to my village to undergo rituals, they find themselves broken down, dismantled in the face of indigenous experiences that they have no language to describe. The only option left to them is to throw open the gates of their heart, which results in tremendous outbursts of emotion. This made me wonder whether the West's distrust and dismissal of sacred indigenous ritual is linked to a fear of losing emotional control. In the West public expression of emotion is not really acceptable, especially for men. Is there something about emotion and the sacred that runs the risk of overwhelming people? If emotion were culturally authorized, would indigenous spiritual experience be more acceptable? I would say yes, but the orderly society we know might become rather disorderly.
Goodman: So emotion is a direct line to the sacred?
Somé: Yes. Anyone who desires to experience this type of reality will have to deemphasize the analytical mind and reemphasize the heart. The heart is going to have to be allowed at least as much self-expression as the mind, if not more. When Westerners participate in native ritual, many break down in tears about death, drought, hunger, suffering, and injustice. When the heart is open at that level, the eyes see differently; the senses respond differently. It has nothing to do with whether you are from a developed country or an underdeveloped country. It has to do with you as a human being in a world that is all magical and has always been that way and is best left that way. We just need to learn to read the hieroglyphics that it offers us.
Goodman: Do you think solutions to global problems might become apparent if enough people had their hearts blown open?
Somé: I believe that is the only way it can happen. There are certain problems that we're not going to be able to get our heads around, no matter how much effort we apply, because we have kept our hearts shut. It's as if we're sending a message to the other side that we don't want to see it; we don't want to experience it; we don't want to feel that way. This must change, because the greatest gift we have is a heart that can feel.
Even after my initiation and thirty years of experience, I'm still learning the how and the why of what I call "indigenous technologies." We forget that thousands of years ago people were in touch with a different kind of technology--non-Cartesian, non-Newtonian technologies that could get us from point A to point B without environmental side effects. Somehow we are not imaginative enough in the West to consider the possibility of a parallel technological pathway that does not cause illness, pollution, or the extinction of species.
There are certain experiences that, once you become privy to them, shatter so many things you have learned. When a shaman in my village takes me to a cave, opens a portal to another world, and walks there and back again I have to ask myself, "What kind of technology is this?" When this same shaman lifts himself off the ground--that is to say, levitates--I have to wonder, "What kind of technology is that?" When another shaman is capable of walking on water, I have to wonder, "What is the technology that enables him to float?" And so on and so on. But modern science has grown so grandiose that it is unwilling to break out of its narrow thinking to explore alternatives that might better serve human consciousness and the world.
Goodman: And you have witnessed these things without the aid of psychotropic substances?
Somé: In my region of the world, psychotropic substances are not used. That's why I am referring to them as "technologies," not drugs.
Repeatedly I find that my biggest obstacle to understanding indigenous technology is the way my mind has been shaped by the West. Let me give you an example: A few years ago I decided that I needed to learn some of these technologies. I wanted to know how to open a dimensional portal. I wanted to know how to defy gravity. I went back to my village and worked with an elder, who first asked me to spend a night at the cemetery. He gave me very explicit instructions before sending me off: "When you see the dead, 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 like you're leaning against it. You will find yourself in the medicine room."
So I went to the cemetery and sat in the dark for hours, fighting panic. Come two o'clock in the morning, the whole cemetery lit up, and there were all the dead, rising from their tombs, dressed the way they'd been when they were buried. I did as I'd been told: I ran for the house without looking back. When I got to the house, I leaned back against the wall, and it worked! I found myself in the medicine room.
The next morning the elder told me that I was only the fourth person to have survived that experience in the last two years. I was beside myself. If I had known that, I would not have done it! I'm fifty-three; I don't take those kinds of risks anymore. So I decided not to go through with the rest of the training.
In order to learn this type of consciousness, you have to have a certain commitment to it--a need, really--that overrides even the fear of death. It's a different educational model. You have to be willing to jump into it with very little information and follow instructions such as "Go sit in a cemetery in the middle of the night."
The Western mind likes to ask questions. There's a legitimacy to that, but at the same time, with the type of learning we're talking about, the more you know, the less likely you are to succeed. You will learn things after the experience. But being fully conscious of what you are getting into will act like a wall that prevents you from being swallowed by the process. The Western mind has to be tricked into learning this perspective.
In most Western study there's a reduction of events to a subject-object relationship, but magic requires that you dive into the unknown. There is a lot of emotion in it, and fear is an essential part. I remember when I was sitting in the cemetery in the middle of the night, I was on the verge of panicking. Then, in a moment of inattention my mind thought about something else, and it was at that moment I realized that the whole cemetery was in daylight, and the dead were there. But my mind had to be tricked, distracted, so that another from of cognition could become operative.
Goodman: How do you know if you're ready for this type of experience?
Somé: There's an African saying: "If we go forward, we die; if we go backward, we die. So let's go forward and die." A person who is looking at it from that perspective is likely to learn something. That person is likely to be swallowed, to be transformed. That's not to say he or she is unafraid.
A proper understanding of this situation involves a certain apprehension. I've noticed that people who attend my workshops in the West aren't afraid to speak of the topic. In the village if you talk about a ghost or a creature of the underworld like kontombili, people want to get away from you.
Goodman: Maybe it's because they believe in them.
Somé: And the reality of them is quite frightening. In the indigenous paradigm, what you see is only the tip of the iceberg. Rituals are ways to uncover the part that is hidden. Those hidden parts are both exciting and dangerous aspects. The otherworld is exhilarating, but when you come out of it, you want a break. Commuting between the two worlds often exacts a toll on one's physiology and consciousness. Time and again they have to wonder what dimension they're in.
Goodman: A lot of Westerners don't want to have anything to do with powers that might be dangerous. We want God to be beneficent.
Somé: African spirituality is not based on faith. It has an experiential grounding. The fear comes from dealing with the unknown. Africans' knowledge of other-dimensional realities doesn't necessarily include an understanding of how those realities function. Because the great majority don't have the key to manipulating these realities, they're afraid of them. I'm afraid of them, even though I do have the key to manipulating them, because they're like a jungle that you enter without a weapon.
Goodman: My cosmology says that the world is governed by a beneficent intelligence, although I realize this may be unrealistic. For example, I love hawks and eagles, but I don't want to see them eat a mouse or a marmot, because I also love mice and marmots.
Somé: Yes, the beautiful eagle remains so until you see it using an innocent mouse as a meal. All of a sudden you have a contradiction: the beautiful eagle did a not-so-beautiful thing. This is where we encounter the paradox and the mystery of life. How is it that something so beautiful can be so violent? How can something we love be associated with actions that we find repulsive? We forget that the reality of the eagle is not your reality. When you put yourself in the shoes of the eagle, you will find that the meal of a mouse is quite beautiful. It's part of the bounty of the world, and that is the beauty of all things. If we can see ourselves as nourishment to the beauty that we see, then the beauty that we see can also be nourishment to us.
Goodman: So we have to be willing to be eaten, to be consumed?
Somé: That's right. If you cannot offer yourself as a meal to the eagle, or whatever it is that you love, then it is impossible to be fully present in the world and to understand the cycle of birth and death. In an indigenous perspective we see ourselves as an offering, just as everything we see is a gift to us. It is not healing or constructive to see ourselves as just the recipient of beauty. We must also be a gift to that beauty.
That doesn't mean we're not afraid. We still long for safety. This is something to be respected. Fear is an indication that we are human. We love to talk about "spirit," but we cannot predict what we are going to do when we are face to face with it.
Back in the early eighties, someone from this country asked me to take him to Burkina Faso because he wanted to see proof that the other world existed. He was so eager and sincere and insistent that I finally succumbed. We went to my village and walked into the hills with the gatekeeper, who opened the gateway to the other world. The rocky granite wall of the cave melted away and revealed a huge new reality. My young companion panicked. He screamed that it was a trick and went running down the hill. I felt rather stupid because I'd trusted his sincerity.
Years later I realized that it was not his fault. Beyond his eagerness, he had an idea of how the other world should look, and when the other world showed up as it is, he had no way to take it in. I should have respected his point of view. If the other world had looked the way he'd expected, perhaps he would have knelt down and bowed in front of it.
So it's important that our longing to see the other world be checked against our readiness to accept what comes. I canceled the initiatory process that began that night in the cemetery because of my own fear and desire for safety. Thirty-five years ago, when I was first initiated, I would have rather died than not go through with the process, but at that time my motive was more compelling. This more recent experience was a quest for additional information that was not essential to my being. I could cancel with no consequences. But my initiation into adulthood determined whether I had an identity or not.