Holding Our Power :
An Interview with
Malidoma Patrice Somé
Excerpt from SUN Magazine, August 1994
by D. Patrick Miller
Miller: It seems to me that the modern world is interested in virtual reality, computer linkups, and high-speed electronic communication because it's trying to do a kind of soul traveling.
Malidoma: That's right! It wants to jump to "warp sped" and get there fast. I'm watching what's going on with virtual reality and CD-ROM; the hidden spirituality of science is an attempt to return you to your ancestors. It's a return to the primal way of living, where you are connected with the cosmos. For now, it's represented by the telephone, the television -- tele means "contact from a distance." The truth is, there's not much difference between you watching television and my grandfather sitting in his room watching a bunch of antelope eating in the field many miles away.
Miller: Is virtual reality the only way the West can get back to this power?
Malidoma: No, it's one of countless ways. Right now, it's the fashionable way because you can meter it and bill for it. This contrasts radically with the indigenous world. People there don't measure how much time they spend connecting with the spirit world. I don't think the West will be ready to connect with spirit until someone can find a way to bill for it.
Miller: Why is the West obsessed with billing? Is it simply a survival issue?
Malidoma: Not really. It has to do with accumulating power. Some people think that if they get rich and powerful enough, they will jump right over to the other side of reality and be able to connect and be able to connect with the real power of the ancestors. But this is just an illusion, an endless cycle of accumulation that doesn't get you any nearer the other side.
Miller: In Western religious traditions we have long been convinced that the other side -- heaven, or paradise -- is very, very far away. Thus, we think it must take a lot of money or power, or even suffering to get there.
Malidoma: But it's not far away, really. It's right here. That's like thinking your shadow is very far away. Actually you can never get away from it.
When you believe that the other side is distant, you have to think about transportation -- a means to get there. You need interstate highways, airlines, shuttles in orbit. You think about speed all the time to figure out the fastest way to get there.
Miller: What are some ways to reestablish a more direct contact with the other side?
Malidoma: It's not complicated. You can go for a walk in nature and listen. Someone asked me how to hear what nature was saying, and I told him, "Just go out there, put your hand into a creek, and pull out a stone and listen. You'll hear something."
The important thing is not to panic when you do start hearing something and don't know whether or not it's for real. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. That is what most people fail to do. They have a magical experience, and then they surround it with resistance, with questioning. They will come to me and say, "I think I heard something, but I would like to know for sure." I say, "What do you mean, for sure?"
Let me tell you, that stone is for sure.
Miller: When I sit beneath a tree and get some kind of feeling or message, the problem is that it's not verbal. I am always struggling to use words to figure out what it means.
Malidoma: You are trying to bring it into this world.
Miller: But I can't be sure of what the tree is saying if I can't put it into words.
Malidoma: When the message resists being put into words, it is very important to respect that. There are many realities that die the moment they are wrapped in words. Verbalization is a massacre of these realities, and that upsets the other realm. That realm is asking you to recognize it by respecting its wordlessness. Sooner or later, you'll realize that your experience by the tree constitutes an entirely different type of communication. With practice you'll be able to enter that realm as comfortably as the worded world you are used to.
Miller: When I look at the big addictions of our culture -- drugs, violence, money, sex -- they all appear to be thwarted forms of yearning. It's as if addicts are trying to get to the other side through these substances and experiences.
Malidoma: If only they could stop and look at the tree. It's right there. They could reclaim their right to get to the other side, instead of killing themselves slowly.
The addict misses community. He or she misses home, the village energy that makes one feel whole. That's why people can't quit these things on their own; it's utterly impossible. The overeater, the smoker, the alcoholic -- they are all using different means to communicate the same message: "If you don't bring back my village, I might as well die." People with addictions take in more and more of the same substance, imagining they can become their own village. But it won't work. They remain lonely individuals.
We need to shift our point of view on this. The addict is not having a personal problem; he or she is communicating a problem we all have.
Miller: That makes sense when I think of our rise in violence and crime, and our approach to criminal justice. We try to lock away all the people we regard as violent, as if their violence were strictly their own problem and responsibility, rather than our responsibility as a whole community.
Malidoma: The driving force behind violence is twofold: there is an absence of adequate community, and also an unanswered need for initiation. Violence is a force that is trying to open up what I call an individual's "black box" -- all the information that was stored within a soul on its journey to earth. Unless we recover that information, it's very difficult to know what our purpose is on this planet. The individual will do anything and everything to open that black box. Without a proper initiation, this drive can become a very wild energy with the power to kill other people as well as the person caught up in it.
We want to put it away because it's scary. But our fear should be a reminder that we're in the proximity of something magical, something very powerful. Violence is an expression of the proximity of magic.
A dysfunctional society instinctively suppresses magic. That society locks up people who are violently trying to understand their own hidden purpose. And it tends to treat illness in the same way: "Just put it away. Put it out of our sight." The belief is that hiding the symptom will cure the illness.
Miller: Does this explain why the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to violent crime?
Malidoma: The energy of violence is not subject to death. You can kill a container of that energy, but the energy goes on and finds another. And there are so many containers available in a dysfunctional society! We lay the blame on the container without studying what is contained.
Miller: So how can our society understand its violence in a useful way?
Malidoma: First, understand that it is a message about illness of the social body. Then try to trace it to its source and go about making peace with that source.
Miller: Some would say the source is racial and class discrimination, unfair distribution of resources and employment opportunities, and so forth.
Malidoma: In a sense that's true because there is an industry of inequality that some people profit from, and they don't want to give up their profits. It's the historical struggle between rich and poor. But the underlying ailment is spiritual -- the disconnection from the ancestors and the spirit world. Inequalities inevitably arise in a society that is alienated from the cosmos, from the grand scheme of things.
Miller: So you're suggesting that we're too busy fighting each other to realize that the access to what we ultimately want is all around us. We fight over little bits of power on this side of reality, when the power of the other side is immense.
Malidoma: It's so huge we can't even fathom it. But we cannot own it or control it; we can only serve it. To do that one must constantly ask: How humble am I when I approach power? We must be careful not to overinflate our egos, because the West is a showoff culture.
To hold on to power, you must guard against self-inflation or ego-tripping. Constantly envision yourself as servant, not proprietor, of the powers around us all. Honor their mystery. And let them use you.