Two Wise Women on Ritual and Relationships
Sobonfu Somé and Gabrielle Roth talk to Patty-Lynne Herlevi
I once read an interview with a Native American elder that said we are in the age of the feminine. The evidence to prove this grows daily in a variety of spiritual communities. Authors such as Shakti Gawain, Lynn V. Andrews, and Marianne Williamson have become staple reading for many and have sold millions of copies of their books. Along with the rise of their popularity has been an increase in women's drum circles and women healers and shamans. In fact, these women spiritual leaders have become to this modern age what high priestesses were to ancient times.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Sobonfu Somé and Gabrielle Roth, two wise women who are worlds apart culturally, but who both emphasize the need to integrate the feminine within all of us and to build a community that will support that integration.
Born in Burkino Faso, a small village in West Africa, Sobonfu Somé's mission is to teach ritual to the people of the West, thus the meaning of her name: The Keeper of Ritual. The elders of her tribe, the Dagara, arranged her marriage to author Malidoma Somé (Of the Water and the Spirit) because the two had similar life purposes. Both Sobonfu and her husband were sent to bring their traditions to the West so that a healing could take place in our culture. Sobonfu teaches ritual so that we can strengthen our connection to spirit, acquire a true intimacy with our life partners not based on illusions, and to build community.
Although the Somés currently live half a world away from their African village, Sobonfu keeps a constant connection with spirit, and she stresses the importance of the spirit connection to those that attend her workshops. Her recent book, The Spirit of Intimacy, addresses issues of making intimate relationships sacred and obtaining the community's support of those relationships. Her teachings are crucial in healing a society of its codependent relationships.
When asked how we could use rituals to heal our culture and to bridge the gap between the sacred realm and the technological age, Sobonfu responded, "It is a matter of finding the balance that allows you to be immersed in spirit. Sustain yourself with it, because if there isn't any kind of base, a way of replenishing yourself, then you will use all your energy and, in the end, you will feel burnt out and completely useless."
However, people in the West tend to live unbalanced lives that are crammed with to-do lists and deadlines; most don't have the time to find that soul space inside themselves, so they search for a guru of some form to take care of their spiritual needs. This is why we must bring ritual, stories, and myths back into our lives: to find that sacred place. However, Sobonfu warns us that this cannot be a mindless pursuit.
One must live the aspects of the story. Otherwise, it just becomes another consumer idea people buy because it sounds appealing, without incorporating the practice into their hearts. Sobonfu elaborates on this theme: "I think that, often, the problem is that people know what is happening, but there is not a contact with the feeling that there is when you notice what is happening; you hear things, but you don't notice them. Problems that could have been taken care of a long time ago don't get taken care of simply because we hear things, but we don't notice them and we don't take them to heart."
When we don't take the sacred to heart, we give away our power, whether to a relationship, some kind of pursuit, or a guru. Sobonfu explains the danger of shirking our responsibility: "The idea of a guru doing everything and all we have to do is to show up and tell the guru, 'this is what I need; fix everything and I can get out of here,' does not work. The guru takes the individual's involvement away, and once the individual's involvement is not there, nothing can really happen."
This responsibility for the evolution of our souls extends into our intimate relationships. In the Dagara tribe, intimate relationships are an extension of the community and therefore are taken seriously by the community. When a Dagara couple marries, they do not marry for the sake of romance or love, but through a sense of purpose. Each individual enhances the partner's spiritual path by having a similar one, and the couple brings their gifts back to their community.
In order for romance to kick in, you must see your true self and hide as far as you can pretend that you are this other person so that they can fantasize and romanticize with you.
Sobonfu's book, The Spirit of Intimacy, explores how couples can use ritual in their lives so that they can honor the spirit that brought the couple together in the first place and, in so doing, to honor their union.
She claims that romance is an illusion wherein people masquerade as someone other than their true selves in order to please the other person. "In order for romance to kick in, you must see your true self and hide as far as you can pretend that you are this other person so that they can fantasize and romanticize with you. Meanwhile, your true self is lying down there crying and screaming to be seen."
In Sobonfu's village, people are seen as spiritual beings first and cannot get involved in a relationship until they have "seen all sides of the coin" of the other person. Besides, all marriages are arranged by the elders and they must have the approval of Spirit before any marriage can take place. Sobonfu explains that a person must see all sides of the coin, because if a person jumps into a marriage without doing this, the relationship would foster a kind of energy that would harm or possibly kill the partners. One might consider dropping the "bubble" of romance if one could see that there are no divorces in the Dagara village, and that each couple has the support of the entire community when something goes wrong in their relationship. This might lead us to believe that the illusion of romance in which our culture participates is yet another ego projection, here to do us harm.
Somé advises new couples to get the blessing of the spirit that brought them together. This can be achieved through various rituals, which she writes about in her book, or by acknowledgment of Spirit when the couple renews their vows periodically. "We were brought together by Spirit for a specific purpose. We must constantly go back to and tell Spirit what is happening to the life of coming together and, finally, look at the relationship not as something that is based on sex and romance, but as something that is sacred."
Sobonfu strongly advises that a couple renew their vows constantly. In the Dagara tribe, each couple renews their vows through attending a wedding of other tribe members; the wedding acts as a reminder of how sacred the vows are to that couple and to the community. Hardships will eventually rise in all relationships, and if a couple isolates themselves from community and disconnects from Spirit, chances are that that relationship will not survive.
Dancer, musician, and author Gabrielle Roth also emphasizes that we must keep mindful of Spirit in our lives and our relationships. In her latest book, Sweat Your Prayers, Gabrielle speaks about how we can allow Spirit to move within our daily lives. Although she also speaks of rituals in her book, she emphasizes that we are constantly performing them in our lives, whether making breakfast in the morning or smoking a cigarette. We should stay mindful of these rituals, Roth says, and replace the dangerous choices with healthier ones. Although she would rather not get caught up in explaining how it plays a part in her dance and theatre work, she explains that ritual does play a role.
"I work ritual through theatre as opposed to dance. In dance, you kind of create your own ritual; you don't even know that you are doing it. The forms, the movement, and the energies are just passing through you. In theatre, we constantly create and conjure certain energies and root them in repetition."
Sweat Your Prayers introduces six archetypes: Mother, Mistress, Madonna, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. These archetypes exist in all of us to some degree, but can be fully integrated in us through dance to be more specific, through five rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness. The premise of the book is that, through dancing these five rhythms, we can heal the wounds that we have sustained during childhood or through other harmful relationships. We heal our wounds by integrating and strengthening the six archetypes that are within all of us.
When we manifest our weak archetypes in someone else, we disempower ourselves and cause imbalances in our relationships.
When we have a weakness in one or more of the archetypes, we disown that part of ourselves and manifest it in someone else, for example a lover. Gabrielle explains how this works: "You have a flow of energy, and it's up to you to define that. It's not enough to have a big process that's going on inside of you. You actually have to define it, articulate it and communicate it. A lot of people do get stuck there, and the lazy way out, of course, is to go to someone else who is going to do it for you."
This can be in the form of a mate or a guru. However, when we manifest our weak archetypes in someone else, we disempower ourselves and cause imbalances in our relationships. Gabrielle gives some examples of what can happen.
"Someone says, 'I have a very weak Mother [archetype], so I don't really know how to take care of myself.' That is what that person needs to work on. I can't just keep going around finding people to take care of me. If I don't have any wild Son energy, then I might have a great house, a great job, and a great car, but be the greatest boring person on earth because I never take any risks."
She explains further how imbalances create wounds in us: "With imbalances we get all kinds of wounds, which are tributaries of our imbalances, so we look for something else to do [our work] for us whether [that something else] is a drug or a codependent relationship. Then we get wound up in the 'poor me' factor."
Her solution to this problem is to transform that rotten childhood into art; this can be achieved by moving through the five rhythms. One cannot hold on to these burdens while surrendering to the dance.
Although Sobonfu and Gabrielle approach Spirit through different avenues, both acknowledge that we must move our egos to the side if we are to let it into our hearts. Gabrielle's approach is to dance the five rhythms and to create and be part of a community that will support you and point out your ego patterns to you. Once we acknowledge those patterns, she says, we can create space for Spirit to come in. "If we create enough space and fluidity in our bodies, then the essential energy of the heart is to love, so we really get to feel that in our being."
Sobonfu conjures up Spirit by inviting it into her daily life. She says that we must lose our need for control and allow ourselves to be vulnerable so that Spirit has a space to enter into us. "If spirit wants to do something, it will realize that we are completely full and there is nothing else that can be added."
Sobonfu Somé and Gabrielle Roth will be participating (along with Isabel Allende, Angeles Arrien, Judith Orloff, Rhiannon, and Charlotte Sophia Kasl) in the sixth annual Women of Wisdom Conference, to be held February 13 through 21 at Seattle Unity Church, 200 8th Avenue. For information and reservations, call (206) 622-8475, ext. 135.
Patty-Lynne Herlevi is a mixed-media artist and a regular contributor to The New Times.