Malidoma Somé: The Ancestors’ Gift of Healing

Dagara elder Malidoma Somé speaks of the essential nature within the living relationship between ancestry and ourselves. He reminds us that at the core of this relationship a potential of mutual benefit is waiting to be realised and that through engaging with the Ancestors our own capacity as healers and givers of our own unique gifts can become radically grounded within community.

Diviner’s Tales

Divination is at root a communal activity and, in our times, bringing its practice into a circle of shared space can also mean an opportunity for re-discovering just what ‘community’ means, and feels like…

…..it was perhaps one of the most unlikely places to find a scene such as this, but, on this occasion the circle of people, old and young, gathered around the African diviner’s cloth in a small Austrian house on the edge of the mountains, were enacting a communal event that could have been found in traditional villages the world over in a timeless span stretching back to the very roots of humanity. Three people had already been called to sit with the diviner and the readings had been good – everyone was enjoying each other’s company within this communal ritual space, the sharing of news from both this world and the ancestor’s, as well as the knowledge that those particular problems that had been besetting the divinees were infact an important part of a larger plan or perhaps the calling card of a spirit, but, whatever the purpose, were at the very least already known about by the denizens of the unseen worlds, and the diviner’s allies….help is always at hand, if you know where and how to look for  it.

……the diviner’s cloth was spread in the center of the room and was oriented so that its water quadrant, the place of the spirits of healing, was in the north, where the diviner sat – the divinee would sit opposite, nearest the fire quadrant, the place of the ancestors. Atop the cloth were many objects associated with the quadrants and the diviner’s personal medicine and the cloth itself had a medicine wheel, a cosmic elemental map, painted onto it with representations of the five main elements, the diviners own hands and feet, and various other miscellaneous markings whose meaning contained many mysteries…..at the center of the cloth, covering the earth quadrant, was a pile of cowrey shells with small stones, bones and assorted objects mixed in amongst them. These would spell out the picture, in relation to the elements, that the diviner would read once the divinee had churned them around within the circular medicine wheel at the center of the cloth…..but, there was yet more to this comprehensive healing kit….

….close by and on the cloth the diviner had placed the additional tools and equipment from his medicine bag that wanted to be present. He might not use any of them within this session, as they did not belong directly to the cloth and shell divination practice, but, they were a part of his extended repertoir for seeing into the other worlds and conversing with its inhabitants. Amongst them were a stout natural wooden stick, which could be used in spirit led ‘stick divination’, a small woven basket that looked like a minature beehive and was both the home, shrine and meeting place for two of his main allies, and various organic and man-made objects, shells, roots, coins and bits of bone and hide, amongst other less identifiable material……these could all be called upon, often at the prompting of the spirits, to help the diviner to fine tune and look deeper into the nuances of the reading as things came up, or to see aspects of the situation that the shell divination might not extend to.

Almost everything visible came from the world around, had been aquired by the diviner over the course of time and training and fit comfortably into the diviner’s hide bag, which he could carry with ease slung over his shoulder. This was a practical healing outfit suitable for travel within a global community that, when brought out into our midst, provided a focus of otherworldly and multi-dimensional proportions. Every diviner is a gatekeeper, and those things that did not come from the world around, although they might not ‘look’ particularly out of the ordinary, had infact been gifted or brought back from the otherside of the gateway……

“So…..who’s wanting to come up next” the diviner asked softly, gathering up the shells  into a small compact mound at the center of the cloth. He did not look up until there was a movement as my friend made her way to sit in the center of the circle with the ancestors….”I guess I am….” she said, a little self-consciously….

The diviner gestured towards the cloth…..” you know how it goes – using your dominant hand you move the shells within the circle – the women move the shells moon-wise. If I say ‘stop’ you stop, or you stop when you feel to stop……ok, if you are, we’re ready……”.

There was a pause and the circle settled back quietly, expectant at the events about to unfold……the flame of a candle on the house keeper’s altar flickered momentarily as my friend rested her hand on the pile of shells at the center of the cloth. She closed her eyes briefly and then, on the command of some inner impulse, opened them and started moving her hand counter-clockwise in a circle. Shells, stones and bones began to spread outwards and one or two slipped right to the edge of the circular design – this was usually a sign of either something heading for the spirit worlds or something about to arrive from them. Only, my friend’s hand kept on turning and, as it did, shells began to cross the circle’s boundary….a subtle ripple of energy swept through the room.

I knew enough about my friend, her situation and what had brought her here (and I myself had over two decades of experience in the practice of divination at that time) to know that, although the patterns appearing on the cloth might well extend into the spirit realms, here there was something awry about the spread she had produced and the people gathered around were also picking it up. I was watching the diviner carefully – he showed no sign of speaking but his eyes were riveted on the cloth……eventually my friend stopped churning the shells.

There was an audible outbreath from the village circle and a few quiet whistles and exclamations – the diviner scratched his head and raised his eyebrows. Only now was he showing a reaction, and it was as of one slightly befuddled, astounded even, by the complexity and import of what he was seeing….

“Well…….” he paused, as if looking for the right words…..”what….has been going down with you…..!” It was obvious from the distribution of the shells that this person was undergoing some major challenges and it was not the purpose of the reading to find out what they were, at least not on the outside, that would come from her – no, the purpose here was to disclose what was at their root and find ways of responding.

The aim was to help restore balance and ‘optimise’, no matter how difficult or challenging the situation, but, first we all needed to hear it from the horses mouth, so to speak – this was just as important to the communal aspect of the healing as the practical solutions that would come later.

From the way the shells and objects were spread over the center of the cloth, some spilling well beyond the boundaries of the medicine wheel, it was obvious that this person, my friend, was not all here, that parts of her energy had become dislodged and found their way into the spirit realms, which meant that her integrity, inner balance and perhaps, more than likely infact, the fundamental health of her world situation, was seriously out of kilter – her answer would confirm this…..she was suffering breast cancer, it was impinging on her lymph system and, to make matters more difficult, she was looking after her mother, who was in the more advanced stages of the same disease herself. Without going any further into the details surrounding this situation here, like the divinee’s situation itself the level of healing required in this instance was, in the words of the diviner, going to be ‘radical’!

What I found especially interesting about this reading at this point was two aspects of ‘knowledge’ that the divinee and the ‘village’ circle embodied simultaneously…..on the one hand, the village contained some people who were already well versed in the cowrey shell practice of divination they were taking part in, but, they had not been a party to the divinees situation. There were no visible signs of her suffering. However, the tangibility of the reading, its energetic imprint and effect upon the village circle gathered around the cloth was powerfully visceral, even and most notably, before my friend spoke about her plight……the second, and equally important to the veracity of the reading, was that neither she nor I had witnessed this particular kind of cowrey shell reading before – she had no idea that her actions with the shells would send out such a strong signal to the village, nor how clearly their configuration revealed the extent of her problems, let alone their exact nature and the reality of what lay behind them. The reading taking place here was genuine and true.

It was only when the diviner began to open the dialogue between himself, the shells, his spirit allies and the divinee that the way forward began to emerge, but, in this particular instance, it was a tough and demanding process – so much of this person’s energies were becoming scattered beyond the physical worlds. First steps required a cleansing of the ‘wound’, which was as much if not more spiritual than physical, although the physical was pulling the anomoly into manifestation – this required an otherworldly dressing and application of preventative medicines that reached right into the spirit worlds. The radical nature of the healing would, infact, last over a period of 5 years, require many more readings, strong practical remedies (which, for the sake of privacy, integrity and brevity, I will not go into the exact nature of here in detail), but, would eventually lead to complete remission from the disease. Complete and sustained, largely thanks to two things…..

The first was my friends willingness to undergo the full journey, to stay the course, and that rested on the second thing. Besides ‘radical’ responses there were those that provided ‘maintainence’, that kept things in balance and good health. While the former, the ‘radical’ actions this healing required, could only be overseen and facilitated by an experienced and initiated healer, the maintainence work could be undertaken by the patient themselves.

The second thing was that, in the course of undertaking and keeping up this work, my friend discovered that she herself was a healer within this tradition, that she was naturally endowed with connections to the spirit worlds that this diviner’s tradition recognised, facilitated and supported, and she eventually became a fully initiated healer herself in the tradition of Kontombli medicine and divination. I’ll say a bit more about this kind of medicine in due course, over the coming months, but, this was an immensely important part of her journey through illness, a major part of its inner significance, and it was only through the divination itself and her willingness to follow it through that this itself became revealed. How much of what we ‘suffer’ in this world actually represents an opportunity, a signpost or significant shove in the ‘right’ direction, is an important question in our times – most often, we need the assistance of the otherworld, its insights, and the work of diviners and our own divination practices to help us discover this. Its not so much about ‘self-help’ and evolution, as reclaiming the power inherent in our own path and using it in the most appropriate and advantageous ways, for both ours and the community’s ‘greater good’ – the latter two are synonymous.

I wanted to introduce something of this traditional practice firstly through personal anecdote, as I will be writing up readings working with this method of divination here at Owlmirror, using this as a way of exploring some of the fundamentals and principles, the pragmatic as well as esoteric aspects of the diviner’s art, as well as for looking into the current processes and state of things in the world, in much the same way as we do with astrology – this form of cowrey shell based divination works surprisingly well alongside astrology and complements many other paths and practices, from diverse traditions. Secondly, this particular event also marked the beginning of my own practice as a cowrey shell diviner.

The year was 1998…..after practicing astrology, rune-casting, tasseomancy, the I Ching and reading the signs in nature for many years my practice had begun to feel incomplete and slightly out of focus – I came later to realise that, despite all the previous years experience, I had not yet found my own personal center of gravity as a diviner. The pull of that center had begun to become conscious in the early 70’s through encounters out in the land with the ancestral spirits and spirits of nature, particularly in the Atlantic coastal area of North Devon and in Wiltshire in the UK where I had been living. It took a decade of following the twists and turns of the path before I met my first formal teachers and mentors, at which point those encounters became much more interactive and articulated, and I found myself pursuing a training in ‘spirit medicine’.

It felt like a calling, although I was at pains to make something practical of it in the world, and there still remained the feeling that at the back of it all, like a powerful magnetic core was the real center, that I was slowly spiralling in towards, the place that felt like’ home’. Through the next decade I was pulled further into this ‘medicine’ world and I found my old divining practices becoming more like technical variations on this larger theme – the ‘medicine’ work had become ‘life-work’. It wasn’t until finally I arrived in that room in Austria and laid eyes on the divining kit spread at its center that everything changed, came into focus, and the dots all suddenly and, quite ecstatically, joined up – it was an instant recognition, an ancient and familiar feeling, uncanny and so deeply known, beyond any doubt, just as one might recognise loved ones and places one has known in former lives……

……..that moment of recognition was followed by six years of training with the diviner, Malidoma Some, a Dagara elder and shaman from Burkina Faso in West Africa, and through this all the strands of previous training and activity, in medicine traditions, creative work, divination and different modalities of healing, both contemporary western and ancient indigenous, came together and made sense. In that moment was one of the most liberating feelings I had had in my life to that time…..but, as is in the nature of the trials of life by which we truly learn, even this affirmative centering was eventually to become challenged and questioned.

My friend did recover fully into complete remission and I was fortunate to accompany her on the entirety of her journey – I witnessed the immense liberation and burst of life-force that she too experienced in arriving at that moment, when the doctors confirmed what the spirits had already previously revealed to us – the cancer was completely gone……the moment marked a turning point for both of us. A whole series of events was set in motion that would change both our lives, even more radically than this part of the journey had, much more infact, but, thats something that will have to be spoken of another time…….suffice it to say, she pursued her calling within the Dagara tradition and I, largely through the fated intervention of the Kontombli spirits, eventually came to totally rebuild my own life and practice, from the absolute zero point. Hard as it is to convey just what this means, it required most of all that my own work in the world comprise only that which I could truly say ‘belongs’ to me, to this particular ‘spirit having a human experience’.

Divination is a constant resource in helping us to undertake such work on a personal level – I have seen lives changed in profound ways by its intervention, the intervention and advice of the spirits. The stories that people bring back as a result of having taken up and followed through upon that advice are the real reward for such service as the diviner provides – I hope to relate some of these here, but, from this point in I will be including readings working with the shells, as the occasion arises. Unlike astrology, which is a useful vehicle for divination practice, but, which has a utilitarian availability that allows it to be made use of at will, the cowrey shell practice is of itself much more spirit led and comes up almost unfailingly with a ‘certain purpose’ behind each reading. The fact is, as a diviner, the practice can be developed to such an extent that this particular way of working becomes the basis for all divination work, if the path is followed with a full commitment. At its most integrated levels the practice seemingly disappears and becomes the life lived once more, rather than something one does within one’s life…..the implications of this are worth exploring as its effects profound, liberating and ultimately, I would say, bring us home to ourselves.

We will go into the components of the practice, as described and introduced in the above story, in more detail – and the correspondences with other divination practices are many, so, there will also be opportunity to compare and feedback from your own practices as well. The images here show my own working kit, as it was when I was training with Malidoma, and I will be talking about this kit in some depth as well. Over the intervening years it has changed, become more integrated and personal, while retaining the essense of the original. That process of recapitulation, distillation and refinement is key and the kit has become idiosyncratic to my own practice. Within this is the fundamental point – that we can all discover, put together and work with a divination kit (and practice) that is unique to each of us and that this can and does allow us to fully integrate the ways and means of the diviner seamlessly and invisibly into life, such that we can live our purpose in fullness, balance and total integration – such empowerment is, in my humble opinion, more valuable than anything else, both to ourselves and our communities, and supercedes any notion of evolution, collectively or individually.

Within the indigenous community from which this form of cowrey shell divination has arisen the purpose of a person’s life is primary to their identity, health and ability to function within the community – it is the gift that we have come here not only to remember and own, but, to deliver into the community. A divination such as the one in which my friend found her healing also gave her the crucial footing upon the most profound aspects of her own path and, through this, the community was changed, forever – such is the way of the diviner, no matter in which way or at which level we engage with it. It was also the shared knowledge  of her predicament amongst all those present at her reading that enabled them to provide the support she needed to make that journey, and, in the course of time that support rippled outwards into larger fields and communities. This came about not least of all as a direct conscequence of her having reclaimed her power and life-force in the process of entering into the wider community of life at the call of spirit. Everything is connected in this way, and we all are both affected by and can benefit from such interventions, especially when they are consciously sourced from the spirit worlds. The transformative and fundamental nature of divination rests on this basis – it is innate within us.

A Message from the Valley

 

Who would you look to as perfect living examples of balance, generosity and healing? Who will offer you a pathway to the stars, to reach into the inner cosmos of Earth. Who can unfailingly give you the most fundamental requirements of shelter, warmth, food and medicines? Such beings are real, they do exist, right now, here in our midst……

They have inhabited this Earth for nearly 400 million years – they preceded dinosaurs by 140 million years – before them there were no reptiles or amphibians. They are expert natural energy bio-condensers who radically altered the climate, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing temperatures to drop and preparing the terrestrial surface environment for the emergence and evolution of animals and insects – through their arrival the planet quickly began to assimilate living conditions very similar to the present-day.

Their children have carried forward their ability to transform, nurture and, literally, inspire Life into our times – and yet we massacre them daily – through this, we contribute to climatic degradation and our own demise – for a thorough over view see this link

we love them too, so why do we treat our dear friends so – they are the Standing People – the Trees, living symbols of Life. It is our greatest challenge as a species to respect Life AND to, as a species, act accordingly – we devolve into failure unless we do so – so,  if we could but take a few steps back from our madness and listen to them what would the Standing People tell us………..

…….if we lived by our hearts we would know them instantly – they would offer us a chance at rebirth as they are the midwives of terrestrial life, our relatives and elders, beloved and wise – they would fill us with wonder as they cradle the stars in their arms, as they pulse with the Sun and flow with the Moon – they would pick us up, raise our spirits,  as they dance with the wind and fill us with their songs – they would cleanse our bodies and heal our souls, as they give us the breath of Life and give back to us the sacred meeting place – they would inspire us to compassion, as they teach us of selfless giving, carry our prayers, heal our bodies – we would dance with them that we may come alive

“…….our DNA is made of the same DNA as the tree – the tree breathes what we exhale – when the tree exhales we need what the tree exhales – so, we have a common destiny with the tree…….” – Floyd Red Crow Westerman

Trees are powerful and highly evolved beings – the closer we become in our relationships with them, the more they stimulate our finer sensibilities, our deeper connections with Life and the Cosmos. They can transform our consciousness. As elder representatives of Nature they offer us a continual example of symbiotic relationship and environmental stewardship – they provide a wonderous variety of species with the essential habitat that fosters diversity and evolution. They too have evolved through this – Oaks, for example, have developed into around 450 species worldwide and, in the UK, the Oak provides a home for more co-habiting organisms than any other tree. Over 300 different kinds of Lichen alone have been found growing on Oaks in Europe and Lichen is a good indicator of air quality – infact the role of trees as indicators of balance within the health of ecosystems has given them a unique place within the consciousness and cultures of peoples worldwide.

No matter where we find trees they bring a sense of wellbeing and belonging, a reminder to those dwelling amongst the hard surfaces and sharp angles of the over-humanised environment of the flow and flux of Nature. For many living beneath the forest canopy the world is immediate, the horizon close by, the natural world a living matrix of vital energies. One western man who spent his life within the community of trees and was able to both discern and develop a profound understanding of these vital energies was the Austrian forester Victor Schauberger.

image : nevit dilmen

The son of a forester from a long lineage reaching back to the Germanic tribes Victor was born into the world of forest lore and the practical know-how of arboreal stewardship – he had a knack of perceiving the subtle and invisible energies at work in Nature. Through a mix of patient observation and inspired curiousity he made of his life a meditation on the living energies that manifest the mind of Nature through the trees and rivers, infused with the powers of Sun, Moon and Earth. Trees spoke to him, and he read their messages as energy. He came to realise that trees bridged the material and subtle realms, responding to the rhythms of Life, both sending and receiving waves of intelligent energy. Callum Coats book “Living Energies” is a itself a dedicated translation and thorough assimilation of the essense of Victor’s work.

The outer reaches of a tree’s canopy and roots transmute ever more subtle gradations of material energy units until they become pure information – the mind of the tree extends beyond its physical body, its intelligence reaching into the transpersonal, its whole being a synaptic complex of consciousness in communication. This is to describe a being that is fully awake, that is able to communicate with both inner and outer Cosmos – when trees enter the inward looking times of Autumn into Winter they focus their consciousness on the dreaming worlds, the dreamtime. Through this they teach us of the rhythm of the seasons as a reflection of our relationship with the pulsing heart of creation.

When we listen to that pulse and pick up the beat we are invited to dance – a circle of people dancing with this pulse, carried by the drum beat and sacred song, pulling the energy of the circle in towards the tree and slowly expanding out again, will awaken the tree – she will radiate a profound warmth and delicious energy, embracing us in her consciousness – to experience this is to know that this is real, beyond doubt, and it will truly bring healing. 

Around the world shamans journey with the drum to the otherworlds from the roots, branches and body of the great tree in search of knowledge and healing – the hoop of their drum is gifted from the trees, the skin often adorned with the axis mundi, the Tree of Life – for many indigenous cultures souls come in and leave Life through her nexus – the spirits congregate there – our prayers hung upon her boughs are heard and cared for – in the groves we find protection, sacred space.

Spirit medicine is only one way in which the balance of our natural relations with the Cosmos can be restored. There are other pathways that are accessible to us all and which are called into our consciousness on a daily basis, that our current planetary conditions tell us are increasingly pertinent.

fosswood dreaming : rob purday

The forests are dying on our Earth, because, through greed and dead matter thinking, we have given priority to satisying the needs of a voracious and uncaring culture, turned a deaf ear to our hearts, become disrespectful and overlooked the reality of our actions – and yet, for so many this is not a true reflection of how we would live. We have not forgotten how to listen, we can still hear their voices – and it is important that we do so for our children and our childrens children. We can reforest our home. And this is a first step – plants and trees planted with respect and in recognition of the sacredness of all Life, over generations of their family and through the seasonal cycles, will become our allies. They come to know us, form a sacred relationship with us and they will always be ready to answer when we ask them for help – this too is real, beyond doubt, and will help to heal the Sacred Hoop, the Circle of Life.

Our western thinking is a great stumbling block, and yet, it is also a great teacher – there is balance in all things. We often filter out that which we do not have tangible evidence for with our thinking – it is an affliction that is affecting our whole world and has caused great suffering within indigenous communities. Balance rather than dominance…….

Balance within communion carries a visceral potential – to restore the balance and make the encounter can be highly emotive and revolutionary, affecting of our view of the world and our understanding of our place within it, of ourselves. There is a wonderful account of such an encounter in “Of Water and the Spirit”, the autobiographical writings of Dagara elder and shaman Malidoma Some. During initiation into adulthood Malidoma describes how he met with a beautiful tree spirit, a tender yet awesome ‘Green Lady’ of immense heart and understanding.

For the ‘western’ mind this encounter is powerfully instructive as Malidoma has to struggle to free himself of the enculturalisation he suffered at the hands of Jesuit priests after they had kidnapped him from his village as a child – his return to the village created a dilema for the Elders who saw both a threat and a gift in his presence, in the cultural baggage that he was carrying. They decided that initiation was the only way forward, the make or break test of whether he could truly become the embodiment of his name, which means “be friends with the stranger/enemy”. It stands as a potent allegory for the relationship between the western mindset and the indigenous. 

Malidoma struggled over a long period under fierce conditions of extreme heat and dehydration, focusing on the tree that stood before him, to arrive at the moment when he was able to ‘let go’ and fall into the embrace of the spirit world. It was the attachment to both ‘trying to do’, contriving what he thought was expected of him, and the emotional attachment to the concrete nature of what his senses told him was real that created the barrier through which he eventually burst – he literally fell into the arms of the beloved spirit, and she spoke to him. Without this breakthrough his initiation would have failed. Even more crucially, this opened the pathway back to the original purpose that he had petitioned the ancestors to support him in before his birth, and allowed him to remember and embody his connection with the spirits in Nature, his name and soul purpose. To the Dagara trees are amongst the most evolved of beings on Earth.

For Malidoma this was the beginning of a journey into the wider world, sanctioned by his elders, his ancestors and spirit family. He carries with him the sacred medicines of his African roots, reconnecting ‘people of the diaspora’ with their roots and healing the spiritual heart of our Western cultural desert – thanks to the ‘Green Lady’. I had the benefit of several years profound and heart centered guidance and tuition with Malidoma – it brought many challenges and, like many others whom he has helped, brought a much needed appreciation of our universal nature, the ways in which we can find healing that are so deeply rooted in Nature, our relationship with the ancestors and the spirit worlds. He, with many others alive today, continues to work his magic for the benefit of us all in the world. All blessings be with the healers – human and arboreal.

The next time you enter a forest, lean against a tree or plant a sappling, please say thank-you – say it out loud, from the heart – it will bring healing into your world, our world. Such powerful healing as we find amongst the Standing people is always at hand, within the forests, amongst the watchful care of those great beings we know as the Trees. The New Moon beckons – happy dreaming!