It seems the more we try to categorize our medical and mental conditions, the more we discover how mysterious and complex they are. What causes our emotional whims? Our anxiety? Aggression triggered by nothing in particular? According to many indigenous healing traditions, we all carry the burden of grief — and these stresses can smother us. This “grief” can stifle our creativity, our joy and our ability to connect with others.
This weekend, Burkinabe-healer Sobonfu Somé will lead a two-day healing ritual in Black Mountain for accessing our grief, acknowledging it and becoming free from it.
In Somé’s native Burkina Faso, grieving is an integral part of community life. When one is suffering from loss, the village will grieve with that person until they have fully moved through it. In Western culture, by contrast, we tend to hide from others when experiencing grief. We wash our faces after a good cry before appearing again in public. We apologize to each other when emotion overcomes us. We suppress and move through.
When Somé first came to the U.S. in the mid-‘90s, she was mystified by how Americans commit themselves to isolation in these difficult times: “It is natural that people around you start to grieve when you do,” she says, “We experience a collective sharing so that an individual doesn’t need to bear all the weight of the suffering.”
In village life, community is everything, and the individual is inextricable from it. The refuge and support that each individual finds in the community, she says, is what keeps it healthy and whole.
“There is a price in not expressing one’s grief,” says Somé. “When we don’t address our grief, [it] begins to take shapes and forms. … We become more paranoid … prone to anger … to judging and criticizing others … hurting them with our words or our behavior … with physical or emotional abuse. It can even become like an illness because grief can create so much stress in your life that you end up unable to function. … An ulcer, a heart attack, mental illness also … those are [all] unexpressed grief.”
Somé was born and raised in a rural Dagara village in southwest Burkina. She was recognized by village elders at a very young age for for her spiritual gifts, which they said she would bring to the rest of the world. For the past decade, she has travelled extensively, conducting workshops on ritual, intimacy and grief healing.
According to Somé, expressing and dealing with grief is vital to our growth as humans, as well as for our evolution from generation to generation — it is the only way to let go of the past and step into the future. That grief can come from a variety of sources, some of which we are well aware of — others are more clandestine, or even unknown.
“Anything from personal loss to universal loss, to loss of the partnership, loss of the job and loss of the dream. It can be an environmental crisis like oil spills, or woodlands being cleared. Loss of respect. It’s a wide range of things that people come with … I’ve had people come because they were never allowed to play as children, to people who had three or four tragic deaths in the span of a week.”
As important as it is for those of us to deal with the grief that we know about, what about those of us whose grief is hidden, or don’t have anything to grieve? Those of us who think, “No problems here,” or, “I can’t complain.”
This is where the spiritual element to grief becomes important. In addition to the grief we may feel from the time in middle school when we were the last kid picked for the kick-ball team, or when mom and dad divorced — we also inherit a slew of ancestral grief-debt from countless generations back. This is grief that we may not be consciously aware of, but nonetheless falls on us to resolve.
“Those kinds of grief are called ‘old grief,’” says Somé, “This is what people compartmentalize just to survive. We also call it ‘ancestral grief.’ So it may not happen in this one generation, but may happen three or four generations back … If a family has endured a lot of losses, and has never dealt with it, they may end up with somebody in the family being mentally ill without knowing why they are mentally ill. But it can be related to those stories and those losses that the family never dealt with.”
It’s overwhelming to imagine the unexplored, unexpressed anguish and grief that so many of us must harbor for every ancestor that carried his or her pain to the grave — let alone the grief that we have accumulated on a cultural scale. But for Somé, and many other spiritual workers, the resolution of macroscopic world conflict must begin with the transformation of the individual. If, for instance, an entire nation is not only sick from a culture that rewards competition and superficiality, but has also inherited a history of warfare, slavery, genocide, one must consider the impact that those individuals have on the rest of the world. If that inherited grief is not acknowledged and worked through, then it will come up in unhealthy and destructive ways.
“My elders have decided that it is important to bring their wisdom out in the world … to put their voice out there and also to lend a helping hand of resolving the conflicts or whatever crises exist in the world,” says Somé. “And that’s part of the reason why I have been asked to share their wisdom.”
Just as Somé is taking responsibility to help people around the world to get in touch with imbalances and suppressed griefs that haunt and govern them, the responsibility falls to all of us to get in touch with our own grief. Healing and dealing with grief is not a selfish thing — if we don’t tap the depths of our ancestral grief, then we will only leave it to the future generations to discover and solve.
“That is actually the main point of this work,” she says, “This undealt-with grief is like mortgages that we carry. And when we don’t deal with them, they then become the responsibility of our children to deal with. And so, I would say, let’s clear a path for our children so they don’t have to suffer the way we have.”
Sobonfu Somé comes to the Asheville area Friday, Nov. 8, through Sunday, Nov. 10. An Evening Talk with Sobonfu Somé will take place on Friday from 7-9pm at Jubilee! in downtown Asheville, suggested donation is $10-$15. To find out more about the Grief Ritual on Saturday and Sunday, visit schoolofintegratedliving.org/ grief-ritual-with-sobonfu-some/