Ritual as a dance with the pulse of life
Constellation Work and Rites of Passage
“Rituals are a dance with spirit, the manner in which the soul speaks to the other world. Thus they can heal and expand our human understanding immensely.” Malidoma Somé (2001)
Rituals, especially rites of passage, are ways indigenous people relate to the deep existential and social changes that are a part of being human. Times like birth, marriage, death; a move to a new social environment, reaching the beginning of a new life cycle or a change in career or social status are all moments that could be marked or supported in this way. Rituals clarify questions of belonging, identity, responsibility, healing or guilt and innocence. Sometimes, as in the case of initiation rituals, they initiate change and assist our passage through it. They help us to deal with the effects of such transitions and find the balance between individual autonomy and social integration or belonging.
These are also the main themes and issues of constellation work and psychotherapeutic approaches. From our previous contact with Native American teachers we noticed the similarities between the rites of passage of indigenous cultures and constellations very soon after the emergence of constellation work. We observed that significant elements of these rituals appear both in constellation and psychotherapeutic processes.(Guni Leia Baxa, 2001 and Ch. Essen & G.L. Baxa, 2001) We wondered to what extent the various discoveries, insights and spiritual practices of these cultures would flow naturally into constellation work and whether familiarising ourselves with the rituals associated with them would help us expand our horizons. Would it re-awaken experiential spaces that had faded into the background in our culture? Was there intrinsic knowledge we had forgotten or lost? Did one culture emphasise aspects that were missing in another or the other way round and if so, could we learn from one another?
After reading Malidoma Some’s book with the English title ‘Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman’ (1994) these sorts of questions inspired us to seek direct contact with Malidoma P. Somé and to invite him to our Institute in Austria. (Malidoma P. Some (1997): Vom Geist Afrikas. Das Leben eines afrikanischen Schamanen. Diederichs)
Malidoma is an initiated elder of the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, West Africa as well as a shaman and scientist. He currently holds two doctorates from the Sorbonne in Paris and Brandeis University in the USA and until recently he taught at Michigan State University.
From the very beginning of our exchange it was evident that Malidoma was not interested in simply exporting African rituals to the West. Although his ritual practice is rooted in the belief system of the Dagara, he sees himself as someone creating an intercultural dialogue. Significantly, his name means ‘befriend the stranger and the enemy’. In his view, rituals should be applicable to the cultural backdrop of any practitioner and need to be flexible enough to respond to different situations. His main focus is on the question: how can rituals remain alive and retain and develop their innate power within a community?
significant aspects of rituals
The World we Perceive
We perceive our world through the lens of basic cultural beliefs, expectations and attitudes. To this we add certain life experiences and emotions. If we are able to expand and change these beliefs and attitudes, new realities open up. We see this happening during constellations: as the representatives take their places we can sense a field developing within the room. Although you cannot touch it or see it, this field is experienced as very ‘real’. We speak to ancestors, ask the dead for their blessing and immediately feel the impact when it is granted. All these experiences are not part of normal daily consciousness in most Western societies.
“We have to admit, that there is more than one version of ‘reality’. The Dagaras, for example, do not distinguish between reality and imagination. To imagine something, to focus one’s thoughts on it with intent, can manifest it. For what is ‘magic’ other than the ability to focus thoughts and energy so skillfully that the corresponding results become evident in the world? The human imagination is only one example of our connection to remote energy fields.” (M. Somé 2001, S.164)
Everything is Alive
All cultures living close to nature seem to embrace similar beliefs, namely that everything is alive. Indigenous people understand the physical world to be a reflection of a complex, timeless and yet invisible reality. We are shadows of a pulsating, infinite intelligence, engaged in a process of continuous ‘self-creation’. The visible element is but a minute part of this whole. “If, for instance, we observe nature long enough we realize that her spirit is far greater than anything we can see’ (M. Somé 2001, S. 31)
Malidoma’s description of an experience during his initiation ritual highlights this:
“When I let my gaze fall on the Yila again, I realised that it was not a tree at all. How could I have ever seen it as such? Emerging out of the void I saw, where previously the tree had stood, a tall woman dressed from top to bottom in black. Her face was of celestial beauty. She was green, light green. Even her eyes were green, she was green from the inside… never before had I felt such love flowing to me. It was as if I had been deprived of her my whole life. The green deity and I already knew each other, but I could not say where, when or how we met.” .“ (M. Somé 1997, S. 299)
Rituals are the Manner in which the Soul speaks to the other World
Indigenous cultures see spirituality as the attempt to connect with other worlds and as the methodology needed to support human evolution. The invisible, the spiritual realms (the world of the ancestors, spirits, beings etc.) are as real in this paradigm as material life on earth. Rituals provide a vehicle for approaching the unseen world. Nature and its elements are the gateways that enable communication with the invisible world consisting of the spirits and beings outside the sphere of daily consciousness. In the language of the West we might call them transpersonal aspects, spiritual qualities and cosmic forces. In this way rituals distinguish between the profane and the sacred and open a space to experience ‘the other’.
Every Ritual has two Parts
Every meaningful ritual has two parts to it: the planned and the unpredictable. The ritual space and the sequence of events can be planned and prepared for. The interaction with the various energies remains spontaneous and unpredictable. This part “is the answer to the spiritual call to rise to a higher perspective.” (M. Somé 2001, S.156). Unlike static ceremonies that offer only limited freedom of expression, these rituals cannot be controlled or replicated and remain unpredictable.
Types of Ritual
Tribal cultures differentiate between:
- Rituals that bring about change, or rites of passage. These are radical rituals. Their intention is to reclaim the excluded, mend the broken, heal the damage, release the unnecessary or problematic, initiate and accompany existential change. They lead to rather dramatic dealings with the other world and often require significant, even physical, intervention.
- Regularly repeated rituals that serve to affirm and maintain the connection to other worlds, the so-called rituals of preservation.
Rites of passage are practised and supported by the entire community, the so-called ‘village’. The village square is generally the point of departure and arrival for the individual parts of the ritual. Normally a fire is burning there, around which the participants are singing, drumming and dancing. It is the centre from which the energies flow. It is the place where the power is built and where the emotions are gathered for the journey of the ‘initiates’. This journey takes them past the gatekeepers and leads them to the other side, into the unknown, into ‘chaos’. The village square then also becomes the place that welcomes the initiates back from their journey of transformation, embraces them and re-absorbs them into the community.
Stages of Rituals
According to Malidoma Some there are five stages to each ritual. We begin with preparatory and introductory steps, followed by the actual process and healing, as well as a clear closing of the ritual. Together with the customary village square this sequence creates a protected space, within which the unplanned and unpredictable can manifest..
A. Preparation of the ritual space
Generally the area that is chosen and prepared for the ritual space is outside the familiar spaces of daily life. It should feel like a clearly contained oasis, and carry qualities of beauty and mystery. The ritual space is rich in symbolism and protects the soul from the turmoil of daily life. These types of rituals are usually performed with an element in mind. Within the cosmology of the Dagaras the elements are fire, water, minerals, earth, and nature. Inside the ritual space ‘altars’ are built to appeal to the necessary forces, spirits and beings. Sometimes participants contribute a small personal item to the ritual, which strengthens their connection to the ‘sacred’ space.
Then the spirits, forces, gods or ancestors (or however the participants refer to the ‘other’) are invited to participate in the event that is about to begin. With the invocation we put ourselves in their hands.
It is therefore best to word the invocation clearly and purposefully. For instance, rather than just calling on ‘Mother Earth’ we might ask her : “Please assist us in staying grounded in facts whilst we contemplate difficult questions and problems. Share your abundance with us as we enter a time of change and exhilaration.” All participants should have the opportunity to invoke the forces important to them and to state their intent for the ritual. A true ‘ritual’ is led and guided by Spirit, God or the other forces that have been invoked.
Healing requires that we listen for the sound that enables us to consent to the healing process. This happens when we let go of control and entrust the healing to more subtle forces. This is the moment when the unpredictable unfolds. There are no rules for this part of the ritual. The main focus is honesty and authenticity.
The ritual is brought to an end by thanking the other world (ancestors, spirits of the elements etc.) for their assistance and for everything received from their presence. The releasing of the other world is an acknowledgment that their focused presence is no longer required. When giving thanks for their gifts, we should be as precise and specific as possible. If the facilitator senses changes in individual participants this should be included in the thanks. These 4 stages of rituals are summarised in Malidoma Some’s book: ‘The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual and Community.
‘Rituals and Systemic Constellations’
Since first meeting Malidoma we have organised regular gatherings on ‘Rituals and Systemic Constellations’ each one with about about 100 participants These have proved to be powerful inter-cultural events, with significant exchanges and meaningful insights emerging in an open and experimental environment.
So far, we have had four gatherings, each one lasting six days. These gatherings have been facilitated by Malidoma Somé and various constellation facilitators. Malidoma has worked with rites of passage according to the themes and issues of the participants. The participants were genuinely seeking change, transformation, healing, conflict resolution etc. rather than simply being interested in a confirmation of contact with the ‘other’ world. We offered constellation work in smaller groups interwoven with rituals and elemental prescriptions inspired by the Dagara tradition. The big rituals (like the fire ritual, water ritual or mourning ritual ….. ) were performed by the plenary group. The elemental prescriptions were given to individuals. or smaller groups of the participants. In addition Malidoma gave lectures about the ritual tradition of indigenous cultures and how to create rituals in daily life.
The language and belief systems of indigenous cultures do not transfer easily to the more rational, logical thinking adopted by our Western society. It has been an experiment to attempt an exchange and a mutual understanding of cultures, within a short time frame. We wondered: would the kind of cultural consumerism sensationalism that we also sometimes experienced in our seminars on psychotherapy – dominate the gatherings? Would they degenerate and become spectacles or would the mystical aspects of constellations be supported and accentuated and help to elevate everything to an esoteric level?
During the planning of the events with Malidoma we were aware of these potential obstacles, but, in our opinion, we have all dealt with them well. This was mainly due to the willingness of the participants to allow an effective unfolding of the processes and rituals. These rites of passage demand quite a high collective effort in their preparation and practice and require shared planning and action. In addition to the often deeply moving personal processes in constellations and/or rituals, an intense and joyful bond developed within the group, which soon dissolved any passive consumerist behaviour. It also seems important to us that the rituals took us out into nature and connected us to the elements: fire, water, earth, stone, plants, air, night, stars etc. Even to us ‘Westerners’ this is empowering and nurturing and full of ritual symbolism that we can sense, understand and work with.
Structure of Collaboration
We explored various possibilities for integrating rituals and constellations during the first three gatherings. Initially we separated the rituals and constellations and left it up to the participants to recognize the potential for connection between the two approaches. This was sufficient for most people and the feedback was encouraging.
Our interest soon went to a more overt approach and exchange between the two approaches. We therefore structured the second gathering differently. We chose to constellate in small groups during the first half of the gathering and then brought Malidoma’s ritual practice into the second part. This allowed for a deeper and more empirical exchange between the facilitators and Malidoma, who was experiencing constellations for the first time. Following on from this experience we decided it was possible to combine constellations and rituals even further. For the third meeting we asked Malidoma to be present all the time and to observe the constellations. Together we developed a more open structure that allowed rituals and constellations to flow from one to the other. This manner of co-operation paid off and we stuck to it for the next gathering in 2008. During this 2008 gathering we also started developing smaller rituals for some participants or individuals. This turned out to be a very successful way of deepening and complementing constellations. Since that time, we can now say that rituals and constellations truly work together.
We are pleased that this experiment will continue in 2010 and we thank everyone who has contributed to making it happen. We are deeply grateful to Malidoma who was prepared to experiment and we thank all the spirits that stood by and supported us.
Baxa, Guni Leila (2001): Aufstellungen als Übergangsritual. In: Weber, Gunthard (Hrsg.) (2001): Derselbe Wind lässt viele Drachen steigen. Heidelberg (Carl Auer Systeme)
Essen, C., Baxa, G.L. (2001): Prozessorientierte Organisationsaufstellungen. In: Weber, Gunthard (Hrsg.) (2001): Praxis der Organisationsaufstellung. Heidelberg (Carl Auer Systeme)
Malidoma P. Some (1997): Vom Geist Afrikas. Das Leben eines afrikanischen Schamanen. Diederichs
English: Malidoma P. Some (1994) ‘Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Malidoma P. Somé (2001): Die Weisheit Afrikas. Diederichs English: Malidoma P. Some (1998) The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Note: This article has been translated from German by Helga Rachelle Fuerer and first appeared in Praxis der Systemaufstellung issue 2/2006 and was published in the “Knowing Field” issue June/ 2009.
Guni Leila Baxa
Guni holds a Ph.D. in psychology. She is a state certified psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer for systemic family therapy in Austria. During the past few years Guni’s emphasis has been in training professionals in constellation work throughout the world. She is a founding member of APSYS, Institut für Systemische Praxis, Aufstellungs- und Rekonstruktionsarbeit (Institute for Systemic Practice, Constellation and Reconstruction work) in Austria. Guni has published several articles on constellation work and with Christine Essen is co-author of the book ‘Verkörperungen’, (2001) which deals with the interconnection between constellations, bodywork and rituals.
In her work she aims at balancing body, heart and mind, for the unfolding of an entity, which encompasses all three dimensions.