Episode 57: Sobonfu Some – Part 3: The Essential Participation and Wisdom Gifts of Elders and Youth in Evolving Our Cultural Dialogue
“Thank you Duncan for all the ways that you are enabling people to share their wisdom, and also for holding the torch for everybody to know how to find their way, and for just having a golden heart. I just so appreciate you. It is always so great to talk to you and to see the bright light you always shine on so many different subject matters. So thank you.” - Sobonfu Some
“For all that you’ve done Sobonfu I just want to honor you and just thank you. It’s been such a pleasure just to get to know you. And what I really appreciate about you is your ability to feel the depth of all of this range of challenges and sorrow and isolation, and as you put it loneliness and boredom, that are part of our world and yet find this beautiful sunny brilliance of spirit and humor especially to share with the world as you have.” - Duncan Campbell
“Living Dialogues are transformative! The very best "interviews" you will ever hear. Duncan Campbell, a world-class 'interviewer,' is sufficiently fascinating and well educated himself that he would make a good subject for an interview. His talent is to first, choose the great thinkers with whom to dialogue. He is then able to somehow not only 'see' the brilliance in each one, but to bring that out in his fantastic dialogues, which are more like a cosmic dance than an interview. Blessings are the result of experiencing the Living Dialogues. I highly recommend them. Five Stars!” - May 12, 2008, Sunshiny from Clarksville, Arkansas
You can listen to and see the descriptions of Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-Part Dialogue on Programs 55 and 56 on this site.
The noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed: “For humanity to evolve, the conversation must deepen” – and, we might add, for our societies to flourish and even survive, the conversation must also broaden to include two groups often neglected and marginalized in our political culture: elders and youth.
As I said in Part 1 of my conversation with Sobonfu Some:
“We are all of us going through an initiation in the sense of being forced out of the comfort zone of whatever our particular literal, metaphorical, or mental “village” may be – just as you were Sobonfu in your life story. We are all now obliged to go out into a wider world, and learn another language or several other emotional languages, and to begin to weave a real planetary consciousness because it’s the only way we’re going to be whole. I think of dialogue as an essential element of this process. The dialogue between elders and youth in terms of age – and the dialogue between elder and younger cultures in terms of time on the planet. The dialogue between men and women, between ethnicities, between nations. Because everyone in this participation has a particular wisdom and a particular knowledge to give, including the younger cultures and the young people. Things are changing so fast on the planet that elder persons and cultures don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, no matter how long they have been on the planet. And so they themselves need this revitalizing connection with the younger ones who carry certain knowledge within them. And the young in turn need a certain kind of mentoring and embrace and respect in being seen by the elders -- and vice-versa -- in order to realize their full potential. So it’s such a beautiful but also very challenging initiation that we are being called to.”
In this Part 3, Sobonfu and I bring the larger story full circle in seeing with further perspective the essential roles that both youth and elders must play in our evolution for it to take place.
Other programs you will find of immediate interest on these themes are the Dialogues I have had with Michael Meade (Programs 48-51), Angeles Arrien (Program 52), and Coleman Barks (Programs 53-54), as well as Programs 13 and 14 with Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell (editor of The Enlightened Heart, which contains the Kabir poem The Swan which I mention in this Part 3 dialogue with Sobonfu).
Here are some excerpts from this Part 3:
Sobonfu: I really believe that in order to be able to change the way things are, if we want to make peace or live in peace in this world, we have to really begin with our children, our youth, and with our elders…So far I haven’t seen any culture survive without their children…and the same with the elders, because the elders are the grounding force in the community. We don’t actually ask enough of their input and yet they have much to share. We simply think of them as being old. But in our Dagara tradition, the word “old” means someone who has been cooked in the juice of life and has now this lasting effect…
So if we can begin to see in our elders someone who has wisdom, great ways to share that wisdom, then we won’t have to recreate the wheel of life all over. We can simply draw from their wisdom and continue to stand proudly on the shoulders of our ancestors in order to be able to bring our gifts in the best possible way. But until that happens, until our elders and our children, our youth, receive support and respect, we are always going to feel lost in the middle because no one is there to support us or to create a bridge for us to walk on…
Duncan: …Some of the things that have been fragmented, and “broken” in Alice Walker’s phrase, by the younger, modern culture we might see as a necessary ritualistic and initiatic breaking away from prior traditional concepts that became and have become too closed. In any kind of mystery of initiation there is a breaking away. There is a breaking down and a replacement with a new and different form. If we look at this from a planetary perspective we might say that the intensity of the individualism of theWest has itself become too closed and stuck, and so has in that very stuckness called forth teachers from the older cultures such as your own and such as yourself and others from many parts of the world, as well as new fresh perspectives from a younger generation, to come and work together in a kind of mutual weaving and mutual healing, becoming whole, and mutual co-creation of a new planetary wisdom culture…
We are working together to create a planetary culture by appreciating the history of our own and different cultures and sharing our stories. This is what I have sometimes called the “repository of lived wisdom”, the “deep memory and stories of the culture” that reside in true elders of whatever chronological age, and I have such appreciation for the gifts that you have given…I believe part of it from my own perspective is that we are all becoming planetary citizens…
It reminds me when I was traveling in the great ancient holy city of Varanasi in India, where one of the things I wanted to do was to make a personal pilgrimage to honor the connection and appreciation I felt with the great 15th century poet, Kabir, a weaver by trade who was both Hindu and Muslim and beyond both. My guide and I searched and searched until we found his effectively anonymous birthplace. It was marked by a tiny temple, next to a little “tank”, as they call it, a small pool of water constructed in the middle of an urban neighborhood with winding alleyways. There were twelve people gathered around the temple at sunset saying his poetry, and they invited me to share in our mutual appreciation of Kabir. I spoke a poem of his that had touched me deeply -- about the heart’s journey, symbolized by the flight of a swan, to its own true home (translated in its own pilgrimage from the original Hindi into English by Tagore, then into Polish by Czeslaw Milosz, then back into English by Milosz and Robert Hass). In return they said to me: “Yes, very good -- Kabir says ‘we are all pilgrims on this great earth’”. I think from any culture in any time period we are all pilgrims (the Canterbury Tales comes to mind), sharing our stories as we go along together through this heartfelt journey into and ceaselessly manifesting the beauty of the creation which is our common source.”
And that is precisely what we all do, in our mutual roles as host, deep listeners, and guests, when we gather together here from all parts of the globe in Living Dialogues.
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Sobonfu Some: Thank you for all the ways that you are enabling people to share the wisdom and also for holding the torch for everybody to know how to find their way and for just having a golden heart. I just so appreciate you.
Duncan Campbell: From time in memorial beginning with indigenous counsels and ancient wisdom traditions through the word of Western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo, and quantum physicist David Bohm mutually participatory dialogue has been see as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness evoking a flow of meaning, a dia flow of logos meaning beyond what any one individual can bring through alone. So join us now as together with you, the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in living dialogues.
I am your host Duncan Campbell welcoming you to “Living Dialogues”. For this particular dialogue I am again delighted to have as my guest Sobonfu Some , good personal friend and a brilliant spirit and author, praised by many people for her teachings around the country, around the world and also for her three books. One of which “The
Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships” we have spoke about at some length in a prior dialogue and her two other books “Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community” and “Falling out of Grace” which will be in a sense the topic of this particular dialogues.
So Sobonfu, again, it is just a real joy to have this time together.
Sobonfu Some: Oh thank you. It is such a joy to be back.
Duncan Campbell: Well, in a prior dialogue we did give people a kind of preview as it were of the main topics that you deal with in your book “Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community”. I just thought that I would introduce that topic again. We will speak of it at greater length now.
But introduce it, with a word from Angeles Arrian culturalologist and author of “The Four- Fold Way” whom we spoke about before, a great mutual friend of both of ours and known, I am sure, to many in our audience for her own wonderful teachings in this area. She says of your book Sobonfu that “Welcoming Spirit Home is an exceptional portrait of the power and beauty of rituals inherent function and importance in our daily lives. Sobonfu Some’s commitment to children and to community are vivid reminders of how these two essential components enhance and enrich the human spirit and ultimately ensure the sustainability of our future.”
In one of our prior dialogues we also talked about how in modern culture there is a focus we could say on older individuals rather than children. To some degree there is a focus on children. But really the main consuming public that- if you will- that is of interest to marketers in the consumer culture are people in their teens, and 20’s, and 30’s, who are the biggest spenders we might say.
So for the early part of life, children, and for the latter part of life, elders, really they share a common marginalization, if you will. You are bringing to the fore how important it is for us to renew our selves with really paying attention to and learning from children and community and how important community itself is. As you put it so beautifully, I thought, in saying it is community that keeps parents sane in the difficult challenge of creating an atmosphere in which children can both be themselves and experience a kind of freedom of expression and yet be contained within certain elements of discipline so they don’t inadvertently harm themselves.
Now that is an extraordinarily difficult and hugely important task in our culture that is not only sometimes underrated but also the parents aren’t given a great deal of support or guideline from the culture or the community in that great task.
Sobonfu Some: That is right. For the simple reason that I believe that people think that they should leave the details of raising the children to the parents. But really parents are just human beings. They can do their best. By my cultures standards if parents can do so much each person in a child’s life is like a world unto itself, so the more of them that help a child the more a child will benefit from that.
But unfortunately parents fail miserably because society- and let them down also- and as a result they end up feeling like failures. When, in fact, nobody is really supporting those people to go forth.
I really believe that in order for us to be able to change the way things are, if we want to begin to make peace or live in peace in this world we have to really begin with our children and with our elders. How can we be at peace when our children do not have adequate support in becoming adults?
So far I haven’t seen any culture survive without their children and so, obviously, children are our best asset so far. So I would like to see in this world, in my lifetime, a way of supporting parents in being able to bring children forward in the best possible way because when a child meets a man then this child can grow up to be a peaceful adult. But when a child grows up without having all the support that they need the trouble already starts to show before they even grow up.
Then we come up with terms like ADD to show that, in fact, we haven’t given them enough attention. That is why they are craving attention and so forth.
The same with the elders, because the elders are the grounding force in the community. We don’t actually ask enough of their input and yet they have much to share. We simply think of them as being old. But the word old in the Dagara tradition means someone who has been cooked in the juice of life and has now this lasting effect.
So if we can begin to see in our elders, someone who has wisdom, great ways to share that wisdom, then we won’t have to recreate the wheel of life all over. We can simply draw from their wisdom and continue to stand proudly on the shoulders of our ancestors in order to be able to bring our gifts in the best possible ways. But until that happens, until our elders and our children receive and support and respect we are always going to feel lossed in the middle because no one is there to support us or to create a bridge for us to walk on.
Duncan Campbell: In a prior dialogue you talked about creating bridges that were safe to walk on. In her introductory remarks that I quoted at the top of this dialogue from Angeles Arrian she talked about the important part that ritual plays in achieving these kinds of goals. So perhaps you could talk at this point Sobanfu about how this appreciation of children and appreciation of elders is achieved, in your background, in your Dagara tribe village in West Africa and how you see those kinds of insights could be brought into new modern contemporary rituals that we could create, inspired by that example, here in the west.
Sobonfu Some: In Africa there are hundreds of rituals honoring children and the elders. One of those is, for instance, this sharing that takes place between the old and young where they sit back to back basically transmitting information because the young people’s life is coming from the spirit world and they basically are bringing fresh news and the elders are getting ready to go back to the world of their ancestors and they know much about this world and they need to pass it down to the young person who is just coming. It is just like having two computers share information. That ritual happens with the elders and the young people any time they need to do that.
There is also, for instance, a yearly ritual done by the very young and the very old where the young people basically sing this song of praise to the elders and they run towards the elders who are sitting in a row. At the end they jump in and they are watching and they make the sound “Ah” which is a way of acknowledging that there is someone to hold them to ground them in this world. So that spiritual happens every year in order to renew and to strengthen the relationship between the young people and the elders in the community.
This ritual can really easily be done in the west also because there are a lot of elders who will benefit from the presence of the children, be it something as simple as taking children to visit elders in hospice or in the homes. That exchange is invaluable. You are also teaching the young person that to be an elder in a community is not something that is bad that it is something to look forward to because it is a place of prestige.
In my tribe when a woman becomes what we call a grace mother or as otherwise known here in the west as a clone, there is a whole ritual that goes around that where she is looked at as the water of life of the community- and the same for the men- because she has now gathered all this different water from all her life and from all the different path walks that she has taken and she is ready to give that to her community.
So as a result the people will go to her or to him for blessings and for wisdom and for guidance. This water that they will give you, this blessing that they will give you, this wisdom they will give you; is something valuable. Hence, the term water of life for the community and so forth.
So in a family gathering we can improvise this ritual. Rituals, by the way, are not just something that you do mindlessly. It is something that starts with an intention. It has a purpose. It is basically to the soul what physical food gives to our body. So to not have a ritual in one’s life is to basically live a fragmented life because rituals enable us to bring things together, to heal, to connect to our roots, and to plug our wired in the right place so communication and energy flow in the right way and so forth.
Duncan Campbell: Well, listening to you Sobonfu Some I can imagine that people may feel very inspired by what you are saying because it does ring so true. It has such a great resonance across time and space. Yet, in our modern society here it is often true that not only are the grandmothers and grandfathers not living in the same community as the children but I think it is now over 50% of parents in the west that are single parents. In other words a divorce has occurred and the child is being raised without even both the masculine and the feminine energy in the same household.
So given those demographic or sociological conditions in the West what have you been able to find as ways people in the west into these kinds of rituals and create them for themselves.
Sobonfu Some: Well in my last book “Falling Out of Grace” I talked about the fact that single parents are actually setting new standards that people who are married have forgotten or have taken for granted actually because the single parent has to work for times or more as hard as a couple who is married A) to find a ritual appropriate for a child and B) to be able to bring either the feminine or the masculine into the reality of this child that they are raising because if they do not try to create that community for the child the child basically will grow up not knowing what it is- if it is a girl that is being raised- to be around a man. Also to be in a relationship with a man and vice versa. The boy will grow up not knowing how to interact with women because they haven’t a clue. They haven’t seen their parents interact in the context of a relationship and so forth.
As a result the rituals that are needed for the parents are often it is a huge grief ritual that they have to go through first to get them clear of the emotion from the breaking up of their relationship and they are going to need an enormous amount of earth ritual to ground them so that they are not continually flying and not have their reality grounded. They are also going to need to bring different people for the naming of their child and for celebrating all the different traditions of the child’s life so that the legacy of the child is actually going to be fuller than it might be if they didn’t have rituals and community involved and so forth.
The same with girls. For people who take being in couples for granted and actually working on the different rituals because we need to make sure that the children get as many rituals in their life as possible. I am not saying to force it down their throat. But when appropriate to bring the rituals in so that the children feel valued and that they have a place in the community and so forth.
Duncan Campbell: I know a number of women such as Starhawk, for instance- who’s books are known to many in the audience- have initiated within the last two decades as part of the women’s movement or in conjunction with it a ritual when a young woman, a girl, is just having her menarche or beginning her menstrual period for the first time, instead of having to undergo that alone or without any connection to the mother or maybe just some kind of embarrassed or awkward discussion with her mother, they are creating community rituals where older women welcome in ritual ways the young girl into her womanhood. That is just being created here spontaneously inspired by some of these traditions.
Have you encountered that in your travels and teaching?
Sobonfu Some: Yes. In my tribe we definitely have many different rituals and the honoring of the menstruation is definitely important, just like being born is also an initiation, in fact the first initiation that we ever go through and where we need to be celebrated and welcomed into the world, going to naming rituals because in the Dagara tradition you are still in the spirit world until the age of five. After the age of five you are now developing to becoming more of a human being still having spirit of course.
At the same time your name that you had…You owned your name until the age of five. Then after the age of five now your name owns you. So there is another ritual acknowledging that phase. So when we are young women that first menstrual cycle you are taught to look forward to it. I clearly remember when I started my menstruation. I was so happy that I started to run away. I mean, the elders had to catch me and basically pin me down because I was so excited. I didn’t even give them the chance to do all the prayers and the blessings that they needed to do before introducing me to the community and so forth.
Also when you become married it is another celebration that happens when you become a mother and a father. There are rituals throughout all of the phases of your life from when you are born to the time when you go back to the land of the ancestors. There are all kinds of rituals that you do or that the community has to do for you. I mean, rituals that you do that might be personal rituals because there are different rituals. You know, community rituals when the people do the rituals communally or radical rituals, which as the names says are rituals that are very radical. Initiation is a radical ritual.
Those rituals are designed by the community on behalf of one individual or several individuals and so forth. The difference between any radical ritual and the other ritual is basically that radical rituals need the community presence and they need a welcoming to feel the experience of the person and so forth.
So as a result, when I teach out in the west I take into account all these different rituals. Sometimes you even find when you are doing rituals of young women who are just starting their menstruation, you realize that some of the adults are also at the crisis with their menses because they were taught that it was something dreadful, and it was negative, and you shouldn’t really be telling anyone that you had your menses. For me it is something that is positive. You need to celebrate. This is the time of the year between –well it is months apart- exists a lot of energy in your family and you just need to be celebrated. So just trying to share those views and a lot of women who have gone through their whole cycle and have now gone through menopause realizing that they never really celebrated. They just couldn’t wait to have their menses be over with.
So there is, again, a need to create a ritual of healing for those women. So ritual it is every day.
For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell