In the desert of the Kalahari, the people known as the !Kung regularly gather to tend their community by holding an all-night healing ritual. Sometimes the ritual is called because someone is ill or has suffered a loss. At other times, it is part of the ongoing maintenance of the people. At least four times a month, they gather to care for the needs of the people.
The ritual begins at dusk, when women gather around the fire and begin singing and rhythmically clapping. This signals to the men and other women that it is time to dance. Slowly, over the course of the night, the energy builds until one or more of the dancers are filled with the power of Num—the healing energy of the cosmos. Contact with the Num is intense, bordering on painful, and at times it is overwhelming. It is like kissing lightening. When the Num arrives, the dancer shakes, often falling to the ground in a state of intense excitation. Once contacted, the Num is transferred into those who are ill or grieving, and healing takes place. Those who risk contacting the Num don’t do so on their own behalf, but for the sake of the community as a whole. Everyone is touched and soothed, held and comforted. It is an intimate and soulful time. In the morning, after the ritual is complete, everyone feels happy, and the village is renewed. Their regular visit to the healing ground keeps them healthy in body, soul, and community.
The Navajo have a similar process. To the Navajo, healing is seen in the context of their particular vision of the world and cosmos; it is a ritual of restoring balance, a return to beauty, or hozho. Beauty is the central organizing principle in their culture—not economics, technology, or politics. It is through beauty that all relations are maintained, and it is when beauty is lost or forgotten that someone gets ill.
Healing is experienced within a defined set of rituals that includes extensive community participation and elaborate sand paintings depicting gods, places, and events specifically centered on the illness being treated. Chants tell the story of the paintings. Healing occurs as a result of the direct interaction of the gods in the images with the individual and the witnessing community.
Thus healing is a restorative process invoking beauty through ritual. The powerful presence of the family and community of the individual who is ill broadens the context of illness to include the entire village. This recognizes that everyone is impacted by the illness.
This is powerful medicine, as it frees the individual from having to carry the weight of the illness alone, which, as we have seen, is a major preoccupation of the Western mind.
Imagine the feeling of relief that would flood our whole being if we knew that when we were in the grip of sorrow or illness, our village would respond to our need. This would not be out of pity, but out of a realization that every one of us will take our turn at being ill, and we will need one another. The indigenous thought is when one of us is ill, all of us are ill. Taking this thought a little further, we see that healing is a matter, in great part, of having our connections to the community and the cosmos restored. This truth has been acknowledged in many studies. Our immune response is strengthened when we feel our connection with community. By regularly renewing the bonds of belonging, we support our ability to remain healthy and whole.
Nearly every indigenous culture has utilized ritual as a means of maintaining the health of the community, which has helped them endure for thousands of years. Ritual is a means of attuning ourselves with one another, to the land, and to the invisible worlds of spirit. Recovering this fundamental skill would help us better tend the needs of our soul and culture. For us to enter the healing ground, we need to become educated in the ways of ritual. It is a language that we have forgotten, but one that we are designed to understand and speak. We need to recover our ritual literacy.
Ritual offers us the two things required to fully let go of the grief we carry: containment and release. Containment offers the holding space for the ones in grief. It provides the safe place to fall, to descend into the depths of both the known and unknown layers of sorrow. I witnessed this beautifully during funeral rituals in Africa. For three days the community holds the bereaved within an elegant choreography of wailers, dancers, drummers, singers, witnesses, all focused on tending to their needs. This holding allows those deep in the throes of anguish to surrender completely to the requirements of grief. Nothing is held back; everything is thrown into the other world for the sake of the one who died. This is especially important, as it is their belief that the deceased cannot get to the land of the ancestors without a river of tears.
In the absence of this depth of community, the safe container is difficult to find. By default, we become the container ourselves, and when this happens, we cannot drop into the well of grief in which we can fully let go of the sorrows we carry. We recycle our grief, moving into it, and then pulling it back into our bodies unreleased. Frequently in my practice patients tell me that they often cry in private. I ask them whether, at some point in this process, they ever allow their grief to be witnessed and shared with others. There is usually a quick retort of “No, I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else.” When I push it a little further and ask them how it would feel if a friend came to them with his or her sorrows and pain, they respond that they would feel honored to sit with their friend and offer support. This disconnection between what we would offer others and what we feel we can ask for is extreme. We need to recover our right to ask for help in grief, otherwise it will continue to recycle perpetually. Grief has never been private; it has always been communal. Subconsciously, we are awaiting the presence of others, before we can feel safe enough to drop to our knees on the holy ground of sorrow.
Psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan uses the term intervulnerability to describe the need for this mutually held space. When asked about this idea in an interview, she replied,
When I say we are “intervulnerable,” I mean we suffer together, whether consciously or unconsciously. Albert Einstein called the idea of a separate self an “optical delusion of consciousness.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that we are all connected in an “inescapable web of mutuality.” There’s no way out, though we try to escape by armoring ourselves against pain and in the process diminishing our lives and our consciousness. But in our intervulnerability is our salvation, because awareness of the mutuality of suffering impels us to search for ways to heal the whole, rather than encase ourselves in a bubble of denial and impossible individualism. At this point in history, it seems that we will either destroy ourselves or find a way to build a sustainable life together.
Welcoming our sorrow eases the hardened places within us, allowing them to open and freeing us to once more feel our kinship with the living presence around us. This is deep activism, soul activism that actually encourages us to connect with the tears of the world. Grief keeps the heart flexible, fluid, and open to others. As such, it becomes a potent support for any other form of activism we may intend to take. I have worked with many people involved in social justice, ecological protection, and other forms of activism. I remember one man in his sixties who shared that he waked at five every morning with overwhelming feelings of dread for the world. His accumulated grief had become oppressive, weighing him down and strangling his ability to effectively address the issues with which he was concerned. After he attended a grief ritual that I offered in his hometown, he felt the weight lift from his heart. Our activism is directly connected to our heart’s ability to respond to the world. A congested heart, one burdened with unexpressed sorrow, cannot stay open to the world and, consequently, cannot be fully available for the healing work so needed at this time.
The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller, 2015, reprinted with permission by North Atlantic Books.