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Ritual and Community

An Interview with Michael Meade

A while ago, M.E.N. Magazine editor Bert Hoff and Seattle M.E.N. president Halim Dunsky went to Vashon Island to interview Michael Meade. Michael is one of the "elders" of the men's movements and author of Men and the Water of Life.(order on-line) In the last few years, Michael has been leading multicultural events involving inner-city youth. As the interview opens, we are in Michael's office, discussing a picture of some young men arrayed on a log. These are participants at one of Michael's recent workshops. They are giving their gang signs.

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Halim: Finding all those different signs coexisting on that log, there must be a story in that.

Michael: There's a definite story in it. When you see guys from two different Latino gangs in the same photo with three African-American gangs, for the West Coast, that's serious.
When they came to the event, they didn't even know what they were getting into or who they were going to be into it with. It took most of six days to bring this group together. They have found a harmony, not without some struggle.
There are a lot of sad stories in there, too. One guy got his first gun when he was 10 years old. He has reached the old age of 18, using the gun along the way. At that event, we had 48 young guys who have lived through things most older people haven't experienced. Most of them are coming out of war zones. When they talk, it's like being in a group of Vietnam veterans.
The youths in the picture are feeling a lot lighter than when they came in. What is not shown here is that the older guys left feeling very heavy. What happened is these young guys got to unload an incredible weight of grief and horror that they're very conscious of living with. The young guys unloaded their weight, which is proper and necessary, but the weight doesn't fall on the floor. It falls into whoever is paying attention or willing to accept it. A lot of men left there feeling very heavy. You could see the older men get depressed. Now the job is for those guys to get the weight off, and the primary mode is action.
Part of the ritual that we do involves shifting this weight. The weight that hits them is partially a weight of society, an inherited weight. It needs to be moved also in a social level. In other words, some of the action necessary has to be action in the cultural context. We had a meeting with the older guys to decide what to do. One thing that you cannot do with it is process it. A certain kind of processing needs to happen with it, but, more importantly, it needs to be moved. It needs to be moved through some kind of action.
So a lot of the older men who were involved made serious commitments. Some of the young guys are being somewhat financially supported by some of the older guys who were there, in order to give them some opportunities. A few have gotten into apprentice relationships. One of the other young guys apprenticed with an older man who was a woodcarver. Others went back to L.A. and formed a mentoring group. They are continuing to work with some of the young guys. Others send money.

Bert: I wonder if you're not raising something for us. We're a bunch of white middle-class males who gather in Wisdom Council, sitting around and telling stories. What you're suggesting is that it's not enough to sit around, hold the talking stick, and tell stories, that we need to move what we're doing into the community.

Michael: I think that sitting around, passing the stick, and telling stories builds a certain amount of trust and continuity. One of the big problems that I see in the modern world is fragmentation. People don't have a sense of continuity-in their own life or with regard to community. But then I think once there's continuity, there's a responsibility to try and help bring some continuity to people who otherwise aren't getting it. If there is a sense of some unity, it's good to test it in the rivers of chance, to see how much continuity is there, how much trust is there, how much really can be carried.
It's also a real test of all of the things that everybody's been trying to learn, in terms of personal growth and men working with men. These youth don't know one word of jargon. If you say something about a talking stick, they say, "Sticks don't talk. We know cop sticks, we know nightsticks, we don't know talkin' sticks. You mean that kinda talkin'?" They loved when I was telling the story of the Firebird, but they also began writing their own version called Ghettobird. Ghettobird is the slang for helicopter. They had to write a satire, because the bird that they see flying over is the police helicopter. They can make the connection by satire. By pointing out the dark or the shadow bird, they connect to the light bird. They're extremely clever, extremely bright. It's a really worthwhile challenge to bring this into their lives, but it's also an appropriate test of what everybody learns. I think this is true for most therapeutic practices. In other words, if it cannot be brought back to the real world, daily world, fragmented world we live in, it may be that it really isn't what it says it is.
When one of these guys starts telling you that from the age of 10 to the age of 18 he's been shooting people for his own survival, it changes one's sense of the story that we're telling each other. I had an absent father-and he has a father who was shot dead in front of his eyes. What that can do is adjust the lens of looking at one's own story.
I really feel strongly that the culture is allowing generations of undigested toxic material and waste and weight to drop continually onto the young, while everybody looks away. These guys know it, and they'll tell you. They had an evening where they told everybody. The theme was "what our lives are like." It was quite amazing.
The oldest man was 70. He was the elder of the event. He had done 41 years in Angola prison in Louisiana. He's in great shape. Anybody who can do that, I consider an elder. Everybody respected him. Then the rest of the group was a mixture of men of different races. In the adult men's group there were slightly more so-called white guys than men of color, whereas in the youth group it was mostly youth of color and a few younger white guys.
To continue our metaphor, a lot of the weight was being shifted from the youth of color onto the middle-aged white guys who have been doing a lot of these conferences and events. We challenged individual men to try to act like mentors and to see what it would be like to be an elder in this culture-not in some truly traditional culture, but in this fragmented culture.

Bert: We don't have any culture that says anything about what an elder is or how to be one. We're spending a lot of time complaining that we don't have elders.

Michael: I think the word "complaining" may be well-chosen, although I like it better when it becomes more like a lament. But there's another side to it, too. There's an old proverb, "Seeking makes the elder." A young guy might come up and say, "Here's my situation." They usually aren't very direct, but they start to give a sense of "I'm talking to you intimately." I think it's a responsibility to try and respond as an elder. That doesn't mean someone who knows more than them. Some of them know more than any of us do about certain things, that's for sure. Being an elder involves listening well enough to hear what it is that they want to discuss, and then taking the risk to encourage them or even advise them if they're open to that. I think it's worthwhile because you have a 50-50 chance of having a positive effect. So I say, why not?
Secondly, I feel that the elder is something both inside and outside, and that we have kind of coded information about being an elder. In a lot of the African-American communities you have men who are elders by the time they're 30. That suggests that being an elder is not exactly age-related-it's experience-related.
Even more than that, from a mythological point of view the elder also has a kind of mythic inheritance, a knowledge that resides inside people and can be awakened by the circumstances. What we don't have is traditional positions and clear roles and designations for elders, but that doesn't mean we don't have that inheritance residing in us.

Bert: I remember that when David Spangler was doing a seminar for us at the Chinook Learning Center, he gave us a homework assignment to view ourselves as angels giving a blessing. What it did was change the energy of every one of us in the group. We all saw that we had the power, by our presence, to simply give a blessing of energy to people. That strikes me as similar to the elder energy. Not that I have any superior knowledge, but I do have blessing-giving ability.

Michael: You can find yourself unexpectedly in the position of elder. At that point it might be the better thing to try it out, as opposed to avoid it. I've learned a couple of things that are important. One is that the capacity to give a blessing only resides where there is a capacity to give a curse. This is tricky, because people think of the blessing as simply the good part of things. But a blessing only has as much value as the curse that could be given in its place.
When you go seeking a blessing, you're usually afraid to go there. The fact is, they can not only withhold it, they can deliver a curse instead. In other words, the power associated with blessing is ambiguous until it is used. It can come out as a very negative thing or a very positive thing.
"Blessing" is connected to the French word blessure, which is connected to "wound," so where we want to get the blessing is where we are wounded.
In order to give a blessing, a person has to be aware of having received one. That's a big problem for a lot of us. I think anybody working with young people or anyone in trouble not only has to be aware of their own trouble and how they've learned to survive that, but also has to locate places where they've felt whole, healthy, held, and blessed. Those can be much smaller things than most people think, but remembering them can make them bigger. The power to bless resides in us, but we just have not been educated, or given the opportunity, to feel it. But I find these little pockets that at the time I either wasn't completely aware of or didn't have enough expansion of self to be able to hold fully. I've found you can go back and open them up a little bit and say that I did receive that little blessing, and now I'm going to milk it for all it's worth.
When you get into the kind of cynical down-pull that's hitting a lot of the youth in the culture, pulling them into depression, cynicism and violence, you need some islands of security, peace and self-awareness to visit inside yourself. You have to awaken parts of yourself that are fairly sure that the world has its beauty and has its own mysterious purposes. In order to work with young men, there needs to be a team of positive-related, older gang members who can support each other. It's not the kind of work someone does by himself.

Halim: You're showing us that one of the advantages of being with men in a community, in a ritual setting, is that that work embodies a kind of transaction among men that we can take and translate into working with the society, in contrast to the kind of personal, individual work you might do with a therapist.

Michael: Clearly, some of the work everybody's had to do is go back and deal with their own childhood. It's severe and painful, but it has to be done. That revolves primarily around family and the sense of self, the sense of the little self growing in the milieu of family. But then there also comes a time to turn the other way, away from birth towards death. Going back to blessings and elders, the elders are the ones who are aware of death, who have accepted the fact that they are going to die. As they say, life is fatal.
When you turn the other way, now you're looking at death. The context is not family but community. It's not so much about the little self growing as it is the presence of the elder growing, more like some deeply encoded memories are beginning to grow. The bones are full-sized, the body's grown, now the next growth is not about the body or about the taking of small steps, it's about deepening the sense of self and awakening the bones of the elder in the context of community.

Bert: Martín Prechtel reminds us that there isn't just one initiation, in order to become a warrior. There's a second initiation where you can now have a family, then a whole other series of initiations. But what struck me was that he also said that everybody was expected to be the village elder or the mayor for a year, and do nothing but give in that community for a year.

Michael: So everybody eventually gets around to having a position of authority. The issue of authority is like an impacted tooth in the culture. I think people often don't have a full sense of what the word means. It's closer to the word "author" than it is to "functionally dominant person."
It has to do with feeling authorized. It gets close to the idea of blessing that you brought up earlier, Bert. The source of the authority of an elder is something that awakens within. Some authority that rises from within the self or core of a person, but also is born out of experiences. It has to do with the authentic sense of self. This is very different from how we usually think of authority, as something that is given down, or coming from outside only. It's the opposite. It's worth looking at that, because young people tend to react to that. They tend to sense it, and be able to see it. And they like it.

Halim: James Hillman talks about authority in his book, Kinds of Power.

Michael: He talks about authority in there, as well as other forms of power. This goes back to a conversation we've had for years. One of the big problems is people seeing "power" as a singular thing. As soon as it's made singular, first of all it's monumental, second of all, everybody thinks someone else has it. But when you start to look at different kinds of powers, it becomes a very different thing. This again goes back to the image of the elder as someone who is drawing authenticity and courage from the roots of his own life.
I also see the elders not so much being in an ongoing position but as having emerging occasions where they act like elders. Certain elders have different powers. Some are going to carry authority. Others won't have much authority, but they will have a tremendous capacity to open ears of healing through sympathy. People need to see sympathy as a power, not as an absence of power.

Bert: One of James Hillman's messages is that everybody has some form of power, and needn't worry about somebody else having power.

Michael: Ivan Illich said that when they write the anthropology of the 20th century, it's going to be the anthropology of envy. Everybody thinks that someone else has it. Which really just means that we're each pretty sure we don't have it. This raises an issue that I hear all the time at events. People say, "I don't feel authentic." There are two sides to that. First, there's the feeling of authenticity that arises in a person, and the need to have it recognized and blessed by a respectable outside authority or source.

Halim: And we're in short supply of those in this fragmented culture.

Michael: Exactly. Ritual is one of the few ways to reawaken all that stuff. Since it's not so much based on language, it's harder for it to become fragmented. It's based more on gesture, and more on involvement with elemental aspects of life, so it can be more clear. It tends to speak more directly to the body, engage the soul, and attract the spirit. And then of course, the intellect objects. That's the biggest difficulty in any type of ritual, the willingness to submit. And yet, without this kind of bowing of the intellectual head, the benefit doesn't accrue.

Halim: Power is shared in a small leaderless men's group, where they're all in there as equals, sharing the load for each other, and taking turns. It can have a very deep ritual dimension if the men are so minded.

Michael: I like the idea that the leadership moves around rather than that there isn't any. If there isn't any, no one's going to do anything. Nobody is there to say that if you start to fall too far, we're going to pull you back, or if something dangerous happens, we're going to protect or support you. A lot of tribal cultures were set up so that in the ritual cycles, the responsibility moved. You were always going to someone else's ritual. If you're holding one of those positions, it's very important to learn to get on and off the seat. In this culture we get the cult of personality, and people identify the person with the seat. That's very dangerous.
You take the seat because you want to see it happen, and sometimes you take the seat because your desperation to see it happen just happens to be a little bit more intense than other people's. You might have a little bit more experience, but mostly you have a more desperate need to see it in flow.
Everybody thinks the various seats of authority and power are exciting. Then you get your envy issues. In Africa they say, "Oh, you want to find the chief? Look for the dungheap. Everyone throws their garbage where the chief is." Or they say that if you're going to sit on the chief's seat, you had better have a thick shirt. What they mean is that the arrows are coming. They often say to make the back double-thick. After a while you realize that there's a learning in it, because all of those things remind everybody that it's not the person, it's the seat that is important, because it allows people to do things.
At events, people want to challenge authority. That's a tremendous opportunity, I think, to look at what's actually going on and to get past the simple idea of person-to look at the seat, or the dynamic setup. If it isn't clear that someone's going to guide and protect you, and that they have some commitment and experience to bring to that, then no one's going to risk going into deep water. What you get is a little splashing of the surface of the water, and everybody says, "Oh wow, look at what we did, we got a little water on our shirt." That's not the same as going-boom-all the way to the bottom and feeling the force in deep water and then actually going through a change. Then coming back and then having to reorient by the fact that people are still in the seats that you allowed them to take. If people are serious about change, the continuity has to be established somewhere and preserved while they change. That creates a different view of authority and position.

Bert: What is it that you and Malidoma Somé are trying to do when you do a workshop like the one you did up here recently?

Michael: We're trying to do a number of things. We have a mutual interest in initiation. Malidoma comes from one of the last old-style initiations in west Africa. He's coming out of an initiation that no longer makes sense in its own culture, and I feel I'm coming from a culture that has no sense of initiation. We had a number of conversations that led to ritual events that we've done.
One ritual has to do with change. In Western culture, everything is in constant alteration and change. But philosophically, Western culture still tends to deny change. People spend a lot of time trying to establish that they're the same person all the time. Tribal culture is always trying to throw up the fact that everything has changed. It changed because the cycle moved, or the wind blew, or someone's ancestor showed up, or someone died. Malidoma and I are attempting to find ways to consciously engage change in a culture that tries to block change. When I say change, I mean deep altering of the entire person.
Almost everybody in this culture, except for a very few, is on someone else's land. One of the oldest ideas is that place has meaning, that place emanates. There is force, energy and spirit that comes from place. When people over a long period of time bury their dead, and then walk on that place, they stay connected to that. When you move a whole bunch of people out of that connection, then people get very afraid. They're in such a period of uncertainty and lack of continuity that change seems nothing but threatening.

Halim: Do you see that in the West as something that derives from the monotheistic tradition and the Judeo-Christian idea of a soul?

Michael: I think it's tied to the whole monolingual, mono-color, mono-mind thing that comes, not just from positing one God, but from trying to keep that God in one place all the time. There's that old argument that says so-called primitive cultures didn't even get far enough to have a single god. Another way of looking at it is to say that they saw the one entity of things, but realized it was awfully hard to deal with. You deal with it by allowing it to break up into many different dimensions, deities and spirits. That way allows a lot more flux and flow. We can feel and experience a lot more change.
Cultures that did initiation based it on change-the understanding of change and the capacity to move with change. The Chinese call this the Tao, which means the Way, but it also means the Wave. It means that things are in flux. Right now, we are in one of the biggest changes that anyone could be involved in. I call it "the Shedding." We're shedding species, we're shedding cultural boundaries, we're shedding national boundaries, we're shedding concepts of what it is to be in one gender versus another gender, we're shedding incredible amounts of things. In that, of course, you want fixed points of continuity. But it's necessary to learn to move with change, and learn what change means.

Bert: You might think that we are transforming ourselves, or furthering ourselves along a stage of evolution. But now I'm beginning to feel a little bit more isolated in that experience, because the conservative agenda is looking for a return to traditional values. It almost seems like that effort that I was feeling years ago, "we're moving toward change," is mired down in "we're not going to change anything, we're going to go backwards instead."

Michael: Well, that's partially connected to the idea that change is evolution, or that it's automatically progressive. Change has a much greater flux than that. It can go in any direction. It's based on a nonlinear concept. You also get into chaos theory, which to me sounds a lot like ritual theory. One of the beliefs in chaos theory is that what starts out in chaos has a deep underlying order that's not evident. When that order comes out, it's going to be strong and continue for a long time. What starts out in order, especially if it's a formulated or a forced order, will end in chaos, and will completely collapse.
Ritual gets approached similarly. The thing that Malidoma brings from his very ancient culture, and that we've been working on translating to contemporary America, is what I call "emerging" ritual or "arising" ritual. You start out with certain simple elemental things, and the actual ritual is formed out of what happens on that occasion. The core of how the ritual goes depends on the interaction of the people, the presence of whatever spirits happen to show up, and what people would call accidents or the unpredictable.
That's the opposite of what you're concerned about, the return of fixed tradition that has lost its own understanding. That's what I call "descending" ritual, so that you get the return of the Ten Commandments, fixed in stone, coming from the mountaintop, and everybody just has to cower and return to their cubbyholes.
Ritual is different from fixed ceremony, which is really a form of continuity. When Americans salute the flag, I call it a fixed ceremony, to remind everybody that we are here now. We can make this simple gesture, hand over the heart or hand to the head, together. The idea of a fixed ceremony is to create continuity. Everybody needs a certain amount of that. Families do it all the time. People meet and greet in simple gestures that reinforce the sense of continuity.
The problem, though, is that to be part of change, and allow the effects of change, you need to brush up against the unknown. This means moral uncertainty. It also requires what I call contact with the Other, the inner-other-underworld, everything that isn't obvious. Ritual occurs when the presence of the Other is felt. That's not an experience of normal continuity, that's an experience of the vibrations of the Other.
One of the things I've learned is that a good ritual needs a big talking up beforehand. The conversation is very important. Because if the Other is going to be approached, you have to hear what other people think about the Other. That's the beginning of loosening one's imagination and one's mind.
Then, of course, there's talking after the ritual, especially in tribal culture. Did you see so-and-so? What did you think that was about when that thing fell? Sometimes something falls in the midst of the ritual. You have many reactions to that falling. You have different imaginations and different feelings. Those conversations begin to be the conversation with and about the Other in the community.
Malidoma and I were on the phone this morning, discussing a very tiny part of a ritual that happened just over two weeks ago. In the midst of that conversation, we suddenly opened up to something that had happened back in England in June. This helped explain something that happened in California in August. You start to get the sense of what it would be like to be in a community that found its continuity, not just in a social environment, but also its continuity with the Other through constant contact with ritual. All of a sudden you realize how much more mystery could be touched, because it becomes more present, because you have shared context to refer to.

Bert: Now you're talking about myth as involving shared cultural symbols for the Other and the mystery.

Michael: Myth and symbol are parts of a continuous conversation. One of the connections of ritual to myth is that they're both open, to use Mircea Eliade's words, to the eternal, the timeless. That's where their great powers come from. They open and connect back to the ancestors. What has happened to me many times is that I tried this little thing in a ritual. I wasn't sure if that was the right thing or not, but I did it. Then three months later I'll read some anthropology and find out about a tribe that does exactly the same thing. That reinforces the sense that we carry pieces of this history in ourselves, which can be awakened by the serious attempt to do it.
Both myth and ritual open to the eternal. This allows people to bathe in deep waters of continuity. Some of the fragmentation that people suffer in modern life can be bathed in this wash of timeless gestures and symbols that no one has ever understood, but that everybody has felt much appreciation just to be near.
I'm feeling more and more encouraged. When these young guys who are in the different turmoils of the world can feel some gesture or opportunity that can take away the painful separation often expressed by gang gestures, and get into a bigger gesture, they will not miss that opportunity. They are very smart about it. A number of groups are now doing Native American-type sweats with gang kids, and nothing is explained. It's not an exchange of information, it's just a ritual process, and they get it.
We did a mud earth immersion, which comes from west Africa, with some young gang guys. Basically, your whole body goes into mud. The underlying idea is that what is toxic in people is nourishment to the earth. It's a very old idea. One of the biggest cleansing forces is the earth itself. The idea is connected to the idea that we exhale carbon dioxide, and the trees take that in and convert it to oxygen and give it back. The trees are not harmed by our exhaling; they're actually nourished by that exchange. Toxic emotional and even mental turmoil that people have turns out to be nourishment to the earth. The earth will drain it right out of the body, and will return a sense of peace, security and stability. When we've done it with young gang guys, they've seen the opportunity as tremendous-I've never heard such intense confessionals in my life.
At another event, a group of white men had taken on youths' burdens. Immediately, all of the white guys were depressed. We did a ritual to pour the almost inexpressible feelings into the earth. We actually made a hole and poured it in. Some men wept, some shouted, some had words, some had sounds, and some had tears. It all went into the earth. The immediate result was that the men were buoyant. Humor came back. Very lively memories came back.
What Malidoma and I are trying to do is translate elemental ritual into contemporary context. One of the beauties of west African rituals is that they deal with the elements-the earth, water and trees-so that it travels well, and it can be reinterpreted to some degree in the next spot it winds up in.

Halim: One of the things you do is to hold conflict hour at some point before the ritual, in order to help the men open up in some way.

Michael: We all carry so much incredible conflict. First of all, at an elemental level, a culture that doesn't have a shared mythology puts us in conflict with each other more than I think most people would admit. A shared mythology allows certain symbols to be present, and people connect through the symbols. That allows people to share more intimacy, I think, and to also have periods where they don't feel conflicted. Modern cultures don't have that, and it's hard for people to realize how much unexpressed conflict we carry.
Another angle is to think about how few jobs there are where you can go home after your day's work and say you're doing something good, something meaningful. Not having that builds up a really intense conflict inside a person-between the unspoken purpose of their life and the increasingly meaningless tasks that people do.
When people come together, if there's any seriousness at all, conflict is present. Any group of people that has spent 24 hours together has already touched the conflict. They bring the conflict in with them. If there isn't some attempt to do something about it, then it's going to explode at the wrong time, or choose its own time. One thing I've learned is to invite the conflict. While everybody's talking nicely to each other, the conflicts are meeting each other somewhere below their conversation.
It's good to know what the conflicts are. That changes all the time. In one event, the conflict's going to be racial, in another event the conflict's going to be about power, or gender, or two people actually have a history of conflict with each other.
There are several reasons to go into that consciously. One is that if the conflict is expressed, no one dies. Then everybody feels an innate sense of safety. There is an increase of trust and safety without ever having to address safety and trust. That's a real accomplishment.
Another reason is that we are a culture that has no conflict rituals. What American culture does is deny the conflict. Then it explodes into violence. So this is automatically a small healing of the cultural problem. Another reason is that going through a conflict heats everything up. The psyche gets hot, and heat is necessary for change. The group finds out that it's carrying heat, and it can carry heat. That allows everybody to go forward. I know you've seen occasions where the conflict wasn't expressed enough, and everything that comes afterwards is kind of lukewarm.
In some cases, all that's needed is a clearing ritual, which is not direct, expressed conflict, but where everybody clears out what they need to clear out. But often it's necessary to really get into pretty deeply involved conflict. Just to give an example, at one workshop people were clearing out very simple things. No one wanted to make a mess. All of a sudden, one guy from India stood up and said, "I've got to clear something with you." He points at this white guy and says, "You made a joke that I must have been working outside all day 'cause I came back brown. I've been hearing these jokes my entire life. I've actually meditated not to react, but I can't go into this ritual carrying this, so I'm going to let it out." What he let out was 22 years of unexpressed rage at being mistreated. What started out as a simple clearing exercise wound up in this roar coming out of this young guy who had held it back for a long time. It was very intense. When it was over, everybody was clear and ready to go on.

You can find out more about Michael's work or the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation by calling (206) 463-9387 or sending e-mail to:

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