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The Sacred Alchemy of Lament

Updated: Jul 16, 2023


many tea light candles buring in the darkness

Events in the world and in this nation often leave me angry and heart-broken. In this short excerpt adapted from my book-in-progress, I talk about how when we come together in community, in collective lament, we can enter through the portal of grief to evoke the spiritual alchemy of healing and transformation. From that place of connection with one another and with the Larger Life that holds us all, we can take action. Here, I tell the story of a powerful public ritual held in Oakland for MLK Day in January, 2019. (Perhaps some of you reading this were there?) Below the post is a moving short film, “between star shine and clay,” documenting the event and the work of the organization Lead to Life. I hope you will give yourself the time and space to enter into it as medicine for the soul of us all. * * *

Sobonfu Somé was a spiritual teacher and author from the Dagara people of Burkina Faso who regularly led healing retreats and workshops on grief in the US. Among the Dagara, she explained, pain is not personal — the whole community helps to bear the suffering, and the grieving person is surrounded with care and loving support. She wrote, "Hanging on to old pain just makes it grow until it smothers our creativity, our joy, and our ability to connect with others. It may even kill us. Often my community uses grief rituals to heal wounds and open us to spirit’s call, because there is a price in not expressing one’s grief. Unexpressed hurt and pain injure our souls." [1] She affirmed that communal grieving offers validation, acknowledgment and witness, and is thus healing and freeing for all.


Through the communal expression and shared witness of grief, public lament can serve as an antidote to isolation and complacency, catalyzing a commitment to work for change. And lament can be a potent ritual of catharsis in both healing and social justice activism.


We need to grieve the harms, losses, suffering, and pain that we and others have endured — individually and collectively. To create supportive spaces to honor the wounds, listen to their stories, cry their tears, and release their fury. Only then can we integrate their wisdom. Only then is the energy that has been bound up in our places of accumulated trauma, the energy required to suppress the grief and numb our pain, or to stifle our rage, made fully available to living. I find that we too often want to skip steps in the healing process, to leap-frog over pain, grief and lament, to focus instead on action. This is understandable, of course, but for both individuals and communities there is liberation in lament, healing in presence, and in being witnessed and held.


On January 21, 2019 I joined more than 500 people on the plaza in front of Oakland's City Hall for a ritual of collective lament and re-imagination, literally melting down guns and recasting the molten metal into stars. Every year the Anti Police-Terror Project holds events and actions honoring the Radical Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2019 these culminated in a sunset ceremony offered in partnership with Lead to Life, an organization "bridging racial and environmental justice through ceremony and art." They call their work "a people’s alchemy for regeneration” transforming trauma and violence into life and freedom. For this event, they created a large altar to establish sacred space at the center of the plaza amphitheater. The gathering honored those lost to gun violence and police murders, inviting their family members to offer several ceremonially washed handguns to a 3000-degree furnace — transmuting grief with the power of fire, poetry, dance, drumming, song, and prayer — and moving the collective energy forward toward prophetic action for justice.


We watched as the glowing liquid metal was poured into the molds for stars, mirroring the constellations visible the night Oscar Grant was killed by Oakland transit police, ten years prior. It was one of the most moving public rituals I have ever experienced. The stars were later to be returned to the Earth, planted at sites impacted by legacies of racial violence and environmental desecration. The Elements that had been so misused by being cast into instruments of murder, now given back to the soil in reverent beauty. Lead to Life co-founder brontë velez explains, "Everything is possible ... in ceremony, because you can metabolize grief, you can metabolize healing, you can metabolize learning. Because people are present and deciding we are gathering to shift something together." [2]


As we allow ourselves to feel the pain of our wounds, as we come together in communal lament, may our hearts be not only broken, but broken open. Broken-open to new possibilities, broken-open to reveal more courage, more creativity, more understanding, more love. I think of our broken-open hearts like the hard shell of a seed that splits apart to allow the emergence of roots, leaves, and the flowering expansion of Life. That, to me, is what the "open" vs merely "broken" signifies: a heart that is vital and growing, rather than one that remains encased in its brittle protective shell.


The events of the world provide a constant opportunity to have our hearts broken-open: in response to atrocity, yes, but also in awe of the beauty. The invitation (and the challenge) is to stay present to all of it, to allow our hearts to be as wide as the cosmos. If we look around, and all we see is suffering and evil and pain, we’re not paying attention. But if all we see is sweetness and happiness, then we’re also not paying attention. It’s through the spiritual discipline of remaining awake to it all, of inhabiting the both-and rather than the either-or, that our hearts are most expansive and alive. This aliveness is what sustains us through times of upheaval, and nourishes our work for healing and justice.


“between star shine and clay” is a moving short film by Lead to Life about this ritual work.


***

[1] Sobonfu Some, “Embracing Grief.” http://www.sobonfu.com/articles/writings-by-sobonfu-2/embracing-grief/ (accessed 5.27.21)


[2] Quote from the short film “Serotiny: The Story of Lead to Life” https://vimeo.com/278336825 (accessed 9.7.21). For more: https://www.leadtolife.org/lead-to-life-oakland-2019 and https://www.antipoliceterrorproject.org/


Photo of many tea light candles burning in the darkness by Mike Labrum on UnSplash.

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