April 30, 2024

Francis Weller – Grieving in Community

Thomas is joined by Francis Weller, MFT – a psychotherapist, soul activist, and author of the bestselling, The Wild Edge of Sorrow. They discuss the need to return to a communal, ritual model of witnessing and processing grief.

Francis explains that grief requires two things: containment, and release, and he shares how a structured grief ritual creates a supportive space where grief can be honored, held, and digested. Francis calls this the “village mind” – a communal field that invites us to let go of our individualistic notions about healing. In this context, we can be reminded of our interconnectedness, opened to transmissions from our ancestors, and more receptive to intuition and creativity.

Francis invites us to see our collective crises as an initiation and grief as a reminder of the depth of our love. By understanding generational trauma, and slowing down to engage in communal practices, we can face these dark times with the courage and creativity needed to step into a radically new world.

Share this:

Listen Now

“Grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s a presence awaiting witnessing.”

- Francis Weller

Guest Information

Francis Weller

Francis Weller is a psychotherapist, writer, and soul activist. He is a master of synthesizing diverse streams of thought from psychology, anthropology, mythology, alchemy, indigenous cultures, and poetic traditions. He is the author of the bestselling, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief; The Threshold Between Loss and Revelation, (with Rashani Réa) and In the Absence of the Ordinary: Essays in a Time of Uncertainty. He has introduced the healing work of ritual to thousands of people.

For forty-one years Francis has worked as a psychotherapist and developed a style he calls soul-centered psychotherapy. As a gifted therapist and teacher, he has been described as a jazz artist, improvising, and moving fluidly in and out of deep emotional territories with groups and individuals, bringing imagination and attention to places often held with judgment and shame.

His writings have appeared in anthologies and journals exploring the confluence between psyche, nature, and culture, including The Sun magazine, the Utne Reader, Kosmos Journal, and Ruminate. Francis is currently on staff at Commonweal Cancer Help Program, co-leading their week-long retreats. He is currently completing his fourth book; Facing the World with Soul and Why It Matters.

Learn more at francisweller.net.

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • How the grief from generational trauma is still migrating and affecting our lives
  • Seeing grief as an invitation to a soul discovery that deepens our sense of time
  • How the soul is drawn to ritual, beauty, imagination, and creativity
  • Working with the trans-generational transmission of trauma, but also the trans-generational transmission of courage, resilience, and love
  • How grief reminds us that love and loss are entwined
  • The rough initiation that the world is undergoing and how we can learn to navigate it

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome to the Point Of Relation. My name is Thomas Hübl. This is my podcast and I have the honor to be sitting here with Francis Weller. Francis, welcome to our podcast.

Francis Weller: Thank you, Thomas. It’s a delight to be here with you.

Thomas: Yeah, likewise. We were in the same online course together, just in parallel, but we didn’t get a chance to meet. So this is our first time to really connect here.

Francis: Likewise.

Thomas: And so I’m very happy to meet you, and I’m very happy to learn from you and your universe and what you’re passionate about right now.

Francis: Thank you.

Thomas: So I’m curious, how did grief and grieving become central in your work? I mean, what pulled you or what’s the revelation in grief work that attracted you? And then maybe we branch out from there, but let’s talk a little bit about why grief?

Francis: Yeah. Well, I often say, I didn’t volunteer for the position. It was kind of a claiming. I mean, partly from my own personal history, the losses in my life, but also being a therapist for 41 years, almost every issue is tainted or saturated, we should say, with grief. I mean, whether it’s childhood traumas or death of someone you love or ending of a marriage. I mean, there’s very few items that come in the room that are not really at core rooted in grief. So you either become very skillful at that or you keep trying to teach people how to avoid that. And people come in oftentimes complaining of depression. And as you sit with them for any length of time, it’s not depression, it’s oppression. It’s undigested grief, typically generations old, right?

I mean, you’ve done a lot of work with generational trauma, and that grief is still migrating. It still feels very much a part of our daily life. And without a language for that, without a way of understanding that, you just feel and you call it clinically depressed, but there’s no imagination in that language. There’s no invitation to a soul discovery or a deepening or a ripening that comes when you really listen to what grief is asking from us, which is a deepening time. I often say that there is no ripening, there’s no maturation without a prolonged apprenticeship with sorrow and letting it do its deep work on us. But also in turn, our doing our deep work with grief. It’s both.

So yeah, for the long time and then in the ’90s, I began training in ritual process. And you begin to see the incredible absence of meaningful practices, because grief, as far as I understand, it has always been a communal process. And suddenly, it’s very private and you go to a private practice to talk about your grief. But what the soul is expecting and anticipating, and I think it’s at the core of our grief, is the absence of communal practices, where we can be together side by side.

So we have people coming to our Grief Rituals from all over the world, from Australia and Europe and Canada and all across the United States. And it’s wonderful that they come, but that’s a symptom that is at the heart of our grief, is this profound amnesia. How much we’ve forgotten about how to be human beings and what human beings need from one another in the process of engaging and metabolizing sorrow, and that’s always been a communal context. So that’s become a lot of my work over the past 25, 30 years is reanimating the communal context of grief work.

Thomas: I love that. I love that, because also given my work, I very much believe in these collective spaces to collective healing spaces. Can you speak about Grief Rituals? Can you explain for us a little bit what can we imagine? How do Grief Rituals look like? What are the ingredients of a Grief Ritual that people come from all over the world?

Francis: Yes. Well, they can vary. I mean, the principle elements are a village ground and a healing ground. We usually spend three days. Particularly for white Western people, our grief is so tight and so heart-packed that it takes us several days to loosen up that soil, to the point where we can actually begin to express it communally. So we work with writing practice and singing and movement all for that purpose of trying to loosen that ground. And we’re aiming toward a process usually late Saturday, early Sunday, where we create this extraordinarily beautiful grief shrine with images of ancestors, animals, and things that have left the planet.

Anything that you’re grieving is on that shrine. And we begin by creating a central shrine around which all of our communal work goes. And then we migrate all of this material down to this grief shrine as a way of activating it, and signifying to the other world that we are coming with our cargo of sorrow. And in many traditions, grief is food for the ancestors. So we want to feast them well by the time we get there.

The beautiful thing about the Grief Ritual that I am so attached to is the feeling of kind of repairing to the tear and the suture of our belonging. When we grieve together side by side, something in the psyche recognizes this is what I’ve been waiting for, this is what I’ve been longing for. And in its absence, I’ve kind of felt empty and somehow, it was my fault that I didn’t have this context for this work. So in the ritual space, there’s usually 10 to 15 people up there at a time grieving, and right behind them is a wall of what we call, the containers.

They’re there to witness the work being done at the shrine. They don’t do anything, they don’t interact, they don’t talk. But if the griever wants hands on their body, to be held, they give them what they can give them to help them take another couple inches into that well, into the depth of their grief. And then, they come back to the village, and here’s something truly magical, Thomas. You’re thanked for your grieving, your whisper. The village surrounds you and hugs you and says, “Thank you for doing that. You emptied our communal cup.”

So we think our grief is private, we think it’s mine. And you begin to realize, in the process of grieving together, this is our sorrow, this is our grief. And even if I didn’t grieve today, because it’s hard to do that on demand, I could support somebody else grieving. And by the time we left there, we would say, “We wept, the village wept.” And I leave feeling different even if I didn’t shed a single tear, because I also know full well that the next time, I will be the one on my knees and you’ll be there supporting me. And you can go back and forth through the shrine as many times as you want in this ritual. And they usually last three, three and a half, four hours.

So that’s kind of the exquisite choreography of that. But there could also be three or four people in a room, just telling the truth of what’s in their heart. That can be a Grief Ritual. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be exceedingly simple. But as long as we follow some agreements about not trying to fix a damn thing, grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s a presence awaiting witnessing. It needs to be witnessed. It needs to be honored and held by others. So yeah, as long as we agree to just allow the movement and the flow of sorrow without fixing anything, we’re in ritual together. And our grief needs ritual space. It needs that containment field.

I wrote about in my book The Wild Edge Of Sorrow, that grief requires two things. It needs containment and release. But if I’m working by myself, I’m caught doing both jobs. And you can’t do both. You’re either going to become a permanent containment field for grief, which is what I think most of us do. We just recycle the same stories, the same sorrows, and never have the chance to set it down, because the containment field hasn’t been provided. So that’s what our job there is to provide adequate containment, so the work of grieving can be the single focus of the individual and the community.

Thomas: That’s very beautiful. And it’s also, it strikes me that when I listen to you, then I hear the poetry of your words, and that’s really beautiful. There’s something, there’s a liquidity or a poetry to your language, which touches me. When I listen to you, it pulls me in and it’s very nourishing. So I can see this also being part of what do you facilitate, that it opens some channels through the language, the quality of your language. It’s beautiful. So thank you.

Francis: Thank you, Thomas. Thank you.

Thomas: When you develop a container, because I think containers or a container or a vessel for a process is an important aspect. So maybe you can share a little bit, what are principles of creating a container for a certain process?

Francis: Well, we begin typically with singing as a way of creating harmonics within the field, ’cause they come on a Friday afternoon, they’re typically a group of strangers. They don’t know each other, and they’re all there with this intention of doing this work of grief. But how do you do that with a group of strangers? So we bypass a lot of the narratives by going in to song, to harmonies. And you begin to create a resonance signature, which I know is a very important part of your work, as how do we create these atmospheres of coherence, where we begin to feel like we’re inside of something and not just kind of operating solo.

So we begin with that. They begin to bring their stories into the circle, and I’ll say something about village mind. That we’re here, we are in what we call a sudden village. You may not have known each other, but by the time you leave here, you’ll feel that’s my brother, that’s my sister, that’s my other. We are here together. I know you. Maybe I don’t know your history, but I know the way you are with sorrow. And that creates a depth of trust that I just find exquisite.

So I talk about village mind, that at the heart of a lot of our sorrows is individualism, and how much that deprives us of a sense, a felt sense of belonging. And a felt sense that whatever happens to me will be held somehow. Rather than relying upon my muscle and my heroic strength, when do I get to fall to my knees? And in that individualistic ideology, you can’t. You have to keep rising, you have to keep improving. I think a lot of our addiction to self-improvement in psychology is based on that rupture in the felt sense of belonging. And we don’t typically grieve that.

So after we begin talking about village mind and they begin to get a sense that this is our sorrow, then we do the work of giving them practices for slowly breaking this open. The last thing we need is another drive-by event. We need slow practices. I think that’s another principle that you talk a lot about, Thomas, is just the how trauma typically has an accelerating process to the psyche, and how do we begin to slow it down. Well, we do these writing practices and then, they share their readings in small circles and without any commentary. No one ever comments on what someone shares other than thank you. So we’re building a space in which self-consciousness can begin to be receding, and you’re beginning to feel like whatever I express will be held.

Then we have a team. Usually there’s a very strong team of people there helping to hold the space with me, listening for, attending to distress, anxiety. I mean, there’s a lot of fear that comes up with grief, because for most of us, our griefs were never held adequately. So when it comes up, you can get this feeling of a complex or a child’s state kind of suddenly taking over. And how do we just titrate that back into an adult presence? How do we bring them back working with separation? Can you be with what’s happening right now? Can you say hello to that fear, that shame, that mistrust? And they’re watching, everyone’s watching to see how everything is being held. And slowly over the course of the days, that felt sense of I’m being held adequately here emerges. And we could spend a lot of time talking about building containers. I know you have a lot to say about that too.

Thomas: Well, it’s very lovely to hear you and hear also how you’re elaborate. There’s a lot of experience, it feels like, when you talk about building containers, and this sounds really lovely. And so when you want to share a little bit about the intergenerational piece you started with, because I’m very interested in hearing you, how the intergenerational or maybe many generations of not grieving might sit in us and might reside in us, so it’s not just only a personal story. There’s a whole context to that.

Francis: Yeah. I think the more I’ve sat with grief work over the past many decades, the more I think that almost all grief is generational, is ancestral. My shame story didn’t begin here. It had as Rumi say, “It began in some other tavern.” It began a long time ago. I’m the current curator of it. It’s my responsibility to work with it, but it didn’t start with me, which is actually quite helpful to know that this is not in a sense mine, that it comes from disruptions and traumas in my ancestral field of migrations.

My brother, one of my brothers did this whole genealogical study of our family. And there is this, it’s called the black Gate in this town, I can’t remember the name of the town right now in Germany, which was built by the Romans when they invaded in 70 A.D. or something like that. So that’s in that genealogy too, that’s in that legacy. So I think just recognizing places of unconsciousness, places that we don’t occupy.

I remember working with a woman some years ago, who had this tremendous shame around her sexuality. And we talked about her personal history, didn’t seem to be any direct traumas. There’s no molestation, no rape. And one day, I just said, “Tell me about your grandmother.” And suddenly, she was in the room and she just started weeping, and begin to remember her stories. And so we did ritual around that, of taking a stone out into the ocean and writing all of the stories of shame around body and sexuality and intimacy, and carrying that out and giving it back to be washed clean by the salt water. But that wasn’t her story. That was what she was carrying. Of course, we can just look to any lineage right now, and very few of them don’t come with that weight of sorrow that’s there for us to touch and hold. Yeah. What about you? What do you think about that, Thomas?

Thomas: No, I think I’ve seen this many, many times what you just described and the power of it. And anyway, I think that, I don’t know, in our time we are thinking human being’s too small and also sometimes in psychotherapy, like the context is too small. And I think opening the map and allowing more data to flow individually, ancestrally, collectively so that … And I love your work. I love the formulation of the village, because I think in the collective data flow, there’s so much healing power. That’s why I love your work with the rituals. I think it’s very powerful to do this collectively.

Francis: Absolutely.

Thomas: And much more than in one-on-one context. And one-on-one context is important sometimes, but it has become too isolated as the go-to place for stuff that we can do in. And I think there’s actually a competence building in the village work, a collective competence building that I am sure you have seen how the collective intelligence develops a competence. And I just wanted to hear a bit when you do the intergenerational work for people that feel, “Oh, I don’t know if I have access to any intergenerational sensing or feeling.” Or maybe for this woman, it opened up very quickly, but some people feel like, “Oh, I don’t know how to connect to my ancestors.” If you bring that work into the room, are there specific ways how people can open themselves gently to their ancestors, if it feels like there’s no sense of that at the beginning?

Francis: That’s frequently the case. It’s not a language we use a lot in western psychology. We are caught in a progress-oriented fixation, always moving forward, always getting better, always leaving that behind, but it keeps following us. So it’s best at some point to turn around and see what’s there. So even just introducing the idea of ancestral work to people is new for the vast majority.

I like this idea of Jung’s where he talked about the unforgotten wisdom at the core of the psyche. So switching a little bit here over, when we do the Grief Rituals, typically the vast majority of people in that room have never done anything like this before. It’s weird to all be crying together and welcoming each other back. But almost invariably at the end of the ritual, somebody will say something like, “I’ve never done anything like that before, but this was oddly familiar.” So that’s part of that ancestral inheritance too.

One of the meditations that you taught, which I really love, Thomas, is not just working with the trans-generational transmission of trauma, but also the trans-generational transmission of courage, resilience, love. I say, “You’re here because of a success. But we just keep focusing on the failures.” “Well, I didn’t get that or this was missing.” And yes, that’s all true and it has to be dealt with, but there was enough to somehow seep down through the line that your butt’s in this chair right now, and we’re having this conversation. And we’re singing together and sharing meals together and remembering the deeper context of being human. So there’s many ways this ancestral piece comes in.

I often talk about everything that’s gone before you is an ancestor because sometimes people are very resistant to their personal ancestral history because of trauma and abuse. It’s not pretty. But if you could imagine what I often call my soul lineage. My soul lineage is a place I can turn to anytime and feel the richness of that inheritance, of who has fed my soul over these 68 years. And I can name them. Their pictures are in my house as much as my ancestral photographs are in my house. They’re also part of my ancestral line, and so are all the animals and the trees and everything that’s gone before you.

It is such an inheritance that we forget about and neglect, and again, feel as if we’re walking in the world very alone out without support. I think it was Goethe who said, if you don’t have 3000 years under your feet, you’re just walking without any sense of depth or support. And we don’t do that. We have really abandoned the ancestors. Yeah.

Thomas: Yeah. I also think like yourself, I think that that’s a big thing in our society that we are so without context. It’s like everything is about us and we are hypnotized by ourselves, instead of also harvesting the wisdom that is present and this lineages and it’s so beautiful. And you said something right now about also the animals and the nature. Maybe you can speak a little bit, because especially in this time, I think one element of grief is that we are losing so many species in a short time, and there’s often this disconnect from nature, or this duality, we and nature. So maybe you can speak a bit about your experience of grief work around the biosphere.

Francis: Yeah. When I first started doing the grief work in the late ’90s, one or two people in the circle would say, “I’m here because of earth grief.” Now it’s half to two thirds. That’s my hope is that we may not make it. That’s a real possibility. But if we do, I think it’ll be because of the broken heart. I think grief might save us by reminding us of our deep affection for the world, our deep love for the world, our inseparability, our entanglement with the world. Grief is the thing that reminds us that love and loss are so entwined that there is no separation. We grieve because of what we love, even if it’s at a distance. So that earth grief has become more and more a part of our work together. I imagine you’ve heard of Paul Shepard?

Thomas: No.

Francis: Oh, he was a human biologist. He wrote amazing books. One was, Coming Home To The Pleistocene, The Tender Carnivore, How Others Made Us Human, and he wrote beautifully. And he was being interviewed by a man named Jonathan White one time. I can’t remember the question, but his answer just stunned me. He said, “The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually a feeling of emptiness, where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.” Wow. We don’t have that beautiful and strange otherness, barely even in our minds anymore. We don’t listen to the myths of coyote or raven or mouse or jaguar. We don’t encounter them in the streets. And so there’s a profound emptiness in us.

So a lot of our grief isn’t just what’s disappearing from the world, but even that we don’t imagine the world. It’s all technology, it’s economics, it’s asphalt. And so the world is drifted from our imaginations, drifted from our prayers, drifted from our ritual life. So I think at the heart of a lot of our grief is what I call, The Third Gate of Grief, which is the sorrows of the world. We are forgetting the world. Now, James Hillman once said, “In your symptoms are your soul’s deepest desires.” So now we’re looking at the soul of the world, the symptoms of the world’s soul of depression and anxiety and trauma. The world’s soul is also speaking to us, so we have to listen. If we don’t, we are complicit in its disappearance.

So earth grief, sorrows of the world, part of the difficulty, if I may go on for another second here, part of the difficulty with this grief is it’s unresolvable. Most of our griefs, we can work through. The personal losses in our life, we can work with that and come to a place of being able to carry it with a certain degree of acceptance. Earth grief is unresolvable. We’re not going to get through this grief. We’re not going to get to the other side of these losses. It’s just going to become more and more cumulative.

I wrote a preface for a book by Duane Elgin a year and a half ago. The book was called Choosing Earth and Duane, he’s the one who wrote Voluntary Simplicity. This book was, it was the hardest piece of writing I’ve ever done, ’cause I had to read this stuff and it was intense. It was so hard to read about. He takes the next five decades and looks at probable forecast based on all available information. We’re in for what I call, The Long Dark, and I’m not going to see it to the far side of this. You probably won’t see it to the far side of this. But our work now is to create seeds of possibility by remembering what it looks like to be a human being on the planet, what it looks like to be a communal participant, what it looks like to remember our infinite intimacy with the green world and the animals. A lot of our work, I think right now is about remembering and coming out of this centuries-old amnesia and anesthesia. Yeah.

Thomas: First of all, again, I love listening to the poetry of your language. That really resonates very deeply in me when I listen to you. It’s very beautiful.

Francis: Thank you.

Thomas: And it conveys something very deep and a certain quality of music to me, so that’s very nice. It’s like it goes in very deep into my soul. It’s beautiful. And I think one thing you said is, it’s not about working through it. It’s about letting it break our hearts.

Francis: Right.

Thomas: And I think that’s a very powerful statement, and it also shows us the anesthesia that is in the world right now. All this, what I call the collective trauma suppression that creates a lot of numbness, a lots of distance, a lot of indifference, that we are not crying much more, that’s really worrisome. We see it’s exactly that it doesn’t break our heart and that we are not grieving billions of people. That’s like some people call this strength, but I think it’s something important to look at. So when you talk about this longer period, we are in for something long, can you expand a bit on that?

Francis: Sure. The Long Dark, it’s been called many things, right? The great turning, the poly crisis. I like the idea of The Long Dark because it seems to correspond to the soul’s process of descent. We are in a prolonged season of descent. This is not a time of rising and confidence. It’s not a time of heroism and ease. No, we are going down. And by necessity, I think certain things can happen only in the darkness.

So if we can get over our anxiety about being in the dark, we might actually find something quite nourishing in the dark. It’s a place of deep listening. It’s a place of humility. It’s a place of not knowing. It’s a place of receptivity and dreaming and imagination, gestation. It’s also in the old alchemical tradition was known by the term [foreign language 00:35:40], the blackening. And they say the [foreign language 00:35:43] was a time of dissolution and things falling apart. That’s what’s happening, and these things have to fall apart. Capitalism has to fall apart. White supremacy has to fall apart. Gender domination has to fall apart.

So we’re hoping that this process of dissent is intelligible. It’s up to us to participate in it, and that’s where the anesthesia comes in. If we just simply shut down because we’re too alone with it, the heart wisely shuts down. But if we can come back into some communal context, we might find the courage to turn our faces into the winds of this darkening, and participate in the compassionate dismantling of systems that are causing tremendous, tremendous suffering to the human and the more than human world. I mean, there’s no place on the planet right now that’s not being touched by these destructive paradigms.

So I’m hoping, I’m praying that this time of dissent is also this time of dissolution. And again, we’re not going to see the far side of this, but working with a lot of young ones. More and more young people are coming to our ritual work because they’re looking for places. First of all, they have their perceptions acknowledged. This is real. This is happening. We have failed in great measure to offer you a place where you can say, “Yes, my future is assured.” That’s not there anymore. They’re carrying tremendous anxiety and rage about what is being given to them. And so they need ritual space holders for that to work, to be expressed, and for the adults in that room to say, “We’re here for you. We’re not going away.”

Again, that’s part of I think, the deep work of grief. And I talk about apprenticeship, that the work of apprenticeship isn’t about mastery as it was with carpentry or painting or weaving. The competency that comes from soul from the apprenticeship with sorrow is elder-hood. We are slowly shaped by that working of us, by not turning away, by not going into anesthesia, but staying vulnerable and open to the workings of the world’s soul. That we are ripened as adults, and we can turn now to the young ones and say, “Tell me what’s there. I will not go away. I will sit here with you.”

This idea of the amnesia, I mean the anesthesia is a good one for us to just break apart a little bit, ’cause the word aesthetics is in there. And how little we focus on beauty, on the senses and on being open to the majesty of this world, being stunned by it, being awed by it. So when we practice more of the anesthesia, the lack of beauty, the lack of things that awaken us … I mean, Hillman had this phrase, he said, “Beauty is the means by which the gods touch the senses, reach the heart and attract us into life.” We don’t focus on beauty, except in terms of polishing your image. But to be receptive to beauty, to be touched by beauty, that’s the work of keeping the heart open and being attracted into life. And in that attraction back into life, we will have to be willing to agree not just to the beauty, but also to the sorrows, to stay open to everything and work with whatever is there. I have no idea if I followed your question or not.

Thomas: No, no, very much so. I love, you spoke to one ingredient of, I think a capability is like I am staying here, I’m staying here with you. And I think that quality, that maturity of saying, I’m here with you or I’m here with life. I’m an ally of life and I’m here. I think that’s a very powerful quality, and I love when you brought this in context with the next generations like, we are here. I think that’s an amazing quality to sit in this time, and not try to get out of it through any kind of avoidance or consumerism. To be in it, it sounds

Francis: To be in it, right, right. And that takes courage. It takes a lot of courage to say, yes. And like I say, it’s really hard to say yes when we feel too alone with it all. So coming back in, over and over and over again into the wisdom of the communal mind, the village mind. There’s an Okanagan elder by the name of Jeannette Armstrong up in British Columbia, and Jeanette says in her language, the word for belonging translates into our one skin. I mean, isn’t that beautiful? Imagine knowing that we were so connected that whatever happened to me, you would sense it. And she said, “In our village, it’s community first, family second, individual last.” And she says, “You’ve inverted that completely in your North American culture, individualism, family. And community, it’s a word that gets bantered around all the time, but it doesn’t have blood in it.” It’s so anemic, it’s so thin. But without that, facing the world with soul is very hard. Keeping your heart open is very hard.

Anecdotally, when I first started doing the Grief Rituals, I had to convince people to come. Like, “Why would I want to spend a weekend crying? I mean, there’s a sale on this weekend and whatever.” But now, they feel within an hour or so that the hunger and the denial is breaking. Which is again, something that gives me just a little bit of hope is that the denial is breaking and people are being willing to look at the reality of what is happening. Yeah.

Thomas: Yeah, I love that. The hope is in the tears. As long as we cry, the tears that they’re relational to whatever is happening, and really an expression of the pain that’s happening. There’s hope.

Francis: There’s hope, yeah.

Thomas: It’s beautiful. So when you speak a little bit, you used the word soul, our soul, the soul of the world. Maybe can you speak a bit to soul? What is soul in your terminology or your-

Francis: Yeah, that’s a very important question. For me, soul is not equated with that metaphysical dimension, but more is a way of engagement and seeing and sensing the movements of the world. So for me, soul is the beloved counterpart to spirit. So where a spirit rises, loves clarity, sees far visions, we have peak experiences, soul descends, soul moves downward into the experience of vulnerability, tenderness, loss, whispers. They need each other desperately, but we’re a very spirit-focused culture. We love ascension. We just had resurrection yesterday. We love these dimensions that take us upward. We are very uncomfortable with the descent. We get anxious about anything descending, whether it’s our gross domestic product or whatever. We don’t like it going down. But down takes us into those places, where we’re most intimate with one another.

We call it, we had a deep conversation, right? That person has depth to them. We call it depth psychology. So there’s a certain intuition and intimation that the directionality of soul is downward. And so since we’re an ascension culture, we basically have abandoned soul, pretty much in culture. So we’re left with this binary system of spirit and matter. Traditionally, soul was the intermediary and allowed spirit to infuse matter and matter to rise up, to feel its own sacrality. We’ve lost the soul dimension pretty much. There’s no soul in psychology. There’s a lot of self, but there’s no psyche. We are not dealing with soul dynamics. We’re dealing with self-improvement, self-empowerment, self-healing.

Nothing wrong with that, keep doing it, but where is psyche? Where is soul? Where do we listen to hear how soul is moving in these moments, through its calling through symptoms of depression or sorrow or grief or anxiety, addiction? Those are all movements of soul as well. And soul is that element that keeps calling us back to beauty’s allure, keeps calling us back to community, because soul is convivial. One of my mentors, Bob Stein said, “The soul has this simultaneous need for intimacy and freedom, or sovereignty and community.” Simultaneously, that the soul has this, what I call this double helix quality to it. And we’re constantly moving back and forth across that helix.

Some days, I need my solitude. I need to be so alone with myself that all I hear is God. And there’s other days that I just have to be in the arms of my kin, my brothers and sisters in ritual space. And moving back and forth to that dance, that symmetry, that’s a soulful life. Soul is drawn to ritual, it’s drawn to beauty, it’s drawn to imagination, it’s drawn to creativity. All of those are kind of qualitative expressions of soul and a soulful life. And I have, I’ve spent 10 weeks trying to outline that question you just asked in a series called, Living A Soulful Life And Why It Matters. It’s a big topic, but a juicy one.

Thomas: Absolutely, absolutely. And again, it seems to inspire your poetry that sings kind of the tales of the soul. It’s beautiful. And you mentioned one other thing that you are also passionate about and you called it, rough initiations. And we could say the world’s in for one right now. So maybe you want to speak a little bit too rough initiation. What does that-

Francis: Yeah, yeah, thank you. I did a series many years ago called, The Alchemy Of Initiation, and one of the core premises is that initiation is not optional. You will be taken to the edges of radical change. The only question in the absence of formal initiatory practices, how does psyche do that? And one of the ways is through rough initiation. I work a lot with cancer patients, and giving them the framework of rough initiation has been very, very helpful. That this isn’t just a random thing that they have to somehow endure and hope they don’t die. But there’s also this kind of hidden invitation towards a deepening of their own interior life. And I say that all initiations carry three things.

First of all, there’s a radical departure from the world you once knew. So when you get that call or you have that meeting with the doctor and says, “Pancreatic cancer,” you left the old world. The second thing that happens in initiation is there’s a radical alteration in your sense of identity. I’m no longer who I thought I was. And the third thing that happens is there’s a profound realization that I can never go back to the life that was. Now, when that’s held within a ritual context, the elders and community, those three things are beautiful. There’s this breakthrough into a larger identity. I begin to realize I’m part watershed and part ancestor and part star cluster and part earthworm. I’m all of that. When it happens dramatically or through a rough initiation, it’s typically a shattering. Rather than a breakthrough, it’s a breakdown.

So having some understanding that we’re in a rough initiation right now collectively, I think can be helpful to give us some sense of, now we’ve left the ordinary world. We are no longer in the world that was simple and easeful. My identity needs to shift. How I engage the world and who shows up for this world must become different. I have to begin to sense into my larger affiliation with everything that surrounds me. This isn’t a solo event. This is actually a communal process that I’m part of. And then, we’re seeing kind of this bifurcation right now of attempts to go back and reify old structures, 1950s kind of structures. Women in their place, people of color in their place, white men in their place. A lot of that is happening, but we’re also seeing another possibility of planetary community beginning to have some murmuring out there that this might be possible.

So we can’t go back to the way it was. Something new must emerge out of this rough initiation. Otherwise, I remember saying to a man in my office after he had a very intense heart attack and barely survived, and all he talked about during the sessions was getting back to his job. And I finally said, “I’m afraid you’re going to waste a perfectly good heart attack. What if your heart was saying no? What if it was objecting to the life that you were putting it through and it wanted something different, something with more friendship and more beauty in it and more community and so forth? But I don’t want to waste this crisis that we’re in. I wanted to see it quicken our imaginations enough.

There’s a wonderful term in the Inuit tradition called Qarrtsiluni. And Qarrtsiluni translates, sitting quietly together in the dark, waiting expectantly for something creative to occur. That’s where we are. We are not going to think our way through this mess. We have all the data we need. I mean, how much more information do we need about CO₂ levels and species extinction? We’ve got all the information we need, but we haven’t gotten quiet. We haven’t sat together quietly in the dark listening for some intuition, some imagination to come into our beings, guiding us in the direction that might reanimate our lives and the lives of our friends and our village members. And maybe even the salmon might start swimming and singing again in their ponds, and we don’t know. That’s what I like about the long dark is we don’t know. We don’t know, but we have to get quiet enough to listen.

Thomas: That’s very beautiful. Maybe that’s a good, given our time, that’s a good place to slowly rest if there is … Because I think for some people that resting is like a possibility, I would say that there is enough inner, I don’t know, space that resting is a possibility. And I think for other people, it might be very scary, like seeing everything fall apart and there’s some kind of, I don’t know, very deep struggle with that. And maybe, you have some words before we finish the conversation, some words. Is there anything beside what you said that you want to leave us with? Something either to contemplate, to take away?

Francis: Yeah, yeah. I remember working with a woman and she said, “I hate going home at night.” I said, “Why is that?” She was going through a pretty ugly divorce. And so, “When I get home, place is cold, it’s dark. I just hate it.” I said, “Can you imagine it as the holiest time of day? That when you open the door, you’re greeting the most vulnerable part of you, the part that feels lonely, feels empty, sad, heartbroken? Can you greet her and can you say to her, ‘Let’s put the tea on. Let’s start the fire. Tell me about your day. I’ll tell you about mine.’ And then I remember that line of Rilke’s at that moment where you said, “I am too alone in the world, but not alone enough to make every moment holy. So imagine making that pivot, that whatever’s sitting with you at any given moment, whether it’s terror and fear or overwhelming grief and hopelessness, that there is some element in you that’s big enough to greet that.”

I remember working with a woman at the cancer health program. She was in her early 30s, had just gotten married, all the talk about babies and possibilities of family, and then she got diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma, very serious brain cancer. And she said, “I’m terrified. I’m just terrified.” In my individual session with her, said, “Can you recall any moment in your lifetime where you felt connected to something we might call, the sacred?” And she thought for a moment and she said, “Yes. Remember being in a sweat lodge one time, and it was one of those lodges that had an opening in the roof. And I could see the stars through that opening, and I felt this tremendous connection to the ancestors in that moment.” I said, “Was that self sitting there in that moment bigger than the terror you feel right now?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “That’s who has to show up for this part of you that feels terrified.”

Something is bigger in us, and you know that, Thomas. I’ve listened to you teach. You know the immensity that is our inheritance. This is a time for immensity. We have to get big. That’s part of the rough initiation. It’s part of the long dark. It’s part of our apprenticeship. It’s all about ripening and becoming large enough to welcome whatever’s happening inside of us, but also, what we meet on the street. This is going to take a great deal of courage, but as Wendell Berry said, “It all turns on affection. It all turns on affection.” So can we find that part of us that has compassion and kindness and warmth and affection for all those parts of us that are so anxious and so overwhelmed? I am. I mean, it’s terrifying to look at it starkly, but I’m also feeling all my kin. I’m feeling … Do I have time for one more story?

Thomas: Absolutely. Go ahead. It’s mesmerizing. Of course.

Francis: So it was 2020, and I’m heading to bed, very depressed, very kind of hopeless about the election that was about to happen, and don’t need to say much more about that. And as I’m about to get into bed, something turned me around, pivoted me back to one of my bookshelves, and reached into the books and pulled out this book by Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw elder and beautiful writer and poet. And the book was called, Dwellings. And I opened the book to a chapter called, All My Relations. And I realized in that moment, I had forgotten all my relations and that was at the heart of my despair. I was all alone.

So I began remembering the duck furs out the window and the ferns and the owls and the moon and the creek that runs by our house. And suddenly, all the despair began to dissipate. I remembered I’m not in this alone. I have kin. I have friendships all over, some human, some more than human, some wildly un-human, but I’m not alone. So those three things I think would be … Practice separation, turn towards what’s there, remember your kinship and I forgot what the third one is now.

Thomas: [inaudible 00:59:26].

Francis: Yeah, yeah.

Thomas: That’s beautiful. Francis, what a ride. I really enjoyed this time. I feel a lot of soul when you speak. And I said this multiple times, but I can feel how your language is saturated with soul, and it reaches me deeply and I have a kin experience when I speak to you. It’s very beautiful and thank you for all you shared. I think you’re doing great work. And it’s also lovely to feel your depth through the conversation, and there are many things I strongly resonate with. And also I’m happy that you put a lot of emphasis on the collective work. It’s very important. So I’m happy that we are sharing that and that we are part of the web of relationships now.

Francis: We definitely are.

Thomas: Right.

Francis: Yeah, good brotherhood.

Thomas: Exactly, I feel it too. Thank you so much. It was deeply a nourishing time. Thank you very much. [inaudible 01:00:36].

Francis: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Thomas.