Most of us are accustomed to learning in the way we learned in the classroom with the teacher or the professor giving lectures interspersed with required reading and the dreaded homework. That mode of learning (and of teaching) is carried over into how even spiritual subjects are taught where we often learn from reading interspersed with attending workshops and seminars. This kind of learning is very condensed, which can be a good thing, but often the teaching is so concentrated much is missed or is soon forgotten, no matter how hard we try to take it all in. Many times it simply is not possible to absorb it all, and what we learn becomes very abstract and we find the knowledge becomes very difficult to actually apply.
While these methods certainly can be useful and we do in fact use them, the bulk of learning in Ilé Obatalá T’Alabalaché uses a method that is much more organic, personal and effective than what you’ll find in a classroom. It has been used effectively since time immemorial for one very good reason: it works. Learning in this way is so natural that it becomes part of you as body knowledge. And it’s not uncommon to catch ourselves wondering how we could have learned so much without knowing it.
Members of the ilé learn in much the same way as traditional apprentices and learn by working, watching, listening and doing.
As an member of our ilé, you have the opportunity to see, hear and feel how things are actually done. Godchildren soon learn that the realities of what goes on in the real work of a babalawo or santero is vastly different from what they have read in books. A book or workshop may give you the basic techniques for giving obí (using coconut pieces to elicit yes or no answers) to an Oricha. But there are all those things these books never tell you, such as: “What the hell do you do when the Orichas says “no” when you ask them if they accept an offering or when you ask them if they are content with a ceremony performed for them?”
Knowledge is Power
“The person who should play a role in life, will be recognized by their knowledge”
In Santería in general and even more so in Ifá in particular, knowledge is power.
Just like building a house, it is important that the godchild first builds a solid foundation before going on to learn more advanced forms of knowledge. That way the godchild learns in a balanced way that fits their level of development. We focus on teaching you the things you can use now, not the things you can only use several initiations down the road. For instance, in our ilé when a godchild receives her Guerreros or Warriors, she will soon be taught the basics of working with them as well as how to give obí (perform coconut divination) so she can ask Echu Elegguá simple yes or no questions on her own. These are extremely effective things she can use now, not a few years down the road. And with a few simple things you begin on your road to building a strong and intimate relationship with the Orichas. And in the process they just happen to become tremendously empowered. So often people we need to learn all the complex ‘advanced stuff’ in order to be affective. My Padrino Pete Rivera taught me early on that more complicated does not necessarily mean better, or more powerful, or more effective. Once you learn how to work with the Orichas, you can do an incredible lot with some of the so-called ‘basic’ techniques. In fact, the religion is rife with tales about people who could do more with their Echu Elegguá than many santeros could with a room full of Orichas.
Of course, there are plenty of times when the more intricate rituals are necessary, but all too often it is a case of “why use a howitzer when a simple flyswatter will do the trick.” And the simple fact of the matter is, if you don’t know the fundamentals and know them well, you will often find the more complicated rituals simply don’t work.
Or, as the Ifá oddun Ogbe Di says, “The best way to know nothing is to try to learn everything at once”
A person may not be ready for certain types of knowledge and it can actually be injurious for them to learn these things too early on or without proper guidance. For instance, there are a number of ceremonies that precede initiations in Santería and Ifá designed specifically to cleanse and strengthen the initiate to be able to withstand the knowledge/power they become infused with. And, of course, there is always the danger that a person may misuse knowledge given to them, either for gain, through sheer malevolence, or sometimes simply by mistake:
I once met a woman who told me how she came upon a book which contained a number of pembas or sigils used to invoke Exu (the Afro-Brazilian form of Echu). The person took the sigil and put copies up all over her apartment thinking she would use them to open her roads to prosperity, love, opportunity… in short all the good things in life. But she soon found just the opposite was occurring: doors were slamming shut in her face right and left. Even things she thought she was sure of in life were falling apart all around her. Finally, one day the santero who was her godfather came to visit and saw these sigils and told her, “what the hell are you doing with those things? Take them down… NOW! And never, EVER do something like that again without asking me first!” Her godfather then explained to her that the symbols she had all over her apartment was for a path of Exu used to CLOSE all their doors and roads in life (which was exactly what was happening to her). She was extremely lucky that this Exu didn’t open one door for her that she certainly did not want opened: the door to the graveyard.
Bruce Lee put it this way: “if knowledge is power, let’s not give it away indiscriminately.”
Like a hawk
A precious and invaluable piece of knowledge can come (and go) at any moment and in virtually any way, so you have to constantly be alert and ready so you can pounce like a hawk and seize that knowledge as soon as it appears. Then that knowledge is yours. You’ve earned it.
I don’t know how many times I had been doing some menial task such as cleaning or carrying, when something would happen in my presence or an elder would let drop some prized piece of knowledge and I was just lucky enough to be there to swoop in and pick it up. How much you learn is ultimately up to you.
Learning to travel the paths of a magical world
When learning to travel the paths of a magical world and how to work with the magical beings and forces inhabiting that world, there simply is no substitute for working side by side with a Madrina or Padrino who knows the path and is on familiar terms with those forces.
Members of Ilé Obatalá T’Alabalaché, whether they are an aleyo (a person who has not been through any of the higher initiations), a santera/o or babalawo, are given the opportunity to gain the knowledge and experience they need to fit their level of development and initiation and to become a strong practitioner of the religion. We strive to produce strong, knowledgeable santeras/os and babalawos who we can be proud of and who will in turn strengthen our ilé and its reputation and help all of humanity.
Who can be initiated?
Everything we do, including initiations, is determined by Ifá and the Orichas. When it’s time for you to move to the next step, Ifá and the Orichas tell us through divination. That way, everything is always done with the permission and with the blessing of the Orichas, every step of the way.