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Learning to Listen with Ssanyu Birigwa

Ssanyu Birigwa came into this world to share joy.

The indigenous bone healer shaman from Uganda found comfort in spirituality, diverse teachings and ritual from an early age. Soon, she began to view herself as a kind of bridge to help others re-remember their authentic selves and find lightness in the shadows. Ultimately, through her practice, she created the Pause3 method, which combines narrative medicine (or healing through personal stories), shamanic practices and mindful meditation to help people break through their doubt and shame to become self-healers.

Here, Birigwa describes how “radical listening” can help us unlock ourselves and others from pain:

LIVE THE PROCESS: You refer to your mother as your “first guide.” How did your upbringing propel your spiritual journey? 

SSANYU BIRIGWA: I was born in my childhood home in Newton, Massachusetts with a midwife. I came into this world through ritual, as my uncle Kamya cooked traditional Ugandan food and my father played the guitar at the foot of the bed. Both my tata (father in Luganda) and my mother tell a story of how my birth was a planned one. That there were many awaiting my arrival and stories of her planning for me in mind, body and spirit are very much rooted into who I am today.

At the time of my birth, my mother was a practicing Christian Scientist. During my childhood, we attended church in our local neighborhood. We lived between Newton and East Africa and, as I got older, I craved being around people who looked like me. I decided when I was very young to attend the first Baptist Church in West Newton. As I grew older, Sunday school was less about understanding the scriptures and more about where our next group outing was going to be.

Early on, I began to find comfort in the diverse teachings I was exposed to through church, reading and sitting in bed with my mom and sisters on early mornings, praying and reciting affirmations. These moments in stillness with my mom and rooting into spiritual teachings became a vital tool for when my anxiety would flare and manifest into hives and eczema. I've experienced several awakening moments from paralysis to not being able to see, depression, anxiety—the list is long. However, we must not forget that healing is a lifelong journey because to truly heal is to heal the world too. We have much work to do!  

LTP: Can you describe the work that you do?

SB: I am an indigenous bone healer shaman from Uganda. My lineage spans over 17 generations. 

The medicine is to heal broken bones and to carry forward the messages received from Divine Spirit to guide those who came for healing.

There are rights and rituals that I must adhere to, that are learned through ancestral knowledge, wisdom and practice. The benefits of working with the medicine is transformative. Both in mind, body and spirit.  

LTP: You have said that, “Listening to another person is an act of profound humanity.” Can you talk about why that concept is so important?

SB: Look at the history of this planet. The world is on fire! For generations, the voices of Indigenous and Black people have been silenced. It is vital to the survival of humanity that we begin to listen, radically listen to the voices that have been marginalized and silenced. As a narrative medicine scholar and shaman, I have a unique vantage point in bridging methodology.  If we truly want to be the change in this world, to see change in our lifetime, we must all learn this vital skill. 

LTP: What is narrative medicine and how are personal stories integral to healing?

SB: Narrative medicine fortifies clinical practice by training practitioners to recognize, interpret and glean insights relevant to patient care and clinician performance from the study of humanities, the arts and creative work. 

Healing through personal stories is transformative. Our personal narratives are our medicine. When we find ourselves feeling any less than our most divine expansive selves, we know there is a disconnect within. Old patterns of self-doubt swell up, fear—the fear of taking the risk to try that one thing you’ve never done before, to guide you out of the disease—becomes harder and harder to do.

Writing (and/or recording oneself) is so very important. In these moments, we are making space for unlocking ourselves from the pain and suffering, the disappointments and fear. And what is most required is patience—compassion for oneself. 

As we allow compassion to guide us through the trauma, we then become the observer of the embodied thoughts and feelings that arise in us in times of great doubt. We begin the process of the art of letting go. It’s a step closer to recognizing our multidimensional selves, the layers of feelings and emotions once neglected, and the narratives that we have told ourselves that aren’t serving us.

The Pause3 method is a person-centered ethnology that joins spirituality and narrative medicine. The method bridges science and clinical and scholarly research in narrative medicine in an accessible way, so as to learn the art of letting go. Through shamanic practices, rituals, narrative medicine and mindfulness meditation, I share the tools to break free from fear and anxiety, shame, victimhood, lack, generational trauma and unworthiness because I have a strong belief that we are all self-healers with the potent ability and responsibility to extend the healing out to our loved ones and to our communities. 

LTP: For you, what does it mean to be a healer?

SB: We are all healers. It is a choice that we make in moving closer to our true authentic nature. Yet, many will never experience this in this lifetime. 

As an indigenous bone healer shaman, I believe my purpose is like a bridge. I guide individuals in re-remembering who they are, what they are here on this Earth to do, to bring to light the shadow of things, so to authentically show up not just for oneself but for the other, for the community. Healing is about transformation and walking in one’s power with integrity and purpose.  

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

SB: Me! Ssanyu in Luganda means “happiness.” I came into this world to share joy. Thus, happiness is an embodiment of love. It is found in living with ease, open to receiving the textures of the world, the delights and grand manifestations, and to be of service.

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?

SB: Rooted in spirit and being of joy! If what I do does not bring me joy, then it is not for me. My work allows me to traverse many different orbits—from academia to healthcare to industries from tech to wellness to anti-racist work. I have to root myself in joy in order to show up and do the work. Even in the difficult moments, which are many, my intention is to have an open, loving and joyful heart. To be receptive to all voices, even when they go against my core beliefs. 

Serve. Be of service to your community! 

Cover image via Atelier Aveus, rendered by @m.a.s.s.i.m.o.c.o.l.o.n.n.a


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