Beliefnet senior editor Deborah Caldwell talked recently to Keeney about getting to what he calls "the big love."
What is a shaman?
There are so many preconceived ideas in our culture about shamanismthat I try to not use the word for fear it would be connected to these misconceptions. That includes the shaman who's in pursuit of the magical, sacred plant leading to alternative reality. The second use of shamanism in our culture is the weekend workshop training, the "Let's all lie on the floor and have a guided imagery fantasy, and we'll imagine that we're visualizing a creature who will help us find the answers." That's certainly not been my path, nor has it been a definition that has anything to do with the shamans I've worked with. And neither of those ideas represents the deeper, more historical meaning of shaman.
Every person I've known in diverse cultures around the world who has declared themselves a shaman had a rebirth, where they experienced mystical luminosity: the kind of love you feel in a rural black church that just lost control of itself and just threw away the sermon and can't stop singing and dancing. I know people in these black churches, people who can't even get to church without being picked up and taken there, not knowing how they're going to get through, week to week. They live from prayer meeting on Wednesday night to Sunday morning, and then Sunday night services. It's like holding onto a rope andswinging to the next day, but when they're there and it really gets turned on, that big love comes in.
That term you use, the "big love," is wonderful. Can you explain it?
It's an experience that's been known by mystics of all culturalpersuasions, and when you're in it, your body begins to shake and tremble. That finally leads to the desire to express oneself, and there, words just can't hold the great feeling. So you move into what I call "sound poetry," and sound poetry then turns into singing. Shamans, whether they're in the Amazon or whether they're the Lakota medicine people or the Bushman healers, are all about "catching" the songs. Their belief is that the Big God who expresses the Big Love can only share love through the rhythm, the beauty of song.
The Kalahari Bushman like to talk about that which enters you as a kind of spiritual arrow. We know that red-hot love, the heat of an arrow, can turn us silly and upside-down with the desire for physicalcontact with another. There is also familial love, which is more meaningful-such as the love a mother or father has for their child. But with the Big Love, the arrow just gets hotter. Because it's not the desire to utilize the other for personal satisfaction; rather, it moves into caring so much for the other that you're willing to sacrifice yourself for the other. Finally, when the arrow gets even hotter, when it's white-hot, you see the white light. At that point, the love continues moving forward, and now all of life is felt to be connected. There's this realization that we're all held in some greater arm or some greater hand.
And there words just slip away. I know it sounds rhapsodic and silly...
No, not at all.
But it's mystic talk. And when you're hit with it, it fills you with such ecstasy that you've just got to jump. I mean, the black church has it. Yet there's such an allergy to religion from those who claim to be interested in matters of the spirit. Huston Smith was talking about his irritation with how contemporary folks who claim to be on the spiritual quest will make a distinction between spirituality and religion; that's nonsense because the great religions are the holders of the stories of people who have fully realized how the impact of spirit changes their hearts.
Could you tell the story of how you realized you have this gift?
I grew up in a country church. My dad and granddad were country preachers, and I was quite fortunate because their lives were all about being testimonies of caring for others-and that meant never judging, and always helping people move into the realization of forgiveness.