2016-06-30
In "Bushman Shaman," Bradford Keeney details his initiation into the shamanic tradition of the Kalahari Bushmen, regarded by some scholars as the oldest living culture on earth. Keeney sought out the Bushmen while in South Africa as a visiting professor of psychotherapy. He had known of their "trance dance," in which their bodies shake uncontrollably as part of the healing ceremony. Keeney was drawn to this tradition hopng to explain his own ecstatic "shaking," which he had first experienced at age 19 and had tried to hide throughout his adult life.

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 shamanism that 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 and swinging 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 cultural persuasions, 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 physical contact 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.

At the midpoint of my sophomore year in college I was minding my own business-I think I'd just bought a record in a record shop-and I had one of the most amazing, most important experiences of my life. It began with a sense of calm coming over my whole being, and then I felt weightless. I felt like I was being moved; it was so peaceful and comfortable that there was no need to reflect upon it-that's the strange thing about it. You'd think if you were hit with such an experience, your mind would get busy with internal chattering: "What is going on? What do I do? What is this?" But I didn't think that at all-I just instantly surrendered to whatever this was, and I found myself walking into the University Chapel and walking up to the front pew and sitting down.

Remember, I was country preacher's kid, I'd never heard of kundalini yoga or any of these sort of things, but all I knew was that my belly, in the base of my spine was like moving love. I was just on fire, and it began to slowly creep up my spine. And it didn't stop; it came all the way out of the top of my head; and lo and behold in front of me, there was an amorphous white cloud, and I looked straight at the image of Jesus. I was weeping, and my body was shaking, and my heart was bursting-I had a classic experience of rapture.

Afterward, I just read a few books and then tried to keep it quiet. But of course, you can't, it just keeps popping up-you know, you can run but you can't hide. And I kept moving all the way until I was a young, tenured full professor running a doctoral program in family therapy-and then I felt it was time to open that door again.

Did you have a sense of what brought this on?

To this day, I ask the question that you're asking. It certainly wasn't the case that I'd heard about it, read about it, or thought, "Huh, I want that." Certainly, I figured, I already had the religious experiences of being a boy who felt the calling of dedicating my life to serving others-and I felt that little tug of the heart, the joy of being baptized and all that. I thought that was what it was; I didn't know there was anything more.

Was it the same feeling as being at a Pentecostal revival?

First of all, it seems there's a wide array of forms of ecstatic expression around the world. And our culture tends to have particular constraints-but if you go to a Pentecostal gathering and there's an encouragement of praise that involves losing yourself and your inhibitions, then you get classic shamanic phenomena. You get expression like speaking in tongues, and you get jumping, you get shouting, and an elder pastor touches your forehead, and you feel faint. That's readily available to anybody who walks in and lets go.

We think that's going all the way in the spirit, but it's really just one small flirtation with it. On the other hand, you can still find it in a few black churches. But it's very hard to find these churches. I mean, in New Orleans I've only found one sanctified church. You gotta go out in the country, and they're disappearing because the elders are dying. In the younger generations, what you find is Pentecostalism, which turns into a show. So you have to go to the Caribbean to find the way the black church used to be.

But if you get past that revivalism stuff, then things start to feel out of control-and when things feel that way, the first time it hits you can be quite frightened. In other cultures, at that point you go through a crisis about whether you're going to become a student of "spirited realization" and go through the ordeal of learning to live with it. If you do, you learn to feel comfortable being out of control. But it's an ordeal-that's no weekend shamanism training. You wouldn't have anybody signing up for $500 or whatever it is to be a shaman if they knew they had to go through a hellish ordeal. It's a true rite of passage.

Describe the ordeal.

In our culture, we don't even know this exists. We think the fullest experience of ecstatic rapture is what you see in Pentecostal service. But if you go to Africa, they know that when the spirit grabs you, when the ancestral spirits come upon you-and this results in uncontrollable shaking, the sort that you can be sent to an emergency room here for and given medical intervention. People think you're having an epileptic seizure, or that you're going psychotic.

In Africa, they believe the spirit has entered the body. Now, among the Zulu, they actually go live in a community of traditional shamans or healers and every day, they wake you with the drums and you dance. They teach you how to allow the spirit to settle in the body. Well, you know this has gone way past a Pentecostal church.

Oh yeah.

[Laughs] OK. And that's the beginning. The great taboo in our culture has nothing to do with sex, drugs, or controversial theater or performance-it is that realm of ecstatic experience. We just dismiss it, close the door, just no room, no reason, in fact, we don't even want to look at it.

Which cultures is it practiced in, besides Africa?

If you go Tibet, you find secret initiations-what happens behind closed doors involves ecstatic trembling and shaking. When the Dalai Lama goes to find out the big answers to the big questions, he visits his oracle-who is in this shamanic form.

And it's in Native American culture.

Yes, but because of its earlier interaction with the missionaries who saw this as devil worship it went underground. So then the ceremony started to happen more in the dark so it wouldn't be seen. Nobody really knows what it was before European culture came here; it was probably far more in the open.

Why is shamanism not found in European culture?

Because we are obsessed and addicted to the idea of being in control.

An invention of the West is the Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. This is really a catalog of ways that you can feel out of control-and for every one of them there is a method for bringing it under control.

Did European culture ever have a shamanic tradition?

Yeah, because every once in a while you hear about dance viruses that broke out in the streets in Europe. All of a sudden, people started wildly dancing, uncontrollable.

And those who were persecuted in Europe came to America-and became the Shakers. The Shakers and the Quakers were named because they shook and they quaked. But they stopped shaking, and now we know them for making polished furniture. [Laughter] And John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, when he was preaching it would take four or five men to hold down a person who got seized by the spirit. And when I read about the Great Kentucky Revival Movement, I'm seeing that when these movements broke forth they began to get more and more expressive. And as that happened, everybody got worried and they shot Wesley down.

We don't know what to do with it, so we say it's good only up to a point. Even among evangelicals, look how they wrestle with it. Half of them say this is the devil slipping into worship. There's a tremendous struggle with how to define the limits of charismatic expression.

Why do some people get this gift and other people don't?

I don't know; maybe I was just too stupid to realize that it was something I should have just closed the door on and run for the hills.

But I think I was lucky in the sense that I knew without a doubt that whatever happened to me at that age was the greatest experience any human being could have, and I knew the rest of my life in some way would be to figure out what it was. Most of the shamans I met, when you ask them to talk about these experiences they'll get choked up because just talking about it, they remember how it overtook them.

How did you know you had to go to Africa?

I gave a speech in Minnesota on metaphors for understanding relationships. And afterward this man introduces himself and says, "You know, these things you're talking about, they're very familiar to my people. And if you're interested, why don't you come hang with us and see how people actually live this?" He was a medicine man. And that led to my eventual moving to accept an academic job in St. Paul and there, I immediately sought him out and that brought the whole thing back, with an unbelievable visionary impact. When I would go into ceremonies, I would see things-specific directions, very eery.

Eventually I visited a black church in Minneapolis where all the parishioners had come from Louisiana. When I first went there, there was not another white person there. But after several years, this was so much part of my life that I had been asked to be a deacon-the deacons are the ones who handle the Spirit. The preachers come up after the Spirit has been brought up.

But at the same time I was going out to the reservation and participating in Native American ways. It was during all of that I had a dream of going to the Kalahari. Around the time I had that vision, I was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of South Africa.

What do you experience when you're with the Bushmen?

It's really no different from going to a great black church in the Caribbean in the sense that you never know whether it's going to be a great meeting that night, but you know it holds the possibility for being a time when that Big Love descends on everybody and then you just can't stop, you can't stop singing. They're so filled with the Spirit that they're weeping, men and women alike, children, everyone's there-nobody's not there at the dance; the whole community comes together-and there's nothing like it. But I could say the same about being in a great black church or I can say the same about being in a great ceremony in any culture. But unfortunately, in some cultures, it's so much harder to break through the veil because there are so many constraints.

The shamans are those who have allowed themselves to experience the ordeals of being shaken by the Spirit because even Bushmen are scared of the ordeals you have to go through to learn to be a shaman, which is how to let your heart be so broken by the loss of loved ones and all the calamities that happen in life. They surrender themselves, to soothe with the power, presence, love, and grace of the Big God, and they allow it move their bodies. Your whole body starts to pump like a rhythmic drum, and in that pumping, you dance sort of like a stomping, slow-motion person around the fire and you begin to feel your body disappear. And when your body disappears, you feel it to be a cloud of vibrating, pulsing energy-and it just floats right up to the sky and in that state, you become visionary.

How far off are we from ever being able to access this in a wide cultural sense?

I've thought about that all the time because you can imagine what a blessing and what a curse it is to be in the midst of all this. I know how to behave myself in the Kalahari, but I'm not really sure how to behave myself in this culture. There were times when I tried to see if I could slip this into the culture through a kind of experimental, improvisational theater and deny any of its relationship to spirituality, to religion, or to spiritual quest. But that just ended up being a carnival of the spirit. But I keep asking that question-Is it my calling to be a part of that bringing it in?


more from beliefnet and our partners