The author’s journey to becoming a Bushman shaman and healer and how this tradition relates to shamanic practices around the world
• Explores the Bushmen’s ecstatic shaking and dancing practices
• Written by the first non-Bushman to become fully initiated into their healing and spiritual ways
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 the Kalahari “trance dance,” wherein the dancers’ bodies shake uncontrollably as part of the healing ceremony. Keeney was drawn to this tradition in the hope that it might explain and provide a forum for his own ecstatic “shaking,” which he had first experienced at the age of 19 and had tried to suppress and hide throughout his adult life.
For more than a dozen years Keeney danced with Bushmen shamans in communities throughout Botswana and Namibia, until finally becoming fully initiated into their doctoring and spiritual ways. Through his rediscovery of the “rope to God” in a Bushman shaman dream, he offers readers accounts of his shamanic world travels and the secrets of the soul he learned along the way. In Bushman Shaman Keeney also reveals his work with shamans from Japan, Tibet, Bali, Thailand, Australia, and North and South America, providing new understandings of other forms of shamanic spiritual expression and integrating the practices of all these traditions into a sacred circle of one truth.
When it dawned on me that I was being taught by dreams, my life changed dramatically. I organized my schedule according to the directions I received in visionary states. They took me to various American Indian elders and to an inner city African American church. The dreams also called for me to travel to faraway cultures and meet elders who practiced shamanic ways.
From age 19, when I had that first rapturous awakening , I wondered whether there were others having the same experience. It was reassuring to find the yoga traditions that accessed what they called kundalini energy, which felt familiar, but wasn’t quite the same. I never meditated or had a spiritual teacher who gave instructions about moving the inner life force--after being hit with spiritual lightning, that just happened automatically. I also discovered this shaking and vibrating experience could be passed on to others, like a game of spiritual tag.
In 1990 I saw a documentary film about the Bushman healing dance, by John Marshall. I immediately recognized familiar territory: I watched people shaking and passing the ecstatic body trembling on to one another. The oldest living culture’s ecstatic expressions were readily identifiable to me; they were all part of my experience. I had been practicing a similar form of vibrant touch and ecstatic encounter as the Bushmen.
As we set up our tents, my university colleague, Peter, reminded me to be on the lookout for wildlife. “We might see some giraffe, cheetah, kudu, honey badger, leopard, or a lion.” I looked up and instead I saw a thin man walking toward me. He was wearing an olive colored work shirt and had three deep wrinkles etched into his forehead and a circle that outlined his nose and chin when he smiled. “I am Twele. I am here to be your guide. You can ask me anything about our culture because the shamans said you were one of them.” I had dreamed of Twele’s company. With great excitement, I clapped my hands and hugged him. We both began shaking. Then I said, “Let’s get started. Please tell me what you experience when you are in the dance.” Happy to meet a white man who could communicate through his body, through shaking, their most intimate mode of expression, Twele began talking.
“For me, it is a very special time. I love to dance. It is the favorite thing for all Bushmen to do. We dance when we are happy and we dance when we are sad. When we get ready to hunt, we dance because it helps us find the animal and then after the kill, we bring home the meat and dance again. We also dance when we feel sick. It helps us take away the sickness and it keeps us well. The dance is the most important aspect of our lives. It is our prayer, our medicine, our teaching, and our way of having fun. Everything we do is related to that dance.
“For shamans, the dance helps them feel the power that causes the shaking. We see that you already understand this. For me, I feel my hands getting very hot when I touch others in the dance. When the people sing loudly and I dance, the power comes into my feet. It is the power from the music and the seriousness of the occasion that makes me very hot. It comes into my head and I feel it as a kind of steam that makes my head feel larger. A light then comes over the dance. My body also seems to become lighter in weight and I feel like I am floating over the ground. It will be good to dance with you tonight!”
As night appeared on the horizon, the community gathered to prepare for the dance. Twele told me that there were still herds of elands in the area, a very special animal for the Bushmen. While he was talking, I spotted an ostrich in the distance. A black-breasted snake eagle flew overhead. Branches gathered from nearby trees were brought to make a fire. The women arranged themselves in a circle to clap and start the songs. All of the community came to the dance, ready to put electricity in the air under a sky filled with gazing stars.
At first I stood outside the dance circle with Peter, who was unusually serious, not teasing as he had done so far throughout the trip. Peter was fully into the moment, and his silent presence encouraged me to jump right in. It only took a few minutes for me to feel the tingling in my legs. It felt as though sharp needles were being stuck into my calves and thighs. They twitched and jerked as the pricking gave way to the flow of an inner current. I told Peter, “I feel the electricity. Look at my legs.” He smiled and said, “Yes sir, you are definitely plugged in.”
Then, without expectation, I felt my hip muscles begin to move. It was as if there were strings attached to my hip held by some puppeteer in the sky who was lifting them up and down. It felt like the dance had caught me. The Bushmen took notice and clapped their hands, shouting with joy. They, too, knew that I had been snared by the dance.
I didn’t dance that night. Instead, I was danced--I exerted absolutely no effort or willful intention. Twele and Mantag gracefully moved over to me and brought me into the line of men who were dancing around the fire. I had entered the dance and was doing it with no choreography, dance lessons, or understanding of what was taking place.
Bradford Keeney, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned scholar, therapist, and shaman who has led expeditions throughout the world to study cultural healing practices. He is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Rock Art Research Institute, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and is the author of Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance, Shamanic Christianity: The Direct Experience of Mystical Communion, Shaking Medicine: The Healing Power of Ecstatic Movement, and the editor of the Profiles of Healing series.
“Keeney’s vision is leading the vanguard in defining and articulating the territory between psychology and spirit.”
– Eric Utne, founder of The UTNE Reader
“The most striking example of the products, cures, and philosophies being offered that have their origins in practices of primitive cultures is from Bradford Keeney.”
– TIME magazine
“Brad Keeney may be the closest we have to a genuine American shaman. In Bushman Shaman, he shares his remarkable adventures into the psyche and his equally remarkable sensibility as an explorer of the human spirit. Fascinating.”
– Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
“Bradford Keeney invites us to go beyond modernity to the oldest culture on Earth to find true magic and power. May those who take this journey with him surrender to their own ecstatic dance, and in so doing, find their way back home.”
– Malidoma Patrice Somé, author of The Healing Wisdom of Africa and Of Water and the Spirit
“There is no question in the minds of the Bushman healers that Keeney's strength and purposes are coterminous with theirs. I know this from talking myself with some of the Kalahari shamans who danced with him. They affirmed his power as a healer and their enjoyment of dancing with him. . . . He knows whereof he writes, having traveled ‘ropes to God’ himself for much of his life, in many places in addition to the Kalahari.”
– Megan Biesele, Ph.D., cofounder and coordinator of the Kalahari People's Fund, former member of the
“Probably the most important book in the fields of healing and indigenous spirituality that's been published for many years. Keeney weaves together diverse threads of shamanic wisdom with deceptive ease--easy only because he became a shaman and lived the story on behalf of all of us. Anyone truly interested in the age-old questions of ‘What is God’ and ‘Why are we here?’ should read this book.”
– Rupert Isaacson, author of The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert
“Bushman Shaman is a pleasure to read and will be of great interest to people studying psychotherapy or trance-dance healing.”
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