Review: Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance
Sincerity and a willingness to travel literally and metaphysically to the farthest reaches of humanity define Bradford Keeney’s Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit Through Ecstatic Dance. Keeney’s work is a deeply personal story of one non-indigenous man’s spiritual exploration and maturation. It is marked by his willingness to make himself vulnerable to and participate in other cultures and belief systems.
The strength of Keeney’s book is also its weakness, however. Its emphasis is less on Bushman ritual and spirituality, and more on the spiritual development of Bradford Keeney as a shaman. While this is often of interest, it also detracts from addressing Bushman culture and the Bushmen themselves.
Keeney is strongest when describing those aspects of shamanism and Bushman spirituality that relate to ecstasy, depicting how shamanic rituals are used to evoke the life force, or n/om, as it is known to the Bushmen. He offers little commentary on Bushman spirituality that is grounded in silence and reflection. “Healing must also include arousal,” he writes. “You are danced until your body collapses from fatigue. At that moment you fall into a deep state of relaxation and inner stillness, receiving the same benefits as classic meditation.”
A major point that Keeney refers to throughout his work is the importance of self-criticism and openness to change. He comments on the central role of the trickster figure in many indigenous forms of spirituality, noting that shamanism at its heart creates a space for dynamic spirituality because it is not fixed and dogmatic, and because it recognizes its own limitations. Indeed, Keeney himself seems to reflect this willingness on a personal level to laugh at his own weaknesses and to constantly question himself.
Keeney’s references to the supernatural can become tedious, if only because they happen so frequently that they lose the quality of the extraordinary. Many readers will also find that many of his statements are too rooted in subjective personal experience. It is sometimes unclear when Keeney is writing literally or figuratively, and how his own claims about spiritual experiences are meant to be interpreted.
Keeney argues that love and tolerance and embracing all aspects of life are fundamental aspects of shamanic spirituality. He argues that Western linear notions of good and evil and of justice and the role of punishment in the promotion of justice are not in sync with more circular shamanic ethics, and are often wrong and detrimental to individuals and society alike. While Keeney does make important critiques in this regard, his arguments are often extreme and too simplistic. For example he says, “God is love. This is all I need to know about God. The alpha and omega of all that existentially matters is found in love.” There is truth to this, and it is also reflected in many religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Christianity, in slightly different forms. However, although love may be the central pivot of ethics and of existential meaning, it also has its limitations.
A statement such as the following, which is quite typical of the book, reduces Bushman culture to one aspect of shamanism. When there is difficulty in the Bushmen community, Keeney insists that all that needs to be done to address the problem is to dance. “For the Bushmen, all difficulties require going to a dance,” he says, “bringing down the Big Love, and getting over it.” Dancing, however, cannot solve many of the Bushmen’s current problems. The Bushmen face very practical challenges to the continuity of their spiritual traditions and culture, particularly the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve of Botswana, who have been forcibly evicted from their lands by the Government of Botswana. Trance states and hallucination do little to secure the rights of the Bushmen and their ability to maintain their values and traditions.
Keeney reduces diverse cultural traditions to certain uniform assumptions about spirituality which he does not adequately explain nor examine in a critical manner. Describing shamans he states, “They are all in love with all of life and all the ways the life force can be turned on and shared with others. In this regard, yogis, shamans, mystics, saints, and bodhisattvas have no significant differences, other than costume and style. They all seek to be buoyant—that is, to remain as life preservers to anyone swimming in the divine ocean of love.” But this is not true. Within Buddhism alone there is a tension between differing conceptions of the concept of bodhisattva and enlightenment, with some sects placing emphasis on active compassion, and others on private, more personal self-control and enlightenment.
But Keeney is also a keenly perceptive observer of Bushman values. His depiction of the circular nature of Bushmen morality, one in which creativity and construction are seen in partnership with forces of destruction and change, rather than in opposition to it, is an important and eloquent one. Keeney observes, “The dualistic, antagonistic pairing of predator/prey is itself the side of a more encompassing distinction, ecosystem/species interaction. In this world of circles within circles, whatever appears as an opposition is, on another level, cooperating to maintain a more encompassing circularity.”
Bushman Shaman offers a glimpse of diverse spiritual traditions from around the world. It has the strengths and weaknesses of an autobiography: It is a work of openness, intimacy, and honesty, but is at times self-indulgent and prone to excess. Nevertheless, the concepts that Keeney introduces, Keeney’s passion, and his history of commitment to and involvement with tribal peoples and their spiritual values and systems deserves the respect and attention of readers.
Noam Schimmel is a teacher at Prozdor High School in Newton, Massachusetts.