July 11, 2008

Bountiful Therapist Communes With Ecstatic Bushmen

By Jessica Ravitz, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 11--NORTH SALT LAKE -- At first glance he's a typical, clean-cut, churchgoing white guy living in the 'burbs. But Troy Marsh, of Bountiful, is shaking things up, literally.

The physical therapist is en route -- he departed July 11 -- to southern Africa, where he'll partake in the transcendental rhythms, songs and all-night dances around fires with the Kalahari Bushmen, who didn't mix with outsiders until the 1950s. (Think of the 1980 film "The Gods Must Be Crazy.")

Marsh and 10 others, including Jade Chun of Salt Lake City, are part of a first-time experiential journey organized by Bradford Keeney, an internationally recognized therapist, scholar and shaman who's worked with the Bushmen for 15 years. Keeney, 57, is considered a master or owner of n/om (the "/" indicates a click in their Ju/'hoan language), the power to shake and help others shake in meaningful ways. Guided by elders in a remote Namibian village, the visitors' bodies will tremble in ecstatic movement as they feel the raw spirituality and healing powers of ancient shaking medicine, which Keeney points to as the world's oldest religious and therapeutic practice, one that's been expressed in the same form for at least 30,000, maybe 60,000, years.

"We've turned off the switch that must be turned on," said Keeney, who added in a recent phone interview that genetics have proven we are all descendants of Bushmen. "Through heightened feeling, they call it 'waking up,' we come together to sing, to wake our hearts up. In that state we become open to experiences and to the divine."

It's a bit like what might be seen at a Pentecostal revival -- Bushmen shamans do lay hands on people to heal them -- or in the heyday of Grateful Dead shows. But Keeney, the son and grandson of country Baptist preachers, said what takes hold in the Kalahari is a deeper, more mature and richer-in-variety arousal.

"The Bushmen would say there's an alphabet of expression, and many cultures only know a few letters," he said.

For Marsh, who will turn 44 (and celebrate what he calls "a spiritual rebirth") in the Kalahari, the two-week trip has been a long time coming.

The lifelong Utahn and proud, active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served in the mid-1980s as a Mormon missionary in Johannesburg, South Africa. Though he made it back for a vacation in 1986, he said the Africa bug never stopped biting him.

"It's said, 'You don't get into Africa. Africa gets into you,' " the father of three explained earlier this week. "I prayed for a time when I'd go back."

The Utahn learned of Keeney, who lives in Monroe, La., after he reached what he called a "spiritual plateau" about eight or nine years ago. He was searching for something more, a heightened connection to his faith, when Marsh said he learned to open up his heart in newer and fuller ways.

"I started to shake," he said, holding out his trembling hands at a restaurant table. "I started to have deeper prayers and meditation."

In 2006, someone handed Marsh a copy of Keeney's book, "Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit Through Ecstatic Dance." Soon after putting it down, he jumped in his car to drive to Sedona, where he first heard Keeney speak. Later, he attended a Keeney workshop. He said, "I felt like I met a brother."

Marsh and Keeney both said there's no conflict in relishing what the Bushmen offer and staying true to one's own faith. The Bushmen, in their most ecstatic state, have "visionary experiences," seeing, for example, ropes that float up to the sky allowing them to dance with their ancestors, Keeney said. This value of family and ancestors, for a Latter-day Saint who's always treasured genealogical work, is easy for Marsh to embrace. And the words of any sort of bible or religious text only mean something when they're read with an awakened heart, Keeney added.

" 'God doesn't live in paper,' " he said, recalling what the Bushmen told Christian missionaries when they began approaching them. "If you want to experience God, your heart must be open."

Lined up in pews, with books held open, too many people only know institutionalized or textualized spirituality, Keeney said. And while broader society has recognized the value of meditation, it hasn't yet accepted and even shuns as madness the idea of heightened, unfettered arousal, "the last great taboo," he said.

"We trade in the raw, wild experiences," what sociologists say marked the beginning of every religion, "for normalized beliefs and understandings," he said. "At the beginning, they dance for the Lord, and then they end up just talking about the Lord."

For the Kalahari Bushmen, who've lived in a culture without a written language and have no institutions, holding onto and passing on spirituality in its purest form happened naturally, Keene explained. That history, however, is threatened today.

"In Botswana, they discovered diamonds and took [the Kalahari Bushmen] off their land. In Namibia, they've found heavy metals, so it's just a matter of time," he said. "At the same time, people come with good intentions and set up schools, but it disrupts the old ways."

What exists in the Kalahari now won't last, which is why Keeney decided it was time to bring others into the experience.

"The elders aren't going to be around forever," he said. "Let's just take a group and visit them and see what comes of it."

Marsh, who said he dreamt he was going to the Kalahari before he was invited, is sure it'll only solidify what he's already been feeling and saying.

"I often kid my friends," he said. "My ward has no boundaries. It's global."

Jessica Ravitz can be reached at [email protected] or 801-257-8776. Send comments to the religion editor at [email protected]

Kalahari dance and shaking medicine

To learn more about Bradford Keeney and shaking medicine, visit www.shaking medicine.com.


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