Friday, January 31, 2014

The San Bushmen Hunter Gatherers of the Kalahari

This weeks blog is on the San Bushmen who are central to the talk I am giving (April 12; 10-1 at the Schott center Santa Barbara.) Although many have found the title Bushmen demeaning and prefer the word San, many Bushmen prefer this title as reflective of their unique skills as hunter gatherers.
This description was my first journey to the Bushmen and in 1987 was also the first real hero's journey outside of my medical training and surgical career.
I went up to the Kua Bushmen several hours north of Gaberones in Botswana with a group but had arranged with Izak Barnard, the leader, to leave me behind with a 4x4 and the supplies I needed for the rest of a month's stay.
This is what I experienced in a window of time when it was still possible to witness Bushmen living as their ancestors had millennia ago. It was a life changing experience which lead to profound understandings on the healing powers of nature and nurtured the concept of "Wilderness Rapture" (or any altered state of consciousness that can occur whenever we encounter nature's magic.) This is further discussed in Inner Passages Outer Journeys (the summary of which can be downloaded as a pdf from my web site.) This is the first of a two part blog.

A Lesson from the Hunter-Gatherers
The Bushmen, or San are one of the last Hunter Gatherers of Africa. The San have attracted various groups of people for different reasons. Anthropologists see them as a link to long lost stone age cultures and naturalists and hunters admire them for their extraordinary expertise in the bush. Those of a more mystical inclination are fascinated with their oneness with the fauna and flora of the Kalahari, a connection that has enabled them to survive for centuries in a desert that most other peoples have avoided. Through this, they previously remained free from the trappings and problems of more sophisticated societies.
Legends of the Bushmen abound. History tells us how they could not be tamed and how they were pushed further and further into the interior of Southern Africa by the northerly migration of the whites and southerly migration of the Bantu. Many stories are related of their cunning as hunters and trackers, of their botanical and medicinal skills, of their delicate rock art and their bravery. Their desire to be free was paramount and it was said that if you imprisoned a San, he would soon will himself to death in his cell. The San people are so much in the present moment that they are unable to conceive of a time in the future when things might be different and they could be free.
Physically, the San are quite different from other South African Bantu peoples. They are short of stature, have copper-colored skin, peppercorn hair and delicate facial features. They have slanting eyes and high cheek bones. This has led to speculation as to the origin of these original indigenous people of Southern Africa, who origins go back thousands of years.
 They have called themselves the "First People" and genetic studies have found them to be correct. We all have Bushmen D.N.A. in our cells. The women often are exquisite and have a characteristic sign of steatopygia. This is an excess of fat accumulation in the buttocks, so that they project somewhat behind them. Buttocks are the most important part of the anatomy when it comes to sex appeal and are always covered. Some of these features are disappearing as the Bushman inter-marry with their Bantu neighbors.
The women provide most of the food by foraging. They are outstanding botanists and, while walking at quite a pace, can discern subtle changes in the shapeless Kalahari scrub denoting something edible. Out comes the ubiquitous digging stick, and within seconds a delectable morsel is thrown into the skin bag. Many of the roots, bulbs and tubers are quite deep underground and have to be uncovered a foot or more down. It is only deep under the surface of the earth that they can acquire enough moisture in which to grow. One to two hours later and five skin bags full and they return to camp with enough food for all.

All the men have with them for a hunting trip are a bow, a quiver of arrows, a digging stick, fire stick and a sipping straw to suck water out of hollow trees or from sip-wells in the sand. With these simple implements and their incredible knowledge of the desert they can survive indefinitely. Their back yard has always been their pantry and their skills give them an enviable sense of freedom.
There are few landmarks in the Kalahari and one thorn tree looks like another to the uninitiated. To the San, however, each area has a its own tale to tell. Their knowledge extends many miles beyond their encampments where they are just as familiar with the featureless terrain. It is nothing for them to walk 50 miles to visit friends and they are able to find plenty to eat along the way.
The San are extremely egalitarian. They have no chief or leader and everyone -- male and female -- has a say in the activities of the group. Certain members are known for their extraordinary skills such as hunting or healing but this does not confer on them any additional privileges. Egomaniacal attitudes are not part of Bushman behavior.
 Children would be considered thoroughly "spoiled" in our terms. When a child picks up a musical instrument, allowance is the rule no matter how distracting the noise. Children rarely have a request refused and no adult can bear to hear a child cry. The Kalahari desert is a cruel enough teacher, and the environment outside of home holds enough to teach youngsters to be responsible adults. Even amongst the adults, an unconditional positive regard for others seemed  routine and it is difficult to find judgmental attitudes amongst the group.
Water was like a drug to the San and wells put in by the Botswana government are among the factors that have put an end to their nomadic way of life. It is so much easier to turn on a faucet than to go and dig for tubers and look for Tsama melons, even if it means a walk of five miles or more. Plastic bottles have replaced empty ostrich egg shells as water containers. Previously these were filled with water from hollowed out tree trunks, using hollow reeds to suck the water up and spit it carefully back into the shell. These natural reservoirs were covered meticulously with a log or branch to prevent animals from drinking and polluting it. The Kalahari has no natural water and it rains infrequently. Before the advent of wells these people did not have water, yet adapted happily to the environment.
To get water they dig for the tuber,  "Baiee" [Raphion Acme Burkei], grate it with a sharp stick and deliver the juice inside. To this are added one or two different plants to take away the bitterness and possible catalyze the release of more water, since an excessive volume can be squeezed from a modest amount of the shavings. Nothing is wasted, and they use the residue of the fibers to scrub and clean themselves
Except for a few hardy purists, the San tend to settle in close proximity to a well. Nevertheless, the skills for finding water remain and the San are adept in their use. However, future generations growing up with water faucets may lose these skills. Dependency on the well means that women and men have to forage further and further afield for food, game and firewood. The San way of life had been predicated on their being transient. The presence of a well along with other factors have become a strong deterrent to their nomadic way of life.
Many pressures threaten the San way of life besides the introduction of water on tap. Huge cattle ranches have appeared with fences that both limit game migration and inhibit their nomadic pattern. Cattle overgrazing is a problem with regard to the destruction of natural habitat and food to forage. Game preserves and hunting areas have been demarcated and the San are no longer welcome, even though their hunting needs are small and do not affect the ecology. The San hunter-gatherer is slowly disappearing since it is easier for them to assimilate with their Bantu neighbors around them.
Hunting is now a rare event, since little large game remains in the vicinity around their villages. Meat, is still occasionally available from small game because of the Sans' ingenious trapping ability. They now concentrate on the trapping of smaller antelope and birds especially the delicate duiker and steenbok, koraan and guinea fowl. Watching them set a trap is like a surgical exercise. They pay minute attention to detail, and trapping has become a work of practical art. Most astounding is the knowledge of the animals, as they "become" that animal, chatting away to each other and discussing all aspects of behavior and how best to set the trap. It seems uncanny that in this vast expanse of desert, they would be able to eat meat just because one buck placed one foot in a six-inch diameter spot somewhere in the vast Kalahari. It is not difficult to learn how to set a sloppy trap but it takes a lifetime to learn where to set it.
Rope making is essential since without it one cannot make a bow or snare. This basic skill is one of the easiest to learn. Rope was made from a small fibrous-like plant called "Gwi" (Sanserveria, also called mother-in-law's tongue), which is ubiquitous. Even a thin cord is extremely strong and difficult to break.
Hunting of bigger game is now impractical on foot for the San in terms of energy expenditure. The Bushmen have to walk long distances to find their quarry now that their hunting grounds have been encroached on. The San will not expend more energy than they can get back from the exercise since, with water and food being so critical, this could become a life or death situation especially because of the intense heat in the Kalahari.
Skinning of the animal is done quickly and efficiently on a table of broken branches in the sand. Nothing is wasted and the delicacies -- the heart, kidneys and liver -- are wrapped in the stomach and cooked in an ash oven or pot. These are the privileges of the hunter, and the rest is shared. In times of drought the San squeeze the liquid from the stomach contents for a drink. Survival in the Kalahari lays esthetics aside.
The poisonous grub of the diamphidia beetle can be found a foot away from a particular commifora bush and here they sometimes spend several hours digging. It is hard to imagine how the first San discovered that the innards of this grub were deadly when in contact with the blood stream. Perhaps it came to one of them in an altered state of consciousness during the "Trance Dance." The time it takes to kill depends on the size and weight of the prey and the San have been known to track a large wounded animal for a day or more.
Sinew is wound around the metal shaft of the arrowhead and the poison smeared onto it with great care not to put any on the point of the arrow. A mere scratch could be fatal, and there is no antidote to the poison. It is easy to understand why the quiver is solid and made from a specialized piece of hollow bark. This is one activity the children are not allowed to share.
The San are small people, and their bows and arrows are toy-like. They do not rely on a fatal shot from afar, as their incredible tracking ability and stealth allow them a shot from up close. The poison takes care of the rest. The wooden body of the arrow is arranged cleverly to drop away from the poisoned metal shaft which remains stuck in the flesh so the animal cannot dislodge it by rubbing up against a tree. The poison is deactivated with heat, cooking and also by gastric juice. Poison on the arrowheads is easily eliminated by placing them in the fire for a minute.
The Bushmen are master trackers. They can tell how many animals have passed by which were male and female, their size and approximate time of arrival. Even if a track looks relatively recent they will know if the animal has too much of a head start to be worth following.
The San have rudimentary shelters in which they rarely sleep except in the rare event of rain. The grass walls soon become a haven for the small creatures of the Kalahari and every now and then have to be burned down and reconstructed. Kalahari nights are extraordinary and everyone welcomes the release from the heat of the day. If one can find a group far away from the Bantu villages the Kalahari again feels untainted by the 21st century. When evening comes the "veldkos" (veld food) is roasted in the ashes. After eating there is singing and dancing. San music is different from anything else one has ever heard and the haunting sounds of singing and clapping can easily propel one into an altered state of consciousness. Dancing is accompanied by the swishing sounds of ankle rattles the men wrap around their legs. Given the right energy and enough time at the dance, the San are able to trance and travel up to the spirit world. This will be discussed further in an upcoming talk on Wilderness Rapture.
The San spirit dance is a phenomenon that enables the healer to leave his or her body and do battle with the spirits for the restoration of the health of the patient. It also is known as the "Little Death," since the dancer is in danger of not returning to the body and has to be carefully watched. Trance dancers have been known to do remarkable things with fire, including putting parts of their anatomy in the flames without suffering burns. They are known for their psychic and healing abilities, and many Africans prefer to see a San healer than be treated by their own medicine person. There are also many whites who can testify to being cured by a San healer after Western medicine had failed them. In trance the San travel into the spirit world to get diagnostic information and then come back out of trance to administer energy with hands on healing. In this out of body trance state the shaman is also capable of remote viewing of game or water sources which information helps the clan survive.
Bushman rock art depicting a shaman shape shifting during trance. The line coming out of the top of the head has been described as a "rope to God"
These unique people seem to have found the balance we lack in our modern society and it is disturbing to hear visitors say that they find the San intriguing because of their “primitive” lifestyle. In many ways the San are more sophisticated than we are. Without much effort they have attained the higher principles so often quoted by the mystics of Eastern religions -- joy and living totally in the present moment, lack of judgmental attitudes, unconditional love and being in the flow of nature and the cosmos.
The only spiritual practice they appear to have that enabled them to reach this enlightened state is the purity of their relationship with wilderness. They have no esoteric techniques such as meditation or Yoga and many cannot read or write. Hence nature alone may be one of the most powerful spiritual forces available for personal growth if accessed in the right way. If we were to derive this benefit as Westerners we need to have as little as possible between us and the wild. The more we separate ourselves from nature, the more diluted the effect. We need to simulate the Bushman model as much as is feasible and keep it simple to experience the benefits.
The Kua San depicted the mother earth as a pregnant woman created by the Great Spirit "Bisi." The huge belly of the woman that they drew for me ruptured, giving forth all the animals of the veld. The skin of the woman then became the crust of the mother earth whom the San treat with the greatest respect. The concepts of Gaia and Deep Ecology that we are only now beginning to embrace are second nature to them. Although many Westerners are enthralled with the superb bushcraft or “hard” skills that the Bushmen have mastered in their brutal environment, just as noteworthy are their group interaction or “soft” skills, as well as their spirituality.
These qualities seemed to arise from their austere way of life, which had been self-imposed for generations. Rather than assimilate with the Bantu or work on white farms, the San chose freedom in the depths of the Kalahari. Unfortunately, cattle ranching, game fences and the four-wheel drive have put an end to their unique, unfettered way of life. Change has now overtaken the San and some have been overwhelmed by the temptations of modern consumerism and alcohol. They are well aware of some of the commodities that could make life easier. But with each acquisition they become a little less free, without understanding that by gaining something material they are actually losing something far more precious.
The change in their way of life is most obvious in the alterations in their dwellings. They now have simulated the Bantu way of building and are separated from each other by the construction of small huts with doors on them. There are fences between the homes. Previously, the San would sleep together on the earth, next to the fire. As they acquire more possessions, they develop fear about who might dispossess them. San healers who trance danced in an altruistic, holistic fashion for the sake of the clan now charge for services rendered.
There is nothing special about the San psyche. They are the same as we are in the West and, if anything, more prone to the temptations of materialism. What is unique is their habitat and their connection with the earth and cosmos and this birthright has being taken away from them. Moreover, the San have tasted the fruit of our consumer society and have been seduced by its power. The attraction of "things" has overwhelmed them, and the ego sense of the San has changed. The social structure that kept everybody humble and egalitarian with little emphasis on ego has fallen away. And with this depletion, their spiritual life continues to deteriorate. Nevertheless, there are small groups of San who continue their ancient healing traditions and some San have learned to live in two worlds, reconnecting with the wilderness as the need arises.

As Westerners we can use the San model to reconnect with that primeval hunter-gatherer part of ourselves which resides deep in our psyche and was operative and functional for eons. By doing so, and by keeping as little between us and nature as possible we can tap into a different spiritual dimension in wilderness. We can learn from their egalitarianism and humility since Eastern philosophy teaches that ego is the greatest obstacle in reaching our inner being. The spirit dance of the San is a powerful way of harmonizing the group, connecting with the ancestral spirits and the Great Spirit, as well as healing sick members of the clan. The San believe that sickness or imbalance resides in all of us but only becomes illness or disease in some. It is only with regular rebalancing with the use of the healing dance that health can best be retained or restored in the group. At a more basic level, it is when we reconnect with that hunter-gatherer part of ourselves or any deep spiritual practice that we can understand what this balance is.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Hero or Heroine Archetype

For next week's blog I will relate experiences with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari. This was my first real hero's journey outside of that encountered during medical school and surgical training. This archetype is key to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment. The quest for self-realization often comprises a series of hero's journeys. We will discuss this archetype further in the upcoming talk on wilderness healing in April.

In "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," Joseph Campbell says, "The hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
There is a Sanskrit chant which translates, "May the hero awaken from forgetfulness and transcend all anxiety and sorrow."
In the context of Kabbalah, the hero is seen as having to conquer the serpent, which is wound around the central trunk of the Tree of Life, in order to reach Keter, the highest sephira and enlightenment.

The journey of the hero, or the journey of initiation or any rite of passage has been defined by Arnold Van Gennep as occurring in three distinct phases, severance or separation, threshold or the journey itself, and incorporation or integration. The hero's journey is the quest for one's own higher Self, a journey into one's own psyche.

In the first phase of separation the hero hears the call to adventure. He or she must either follow it or kill something within. This call is a yearning for the extraordinary. The first level of resistance must be overcome (work, home, spouse, children, friends, etc. telling you not to go,) and once this is done guides assist the hero to point out the dangers and show the way. This is the phase where synchronicity may appear. Jung described synchronicity as a meaningful coincidence where two events occur simultaneously, linking the inner psyche with the outer event. For example, one makes a decision to take a trip and a brochure arrives that day describing the very trek you wish to take. In 1987 I was compelled to take a trip to the Bushmen of the Kalahari which will be the subject of the next blog. You may have had similar experience. The hero may be armed or given a symbol of power, such as a sword in the classical tales of old. Today this is more likely to be some form of knowledge, in the form of a book or a teacher to help one on the way. Izak Barnard who spent most of his life with Bushmen guided me on my first San Bushmen journey.

Following separation the hero enters into the second phase: the threshold or the journey itself. Usually this takes place in nature, in wilderness, in a cave or a forest. The hero passes into a world of supernatural wonder where strange forces are encountered and the ordinary world left behind. An obstacle or physical force is met, such as a dragon, guard, or fierce dog, which must be overcome before victory is won. The hero faces death and physical danger before encountering the dangers of the psyche, the shadow parts of one's life, or the dark night of the soul. This is critical for the hero to be reborn, or become whole, self-realized or self-actualized. With the knowledge and confidence of the success of the first physical obstacle, and with the object of power such as a  metaphoric sword, the hero is able to overcome the more difficult second confrontation, the struggle with his basic fear. Of the two fears, the psychological can be greater than the physical. Having prevailed, the hero earns the reward of a grail and the treasure of inner knowledge.

With this new gift the magical numinous world can be left behind. The hero departs the threshold with a new awareness and returns home with knowledge and power to help. Now the phase of incorporation begins. The journey cannot be completed unless the hero brings the wisdom of the experience back to the community. The journey is ultimately an altruistic one.

During the phases of separation and threshold fear will come up with all its manifestations. Without confronting fear, the archetypal journey of the hero’s journey cannot be fulfilled. Nature or wilderness with all its diverse polarities is an ideal place for the journey and is a powerful tool for indigenous rites of passage. There are many ways to experience the archetype and a woman's battle with breast cancer can encompass all its dynamics. The hero/ine gains an appreciation of self-mastery and awareness that later can be taken back to the community and integrated.

There are fewer heroes in public life these days. While many people complete the first two phases, few complete the third phase of incorporation. An example of this is the Olympic athlete who fulfills the phases of separation and threshold. However, the phase of incorporation where something is taken back to the community is often lacking. This particular journey is more accurately termed the warrior’s journey. Our Western society is replete with successful warriors. Not infrequently, when the modern day American warrior enters the threshold phase and encounters a metaphorical dragon that disallows access to the forest, another way of overcoming the obstacle, is having one's attorney sue the dragon. This is a non- archetypal way of gaining access to the forest.

So-called "primitive" peoples seem to understand the psychological importance of the process and use it to the greatest effect to make their young men whole. At a certain age they are forcibly "separated" from their mothers and the womenfolk to undergo rigorous training with the older men, finally culminating in a terrifying ordeal such as ritual circumcision. After this they can integrate back into the tribe or group as men and take on new responsibilities. Today, amongst many African tribes, this rite of passage is still intact, and ritual circumcision is a significant part of it. Hunting of an animal may be another part of the process. Here, the three phases of initiation are fulfilled. The psychological and physical pain a boy must endure in some cultures with surgical removal of his foreskin without anesthesia or a sharp scalpel, is something few of his counterparts in the Western world would be able to endure. Their young women have different pubertal rites of passage that fulfill the same criteria.
In the West our rites of passage pale by comparison.  In the traditional male initiation ceremony no females are present and vice versa and the process is ritualized into something powerful by the respective elders.  The youth will carry this all his life and retrieve it from the psyche when the need for courage and fortitude arise. Armed with this past experience they can believe in their ability to handle whatever comes their way. I cannot help but think that this inner strength has enabled many Africans to endure with equanimity and courage the numerous trials and tribulations the continent continuously offers up to them. President Mandela underwent his own initiation as a youth.


I have been leading wilderness healing trip into remote areas for many years and personally believe that nature is the best place to encounter the polarities required for personal transformation. How it is eventually done is up to the individual. There are challenges with the incorporation phase which is often the most difficult of the three phases. In the case of anyone taking on a powerful spiritual journey there is usually a re-entry depression that can be difficult to handle. Here are some of the principles I have found useful for the re-entry
  1. 1)  Acknowledge the re-entry depression as a gift resulting from a profound encounter with your true Self. It is an indicator of the intensity of the journey and the associated altered state of consciousness. This can be quite subtle and only becomes apparent on re-entry. Often the more powerful the journey, the more profound the depression.
  2. 2)  Separate needs from wants on the return. It is the "want" and not the need that will sabotage a successful integration. Beware the seduction of materialism. There is nothing wrong with materialism as long as the energy required to sustain it does not take us away from "following our bliss." There is nothing wrong with having "things" but they should not have you.
    3)  Practice the walk and suppress the talk; live the vision rather than describe it. Family and friends are more likely to pay attention to a shift in behavior for the better than to any peak or transformational experience described in words.
    4)  Do not dive back into old habits and addictions. Substitute them for a form of spiritual practice that is enjoyable, practical and likely to last. One cannot face the challenges of modern society without the help of some method of going inward. This does not have to be anything esoteric; surfing may be more powerful than meditation, gardening as good as Tai Chi.
    5)  Develop a community that can be self supporting. There is synergy in groups, where in terms of spiritual energy 2+2=5 and 5+5=15.
    6)  Live out your vision, be true to your own myth or follow your bliss (Joseph Campbell).
  1. The essence of incorporation is to give the gift gained from the journey away. This act will bring just as many benefits to the giver as it will to the receiver. Albert Schweitzer understood this well. 
“ I don’t know what your destiny will be but one thing I do know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

For those wanting to see a 45 minute video done by South African T.V. on sangoma medicine at our healing center Tshisimane go to 
The center is no more having been claimed by the government but the information still stands
Dear Blogger

This is my first post so I thought I would start with a slightly modified blurb I drafted for CLL and the upcoming classes for spring. The second of these Messages from the Ancestors Wisdom for the way is on May 10th. These are messages that have been collected and compiled since 2000. We will take selected passages to meditate on and discuss during this interactive two hour session. Music will accompany some of the meditations and allow it to be "sensory" - highly recommended to better access the spirit world. Before the class I will be posting  weekly selected readings for those that are interested.
Anyone interested in more information about my background including videos, books and music CD's can go to Messages from the Ancestors - Wisdom for the Way is available at Chaucers for those that want to delve deeper.

David Cumes

Teaching at Adult Education and now C.L.L. since 1998

Resume: Dave, born in South Africa, is a Stanford trained surgeon practicing in Santa Barbara. In 1987 Dave turned his interest to shamanism especially in South Africa. Dave is the author of five books, including The Spirit of Healing, Africa in My Bones  and Messages from the Ancestors - Wisdom for the Way. Africa in My Bones describes his initiation into South African spirit medicine in 2002. The second talk for May the 10th will comprise selected messages from higher vibrations in the spirit world.
Interesting fact: Dave also practices indigenous African medicine out of his home and is a bridge between ancient wisdom and the West.
What do I enjoy about teaching at C.L.L.: Imparting knowledge relatively unknown to the West with C.L.L.'s sophisticated enthusiast students.
Spring classes:
Wilderness Rapture and Healing
Saturday 4/12/14, 10-1pm

Messages from the Ancestors, Wisdom for the Way
Saturday 5/10/14, 10-12 noon
This two hour meditation on ancient wisdom includes music and discussion, and profound insights coming from higher realms of spiritual existence called the “Causal.” The teachings embrace love, joy and gratitude. Explore for yourself the nature of free will, the power of surrender, destiny and the law of karma, transmigration of the soul and the play of light and dark. This class celebrates the wisdom available from the other side of the “ veil” between worlds, and demonstrates how we can benefit from contact with our own spirit guides or ancestors.

Quote: "Communications from the spirit realm are usually subtle and do not come like a bolt of lightning out of the sky. They come like a whisper on the wind or the nuance of a dream or the appearance of a special animal, and are to remind us that we have special spirit friends and helpers." 
Dave Cumes.

Three things students will learn from these classes:
How nature is a preferred environment for healing and is a room with many doors and windows to spirit allowing for profound healing, personal transformation and "wilderness rapture."
That free will is the cosmic law and that we need to "ask to receive."
How our spirit guided are our "Ap" to a realm of non local information which can help us along our life path.

Three interesting facts:
Happiness comes from gratitude and doing service for others. The more we give and the less we try to "get" the happier we will be.
To achieve is to be agenda oriented but if we wish to have deeper transformational effects we need to let go of any attachment to looking good.
The fundamental notion of equilibrating the opposites to attain balance is omnipresent in all beliefs. This universal truth is crucial to how we keep well and how we heal. Nature is the best place to experience all polarities.