Saturday, March 28, 2015

This week's blog is on sangoma cosmology

The word sangoma comes from the Zulu word ngoma, for a drum. It is the sound of the drum that brings forth the spirit. The drumming is accompanied by special songs and chants. When the spirit enters the body the sangoma’s voice will change as he or she becomes the channel for the ancestor. Sometimes she will speak in tongues and often with a different accent. The ancestor who presents will often be quite fastidious and demand a certain cloth or garment in which they feel comfortable. Sangomas usually have an array of these and will wear a specific cloth depending on which spirit is addressing the group. Since most of the spirits are African, they request traditional attire but a foreign spirit can make a special request which then must be honored. They may ask for a glass of water or cigarette since now they are able to experience sentient pleasures again. Many sangomas will dance to work themselves into a trance or will be “danced” at the will of their ancestor once she or he enters their body. The tremendous energy and skill necessary to achieve this state can be remarkable and add conviction to the fact that the healer is in a profoundly altered state of consciousness. Many times the channel would seem incapable of performing in this fashion unless he was in fact “possessed.” 

Sangoma initiate in possession state

The Nguni believe that the first humans came out of the reeds. In addition to ancestral spirits there are terrestrial spirits, cosmic spirits and water spirits who are very powerful. Foreign spirits unrelated to the family also exist. They may be friendly or not. Frequently they have known the grandparents while they were alive and now are “hanging about” in the ethers with them. Some foreign spirits, on the other hand, are up to no good and these “intruders” may cause mischief or get in the way of the energy flow of the living. The Nguni are a warrior people, and malicious foreign spirits may be present because someone’s dead grandfather or relative killed them long ago. These bad spirits can be exorcised by Femba, a form of psychic diagnosis and psycho-spiritual surgery or exorcism. Bad spirits are capable of causing significant harm.

         Reincarnation is very much part of African philosophy and family members may reincarnate into their own families. Because of this, black Africans, who are steeped in the old ways and whose traditions are intact, believe that “the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children.” Psychology may attribute this to unskillful parenting which leads to hurtful influence and bad conditioning of the child. African philosophy goes further than this, believing that not only can unhappy and dysfunctional spirits affect their progeny from the beyond but also that a dysfunctional spirit can reincarnate into their blood line and recreate the same dysfunction in a future generation.  As an example, an alcoholic grandfather who has passed on reincarnates into the family line, perpetuating the alcoholic syndrome.

Since ancestral spirits may reincarnate into the same family it is crucial to heal the sins that may have occurred in the past such as murder, theft, abuse, and so on.  By reaching out, forgiving, and healing the spirit who perpetrated the nefarious deed, everyone is healed and another cycle of karmic dysfunction in the family is averted or lessened.  Forgiveness and acceptance are the keys here. It is best achieved while everyone is alive but in African tradition forgiveness and healing can occur beyond the grave.  If the sin is not addressed, the problem may not only have a harmful effect on the living in this lifetime but could continue into the next incarnation.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

This weeks blog is on the basic mechanisms of healing used by various Sangomas

There are several Bantu groups in Southern Africa. The Nguni are the majority and comprise the Zulu, Swazi, and Xhosa, all of whom speak a similar language. The others include Sotho and Tswana (who also have a common language,) Venda, and the Tsonga (who speak Shangaan.) The shamans of both groups are called sangomas and inyangas. The key to their healing states is the ability to harness the yoga principle of Kundalini energy. Zulus describe this energy as the Umbilini, the San peoples call it Num. All Southern African tribes believe in an internal snake that is feminine that is connected to not only spiritual power but also sexuality and fertility. When  sangomas get possessed by the ancestral spirit their bodies will often shake and perspire from the heat generated by the sudden and profound movement of this energy.
The Nguni, especially, use drumming and dancing to induce trance and channel the ancestors. All Bantu healers obtain information from their spirit guides through the mediums of dreams and the divining bones. A sangoma may see a plant in a dream that she will later dispense to the appropriate patient. Possession or spirit mediumship among the Nguni peoples is usually overt, whereas amongst the others it is more often implicit rather than explicit. However, there is much overlap among the different tribes and drumming and possession by ancestral or guiding spirits are common to all groups. Trance channeling or spirit mediumship, however, is more part of the Nguni custom. 
The two essential principles for their healing are the power of  placebo and distant healing facilitated by invoking the help of guiding spirits.

Distant diagnosis and distant healing have been used by the Bantu peoples for thousands of years. Their healers are also able to manipulate the power of belief and faith, or placebo.  Placebo is a basic tool for the sangoma.  In Western medicine, randomized, controlled, double-blind studies are conducted to test the true pharmacalogical action of a drug, unimpeded by the placebo effect or the patient’s belief that the drug will work.  We know that the patient’s “Inner Healer” is able to cure many maladies if there is a strong belief in the treatment being administered.  This is especially true in cases of spontaneous remission from so called “incurable” diseases, where studies have shown that... 
the one overriding common denominator was a powerful faith or belief, usually based on a strong spiritual or religious foundation, that all would be well.  

While Western doctors are focused on eliminating the placebo effect, sangomas are masters at enhancing it using their powerful rituals and their charm, calm, confidence, competence, loving attention and charisma.  Displays of "magic" such as diagnosing the problem without being told, handling fire without being burnt or extraordinary dancing fetes enhance this effect. Placebo is also augmented with ceremonies, rituals  and plant medicines, or muti. The muti is always prescribed with a heavy application of attention, intention, and affirmation, which have now become part of our modern, integrative, or holistic, approach.  Indigenous healers are usually highly influencial and powerful people who are able to enter the cosmic field and invoke the help of the spirits for healing. Naturally, when the ancestors are invited to help with the healing, the remedy goes beyond placebo and would be called distant or remote healing. Double blind studies have shown this mechanism to have significant merit.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

More about "Dem Bones"

Traditionally the divination bones are thrown in a sacred space dedicated to the ancestors and or the spirit guides presiding. The healing hut which is round is called an ndumba. It has wooden roof supports radiating outward and downward from a central point on the dome. The roof is made of thatch. The supports have a symbolic meaning, namely that all sub-Saharan African tribes have a common root in spite of the plethora of different cultures in this vast continent. The central point on the roof of the ndumba represents the original source from which they all arose. Belief in the ancestors is one of the most important common denominators permeating the multitude of traditions in Africa. 

The reading of the bones is quite complex depending on which were in the front on the mat, which way they lay, where they pointed, which other bones were nearby and even which compass direction they faced. The bones when thrown by the client or healer do not fall in a random fashion but rather in a non random selected pattern and this dynamic is controlled by the energy field of the guiding spirit. Since the inyanga is reading the waking dream that is the client's life the reading is very democratic and the sangoma will ask; "do you agree?" The client is the final arbitrator of the bone's meaning. For instance money and energy are both designated to the same objects, usually coins. The sangoma might say you are losing money when the problem is that the client is exhausted or burned out. The many polarities representing the persons cosmology are represented not only by small animal bones but other objects as well. These can be dictated by the spirit guide, custom or even the sangoma's own choice. The sangoma of course must explain to the ancestor what the intention for that object is.

Experiments at Princeton University (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Laboratory, or PEAL) have shown that human thoughts alone can influence a machine called a Random Numbers (or Events) Generator (RNG).  Shifts in the random numbers can even occur if the intention is sent by the individual miles away from the machine and at varying times before or after the machine is turned on.

Similarly robots that move along a fixed predetermined path can also be made to change their programmed route by an outside observer by intention. Quantum physics has taught us that the observer has an affect on the way quantum particles behave. A similar Field of “coherence” may be occurring with the divining bones. The intention of the diviner, the patient, and the ancestors or some force field may change the way the bones lie when they fall. This makes for a highly accurate reading if the sangoma is competent.

When a student begins training or Thwasa, the first step  usually is to bring out the ancestral spirit with the use of drums. However, during my initiation P.H. Mntshali, my mentor, had been instructed by my ancestors to first make me a master of the bones and that is where he began. It was implicit that Mpofu, my guide, was always present to help me with the pattern and the interpretation. In fact it was her energy that would “throw” the bones. She would be learning the methods and metaphors P.H. used with his bones even though maybe when she was alive and practicing as a sangoma hers may have been different. Although an expert in her past life she would be paying attention to P.H.'s system while I the neophyte was beginning from scratch. My work would be to read her message.  P.H. explained that when someone came for advice, the sangoma did not know what was needed. The ancestors guide in helping this person through the bones by showing the sangoma the correct display.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

This weeks blog is on different Southern African Healing Traditions

According to Southern African belief, the connection between Westerners and their ancestors is sadly deficient, and this lack may be partly responsible for many of our modern-day woes and maladies. If this is true, and it bears further study, it behooves us to come into a more intimate relationship with our loved ones who have passed on but still exist in spirit in the ethereal planes. The theory of reincarnation, which is becoming more accepted in the West, is germane to the African mindset and has a profound effect on the behavior of most sub-Saharan Africans.  Reincarnation links them to their ancestors who may reincarnate back into the same family. Healing between kin therefore continues beyond the grave.
Whites in South Africa mistakenly believe that black people worship their ancestors. This is untrue: no godly power is attributed to these entities. Rather, they are thought of in the same way that people regard guardian angels who act as intermediaries between God and humankind. Black South Africans do believe that illness and misfortunes may result from a lack of relationship between the ancestors and the living. The ancestors have the power to support and protect their descendants. They can improve relationships, health, wealth, and other conditions. In some dysfunctional families, where the sins of an ancestor have not been dealt with ritually and neutralized (forgiveness is key here), that ancestor may intrude and inhibit the flow of energy to the living and in this way cause harm.  If the living make a ritual and sometimes an animal sacrifice to the ancestor, it will heal and release him from his iniquities, and dissipate any negative energy. Ancestors therefore can become scapegoats when problems are encountered in life, and are praised when events run smoothly.
There are varying healing traditions in Southern Africa but all pay strict attention to the power inherent in the spirit world.  One of the oldest, and perhaps the original healing technique is that of the Kalahari San Bushmen, the last hunter-gatherers of Southern Africa. In their out of body trance dance the San healer’s spirit travels up to the cosmic "Field" to discourse with the spirits for the good of the clan.  They also describe this as climbing ropes or ladders to God. The spirits they encounter are not necessarily all ancestors.  In the case of the San, the ancestors usually visit in the dream state.
The Bantu healing paradigm differs from that of the San. Most of the Bantu healing methods are similar in principle though customs may differ. The one that I studied, and which I now practice is  Zulu based although after my initiation I also spent later years with Tsonga and Venda healers. 
In contrast, in the Bantu tradition, the ancestral or guiding spirit of the sangoma or inyanga comes “down” from the Field and "possesses" the healer.  Here the word possession does not have the negative connotation usually associated with it in the West. The spirit occupies the sangoma’s body while the ego or persona steps aside.  In this way healers can access information that is not localized in space and time, information not readily available to those not trained as sangomas. The sangoma’s spirit guide is able to speak directly through the medium of the healer to the patient and the information is highly specific to that individual. We describe this somewhat more gentle process in the West as "channeling" or "trance-channeling."
The sangoma may speak in "tongues," and it is not unusual for a healer who speaks Zulu to speak in English or for another who speaks Sotho to heal in Shangaan. Sangomas speak the language of the ancestor concerned. Some spirits have fads and fetishes and will insist on wearing a certain garment or perhaps drinking a glass of water depending on which individual is coming through. Some sangomas are able to channel several spirits, one after the other.

Spirit Possession

The differences between the San healer and the sangoma can best be understood this way: when the San’s ego steps aside, the healer’s soul or spirit travels up to the spirit world - almost a near-death experience they call “the little death.”  
When the sangoma’s ego steps aside, the spirit of the ancestor comes down from the “Field” into the shaman’s body.  The San’s practice is an upward or ascending dynamic; the sangoma’s a downward, or descending phenomenon.  Both are achieved with drumming and dancing and without the use of mind-altering plants (entheogens), although such substances are used occasionally in special circumstances.  The two groups are racially distinct as well, the San being much more Asian in appearance and shorter in stature.
The practice of throwing divining bones probably developed over time because healers found spirit mediumship too exhausting. Becoming possessed is hard work, and it would be impossible to treat many patients if this were the only method. However, possession is still not quite as time consuming or as physically taxing as the San trance dance, which can go on all night. 

The bones are an alternative way of allowing the ancestral spirits to have a conversation with the patient through the healer. Reading the bones is a little like unraveling the metaphor of a dream. The healer becomes an interpreter and messenger for the ancestral spirit, which sets up an information field that is accessible to the sangoma through the bones. When the bones are thrown by the shaman, they do not fall in a random fashion but in a way that the ancestral spirit controls. A meaningful and usually highly accurate interpretation can be made.

Another way the ancestors communicate with the inyanga is through dreams. Interpretation of dreams is a vital tool for the sangoma. Healers often dream plant remedies for their patients, information that comes as a vision of a particular plant. Other psychic information can be sent through dreams to assist the sangoma in caring for the patient.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A divination bones consultation with a sangoma or inyanga. 

There is a protocol for consultation with any sangoma or inyanga.  The consultation takes place in an ndumba, a sacred healing hut where the ancestors or spirit guides preside. The ritual varies from sangoma to sangoma but first, you must take off your shoes. Traditionally as the client enters he or she kneels down and claps twice to greet the spirits.  The client places a fee under a grass mat, and a rattle is shaken or a chant intoned to call the spirits.  Sometimes the healer will make a burnt offering of mpepo - a plant with a pleasant smell - this is similar to how sage is used  in Native American tradition.  Some sangomas with a Christian bent may light candles. Ancestors have the advantage of not being localized in space and time and can provide information not readily available to those of us bound to a space-time reality. 
The healer’s bones are contained in a skin bag.  The "bones" comprise various small animal bones as well as other objects.The healer asks the client to pick up the bones and put them into the bag.  The client places a pinch of tobacco in the bag or the sangoma may sprinkle the offering on the mat. Customs vary depending on the healer’s training or the idiosyncrasies of the spirit who is “throwing the bones” for the healer.  The client shakes the bag of bones, blows into the opening of the bag, states his or her name, and empties the bones on the mat. 
The first throw is general in scope: it defines any problems the patient may have in terms of health or any other facet of the human condition—work, money, home, spouse, children, the presence of intrusive energies or spirits, sorcery, unhappy ancestors, and other situations affecting the cosmology of the client, her family or connected others.  There is a bone or object for just about every polarity of the patient’s psycho-socio-spiritual state of being. 
After the sangoma performs a general reading, the client asks specific questions, each of which is answered by a separate throw of the bones.  Questions have to be specific and a good format is; "how does it look for this or that?" Because of free will the spirits cannot tell you what to do, as in the question; "what should I do with my life?" One rather has to ask; "what about this ...?" Then they will answer yes or no or state the pros and cons with reference to one's cosmology. Once the relationship between the client and the bones has been energetically established the sangoma may choose to throw the bones or ask the client to throw them  using cupped hands.

The bones make the diagnosis. For treatment rituals may be done or recommended usually with the help of medicinal plants There is a remedy for every eventuality; health, luck, relationship ridding negative entities etc. Once the healing is completed, the sacred space may be closed by kneeling down again and clapping in appreciation to the spirits before leaving the ndumba.