Tami Simon: You're listening to "Insights at the Edge." Today, my guest is Brad Keeney. Brad is an internationally renowned scholar and therapist, teacher and speaker. He's also the founder of Life Force Theatre, a performance experiment of intense expression, portraying the creative life force. He is recognized by elders of indigenous traditions worldwide as a shaman elder, and is considered a spokesperson for the old ways of ecstatic shaking. Brad is the author of several classics in the field of psychotherapy, including Esthetics of Change, as well as the book Shaking Medicine. Brad has worked with Sounds True to create the audio learning series Shaking: The Original Path to Ecstasy and Healing, as well as the book Shamans of the World.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Brad and I spoke about how to instigate shaking, what it might mean to be "struck by lightning" as a metaphor for spiritual awakening, the value of both arousal and relaxation in spiritual practice, and why absurdity is so important on the spiritual path. Here's my intriguing and shook-up conversation with Brad Keeney:
Brad, let's talk about shaking!
Brad Keeney: I'm ready for it! Let's do it!
TS: You're ready? Okay. You write about and teach about shaking as a type of medicine, so let's just start right there. How can shaking be healing? How can it be a medicine?
BK: Well, there's two sides to that. The one side would be coming at it from the West, where we're going to have scientific principles in looking at it. There's something that takes place when the body is turned on to go into what are formally called "automatisms." If you're a hypnotist, if you sort of get a finger to wiggle, you call it a little "ideomotor response." But if you stand in a certain way and balance your body, you'll find that the muscles start to shake, they start to vibrate, and those automatisms are something natural. Everyone can do it, everyone's experienced it, and everyone is probably most familiar with an automatism, the smallest kind of shaking, if they've sat in a rocking chair and had that feeling of "I don't think I'm rocking! I think the chair's rocking me!" That's actually a body automatism. You're not consciously willing it. You're not even aware that you're making the movement, but it happens. The other two arenas where we run into automatism are in the phenomenon of pendulum swinging, where we think it's doing it magically. It's actually our body automatically moving. It's the same with a dowsing rod.
Our body has the natural form of expression called "shaking," and if it's precipitated when you are truly feeling a heart awakening—and that's brought about by music that really has wings to lift you into the highest imaginative sky of your visionary hopes and dreams—then it kicks in in an ecstatic way. We see that at rock concerts and Grateful Deadhead reunions, and we see it in sanctified black church, and of course, it's all over the African diaspora. That's something that is a little more interesting than a simple automatism, and that becomes a healing medicine. In fact, what's most interesting is that it is the first medicine, the first spiritual practice, and the first way of having relationship with the great mystery, because we now know that we're all from Africa!
In southern Africa, the oldest ancestral culture, is the Kalahari Bushmen. Over 100,000 years ago (which we know because of the rock art images), they used the very first form of healing and spirituality—the first religion, the first well-being program, the first spa, the first of anything that involved people trying to get out of the everyday, habitual mind and trying to find themselves in relationship to the great mystery, the divine—which was shaking.
But even though I've said this, it has nothing to do with shaking! It has to do with something else. Underneath the shaking is awakening of the heart that is so wild and so extreme that it's best to call it "extreme love." This is the kind of love that mystics talks about when they feel like they're making love with the gods—that kind of heart-piercing, that kind of dramatic, extraordinary life awakening that's entirely about feelings. It's not about any realization. Don't believe anyone who says spirituality has anything to do with understanding something new. It's not about understanding a blasted thing! It's about being completely hit by lightning in your heart in this extraordinary shower of blessings. This love just flows, and in that you can't help but tremble and shake. It's about being hit by a lightning bolt of extreme love, and that makes you shake. The shaking medicine is the manifestation that we see. Somebody's shaking because they're just so filled with extreme love, and that's healing.
That's the short answer.
TS: It seems, though, that you could shake for different reasons. I mean, you're talking about a sort of heart-centered shaking.
BK: Yes. That's right.
TS: But couldn't people go into shaking out of trauma or fear or all different kinds? Are there different categories of shaking?
BK: Yes, there are. The body has it as an automatic response. Again, it can be triggered simply by the way you align yourself in space, so if you stand up now and lean on the ball of your foot and get a particular angle going, you'll get a shaking in your leg. That's just simply a muscle clonus—a vibration, a shaking in the muscles that takes place due to the way bodies align in space. Shock and fear and all kinds of things do precipitate trembling, and as we all know, so does ecstasy. So it's a natural body response.
In fact, it's the counter-response to the relaxation response. We know, in the West, for the most part, that healing has had to do with relaxation, whether through relaxation techniques or meditation when it's housed inside a spiritual tradition, but that's only half of the equation. The other half of the equation for natural healing response, whether the trembling is precipitated by fear or joy, is in heightened arousal—not relaxation, but arousal.
There are people already who have been aware of the medicinal and the well-being consequences of shaking. It at first was noticed by the Russians back in the competitive days of the Olympics. When they were trying to find an edge, they found that shaking the athletes' muscles gave them performance improvement. So they not only shook the muscles of their athletes, they created machines that they would step into and start to get the shake.
Now this is spreading all over the world, so you're going to see this. We're going to announce right now that you're going to see a whole new wave in well-being products. It's going to have a technology and it's going to have a practice, and already there are therapists treating trauma because they just tell you, "Get a natural body automatism, and you'll go through a healing cycle." It's happening all over the world now. There are practitioners who are offering shaking as an alternative to release the trauma associated with something that was traumatic, or something that was shocking, something that was extraordinarily painful in their life. It comes in different categories, but at its root, it's this automatic body response.
But the kind of shaking that is precipitated by something very special, something very new, is not remembered by most of our particular modern world.
TS: So someone's listening, and they're like, "Okay, I want to explore shaking. I've been meditating, I've been focused on the relaxation side, but I get that this relaxation side could have benefits. Where do I start?"
BK: Well, they've probably already had a start in meditation, and a meditation teacher said, "Stop that." One of the natural things for the human body to do when you try to sit and purposefully not move is that it wants to move. It wants to move automatically, and sometimes it wants to jerk. Then someone will say, "Well, you go to a kundalini class, and maybe you'll get some of that," but most spiritual teachers in meditation—I won't mention names, but practically everyone that's known—will tell their students, "Stop that. It's not good," and they'll give all the reasons it shouldn't be done.
That's really born out of ignorance—in fact, the body should do that. You should leave the body alone. It has greater wisdom than any teacher. It is the supreme teacher. So if you're doing the meditation thing, and you're finding that your body wants to jerk, it wants to wiggle, let it be! Go 100 percent unedited Taoism on it, and just allow this thing to naturally come forth in a spontaneous fashion.
You can even sit on a bench or a comfortable chair and precipitate the natural rocking motion that you know how to do on a rocking chair—or sit in a rocking chair! Start there, and move that movement. Pretend that your body is a pendulum, and if you sit and allow it to sway, something will kick in. It will automatically move. If you give 20 minutes a day to that small, non-purposeful, spontaneous motion, it will grow. It will become a teacher and bring you into the other ways in which the body can spontaneously express itself.
TS: Okay, now I'm particularly interested in this "wild love awakening" kind of shaking that you were hinting at. How do I instigate that, that kind of shaking?
BK: Well, it's an interesting thing, because this has been the most taboo thing in history—certainly in written history—because whenever the wild, ecstatic, heart awakening comes up, everybody tries to quiet it down and stop it. The history of ecstatic expression has been something that also has been all but lost in our history of world religions. If you ask a Quaker or a Shaker, "Where did the quaking and shaking go?" they can't tell you! It's a very interesting thing to get around folks of those traditions. They don't know where the shake went. In fact some people then argue about it: "Did it really mean physical shaking?" Yes, it did!
TS: Okay, let's slow down on this point, Brad. So you're saying that both the Quakers—the American Quakers—and the Shakers, both of these two religious movements were originally "movements" that moved! They were moving movements, and that something happened within these traditions?
BK: That's why they were called Shakers and Quakers.
TS: Break that down for me. Tell me what their original practices were, and then what happened.
BK: Well, it all began when a cobbler in England received a small inheritance from his father, and he decided—his name was George Fox—that he would take a long journey. He would see if he could find some clergyman who could bring him to have an experience one-to-one with God—quite literally. He took a pilgrimage. He went to France, went all over the place. At that time, there were all kinds of religious cults in Christianity, and he tried one after another and was so discouraged, because no one could help him have a close encounter of the highest kind. And so, on the way home, he just decided to have a talk with the creator himself, and said, "If you're there, I'm here, and I'm ready!"
And a lightning bolt somehow took hold of him. He got zapped, in the classical kind of old-fashioned conversation way, and he began to tremble and shake. That was the beginning of Quakerism. At that point, he decided to fast and pray inside a hollow tree, and receive visionary direction, and off he went, and he started a church. The Quaker church started pretty much that way, most historians now know. Everybody sits in a room and waits for the Spirit to make itself present, but in those days, Spirit made itself present when somebody got hit by lightning. It looked the same as something in Haiti, or in Cuba, in Santeria, or in Candomblé or Umbanda in Brazil. It was the same ecstatic expression.
So there you have it! It began quaking, and of course, Mother Ann Lee and all of the others, the same way in which Quakers came, Shakers came on the scene—same thing. It was all about people feeling the Spirit on them in the way that the African diaspora had known for thousands of years.
TS: And then what happened that the quaking and shaking was left out of these traditions?
BK: Well, the first thing that happened was that it required a full democracy. That meant there couldn't be a hierarchy. The Spirit didn't care about who was in a hierarchical relationship to another. You couldn't have a Dalai Lama. You couldn't have a pope. Everybody was equal in matters of the Spirit. It was between you and God. This upset the whole apple cart, because it let, among other people, women to believe that they could be free! There's a wonderful academic book written—I think it's John Hopkins Press—that just came out a couple years ago, showing that part of the suppression of the Shaker and Quaker movement was because women were feeling freedom when they had the shakes seize them, and they were finding out there's no reason to have any unnatural hierarchy.
So it had political implications, but it also meant, on the other hand, asking, "How do we live in a truly free world where we can relate to each other creatively, as opposed to ritualistically?" We know that, in the living of life, it can either tend to lean towards being an improvisational art, or it can follow the routines of someone's prescribed way of how we should behave with one another. And shaking, ecstatic heart awakening, let people free. It said, "Live life as jazz!" It's improvisational! It moves! It's something that cannot be held, contained, predicted. It is, in the most beautiful sense of the word, wild.
TS: Okay, now I want to circle back, because I interrupted you here about the Quakers and the Shakers, but I wanted to hear your response to, "How do I instigate this wild, heart kind of shaking?" Not just rocking in a rocking chair for 20 minutes, but how does the wild, heart-explosion-type shaking happen?
BK: That's a little tricky, because if you happen to be a Bushman in the Kalahari, at least once a week. When I say "the Bushmen," they're all in both Botswana and Namibia. You have to find the right place, because it's going down fast. But if you found a village that has some strong n/om-kxao—the doctors who know how to shake—once a week the village is going to get together, and there's an opportunity to throw yourself into an ecstatic, shaking rapture. There, the shake is passed on. Someone gets it, and they pass it on to someone else. It's not so easy to find there anymore there because a lot of it's been routinized and turned into sort of tourist performance, but it still exists.
But here? You might think, "I'm going to go find myself an old-fashioned, sanctified church," but even they're hard to find, because emotionalism has been toned down. It's very difficult. It's one of the reasons, just last week, I opened a shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans called The Mojo Doctors. Here, we have the best of New Orleans musicians who have backgrounds in gospel, and have backgrounds in blues and jazz, and we're creating an opportunity for people to experience the oldest form of spiritual practice and transformation. We call it "rehab for the soul." It's serving extreme love and its presence in the awakening of people's everyday life.
TS: So now you said that the shake is passed on from somebody who has been doing a lot of shaking, and that here maybe, potentially, in Mojo Doctor-land, you're "passing the shake on." What does that mean, to "pass the shake"?
BK: Very good question. It's a question we're asked in the Kalahari, because they've been doing it longer than anyone. They would tell you there's two ways you get the shake: One, either someone who's a shaker passes it on to you, or you get zapped by the heavens. It's an interesting thing. I studied for 20 years cultures that still have the presence of an ecstatic shaking tradition, and most propose the same distinction: Some people got lucky—as they would say, the gods loved this person, or they decided to tease him, and they shot lightning into their body. That usually takes place in your early 20s.
Others must find a teacher or someone who is an owner of, as the Bushmen say, n/om, but the word n/om is similar to kundalini or Holy Ghost or Spirit or Wakan—all of the many metaphors that talk about the universal life force. In any case, if you go to someone who is a master of the life force (and as I've said, there are different traditions and different metaphors for talking about this), then they must first soften you. "Soften" means get you ready, and that has a lot to do with getting your mind out of the way. It has a lot to do with not being a control freak, and just being ready for it, and when you're ready, it comes, and the shake is passed on. It's like a spiritual tag: "I've got the Spirit, I'm feeling it, and let me touch you." That's how it's done—through touch, and also through voice, and a kind of singing that's highly spirited.
I could go on and on, but this is, of course, something that's been worked out for over 100,000 years.
TS: Now the metaphors that you've been using are "hit by lightning" or "you've been zapped" "the gods love you," so maybe you could explain that—why that metaphor, "hit by lightning"?
BK: That's what it feels like! It can actually level you to the ground. It feels like electricity. So someone receives the life force—let me say it this way: We're very familiar with hearing Asian energy practices that are referred to as "subtle energy." Let me say that the oldest energy practices are non-subtle. By "non-subtle," I mean it feels like you've plugged into the socket, the electrical wall outlet, and it feels like you have been hit by lightning in its most amplified form. That's when you see people jerk or fall over. They'll be so filled with energy—in the old speaking, they're quakers and shakers.
Among the early Shakers and people of the ecstatic Christian church, some of the elders would get so excited they would leap over the pews in a church service and run out and run home by leaping over the fences! It was extraordinary energy that fills one up, and an energy that doesn't make you feel powerful, or "Boy, I have some magic in my soul." It's just so much joy! You just go beyond yourself in the expression of a new kind of lightness that feels like you can almost fly.
TS:So, in your rehab for the soul center in New Orleans, where you Mojo Doctors are at work, are you passing on the shake there, and if so, what method are you using?
BK: Well, it's really not a method, other than you can say that we "work the Spirit." The older the tradition, the less protocol, the less ritualistic routine. If you're a Mojo Doctor—which is the metaphor I'm using because nobody knows what that means, so it can mean anything, and for us it means we're doctors of extreme love. It means that we pass on the n/om, the life spirit. As we like to say, we utilize the best of the healing traditions that are both ancient and modern, because this form of ecstatic work was not only in Africa. It emerged in the Samurai period of Japan, and one of the last great practitioners of it, Ikuko Osumi Sensei, who was the personal spiritual teacher of most of the Japanese living treasures and the old Samurai families, was also one of my teachers, and she passed that tradition to me. So I'm familiar with its embodiment in other cultures.
Here, at the Mojo Doctors shop on Chartres Street—next to the W Hotel, right in the middle of the French Quarter—we have lineage and connection to those different traditions. It might start with me sitting behind my nine-foot Steinway piano and just waiting for the Spirit to come on. I might have a drummer, I might have a bassist, or I might have somebody on the Hammond B-3, and we just sort of start to work that Spirit. In the beginning, you might think, "I'm in a blues club," or you might think that, "I've just walked into a sanctified black church," then, all of a sudden, "Hey! Somebody feels it! I feel it! I've got to get myself wakened up, and I'm got to get myself filled with the n/om, I've got to get the Spirit cooking in me, and when it's boiling, then you just let it go! We call it "working the Spirit." That's the way it used to be said in the old days, whether you were in Haiti, Cuba, New Orleans, or in Africa, you were working the spirit, and the Spirit works you. You might mean talking, and it might mean not talking. It might be touching. It might mean shaking. It just has a life of its own.
These days—because I'm also a professor, I hold an endowed chair at the University of Louisiana—my colleague Hillary Stephenson and I have a little center. We call it CIRCULUS. We call this work "circular poetics." We allow the circularity of the present to completely grab us and bring forth the poetics of what life intends to perform. So in a way, it's a theater. It's a theater of creative transformation. What you might see is an extraordinary theatrical event where people are brought onstage live to have an encounter and nobody knows where it will go, but it's involving and committed to transforming and awakening the heart—it could be anything! That's what makes it exciting. It makes it new! It makes it fresh! It makes it unique. It makes it invented as a unique form for every time. So it does not adhere to any working protocol. You can't teach someone how to do it. All you can do is help somebody be filled with the Spirit, and then the Spirit does the work.
TS: Okay, so let's say that I'm listening to this program, and I live far away from New Orleans, and don't know any people who I think might be able to pass the shake on to me. How can I explore this on my own? Can you give me a few more clues about that?
BK: Well, you know, it always works best when held in community, but that doesn't mean that it's restricted to being held in community. It's just that everything works better when held in a relational network. If you're going to perform music, the music is more alive when there are other people in the room.
That's an important thing to say, but it only takes another person. If you can find another human being who wants to join you in an experimental search for the awakening of Spirit, then there are some useful guiding principles. These I've actually written about in the book The Bushmen Way of Tracking God, and the book that just came out, The Flying Drum. I lay out some principles that can help people pursue their being hit by lightning. In other words, how can I put a bull's-eye straight over my heart, stand underneath the cosmos, and say, "Notice me!" to the gods, and get them interested enough to say, "Let's hurl a lightning bolt straight in the middle of that bull's-eye"?
Now, that said, it will be surprising to know that most of the ways of getting ready for being hit by a heart-awakening go contrary, go opposite to practically every spiritual teaching that's out there. So it's going to sound surprising to most.
TS: That's okay! Bring it on! Bring it on, Brad!
BK: Okay. First of all, we've got to get rid of the intentionality. No intentionality. No human being is clever enough to have an intentional purpose when they sit down to meditate or wish for anything. When you wish upon a star, don't intend anything. You're too stupid. We're all morons! No human being can say, "I want my Jaguar," "I want success," or "I think the world should be helped in this way—help me find a cure to malaria." You can't do it that way. That's just too narrow of an emphasis on human consciousness being too purposeful and being too full of itself and important. You've got to basically get down and dirty and say, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to ask for." In fact, you need to get even further down! You need to get further down and realize you're no different, and no better than anyone, including someone spending time in prison. You've got to be leveled.
You don't need self-esteem. Self-esteem is the worst thing that ever came along. You don't need to think, "I have God within." That stuff completely is the work of Trickster. That's what I learned, that's what I was taught, and that's what you must do to get yourself soft. "Soft" means ultimately jaded. "Soft" means, "I don't know a damned thing. I am someone who needs to get down and realize, good God! I don't even know if there's a reason for me to live, I'm such a miserable you-know-what." In other words, you need to be broken. The brokenness helps soften you. That's when you reach up and say, "Creator, Lord," whatever the word is for you that's a metaphor that evokes the sacred, "here I am in great need. I'm available. I move everything out of the way. Hurl me some lightnin'! Strike me dead!"
That's the way they used to pray in the Civil War. Those old slaves first came out—first interview they ever took of someone who felt they'd been converted—they used to pray, "Strike me dead! Somebody strike me dead! Somebody hurl me down a lightnin' bolt! I wanna feel it comin' through the core! I want that energy comin' through me! I want that electricity! I want God's electricity! I want it to set me on fire!" And when you sort of fall into that desperation, guess what? Something miraculous, the most miraculous thing that can ever happen!
You might get your diploma in being someone who has received the gifts of Spirit, but the gifts of Spirit aren't a piece of paper that says, "I went to a university graduate program that says I'm officially certified as a healer," or a therapist, or a whatever. And it's not someone who went to a workshop and said, "Yes, I've learned, because I went to this many weekends, and now I'm a healer." That's crazy! The only diploma in spirituality you receive a song. It's all music!
That's why, whenever you see the most ecstatic healers, they're in the port cities where there's a lot of music going on. That's why New Orleans has got the mojo! The New Age hangs out where people don't have any music, they ain't got any soul, they don't move their booty! You come down here, people feelin' the spirit! And what God gives, what the Creator gives, is a song. I don't care if it's Lakota, I don't care if it's Denai, I don't care if it's Africa. You go to the source of shamanism, and you go to the source of the ancient healing traditions, the diploma you receive is a song.
Without a song, you don't have a word to say. And if anyone who's teaching spirituality doesn't say that it's about the song—I don't need to say anything more. It's about the music, because the music has the wings on which your heart can hold on and soar. And in that exhilaration of flight, that a song, not words, can bring! Anybody tells you they've talked to God? Run for the hills! Nobody talks to God, because God doesn't talk. God's bored with the words. Words may be used by Trickster, so the Bushmen say—and Trickster's just a part of the whole, and it's not necessarily a rigorous dualism. Trickster uses the words to free us from other words that we got stuck in, but the words themselves are unimportant. It's the music and the rhythms that enable our hearts to jump on and have wings, and we soar! And there we go, straight into the classrooms of the world of Spirit and all of the gifts that come.
You're getting me worked up just talking about it!
TS: I love it! Well, these guidelines are totally working for me. I know what you mean in terms of them being contrary to some of the current ideas in spirituality—meaning no intentionality, we're broken, we're wretched, we've got a bull's-eye on our heart, we're asking to be slain by Spirit. What else? What else?
BK: Slain by Spirit!
You need to tease the daylights out of each other. You must value, you must know deeply within you that the extent to which we practice and cultivate a reverence and embodiment of the absurd is the extent to which we will be taken to the highest realms of the visionary know-how. This means anyone who's not smiling and not laughing most of the time needs to start all over again. Anyone who takes themselves too seriously needs to reconsider the whole show. And by teasing, I mean mercilessly teasing! You know this, by hanging around with old, old-timers from indigenous ways, that there's this value on contrariness and teasing.
But what I'm saying is more that we need to embody it. Embody it so we're not only constantly shaking our bodies in a state of constant reverie. We need to shake up our everyday routines. We need to do things like, "I think this morning I'll walk out backwards to the front door and pick up the newspaper with the other hand, and then just take it down to the grocery store and put it in the freezer." Just doing something completely off the wall that people would say, "That's absolutely crazy! That's absurd!"
Hallelujah! That helps you be free! Not so bound together by the glue of everyday, habitual structures. So in shaking up the routines of the everyday, and shaking up the words, and shaking up the knowings, you don't want any categorical grids, for God's sake! The worst thing you can have is someone saying, "I have a theory of everything, and we'll put all of the grids and the typologies here and there." That's imprisonment! That's absolutely antithetical to anything that comes from the world of Spirit. Spirit wants to be free! Shake that thing up, too! Turn those grids. Let them free. Kick open the boxes. Be free of anything, including the idea of being free of anything, and you know what I mean, because it doesn't matter what you say. It's the energy inside the saying.
I like to say it this way: If you have the life-force in your belly, if you're on fire, if you're full—as my teacher from Japan said—of seiki, and as the Bushmen say, lightning has struck you and you have the n/om flowing through every vein in your body, it doesn't matter what you read. It's holy! You can stand in front of an audience and read the phone book, and now it's a sacred text. But if you ain't got no n/om, if you ain't got a drop of life force, the holiest books are dead when you articulate or try to talk about them in any form.
Boy, you're working me up some more!
TS: I'm hearin' your song!
TS: Now Brad, what I'd be curious about is how you originally were hit by lightning. What happened?
BK: Well, yes, I was lucky. I was 20 years old and had no interest in anything but science. I had won the international science fair, had a scholarship to MIT, and wished that I was playing jazz piano in a club. The last thing I was interested in was anything called "spirituality," because I was tinkering, you see, with music. I was jammin', playing music, and loving the feeling of it. When I was a kid, I wanted to be George Gershwin. And I didn't know that they were the shamans! I didn't know that George M. Cohan and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Burt Bacharach, these were the shamans. They were catching the songs!
So I'm tinkering, I'm writing the songs, and lo and behold, I got hit by lightning. It happened in a most interesting way. I was simply walking to a record store (back in the days when they sold records) to get a Ramsey Lewis album, and something just came over me. Keep in mind I wasn't like everybody else in the 60s. I had never had a drug. I'd never even had a glass of alcohol. I was just a scientific. I was a science nerd who loved jazz.
This calm came over me, and I felt my weight sort of disappear. Pretty soon, I felt like I was gliding along the sidewalk, and before I knew it, I had walked myself into the university chapel. I sat down in the first pew, and bam! This molten lava was born in my belly or the base of my spine, and this heat increased and slowly crept up my back and out the top of my head, and as it happened, my heart just grew and grew and grew. It felt like it exploded and became the universe, and I trembled and shook. I felt nothing but love. There was nothing scary. It was nothing weird. It was just such an absorption experience that I just became inseparable from love.
It was just nothing but love, and then there was this visionary experience where in front of me was a six-foot-tall oval egg, a luminous egg, and in it were the images of the great spiritual icons, from Jesus to the apostles to people I didn't even recognize from other traditions. The teaching was a downloading, I felt rather than heard words. The words were felt. The teachings were completely downloaded into the heart. This didn't last an hour—this lasted all night! This thing went through the night. And the next day—it was a miracle that nobody saw me there, trembling and shaking, and called an ambulance or whatever—I'd made it through the night, and for a week, I had to keep my head bowed, because if I looked up, the light started to come on. I had no idea what had happened! But I knew it had been the most amazing experience any human being could have. So I went to a bookstore, and a book sort of dropped off the shelf (how these things happen), and it was the autobiography of Gopi Krishna. That's the first time I heard the word kundalini, and that this thing could happen.
That's how it started for me, and I started shaking 40 years ago.
TS: When you say that you started shaking, what did you start to do? What did it actually look like from the outside?
BK: Well, if you're looking on the outside, then you saw me sitting on the front row pew of a university chapel, and I'm sitting there, and I'm feeling—which, I'm certain, I would believe the room was very hot, because I was very hot. I'm sitting there, trembling. My arms, my hands are trembling. My whole body is shaking, quite literally. I don't know that anyone would know at first glance whether I was trembling out of fear or trembling because I was an epileptic, or trembling because I was in rapture. That I can't tell you, but for me, it was complete rapture! It was not subtle. I was really rockin' and rollin'!
If you've seen film clips of people practicing in the African diaspora, it's that kind of shaking, whether it's the voodoo ceremony of Haiti or someone, as outsiders would say, "This person looks possessed by the Spirit!" and indeed you are. You're possessed by life. You're possessed by the here and now. You're fully possessed by the here and now. It's a bliss that's so ecstatic that you can't help but tremble with joy! But the trembling wasn't a freaking out. It wasn't a panic response. It was just being so absolutely happy you couldn't hold it!
Everybody knows butterflies, but usually when you get the butterflies, you go, "Oh! I'm starting to get them! I've got to calm them down," because if the butterflies flutter too much more, it will start to feel like anxiety, it will start to feel like it's out of control. But if you really didn't have that fear and you allowed the butterfly to become a hawk, and allowed the hawk to become a tornado, and then a hurricane, and then the cosmic wind, then you're in it.
You know, I later found that Bucke wrote this book way back in—I don't know how many years ago, about 80 years ago?—called Cosmic Consciousness, and he recorded cases of people who had had this kind of transformation, some more poetic, some more born of feeling, but I didn't really know. I knew that when I looked at the literature of kundalini, everybody seemed to be scared of it. They said, "Oh! They're spiritual emergencies!" and I didn't understand that, because there wasn't anything frightening about it. It was absolutely beautiful and joyous!
It wasn't until years later, when I was a visiting professor at the University of South Africa and asked to go out and meet the Bushmen (because I had dreamed where I should go visit) that I found that they called this experience "receiving God's ostrich egg," that this luminous presentation of an oval shape, to them, was called an "ostrich egg," and that if you're lucky, around that time in your life you receive this, all the teachings of Spirit are given to you. Then it takes a while for you to figure out how to work it in the world with these things.
That's sort of the crazy story of my life. What can I say? I didn't want this. I didn't look for it. I just found it. I got downloaded with something extraordinary that probably is stranger to explain to anyone than being picked up by a UFO and taken to another dimension, and now I'm 60 years old and feeling like, to Hell with it! I'm just going to tell people the truth! Here it is. This is what it is, and in spite of all the nonsense you're being told, this is what it is, and here we are, working the Spirit the old-fashioned way in New Orleans. So you're as likely to hear a blues tune as hear somebody singing "Jesus Loves Me" or "Precious Lord," or breaking into just a wild jazz thing, and from time to time, a little Gershwin. But all that to help open the heart, to let the words come forth in a circular, poetic way, and enable the people to help them be softened, freed from all the nonsense, all the hardening of their categories, through that attachment to theory and believing that it's going to be a new understanding or a glimpse of the holistic view of this—or whatever.
It's not about any of that. It's about play! We're talking about a theology of play, a theology of jazz. We're talking about letting it all free so the heart can soar!
TS: I've heard people share kundalini awakening experiences, spontaneous kundalini awakening experiences that are relatively similar to yours, in terms of the heat rising in front of the spine, but I've never heard anybody share a story about "receiving God's ostrich egg" before—meaning I've never heard not just that phrase, but the idea of a big oval, a six-foot oval, in front of the person, and then being downloaded the wisdom. Tell me a little bit about what you make of this receiving of the ostrich egg.
BK: Well, of course, I didn't have any form or historical knowledge before it happened, and afterwards I looked for a bit. But I don't know, I was less interested in understanding than I was in continuing to enjoy the ongoing downloading and the events that took place in my life as a consequence of it. I thought that this was how it happened! I just thought that, if this fire gets in your belly and it rises—at that point (remember, I'm 20 and a science nerd who plays jazz, with no familiarity with world religions), I just thought this was God, this was a gift of God, and that God was love, and this was a direct encounter of God's love being downloaded into me through all of these images. At the time, I didn't think, "Oh, there's an ostrich egg!" I just saw a six-foot, oval shape that was luminous, and it was this extraordinary, multi-sensory experience. It was more than seeing, you know? It was psycho. It was kinesthetic. It was seeing, hearing, feeling, all at the same time. That was the nature of the download.
But the startling thing was to find, from Bushmen elders, that's how it is for them, for those who get the download straight from the sky god. I don't have any answers. I don't know how it is that the world's first people got it that way, those who had the direct transmission, and I certainly can't give any reason. I know the Bushmen just laugh! They just think it's absolutely hilarious that some crazy white person from across the world received the ostrich egg, because that's the nature of how they hold everything. They find all of it as a cosmic comedy of God's love, filled with constant trickery by tricksters, which are the productions of mind, and that we all sort of die laughing about it.
But it is what happened, and it is fascinating why other kundalini awakenings go so far. I think maybe it's because people know too much sometimes, when they're having it? You know, "I'm just going to make something up." In the same way, I go to sanctified churches in the South, the most emotional ones I can find—that's the metaphor that people who go to them refer to them as, how emotional they are, how open to Spirit—and I'm always interested in why people who feel the Spirit. This is another way of getting back to your question of "Where do people go?" Well, they can go to a Holy Ghost church or to a sanctified church or something like that. You'll see Spirit working on people's bodies, and you'll feel it. The music's good. The music's good to hang around and, you know, let all the understanding and the theology go, like you'd let any book on spirituality go, because you want to not be attached to anything. What I've noticed there is that people get the Spirit, and they just pass out! You know, they're slain in the Spirit!
And that's like: Hold it! That's just kindergarten. Gettin' slain in the Spirit's kindergarten. You want to stand up! Don't pass out! So if you're going into a worked-up revival service, and you feel all that energy coming at you, don't pass out. Just stand up. Stand straight. You'll find, as you learn to stand in the Spirit, automatic things start to come on, and you learn by being in it. Your whole body starts to become rewired. This, I know.
But I guess if you've had a teacher or you've read a book about what the kundalini thing does, then you have these kinds of preconceptions, and then they start to shape the experience.
TS: Which brings me to one idea you have that I'd like to challenge you on. Let's see how this goes. It seems that you've put meditators in a certain category, that meditators are having controlled, versus wild, experiences. I'm curious if you think it's possible that that kind of shaking, trembling, uncontrolled flow of energy could be happening in a meditator who appears quiet on the outside, but there's actually quite a lot of explosive fire on the inside. What do you think, Brad?
BK: Absolutely. Of course it can! Anything can happen! It's the same in the Kalahari. Sometimes you feel the juice inside, it's moving, it's not manifesting itself on the outside. Many, many things can happen. I'm only shaking up people's attachment to thinking there's only one side of the dance. Of course, in an idealized world, we're going to know that. I don't even need to call it "meditation." I'll just call it "deep relaxation" or "deep stillness" or whatever, as opposed to heightened arousal. Certainly shaking and meditation, if we can resurrect those two terms once more, are equally important, and what's most important is that they begin dancing in a relationship to each other.
You see, this was the natural way. In the beginning, people felt the drums—because when you get the drums going, and you get the singing going, you're not going to sit still. You're going to move! And when you're moving and you get grabbed by the Spirit, you're going to get danced with. You're going to be worked on. And then, after a while, you collapse. You fall to the ground, and your mind is completely cleared and empty, because it can't track any of that. It can't hold it. There's no category that it can be put in and placed and understood. At that moment, you go straight into the zone that someone working hard in meditation is trying to find. The benefit from going to that is it swings right to the other side.
And, of course, you say the same thing. If you really pursue the meditation, it'll swing you into an ecstatic state. What we need is that whole circle. That's the big news. It's that this is the other half. What we've got is Daddy telling everybody to sit still. Well, we need to go back to Mama Africa. Mama Africa says, "Get up and dance! Feel the earth!" So we need both. We need both the mama and father of spirituality, and we've just clipped off our roots to Africa, and really don't know the extent to which it has something to say, as well.
So when I say, "Move over, meditation! It's time for shaking medicine!" that's me shaking things up. The heart of it is they're wed together. You can't have one without the other.
TS: Yes. Now what is your vision, Brad? I know it's big and vast, but just give me a sense of it for the kind of group shaking that you could see happening in the world that would really provide us with the collective shake-up that we need. What is it that you see as possible?
BK: Well, it's got to come on all fronts. It's not about the ecstatic dance movement. That's too purposeful. Ecstatic dance actually has a real uncomfortable dualism for me, which is like, you know, "Ecstatic dance is a form of dancing that releases you into ecstasy." Nonsense! Tango is about reaching ecstasy! Flamenco, in Spain, they're chasing what they call duende. It's the same as n/om, the life force. All of dance is looking for the embodiment of the life force to express itself in the dancer. So I'm not talking about the dualism at least implied inside ecstatic dancing.
What I'm talking about is we need to shake everything up, including the way we think about moving our bodies, or sitting still, but also the way we about thinking, and the way we hold ideas. I want to propose a theory of nothing! I want to propose what Hillary calls "circular poetics," something that dances and brings forth a circular movement which we play, rather than work over-seriously to pin down. We play with it, so it moves us, it turns us, it spins us.
So let's shake everything up! We need to elect someone to office that's an absurdist! We need more absurdity. We need that to be pouring through the pages of curriculums and libraries. And we need, after shaking everything up, to realize that nobody knows what the total agenda should be. I don't have an agenda. I'm just available to be worked on by Spirit, and to work the Spirit.
I can't tell you what will happen in the next session. Every session I have, every group is different. I can tell you that I've worked with small groups, I've worked with families, I've worked with couples, I work with prisoners in prisons, I work with adolescents, I work with people in trouble with the law, I work with diagnosed schizophrenics, people with depression, I work with people with gambling addictions, I work with everything! I work with people that are just seekers. It doesn't matter. Come have the experience of having Spirit touch you, shake you on all domains that hold your living. I've seen this work. Once I was on stage at the Miami Arena with Al Di Meola and his band, and we shook the whole audience up! So it doesn't have to be confined to a small group. It can be an entire arena.
But right now, the work is coming out of several places. Hillary and I run a center, as I've mentioned, CIRCULUS at the University of Louisiana, where we address all of these notions in a formal, academic way based upon the science of cybernetics—which is the first science of complexity. My mentors were originally Gregory Bateson and Heinz von Foerster, two of the pioneers of cybernetic thinking. We're holding onto the intellectual foreground there, and we're sort of against anything that has words like "integral" and things like that. All of these things are too fixed. You know, we're trying to push play and improvisation into the system, because right now there's this sort of battle of hegemony for taking over transformative education with stuff that we find to be not very creative or transformative.
The next battle we're fighting is mental health. Mental health is absolutely stuck in the medical model, so we're out there providing an alternative to psychotherapy and coaching—because coaching is just psychobabble recycled without a license—and we're challenging the whole of spiritual practice. We're shaking everything up we can possibly think of. As I said in the crazy CD I made for you all, it would be a wonderful thing for the Dalai Lama and the Pope to exchange costumes for a week. Anything that shakes us up to not be held inside a particular, habituated way that interferes with us being soft human beings who offer our hearts to the universe to be able to be danced with and amused by the gods. The gods are bored with us! We need to do something to catch their interest. Then they'll dance with us! Then they'll move us!
I could go on, but Tami, it's just part of the divine dance that we're having this conversation right now. It's just such a joy to be able to talk to you about these ways, and I hear the truth and sincerity in you and all you're trying to do to help bring forth a difference in a time when there's not really too many differences making a difference. That's the time when we need more than to say it—it's the time when we need to feel it, and that feeling can touch our hearts and level us to the ground. There we have hope, a hope for an embodied way of being agents, spokespeople, and performers, and ambassadors for the extreme love.
TS: I just have one final question for you, Brad.
TS: This program is called "Insights at the Edge," and you know, normally I like to push people who have strong ideas and seem very definitive about things, and ask them, "What's your edge? What's that thing that you don't usually talk about, or that's your own growing challenge in your life?" But now I'm here with a mojo doctor, shake spinner, costume changer, circular poetic man, and I'm curious, even with all of that rumble-tumble, do you have an edge? What I mean by that is something that is hard for you to go beyond, some way that you maybe are a little "stuck" in some part of your life that even all the shaking doesn't seem to shake up.
BK: Well, that's a wonderful question. For me, at the moment, the language of being wild and free in itself can obscure a deeper truth of being about that which doesn't need a lot of words to convey. That is, simply being about love. If you truly love people, and you feel the love in your heart, it's not so necessary to be clever, and it's not so necessary to be someone having to prove to the world that they're the great teacher, or they have the answer. It's actually more important to meet people where they are.
I'm seeing a lot of people where I live now who've lost their homes from Katrina, who were displaced. They grew up in little neighborhood churches, and for them, spirituality—well, they've never heard of any of the tapes that you offer. Not a single one of them. They've only heard of the Bible, and they've only heard of their grandmothers talking to them about "for God so love the world, he gave his only begotten son," and they only know songs like, "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." They only know that, and here they are, living their life, and for me to walk in there and talk the way we're talking, it's sort of like, "What?" For me, the challenge is how to meet people where they are, and let the love flow through whatever metaphor or belief system is there, not to be attached to anything, including all this high-falutin' talk about the next transformative way of being in the world.
As a consequence of that, we just made a decision to open up a little storefront church that has some of our musicians from the formerly displaced black churches here in New Orleans, and we're just going to just be old-fashioned. We had a little service last week, and I just got up and sang some hymns for an hour. I didn't talk anything like this. That was challenging! That was a real edge for me, because I found I could just feel it and meet people with the metaphors they bring to the table, and wrap myself around it in a loving way, and allow the love underneath it to be more important than the fancy display of all the pyrotechnics of our epistemological assumptions and our ontological challenges, and all the metaphors we can juggle in the air. Just simply sing of love in the songs that people's grandmothers gave them, and in that, find true community and true neighborhood. So that's what came up for me.
TS: Wonderful. Well Brad, thank you. Thank you for meeting me right here in the heart. I really appreciate it. I feel you really shook it up, and we're right here for the meeting, so thank you.
BK: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your questions and your presence, and all the best to you on your beautiful journey.
TS: We've been talking to Bradford Keeney. He's created a program with Sounds True called Shaking: The Original Path to Ecstasy and Healing. For SoundsTrue.com, my name's Tami Simon. Thanks for listening.
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