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The Marco Polo of Mental Well-Being

Bradford Keeney has the best job in the world. He roams the globe in search of traditional methods of healing that can help us.

by Jay Walljasper

Published in the Utne Reader


There is no easy way to describe Bradford Keeney. You could call him the All-American shaman, Marco Polo of psychology, an anthropologist of the spirit, but I usually just say he’s the guy with the best job in the world.

Keeney flinches a bit at being labeled a shaman, even though he was trained as a medicine man by elders of the Bushmen people in Africa’s Kalahari desert. The son and grandson of Baptist preachers from Missouri, he’s careful about claiming the mantle of the world’s oldest spiritual tradition. And he’s adamant about not being any kind of Carlos Castaneda-style purveyor of ancient powers.

He’s nearly as uncomfortable being called a psychologist, even though he earned a Ph.D, taught at universities and institutes for 28 years, and has written books on the subject that have been translated into seven languages. But Keeney was always something of a renegade, drawing ideas from theater and religious services more than from Freud and Alfred Adler.

The anthropologist label doesn’t fit either, even though he spends many months each year in Africa, the Amazon, the Caribbean, and American Indian reservations living with local people and studying their traditions of healing. He doesn’t operate anything like academically trained anthropologists. Instead of sitting back to observe the people he meets, Keeney plunges right in, often spending his first night in a village dancing around a bonfire till dawn.

Keeney believes that there is much we can learn from the planet’s most overlooked cultures. His job as Vice-President for Cultural Affairs of the Philadelphia-based Ringing Rocks Foundation is to visit remote communities, take part in their celebrations and daily lives, help them in struggles to keep their cultures vital, and bring information and inspiration back to the modern world on how we might live with more health, more happiness, and more soul.

“ It’s like being a mystical reporter,” he says. “Or a spiritual detective. You go out and meet all these truly amazing people, and then come home to tell the stories.”

It’s by no means easy work or a simple life. Scorpion bites and tropical fevers are part of the job description. He’s been questioned for kidnapping by suspicious authorities in Paraguay, and dodged gunfire from intruders in the middle of the night at a home where he was staying in South Africa. He is on the road up to 10 months every year. He conducts a lot of business and composes his Profiles of Healing books primarily in planes and airport lounges.

Yet Keeney, 52, considers himself blessed for this chance to sit at the feet of people he thinks are some of the wisest on the planet. “I’ve spent most of my life in universities and now I am learning lessons from people who can’t even read,” he enthuses. “It is remarkable to hear how these old shamans see everything in relationship. They see health in context with the rest of the person’s life, the family, and the community. And people are seen in context with everything else in the world. This is not primitive thinking but a very sophisticated worldview.”

Keeney acknowledges that most native people contend with harsh living conditions, and are constantly under siege from corporations and governments who want control of their lands. Yet despite this hardship, they experience a level of exhilaration about life that is missing for most of us in the modern world, Keeney says. Deprived of the comfort and excitement of technological civilization, as well as its stress and alienation, indigenous people keep in touch with some basic elements of being human that we neglect. For them, religion, medicine, mental health, art, and just plain fun are not separate activities, but one unified pursuit around which much of their community life is organized. This is the focus of Keeney’s research—the healing powers, for both body and mind, of indigenous people’s religion, rituals, music, and dance.

Keeney’s work stands as something of a contradiction to what Western culture professes. Yet there’s nothing arrogant or confrontational in the way he challenges our conventional wisdom. He doesn’t lecture, he whoops and dances. He doesn’t make us feel foolish, he helps us find truths within our souls that we may have long known were there. He illuminates the attractive possibility that the universe does not always operate by the strict, mechanistic rules we’ve all been taught.

In the two years since first meeting Keeney, I’ve noticed that interesting things happen when he’s around. He first entered my life completely unannounced. Following up on an invitation from my colleague Nina Utne, he stopped by the office to talk to the staff about indigenous healing traditions. I was just back from vacation, grouchy about being at my desk rather than swimming in Lake Superior, and definitively not in the mood for some paleface showman spouting native nostrums.

But Keeney blew me away, not least because of the way he wiggled and grunted his way across the floor of our library, a look of child-like bliss on his face, without a trace of embarrassment.

I was also fascinated by his views on a topic I had long and secretly wondered about. I’ve always been graced and cursed with a lot of physical energy. Sitting still for 20 years of schooling was often an ordeal, and my various experiments with yoga, meditation, and tai chi have been utter disasters. Whenever I fall ill or get run-down, everyone counsels rest, which sounds to me like torture. Staying in bed, quiet and reposed with a pot of herbal tea, makes me feel even more miserable. I’ve found the best way to regain vitality is to get up, move around, and dive headlong into some new project around the house. Yet I’ve also worried this shows how dangerously driven and revved-up I truly am—a walking medical time bomb. So when Keeney told us that native medicine men and women sometimes cure ailing people by getting them to dance furiously around a fire, I wanted to cheer.

“In other parts of the world the healing process is not seen as just relaxation, it’s also arousal,” he explained. “Healing works as a cycle of relaxation and arousal. But there’s a big taboo in our culture that you shouldn’t get ecstatic, you shouldn’t be out of control. So we focus completely on the relaxation response in medicine and therapy. The arousal response is suppressed. It’s too dangerous.”

In almost every way other than appearance (he is long-haired, goateed, and favors crisp Cuban- and Hawaiian-style shirts), Keeney defies stereotypes of an authority on alternative healing and spirituality. He invokes pianist Erroll Garner (co-author of the jazz standard “Misty”) as the greatest influence on his life. He confides that he has done psychedelics exactly once (as part of recent research on a Dine Indian medicine woman Walking Thunder). And he declares that you don’t have to embrace a guru, do native rituals, or visit a sacred site to discover insights. You can chart a new direction in life by simply by taking a close look around where you live.

Picking up on that point during his visit to Utne, I asked, “So what you’re telling us is that a Polish wedding dance in Wisconsin could be a more mystical experience than a month of seminars at the Esalen Institute?” He nodded vigorously and with a wide, almost conspiratorial smile, said, “much more.”

He and I met again, by complete accident, a few months later on the streets of Santa Fe. I had never been to New Mexico before and he’d only visited a few times, yet there we were, each of us far from home, in front of a used bookstore. Although not generally inclined to let chance direct my actions, I took this as an unmistakable sign that I needed to write a story about him.

It took another year before our schedules aligned and I finally flew to Arizona to interview him. On my first day with him, after several hours of intensive questions and answers, we took a break and he sat down at the Steinway grand piano in his living room and broke into the old Frank Sinatra tune, “Fly Me to the Moon.”
“What’s the matter?” he said, noting the surprised look on my face.

“That song has been running through my mind almost constantly the last few days,” I replied. “And I don’t know where it came from.”

“Me, either,” he said. “I played it a lot when I had a jazz combo in high school. But I hadn’t thought about it in at least 20 years.”

Creative coincidences like these no longer come as a surprise to Keeney. He’s seen enough to welcome them in planning his next moves. He pays particularly close attention to dreams, even though as a psychologist he has done little dream interpretation. At the top of his reading list right now is Emmanuel Swedenborg, the 18th Century Swedish scientist and religious visionary. “I had a dream of walking into a used bookstore,” he explains, “and the clerk says we’ve been waiting for you and hands over this Swedenborg book in Latin. I had to check him out.”

He notes that dreams play an important role in the lives of indigenous people, not just for spiritual leaders but as a way for anyone to get in deeper touch with the currents of their inner world and perhaps the whole universe. “I think dreams can be very practical,” he says. “ When something comes into your awareness as a dream, take it seriously. If you dream of, say, an otter, then paint a picture of an otter, or read about them, or go to a zoo and watch them to see what comes up for you.”

Dreams can actually be incubated, he adds, sharing a few of his own tips. Put a glass of water, a wad of tobacco, a religious symbol, a meaningful word written on a scrap of paper, or something that represents an image from an earlier dream and put it under your bed near the spot where your heart rests at night. “Many nights I get on my knees like my daddy taught me and pray for guidance.”

Keeney, however, has not always been so at ease about revelations and disturbances from unexpected sources. One day while crossing the University of Missouri campus (where he enrolled after being kicked out of Bible college for starting an alternative paper called For Christ’s Sake), he began to shake uncontrollably. I felt a ball of fire at the base of my spine. It rose up my body and out of my head. I saw a white light. It scared the hell out of me. I walked around for two weeks afterwards with my head looking straight down because I was worried it would start again.”

“As I always would do, I went to the library for a book to explain everything,” he remembers. What he learned was that his experience resembled kundalini, a powerful form of body energy known to some yoga practitioners. This information provided little comfort, however, since the book noted that spontaneous eruptions of kundalini are considered quite dangerous. All Keeney knew was that he didn’t want to feel anything like that again—ever. So he began steeling himself against any experience he couldn’t control.

His resolve to keep everything under wraps drove him away from his first love, music, and toward psychology, with its safe and sound explanations for human experience. Yet throughout his studies and clinical work, almost by instinct, he found himself pushing the boundaries of the field—incorporating what he had learnedat his grandfather’s Baptist revival meetings, in the basement as a teen-age science nerd and inventor, from the radical ideas of of his mentor Gregory Bateson, and in the energy of the counterculture swirling all around him.

He eventually braided many of these strains into something he calls Improvisational Therapy, which, unlike conventional psychological technique, focuses foremost on building a spontaneous and creative rapport between therapist and client. Like a jazz jam, Keeney sees the therapy process as participatory, “with each party bringing something to the table” so they can explore a whole range of factors surrounding a person’s problems.

Keeney’s emphasis on improvisation made a name for him in the field, and he started getting invitations to deliver lectures, write books, head up academic programs. But something inside him was still unsettled, something which began to emerge one day when he gave a talk on family therapy at a social service agency in a hard hit neighborhood of Minneapolis. A Native American man, Sam Gurnoe, came up to him afterwards, not to ask a question but to open a door. “ My tradition welcomes you,” Keeney remembers him saying. “I hope our ways may help you find the truth in your own ways.”

At first, Keeney didn’t know what to think. He’d come all the way from Florida as a distinguished professor to instruct the folks in this poor community how to overcome their problems, and now one of them was volunteering to teach him. But he was intrigued, and later, when he got an offer to move to the Twin Cities to help launch a new program in professional psychology, Gurnoe’s offer helped him make up his mind.

Gurnoe soon had him packing forhis first vision quest, alone on a cliff with just a blanket, a pipe, and some sacred tobacco. “I didn’t realize how really cold it was in Minnesota,” he recalls. “It rained. I had never even been camping before.” Just when he was ready to hang it up and hike in the direction of the nearest motel, a coyote appeared right in front of him. “It was amazing, but I was also scared silly. Can a coyote hurt you? I wondered” Not knowing what else to do, he started to howl in harmony with the coyote. The next morning, with the cliff now shrouded in heavy fog, an eagle swooped toward him making what looked to Keeney like eye contact. “I jumped up and sang like a wild man.”

He marks the experience as the point when his fear, going back to the kundalini incident, began to shift inside. And as Sam Gurnoe had prophesied he found himself drawn toward his own spiritual roots. He began attending a predominantly African-American Baptist church. “It was the way back to my granddaddy, the Baptist preacher,” he says, noting that only later did he learn that many native cultures conduct religious ceremonies as a way to stay in contact with their dead relatives.

 “This is not ancestor worship as the early anthropologists described it,” he says, “this is a continuing relationship with those you have lost.” As he writes in his recent book Ropes to the Gods (Ringing Rocks Press, 2003) the Bushmen of the Kalahari dance and dance until they see ropes of white light dangling from the sky and those ropes carry them to everyone they love.
“A lot of healing happens out of this love. The dancers break down in grief about losing their loved ones and then get up again filled with ecstasy. Strip away all the meandering discourse and you’ll find the religious traditions, the Christian mystics and Zen Buddhists, are all talking about love.”

Through the course of his spiritual research, Keeney has been forced to confront his embarrassment about coming from a line of SouthernBaptist preachers. His first act of rebellion as a teenager in Smithville, Missouri, was to attend Unitarian services, and he later reveled in the sophisticated secular status of being a scientist and professor. But today, amid all the amazing totemic objects from six continents on display in his office—animal skins, beaded vests, a three-foot carved giraffe, an ostrich egg etched with drawings, a genuine poison arrow—his grandfather’s bible has a place of honor right next to the desk.

One of the chief lessons Keeney draws from his globe-trotting explorations is that, ironically, you can set out on a spiritual search anywhere. “ You don’t need to fly to an exotic locale and take an exotic herb, you don’t need Sufi dancing or Brazilian rituals,” he says. “You can start by looking at the religion that was given to you as a child, where your grandparents worshipped. If you were raised Catholic you can look to what you learned about love from the priest and what you felt in hearing the bells. That can help you find what you need inside.”

The next step, he suggests, is simply to look around you. Every community, no matter how small, has some saint right in its midst, he says. “It may be a church elder, or just some local rascal. . You’ll find they have a light inside, one they will share with you, that leads you step by step.”

A guiding light for Keeney has been Amos Griffin [ck spelling], a mechanic and deacon of an African-American church in Minneapolis that Keeney and his wife Mev Jenson, a pyschotherapist, attended before moving to Arizona. They joke that while travelling the world to meet powerful spiritual figures, they measure everyone’s AQ—the Amos Quotient, which refers to “the amount of gentle and sweet love a person exudes.”

Coming back to the Baptist church, especially a predominantly black congregation, reconnected Keeney to another touchstone of his youth: music. The joyful noise of gospel choirs, with everyone rocking and amen-ing in the pews, stirred much the same feelings in him that he later found dancing with Bushmen in Africa. He now writes gospel music for fun, and hisresearch has taken him to black churches in New Orleans and on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In these spirit-filled, African-influenced church services, he finds hope for the for the survival of indigenous people’s healing traditions.

Though the Ringing Rocks Foundation lends a hand to organizations working to supportindigenous peoples’ rights and their way-of-life, Keeney knows these cultures will inevitably be changed by contact with the modern world. The sacred wisdom found in their music, dancing, and rituals, however, can live on in new forms, just as it has in the gospel churches of New Orleans he’s visited, or on the Lakota and Dine(Navajo) reservations, or among the Mestizo cultures of Latin America.
The civil rights movement grew out of the black churches, he notes. “The people dancing in the aisles on Sunday were the same ones marching in the streets and doing freedom rides.” Keeney believes we can call on this spirit to aid in today’s struggles, not just campaigns fighting political oppression, but opposition to the mounting soullessness of the modern world. In his view, the same forces that dispossess indigenous and poor people, also lay waste to the environment and want to impose solemnity, standardization, and dullness on our lives.

One morning over a breakfast of huevos rancheros doused in hot sauce, he rattles off a personal list of what this means in concrete, practical terms.

  1. Too much testing of kids in school.

 

  1. Not enough recess.
  1. Disappearing streetlife.

 

  1. The triumph of humorlessness in politics.
  1. Windows that don’t open.

 

  1. Less jazz on Bourbon Street.

 

Mapping out his plan for resistance, inspired by all he’s learned in vital and remote corners of human culture, Keeney urges us to get moving—literally. Walk. Dance. Sway. Strut down the street. Tap your fingers on your desk. Play air guitar (or in his case air keyboards). Pretend you’re a symphony conductor. Rediscover rocking chairs and porch swings. Find your own rhythm, and then put a little swing into everything you do.

Don’t worry about looking foolish, he counsels, just shimmyand shake any way that feels natural. “You shouldn’t have to go to a movement class just be able to move. We need to free our bodies.

“With the exception of two disastrous proms, the first time I ever danced was with the Bushmen. I learned that to shake and move wildly feels damn good. You experience being alive in new ways. I get up and shake my way around the room all the time now. It changed my life. If I can do it, you can.”
The next front in this revolution, according to Keeney’s spur-of-the-moment manifesto, is to overthrow our obsession with always being in charge. The Bushmen, he notes, control very little of what happens in their lives yet often experience a sense of exhilaration that many Westerners need expensive drugs to reach.

“Whatever happened to just winging it?” he asks. “Our culture more and more cultivates the measurable, the predictable, the standardized. We have become too caught up in trying to understand and diagnose everything. That’s absurd. Do you learn to swim by reading the stories of great swimmers and studying the kinesiology of the backstroke. No, you get in the water and see what works.”

 

Keeney admits that it sounds radical, even outlandish, to suggest that people should willingly give up some control over their lives, but he adds that for him it has made all the difference. “I didn’t have dreams that took me places until I sat scared and confused on that cliff during my vision quest,” he remarks. “ That’s the moment where I learned how to give up controlling everything. Since then marvelous things have happened.”

Within a few weeks an offer came out of the blue to lecture at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. He remembered reading about Bushmen people in the nearby Kalahari, who experience something similar to kundalini in their dances, so he agreed to come on the promise that he could meet the Bushmen. With the help of an intrepreter, Keeney was welcomed into a village and invited to dance. “It blew my mind,” he says. “It felt like the kundalini thing that happened in college. The medicine men explained that it was very powerful magic that could only be done in a group. If someone dancing around the fire got too much energy, they hurried over to touch them and tap them to let it cool down. That’s what I had needed the first time it hit me.

“This was an important lesson,” he adds, “which a lot of New Agers never learn. You can’t easily divorce the power of these rituals from their cultural context. They are not a commodity. You need to be in a frame of mind similar to the people who created them.” ”

Offers soon materialized to visit Paraguay, the Navajo reservation, and Japan, and he found more traditional healers to study with. Wanting to share what he was learning with people outside of universities, he penned practical how-to books, Everyday Soul and The Energy Break, and hit the lecture circuit with a full bill of music, performance and talks that he called he Lifeforce Theater. The tour culminated with a 19xx in a show at the Miami Arena where thousands danced in their seats as Keeney demonstrated the ins and outsof ecstatic movement to the music of Al Di Meola’s jazz band. (Di Meola and Keeny later wrote a song together, “Shaking the Spirits” about that show.) Time and Newsweektook notice, and signs seemed clear that Bradford Keeney might be the next big New Age star.

But this “carnival of the spirit”, as he calls it, didn’t feel quite right so Keeney withdrew to concentrate on the work of scouting and studying indigenous healing traditions. Then one day, again by complete surprise, he was contacted on behalf of high-tech executive Nancy Connor who had heard about an outrageous speech he had given at a psychology conference while breathing helium. “It was a serious group,” he explains with a sheepish grin, “so I thought they needed it.”

One of the founders and former director of FTP Software, the company that developed File Tranfer Program, a key contribution to the growth of internet use, Connor was now interested in investigating older sources of human knowledge. She invited Keeney to help her launch “a foundation dedicated to documenting and conserving cultural wisdom traditions and their healing practices.” Keeney has since left Ringing Rocks, and now writes, teaches and practices as a therapist

 

The last day of my visit, Keeney and I drove out to an old Spanish church, a tourist site I had wanted to see but perhaps also a barely conscious first step in following his advice to explore my Catholic roots. Stepping into the church, I heard no choirs of angels and felt no bolts of electricity. Light shining through a high window, however, did illuminate a statue of St. Martin de Porres in a rather dramatic way.

When we got back to his office, Keeney asked ifI was ready to dance. We’d been dancing a lot already, or at least shaking our booties to jazz, gospel and Dr. John records in breaks from the interviews. But this time, he turned down the lights and put on a tape he’d made of primal drumming. I began stomping around the room, and soon noticed a tingle of energy trickling up my spine. I kept dancing, dropping down to the floor sometimes and other times draping my arms around Keeney, who was moving much like he did on the first day I met him in the Utne office. Dancing still more, I broke into a series of whoops and hollers. It wasn’t a trance or altered state, just a great feeling, like a psychic shower removing layers of anxiety from my body. Then, suddenly, my mind flashed on a vivid image of green forests and prairie as if I was viewing them from the air. When Keeney finally shut off the music, I slumped sweatily into the nearest chair and my mind began to race with all sorts of memories connected to flying —-not airplanes but deep wishes, for as long as I can remember, to be aloft like a bird. I had always wanted to, literally, fly to the moon.

Returning home to Minneapolis, I found myself swept up in a series of serendipities that seemed to point me in interestingdirections. I began to look at my dreams in new ways, and dance around my living room to music from CDs included in the Profiles of Healing book series. As the months passed, my life took no dramatic turns but I found myself experiencing some things a bit differently. I left more to chance and sometimes saw meaning in what I formerly would have dismissed as mere happenstance. In moments of stress, I can shut me eyes and draw strength from seeing the green landscape beneath me as I soar. Yet, I still sometimes wonder, was it real? Did energy rise up through my bodyand leave me with the feeling of flying like an eagle?

Before sitting down to write this article, I decided refresh my thoughts about that day by reading up on St. Martin de Porres. Born in 16th Century Peru to a black Panamanian mother and a white Spanish father, he became acclaimed for healing people simply by shaking hands. Martin is the patron saint of hairdressers, public health workers, and persons of mixed race. “It was widely known. . .,” stated a Catholic reference book I consulted, “that he could fly.”