Thursday, 8 November 2012

An Unconventional Initiation Into Traditional African Healing Part 1 by Jean Sobiecki

19th July 2012: Its been three weeks since I started using southern African psychoactive spiritual medicines called ubulawu, as part of my training process to know African traditional healing —and I can say its been one heck of an unconventional initiation….

As a background, I am an ethnobotanist with university training in botany and medical anthropology.
I have had a life-long calling to healing: including the use of medicinal plants, the knowledge of which I gained through self study of nature, books, making and using my own herbal medicines as well as learning from local traditional healers throughout my life. I am currently apprenticing with a Northern Sotho healer named Mama Maponya in Johannesburg, to learn traditional southern African medicine.

The Sotho are one of a number of Bantu language speaking tribes occurring in southern Africa. These groups originated from central Africa and migrated southwards. Traditionally, the Bantu people cultivated fields (a main crop being Sorghum) and raised cattle and supplemented this with by hunting and gathering wild foods. Some of the core beliefs of the Bantu people are that of the principle of community (Ubuntu) and the role of their deceased ancestors, around which many rituals are performed.

In southern Africa there are two main types of traditional healer-doctors: the herbalist (Inyanga in Zulu), and the diviner (Isangoma: Zulu). The diviners like shamans are the spiritual specialists, and use divination to communicate with their ancestral spirits to diagnose their patient’s misfortunes or medical conditions. Both the herbalists and diviners use psychoactive plants as spiritual medicines in their practice and give these under guidance to lay people who use the ubulawu’s to dream and make connection to their ancestors.

Psychoactive can be defined as any substance that can alter our behavioral functioning, be it perception, emotions, cognition on the whole. Many common substances are psychoactive from milk to sugar through to caffeine, opium and psychedelics, each having their own particular effects.
Until recently southern Africa was often considered to be poor in psychoactive plants. Yet the research I have done since 1998 has helped to revitalize this field of ethnobotanical research and I have show that a multitude of plants are used for various psychoactive uses: for relaxing, stimulating, dreaming etc.
Ubulawu are traditional African preparations made mostly from the roots of a variety of herbs and creepers, and sometimes the stems or bark of certain plants that are chopped or ground and left in water that is churned with a forked stick to produce foam. This plant infusion is washed with, the foam eaten or the liquid is drank and vomited with. Vomiting or emetic medicines feature in many ancient systems of healing to clean the body and mind. Using the medicine connects you with yourself, and your ancestors through dreams and they often have mild and subtle psychoactive properties.
Below is an abstract of a research paper I have just had published on African spiritual medicines in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in August titled: Psychoactive Ubulawu Spiritual Medicines and Healing Dynamics in the Initiation Process of Southern Bantu Diviners. This paper gives more detail on the traditional spiritual plant medicine use occurring in southern Africa, for those who want to know more. 

Abstract—The use of psychoactive plants by traditional healers in southern Africa appears to be a neglected area of ethnobotanical research. This article explores the healing dynamics involved in the use of popular psychoactive plant preparations known as ubulawu in the initiation rituals of Southern Bantu diviners. Research methods include a review of the literature, fieldwork interviews with Southern Bantu diviners, and an analysis of experiential accounts from diverse informants on their use of ubulawu. Findings reveal that there is widespread reliance on ubulawu as psychoactive spiritual medicines by the indigenous people of southern Africa to communicate with their ancestral spirits, to bring luck, and to treat mental disturbances.

In the case of the Southern Bantu diviners, ubulawu used in a ritual initiation process acts as a mnemonic aid and medicine to familiarize the initiates with enhanced states of awareness and related psychospiritual phenomena such as enhanced intuition and dreams of the ancestral spirits, who teach the initiates how to find and use medicinal plants. The progression of the latter phenomena indicates the steady success of the initiates’ own healing integration. Various factors such as psychological attitude and familiarization, correct plant combinations/synergy and a compatible healer-initiate relationship influence ubulawu responsiveness.
I can say that through my own current use and experiences with the medicines, what I understand of their effects and qualities is not what I expected based on all the literature…it has been very enlightening for me. Ubulawu’s psychoactive effects are very subtle not like what most consider psychoactive-i.e., strong visionary psychoactives, yet the way they take you into parts of yourself can be profound.

I call this an unconventional initiation since initiate traditional healers usually go to the rural areas and seclude themselves in huts living the traditional way—yet I have undertaken to use the plants in a noisy central business district of Johannesburg close to my teacher, living in a rented place with a landlord that is not ideal for me. This however, I have learnt is not what matters. It’s adjusting to any situation and persevering with the training that matters.

This is my journey with one of the plants called U (I can not name the medicines until I have finished my training).
INCEPTION: 2 July 2012
I began using these foaming medicines that one vomits with every morning and the first medicine called U opened me like a flower ordered to so without any protection to the light or darkness: just revealing who I am, to myself.
Being in this new home I don’t enjoy; cold and dark (being mid winter too), I felt the struggle of being in bed with my negativities, inflamed, raw.
My anchor: Buddhist dharma. Visiting the Buddhist centre in Johannesburg I felt peace and safety.

Days and nights upside down, grief’s and pains visiting me from unmet desires, writhing— stirrings in my spirit…seeing the addictions of desires, giving up on them, having too.
Waking up at 11:30 the one morning facing guilt of not doing the socially accepted thing of waking up early. “Why am I sleeping at this hour”? A program in my head said. “I should be working”…I said hell to it.
Who Am I? Is this all my intellectual pursuits? Get me out of this shithole place, I told myself: Venturing into a nearby suburb of Kensington, I sought a townhouse, a place of my own, maybe something would pop up….but I knew in the back of my mind it wouldn’t happen overnight. I remembered what my teacher Mama says “No good comes with rushing”. 

For days I felt my nerves raw and burning, my minds negativity rising up like an oil slick, no way but to pray, face it, then I saw it is time to face and overcome my fears, not just entertain their existence, that or just give up my training, but then…?
11 July: After the 9th day in a panicky state I went to see my teacher Mama Maponya, whose wisdom and compassion is like that of Buddhist lamas, she said “this is what the medicine does, it shows you who you are, gives you direction to know yourself”.
Fuck. I hated what I saw, what I couldn’t run away from. “I can’t do this— I can’t be a healer. I can’t open to my ancestral spirits—I’m sensitive enough” I told her in excruciating honesty. “I just want to teach and do research”.
15th July: I woke up in the morning with clarity of knowing my story, my truth crystallizing: (I wrote these down with a strong knowingness)
I have found my truth: What truths for myself have I found?
I know I am a seeker of truth.
To know my truth, I must be aware.
I know that the dominant culture in the West: capitalist culture hides us from awareness and truth.
I do not know if there is an omnipotent God, but what I feel is true is we have been given life in order to create: what we want.
Finding peace and happiness is my responsibility—our responsibility: no one neither god nor anyone will save us.
I believe healing our minds and learning to love and overcome our fear is the way to happiness and peace.
Awareness, taking responsibility and loving ourselves will lead to mature being and inner peace.
I need to take responsibility for my life and what I truly want.
Our capitalist consumer culture has taken us away from peace through addiction to strong desires and fears and insecurities through design thereof through mass media marketing and advertising.
To be at peace with myself I must deal with and heal my fears: my fears of people: of conflict and being afraid of conflict.

To do so I must believe I will not fear (though accepting it), being confident and believing I deserve to express my honest truth. I deserve a voice.
The healing I want to teach is spiritual freedom, to guide people.
If I am cold I must find warmth. If I am unhappy I must make the conditions happen that are necessary for my happiness to occur, as the Dalai Lama says.
I sense a journey overland is on the HORIZON.
These thoughts distilled for me in the course of the day and I shared this on my facebook mindfulness and consciousness group: What is enlightenment other than making the journey alone, into who we really are, learning to overcome our fears, our addictions, making peace with ourselves and the world and mastering our minds and negative emotions, to finally rest into the truth of who we are-essentially: pure mind, open heart.
Finding my truth is finding my enlightenment.
19 July 2012: I stopped the medicine. The pressure slowly eased up. I could handle my landlord—everything was better.
It had been a very intense journey into my shadow, my core of who I am.
It’s not as if I could turn away from my negatives while using it, it was there till I came to terms with it.
How wonderful that a plant can do this: accelerated learning. So often we sleep in our slumbery ways to ourselves “ya I know my shit stuff” but then a minute later we are distracted by whatever it is. Not with U. I could feel how open it made me, how unrelenting it was for me to face myself while I was using it, a constant mirror.

After having stopped U for 5 days I had been given my next medicine to use; but I felt I wanted to take U once more. It was my intuition—my ancestors.
24 July 2012: That morning, kneeling down having churned the foaming medicines I knew it was good.
After vomiting with U this time I realize and recall that Elliot, another traditional healer I met, said I must heal myself first then do research, it will strengthen me. Like mama reiterated; the plants will support me in who I am and my work. 

I now saw the points of connection clearly: my relationship to plants, making herbal medicine, —this is who I am—many people do not do this. So yes I am a healer. I must just heal my fears and move forward— with trust, I can integrate my creative, leadership and healing aspects into one like the Buddhist Kagyu lineage master Akong Rinpoche.

Having used U after 5 days of absence I can report that its effects are once again similar to my previous experience…I felt opening to insights again, same old anger as last time with an old friend D (funny how it will surface issues that need resolution), and also realize now how I am progressing on my path.
That afternoon sitting in the meditation shrine room of the Kensington Buddhist I gazed up at Tai Situpa’s photo (another high lama of the Kagyu lineage) and I knew: a distillation of mind was present:

The plants are helping me heal.
Build compassion through the Dharma
And create the conditions for my happiness or fulfillment in life.

The Journey progresses….
Jean-Francois Sobiecki
Phytoalchemist. Website soon up