The Luckiest Man Alive?

There is no easy way to describe Bradford Keeney. You could call him an all-American shaman, the 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 Bushman people in Africa’s Kalahari desert. The son and grandson of Baptist preachers from Missouri, he’s careful about claiming the mantle of one of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions. 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 in the field, 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 visiting local people and studying their traditions of healing. He doesn’t operate at all 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 passionately 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 back to the modern world information and inspiration 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 is 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 midnight intruders at a home where he was staying in South Africa. He is on the road up to 10 months every year. He conducts business and composes his Profiles of Healing books (see sidebar) primarily in 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 says “It is remarkable to hear how these old shamans see everything in relationship. They see health in context with the rest of a 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 that want control of their lands. Yet despite this hardship, they experience a level of exhilaration about being alive that is missing for many of us in the modern world, he 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 always known were there. He illuminates the attractive possibility that the universe does not operate strictly by the mechanistic rules we’ve all been taught.

In the two years since I first met Keeney, I’ve noticed that interesting things happen when he’s around. He 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 definitely not in the mood for some paleface showman spouting native nostrums.

But Keeney wowed me, not least because of the way he wiggled and grunted his way across the floor of our library, a look of childlike 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 mug 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 that 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 and 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 Navajo medicine woman Walking Thunder). And he declares that you don’t have to embrace a guru, do native rituals, or visit a sacred mountain to discover insights. You can chart a new direction in life simply by taking a close look around you.

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 guided meditations in Carmel, California?” He nodded vigorously and with a wide, almost conspiratorial smile, said, “Much more.”

Keeney 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 Santa Fe a few times, yet there we were, each of us far from home, in front of a used-book store. 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 Tucson to interview him. On my first day in town, 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 haven’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 as a guide 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 Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century Swedish scientist and religious visionary. “I had a dream of walking into a bookstore,” he explains, “and the clerk says they’ve been waiting for me 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 shamans 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 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, he says.”

Keeney, however, has not always been so at ease about revelations and disturbances from unexpected sources. One day while on 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,” he continues, “I went to the library for a book to explain everything.” 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, 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 learned at his grandfather’s Baptist revival meetings, in the basement as a teenage science nerd and inventor, from the radical ideas of cybernetics theorist 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 creative rapport between therapist and client. Like a jazz jam, the therapy process Keeney recommends is participatory, “with each party bringing something to the table” so they can explore a whole range of factors surrounding a person’s issues.

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 that 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 afterward, 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 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 for his 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,” 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 Bushman people of the Kalahari dance and dance until they see ropes of white light dangling from the sky and those ropes connect 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 Southern Baptist 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 wondrous totemic objects from five 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, a mechanic and deacon of the African American church in Minneapolis that Keeney and his wife, Mev Jenson, a psychotherapist, attended before moving to Arizona. They joke that while they’re traveling 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 the Bushmen in Africa. He now writes gospel music for fun, and the Ringing Rocks Foundation will be sponsoring a night of gospel music at next year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. His research has taken him to black churches in New Orleans and on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In these music-filled, African-influenced services, he finds hope for the survival of indigenous people’s healing traditions.

Though the foundation lends a hand to organizations working to support indigenous people’s 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 ancient cultures, however, can live on in new forms, just as it has in the gospel churches of America, or on the Indian reservations he’s visited, or among the mestizo cultures of Mexico.

The civil rights movement, he notes, grew out of this deep spirit in black churches. “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 also opposition to the mounting soullessness of modern society. 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 upon 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 terms:

  • Too much testing of kids in school.
  • Not enough recess.
  • Disappearing street life.
  • The triumph of humorlessness in politics.
  • Windows that don’t open.
  • No more sleaze in Times Square.
  • Less jazz on Bourbon Street.

Mapping out his strategy 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 shimmy and shake any way that feels natural. “You shouldn’t have to go to a movement class to 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 against soullessness, according to Keeney, is to overthrow our obsession with always being in charge. The Bushman people, 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 when 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 that the Bushman people in the nearby Kalahari experienced something similar to kundalini in their dances, so he agreed to go to Pretoria 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 to me 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 that of the people who created them.”

Offers soon materialized to visit Paraguay, the Diné (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 (1996) and The Energy Break (1998), and hit the lecture circuit with an ensemble of musicians and performers he called the Lifeforce Theater. The tour culminated with a 1997 show at the Miami Arena where thousands danced in their seats as Keeney demonstrated the ins and outs of ecstatic movement to the music of Al Di Meola’s jazz band. Time and Newsweek took notice, and it appeared that Bradford Keeney could be the next big New Age star.

But this “carnival of the spirit,” as he calls it, didn’t feel quite right, so Keeney gradually 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 Transfer 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.”

Teaming up to launch the Ringing Rocks Foundation, Connor and Keeney initiated the Profiles of Healing book series, a small grant program, and cultural preservation projects with universities and museums around the world. They are now at work preparing a video curriculum that Keeney believes is the “first shamanic-inspired college course.”

The last day of my visit, Keeney and I drove out to an old Spanish mission–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 if I 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 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 as he did on the 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 bath removing layers of anxiety from my body. Then, suddenly, my mind flashed on a vivid image of woods and prairie as if I was viewing them from the sky. When Keeney finally shut off the music, I slumped sweatily into the nearest chair and my mind filled with all sorts of memories connected to flying–deep wishes, for as long as I can remember, to be aloft like a bird. I had always wanted, literally, to fly to the moon.

Returning home to Minneapolis, I found myself swept up in a series of serendipities that pointed me in interesting directions. I began to look at my dreams in new ways and to dance around my living room to music from CDs included in the Profiles of Healing books. 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 my eyes and draw strength from seeing a green landscape beneath me as I soar. Yet I still sometimes wonder, was it real? Did energy rise up through my body and give me the feeling of flying like an eagle?

Before sitting down to write this article, I decided to 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.”

Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne magazine.

Profiles of Healing

BRADFORD KEENEY chronicles his adventures in Profiles of Healing–a handsome set of books that explores the work and beliefs of traditional healers in their own words. Each volume is illustrated with eye-popping photographs and includes a CD of ceremonial music. Focusing on individuals such as Credo Mutwa of South Africa’s Zulu people and Ikuko Osumi, Sensei of Japan, as well as shamanic traditions like those of the Guarani people of the Amazon and the Shaker Methodist churches of the Caribbean, the books open up new worlds of spiritual and cultural thought.

Nine books of the 12-volume series are out from Ringing Rocks Press, with new titles in the works on spiritual healers in Bali, African American churches, and psychotherapist Milton Erickson. Keeney’s now at work investigating healing traditions of Mexico, Europe, Argentina, and Australia’s Aborigines.

Finely produced but not prohibitively expensive ($40 hardcover in a slipcase, and under $20 in paper), they can be found in bookstores or from Independent Publishers Group: 800/888-7471 or; or see
Jay Walljasper

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.