John Lockley: Sangoma

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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is John Lockley. In 1990, during the beginning of the end of Apartheid, John Lockley, a young, white medic in the South African army, had a powerful dream. The dream—which he describes as “a calling”—began his extraordinary odyssey beyond the barriers of race, culture, and belief into the world of the shaman. With Sounds True, John has written a new book called Leopard Warrior: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams, where he shares the remarkable story of how he became one of the first modern white men in recent history to become a fully-initiated sangoma, a traditional priest and healer in the Xhosa lineage of South Africa, the tribe of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. In this teaching memoir, John introduces readers to what he calls The Way of the Leopard, a shamanic path for awakening our intuition in connection to the spirit world.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, John and I spoke about the difficulty of being caught in the middle of two cultures in the midst of Apartheid and the rarity of being asked, as a white person, to become a tribal sangoma. We also talked about John’s “calling illness” and how it affected him, and the suffering he has undergone that has seemed to be part of his life path and healing gifts. We talked about why we need to honor our ancestors, and how to do it, and how honoring our ancestors changes us. Finally, John shared with us a blessing song called “The Great Spirit”. Here’s my conversation with John Lockley.

John, you are a sangoma, which is very unusual. A white man who is a traditional priest and healer in the Xhosa tradition of South Africa. What does it mean to be a sangoma?

John Lockley: A sangoma means to be an ancestral doctor or a spirit doctor, someone who can help heal people in different ways, and someone who can also connect with the ancestral world. It actually reminds me of the time when I first started my training with my teacher, MaMngwevu, in 1998. I didn’t know what a sangoma was, because I’d been brought up in the old Apartheid regime. All I dreamt about was these medicine people, these black medicine people, who I thought were witch doctors. That was the only connotation I had, but I knew that they were noble people and there was a lot more to them than the Apartheid’s misinformation was talking about.

So when I finally met my teacher, she said to me, “You have the gift of becoming a sangoma and I can train you. I can apprentice you to become a sangoma like myself.” I remember saying to her, “What does it mean to be a sangoma?” She said, “To become a sangoma means you’re going to be able to heal people in all different ways. Also, you’re going to stop being so sick.” At that stage, I had what we call the calling illness, the thwasa, and it was very debilitating. I’d had it for seven years and I’d been very, very sick.

In that moment, I was still sick. So I thought for a moment and I thought, “OK. That sounds good. I’m not going to be sick and I’m going to be able to heal people in all different ways” So I said, “OK. I accept, but under one condition.” She says, “OK. What is that condition?” I said, “On the condition that you train me as if I’m a Xhosa man, not someone from a different culture.” And she said, “Of course,” and she laughed. “There’s only one way to train you,” she says. Then, she said, “Come tomorrow, and tomorrow, I’ll give you your first white beads. That will be a sign that you are my apprentice.”

TS: How did you originally meet your teacher? How did that happen?

JL: That happened through a series of serendipitous events, you could say, and lots of magic. But in a very grounded way as well, like many mystical traditions. So, I’d been sick for many years and I’d been training in the Zen tradition. I’d been in South Korea and deciding, or not, to become a Zen monk. I was pushed to the precipice of deciding to become a monk or not when the Grand Master of the lineage, Seung Sahn Soen-sa asked me, in the Singapore airport, to become one of his monks and join his monk army. In that moment, he pushed me to the edge. And in that moment, I realized that I needed to go back to South Africa, vote for Nelson Mandela, and actually find someone to train me, so that I could realize my sangoma calling and actually become an African priest rather than a Zen monk.

So I went back to South Africa, voted for Nelson Mandela, started back at university. And in my final year at university, we were working in the township areas and we were doing an AIDS awareness campaign with my professor, who was teaching health psychology. He organized for us to see a traditional herbalist. I remembered very clearly being in this old hut, and the wind was whistling through the hut through the tin roof. My professor was asking the herbalist gentleman, he’s asking him about traditional African healing and how they heal as a herbalist in the community. He started saying through the interpreter—so he was speaking in the Xhosa language—he was saying, “Well, in order for us to heal, we need to go to the waters. We need to go to a lake or the river and we need to make an offering of tobacco. If that offering is accepted, we will see the tobacco entering the waters and going straight down, and we will see an invisible hand appearing, and we’ll know that the ancestors have accepted our offer, and that we will be able to work with this client to heal them.”

At that point, my professor stopped the interview and he said, “It’s time for lunch.” I realized that it was too much for him. All this mysticism and this language of metaphor and this language of spirituality was too difficult for him to understand. So afterwards, I felt very angry, and I turned to the interpreter, who was a Xhosa man, and I said to him, “Please take me to a sangoma that you yourself would go to, and help me understand these old ways, because something is wrong here. Something is being missed and we need to understand these old traditional ways. Please take me to a sangoma that you would go to or a member of your family.”

He said to me, “That’s wonderful, John,” because he said, “My son has been sick and my wife took my son to a very good sangoma lady in the community. I’ll make an appointment and we can go and see her tomorrow.” That night, my teacher-to-be had a dream, where she told us that the Great Spirit, uThixo, came to her in a dream and said to her that she needed to prepare herself to train someone to become a senior sangoma like herself. But this person is going to be coming from another culture. The Great Spirit told her to be ready for this. The next day, we went to the house of this senior sangoma. I remember seeing her very clearly, sweeping the yard and putting her clothes on the washing line, and she had a very stern expression on her face.

I remember my friend said, who was the interpreter, he was a very jovial character, and he greeted her and smiled warmly. She just said, “[isiXhosa language]” She said, “Come inside and go to the back. Then, we’ll do the vumisa [divination] at the back.” So we went to the back and then she started giving the divination. She recalled later to say that she realized straight away that I was the one that she had to train and that she also felt a bit nervous, because I was a white man. She didn’t know how she was going to train me, because we didn’t speak the same language. She doesn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Xhosa at that time. But she remembered, after a few minutes of giving the divination, feeling all my pain and feeling the illness of the thwasa and feeling the power of my calling. Then, she realized the dream that she’d had the night before, and that I was clearly the one that she had to train. In that moment, she said she felt a state of, what do you say, Siyavuma! She agreed with her ancestors and she felt so much compassion for me.

She looked me and through the interpreter, she said, “What took you so long to come to me for this divination?” I remember saying to her, “Apartheid, Mum.” She said, “Ahh, Thixo, Nkosi yam,” She said, “Oh God, oh God, you know, we almost lost you.” A tear went running down her face. In that moment, both of us were emotional. In that moment, there was no black person and white person. There was just this great teacher and her student, which was myself. I remember just looking at her and looking around the room. The room was abject poverty in the sense that the room had this tin shack, and there was holes in the roof, and the wind was going through the walls.

But around me, I saw nobility. I saw all these herbs, all these plants. I saw animal skins draped on the walls. I realized in this moment that I had found gold. I’d found gold, not in the halls of psychology, where my professors taught me every day. But here in this dusty township, I’d found gold. Because when I looked into her eyes and I saw her eyes shining, then I looked at the herbs around me, and I saw the skins draped on the walls around me, I felt I was very close to the essence of life. I was close to nature and I felt that my soul was going to get stronger. I’d found a metaphysician, a soul doctor, so I felt I was in the right place.

A few weeks after starting my apprenticeship and my teacher giving me my first white beads, she received a dream from her ancestors. This was a very beautiful and a very powerful moment. She said in her dream, her ancestors came to her and told her to give me the name of Cingolweendaba. Cingolweendaba means “the messenger” or “the one who connects people over long distances”. So when she woke up, she came to me and we organized a blessing ceremony, a naming ceremony, and other sangomas came and joined us. They said it was very auspicious and it was a very powerful name. At that stage, I didn’t dream of traveling the world and bringing these teachings all around the world. I didn’t have any idea of that.

I remember one of the sangomas coming to me and just saying to me, “[isiXhosa language].” She said, “That name is a very white name. It’s a very auspicious name.” She says, “The ancestors are going to give you lots of work to do.” I remember she had a giggle and we both laughed, because I was so naïve. I was only 26. I didn’t have a clue. Since that naming ceremony, since my teacher dreamt of my name, I can say I’ve traveled all over the world and now I’ve written this beautiful book with your wonderful organization.

TS: Now, John, in Leopard Warrior, your new book, you talk some about the difficulty of your journey of being a white man during this period of time in South Africa where, for you to go and study with the Xhosa tribe, you were seen as perhaps, from their perspective, or some peoples’ perspective, as being a white invader, stealing from their culture, stealing their sacred tradition. Then, at the same time, the white people in South Africa, you write, frowned upon you and thought you were off on some strange witch doctor mission. I wonder if you can just talk some about how you were kind of caught in the middle, if you could say, even, falling through a crack, and how you dealt with that.

JL: Well, it was very difficult for me and it still is difficult for me. Wherever I travel, people always have a question mark on me about my authenticity, because of my lovely white skin and my blue eyes. It’s apparently not considered very traditional. It still is difficult, like I say. However, like the Chinese saying… There’s a saying that says where “every crisis presents an opportunity”. Also, if I look in the sangoma tradition, we always say that your challenge is going to be part of your teaching and the depth of your sickness, the depth of the sickness that you go through, also indicates how strong a healer you’re going to be. If we think of Apartheid as a curse, not just a curse for South Africa, but actually a curse for mankind, then I have really felt the curse of Apartheid, which means that I have the potential to help heal it. I think that’s part of what my job is, to help heal the curse of discrimination and discriminating someone based on the color of their skin.

My teachings are not about skin color, but my teachings are about humanity. I remember in the height of Apartheid in the 1980s, there’s a wonderful man, who I’m sure everyone’s heard of, called Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Xhosa man. He’s black, he’s from the Xhosa tribe, and he’s a beautiful man and a statesman of note. He helped pioneer intercultural spirituality. What I find very interesting is during the height of apartheid in the 1980s, I never heard one person say, “What is Desmond Tutu doing, being an English priest?” I never heard anyone say that to me. So I find it quite interesting, how people question white people entering the indigenous world.

However, if it’s OK for a black person to become an English priest or a doctor or lawyer, surely it must be OK for someone with another color skin to enter and become a Xhosa priest like myself. Because the teachings, at the end of the day, are not about skin color. Fortunately, the elders I worked with, and continue to work with throughout South Africa, what they do? They recognize my dream. They recognize my gift, and then they also listen to their own dreams and what their ancestors are saying about me.

Since I trained and finished my training in 2007, I have actually trained in two other sangoma lineages. Each time, the process has been the same. Each time, the sangoma elders have listened to my dreams and have invited me. I repeat, they have invited me in to become a sangoma in their tradition. I never went knocking on their door, asking for them to bring me in. All I did was show them respect and sit down with them and talk about my dreams and my visions and what I see. Each time, these beautiful elders have invited me in.

So now, I’m actually a sangoma in three different lineages around South Africa. Three different tribes. It’s incredible, and it’s humbling, and it’s beautiful. My teachings are about helping people to get over this curse of Apartheid, which is not just in South Africa. It’s all over the world. Nowadays, we’re in a crisis as human beings. We’re in a crisis of judging one another. We’re in a crisis of discrimination, and we have to really listen to our hearts and listen to the power of the red blood that binds all of us. This is part of the mission that I’m on. Yes, the fact that I have white skin, it might shock some people. That’s wonderful, because then they need to start listening to what I’m saying and feel the oneness that connects all of us.

TS: Just one more question about this, John, the color of your skin.

JL: Yes. Sure.

TS: Is it quite rare for a white person to become trained and accepted as a sangoma? Quite rare or not that rare or… I’m trying to get a sense of it.

JL: Yes. Good question, actually. It’s less rare nowadays. Nowadays, there are a lot more white people coming in. Let me say—I don’t want to say “come in”. Nowadays, there’s a lot more white people who have been accepted like myself into the deeper mysteries of becoming sangomas. I’m not unusual nowadays. I don’t know how many. I haven’t done a stat count. But it’s not as rare as it used to be, no.

However, it’s still quite rare for a sangoma to be initiated in different sangoma lineages. Each time I was initiated in a different sangoma tribe, they say I was one of the first. I think I’m still a pioneer in this intercultural mixing, of bridging this gap between Western culture and traditional African culture.

TS: Now, a couple of times, you’ve referred to the thwasa, the calling illness, that you were quite ill as you were being called to this path of initiation. Can you tell us more? How did you know it was a calling illness and not something else? Or maybe you didn’t know?

JL: That’s a good question. Well, I knew it was a calling illness because it always came with dreams. I can just speak to the listener a little bit about this and just explain that the calling illness, or the thwasa, is the call to become a sangoma, the call to become a shaman. In all traditional cultures throughout the world, people are called to become shamans. They’re called to become sangomas. They don’t just decide they want to become one. In fact, in South Africa, it is considered by a lot of traditional people—they don’t actually want their children to become sangomas, because it is so painful. The only reason why they accept the calling is because the people get so sick.

The same thing happened to me. The illness, I can describe it. It was like drinking 10 cups of coffee, so my body was shaking all the time. All this energy was going through my body, which I think the yogis in India would talk about it as like a kundalini rising experience. I became very thin and I could literally feel my ribs, even though I’d have three big meals a day. It didn’t seem to affect me. My metabolism was very fast. Then, on top of that, I also had lots of night fevers and night sweats and heart palpitations. I had a whole lot of different symptoms. But the symptoms went along with these very, very powerful nightly experiences, where I was taken to different places. I was given instructions. I woke up exhausted every day, because I was being taught at night as well, so it was like a 24-hour sensory overload kind of experience.

I was very psychic during that time. So when I slept at night, and even during the day, I could see a lot. What my teacher did, and the reason why I had to find a teacher, is because what the sangoma teacher does—or in my experience, what she did—was she helped ground my spirit back into my body. If the person becomes… they have the illness in a strong way, their psychic body becomes very strong and they start to travel. Their spiritual body starts to travel. The more the spiritual body started to travel, the weaker the physical body gets. So it actually gets quite dangerous after a while. In South Africa, there have been cases in history and probably in current times, where people have actually died from the thwasa illness, because their spiritual body gets so strong and they get so sensitive that their physical body gets very weak. You become very susceptible to different kinds of illnesses, because your immune system is compromised.

My immune system was compromised incredibly, meaning that I got all different kinds of viruses, flus. I got hepatitis twice. I got tick bite fever twice. I got dysentery, bilharzia. I got all kinds of illnesses, because my immune system was compromised. So when I met my teacher, she did a number of ceremonies and she helped me to accept my calling. Then, she bathed me in medicinal plants and taught me how to pray. Through this process, and also through the process of dancing, I was able to bring my spirit back into my body and start to strengthen my body. By the time I finished my training at the age of 35, I was underweight. After the age of 35, my body continued to grow. I started to fill out. Even my feet continued to grow at the age of 35. Can you imagine it?

I had this incredible experience of being so sick for so many years. Then, at the age of 35, my body started filling out. I actually looked like I was 10 years younger. A lot of people nowadays, they always think I’m 10 years younger, because of this time where I was going through the calling illness. I was in a place of hyper lucidity, where I was traveling with the spirits. It’s interesting, because when my teacher first met me, and when we sat down in the divination room in that dusty township which I call home, my teacher said to me, “I’m going to be able to teach you 20%. The other 80%, you’re going to pick up from your own ancestors and your own spirits. I’m going to show you the 20% of how to pray and how to connect with your ancestors. And then, they are going to teach you the rest.” And this is what happened.

TS: When you say, John, that she taught you how to pray, what did she teach you?

JL: Well, this is partly what I’ve written about in the book. She taught me how to honor my ancestors, how to honor my bones. My physical bones are the bones that are holding my physical body together. She showed me how to honor my blood and my ancestors, so how to pray to my mother’s people, and my father’s people, and how to honor them. Now, this process of praying is not worshiping your ancestors and it doesn’t matter what religion you follow. This is a very ancient form of humanism, you could say.

To be a human being means to show gratitude for the forces of life, which have made you, which have created you. She taught me how to honor my ancestors, my roots—which would be my mother’s people, the Kellys, and my father’s people, the Lockleys. Then, through being with her and being with her community, I was taught how to dance and how to shake this energy inside of me into the earth. As it happened, that grounded me. This energy of dancing and grounding was also able to stop the shaking of the umbilini energy, and also was a process that started to heal me. The dancing was very integral.

The other thing she taught me was how to notice my dreams, how to recognize my mystical dreams— those dreams which are connected to the dream time, the infinite space, the time before time, how to connect to those “white dreams”, which can help guide me into the future and help guide other people. She taught me that. Also, through being with her, I also learned how to work with medicinal plants, medicinal plants, to cleanse the spirit and to cleanse the body. It was a few things we worked on together over a period of 10 years.

TS: Now, I want to delve in a little bit more to this idea of honoring our ancestors. Here’s a quote from the book Leopard Warrior. You write, “Among traditional South African people, it is considered the duty of every human being to honor and remember their ancestors. To forget one’s people represents a sadness beyond words.” I pull that quote from the book, because I thought, “You know, most people in the Western world, I don’t think, know how to honor their ancestors.” Most. Or aren’t quite sure how to go about it. Certainly, when we think of praying, we don’t think of our ancestors. We think of going directly to God or to an angel, something like that, to Jesus. We don’t think it as anything to do with our personal, biographical tree, most of the time.

And so I’m wondering what advice you could have for contemporary people around honoring our ancestors?

JL: Yes. Sure, Tami. I think the first thing for the listener and for people to recognize, is that we didn’t just come from outer space. We came from a group of people that have been living here for thousands and thousands of years. In order for us to move forward with dignity and integrity, it’s just good common practice to learn gratitude. That’s what I learned from my Xhosa friends. They taught me the power of gratitude. The power of gratitude helps open the heart and helps to facilitate humility. That practice of gratitude and humility is what helps open the door to your own destiny, and also helps bring you very close to the dreamtime or to the spirit world.

All I encourage people to do is to just sit quietly and feel your heartbeat. You can put your hand on your heart and feel the physicality of your life. Feel your bones. You can feel your knuckles. You can feel your knee bones. Feel the stamp of this ancient past, which goes back inside your bones, going down, down, down for centuries. You don’t have to like your ancestors. In fact, some people don’t, and some people don’t like their grandparents. But this is not about liking them or agreeing with them. This is just about honoring the gift of life, which they have passed on to you. I think this is integral here, because some people go into that whole personality issue with their ancestors, and then they don’t get beyond that. This is not about ego. This is not about right or wrong. This is just about simply giving thanks for the gift of life, which has been passed on to you.

Just like a tree. A tree absorbs the sap from its roots. As it absorbs the sap from its roots and sucks it up into its trunk, it facilitates this beautiful growing into the sky. It enables the tree to get much stronger and much taller. That’s the same thing for a human being. We have to feel the depth of our ancestry going behind us, going beneath us, in the same way. As you do that, it helps to facilitate this very dynamic and beautiful spiritual growth. Because as you honor your ancestors and you go back in time, honoring your ancestors and honoring them and feeling this depth of blood that goes back as a living vessel, going back into time, the more you do that, you actually start to see that we are related to all things. Even the ground beneath our feet is made from earth. When we die, our body becomes the earth. As you meditate on your bones and your ancestors and your heartbeat, an incredible amount of humility and gratitude starts to surface over time. You start to feel an interconnectedness with all of life.

TS: What do you think, John, about having an ancestral altar, having photos of one’s ancestors? Do you think those outer forms are not really the point?

JL: I think it’s a good idea, and I do mention that in the book, to help ground people. I think the simplest altar is your own body. The simplest altar is just listening to your own heart and feeling the pulse inside of you and your bones. Like I say, honoring your ancestors, going back to time before time, for this gift of life. Then, yes, having a physical altar, because a physical altar, that does help to ground the praise and makes the practice more of a mindfulness practice.

People could have a little altar, which they could have a bit of soil in the altar. It could be made from wood. The container could be made from wood or ceramic, but not metal. If people are going to make an altar, I always recommend that they get a little bit of tobacco or rice or something like that. They go outside with their chosen bowl, and they can say their name to the universe or to the sun. It’s good to use your voice and to speak out loud. And just say something like, “My name is,” and say your full name, including your mother’s maiden name, and your father’s name, and your married name. If you have any middle names, you could say that.

I would say, “My name is John Keith Kelly Lockley. I honor The Great Spirit and I honor all my ancestors and spirit guides, in this world and the next. I honor the Lockleys and the Kellys, and Banvilles, Barmanes, Taskers, Holdens. I honor and praise all my blood ancestors, going back to time before time. I also honor and praise my adopted lineage, my teacher, MaMngwevu, and Tat’uSukwini and all my teachers, my Zen teachers, Su Bong, Seung Sahn, Dae Soen Sa Nim, [inaudible] Soen-sa. I honor and praise all of them and I honor and praise the great [inaudible] Qamata. I ask you, I ask the Great Spirit and all my ancestors, if I could take a little bit of soil from the ground to be used for this sacred altar. So that whenever I need to connect with my ancestors, I can remember my connection to them and to the earth.”

I wait for a moment, and then I make a blessing with the tobacco on the ground. I can do that three times, sprinkling a little bit of tobacco. Then I feel, is this OK to take some soil from this place? Is this OK to take some soil in this manner? If I feel yes, it is OK, then I reach down and I fill up my little bowl with the soil. Then afterwards, I can sprinkle a bit more tobacco to say thank you. Then, I can have a little bow. Then, I go back into my house and I could find a little place where it’s quiet, where there’s not too much movement. Then, you can put the altar in that space and you could put it resting on top of a little table, or it could be a little shelf, or something in the corner somewhere. Then, you could also get a white candle, because white represents a connection with the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, and also, white represents a connection with your ancestors.

I always recommend that people get a white candle and then get some incense. The incense could be quite thick incense, which has a lot of smoke, or you could use Japanese incense and get three or four of them. It’s interesting. In Asia, someone could be a Buddhist and they would still burn three sticks of incense. It would be to represent the Buddha, and also the Buddha nature, and also the ancestors—three, the three jewels. They would always light these three sticks on incense, and then put it into the earth. I recommend this for people. They could say a prayer honoring their ancestors, asking to remember where they came from, and also just to give thanks for the gift of life. Then, they can put the burning incense into the soil. As it’s burning, they can send up any prayers of love and gratitude to their ancestors, and also to just feel the physicality of this beating heart and the transience of life and the beauty and blessing of being alive.

TS: Is it your sense, John, when you do that, that your ancestors, past generations, are actually with you in some sense? You could say as spirit beings or alive presences, that they’re collaborating with you in your life.

JL: Yes. What happens—and this is a subtle process, I think it’s important for the listener to realize that this is a practice of patience. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like a quick fix. I’ve been doing this for 20 to 30 years now, myself. Each day, I go down on my knees and I do some bowing practices. I also say these prayers, like I’ve said to you now. No matter how many ceremonies I’ve done, I keep doing these prayers. Because the more I do it, the more it seems to facilitate this process of humility, and where I see it is in my dreams. I can see my ancestors coming towards me in dreams, or they’ll open the door for me, and they start showing me where to go in order for me to get the most life force, where I can be in a position where I can… How should I say to you? I’m just trying to get the right words.

My ancestors come to me in the dreams, or you could say my spirits come to me, and they show me how I can make the most of my life, the energy going through me. They’ll show me where I should go and live. They would show me, for example, about going to Sounds True studios to get this book deal. They show me a number of things, because I’m in alignment. I am basically in alignment with the life force energy going through me. But it’s not my energy. It’s the energy of, you could say, the cosmos, the energy of the ancestors. So when I go to sleep at night and I give thanks for this energy that they have given me, and I get out of the way—i.e., my ego gets out of the way—they can help to facilitate my life in a very mystical and very beautiful and a very magical way. That’s why I teach this.

TS: You write in Leopard Warrior that one of the names of a sangoma is, quote, “The one who holds the lightning rod of the ancestors.” You talk about how the lightning rod is actually our spine and that we can become conductors of lightning energy through our body and our dancing. I wonder if you could talk some about that lightning rod as our spine.

JL: Yes. Well, every human being is a natural healer. Not every human being is a natural shaman or sangoma. That’s a calling. However, every human being has the potential to heal in very dynamic ways. The reason is because we are bipedal, meaning that we walk upright and we have two feet connected to the ground. I always say, at workshops and gatherings, when I’m teaching this, “Remember when you are a little child.” I remember when I was playing with my brother and we used to move our feet very quickly on the ground and then give each other electric shocks. The reason is because of friction.

Friction creates heat. Heat creates energy. This energy creates healing. Without heat and friction, there’s no life. So in order to bring more life force energy, you create heat and you create friction. That’s what helps spread this warmth of energy. This is the principles of Reiki. However, in South Africa, when we’re dancing, we create an enormous amount of friction and heat through our feet. So when I’m doing my ceremonies, my workshops around the world, I get the whole group to move in a particular way. I’ve actually changed it and made it more dynamic. Recently, I was in Germany, and I got everyone just to stand in a circle and put their hands on each others’ backs. I said, “Can you feel the heat?” Everyone said, “Yes. We can feel it.” I said, “Now, we need to use the heat to heal each other. The way we do that is just to stand quietly and breathe in this heat and also to listen to our heartbeats.” I encouraged the whole group to do that. There was incredible healing that happened.

The way people, the listener, can facilitate their own healing is to be aware of the action of pushing your feet into the ground and even just dancing up and down on the spot. Wherever you are, dance up and down on the spot. Take your shoes off, maybe even go outside, and just feel what happens when you’re dancing up and down on the spot. Then, also feel what happens if you just have your feet resting on the ground and you just shake, and you’re just bending your knees a little bit as you’re shaking, with a bit of rhythm.

Then, you start to breathe in and out while you’re doing it. So it’d be like… [breathing rhythm] As you’re doing that, you’re shaking your whole body and you’re pushing through your feet, so you’re creating a pulse, creating this pulse as you’re pushing through your feet. Then, you can start to lift your feet up and down. You can shake your feet and bring your feet up and down. Just start to feel that heat that starts to happen naturally, because this is your gift as a human being. This is your energy.

Then, if you have someone in your family that needs a little bit of help, or you could have a dog or animal, feel the heat in your hands. Feel what’s been generated. Listen to your heartbeat. Then, just place your hands on that animal or on that loved one, or even it could be on plants, because everything resonates to this friction heat energy. Everything. Anything that is alive will resonate with this. So you can go to a plant in your garden, and you can dance and create this heat the way I’m describing, and then you can put your hands on the plants. Then, your hands will become very sensitive and you will start to realize whether certain plants need more nutrients.

Like me, for example. I can go into any room or any place and I can just bring my hands into the soil, and I can feel whether the soil is healthy or not or what is needed, because I feel the life force energy of the soil. This is why in the Old Testament, in the Bible, they said that human beings are the guardians of planet Earth. We are the natural guardians, because our job is to help heal the animals, the plants, the soil, and one another, because we have this powerful gift to conduct this energy through our spines.

TS: We’re not doing such a great job acting as guardians these days in so many ways, I would say, John.

JL: No, but we still have the gift. Part of my work and work of other people that I’ve come across is to remind human beings of this gift and also to remind them that it’s not about cultural differences or ethnic differences or language or religious differences. If you’ve got red blood and you’re a human being, you have this particular gift of healing and also helping one another. We call that Ubuntu, which means humanity.

TS: Now, you talked about dancing on the earth. You even suggested this beautiful breathing rhythm. I know that your teacher identified you as a gifted trance dancer. I wonder if you could share with us a little bit. Would you do trance dancing to drums and singing for hours and hours and hours? What was that like? Is that part of the training you received?

JL: Yes. That was part of the training. For 10 years, I would go and do ceremonies with my teacher. It wasn’t every weekend. But normally, I was training intensively for about three or four months, and sometimes six months, during the course of any one year. Then, sometimes it would be every weekend or every second or third weekend. The ceremonies would last from Friday night to Sunday. The drums would be going not exactly 24 hours, but the drum rhythms would be rocking the whole house. The dancing would be very dynamic. As I trained like this, as the weeks, months, and years went by, I think this energy just entered my soul and entered my bones. So even though I don’t do so many ceremonial trance dances now in the community, because of my other commitments, I have this energy inside of me, so I can raise it up on my own, and then also show people how to use it.

What is trance dancing? It’s not about losing your mind and going to another world. It’s about heating up your body and then moving through your body to the other worlds. That’s what it is. I think it’s important also to maybe let the listener know that the word igqirha is actually the word for a Xhosa sangoma. A Xhosa sangoma is known as igqirha, the one who holds the lightning rod of the ancestors. The word igqirha comes from the Khoisan or Bushmen people from southern Africa, who intermarried with the larger Nguni people, that later became the Xhosa nation.

The other nation in the Nguni tribe are called the Zulu people. Medicine people in the Zulu tribe are known as sangomas. That’s why diviners throughout southern Africa have the colloquial name of being called sangomas, because lots of people can’t pronounce the igqirha. But to be precise with you, I am foremost known as an igqirha from the Xhosa nation. Sangoma, the word sangoma in the Zulu nation, also it means “people of the song”, so those people who use songs and drums to go into trance and to connect with the spirit world. The job of the sangoma is to connect with the spirit world and to help people connect with the spirit world, so they realize their own humanity.

Nowadays, more than any other time, the job is very, very important. So I’m teaching people how to connect with their dreams, because the Xhosa and Zulu people, we say that if someone does not remember their dreams, then they are not connected to their soul. And if they’re not connected to their soul, then they are in danger and they put their community in danger, because if their actions are not infused with their own spirit and with the awareness of their own dreams, then they could be putting their community in danger. So this is what’s happening around the world. People are walking around like zombies, because they are not connected to their humanity and their human spirit.

TS: Now, you mentioned, in the trance dance, that it’s not about escaping, but that it’s about entering a spirit world. I’m wondering if you can describe what you mean by that, entering the spirit world?

JL: It’s different things for different people, so I can only talk about my own experience.

TS: Sure.

JL: In my own experience, it happened in all different ways and forms. So I can just talk about that, if I can. For me, it was dancing in this very dynamic way. And then, I would have my eyes open and my body would be going very, very fast. My legs would be going very fast and I’d be focusing a little bit above the horizon, because I’m quite tall and my eyes maybe would start to close a little bit, but they’d still be half open. Then, it would be… I’d enter this timeless world. It was kind of a timeless space, where it feels like I’m in an ancient world or that I’ve been doing this for thousands of years. Time just seems to stop, or it seems to warp and change. Things seem to happen. In that space, I might be given a message, or I might be given a long message, or I might be given a prophecy.

Then, I come out of that space. If I didn’t experience any auditory or hallucinatory or visual experiences, what would happen to me is I would go home, and a few nights later, I might have these very, very vivid and very powerful dreams. I might experience, while I’m doing the dance, some kind of very powerful spiritual experience. Or I might have the experience a few days or weeks later, in the form of a dream. Because what the dancing does, it helps energize the spirit and the psyche. It’s almost like a battery. I plug my body into this lightning source of electricity, and it’s charged through the drumming and the singing, and then a few weeks later, I’m given the messages that I need as a member of the community. I normally get given tasks—jobs to do, or healing to do. That’s the nature of the work that I experience.

TS: Now, your book is called Leopard Warrior. And with Sounds True, you’ve created a audio series that includes meditation and practices, that’s called The Way of the Leopard. Why the leopard, John?

JL: Yes. The Way of the Leopard, actually . . . I came across the Way of the Leopard as . . . These are my own teachings in the sense that they’ve been inspired by my sangoma apprenticeship, as well as my Zen training and my general life experience. The reason why I call it The Way of the Leopard is because the leopard is highly revered amongst traditional healers in southern Africa. Many traditional healers will have either fabric that looks like leopard skin or real leopard skin in their surgeries. The reason for this is because the leopard is a very noble creature and it’s one of our main totem animals, because it helps to remind us of our connection to the natural world. The leopard is always in harmony. The leopard is in harmony with itself and with the natural world.

The leopard also represents instinct. It represents intuitive intelligence. It represents nobility. It represents where we need to go as traditional healers, as sangomas, the way we need to engage all our senses—the sense of smell and taste and touch, the sixth sense of intuition. All these things, the leopard represents. I came across this question in my mind, after going overseas in America for a number of years. The question for me was how to bring traditional shamanic knowledge from South Africa into the Western world, where people are not brought up in a traditional shamanic culture and they have no understanding of goats and cows and the meanings of the natural world like we do.

So I meditated on this. Then, eventually, I came up with this program or this training. I call it The Way of the Leopard as a way of helping to bring people into the world of indigenous medicine. It could be someone living in New York City or Colorado or Tokyo, to bring any human being who has the will to connect with the indigenous side of their nature, with the primal, wild side of their nature. I devised this program and I call it The Way of the Leopard, a way of helping people to rebalance themselves, harmonize themselves with the wilderness inside themselves and around themselves, based on my time as an African spirit doctor sangoma.

TS: Now, I wanted to follow up on something that you said much earlier in our conversation. You were talking about your own life path and path of initiation and how difficult it was, the pain that you went through, the challenges. You said, “For a sangoma, the more difficult the path, the greater the medicine, the greater the offering,” something like that. I thought, “Wow. What a terrible system”, if you will. That in order to have these great gifts come into full bloom, you really have to suffer that much.

I guess I wanted to circle back around and ask you about that. Is it really like that? Or is that just a way we explain our suffering?

JL: I mean, again, it’s a nice way of putting it, so thank you for asking that. Sometimes, people get afraid when they come to work with me, because of this whole thing on suffering. So let me just be very clear about this. Everyone is different. This has been my karma. But what I can say is that to really connect with your spirituality and with your calling and with your humanity, the essence of who you are, you have to find your edge. That is different for each person. Some person, to find their edge, might be just to go traveling, because they get really nervous when they go traveling. For each person, it’s different. Also, not everyone is called to become a shaman or a healer—a mystical healer, or a alchemical healer like myself. Not everyone is called to open themselves to all these kinds of energies.

But I think everyone is called to find their edge, because everyone is called, in every moment of the day, to connect with their humanity. To connect with your humanity means to also connect with the shadow inside of you. When I mean shadow, I don’t mean the evil, but just the shadow in terms of that side which you are not showing the world. Maybe that is a dark side there, and you need to breathe it in and feel it. That pain that I’m talking about is the pain of being a human being. It’s a bittersweetness.

Lots of meditation teachers speak about this, and Zen masters. They also go through this process, and I’ve had a number of conversations recently with meditation teachers. Even Jack Kornfield, recently I spoke to him and we shared some stories about the ocean of tears. This is a process of… When you become very sensitive and vulnerable because you are connecting with your humanity, you become very sensitive, like I say, and it’s painful. As Jack was talking about becoming enlightened, he was saying, “It’s not necessarily a glamorous thing, because you become so sensitive and you feel the suffering of other people and the suffering of other beings.”

So to wake up means to feel. To feel means to feel everything. Can you imagine what it’s like to feel everything? To feel everything does not just mean feeling my own pain and, you know, I’ve got a backache or a knee joint problem or my ankle hurts or my own stuff. No. Not just me, but everything. So that means when I’m going on the road and I see a beggar at the side of the road, I feel their pain and I feel, “Oh my God. What can I do?” Maybe I’ll put down one euro or one dollar, and I feel their pain. Eventually, I think, “OK. All I can do is do a blessing.” Because otherwise, I’m not going to carry on walking to the end of the street. So I feel their pain, and then I carry on.

I come home, and then I feel the pain inside the house. The plants haven’t been watered. They’re dying. The plants are dying, so I water the plants. Then, I look at the animal. The animal comes in and hasn’t been fed properly, and I feel the pain of this dog. The township dogs would pull at my heart all the time, because I used to see the township dogs not being fed properly and being maltreated, because they’re also in poverty.

What I’m saying to you is the gift of being human is the gift of feeling and the opportunity to feel everything. A lot of people find it difficult to do that, so they cut off from the gift of feeling. But it’s not good for them. To be human means it’s a bittersweet joyride of feeling this incredible, ecstatic bliss of breathing and moving the body, but also feeling the pain of the transience of life, and also feeling the pain of other creatures around us.

TS: Now, you mentioned that we’re not all called to be a sangoma, obviously, or a healer, but that we each do have an edge. Especially since this program’s called Insights at the Edge, I want to know what you mean by finding an edge. What is that instruction to people? What do you mean by that?

JL: Yes. To find your edge means what is that challenge inside of you? What is that emotional pain that you have? So if someone’s coming to do a ceremony with me over two days, I always say, “What is that thing that you are struggling with?” Maybe it’s a relationship. Maybe you want to find a partner and you’ve been wanting to find a partner for many years and you’re alone. That’s where your pain is. You’re alone. So I say to them, “Breathe into that. Don’t run from that. That is your vulnerability. That is your Achilles heel.” Wherever your Achilles heel is, that’s where your vulnerability is. That is where your cracks are and that’s where God shines His light.” There’s a saying by the poet… He’s a Sufi poet called Kahlil Gibran, and he has a beautiful poem where he says, “The cracks in our humanity are the light through which God shines on us.”

We need to find that edge, where the cracks are, where is the pain? Do you have physical pain? If you have physical pain, like in your knee, then it’s about feeling that physical pain, breathing into it. That pain in your knee is what is enabling you to feel your mortality and also feel your bones and also feel your… After a while, it helps you to feel humble, actually, because you’re not Superman. You have mortality. So feeling your cracks means to feel your vulnerability, feel what is the pain that you have in terms of your existence.

If you think about the Buddha, for example, and the story of the Buddha, he started to feel the cracks of his humanity when he went out one day and he saw these beggars in the street and other people. He saw the inequality in human life, and that started to create this crack inside of him, where he started to… He couldn’t walk away from that. Until eventually, he wanted to immerse himself in the study of this transience of being human, the fact that we’re all going to live and die. That’s when he walked away from all these riches, and he entered the world of mysticism and the world of asking the question of, “Why am I alive?”

All the pain and the experience as human beings is the question of, “Why am I alive? Why am I going through this pain? Why don’t I have a partner? Why don’t I have money or this or that?” Instead of asking for that to be filled in, our job is to sit with that and to feel the vulnerability of that and the pain of that. Then, to listen to our heartbeat and to breathe, and then to actually give a blessing for being a human being, and also honoring our ancestors and honoring the gift of being alive. As you do that, it doesn’t take away that crack and that vulnerability. But what it does do, it helps you to be more comfortable with being sensitive. I think that’s what it is. Because if you go back to the cracks, what is that crack in your humanity? What is that Achilles heel? What is the edge for you? What is that pain inside of you?

We need to look at the animal kingdom. Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve spent many hours walking in Africa on safari. If you look very closely at a leopard, a leopard is very vulnerable. A leopard can get injured very easily and then they can die. However, the vulnerability of the leopard is what makes it powerful, because it walks in such a way that it feels the ground. It sniffs the air because it realizes there’s danger around, and it can die or its loved ones can die. So it walks the edge of being alive with this grace, beauty, and power. The vulnerability of the leopard is also its strength.

The same thing with a elephant. You look at the elephant and you think, “Oh, the elephant’s so powerful. Can it ever die?” Yes. An elephant can get a thorn in its foot. If it turns and it gets an abscess because of the African sun, it can die within two days. One little thorn in this huge animal can bring it down into the dust within 48 hours. Incredible, isn’t it? This vulnerability of being alive and feeling the pain of our humanity, we need to see it as a strength as well.

Sometimes . . . I mean, I’ve worked with all different kinds of shamans and healers. I’ve sat with some very powerful people. Quietly, the most powerful ones sometimes share with me their pain and vulnerability. I once saw one of my teachers in South Africa. I call her a leopard sangoma, because she is so powerful. I saw her… Recently, I saw her, after a ceremony, just come into the room and she was in tears. She was inconsolable. All the sangomas had to put their arms around her. She just cried and cried and cried. All I could do is put my hand on her back and rub her back and she cried.

And you know, in that moment, I loved her even more.

TS: John, here at the end of our conversation, I know that you have a beautiful singing voice and also some rattles, and that you might be able to sing and rattle and conclude our program, if you will, with a blessing for all of us on our way.

JL: Yes. Sure. What I’d like to sing is something called “uThixo”, which means The Great Spirit. Anyway, I’ll just go for it and see what comes out, OK? See how we go.


That was just a little song, honoring uThixo, the Great Spirit and also our parents, our ancestors. As we say in Xhosa, [isiXhosa language]. I honor and praise my parents. [isiXhosa language] Honor and praise my ancestors. [isiXhosa language] I honor and praise my guests, my clients. [isiXhosa language] I honor and praise as I’m praying. [isiXhosa language] I honor and praise you, my ancestors, and the Great Spirit, and I give thanks and gratitude for the gift of life. [isiXhosa language] I’m also giving thanks and an honor and praise, Tami Simon, and the Sounds True studios for giving me this opportunity to share my voice and teachings with the world. [isiXhosa language]

TS: And my honor and praise to you, John Lockley, the creator of a new audio series with Sounds True called The Way of the Leopard: Meditations and Shamanic Practices from the Heart of Africa, and also a new book, Leopard Warrior: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams. Thank you, everyone, for being with us., many voices, one journey.

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