One late summer day, some years ago, a friend of mine invited me to gong meditation — a form of kundalini yoga. Well, he actually invited me to wine and giggles with a mutual friend, and it was she who suggested gong meditation. After polishing off nearly a bottle each of sauvignon blanc, I wasn’t sure if that was such a great idea but I went with it anyway.
The same friend and I had attended a 36-hour retreat at the Nan Hua Temple outside Bronkhortspruit a few years earlier so we had a little experience with some forms of meditation and we had an idea of what awaited us — or so we thought.
The session began with the usual cross-legged sitting, palms together and chanting. What I didn’t expect was to find myself lying on the mat with my eyes closed for the next hour and a half.
There was a large gold gong at the front of the studio, which the instructor banged to within an inch of its life. The variations in volume and tempo seemed to freeze time and dissolve the boundary between self and space.
Within minutes of gong sound filling the entire universe, my friend began snoring, and this too was allowed. It was essentially much-needed nap time for adults, with active spiritual work on the self an optional extra.
It wasn’t my first foray into the world of that cool new age Buddhism-adjacent spirituality. Throughout my life I have been searching for ways to balance the Holy Trinity of body, mind and spirit.
The body part hasn’t been too difficult so far — I’ve been blessed with an excessively high metabolism, age-defiant genes and a robust immune system — but as I get older I’m beginning to notice how some things don’t work the way they used to. This is thanks in part to the self-awareness that mindfulness teaches.
The mind part has been much trickier. The mind is a bully. It does exactly as it pleases because it considers itself the only authority. We also feed it information with such rapid and incessant frequency that it begins to imagine itself as omnipotent.
But the mind, like the body, is finite and is only able to think within that finite frame. The mind breaks easily under the weight of the sick world we inhabit and the information overload of the digital age.
The brilliant sangoma Nokulinda Mkhize tells us that being misaligned with a sick world — the world we live in, with its litany of woes that disproportionately fall on the shoulders of the marginalised — is not an illness in itself. In a world where our ancestors, whose only job in the hereafter is to help us navigate this mortal coil, still carry the pain of colonisation and apartheid we cannot help but become a little lost. A little unhinged.
At a recent conference titled Seeking the Ethical Foundations of the South African Nation, which was hosted by the sexily named Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, a young man rose to ask a question.
The speakers at the conference were some of biggest rock stars of contemporary South African political and economic thought: Joel Netshithenze, former Wtis SRC president Shaeera Kalla, Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, economist Iraj Abedian and lecturer Elelwani Ramugondo, to name a few.
When this young man rose and spoke of “elitist compacting”, he described this as the habit of the intellectual and resource elite to congregate at conferences such as the ANC Kliptown conference that brought about the Freedom Charter — and pontificate in their Big English on things that affect people whose command of this English further excludes them from the conversation.
I was reminded of a slogan I encountered when reading about the University of Cape Town’s TransCollective disruption of a #FeesMustFall art exhibition: “the revolution will be black-led and intersectional or it will be bullshit”.
Behind this statement lie all the voices of the marginalised and ignored — who are perhaps epitomised by the combined struggles of working class, black, femme, transgender people.
The idea of elitist compacting spoke to questions I have long had of how to translate this Big English into effective change and improvements to societal welfare?
How do we stop it from being this long intellectual wank?
How do we move from the Big English and begin the process of actual healing in society, far from the hallowed halls of academia and think tanks, with their rarified air and requirements of formal qualification for individual thoughts to be valid?
Mkhize and my kundalini yoga instructor seem to agree on one thing: we can only begin by healing ourselves.
Mkhize says some people mistake signs of ukuthwasa as a calling to become a fulltime healer, when it is instead about healing and mending spiritual breakages.
It is to bring peace to ancestors who still bear the pain of colonialism and are unable to be effective and useful guides to those of us who inhabit this sick world.
My yoga instructor says there is a similar practice called the family constellation, where healing is sought by understanding inherited transgenerational pain and to begin the process of moving on from it.
The point that stands out for me in both these practices is that this healing is very much contained in the self. As Mkhize says, sometimes all it takes is one person in the family to be healed for the process of healing the rest of the family and, by extension, our communities and the sick society we live in to also receive healing.
Fumbatha May is a data scientist and socioeconomic development consultant working in the renewable energy sector.