Monday, November 15, 2010

Miriam Makeba Walked Through Fire

First known to me in the sixties for her "clicking song," glorious Miriam Makeba sang in the click consonants of her native south African !Kung language (to pronounce "!Kung," make a click sound before the "k" sound).

In 1963, after testifying against apartheid before the United Nations, Makeba's South African citizenship and her right to return to her country were revoked. Controversy surrounding her 1968 marriage to Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael led to cancellations of  her record deals and tours.

But she didn't let fear burn away commitment to her ideals. 

Makeba's song "Masakhane" means "Let's build together!" and that's exactly what she did during her life, eventually winning—among many honors—the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Price, the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold by the United Nations Association of Germany "for outstanding services to peace and international understanding," and the position of Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. By the time of her death in 2008 she had been granted honorary citizenship of ten countries.

It's worth noting that shamans in Makeba's !Kung tradition communicate with the spirit world by entering a trance state and running through fire. This practice, common among many cultures, has evolved into modern Firewalking, where participants listen to a pep talk and then walk across burning coals. Debunkers point out that being able to do this without burning your feet has nothing to do with magic or mind over matter, citing the sizzle effect (a thin layer of sweat protects your feet) and the poor conducting properties/low thermal energy of the wood burned to create the coals. These skeptics miss the point.

I've walked on fire, and experienced my own and others' hesitation in the moment before taking that first step. Maybe it isn't exactly "mind over matter," but rather "mind over mind." The rules of experience lead us to believe (1) fire burns, (2) burns are painful, and (3) we should avoid pain. It was exciting to release these cautions, walk over the coals, and allow the exhilaration of freedom from limiting beliefs.

Whenever you want to make significant change, psychological rules that arose to protect you are now a barrier to new experience. Crossing that fear-provoking territory does not require magic, only faith—in yourself, in the necessary burning through, in the power of reaching the other side, if only you keep moving.


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