Words John Lockley
To track an animal effectively requires connecting to their spirit, to forge an alliance with their soul. This is no easy task and requires love, mindfulness and an ability to listen to the wind moving through us. In order for us to track another living creature, we need to learn to track ourselves, connect with our own soul and feel our connection to nature. In our modern technological age, it requires slowing down, listening, breathing deeply and opening up all our senses. This is often the hardest thing for people to do because we have to face our own fears, shadows, projections and obstacles. It is much easier to blame others for our problems. But to know we have the power to change the world brings about real FEAR because it speaks of awesome responsibility. To connect with a lion or leopard seems easier in comparison. To track nature means to connect to our own inner wildness and wilderness. As the ancients say: “Therein lie the answers to the universe.”
I recall a few years ago, whilst working with magic mushrooms in Ireland, delving into my own inner wilderness. I was doing a retreat with a few friends, camping in a forest. I went for a walk, sat down near a dilapidated old church building from eons ago and was given some mushrooms by a friend. I fell into a deep meditation that lasted hours. Despite the Irish rain and visits by friends asking if I was okay, I meditated. My inner landscape opened up and I found universes inside me, untouched and unexplored. Upon awakening later, I realised that there is still so much for us to explore. Of all the worlds, human consciousness is relatively unexplored. It put me in touch with both magic and deep vulnerability. Although we all want to feel and explore magic, we have to be brave and courageous to face our own vulnerability. With the poaching epidemic in full force in Africa, those of us who love nature are forced to face our own vulnerabilities and shadows.
My book Leopard Warrior was born out of the idea that we are all being called by Mother Nature to become warriors and connect to our own shadows, to face our vulnerabilities and become like the leopard, connected to our seven senses. For the world is speaking to us in every moment of the day and night. We don’t need to access our smartphones to know what is going on. All we need to do is learn from the leopard and our cat friends, sit up straight, breathe in deeply, listen and taste the world around us. The answers we seek are right in front of us, but they are not necessarily in a language we understand. The language of nature is the language of the soul and speaks in images, colours, impressions, smells, feelings and intuitions. To learn about nature and how to track animals we need to uncover the mystery of each moment without looking for a dictionary in the English, French, isiXhosa, Swahili etc languages. To see beyond the veil of nature and learn how to help our four-legged friends who are being poached and slaughtered indiscriminately, we need to make peace with the mystery of each moment. If these words are too obtuse or confusing for you then please ask your cat what I am referring to. I am speaking about dreams and making peace with the impressions that fill our nightly experience.
As a traditionally-trained sangoma, I have been trained to track my dreams, to watch for images of the ‘Great Dreamer’ or who we call ‘Qamata’ in isiXhosa, meaning the Great One or Great Spirit. Each person receives dreams during the course of their lives that are both prophetic and instructional. Sangomas are taught to help people connect with their dreams in order to connect with the Great Dreamer, the conductor behind the veil of life. Our Bushmen or Khoi-San culture from Southern Africa is rich in the language of metaphor referring to nature and how to track both the living and spirit worlds. Bushmen people say that this world is a dream being dreamt by the Great Dreamer. All any of us needs to do is see beyond the veil of illusion and confusion in our dreams to one clear image that points directly to the Great Dreamer. My 10-year Sangoma Xhosa apprenticeship in the Eastern Cape was all about observing the mystery of my dreams and tracking the sacred in all its forms, from the powerful and subtle presence of uThixo (another word for Great Spirit) to connecting with my ancestors, nature spirits, plants and animals. Not all dreams were insightful. Some were a jumble of emotions and impressions. The training in dream tracking with my teacher was about filtering the profound from the mundane. One of the ways we did this was to feel the body like a cat.
When I had a profound dream my whole body would be filled with electricity as if I had touched a light socket. I would feel ‘shaken’ from head to toe. I would also sometimes feel either extreme awe, humility or fear in the presence of the mystery beyond words. During these experiences I would rush off to my teacher’s house in the township over the hill. We would sit together and she would listen to my dreams. A pattern developed. And, like all tracking, I learnt to watch the patterns. If my dream was a profound or prophetic dream what we call ‘mhlope amapupha;’ (white dream in isiXhosa), my teacher’s presence was unwavering. Children would come and go asking for sweets and she would tell them to go and all I could see was the whites of her eyes staring through me. However, if my dream was mundane with no real meaning, she would half listen to me and have a conversation with people on the streets going past, give children sweets, shout at the local goats eating her plants and a host of other actions. Eventually I would stop talking and she would ask if I wanted some tea. The dream discussion would move to other things like plant work and the next ceremony.
For you, my reader friend, in order to connect deeply to the Great Dreamer inside you, learn to feel your dream with your whole body. Ask yourself ‘how is the dream calling you?’ Not all dreams have meaning, some are like exhaust fumes from the car and have a function to release psychic or emotional tension. Keep going; meditate, breathe. Ask yourself the question: ‘Where is the Great Dreamer right now’ Or ‘How is the Great Dreamer directing my life?’ Keep your question simple. As we say in Zen: ‘Meditate like a cat staring at a mousetrap, about to pounce!’ Keep your concentration and focus. Don’t expect anything from life or your dreams, but rather offer your entire body to each moment. When you meditate, offer your body to the cushion and the world around you. When you sleep offer your body to the bed. Let go. Surrender. This is the key to receiving visions and glimpses of ‘uThixo’ (The Great Dreamer). And when you receive a powerful dream, always say ‘thank you’. Light a white candle and some incense and give thanks with the entirety of your being.
Your question changes as you change and it goes deeper, like penetrating the labyrinth of our inner landscape. As we follow the pattern of truth inside, we are led deeper, with a myriad of interchanging tapestries and experiences. After I became a senior sangoma in 2007, I asked the question of how to help people connect more with their inner nature. I was led to write my book Leopard Warrior. As I was finishing Leopard Warrior, I had a number of profound dreams and my question changed slightly, to ‘how to help people connect more deeply to the wild ones in their dreams and in the world outside’. I was met in the waking state with people inviting me to observe leopards in various forms from people’s dreams of leopards to leopard encounters in rural and semi-rural environments. I was tracking my dreams and my waking synchronicities.
A powerful question emerged in my mind. ‘How to help modern man connect with the wilderness inside so they can help save the outer wilderness from species extinction and environmental abuse?’ The answer arrived so clearly: ‘People need to connect more deeply to their inner wilderness and allow the animals to guide them like teachers to the home of their spirit.’ I started looking for a game farm in South Africa that would host my specialised form of retreats. I put the word out to friends who did nature conservation work. Most importantly I prayed and listened to my dreams.
One day, whilst I was on a book tour in Montréal, Canada, a tracker and safari guide from Botswana sent me a WhatsApp message and said he needed to speak to me urgently. His name is Alwyn Myburgh and he was educated by the bushmen culture from a young age. He was put in touch with me by a mutual friend. Alwyn recounted an incredible experience he had had a with a wild leopard, a leopard he had befriended over 13 years ago. He was tracking the leopard into a particularly rocky and impenetrable environment. He decided to sit down and wait for her. She stopped too and they had the most remarkable encounter. She told Alwyn that he needed to connect with me and bring me to Botswana as soon as possible, that she needed to download special information to me about the wilderness. Alwyn is a down-to-earth person and not prone to flights of fancy or metaphorical language. He told me that his leopard friend was called ‘Matsebe’ and had a very special way about her. She seemed to convey the intelligence of the natural world to the human and acted as a bridge between animal and man. He mentioned that Matsebe was getting old and didn’t have long to live. My trip to Botswana was urgent and the spirit of Matsebe was calling me. He was excited on the phone and asked when I could get to Botswana. I said the earliest would-be February 2019. He said he would be waiting. I later learnt that Alwyn is an animal communication specialist and my journey only got more interesting when I flew in to meet him in Maun the following year.
I relived my first leopard encounter when I was 16 years old whilst travelling on the back of a Land Rover through the Kalahari in Botswana in the 1980s. I did the same over a decade later. We searched everywhere for Matsebe and as the sun was setting, I saw a glimmer of black and gold stripes in the distance; it was her daughter, a young leopard cub, carving out a new territory for herself. I didn’t meet Matsebe, but I met the wilderness and my question of how to help modern man reconnect to the wilderness became very clear. As Alwyn and I sat down in a Maun café over coffee, he asked me what my plans were about a retreat together. And I saw it in a flash. I said why don’t we call it ‘Dreams and Tracking in the Kalahari Desert’? He agreed. We would teach people how to navigate their dreams and track the wilderness. I would help people to track their spirits in their dreams and he would help people to track the animals in the wilderness, teach animal communication and interspecies dialogue.
A few months after being with Alwyn I received a message from him to say that Matsebe had died. She was found near a watering hole in a remote area. She had died from natural causes. He dedicated his company to her, calling it ‘Matsebe Safaris’ and renewed his vision of educating people about the natural world.
Our first retreat kicked off in 2020 in a desolate and remote part of the Kalahari Desert. We created a tented camp village and invited people to join us. As we were setting up on our first night in camp before the retreatants arrived, we had a moment to reflect about Matsebe and this wild leopard that brought us together from thousands of miles away. It was also the vision of uniting man to nature that inspired our guests to fly in from faraway places in Europe and the United States. We had people from diverse backgrounds, including a well-known cardiologist from Seattle and a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. They, too, felt the call of the Leopard Warrior to reconnect to nature through observing their dreams and tracking the wind. I turned to Alwyn as the sun set and asked him if he had experienced any dreams of Matsebe recently. He said no, but he was ready. I gave him some sangoma herbs to burn and pray with. The next morning, I awoke to a smiling and glowing Alwyn. As we drank our coffee he said: “Matsebe returned …” He recounted his dream from the previous night, in which Matsebe was leading two younger leopards through the Kalahari bush. Alwyn said he knew the area; it was close to where we were camped. After breakfast we jumped into the Jeep and drove to the place of Alwyn’s dream. As we got closer, he said “this is the place” and he pointed down towards the tracks in the sand. We got out of the Jeep and walked. Alwyn pointed next to the Jeep and showed me two distinct tracks of two young leopards. He said they were in the exact same location as his dream. The third set of leopard tracks was Matsebe, watching out over us.
John Lockley is a traditionally trained Xhosa sangoma and travels the world teaching indigenous medicine and running ‘Ubuntu’ (humanity) retreats. John’s website, www.johnlockley.com. John’s book ‘Leopard Warrior’ and audio teaching course ‘Way of the Leopard’ are both produced by Sounds True and available in leading bookstores, amazon and kindle. You can also get it directly via John’s website: https://www.johnlockley.com/press.
John will be leading another series of retreats in the Kalahari Desert in 2022. He will also be running an intensive 3 day ‘Ubuntu’ retreat at the BRC (Buddhist Retreat Centre) in Ixopo, Natal in January 2022. Please see his website for more information, or sign up to his newsletter.