Divining Bones



Medicine Man

David Cumes, M.D., blends his knowledge of Western medicine, traditional African shamanism, and yoga to help heal others.

During a trip to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, in 1992, David Cumes had a life-changing experience. He was given a chance to "throw the bones," an ancient tradition wherein bones, shells, coins, and various other artifacts are used to give insights on one's life path, much like the I Ching or Tarot. The bones told him that he was being called by his ancestors to become a traditional African healer, or sangoma.

Cumes, a Western-educated doctor and a longtime yogi, never could have imagined that his path would lead him to live with the San Bushmen or to become a traditional healer. However, Cumes, who founded the spiritual adventure travel company Inward Bound, looks at his newly acquired status as an opportunity to realize a dream: establishing a healing center in the rugged, mountainous wilderness of MiMoya, in the far north of South Africa, where he hopes to integrate the best of indigenous and Western medicines.

Following the Call

Nature has always inspired the 58-year-old urologist and wilderness trekker. While he was growing up in South Africa in the early 1950s, Cumes enjoyed hiking through pristine forests and across savannas, making a connection to the natural world that continued to blossom throughout his adulthood. Even throughout the years attending medical school in Johannesburg, he made up for the grueling hours and rigorous training with forays into the African bush.

But when he moved to the States in 1975 to do his residency at the Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, Cumes was no longer able to restore his psyche by getting into his jeep and heading off to some remote region. He became chief resident, and along with three young children to raise, there wasn't time to retreat into California's wilderness.

"The first two years in Palo Alto felt like a form of soul death to me, like 1 had lost a loved one. The parting with Africa had been far more significant than I could have anticipated, and my professional success was not making me happy. Marital disharmony ensued, and I knew I had to find that part of myself that I thought was settled somewhere in the dust of the African veld," writes Cumes in his first book, Inner Passages, Outer Journeys (Llewellyn Publications, 1998).

A decade later, in 1987, inspired by his former wife, Curries began to study yoga. He embraced it fully, studying asanas, yogic scriptures, and Ayurveda. lie found himself transformed by the practices. Yoga allowed the previously skeptical and scientific Cumes to become open to his intuition and receptive to his inner guidance.

After a 16-day intensive at the White Lotus Foundation, a mountaintop ashram overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, California, White Lotus founder and yoga teacher Ganga White said to Cumes, "Now you have your M.D. degree - Master of your own Destiny."

Cumes used this second M.D. degree to heed an inner voice that led him back to Africa's wilderness for a period of extensive travel that found him living with the San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert. His yoga practice continued to serve him, for it allowed him to take seriously the practices of another culture, the culture of the San Bushmen.

Days were spent learning rope making, procuring water, and hunting and trapping. At night Cumes witnessed what very few Westerners have ever seen- the San trance dance, in which the tribe's shamans leave their bodies to meet with ancestral spirits to promote the physical and psychological well-being of the tribe. Cumes became intrigued by the connection he saw between these trance dances and the kundalini experience of yogis.

"During the dance, num, the San equivalent of kundalini energy, becomes activated," Cumes explains. "Num heats up and becomes a vapor that rises up the spine and through the base of the skull. The healer travels out of his body to the spirit realm on behalf of his tribe. The San believe that sickness or imbalance resides in all of us but that it only becomes disease in some. It is only with regular rebalancing through the use of the trance dance that health and equanimity can be retained and restored for all tribe members."

Cumes also saw a connection between the values and behavior espoused in yoga's moral code, the yamas and niyamas, and those lived by the San Bushmen. The San's noncompetitive, nongreedy and spare lifestyle, for example, is an expression of asteya (nonstealing), aparigraba (greedlessness), and brahmacharya (moderation). "The San are egalitarians," Cumes notes. "They have no chief or leader, and everyone, male and female, has a say in the group's activities. Members may be known for their extraordinary skills at hunting or healing, but this does not confer special privileges to them. Egomaniacal behaviors are not part of San behavior. Eastern philosophy teaches us that ego is the greatest obstacle to reaching our inner being."

Guiding Others

IN 1995, CUMES founded the adventure-trekking company Inward Bound. It was an idea that had been welling up within him ever since his youth. From his make-believe jungle adventures in the bamboo-covered lanes of Johannesburg to his experiences camping upon the beaches of the Indian Ocean, Cumes's connection with the land was always deepening.

His self-designed adventure treks matured and soon shifted inward, and Cumes desired to share them with others. Unlike the better-known Outward Bound organization, Inward Bound doesn't focus on outward skills of self-mastery through physical challenge, which Curries feels is "just a continuation of the same behaviors from back home within a different context."

"We can use the San model to reconnect with the primeval hunter-gatherer part of our psyche and tap into a different spiritual dimension in wilderness."

Instead, the trips that he leads are about moving people inward to spiritual healing. "The purer the exposure to wilderness," Curries believes, "the more powerful the effect of wilderness rapture."

More than climbing the highest peak, Inward Bound helps individuals to create an intimate connection with nature and themselves. "We embark on a restorative journey that can ultimately lead to the discovery of our highest self," Cumes explains. And he uses yoga to hasten this process of journeying inward, taking participants through a routine of various asanas before a trek.

When topography makes the practice of hatha yoga somewhat difficult, Cumes employs meditation and visualizations, often involving pranayama and chakra work. Of course, Cumes's time with the San Bushmen also significantly informs his work as an Inward Bound guide: "We can use the San model to reconnect with the primeval hunter-gatherer part of ourselves that resides deep within our psyche, that was operative and functional for eons," he thoughtfully explains. "By doing so and by also keeping as little between us and the wilderness as possible-as the San have done -we can then tap into a different spiritual dimension in wilderness."

Heal Thy Self

When Cumes threw the bones in 1992 and was told that he would actually begin doing the work of a sangoma for others, at first he was skeptical and resisted this pronouncement. After returning to the States, he began to experience incessant migraines and back pain he had never had before. He made his way back to Africa, not just to seek a cure for his physical ailments but also to discover if he really was destined to become a sangoma. After a series of meetings with other sangomas, Cumes finally relented: He was being called by his ancestors to become a traditional African healer.

"I believe the movement toward the inner world is our primary purpose on the planet," explains Cumes.

His initiation, which included a series of purification rituals, began during the last week of the millennium, and by April 2000, he was ordained. Cumes returned to Santa Barbara and set up a sacred yurt, or ndumba, in his backyard where he presently reads the bones for others.

Having himself bridged the gap between Western medicine and traditional healing methods and between the seemingly diverse worlds of the Kalahari Bushmen and yogis, Cumes is now intent on sharing the gifts he has gained from all of these in the MiNloya Healing Center. Here he hopes to establish a combination clinic, resource center, and think-tank whose various functions would include exploring and documenting the local plant medicines in this biodiverse region, exploring and documenting indigenous healing techniques, and supporting local healers -with access to plant medicines, for example.

"Indigenous consciousness holds not only the key to understanding our most primal selves but also to healing at the deepest level of Self," explains Cumes. "The San Bush people seem to have found the balance that we in modern society have lost. It disturbs me when some people say that they find the San intriguing because of their 'primitive lifestyle.' In many ways the San are far more sophisticated than our so-called modern culture. The concepts of Gaia and Deep Ecology that we are only now beginning to embrace are second nature to them. The San live in a reality augmented by their closeness to nature and the cosmos."

At the heart of Cumes's healing philosophy is the belief that "the movement toward the inner world is our primary purpose on the planet. If we deviate from our soul's path, we create imbalance and poor health. Each patient must find the healer and healing technique that best connects them to Self."

Arnie Cooper writes about yoga and spirituality from his home in Santa Barbara, CA.

"The drive toward the higher self is primary and omnipresent, even if subconscious, in all of us, whether we follow a spiritual path or not. We all have our own purpose on this planet and the challenge this presents demands we find and follow it with gusto."

Inner Passages, Outer Journeys
David M. Cumes, M.D.


©2022 Dr. David Cumes M.D.