I Followed African Spirituality For A Year, Here’s How It Changed Me
“Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.”
— Deepak Chopra
Before I made the decision to follow an indigenous African Spiritual system, I’d read plenty blogs and articles written by other black women compelled to ditch Christianity once and for all. Rarely did these tell-all’s follow up with in-depth narratives detailing how the decision to do so affected them after the fact. In 2006, I decided to make the switch from Abrahamic religion to an indigenous spiritual system, only recently did I make the decision to write about my experiences, the good and the bad, in the hopes that my journey could provide some insight to others who may be in the midst of their own. Here’s how Odinani, an indigenous African Spiritual system out of Southwest Nigeria, challenged and changed my life.
The main difference between religion and spirituality is that religions are based on written doctrine while spiritual systems are not bound to a written text. In other words, there are no indigenous 10 commandments to govern your day to day life. Spirituality simply calls upon a person to willingly choose goodness, solely for goodness sake, which initially sounds like a very liberating experience but can create spiritual conflict for those of us who have been conditioned to believe that you prove your religiosity through works. Eventually, I would come to learn that although I had left religion, I had very much carried my religiousness with me out the door and I was trying to satisfy my religious devotion to duty through a belief system that didn’t call for my devotion, just my gratitude. This transition in thought, for me, was the most challenging to make.
There isn’t an African dialect in existence that contains a direct linguistic equivalent for the Christian concept of the devil, which should explain why there is no devil, Satan or Lucifer in African Spirituality. This initially sounded like a great selling point but ultimately I would struggle with the lapse of clear-cut and defined evil in Odinani. When you come out of 25+ years of Christianity, the personified fear you associate with wrong or “sin” is not easily shaken and you find yourself struggling to take accountability for the less than righteous decisions you make. Sure, religion makes sin scary but it also makes sin not completely our fault because, well, the devil. Spirituality, on the other hand, encourages followers to make conscious decisions from a place of love and compassion, recognizing that they alone are in control of their thoughts and actions, and how the two ultimately impact the world around them. The world hadn’t prepared me to operate from a place of love, especially not in the face of fear. And Christianity had convinced me that if I feared hard enough, love would be the default agent behind my decisions. For the first time, I was learning to navigate the world without fear as my main motivation, and that in and of itself was very scary.
Organized religion doesn’t make much room for the self. The individual and expressions of individuality, apart from the musical persuasion, are not particularly celebrated in organized religion. The fewer questions a follower asks, the better. The less curiosity a person builds, the better. The word of God says what it says, and truthfully there is very little room for your personal interpretation. If I questioned who I was, what I believed in, what I stood for, who I stood with, etc. I was directed to the answers in the Bible. But when those answers weren’t sufficient, my faith was called into question. Over time, you learn to accept what you believe as well as what you don’t, and many Christians live somewhere within that complex duality. Odinani brought me a unique challenge in that who I was up to me to decide. My spiritual constitution, so to speak, for once hadn’t been pre-written on my behalf. I was being asked to know who I was and I had no idea how to come up with an answer. I was discovering myself for the first time in my late 20’s and in doing so, realized that most of who I thought I was based on who I was told to be, and that needed to change.
We live mostly sealed off lives. Sealed off from one another, sealed off from nature, sealed off from the real world even. We communicate via electronic devices. We see each other through video. We experience everything from behind our cell phone screens. The disconnect actually desensitizes us to a lot of spiritual stimuli and keeps us out of sync from the world around us. A huge aspect of indigenous spirituality is a connection with nature and the world beyond the physical realm. Followers of indigenous spiritual systems seek a personal connection with nature in an effort to develop an individual relationship with creation. This requires a re-syncing of sorts, a recalibration achieved through separating from social media, from friends, from family, and from work, and intentional uninterrupted submersion in nature. I found a quiet place at a nearby Japanese garden and every day for 3 months straight, I spent an hour there unplugged, in deep meditation near running water. Sometimes I would burn incense, other times I would recite mantras in my native tongue, but essentially I was trying to get my mind and body to be on one accord. I never knew how loud my mind could be until I tried to quiet it. 3 months would turn into 6 months before I would master transcendental meditation, becoming so familiar with nature that I began to notice all of the intricate ways she expressed herself. Ultimately it would be the greatest skill I would acquire as an adult, one that taught me to reconnect my body with my soul.
I have never felt freer than when I began to adhere to the spiritual system of my ancestors. The ability to apply real-life experiences and personalize my journey, the freedom from doctrine and dogma, the freedom from ignorance and fear was something I hadn’t experienced before. For once, I was being encouraged to explore and discover my own truth, no one was barking it at me. I was encouraged to ask questions and no one was waiting to tell me I was “going too deep” or “playing with God.” I felt trust in myself, I felt supported and I felt free.
Body & Mind
In indigenous African Spirituality, no real separation exists between the spirit world and the physical world (or the realm of matter). Wherever matter occurs, Spirit can be found, and the opposite is also true. African worldview teaches that all life is spiritual and both seen and unseen work together. It’s commonly believed that our internal voice, known in Western culture as our intuition, is the tie that binds them together. Guiding us through decisions, keeping us safe from danger, and acting many times as the voice of reason. Unfortunately, not many of us are encouraged to listen to our intuition and begin silencing this voice from childhood, only to find ourselves struggling through adulthood without it. Following Odinani not only taught me to be more intuitive but has also helped me to be more in tune with the energies around me. Being able to sense when it’s time to leave a place, what type of company to avoid, who’s number to block, etc. has made certain situations so much easier to maneuver. Trusting my intuition strengthened my intuition. Who knew life got easier when you listened to yourself?
Religion makes us afraid of the word ritual, although religion is riddled with its fair share of rituals. We may not look at things like Baptism and Communion as rituals, but they’re as symbolically ceremonial as they come, and the same goes for any habitual practice that you set an intention for. To be very clear there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Rituals anchor us to our community and give life’s milestones structure and meaning. Once I worked through the stigma of the word itself, addressing the “paganized” perspective with which indigenous ritual and ceremony have always been portrayed, I was able to embrace the fullness of ritual in my spiritual experience. Learning various healing traditions and reconnecting with my paternal and maternal grandmothers through ancestral veneration, which has been the most rewarding part of my year-long journey.
Choosing to follow Odinani has changed most aspects of my life, how I parent my son, how I interface with friends, how I approach adversity, how I make important decisions and the list goes on. Had it not been for Odinani, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading this right now due to the fact that an experience I had during devotion to my grandmother was the driving force behind my sudden career change. Practicing Odinani has improved my self-identity, strengthened my relationship with my family (all of whom are Christian), and helped me tremendously with lifelong anxiety. I feel a personal connection to my convictions and I feel a sense of autonomy that religion didn’t provide. I encourage every Black woman or man who may be curious about indigenous spirituality not to deny themselves the fullness of life’s experiences because of fear or shame. Indigenous spirituality makes no issue of different or “opposing” views and many people maintain their religious beliefs while incorporating indigenous practices into their daily lives. There is no sin in self-discovery and we empower everything we believe in, including ourselves.