Why character building in the Nago tradition is the foundation for spirituality
Author: Akambi Oluwatoyin
Spiritual growth and religious awakening are trending. Many people are striving for quick transformation through spirituality in order to do better in life while living a hopeless life and holding inhuman values. For author and healer Akambi Oluwatoyin of the Nago people, who have revered nature and ancestors as sacred for millennia, there is no spiritual development without character building. All spiritual awakening is of no use if it is not supported by a human and ethical character. Therefore, the author wishes to point out the importance of human character building as a central element of spirituality.
“Without humane character, there is no spirituality.” Conveying this foundation of spirituality in the cultural tradition of my people, my ancestors informed me before I began writing this paper. All you read here are the voices of my ancestors and the words they whispered into my ears. As a descendant of a long line of custodians of the Nago wisdom traditions and healing knowledge, and after years of accompanying people, I realise again and again how many people here are largely unaware of Africa’s spiritual traditions or how often they are misunderstood.
However, I do not want to presume to define spirituality here. When I define what spirituality is, I am setting a limit. Thus, I am only trying to describe it from my cultural background. This will give readers an idea of what the Nago understand spirituality to be. Spirituality is the essence of all being. All human beings are born with it. Spirituality does not presuppose anything and does not require initiation, but needs a trigger. The trigger for spirituality is the awakening of awareness that life is not limited to the physical dimension. The physical dimension contains the metaphysical. Life is a unity in which the material and spiritual planes flow into each other. A one-dimensional grasp of life remains incomplete.
When we realise that we are more than our body and close the void between body and mind, we can experience ourselves as one. By experiencing himself as a unity of body and mind, a person can experience oneness with life. We Nago assume that a human being can only feel and perceive this oneness when he understands himself as spirit in human form.
One can only understand thoughts from a foreign culture if one understands the way of thinking in that culture.
To express the meaning of the word spirituality among the Nago in the German language is a particularly difficult task, as the terms and words do not have the same meaning in both languages. The Nago term spirituality is esin and means “to serve with devotion in order to be”. In this, each person has the freedom to determine for himself what life he wants to serve with devotion to be.
Everyday life in the Nago tradition is full of spirituality, everywhere and contained in everything. Nevertheless, the first step towards spirituality is to develop a humane character in order to cultivate a harmonious relationship with the life of the community and with all fellow creatures, visible and invisible. In this process, character is the fruit of lived values and behaviour. It is through character that a person’s personality is formed.
Without a virtuous life there is no spirituality.
The spiritual life of the Nago for thousands of years led to a fundamental realisation that our ancestors expressed as the core of spirituality thus: “Character is spirituality.” Humane character building is more important to the Nago than all spiritual consciousness teachings and religious faith teachings. The purpose of spiritual or religious teaching is to build humane character. The teaching begins with the question: Who am I born to be, to become who I am born to be?
The development of character traits to which a human being aspires depends primarily on the conception he or she has of being human. The basic condition for a happy and fulfilled life is to realise oneself. Self-realisation, as we understand it, is not only measured by material wealth, but by virtues and character traits that a person lives by and through which he expresses his character. The meaning of character goes beyond death. Character is the testimony a person leaves behind when they leave physical life on earth. In the Nago tradition, it is customary to write down the character traits that people have exemplified in a song before they die. During mourning ceremonies, this song is sung for the deceased to honour their life.
Character are values and virtues that characterise our being.
A person must first learn to develop human character and be willing to honour the sanctity of life. Otherwise, according to the Nago, it is useless to teach him wisdom. This attitude of the ancestors still holds true today. Without character building, there is no spiritual development in the Nago tradition. A spiritually or religiously determined way of life is meaningless to us if character development is missing in the process. If we do not strive for humane character qualities, we become destructive to ourselves and likewise to the community. Therefore, human character development is the central element of spirituality in Nago culture.
Character development is above all faith teaching and spiritual practice. All spiritual growth without human character development sooner or later leads to betrayal of values and misuse of knowledge. Character development occurs through a translation of wisdom teachings into practice, through mindful words and actions that create and maintain harmony with others. A person’s value and significance lie in their ability to cultivate a fair and peaceful relationship with life and community members.
The Nago assume that each of us is born with the seed to develop humane character and that the potentials for a virtuous life are inherent in us. A harmonious relationship with life and community requires that we allow this inherent seed to germinate, grow, nurture and nourish throughout our lives. It is not a matter of prescribing a fixed set of values to people, but of nurturing the potentials for virtuous living with which they are born. Education for a virtuous life with ethical and humane behaviour in the community was and still is a self-evident part of the Nago teaching to be human, and thus the path to spirituality. With the following example, I would like to show how millennia-old spiritual traditions of character building can be applied to modern life when taking on a leadership position.
Each person who assumes a spiritual leadership role among the Nago is asked, upon taking office, to make known to their leadership team and community, in a ritual ceremony, the values by which they commit to lead their office and how they will exercise the power they are given.
Recently, one of my cousins was appointed to take up a spiritual leadership position in Benin. He concluded the ritual ceremony for his assumption of office with the following sentences:
If I act unjustly and behave badly in terms of character, I ask you to bring it to my attention. If I give you unjust orders, I ask you to refuse to carry out my order.
If I use my leadership position and power – despite warning – to enforce injustice, I ask you to demand my resignation and take away the power that has been given to me.
At a book reading I was asked: How can one learn empathy? Although I am familiar with Western ways of thinking and understood the question, it sounded foreign and strange to my Nago ears. The way this question was phrased, I cannot ask it to people in Nago culture. They would find me ridiculous. According to the Nago understanding, people do not need to learn what they have inside them.
No one needs to learn to recognise injustice and inhumanity.
All human beings are born with the sense of justice and empathy, even though the environment and circumstances may lead a person to develop lack of empathy and injustice. Human beings are not born empathy-less and unjust.
Any measure that helps to raise and promote our awareness of humane character is right and commendable. I draw attention here to the fact that training to learn certain skills is not to be confused with the promotion of intrinsic human abilities and potentials. A person can learn to speak through training. Speaking itself is not taught to anyone. A baby begins to speak without ever having consciously learned to speak.
Humane character traits, including empathy, do not require training, but are brought to germinate in order to grow. Depending on external adversities and how nutrient-rich the soil is, people can develop or evolve humane character traits with more or less energy expenditure. It can also mean that in order to do so, we have to overcome the social circumstances of the environment in which we find ourselves.
The question that always arises: What human virtues do we nurture? No matter what virtues you develop in your life, among the Nago, the first commandment is not to harm anyone, to respect the dignity of others and to maintain the balance of the community. When we collectively treat each other with dignity, we create a space that awakens and promotes awareness of humane character in each individual.
What happens when people leave the path of humane character?
The community living together in peace or discord depends on character.
Slavery, colonialism, wars and the exploitation of people, the earth and nature are some of the worst consequences of leaving the path of humane character. Given how we as humanity still treat each other today in the world we have created, I feel obliged to remind people of the past. Perhaps it can make some people think, to stop repeating the mistakes of the past.
For 500 years, people in Africa constantly lived with the fear and risk of one day being captured and taken overseas as slaves by Europeans. Just as with my book “Not All Intelligence is Wise”, it is a concern in this paper to draw attention to the past. However, not to separate us from each other, but to remind each of us to strive for reconciliation. In this way, I would like to contribute to a wholesome and peaceful coexistence.
About the author
Akambi Oluwatoyin is an African healer, book author and wisdom bearer of a people who revere nature and ancestors as sacred. He was introduced to traditional healing from an early age. Before coming to Germany, he worked for years as an assistant healer alongside his father. Based on traditional knowledge and the spirituality of his ancestors, he has been accompanying people on their path of self-discovery and healing for more than 30 years.
This article was originally published on the German website: Charakter ist Spiritualität