If an odyssey is a long journey full of adventures and learning, Babatunde has certainly had one! Read about his life story, starting in Nigeria, to becoming a professor in an Ivy League black university. Where does he find meaning? Read on. Babatunde is a senior student in Georgia.
My Odyssey – Life’s Journey
Professor Babatunde Abayomi, Georgia, USA
In the beginning there was no plan. I never imagined that I, Nigerian born, would become a U.S. citizen and a lover of Advaita philosophy. Was it accident, co-incidence, or destiny?
My childhood in Lagos was influenced by a mix of religious and spiritual beliefs. My father was a Christian, my mother a Muslim. For a while I was sent to my parents’ village to live with my grandmother who was a strong believer in African traditional religion.
To her, thunder and lightning, extreme heat or cold were all “the work of God and have a purpose”. She told us to use our senses and enjoy them. When I ran through the village beating goats for fun and killing lizards, she lectured me on how each had a part to play in the universe just like us.
She offered prayers before killing our goats and chickens, explaining that there was a god of harvest whom we could not see, but who saw us. I could only take as much food as I needed and never waste it. She said those who wasted food would be made hungry one day.
When I asked why she put food and water in the bedroom at night, she told me that any departed souls wandering around might get angry if there was nothing to eat. This way we could sleep peacefully. I never questioned it.
Belief in reincarnation was strong. My name is only given to a new baby boy when one of the parents has recently lost their father. Just four months before I was born my paternal grandfather died, so I was named Babatunde, meaning, ‘The old man is back again’. My grandmother was the first to tell me I had returned because I had unfinished business to attend to.
Starting school – first journey
My mother enrolled me at Muslim school – 10 hours a week. Learning the alphabet was fun but chanting qur’anic verses did not come easily. Failure to recite flawlessly would result in a whacking. I soon lost interest and missed football with my friends. My class ranking dropped so low that my father intervened. He reminded my mother that for a senior position in politics, government or the private sector, a degree in Qur’an was not necessary. My father won the argument. It was only later I understood what my qur’anic classes had taught me about listening and paying attention.
By the time I graduated from Anglican High School I was deep into the Christian faith. Amongst my subjects was Theology which I passed with distinction. The 1960s was when President Kennedy declared space to be ‘the New Frontier’. A Russian sputnik was sent to the moon and the level of excitement was high in the scientific community. But in Nigeria, a number of elders and religious leaders were skeptical about the Americans landing on the moon. To them it was interfering in the work of God and they called for prayer and fasting to avoid the wrath of God. I began to ask questions which went unanswered.
Geography was one of my strongest subjects and the Grand Canyon was something I was hoping to see one day. When I gained entry to Howard University, Washington DC, I was excited to be on my way to a new life. I went for Physical and Historical Geology which required field trips in Virginia and Colorado.
Howard University – HBCU
A word about Howard …..although it is known as a non-sectarian university, it has the status of Historically Black College and University (HBCU). It is now the best Black Ivy League School in the US, continuing to lead in research and innovation.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of emancipation, several higher institutions, colleges and universities for blacks sprang up. Among them are the universities of Hampton, Howard, Lincoln, Tuskegee and Albany State.
Washington DC had been cold! So for my Masters I chose a graduate school in a place somewhat warmer. The University of Georgia is a well-endowed research institution. It was a great environment for me. But my family was far away and although I turned to prayer and the Bible for sustenance, I felt inwardly lonely.
That was all forgotten when I met my wife and we had our first child. My mother had hoped that I would return to Nigeria and had promised to select no fewer than three beautiful well-educated ladies for me. However when she came to visit, she declared that I had married someone who was perfect.
I was offered a position in a high school near Atlanta teaching geology and earth science. It was challenging but gradually I learned how to both motivate and discipline the students. Looking back, my stability was due to a routine I practised before facing the class. I instinctively took a minute on my own just to sit and shut everything down.
Science and Spiritual Experience
I decided to pursue a PhD with Georgia State University in Atlanta. It was an opportunity to follow up my interest in astronomy and space science. To my astonishment, I also discovered that science and spiritual experiences are complementary.
Using a telescope to scan our solar system, I saw the moon so close and almost touchable. Saturn is the most beautiful object I have ever seen in the sky, with its spectacular majestic ring. The vague religious concept that I had received from childhood, that God may be found in space beyond the clouds was shattered.
Once and for all, it was clear to me that God is everywhere – and in me. My faith in a protective, invisible hand deepened.
By this time my family had grown to five with three beautiful daughters. Nigeria beckoned with two universities showing interest in offering me a position. At that time Nigeria was under the military rule with a series of coups and counter-coups so I decided to wait. I guess now the wait has become permanent!
Instead, I accepted a position at Albany State University, as a Science Education Professor. Compared with other universities of comparable size, Albany sends a larger number of students to medical school etc. and graduate science research programs.
The journey inward – meeting the School of Philosophy
My curiosity about the spiritual and metaphysical realm continued. One day a friend said he had met the leader of the Georgia Philosophy School and we went to meet with him. I was delighted to find that the Philosophy classes followed the process of self-enquiry practised by Socrates. I have been attending ever since and it has been a great experience.
What impressed me initially was the gain made in a short time.
At first we were asked to practise pausing three times a day for five minutes. I followed this for a week and the result was unbelievable! Less agitated! I felt in a much better mood. At first, I thought that pausing might take time away from meeting deadlines. On the contrary, I became more effective and efficient!
The crowning glory was when, after a year or so, we were offered the practice of mantra-meditation. It is a discipline to practise it regularly but my faith in an omnipresent, all-knowing God is a great help. Meditation has provided insight into Bible passages I have read over and over again such as, “Be still and know that I am God….” (Psalm 46 vs 10).
I sit down in a quiet corner, close my eyes and shut up my mouth. I start my mantra and, knowing that the Almighty God is there with me, I become still.
Meditation practice is a time for rest, away from all that is competing for your attention – newspapers, telephone calls, social media. Their truths and alternative truths can now be shut down whereas they used to raise my blood pressure.
New World of Understanding
With the practice of philosophy and meditation, the desire for things has diminished. It is easier to distinguish between the important things and the unnecessary stuff of life. My African elders have a saying: “Dogs and goats see the same thing but dogs start barking and bark loudly, whereas goats just look, and look again, then go about their business”. I guess I’m a goat!
When, towards the end of my career, I became visually impaired, my wife drove me to Philosophy classes. She once remarked, “This thing is good for you, you’re at peace.”
I have crossed the threshold into a new world of understanding. It is pure and simple and my questions are at last being answered. This is surely the meaning of “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all things will be (added) given to you”.
Acknowledgement: My thanks and deep gratitude to Vincent Dubiansky, the founder and senior tutor at Georgia Philosophy School where I was introduced to Advaita philosophy and Lorrie Dubiansky always optimistic and encouraging. Kathy is our able and tireless administrator of the school.
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