Sunday, January 30, 2011

Virgil Apostol's "Way of the Ancient Healer": A Review

Virgil Mayor Apostol, Way of the Ancient Healer

Reviewed by Leny Mendoza Strobel
January 28, 2011

In a note I sent to Virgil shortly after receiving my copy of his book, I wrote: In a way, my books have been a way station for the arrival of the knowledge that you bring in this book. I said this because I’ve been writing about the need for those of us in the diaspora to have access to Filipino indigenous knowledge and practices as part of our decolonization process. For what is the point of deconstructing our colonized identities if, in the end, we didn’t have an indigenous narrative of our own? In all of my writing about decolonization and indigenization, I have described my own journey, including my desire to know more specifically about my own ancestral roots as a Kapampangan.

While I have the body memory, I didn’t have the ancestral stories to go along with it. Way of the Ancient Healer gave me those stories. Even if they are Virgil’s personal stories, he claims he speaks out of a collective voice as well…and that includes mine.

In reading Virgil’s Way of the Ancient Healer, I felt as if I finally had the empirical evidence or concrete data in the form of his own personal stories and those of others who reveal the encyclopedic knowledge of healing arts of our Filipino ancestors. He also links this knowledge to the traditions and practices of near and far neighbors in Southeast Asia and beyond. Even further, he also weaves these traditions within the realm of the cosmic and mythic. His narrative spans both ancient and contemporary times to show that the past is still alive in the present; in his Epilogue he envisions that our ancient ways of healing will survive into the future as well.

I used to read the Journal of Noetic Sciences  and Parabola and there was always a part of me that felt incredulous about the attempts of western scientists to prove that certain psychic or spiritual phenomena can be proven scientifically in laboratory settings or with measuring instruments. Even then I was already skeptical of the need to validate everything through the scientific method. I muttered to myself often: why do we need science to prove that prayer works? Why do we need science to prove that meditation works?  

And then I was introduced to the term “indigenous science” through the work of Apela Colorado[1] and Jurgen Kremer[2] and Jeremy Narby[3] – all of whom are writing to posit that there needs to be better dialogue between indigenous knowledge holders (shamans) and scientists.  In particular, I appreciate Narby’s contention that what hinders this dialogue is not language but the arrogance of western science.

Well, we must be making some progress towards that dialogue if I take as one indicator the publication of the Way of the Ancient Healer by North Atlantic Books. Blurbed by famous names in the healing arts - Deepak Chopra, Bradford Keeney, Hank Wesselman, and Jean Houston – this book places our Filipino Sacred Teachings and Philippine Ancestral Traditions on the map.  (Whether we admit it or not, the colonized mind tends to be impressed by the authority of the printed word more than the authority of the oral tradition).

But something is changing…

I heard Danny Kalanduyan, the kulintang master, tell the story that when be brought his Filipino American students to Mindanao to learn about kulintang arts, the locals were wondering why Americans are interested in their arts. I hear the same story repeated in various ways: when Filipinos in the Philippines receive the balikbayans who are interested in indigenous cultures and practices, it creates a synergy and it awakens their own consciousness to the importance and relevance of these practices.  In the Philippines, I remember Fr. Alejo’s story of how the indigenous folks on Mt Apo told him: why do you still want to study us, Father, when we don’t have culture anymore? (in reference to their having agreed to allow a geothermal development on their sacred mountain).[4]

Indeed, the timing of Virgil Apostol’s book is perfect.  I sense that we are ready to look back at our ancient ways of knowing and healing because when we do, it returns us to a place of belonging. It makes us feel whole. It makes us joyful to remember, re-member and make whole the fragments of stories that we have silently carried in our cultural genes.

I look at the photographs in this book and the various ways of naming among our ethnolinguistic groups and I am overcome by a soothing feeling, a very comforting feeling. More recently, my grief and sadness over the stories that were not passed on to me by my own ancestors have been assuaged: You may not know our names or our stories, but you know us. Your work honors us. And we know you. What prepared me to hear the voice of my ancestors includes the time I spent with Virgil’s book. 

Let me put it another way: The spoken word is potent. In oral cultures, as in the ancient times of our ancestors, the stories were handed down in all their potency and power. David Abram[5] writes that reading can be an animist experience once we learn how to reconnect with the sensuousness of the world and the word.

The structure of Way of the Ancient Healer lends itself to the potential of reclaiming the power of the oral tradition, of the story, of the spoken word in its literate form. In this way of bridging, of finding the middle path (as Virgil calls his approach to this work), it invites the skeptical, the cynic, the doubter – for whatever reasons – to come hither and listen.  Is your religious belief or scientific belief or your modern consciousness getting in the way of this invitation to imbibe in the wealth of your ancestral Filipino roots? Not to worry. Virgil’s approach in this book is gentle, humorous, compassionate, and non-judgmental. After all, that’s the only way the ancestors would have it.


[4] See Fr. Albert Alejo’s book, Creating Energies on Mt. Apo, Ateneo University Press

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tera Maxwell's Reflections on the CFBS Retreat

Moon smiling down on us at at the lake on last night of retreat.
(Photo by Karen Pennrich)
On the last evening of the Babaylan Retreat 2011, we gathered at nearby Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa, California to make an offering to our ancestors. The twilight sun softly dipped below the trees to the west. A swollen moon awaited evening in the east. This land held the painful memories of my adolescence, but sharp regret troubled me no more. Balikbayan describes diasporic Filipinos who return to the homeland. It literally means returning to settlement. Balik means return; bayan means settlement. (Vicente Rafael p206). It is a feeling of coming home. Yet here, in Sonoma County, California, I experienced balikbayan at this working retreat for the Center for Babaylan Studies (CFBS). 
The intention of the retreat was to brainstorm upcoming plans for the Center for Babaylan Studes, whose main purpose is to educate about indigenous knowledges and practices. Before the closing ritual of the weekend, we sat on a sharp outcropping of rocks above the lake and recalled our experiences at the retreat. I expressed gratitude for each participant for the gift of acceptance. As a second-generation mestiza Filipino American, it was the first time I felt I belonged as a Filipina. Among the group were Filipino artists, writers, musicians, academics, and healers. Virgil Apostol taught us about Ablon, the Filipino art of healing. Lily Mendoza lectured on the indigenization movement in the Philippines.  Perla Daly presented on the babaylan's many symbols. Lane Wilcken talked about the Filipino art of tattooing as a committment to one's ancestral family. Leny Strobel discussed the Center’s purpose and welcomed us into her home. Titania Bucholdt shared her bamboo percussive instruments, and we danced in a tribal circle. We nourished our bodies with good food. We laughed. We played. 
The first night we feasted together. Mila Anguluan Coger led the opening ritual. The first ritual was called "The Gathering." Frances stood with a bag of scarves tied to her hip. She called to the first person in the circle "Intan, Tera" meaning "Come here from wherever you are. Put your feet on the earth." Each person tied her scarf to the last person on the scarf chain, like a winding snake of scarves and bodies. After every person in the group was welcomed into the chain, the ritual shifted. An outer circle and inner circle formed. Every individual in the inner circle spoke to each member of the outer circle: "I honor you" and shared something unique about that person. Everyone took turns. 
Mila invited us to play through ritual. Her activities would be presented to Filipino American college students to help them get in touch with their indigenous roots. We were asked to draw a power symbol and an indigenous symbol. My power symbol is the waterfall, shifting and moving continuously, a fitting metaphor for my energy, and my life, married to a corporate gypsy. But intuitively, I was given my ancestral symbol--a large, smooth stone. The stone is solid and unchanging. It represents the islands of my ancestors. It symbolizes the source of my strength.
Atang in Ilokono is a ritual offering to one's ancestors. It is showing respect for our ancestors on the other side of the veil. It is acknowledging their presence and assistance in our mortal affairs. This honor of ancestors is important in Filipino indigenous traditions. We were invited to make an offering to our ancestors. I wrote a note expressing my gratitude to my ancestors for their help in writing my dissertation among other things. Because of my own religious biases, I came to the ritual expecting simply a beautiful ceremony, but not necessarily a spiritual act.

I was wrong.
As Lane Wilcken placed the offering of food and letters on taltalabong, a spiritual raft, and uttered a chant of respect to the ancestors. The taltalabong drifted out on the lake. Seven geese circled overhead twice from left to right, a Filipino omen that the ancestors were pleased with our offering. To my surprise, I felt my heart surge with joy. I felt the joyful embrace of my ancestors; a strong presence of many surrounded me. This sacred experience was more profound than words can convey, but I knew that this indigenous ritual was important, as I honored my indigenous ancestors in a ritual they recognized. I received the impression: "We are always with you." 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Notes and Reflections from the CFBS Retreat, Jan 14-16, 2011

JANUARY 14-16, 2011

Attending: Leny Strobel, Perla Daly, Letecia Layson, Lorial Crowder, Mila Coger, Lane Wilcken, Virgil Apostol, Lizae Reyes, Gina Honda, Karen Pennrich, Lily Mendoza, Tera Maxwell, Venus Herbito, Frances Santiago, Titania Bucholdt

Last night of the retreat. The lake was as still as a mirror. 
Wednesday, January  12: Letecia and Lily arrived on this day and am glad they got here early because they helped me with the food preparation for the weekend. They chopped, peeled, sliced, diced vegetables while we got a head start on storytelling. Letecia also created the altar as we prepared the space. We set our intentions.

Friday, January 14: Perla arrived from Austin; Lorial from New York. Tera (Minnesota) arrived with Malena (9mos) in Santa Rosa where her mother lives. Lane arrived at Sonoma County Airport where he was met by Karen. Venus, Virgil, Mila and Gina arrived from Los Angeles; Frances from Maryland. Lizae picked up Perla and Lorial from BART station near her home.

Lizae, Perla, Lorial, Venus, Frances, Mila, Gina had lunch at Café Gratitude in Berkeley and they all celebrated the graduation of Frances (MA in Indigenous Mind). Mila, who has defended her dissertation proposal and is now on her way to do the research was also feted.

I mention the places where everyone came from because I am still in awe at everyone’s resolve to come and be with one another. Our home was happy to be the container for the vibrant energy of beautiful souls. Cal and I felt honored.

Opening Ritual: I was washing dishes when Mila, Gina, and Frances came up from behind and started the summons: Intan, Leny! Intan, Leny!  and proceeded to summon everyone to the living room. Mila then gave each one a scarf and then we tied our scarves together and formed a circle and then Mila gave us instructions on welcoming and honoring each other.  This was a wonderful way for everyone to greet and honor each other individually. Already, there were misty eyes and laughter.

Afterwards, Letecia led us in reflection about Sacred Time and Sacred Ritual. We all made a commitment to the structure of the weekend’s program as agreed upon so that there would be no need to have a timekeeper. We posted our weekend schedule and weekend menu on the door of the pantry for everyone to see. For me, Letecia’s words can be summed up thus: Remember what CFBS stands for, what we have committed to and then show up. Her words are much more profound than these, of course.

Saturday, January 15: Everyone was on time! I mixed the vegetables with the bihon for our no-cook pansit lunch baon; made hummus, and then laid out our breakfast of lox and bagels, cream cheese, fruits. Tea with calamansi and ginger and honey; coffee, orange juice.  By 8:30 we were rolling out the door and headed to Sonoma State U.

At SSU, after our brief opening Kapwa Jam with bamboo instruments brought by Titania (thank you!), we began the day with “framing our Big Story” as a way of clarifying what we mean by Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP); identifying the various discourses under IKSP including, of course, the Babaylan discourse. We emphasized the significance of understanding how the stories we tell ourselves are often shaped by powerful historical narratives and ideologies, and, therefore, the decolonization and indigenization processes are critical to the vision and work of CFBS.

Lily continued the morning session by talking about the indigenization movement in the Philippines – its history of emergence and the strands (Sikolohiyang Pilipino, Pilipinolohiya, Pantayong Pananaw), key persons, and its relevance to CFBS. Furthermore, in linking IKSP to the global concerns (environmental, social justice, capitalist exploitation, etc), she used the example of Detroit (as a post-industrial city) where the local movement is towards “Grow our Food; Grow our Stories; Grow our Beauty.”  She further noted how wonderful it is not to feel the need to have a divide between cognitive ways of knowing and the more "embodied ways of knowing." At CFBS the community process allows one to experience a more integrative  mode of knowing where indigenous consciousness and ancient ways of being are not only studied and theorized but  actually re-learned and practiced as living traditions.

Saturday afternoon: Mila, Lane, Perla, and Letty presented their modules.  Mila’s workshop is designed for her presentation to undergrads in Southern CA. Her interactive activities got us invigorated and creative. Lane presented his outline presentation on Filipino tattoos and their spiritual symbolism; Perla presented the “Babaylan Power Roles” which she has developed and has had online presence and she is now ready to take them on the road. Letty presented her outline of a presentation she will be making at a Matriarchal Studies conference in Switzerland this summer. Her plan is to talk about decolonization as a spiritual path to liberation using Babaylan discourse to present her main ideas.

Saturday evening: Lane shared about the power of storytelling and why and how we need to learn how to read the metaphors in our creation myths, folklore, and legends.  I was reminded that the ancestors want to speak to and guide us and we have to pay attention when they manifest their presence.  For our bedtime meditation, Lizae played the harp. When Lizae plays, the energy settles down and puts us in deep reverie…that place where words are absent and inadequate. In the silence of our collective calm, Spirit dwells. A beautiful ending to a full day’s work.

January 16, Sunday morning: After a breakfast of crème brulee French toast and  vegetarian sausage, fruit, and tea and coffee, we settled in the living room and Karen led us in a grounding meditation followed by Perla’s invitation for us to enter dreamspace and await the revelation and inspiration from our deep well of Memory. To some of us it was a time of cathartic release of long held grief, tears flowing to wash us clean. Venus said it best: all of your tears are making me really…joyful!  After journaling our dreams, we began to talk about how we might manifest some of these dreams through the work of CfBS.  Even as we are still keeping these plans under wraps, we are excited to birth them this year and into 2012.

In the afternoon, Virgil led us in an Ablon workshop teaching us some ways of relieving tension and stress in our bodies. As we tried the poses and Virgil corrected us, more raucous laughter ensued as we realized that some of the poses looked more like prostrations to a deity and it so happened that Virgil was standing in the middle of the circle. Laughter, of course, being therapeutic as well.

Sunday at sunset: We said goodbye to Gina and Mila who had to leave for LA. Then the rest of us went to Howarth Park’s Lake Ralphine to do our closing ritual. Lane was led by the ancestors to offer an atang/offering on a boat that would carry our food offering, our symbolic offerings of “letting go”. As Letecia led us in our final recalling and recapping activity, we were all facing the serene lake and watched and listened to the birds and ducks as we listened to each other’s voice. Lane then lowered the atang boat onto the water and as he did, a flock of Canada geese circled above from left to right – an auspicious sign that the ancestors have received our offering.  We walked back to our cars in silence and serenity. I am thankful for rituals that return us to this primordial sense of belonging to the Earth and to each other.

Greetings & blessings from the ancestors.(Photo by Karen Pennrich)
As Perla puts it: The weekend could not have ended any sweeter than when the geese passed us twice overhead in the air, spiraling over the Atang ritual, indicating that our ancestors were pleased with our questing to feel and release their pain, to connect with them and to help our Kapwa rediscover them also.

Sunday night: Our first post-retreat event: Intimate book launch with Lane and Virgil. We felt privileged to be the first book launch audience as this gave us a chance to know both of them not just as authors but as kindred spirits. Lots of laughter as we feted and blessed the books’ journey with cake and toasts.  

Post-retreat events: Om Shan Tea, Filipino Community Center of Sonoma County, BAyanihan Community Center/Arkipelago Books. The Grace Nono performance was cancelled due to an emergency situation.

Postscript: For over a week, I savored the presence of each of you in our home. A few days before everyone arrived, I had an epiphany (which I shared with you during the retreat) and during this week, this epiphany became more and more real and helped me appreciate Lane’s metaphor of being tattooed in your heart. It also made me realize that what we at CFBS can and will offer to our communities is the communal experience of our Filipino indigenous spirituality as it is made to bloom through our individual and collective processes of decolonization and indigenization. Over the weekend, we sharpened our intellect, we nourished our bodies with good food, we cherished and learned from our child-like spirit of play and creativity, we grieved together, we created rituals together, we danced, we honored and thanked each other. In doing all of these things, we were also palpably being guided by our ancestors.  It is as if all of our tacit knowing became explicit as we created together the container for its manifestation.

I am now out of words and will end with this:  PADAYON! Onward….