Sunday, January 30, 2011

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


Virgil Mayor Apostol, Way of the Ancient Healer
NORTH ATLANTIC BOOKS, 2010

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.

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[1] http://www.wisn.org/research.html
[2] http://www.sonic.net/~jkremer/Ethnoautobiography.PDF
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cosmic_Serpent
[4] See Fr. Albert Alejo’s book, Creating Energies on Mt. Apo, Ateneo University Press
[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nhqzxHVQm4

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