Misyun! on-line

November 1999 issue  /  Volume 1 Number 1

What healing means


Healing is a word one often hears nowadays.

From a complex of esoteric remedies (herbs, crystals, pyramids, dowsing rods, water, massages) to charisms of faith, from the healing of bodily ailments to the healing of souls, from the healing of individual brokenness to the healing of nations, and the world - it all seems, at times, as though we have just stepped into a veritable supermarket of secrets, formulae, sciences.

The plurality of "ways" of healing is no surprise. Healing, after all, is essentially a matter of divination (diagnosis, if you will) and involves a skill that is not as straightforward as it may seem. Since a person is not a mere bundle of bone, blood, and tissue, but a complex of emotions, ideas, imagination, and will - the vessel of a "soul," if you will - divining what ails the human person is not only a matter of "science" but of art and faith as well.

If there are many ways of healing it is because we are not always looking for the same things; or, finding them, know them in the same way; or, knowing them, choose exactly the same means for responding to what it is we have found.

It is useful to fall back, in the fact of such perplexity, on native conceptions of health, disease, and healing. From such conceptions, we can then move forward, whether to higher perplexities or the simplicities that suffice.

Folk beliefs (Filipino or otherwise) form a veritable forest of ideas, practices, and symbols. Yet, there is as well, to all that surface diversity, a deep structure that is (if we can find it) quite simple.

In Malay and Filipino belief, "health" is ultimately a matter of having a well-defined, well-bounded "soul." It is firmness and wholeness of soul (for, even in English, "healing" is etymologically the act of "making whole," and to be sick is to be "infirm"). Health is definition and boundedness. For the Malay, for whom concentration and centeredness are a condition of power, weakness, sickness, and death are caused by the decrease and decentering of soul.

Such is the diversity of languages, cultures, and religions, that the soul is named and understood in many ways. "Mana, semangat, nyawa, kaluluwa, and kalag are just some of the words used in the Malay world. Across such differences, however, we gravitate around certain key notions. We conceived of the soul as the vital force (elan vital), energy for "life-breath" that animates the flesh and gives to a life a particular form and shape. We recognize as well that while it is contained in a mortal, finite body, it tends towards something (an origin, an end, an endlessness) beyond it. For how else does one explain the soul's restlessness? How else explain sickness and death?

In this light, we begin to understand what healing means. In folk medical belief, various ailments (physiological, mental, spiritual) are explained in terms of the condition of the soul. In the child, a soul as yet insecurely lodged is what makes the child vulnerable to what ails or is ill. In sleep, a person's soul can wander, and so we wake him up gently to allow the soul time to slip back into place. Or else, the person is seized by a condition called "soul fright." A weak soul can be invaded, dominated, by another soul and thus - never finding its way to being a whole and bounded self - is hounded by an essential listlessness and unwholeness. The soul can be tempted out of the body, or its vitality diminished, when we are tired, heedless, or distracted. Such is our capacity to be mindless or perverse that the soul is always slipping away from us.

The Visayan words for healing, bulong or alim, take on meaning in this context. Bulong, "to heal," essentially means "to find." It refers to the act of divination or discernment, the reading of symptoms or signs, the determining of the cause or deed (a confessing of "sin") that has brought on a particular infirmity or imbalance. In the spirit-filled native world, this translates into the identifying of those forces or "spirits" which have invaded the body, or enticed the self away, resulting in a slippage, flight, or momentary loss of soul.

Alim, "to heal," suggests the act of ministering or nurturing (alima). It has a more encompassing sense than the more commonly-used tambal (which refers to the more practical procedures of applying remedies or medicines). It evokes soul-nurture, the repairing or restoring of lost balance, a recentering, a making "whole."

In folk healing, sickness implicates not just a single body or a particular person. Ang sakit ng kalingkingan ay sakit ng buong katawan (a Tagalog proverb with parallels in Visayan and other local languages) speaks not only of an anatomical body but of a natural, social, and cosmic body as well. An imbalance in any of the body parts is an imbalance in the whole. It is for this reason that native curing rituals are characterized by chants and prayers, communicative acts, a "speaking" not only to what lies within us but to what is out there in the world. The soul that has strayed is petitioned to leave or return. "Negotiating" with spirits, an anger is appeased, a sin redressed, a threat subdued, boundaries redrawn, a lost balance restored.

(It illustrates how we are dealing with a common complex of ideas to note that, in Tagalog, bulong also means "to whisper or speak," or that in Manobo, to cure is uli, meaning "to return" or "return to one's origin.")

All this is not arcane knowledge. Whether it is magic, art, religion, or science, we are thrust into a common search for wellness and wholeness, even as it is a search constantly undermined, and even as it urges us on to what almost always lies beyond the reach of individual command and understanding.

Such drama is played out not only in the life of the individual but in that of the community. When we speak of the lack of "political will," or a moral listlessness in the heart of the nation, are we not, after all, speaking of a loss or distraction of collective "soul"? One should remember that our word for "community," katilingban, literally means that which is "put together, endowed, filled or made whole."

Such pattern of desire is encoded into our body. We speak of health in terms of what is "good" and "true" (maayo), and we speak of its opposite in terms of difference (lain). I suppose it is encoded into the soul as well. Naglain ang akong ginhawa does not only carry the literal meaning of "breathing differently" but the sense that "my soul is not what it should be," for the Visayan ginhawa is the Malay nyawa, the "life-breath," the soul.

Was it Kierkegaard who defined sin as the act of being untrue to oneself? But who is to say when or how we are true? It presupposes that we have, encoded into our body and soul, a sense of symmetries lost, violated, or not quite fulfilled - or, if you wish to speak in terms more religious, a sense of primal sin and final salvation, the traces of a fugitive God.

Healing - the "finding" and "nurturing" of the soul - is an act both personal and social. It is what we do for ourselves and for others. We do not always see our way clear through what this involves or requires. There is, to the soul, an essential alienness that refuses our often puny efforts to domesticate it. Yet, a life must find bright solace in its efforts in (to use the expression in a sense beyond the usual) "keeping body and soul together." It is thus that a life is blessed.

In a study of South American shamanism, the anthropologist Michael Taussig describes the process of healing in terms we can recognize. In the act of healing, he says, the healer becomes the patient, and vice versa, enters the space of death, and reclaims and returns with the soul that has strayed or is lost. The journey taken is what we (for we are healers and patients all) are called upon to enact - to reweave the creative forces in our personality and experience into a force that bestows life upon ourselves and upon others through that bestowal.

The cure is to become a curer. It is in becoming a healer that we are healed.*

(Mojares, publisher of the now defunct The Independent Post, is a noted scholar and author of several books. He is consultant to Misyun! on history, literature and the academe.)

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