The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies - Howard G. Charing 2017
Healing And Sorcery in The Philippines and Peru
Even chance meetings are the result of karma. . . . Things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.
HARUKI MURAKAMI, KAFKA ON THE SHORE
My first visit to the Philippines was in 1998. I was intrigued by the phenomenon of psychic surgery, or bare-hand surgery, after meeting a Philippines healer the previous year in England. I could not have guessed that this would be the beginning of an enthralling adventure into the enigmatic and capricious world of the Philippines spirit healer.
The Philippines is an archipelago of seven thousand islands with a myriad of cultures; it boasts 120 recognized languages. The country still bears the stamp of the former colonial powers, Spain and later the United States, following the Spanish—American War in 1898. The American occupation led to English being a lingua franca (side by side with Tagalog).
The ancestral traditions and the strong folk culture of the Philippines have fostered a climate of tolerance and acceptance toward traditional healers, shamans, and psychic surgeons. This tolerance had been taken up by government ministers, presidents, and, interestingly, the powerful Catholic Church. A sympathetic feature article entitled “Priest Heals through Power of Touch,” featuring Father Fernando Saurez, was printed in the national newspaper.1 He came to national prominence in part because the husband of President Arroyo was healed by the priest in his celebrated “miraculous recovery.” Father Saurez’s healing work is all approved and praised by the church hierarchy.
Filipino traditions have maintained an awareness and faith in the existence of anitos, the nature spirits that reside between the natural and supernatural worlds. Although the Filipino people broadly regard themselves as rationalists, they more readily embrace the more intangible, enigmatic, and metaphysical magical reality.
The situation is comparable to Peru. Since the Spanish conquest and colonization five hundred years ago, the folk customs and spiritual practices have not been eradicated, despite the early Catholic missionaries holding the native practices in considerable contempt. As in the Philippines, there has been a syncretism of traditional lore and the Church. For instance, the Andean ofrenda ceremony (providing an offering to the nature spirits, or apu) is incorporated in the liturgy.
In the Philippines, there is the ambition to move into a modern “shopping mall” and “gated community” society. This is literally marketed as the “Philippines Dream,” but this dream is only relevant in the modern cities. The vast majority of people live in a more rural environment. There is also a vast gap in wealth between the urban middle class and those in the provincial rural areas. The people who live in the remote rural settlements and outer provinces maintain their language and ethnic traditions. There is often a considerable distance from modern medical facilities and little money to pay for modern medical treatment and medication. This means that there is still a lot of work for the traditional healers, such as the albularyos (shamans), herbolarios (herb doctors), and manghihilot (traditional bonesetters). I find it refreshingly interesting that the Philippines enjoys a mercurial mixture of folk traditions and indigenous shamanism side by side with the modern Western outlook.
The bare-hand surgeons, or psychic surgeons, of the Philippines are one of the most enduring enigmas of modern times. Much controversy has surrounded these so-called miracle healers. Their ability to open people’s bodies with their hands defies consensual reality. How can a human body open and close by touch? How can solid objects become permeable to allow a hand to move through them? It really does require an incredible leap of the imagination to entertain the idea that this phenomenon exists. It is a challenge to our sensibilities and to our thinking. I can understand that this is dismissed as weird and superstitious nonsense, and that the bare-hand healers are seen as charlatans skilled in sleight of hand.
The journey for me started on the opposite side of the world, in Peru, and I had no inkling of the peculiar circumstances that would propel me into the extraordinary world of sorcery and psychic surgery in the Philippines. In 1999, I was returning to Lima from the Amazon rainforest, where I had been working with ayahuasca. As I disembarked from the airplane, it felt as if I was hit by a bolt of lightning. The force of it was so strong that my knees buckled, the world spun around me, and the clamor of the airport became silent. I came close to fainting but managed to grip the rail of the stairs to prevent falling down on the tarmac.
I later flew back to England and returned to my house in Brighton, and there, day by day, my condition deteriorated. My left hand grew weak and numb, and it became difficult to do simple, everyday tasks, such as buttoning up my trousers. Paralysis gradually spread upward along my arm, and I became increasingly fatigued; it was difficult to walk up the hill to my house. I saw my doctor, but when I described my symptoms he just shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment. The situation continued to deteriorate, my left eye closed, and the left side of my mouth and tongue became numb. I had difficulty breathing. I did not know what to do, and I was at my wits’ end. Then, one night, I had a dream in which the Tibetan Lama appeared, and he very gently said, “Go to the Philippines. You will get help there.” I awoke, and without a shadow of doubt, I knew I would go.
I traveled to the Philippines with a friend and colleague, the holistic health practitioner Patrick Hamouy. There we visited the healer we had met in 1998, and although he gave encouraging words, it was clear that he could not help me. Later that evening, I met a man named John at the hotel where we were staying. He told me that he came to the Philippines every few years to see Brother Roger, a healer living in Baguio. John told me that he had been suffering from severe Parkinson’s disease. At times it was so bad that it was difficult to eat and drink because his arms would fling violently around and his head would uncontrollably jerk to and fro. However, for the past five years the problems had abated since he had been seeing the healer. I realized that this was the man I needed to see. The following morning, we took a bus that drove up through the scenic Cordillera mountain range to Baguio to meet the healer.
His “office” was a simple street-side café cum shop selling everything from shampoo sachets to the local boiled egg delicacy, which children buy in the dozens each week. The waiting room was the café itself, and his treatment room was a small curtained-off room at the back. We went into the treatment room, and he studied me carefully, and then he started to talk about Siquijor, an island in the Philippines archipelago. “This island has a fearsome reputation among ordinary Filipinos. This is the home to practitioners of sorcery and black magic.” He continued, “The Mangkukulam [sorcerers] are paid by people who hold grudges and animosities to make a kulam [curse or evil eye] to harm the other person.” I was thinking, “What is this about? Why is he telling me this?” I was soon to understand the reason. He said, “This is what has happened to you. A woman holds a deep resentment toward you, and she has paid a sorcerer to curse and destroy you.”
He started the healing right away, and he said that in five days’ time we would identify the perpetrator, referring to the originator of the curse rather than the sorcerer. This would allow the dark force to be released and sent back to its source. When he “operated” on me, his hand entered my body and removed an obnoxious mass of tissue from my wrist that had an uncanny resemblance to the tentacles of an octopus (figure 11.1). When I returned to the hotel, I enthusiastically told Patrick about the session, and from then on he joined me on the daily trips to Roger.
Over the next four days he continued to open my body and extract loathsome things from my arm and my neck along the left side of my body. Each time the effect was immediate: I felt stronger, energized, and more free. He instructed me to prepare for a ritual by compiling a list of all the women I had met in the past twelve months.
I finally managed to compile the list of names, sixty-five in total. On Friday, when we arrived at his café, he told me to buy an egg. I returned a few minutes later carefully holding the egg I had just bought for three pesos from a local store. In his treatment room, he had set up an altar on a large metal tray. On the altar stood an empty wine bottle, a bowl, plugs of local tobacco, and leaves of bacchia (Dieffenbachia sp.). He asked me to tear the list into individual strips, with each strip holding a single name, fold them, and place them into the bottle. While I was carrying out this task, he left the room. He returned a few minutes later, went to the altar, and murmured his prayers and blessings. He then told me to take the egg and hold it above the neck of the bottle. He whispered an incantation and then lifted a bottle of gin, saying, “That was the only bottle of spirits that I have.” Then he poured the gin over my hand that was holding the egg. As soon as that was done, he indicated that I should break the egg open into the bowl and look for the folded strip of paper. I used a toothpick to poke around, and then to my astonishment I saw a folded piece of paper inside the yolk.
Figure 11.1. Mass of tissue removed from my arm (Photo by Patrick Hamouy)
I carefully teased the yolky paper strip open with the toothpick, and in my own handwriting was the name of a woman with whom I had had an affair in Peru. Something had worried me about her and made me uncomfortable. She had also become extremely possessive, and I had to end the relationship. When I met her to tell her this, she replied, “If I can’t have you, then no one will.” She said this in such an intense way that I shivered, and I immediately got up and left, greatly relieved to be out of the relationship—or so I had thought at the time.
I realized that this could have been a perfect murder and speculated about the number of people who have become victims and inexplicably died due to this malevolent type of sorcery. My assumption that rational Westerners who do not believe in the power of the dark arts would not get entangled in sorcery was obviously naive. The introspection and musing over, I felt like a new man and expressed my gratitude for his help. He said, “Do not thank me; thank the Holy Spirit. I am just a tool like a hammer, and it is the spirit who does all the healing.”
Some final thoughts on this episode: I had no idea what the consequences would be for the woman who instigated this. In the ritual, as Brother Roger explained, the dark force would be returned to its source. A few years later, I was in Peru drinking a beer on a terrace, and I saw some distance away a woman walking in my direction. It was the peculiar way she was walking that grabbed my attention; her head was bowed down, and she was shielding the left side of her face with her arm. When she was opposite to me, I got a clearer view, and I saw that it was the woman from my past. I was shocked to see that the left side of her face was disfigured and covered in dark red blotches, and even in the tropical heat I shivered. I pondered a while on karma and on the ancient platitudes about not doing to others what you do not want done to yourself, and the message was clear: beware of messing with dark energy because it can come back to bite your ass.
There is interesting connection regarding the patterned leaves of Dieffenbachia that Brother Roger placed on the altar. In Peru this plant is known colloquially as patiquina and is used for protection against sorcery. If a shaman chants the ícaro of the plant, it then functions like a shield against hechiceria, a particularly malevolent form of sorcery that can kill a person. Pablo Amaringo in his paintings features patiquina in this context. The leaves of this plant are commonly used in floral baths to protect against sorcery.
My friend Patrick had followed a strict macrobiotic and vegetarian food regime for many years, yet still he was plagued by intestinal pains (from his earlier eating habits). His initial session with Brother Roger was incredible. I was standing close by as he made an opening in Patrick’s abdomen, and inside I could see a tube. It was his descending colon, neatly sliced open, and from the lower open end he pulled out what appeared to be a twelve-inch-long piece of mummified turd; as I glanced back at the opening, it closed just like a camera shutter. A half hour later, as we were eating lunch, Patrick said that he had considered a conventional operation to remove the obstruction, but it would have required that the colon be stapled together, along with a three-month diet of liquid food, followed by another three months of baby food, and a further six months before eating what he wanted. Yet here we were half an hour later eating lunch.
I visited Brother Roger frequently over the next few years and organized groups to visit other Filipino healers and shamans. I asked him if there were any other healers in his family. He said “No,” and added, “In many generations I am the only one with this gift.” I asked him how he discovered this gift. He replied,
As a young child I was often told that I would be “special” because I was a breech delivery, but I never knew or was told exactly what this special attribute was. I discovered the ability when I was thirteen when a neighboring boy the same age as me had swallowed a fishbone and became very ill. His neck became swollen and infected. He was unable to eat, and after two weeks his condition was getting very serious. Another neighbor brought me to the boy and asked me to heal him. I did not know what to do, so I just gently massaged the boy’s neck, when suddenly my fingers moved inside the boy’s throat. I was so shocked that I pulled away, and I found that I was holding the fishbone in my hand. I was so frightened, I thought I had killed the boy, so I run away and hid in the forest for three weeks.
Later a friend found me and said that the boy was well and had recovered. I returned to my village, but I was no longer welcome because people thought I was a sorcerer and was “touched by the devil.” I had been expelled from school, and even my parents had turned their backs on me. So I had to leave home and travel. It was a lonely and difficult period in my life because I was denounced when people found out who I was, so I had to keep moving.
He then lifted his shirt and showed me the whip scars on his back. “I was hounded and whipped with vines, which had thorns attached.” He indicated a vase in his room in which he still kept the very same vines as a reminder of those times.
I survived by grafting, selling cigarettes, cleaning shoes, and sleeping rough, living as an outcast. Eventually I earned enough money to enroll in school, and I could then get a job. I lost everything in the 1990 earthquake that devastated the city [Baguio], and so I moved to Manila, where I found work and started to rebuild my life. About seven years ago I returned to Baguio, opened the bodega, and started healing again.
I began to assist him in his practice, and he showed me how to work with the healing spirit. He said that the spirit would protect both the patient and me from any infection. He then demonstrated how it worked; grasping my hand he brought his hand above mine with his fingers extended above mine by a few inches (figure 11.2).
See, it is as if my hand is the spirit hand. The spirit hand moves first by making the opening, and my hand follows. The spirit hand takes the diseased tissue and places it in my hand, and as I withdraw my hand, the spirit hand also withdraws. As this happens, the opening in the body closes. You see, I told you that I am just the instrument, and the spirit does all the healing.
To see a person’s body opening was one thing, but to actually place my hand in the person’s body was an entirely different experience, evoking enormous anxiety. As I placed my fingers inside a man’s groin, Roger asked me if I could feel the lumpy tissue. I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Pull it out.” I withdrew my hand and was looking at a piece of dead tissue, which had come from his patient’s prostate gland. The man had felt no pain or discomfort, and the opening in the groin had sealed. There were no markings or scars to indicate that a few moments previously it had been open.
Figure 11.2. Demonstrating how the spirit hand connects with the physical hand (Photo by Patrick Hamouy)
Figure 11.3. Removing a tumor inside the head (Photo by author)
He also showed me how to remove cataracts. To do this, I gently rubbed my finger over the person’s eye for a few seconds (figure 11.4). I never came into direct contact with the eye itself because a soft substance rested between my finger and the eye, which was the healing spirit. The cataract was pushed to the edge, and then using a cotton swab I lifted it out and spread the membrane on a glass to show the patient (see color plate 11).
Belief in the existence of incorporeal beings is predominant in religions, folk stories, and shamanism, but it is still surprising when you directly encounter these beings in our material world. When we went to see the healer, we would first chat and drink tea, and then he would abruptly stand up, go to the treatment room, and begin. One day our initial tea drinking was taking longer than usual, and I asked him why we were waiting so long. He said, “The spirit has not arrived yet. I get a nudge from the spirit when he is here.” At that moment, I was pushed in my shoulder, lifted into the air, and lowered back into the chair. I turned and looked behind, but it was empty and no one was there. He gave a great big smile and said, “Time to start.”
Figure 11.4. Removing cataracts from an eye (Photo by Patrick Hamouy)
One time while working, an enormously bulky man came for healing. The man’s belly entered the room and led the way for the rest the body. The man said that he was unable to lose weight. He had tried dozens of diets, but he could never lose the bulk around his stomach. I stood by as Brother Roger opened him and began to extract thick masses of fat. The room smelled just like a butcher shop. This fat had lodged in the man’s intestinal system, so it was understandable that no amount of dieting would have shifted it. During the operation, he placed the masses of fat into a plastic bucket, and after the man had left, by the way looking totally different, I lifted the bucket, and I estimated it weighed about eight to ten pounds. Astonishing!
Some of the conclusions I have drawn from observation and participation in Brother Roger’s work have had a profound effect on my worldview. My first realization was that many of the debilitating diseases and the general decline in physical health that we associate with old age are not inevitable. They are the cumulative effects of decades of eating the wrong food, typically too much animal fat and red meat, with not enough fiber. Also, unresolved emotional issues that “eat away” at us eventually affect our physical body and make it difficult for people to emotionally compensate for physical pains and discomfort.
Working with Roger, I started to understand that tumors are not just lifeless masses of tissue. They possess a primal survival instinct, a natural drive of some kind. They are parasites and unable to exist outside the host. Tumors form in locations in the human organism where they are the most difficult to detect. From there they increasingly absorb nutrients from the body. Once they are sufficiently developed, they start to spread through the body and become detectable. These intelligent organisms, primed for “survival,” are aware when they are disturbed or detected through an intrusive method such as a biopsy, and they respond to this by accelerating their growth and expansion by invading other parts of the body. This migration throughout the body is called metastasis. Many anecdotal narratives describe how tumors proliferate shortly after a biopsy. A tumor perfectly fits the shamanic definition regarding the cause of illness: an external intrusive form of energy enters the human energy template and creates a dissonance in the bioenergy pattern, which manifests in physical matter as an illness.
Perhaps we could regard tumors in a different way than the viewpoint of conventional medicine. We might adopt a perspective that they are not inanimate forms, but are animate with distinct energy fields, and at that level they can be extracted or neutralized.
How do you rationally explain bare-hand surgery and the direct intervention of spirits? The nature of reality is a mystery. Quantum physicists are at a loss to explain phenomena that have been verified experimentally, such as quantum entanglement. Quantum entanglement describes the changed state of a particle that is instantaneously transmitted to a paired particle, which could be billions of light years distant. Einstein had huge trouble in accepting this and famously called it “spooky action at a distance.”
This is a counterintuitive reality. Objective reality becomes in essence a flawed concept, and consciousness is an instrument in the creation of reality. Keeping this notion in mind, if we look at the basic purpose of a ritual, ceremony, or prayer, it is really to effect a change or influence the unfolding of reality. The desired change is usually to improve the circumstances for a person or group, typically healing or drawing in fortunate influences. When we pray, are we indeed invoking the power of a disincarnate supernatural force? Or are we applying the power of our consciousness to influence the transient probability waves that generate reality in time and space? From this perspective, the actions of healers and shamans are totally rational.
However, this doesn’t mean that shamanism and psychic surgery can be explained in terms of modern physics. Psychic surgeons and shamans can effect change in local reality (e.g., their clients) through what is called “spiritual” power operating at the quantum level.
The process of psychic surgery is explained by a former professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Dortmund, Dr. Alfred Stelter. He defines the process of painless, bare-handed operation thus:
The healers form strong etheric force or energy in their hands through intense concentration. This energy penetrates matter at the cellular or even sub-atomic levels where matter and energy are interchangeable. After the accumulation of etheric forces, the magnetic cohesive energy (force that holds the cells of the bodies together) is separated through unpolarization. And then after the operation, the cells go back to their former appearance.2
Our inability to rationally understand, define, or explain bare-hand surgery is not relevant. As the sages and wise ones say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and in the years that I have been working and researching in the Philippines, I have come to understand it in that manner. The psychic surgeons and shamans certainly do not see their work in measurable scientific terms. Striving for rational explanations prevents us from entering this mysterious world.