Holy Tunganga: Meditations on Becoming an Ancestor
Note: I started writing this essay before The Firestorm that visited Sonoma and Napa Counties on October 8, 2017. It is the most devastating catastrophe in California history. We are all still in shock and will feel post-traumatic stress for a long time. We all know people who have lost their homes. We will be telling stories for a long time about how we were roused from sleep that night and fled without knowing where to go. After two weeks of mandatory evacuation, we are home again. But nothing will be the same again.
Fire came and ate until she was satisfied. Rain came to quench the Fire’s thirst. Humans ask: Why?
The summer of my Holy Tunganga in 2017: Do Nothing. Do not travel. Do not plan conferences. Do not write and publish. Do not organize. Do not do research. Do go for long walks. Do take up pilates, qi gong, and cardio toning. Do not talk too much. Be alone. Just BE and see how that feels. How different it is from Doing. See how the rhythm of your life changes. Feel your skin. Feel your breath. Feel your heartbeat. Play the piano. Weed the garden. Bring in the herbs and vegetables. Cook. Cook some more. Lie on the ground and stare at the sky. Watch the clouds. Listen to the birds. Listen to the rustle of leaves. Listen to the flapping of wings. Listen to the crickets.
Three years ago, I filed my retirement papers at the small public university where I have taught American Multicultural Studies for over twenty years. The faculty early retirement program allows us to teach half-time for five years but I’ve decided I would quit on the third year of the program.
Three years ago, I started visualizing life-after-academe but nothing particularly revelatory came of it. I know that I will continue to obey the bidding of my Ancestors as I have done for over two decades; that I will continue to deepen my spiritual practice that is rooted in my Filipino indigenous spirituality — a path that began almost as soon I uprooted myself from the Philippines in 1983. I needed to be uprooted in order to find Home.
My life’s journey has never followed a map. I have failed every criteria for “normal” in comparing myself to my childhood peers who went on to live “normal” lives: graduate from high school, finish college, establish career, get married, have smart and cute children, become successful in corporate careers, travel abroad, build or buy a nice house. Upload photos of wonderful life on Instagram and Facebook. Not me.
I wrote about my view of retirement here: https://medium.com/@lenystrobel/leaving-academe-2-b508db49832a.
I am an introvert who doesn’t mind getting lost in daydream and reverie. Introspection is what allowed me, throughout my personal and academic life, to carve out a space for meditations about meaning and purpose and share them with readers. Key words: decolonize, re-indigenize, Kapwa/the Self is in the Other, Babaylan/healer, Loob/inner core of Self, indigenous. I am grateful for being a part of a bigger community of folks enthused about the work of re-membering and suturing the forgotten fragments of Filipino indigenous cultural material that colonial history has not managed to fully silence and vanish.
As a consequence of our colonial subjugation, this work of decolonizing ourselves is messy and full of potholes. Boxed in and blindsided by the received knowledge of our colonial (mis)education, we find ourselves arguing and disagreeing, then disconnecting from each other and our communities. In the U.S. we are called “silent majority”, “a sleeping giant”…and we also always wonder if Filipino Americans are also “model minority” even though this myth is already largely debunked. Without a beautiful Story of our own, we rely on the old tropes of binary and hierarchical thinking within the culture of capitalism — a globalized economic system that is beginning to collapse under its own weight as it exceeds the carrying capacity of a finite Earth.
It is in this rubble that I find that there are still gems hiding in the shadows of our history of displacement and uprooting.
When we organized the Center for Babaylan Studies (CfBS) in 2009 we explicitly maintained that this is a babaylan-inspired endeavor of study, research, and community building. It began as an imperative to learn about the historical babaylans (the shamans/medicine men and women) and it expanded to include other discourses within Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP). At our early conferences and symposia, we focused on Filipino Indigenous Psychology (or Kapwa Psychology) and Indigenous Spirituality and how these frameworks could take us out of the old colonial frameworks. We focused on indigenous communities in the homeland and their cultural practices that still survive (albeit under duress) and what they can teach us.
We wanted to recuperate the ancient Babaylan tradition that is still alive and well today even though still relatively unknown to many of us in the diaspora and even in the homeland. The Babaylan listserve started by Perla Daly in the in early 2000 served as a catalyst for the desire to call together folks who are interested to learn about the historical Babaylans — their history of ‘disappearance’ as the Spanish went on an extermination campaign in the first 100 years of colonization. We learned about the transformation of the babaylan into beatas within the Catholic church; we learned about the babaylans who led revolts during the colonial era. Then we learned about the Philippine feminist movement’s appropriation of the babaylan as a figure of power and courage and how it inspires culture-bearers and artists today. Katrin de Guia profiled many of these culture bearers in her book, Kapwa: The Self in the Other. Grace Nono, who has spent twenty years being with chanters and oralists, also chronicles babaylan stories in her books, The Shared Voice, and The Song of the Babaylan.
In 2005, A Book of Her Own:Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan, a creative non-fiction book of my personal meditations on decolonization, was published. It was followed in 2010 by a collection of stories and narratives of decolonization in Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous. In 2013, my sister, Lily Mendoza, and I published another collection of scholarly research and personal narratives in Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory.
My small public presence in this space renders me grateful for the hearts and ears that were open to receive my meditations, visions, and my personal stories of decolonization and re-indigenization as they became public. CfBS also created a container for the scholarship, research, teaching, and organizing that also now include the increasing number of scholars and culture-bearers that are on this path. For me, it’s all about the Love for a Homeland that I thought I have lost (and now realize that I didn’t really). All for the Love of my Filipina self that I thought was too fragmented to be put together again (and now realize that I have always been Whole). All for the Love of my Kapwa that I thought would forever be lost (I am not) in the fog of colonial history.
I witness the resurgence of culture-bearing movements in the diaspora. In my part of the world — the Bay Area in Northern California — artists, healers, cultural creatives, social entrepreneurs are creating festivals, night markets, workshops, street art, and on-site performances, blogs, and other events that are marked by a pride in our Filipino indigenous arts and practices. They are also re-creating and discovering new forms and finding new ways of sharing with a community that, heretofore, has not really paid much attention to the beauty of Filipino indigenous cultures. Today there are weavers (Kalingafornia led by Jenny Bawer Young), canoe-makers (Bangka Journey led by Mylene Cahambing and Alexis Canillo), Baybayin entrepreneurs (Kristian Kabuay, Ray Haguisan, Norman de los Santos), tribal tattoo/batok artists (Lane Wilcken), herbalists (Abi Huff, Holly Calica), dancers and choreographers that highlight Philippine myths and stories (Kularts/Alleluia Panis, Likha, Parangal), musicians reviving Harana (Florante Aguilar, Fides Enriquez), and so many more.
Many of these folks try to understand and embody indigenous values; their personal understanding of Filipino indigenous spirituality and cultural resilience is what informs their creative expressions. I am thinking of Sammay Dizon and her UrbanXIndigenous team of young Filipino Americans who raise questions like: what does it mean to be urban and indigenous? what does it mean to be a Filipino in the diaspora and a settler on Turtle Island? what does it mean to heal communities of color and their colonial trauma and historical amnesia? I am thinking of young chef/educators Aileen Suzara, Lawrence Festin, Mikey Herrera, Allen Byron, Deodor Tronco, Nico Dacumos, and their crew who advocate for food justice in food deserts in the Bay Area. These young educators teach in schools where there are many low-income students of color who may not have access to healthy food. They are informed by the importance of decolonizing foodways to enliven communities through holistic well-being. I am thinking of Joana Cruz, “womb manager” of Audiopharmacy, a group of avant-garde artists and musicians who create music while building community and advocating for decolonized and indigenous values.
In other parts of Turtle Island and Canada, there are small communities of young Filipino Canadians and Filipino Americans who are not deterred by lack of numbers and visibility in their communities. They create out of inspiration and knowledge gathered from their repeated sojourns and relationship-building with indigenous communities in the homeland. KAPWA Kolective, Datu, and Hataw in Toronto; Kathara Society in Vancouver; Jana Lynn Umipig in New York; Nicanor Evangelista, Diyan Valencia and Marybelle Bustos in Los Angeles; Mamerto Tindongan in Ohio; Perla Daly and her Babaylan mandala in Texas, and Grace Caligtan and her group of Urban Babaylans in Hawaii. You can google all these names and check out their projects.
This indigenous cultural revival in the liminal spaces of a global capitalist culture is akin to a warning system of what is at stake. The continuing subjugation and manipulation of our desires and dreams in the homeland and in the diaspora continue to this day under the regime of white supremacy, patriarchy, and a capitalist system that, in the long run, cannot be sustainable. As I became aware of the unsustainability of the current economic system that is based on “unlimited growth” and the global exploitation and extraction of limited/finite resources of the Earth, I also slowly became aware of how I had bought into this system, and participated in it (with a measure of “success”). My disillusionment has been slow and it came in through the backdoor of my awareness.
I first learned this perspective intellectually after reading many books and online sources on global capitalism, on environmental impacts of overdevelopment and impacts on people in the Global South, third world poverty and hunger, and indigenous resistance around the world. I’ve also been reading and listening to the many voices that represent communities and movements that are building resilient futures and waging a resistance against the modern/development paradigm. There is the Slow Food Movement, Transition Communities, Bioneers, Biomimicry, Another World is Possible, World Social Forum, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Movements, YES Magazine, and so many more social media-activated groups.
At the heart of these movements is the resurgence and re-emergence of Native Communities/Aboriginal Communities/First Nations within the “First World” with their calls for a movement that is inclusive, that respects the rights of the Earth, that listens to the Land and the Ancestors and their Original Instructions for guidance. What happened and is still happening at Standing Rock is the hallmark of a new form of activism that touches on key elements such as the role of elders, of prayer, of social media, of global support, of women leaders, of veterans asking for forgiveness for the history of genocide — all of these constitute an integral/wholistic understanding of the interconnection of All. It is all Sacred.
Traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous science, Original Instructions — all these are increasingly taking up space now in the public discussion of alternative and resilient futures. Scientists are more willing to dialogue with indigenous experts in looking for climate change solutions, for example. Whether it’s Noemi Klein, Bill McKibben, Al Gore, or Michael Pollan, there is a growing consensus that the global capitalist system is going to be our undoing as an invasive species on the planet. But Joanna Macy, a Buddhist elder, reminds us that in this sixth extinction phase we are facing, we can create Beauty as we disappear. I, too, intend to disappear and disintegrate elegantly.
The Firestorm brought us to our knees. It humbles me. It is heartening that more and more people are becoming cognizant of climate change impacts because of this catastrophe. How shall we rebuild our communities? What needs to change? How do we change?
How do I change? How have I changed? This is not a new question for me; in fact, it has always been part of my process as I tune in to the call of my Indigenous Soul on a daily basis. My previous writings and publications focused on the process of decolonization for post-1965 Filipino Americans and subsequently, the question what do you do after you decolonize? pointed in the direction of learning about indigenous perspectives. Is it possible to become indigenous again?
Most of my more recent writings on medium.com are about Dwelling in Place. I’ve also done a three-part interview on Revolutionary Wellness Talk Radio on this theme.
At my age, I now have the the benefit of hindsight tended to by Big and Small stories that I have lived by. As I see babies and their young parents, I often wonder what kind of Earth they are inheriting and how they will adapt to it. What new stories will need to be told? Will the homeland (and its gifts of Roots) continue to provide a grounding point of reference if identity politics eventually diminish in importance for generations of Filipino Americans who are twice or thrice removed?
These questions are coming up for me now because I have lived over half my life on Turtle Island and I have made a conscious decision to root myself in Sonoma County because this is where my body is. The two decades of decolonizing led me to this angle of repose. It doesn’t mean I have turned my back on the homeland; it means that the homeland is in me now. All the gifts that indigenous friends and communities have shared with me, I have embodied: to know what it means to be of a Place (like Jenita Eko’s T’boli village); to know what it means to have Nature as Sacred Text (per Datu Vic, Talaandig chief and babaylan Reyna Yolanda); and to know what it means to be connected to the Ancestors. I bring all of these Original Instructions with me where I am a settler who is learning to build a new relationship with the human and non-human Beings of Pomo and Coast Miwok land.
This desire to be claimed by Place requires a slowing down so that I may learn the names of the trees, plants, hills, creeks, insects and other beings in my neighborhood; or to sit down by the creek and introduce myself so she would know me; or to praise the tall redwood tree and the crows that make their nest in her. In this slowing down, it has become necessary to say “No” to projects in need of Doing. It’s been a struggle letting go of all the projects, conferences, and events that I used to do. It’s been a struggle letting go of the reins of CfBS and entrust it to younger folks who will carry its vision into the future.
Once, a friend gave me a poster that said: What kind of Ancestor are you going to be? I had this on my wall years ago — like a beacon pointing in the direction of where I needed to move towards. That pointing led me to Poetry, to Taoism, Buddhist teachings, and teachings of Vedanta, to indigenous literature, to the practice of meditative qi gong. In my limited access to a body of an expanded codified knowledge about Filipino indigenous knowledge systems and practices, I found resonances in these ancient traditions of Asian animistic cultures; after all Hindu and Buddhist and Islamic influences can be found in the homeland just below the sheen of western and Catholic influences. My body knows these ancient healing practices. Sometimes a story, a flash of insight, a remembered fragment, the floating scent of fragrant ylang ylang oil washes over me and releases all the toxic dramas of a restless mind. This is how I am learning now about embodied practices — a belated realization from the trauma of an educational system that privileged the mind over body and spirit.
The discourse of Sikolohiyang Pilipino/Filipino Indigenous Psychology or Kapwa Psychology was a gift that affirmed the tacit knowing I have always known in my bones. My immersion in a Protestant upbringing and Americanized colonial education didn’t totally erase what the bones know and what the heart knows. In other words, the values of Kapwa/Self in the Other, Loob/inner core of Self, Dangal/integrity, Pakikiramdam/deep empathy were, to me, a scaffolding that supported the psychic and epistemic work of unlearning colonial mentality. These concepts took the form of Spivak’s strategic essentialism that was medicine for a wounded psyche and heart at that time. This strategy also provided necessary grounding in a narrative that centers Filipino indigenous and cultural values and practices.
These days the daily practice of ritual making, of a growing awareness that the Earth literally cradles me or that energy or Qi can be cultivated and harnessed to nourish our lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, spleen — is medicine. In the Taoist healing system, the lungs carry our grief; the heart carries our agitation; the kidneys carry our fear; the liver carries our anger; the spleen carries our worry. The practice of meditative qi gong nourishes the organs so that all these emotions are transmuted into equanimity, tranquility, courage, kindness, and trust, respectively. This alchemy of body and spirit which has been known to my ancestors gives me a sense of well-being and peace. In turn, this fuels my practice of culture-bearing in the diaspora.
And then there is Silence and Solitude as worthy companions on this journey. Be careful of what you criticize; it is calling out to you. There was a time when I silently mocked tree huggers — too hippie, new agey, too white. I should have known then that my resistance is also the invitation to move closer to my truth that was hiding behind my rational modern mind. Giving in to my resistance and allowing signs from a secondary reality, I now take time to hug a tree and feel the aliveness of a non-human kin. Take in the sky, fog, rain. On an early autumn morning this is the only prayer I need. How blessed.
Meantime, back in the homeland and Duterte’s war on drugs, I was asked by the indigenous filmmaker, Aureaus Solito: Where are the voices of the Babaylans today? What has happened to our sense of Kapwa? What do these extra judicial killings tell us about ourselves? I didn’t have an answer. I wanted to offer a beneath-the-surface kind of analysis and argue for the adamantine sense of Kapwa that still undergirds the culture but I couldn’t articulate this. I felt I didn’t have an accurate sense of what was happening in the homeland since the election of this president; relying on Facebook feeds alone didn’t feel right to me. I also haven’t been home for almost five years and my attention since has shifted to more local, place-based events and concerns.
In fact, lately I’ve been meditating on this sense of distance from the homeland. I feel a kinship with second and third generation Filipino Americans who have never been to the Philippines, whose attachment to a homeland is tenuous and nostalgic at best. I watch some of them trekking back to the Philippines for two to three weeks hoping to get a taste of what it feels like to be “home” — they hike up Lubuagan to get tattooed by Apu Whang Od, they go to Bahay Kalipay in Palawan, dip their toes in Boracay. And they do come away with that feeling of belonging, a bone-deep knowing beyond words. How this translates to culture-bearing engagements in the diaspora, I surmise, is what is palpable in the cultures of the diaspora but it is also subjected to criticism of cultural appropriation by gatekeepers in and out of academe. Gatekeepers keep the borders closed; as if they can contain or tame what is beyond taming.
Gatekeeping: the dying remnant of a modernity based on binaries and hierarchies. This has shown up in my life as a long search for Certainty in making sure that I always end up on the “right” side of every moral dilemma. In hindsight, this insistence on being right simply creates shadow material that would later on erupt to destabilize all the certainties I have tried to cling to.
In My Country by Mia Alvar posed this challenge of gatekeeping for me. In reading her stories about the lives of Filipinos in the diaspora, I could no longer apply identity theories or conceptual frameworks that have served me as a scholar writing about the cultural identity of Filipinos in the U.S.. These lives are too wild to be tamed by theories of identity and cultural formation. Our stories of displacement are also stories of love affairs, of dreams pursued, of unrequited desires, of finding home and belonging outside of the homeland. Even the idea that we are the “servants of globalization” was no longer resonating with me like it used to. I was taken in by this Wildness and it surprised me that I love the feel of it. I love the uncertainty of not being able to put the stories in a box and label them. I think there is something about our Filipino stories in the diaspora — the largeness of spirit that enlivens us in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of a disenchanted world — that hasn’t been theorized yet. And maybe it can’t be. Maybe it just needs and wants to be sang, painted, and danced. Maybe it just needs to be cooked and eaten kamayan style. And this we do.
Nora Bateson, in Small Arcs of Larger Circles, writes about the dangers and consequences of the “mental mono-cropping” born of the tradition of academic disciplines and their boundaries. The ecology of the mind is complex and disciplinary expertise alone cannot hold this complexity entirely. In fact, perhaps no academic discourse can.
So as we get unmoored from our tenacious clinging to absolutes and certainties, what can we turn to then for a sense of purpose, home, and belonging? If I want to leave behind a legacy to my descendants that will last for seven generations, what would that be? What does a good Ancestor look like?
The answer depends on the world view one lives by. If you believe that the Earth is god’s gift to humanity and therefore, was meant to be exploited and extracted to sustain a modern lifestyle, then you will have a different relationship with the Earth than someone for whom the Earth is alive and breathing. And if God is viewed as a transcendent but not an immanent figure in Creation — this, too, will shape your thoughts and actions. In the modern era, we see which world view has been translated and manifested into concepts of domination, competition, individualism, freedom, rights, democracy, development, and progress.
We are now seeing the consequences of this world view as we deal with climate refugees, droughts, hunger, war, and different forms of violence. We are traumatized and we are offered drugs and reality television to numb our feelings, to hide our confusion and anxiety, to silence our angst. We have been tamed and they call it ‘civilized.’
We know deep in our hearts and in our guts that this should not be what it feels like to be human. There are stories and myths that remind us that there are other sources of meaning and purpose. And they have never left us; they are merely waiting to be remembered.
I remember the story of Mangatia, the weaver of heaven and earth in the Kapampangan creation story. I remember the story of Mungan, the first babaylan of the Manobo people. I remember the story of the babaylans who were chopped up and fed to crocodiles by the Spanish colonizers. I remember the story of my magical grandmother who raised seven children by herself when her husband died young. I remember the famous Luna brothers — Antonio and Juan — and their not-famous brother, Joaquin, who is my great grandfather. They made history as revolutionaries — in battle and in the arts. I remember the beauty, strength, passion, humility, resilience, wisdom, integrity of my Kapwa. How else would we have survived our violent history?
Let our mythical imaginations enliven us…again.
This violent history of empire continues to cast a shadow that envelopes the Earth now. We have reached the tipping point, the scientists at 350.org say. They keep dangling the carrot of hope that humans and their technology may still save the planet. Perhaps. Perhaps not. All the best-intentioned efforts to curb carbon emissions, to divest from fossil fuels, to shift to renewables, to noncapitalist economic systems, to build social justice movements — are all good. Yet what I do not hear enough is the need to downsize our consumerist lifestyles, to downsize our ambitions, to downsize our appetites. Question the need for 800 US military bases around the planet to secure the American lifestyle. In popular discourse, I do not hear enough about the need to restore a relationship with the Earth and all her non-human children. Just watch your nightly news on television and you will know what I mean. This is the Old Story that wouldn’t die.
But there are cracks in the Old Story where the ancient-new story is emerging if you know where to look.
What stories do I want my descendants to remember? Who do I want them to remember? I want them to remember their ancestors. I want them to know their history in all its complex entanglements and how it shows up in their lives. I want them to know their non-human kin — the trees, creeks, mountains, oceans — and I want them to feel the heartbeat of the Earth as she breathes. I want them to fall in love with a Place and be claimed by her. I want them to look up at the night sky and be swallowed by her vastness…and then be reminded that Mangatia is weaving heaven and earth with her needle and thread and you can see where the knots are because they sparkle like diamonds. I want them to put their hands in the soil and feel the fertile magic of microbes that keep everything alive so that we may be fed. I want them to know Coyote, the village chief beloved by his people, who is married to Frog Woman…and all the inhabitants of Sonoma Mountain where all the animals were people once and will be again.
If only we can shift our gaze towards this gentle horizon of the Local; if only we can decide to stay put so that we may become more intimate with our landscapes; if only we no longer feel the need to escape to exotic destinations; if only we no longer need to fill our houses with stuff to feel satisfied and enough; if only we no longer need to buy the sales pitch of glamour and celebrity — we might begin to quiet the hunger in our modern soul. We might begin to turn to a more beautiful Story.
The future is indigenous, says Fr. Albert E. Alejo, poet, philosopher, friend, and mentor. In my little corner, it already is.
This essay was published in Humanity by Paloma Press and edited by Eileen Tabios.