1. Sekala and Niskala
There are two kinds of forces affecting your health. Some can be seen and measured. Those are called sekala. Other forces cannot be seen or measured, but they nevertheless affect you. In that sense, they are “real”. Those are called niskala. A balian, or traditional healer, explained it to me like this: “The tree moves, because of the wind. But you can’t see the wind. The wind is like niskala.”
Some niskala forces that effect health are spirits, spells, and angry ancestors. Western people don’t usually take those concerns seriously, but if you put a different label on it – run “spirits” through MSWord’s search/replace function and call it “stress”,(or “jealousy” or “guilt”), western people can wrap their heads around niskala.
Niskala Happens. Call it what you will. Stress or Spell, Angry Ancestors or P.T.S.D. Different labels, same idea.
Years ago, Balian were country doctors, setting broken bones, preparing medicine from local plants. They had their own “science” to deal with sekala problems – and could even diagnose diabetes (I’ll give you a hint – the Balinese word for diabetes is “sweet urine”).
With the arrival of western medicine, Balian have by and large surrendered sekala problems to doctors, which is probably a Good Thing. Science and sekala problems go well together. And modern medical science is awesome.
Balian have evolved in recent years into specialist in certain mental and physical maladies that confound doctors. These problems, viewed as supernatural in origin, are treated via the “art” portion of medicine.
This is also a Good Thing, since Western psychology is more an Art than a science. We know this to be true because it doesn’t work on all people, the Irish, for example, and the Balinese. Healing “arts” are culturally specific.
A good healer will bow out when medical science is called for, and step in when Art and Intuition will be effective.
3. Healers are communicators.
Healers need to impart information, and that information needs to be picked up by a receiver, the patient, with as few drop-outs and coverage problems as possible. They do this by putting patients into a trance. Trance isn’t particularly unusual in Bali. Children and adults do it. I think of trance as a kind of hypnosis, or heightened receptivity. Balian put their patients into a trance a number of ways, commonly by ringing a bell and chanting a mantra in a steady cadence. They can also put someone in trance through massage. More often than not, both the Balian and the patient go into trance together, and become of one mind. When this state has been reached, a message can be transferred, and it will be received and internalized. The healer will tell them “Think these thoughts.” “You will get well.” “Be strong”. And it works. It really works. But it takes time and trust and empathy – qualities that aren’t emphasized in western medicine.
Balinese have a very different sense of direction than Westerners. In the center of Bali is a holy mountain. That mountain is always the equivalent of “True North”, even if you are south, west, north or east of it. It is a hard thing to get used to, and one of the reasons why Westerners get lost when they take directions from a Balinese.
A Balinese probably has a clearer sense of their place in the world than you do. A Balinese villager sees himself as standing on a specific, critical point in space. Heaven is above his head, the demons are below his feet. To the north and west is good, to the south and east is dangerous.
Human beings, at the fulcrum, are charged with maintaining the balance between Gods and Demons, order and chaos, growth and decay. They do this through ritual – and some rituals are island-wide, some are community-based, and some are individual in scope.
Healing rituals are held when some great disruption occurs, and when the center no longer holds. Healing rituals can be island-wide – like the rituals held after the 2002 terrorist bombing, and they can be individual – when someone is sick. A Balian helps a sick person – in both a real and figurative sense, find their balance.
5. Good relationships lead to good health. Bad relationships make you sick.
There is a reason why people say another person is a “pain in the neck” or “pain in the ass” These statements are often literally true – not just figures of speech. The tension created by fraught relationships – with a co-worker, spouse, or family member – can manifest in neck or sciatic pain.
When patients visit a Balian, they are encouraged to bring their extended family. The balian will often sit for more than an hour making what appeared to be idle chit-chat. But in fact, the balian is watching the body language, listening to who cuts off whom, trying to uncover the subtle source of the sickness that has taken hold in a patient. It is a subtle diagnostic process, and very intuitive. Once he’s figured that out, he will need to develop a treatment plan that transforms a relationship that resembles a toxic swamp into a pond with clean, clear water.
6. Healing is a performance.
Balinese healers, like doctors, wear white. Costume is important. Staging is important. Dressing the part is critical in any profession that involves communication, particularly when one needs to impart information that the recipient doesn’t want to hear. Salesmen wear suits because they are selling themselves. Doctors and healers wear a kind of professional uniform are selling concepts and practices that must be seen as objective reality, independent of, and more important than, the person expressing them.
7. Healers take no credit.
Years ago, I worked as an EMT. We had a joke about surgeons. “Q: What is the difference between God and a surgeon?” “A: God doesn’t claim to be a surgeon.”
When a healer is successful, they never accept compliments or credit for the work they do. “I don’t heal anyone.” They will say. “Only God can heal.” At the most, a healer will accept some recognition that they have served as a catalyst. “I am like a bridge.” Mangku Pogog told me. “I span a region between sickness and health. But the patient has to walk across.”
When you visit a Balinese healer, you are expected to bring a traditional offering of woven palm-leaf offerings. Money is not normally exchanged until later, when the patient experiences results. In order for healing to take place, and in order for the healer/patient relationship to get off on the right foot, the healer’s motives must be unquestioned. So a healer never asks for money and a patient cannot impugn a healer’s motives.
I wonder if part of the reason why countries with universal healthcare have better outcomes than their for-profit counterparts is because the doctor’s message and advice is not compromised (in the patient’s mind) by the impression of conflict of interest. If a patient suspects that a healer’s efforts are motivated by money, it undermines outcomes. This seems to me self-evident.
9. Shame is a major cause of illness.
Shame is a major cause of illness. A lot of health problems in Bali seem related to the concept of subuh, being spiritually “unclean” or “dirty”. Women are considered subuh when they are menstruating, and are forbidden to enter a temple or participate in religious ceremonies during this time. And men can become subuh if they touch or (God forbid!) have intimate relations with a woman while she is subuh.
In a post-feminist world, we can see this as a manifestation of the patriarchy, a societal construct aimed at controlling women. And it is. But our society has its own of shame-related medical conditions, from anorexia to acne to addiction. And conditions get worse if shame prevents patients from seeking help.
Part of any healer’s job is to transcend and erase even deeply held cultural beliefs. Healers can never express revulsion with a patient’s condition. Healers also need to find a way to remove the shame. In Bali, healers always end their sessions with a ritual that involves sprinkling a patient with holy water. This act has a great deal of power.
10. A healer can be a trickster.
Joseph Campbell was fascinated by the figure of the Trickster, a figure who appears in a variety of culture around the world.
“He represents the total psyche, and the ability to break through”. Campbell says in a remarkable interview. “He is the disrupter of programs.”
Sometimes a healer needs to radically disrupt a patient’s programming. Our version is called “shock therapy” or an “intervention”. It is appropriate usually as a last resort, after years of addressing the symptoms has failed. The trickster is needed to decouple the patient from his emotional investment with his own sickness. The trickster/healer is for patients whose sickness is their comfort zone.
Mangku Pogog, the subject of my documentary, is this kind of healer. Some of the bizarre behavior you can see in the video must be appreciated in this context. With some patients, the healer literally needs to turn their world upside down.
See the trailer at the links below.
Daniel McGuire is a journalist and filmmaker. His film “Balian: Traditional Healers of Bali” is currently in post-production. He is also an avid yogi, and has practiced Ashtanga yoga for 15 years. He can be reached at [email protected]. Website Bali Healer.
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