I haven’t been home to see you in five years. I used to go home every summer to conduct research, attend conferences, visit friends and family. On my last visit in 2013, something changed. I came away feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless — the traffic, the environmental degradation, the loss of biodiversity, and the giant billboards along EDSA advertising whitening creams and spa treatments — all these made me question a lot of things. But the main question for myself was: What can I do?
In 2013 my heart also started to give me warning signs of distress. Supraventricular tachycardia was the diagnosis. So naturally, my attention shifted to my own health and lifestyle. My acupuncturist told me not to submit to the procedure that the cardiologist recommended. A friend who had a similar diagnosis recommended a nutritionist to begin to detoxify my body. I added herbal medicine to my supplements. I became serious about exercise.
I had to acknowledge that I didn’t know how to listen to my body. When the acupuncturist said that I didn’t know how to let stress pass through my body and that I was holding stress in and it was making me sick, I struggled to understand what he meant.
The healer was right. For many years, I have felt that my responsibility was to be a container of people’s stories and secrets as they were told to me in confidence. I listened to heartaches, disappointments, anger, feelings of betrayal, and held them close to my heart without knowing how to release them to a much bigger container than my own. We were building a beloved community based on our reclaimed values of Kapwa/shared self and babaylan-inspiration but I didn’t feel adequate and confident in being able to offer Medicine.
After the 2016 Babaylan conference, I heard the call to go inward…into the deep silence of my longings and desires around the vocation that I felt was my calling: heal the colonial wounds of your village. I also heard the criticism against my work in the diaspora: How can you call yourself babaylan-inspired if you have merely appropriated the term symbolically; when you do not have a direct relationship with the real babaylans in the homeland; when you have not spent time to learn from them or encounter them in their own contexts?
These criticisms stung and I needed to step back to assess my culpability. I am aware that this work has many critics and long ago, I’ve decided to focus my energy on the work rather than putting energy into reaction and defensiveness.
Joy is your compass, writes Dine elder Pat McCabe. In hindsight, since 2013, my joy has been overrun by worry, self-doubt, frustration and I knew then that it was time to find my compass again. I needed to find the one question to wrestle with and this is what emerged: What does it mean to be “indigenous” really?
Even though my academic work began with grappling with the concept of cultural identity formation and decolonization for post-1965 Filipino Americans, over the years it also became clear to me that decolonization is not enough. What do you do after you decolonize? is a question I was often asked. The question led me to Poetry, indigenous literature, ecophilosophy, and to observing social movements that echo the themes of “another world is possible”, “the great turning”, “voluntary simplicity”, “slow food movement” and many more iterations of the same. I attended Bioneers’ Cultivating Women’s Leadership retreats, sat in meditation, edited and published books, organized a nonprofit, and applied for research grants to immerse myself in learning about indigenous communities and issues in the homeland.
These were fecund years: 2001–2013.
In these last five years, however, I transitioned out of my academic life. My commute to the university is now a commute to a fitness place where I dance, box, do pilates, do qi gong. Sometimes I go next door to the community acupuncture center or the other door at Jessie Jing’s $25 foot reflexology. I was feeling guilty, at first, putting all this attention on my body but, thank goodness, the feelings do not last long.
This body — my heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, spleen — is a universe that I needed to get to know, listen to, marvel at. I feel physically stronger now than a year ago but I am also noticing the busy monkey mind that constantly needs attention and makes up stories. Sometimes I listen and I let her take away my peace and joy and then I start to feel sorrow, anxiety, and fear instead.
So I am practicing this ‘learning to observe the mind’ through the lessons of Vedanta and through the lessons I am learning from listening to Cal who is a long-time meditator in the lineage of Paramahansa Yogananda; a practice that he combines with Orthodox prayer. But what is more important is that he reminds me constantly that our practice is as simple as: Be Kind. And this means being kind to myself first and foremost to heal the wounded self, traumatized by history of abuse and violence, by modernity’s narrative of “not enoughness”. So much unlearning to do.
I am observing the mental habits accrued from decades of the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and understanding, insight, and wisdom. But this wisdom will not be known through the mind alone. Wisdom is the kingdom of the heartmind. I need to listen to my heart more. I need to allow myself to feel the wide range of emotions that are called forth. I need this vulnerability to soften the rough edges of my soul. I need to learn how not to be afraid to feel.
So I tear up at the drop of a hat these days. On the first day of rain, after ten days of smoke from the devastating fires in Paradise, California, I cried as I drove the car out of the garage. Thank you, Rain. I cried when my sister Lily was narrating her bout with shingles and the excruciating pain from such; it’s almost as if I had shingles myself. I was so anxious I even got the vaccine.
My qi gong teacher says I am sensitive to energy so that I should always ground myself by gathering the qi in the dantian/lower belly. I have recently learned the Guardian Qi from Robert Peng as a way to fortify and nourish Qi. Sometimes I will alternate and do a Standing Tree meditation instead.
All these practices of cultivation is as close as I can get to what the Taoist call inner alchemy — of transmuting physical energy to spirit that is capable of healing the body, mind, and spirit. The internal qi and external qi from the universe coming together in the three centers of the body: the third eye of wisdom, the compassion of the heart, the vitality of the dantian/lower abdomen.
So, dear Motherland, in my inward journey of the last five years, I have been learning about Vedanta, Taoist healing systems and qi gong, and indigenous wisdom and spirituality. The other day, my yoga teacher said that in the Ayurveda system I am in the Vata stage of life (elderhood) and we are in the Vata time of Nature (winter). This is when we distill, go inward, go quiet so that we may hear when Wisdom speaks.
What does it mean to be indigenous really?
During the years that I didn’t return to visit you, my Motherland, I was learning how to Dwell in Place; learning how to fall in love with this Place where I’ve lived for 35 years — more than half my life. On this Pomo and Coast Miwok and Wappo land, I acknowledge that I am a settler and immigrant and I’m only now beginning to embody a sensuous relationship with the beings who have lived here since time immemorial: Sonoma Mountain, Copeland Creek, Gravity Hill, Coyote, Hawk, Squirrel, Stone, Fog, Rain, Hawk, and so on.
For many decades I have focused on the life of the mind through intellectual pursuit in understanding of history, politics, culture, resistance movements. Seeing how my personal history fits into a larger story of empire and colonialism, corporate globalization, and now global climate crisis — has been illuminating. And if, as Taoist, indigenous, Buddhist teachings say, it’s all interconnected and it’s all Sacred, then I am learning how to train my mind to see the layers of stories that I carry in my body.
I can look back now on the last three decades of my life and feel gratitude for the work that continues to call me: Decolonize! Re-indigenize! Transcend! Ground! Center! For the young people who are just beginning this journey, may I give you this:
Understand colonialism and imperialism but know that this is not your full story. Learn about indigenous cultures in your homeland but know that your body has been displaced by the accidents of history and you ended up on Turtle Island. How do you carry the lessons you’ve been taught by our indigenous Kapwa? Know how the shadows of History can be uncovered, acknowledged, and healed. With this new awareness, you will learn to dis-identify with the Story of patriarchy, supremacy, and capitalism. You will write new stories. You will make different choices.
Most importantly, you must find or create community with those who care as you do. At the forefront of our awareness these days is the global climate crisis. When I think of the polar caps melting faster than ever, I visualize the 7000 islands of our homeland and I wonder how our kapwa will survive in a water world. If the people are to move inland and up to the mountains, will there be enough Land for all?
Yes, it is heartbreaking to hold this awareness. For me, I feel the Grief sitting on my chest and this is why I have to learn how to alchemize my fears and tears into an awareness that I am but a speck of dust swirling with the energies of the cosmos. I may be a body smacked with a racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender labels in a society that makes a mockery of such differences and weaponizes them to keep disconnection and alienation as the fear that drives the denial deep in the recesses of the brain… but I am also Stardust.
Do not believe the story of apocalyptic endings, of saving the planet, or anything that puts too much faith in tech utopias. Make your way the best way you know how, Mabel McKay, Pomo medicine woman, always told her people. Find and court your Elders and Ancestors. They will show the way.
Dear Motherland, I will see you soon. I will bring my son and grandson to kiss the Land of my birth. We will make memories of Belonging. We will make memories of Home.