Constructing A Model of Espiritista Healing in the Philippines Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., and Scott Taubold, Ph.D. In April 1995, United States National Institute of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine, held a conference on research methodology. In 1998 the office expanded into the Center for alternative medicine. The charge of that 1995 conference was to evaluate research needs in the field of complementary and alternative medicine. Several working groups were created to produce consensus statements on a variety of essential topics. The panel on definition and description accepted a dual charge: To establish a definition of the field of complementary and alternative medicine for purposes of identification and research; And to identify factors critical to a thorough and unbiased description of CAM systems, one that would be applicable to both qualitative and quantitative research. The panel defined CAM as follows: Complementary and alternative medicine or CAM is a broad domain of healing resources that encompasses all health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health system of a particular society or culture in a given historical period. CAM includes all such practices and ideas self-defined by their users as preventing or treating illness or promoting health and well being. Boundaries within CAM and between the CAM domain and the domain of the dominant system are not always sharp or fixed (O'Conner et al., 1997). The second charge of the panel was to establish a list of parameters for obtaining thorough descriptions of CAM systems. The list was constructed on 13 categories first conceptualized by Hufford in 1995. These categories will be illustrated by applying them to “Christian Spiritism,” a Filipino folk healing system that both Dr. Krippner and I have witnessed first hand at several venues.
1.Lexicon. What are specialized terms in the system?
Christian Spiritism is a term that refers to a cluster of religious and philosophical orientations, all of them representing a syncretism of Roman Catholicism and the writings of the French pedagogue, Allen Kardec.
The “Union of Espiritistas of the Philippines” is an organization founded for the purpose of training men and women with alleged mediumistic propensities / to become practitioners known as espiritistas. However, not all of the practicing espiritistas are members of the Union, nor have all mediums been trained by Union members. The Union was incorporated in 1909 after they had already initiated their mediumship trainings (Taubold, 2003). [This mural was in one of the original churches in the lowlands of Pangasinan, and is currently at the home of two of Eluterio Terte’s daughters Nina, who is pictured with me and Arsenia De LA Cruz in Baugio City. Terte was the first psychic surgeon of the union to be filmed by Ormund and McGill in 1956.]
The term espiritista is of Spanish origin, referring to person allegedly infused by the Holy Spirit, and having the ability to “channel” so-called “spiritual energy” for alleviating problematic physical or mental conditions of their clients. Various espiritistas claim to be able to perform various interventions including “magnetic healing” and “psychic surgery.” In addition to their contact with the Holy Spirit, espiritistas believe that they have special relationships with a “spirit world” filled with discarnate entities who work through them to produce effects on the “physical plane.”
[This slide is of the Christian Church of the Living Truth in Manila. Estalita Castillano and several other churches seceded from the original union and incorporated a separate church. Estalita believes that all the current psychic surgeries being performed are placebo surgeries, and while not disagreeing with Arsenia Terte [who practices psychic surgery] “in theory,” she does disagree with her “in practice.” Estalita and Harvey Martin, reverend of the church of the living truth had both studied under the original “union” director of mediums Reverend Benjamin Pajarillio.]
“Magnetic healing” is the method by which an espiritista purportedly manipulates “subtle” electromagnetic forces for the purposes of alleviating a client’s condition. The “laying-on of hands” is one way in which magnetic healing is practiced.
“Psychic surgery” is the method by which an espiritista allegedly enters a client’s body with his or her bare hands, supposedly extracting tumors and other pathological growths or obstructions. There are some accounts of psychic surgery dating back to pre-Colonial days, but it is said to have emerged spontaneously among espiritistas in about 1948. The term “psychic surgery” was coined by the U.S. author Harold Sherman in his 1967 book, Wonder Healers of the Philippines. [Here is a picture of Jun Labo performing psychic surgery on me last November.]
“Witchcraft” or “sorcery” is practiced in the Philippines. Although sometimes used for benevolent purposes, these practices are typically described by local villagers as the use of personal power, malevolent spirits, and/or demons to inflict psychological or physical harm to others. This gentleman, who lives behind my wife’s family’s home in Mandaue City, practices with a particular talent for reversing the alleged spells placed on individuals by sorcerers.]
One of the most commonly described practices is barang, the transmission of rocks, glass, insects, and other foreign objects into the body of the intended victim.
“So-called psychic surgery” are attempts to extract these objects; it has been speculated that this practice was influenced by Filipinos’ exposure to Western surgical methods during World War II resulting in the practice of techniques that closely resemble modern surgical methods.
2. Taxonomy. What classes of health and sickness does the system recognize and address?
Someone is determined to be in good health when one is engaged in a process of spiritual development.
“Good health” is not only conceptualized as freedom from negative physical symptoms but as manifesting spiritual growth and balance of one’s “vital energy” called bisa in the Philippines.
On the other hand, sickness may result from sorcery, living a sinful lifestyle, harboring evil thoughts towards others, or carrying out activities such as adultery, and other acts of sin that separate an individual from God. Sickness can also be directly inflicted by malevolent nature spirits. Natural ailments can be diagnosed by Western medicine whereas an ailment is considered unnatural when it can not be diagnosed by a Western-trained physician. In such instances, sorcery is generally suspected.
3. Epistemology. Is there a canonical body of knowledge? How was this body of knowledge derived?
The canonical body of knowledge embraced by the Union can be found in the treatise, A Short Spiritist Doctrine by Juan Alvear (1998) who founded the Union in the first decade of the 20th century. It is based on the longer treatises of Allen Kardec, who is referred to as the author of “true spiritism”. Espiritistas are described as allowing the Holy Spirit to make its self known, so that the spiritual progress of humankind can be furthered. Kardec, not a medium himself, based his writings on answers derived from over 1,000 mediums who were asked questions pertaining to the nature of the universe. Filipinos had a spiritual tradition long before the arrival of the Spanish, beginning with shamanic practices. Most of these folk traditions blended easily with Roman Catholic doctrine; those that did not were discarded or continued discretely. Even after Western biomedicine became the accepted treatment modality, folk beliefs in witchcraft, sorcery, and mediumship remained. The biblical description of “speaking in tongues” was interpreted as mediumship, and other biblical passages were seen as descriptions of spirit communication both in dreams and in wakefulness, such as “automatic spirit-writing,” and the use of the Ouija Board. In 1955, a group of espiritistas, influenced by Western psychical research books and articles, broke away from the Original Christian Union of Espiritistas of the Phillipines , dropping the “Christian and calling themselves the Union of Espiritistas of the Philippines. Another group, the Philippine Healers’ Circle, Inc., was organized in 1981 by Reverend Alex Orbito, He accepted associate members of the healing arts from overseas. Smaller groups have been influenced by Eastern religions and other non-Christian paradigms. He broke away from the original and later formed the Pyramid of Asia Healing Center in Pangasinan. ]
4. Theories. What are the key mechanisms understood to be?
The espiritistas believe that there are two human systems, physical and spiritual; the Holy Spirit, in the form of “magnetic energy,” is held to be the mechanism of action for each system. Mediumship is a “gift” from the Holy Spirit; the medium learns how to “direct” the Holy Spirit’s magnetic energy for both magnetic healing and psychic surgery.
Everyone has some mediumistic talent, but the skill must be developed. Conceptualizing oneself as an instrument of the Holy Spirit’s healing power removes the limitations of dualistic thought, the belief that physical and spiritual systems are separate entities. This belief system reflects the philosophy of Allen Kardec (1989), who described a semi-material body, the perispirit, composed of “magnetic fluid,” that serves as an intermediary between one’s physical and spiritual systems. The perispirit is composed of a magnetic fluid; hence, magnetic healing is an especially effective intervention.
5. Goals for Interventions. What are the primary goals of the system?
The goals of Christian Spiritism are to successfully treat physical, psychological, and spiritual ailments, including those brought about by human agency, i.e., witchcraft and sorcery, and to promote wellness and peace of mind. Additional goals are to encourage belief in God among clients and to encourage their spiritual growth.
6. Outcome Measures. What constitutes a successful intervention?
Interventions are considered successful if the magnetic energy in the client’s body is more equitably balanced and/or if diseased tissue or foreign matter in the body is dissolved or removed. Successful interventions result in a remission of symptoms, removal or a hex or a curse, enhanced peace of mind, restoration of balance and harmony, induction or restoration of faith, and/or the revitalization of the client’s energy. Word-of-mouth or personal testimonials are the basic evaluation modes within this healing system. Outside testing has produced various results, from in-depth case studies to allegations of trickery to conflicting information regarding blood and tissue samples taken from clients during or after psychic surgery (see Martin, 1999).
The successes of the Philippine faith healers and psychic surgeons are attributed to the glory of God and the healing capacities of the Holy Spirit, not to individual practitioners. Failures are attributed to “God’s will,” to “fate,” or to the failure of the client to adhere to the follow-up directions required to maintain the benefits of the interventions.
7. Social Organization. Who uses and who practices the system?
The Philippine province of Pangasinan in Northern Luzon is the heartland of Christian Spiritism, the place where the practice of psychic surgery is most prevalent. However, there are several practitioners in Manila and other locations. Espiritistas have traveled abroad, but it is often claimed that their abilities are weakened by the problems adjusting to a new location, and to the legal hurdles that they face if they conduct an intervention in which they attempt to open the body in some manner. Healing chapels are common in the Philippines, some of which are located near or adjacent to the practitioners’ homes. [This is Placido Patitayan, who was arrested for fraud in Oregon State in the early 1980s. He recently scheduled a tour here in CA, but left early, perhaps both occurrences were due to due to a reduction of his mediumship ability weakening by adjustment problems. I received treatment from Placido in Baugio City and found him to be a genuine Espiritista and Psychic surgeon.]
The espiritistas are easily available to local Filipinos, as well as to tourists once they arrive in the Philippines. Referral is basically handled by word-of-mouth among Filipinos, and by travel agencies for the tourists. These “tours” have diminished in number once a network of graft was uncovered, one that involved fraudulent practitioners and the taxi drivers to who took tourists to see them. [Pictured is Emilio Laporga who removed a lypoma tumor from my arm without the use of anesthetic or cauterization.] Practitioners have different specialties; not all of them employ psychic surgery. Some of them employ “magnetic healing,” while others specialize in “spiritual injections,” “distance healing,” or “materializations.” Some healers devote a great deal of time to providing “blessings” for water and oil that clients take home with them for internal and/or external use.
[This slide is of Edwin Agpaoa, the nephew of the famous or infamous Tony Agpaoa, performing a cupping treatment on my back. I did not tell him I suffered from chronic pain in my back. Edwin seemed to practice an extremely wide variety of treatments from traditional cupping to and also claims to perform deep surgeries similar to the technique that made his uncle Tony famous.]
Practitioners are compensated through “donations,” the specific amount of which is often agreed upon in advance. Sometimes there are referrals to other healers, or even to allopathic biomedical physicians. [I gave two hundred dollars because I had heard that’s what Jun Labo charged to a single treatment from walk-in patients in Manilla.]
8. Specific Activities. What do the practitioners do? What do they use?
These practitioners perform “magnetic healing” through the laying-on of hands, and some of them engage in spirit-directed “psychic surgeries,” generally while in altered states of consciousness. They believe that the Holy Spirit works through them to diagnose and treat illness, even when they are using sleight-of-hand to obtain a positive outcome. Espiritistas may also perform “distant healing,” “distant surgery,” “spiritual injections,” “cupping and sucking,” expelling “evil spirits” from the client’s body and/or “energy field,” and other techniques. The paraphernalia most often seen in the office of a Christian espiritista includes candles, banners, religious icons, and oils that purportedly have been blessed in a local Roman Catholic church or by a powerful espiritista healer. Clients often will bring their own oil and water to the practitioner’s office to obtain a blessing. Those practitioners who engage in “psychic surgery” have a cot or table available, as well as sheets, cotton balls, towels, and, oftentimes, medical supplies. Sometimes, herbal preparations are recommended, dietary advice is given, and admonitions to live a Christian life are included as part of the treatment.
9. Responsibilities. What are the responsibilities of the
Practitioners, patients, families, and community members?
The responsibilities of the espiritista practitioner are to worship God, continue his or her personal spiritual development, and to serve others. Because their goal as healers is to assist the client, sleight-of-hand often is regarded as a legitimate therapeutic technique. In other words, these practitioners often model themselves after the ubiquitous “trickster” seen in healing traditions worldwide (Hansen, 2001). Practitioners do not have the responsibility to tell clients that sleight-of-hand may be used, as this would negate the placebo effect that a dramatic intervention usually evokes.
The clients’ responsibilities are to follow the suggestions of the practitioner, whose work is assumed to be directed by the Holy Spirit. They may be passive during the treatment session, but their post-treatment assignments are often extensive. They may be told to drink holy water and apply sacred oil daily, to chew up the paper on which the practitioner originally wrote their “prescriptions”, and to repent of their sins. If lifestyle changes are not forthcoming, the sickness may return in one form or another. The responsibilities of family members including praying for the family member who has been treated by an espiritista. Family members may be asked to help pay for the treatment, buy supplies, provide transportation for the client, and to maintain family ties with the ailing client.
10. Scope. How extensive are the system’s applications?
The applications of this healing system are varied and specialized. Fairly unique elements of this system include mediumship, “psychic surgery,” “distant healing” and “distant cutting” (which purportedly involves cutting through the skin), “spiritual injections,” and the expulsion of “evil spirits.” Practitioners rarely specialize in particular ailments or problems; instead, they specialize in their own particular mode of healing. For example, some “psychic surgeons” appear to go “deeper” into their clients’ bodies, while others focus on tumors and cysts that are close to the body’s surface. Espiritistas claim that they can treat virtually any condition, and work with any gender, age group, or nationality.
11. Analysis of Benefits and Barriers. What are the risks and costs of the system?
Proponents of allopathic biomedicine typically claim that there are considerable risks involved when clients choose this type of treatment, refusing standard medical practices. By neglecting orthodox medical procedures, clients are taking great risks and are losing valuable time [This is a picture of Dr. William Nolen one of the psychic surgeons greatest critics, who published the book, Healing, A doctor in search of a miracle! in 1974]. The espiritistas’ emphasis on spiritual shortcomings as a causal factor in sickness may increase a client’s sense of guilt, and the resulting emotional turmoil may undermine his or her self-repair mechanisms. Further, the trip to the Philippines is costly, forcing clients to use money that could better be spent on effective medical care.
Advocates of the espiritistas note that once clients reach the Philippines, the cost is minimal. Most of the espiritistas only ask for “free will” donations, which typically amount to a few pesos for local clients. These advocates claim that the practitioners’ purported emphasis on sin and guilt is inaccurate, and that a large number of overseas clients have already been treated by allopathic physicians, seeing the ministrations of the espiritistas as their last resort.
12. Views of Suffering and Death. How does the system view suffering and death?
Christian Spiritism takes a conservative Christian position on suffering; God allows it so that lessons of compassion and humility can be learned. Unlike most Christians, however, they believe in reincarnation; death is simply a transition, one stage in a person’s continual spiritual growth. Mediumship, to the espiritistas, provides evidence for the existence of a “spiritual realm” in which spirits can interact as well as communicate with selected individuals on the Earthly plane.
13. Comparison and Interaction with Dominant System. What does this system provide that the dominant system does not provide? How does this system interact with the dominant system?
Christian espiritistas provide services that the dominant
biomedical system does not address. These include providing “spiritual healing” instead of symptom reduction, counteracting “witchcraft” (which is seen as superstitious nonsense by biomedical physicians), and low-cost treatment instead of the costly medicines and drugs prescribed by physicians. This healing system includes a strong spiritual component to treatment that is lacking in allopathic medicine, which does not recognize any aspect of treatment that can not be explained from a biomedical perspective.
There is little interaction between espiritistas and allopathic practitioners, and minimal interaction between espiritistas and members of the middle and upper economic classes. However, there are notable exceptions to both generalizations. Some of the best known espiritistas have referred clients to medical practitioners. Espiritistas often find themselves in conflict with members of the Philippine Medical Association, especially when they treat clients with serious illnesses. Espiritistas and their supporters counter with the claim that most of these clients had been seeing (and paying) physicians for long periods of time with no discernable results, or that they had been hospitalized for months, again without positive outcomes. Some attempts have been made to document these recoveries (e.g., McDowall, 1998). For decades, the World Health Organization (Mahler, 1977) has promoted communication between traditional folk healers and allopathic biomedicine, noting that more people in developing countries rely on the former for their health care than the latter. The Philippines, whose cultural roots reflect an indigenous shamanic tradition, is the only Asian country where the majority of the populace is at least nominal Christians. In addition, Filipinos have been influenced by U.S. culture, having been a territory of the United States following Spain’s defeat during the Spanish-American War. The result of this unique blend of Asian, European and North American influence has produced a great diversity in worldviews. Christian Spiritism claims to heal with the power the espiritistas obtain from the Holy Spirit. Their mediumistic practices date back to the shamanic legacy as well as the impact of the books of Allan Kardec, the French spiritualist. Hansen (2001) has pointed out that folk healers work on the “margins” of society in Westernized countries. The status of Christian espiritistas is definitely marginal, even though many of them have attained fame and status. Nevertheless, they have been persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church and allopathic physicians; they have been reviled by Western journalists because of their utilization of sleight-of-hand. They have been ignored by medical anthropologists, even though basic outcome research has yielded provocative results in other parts of the world (e.g., Greenfield, 1994). This state of affairs is typical of the “trickster” healer whose qualities include disruption, deception, and nonconformity to rules of conduct set up the local establishment (Hansen, 2001). Walsh (1990) has described how many indigenous healers use trickery not only to enhance their own reputation but also to elicit a client’s self-healing capacities and put them to work. These capacities often depend upon faith, belief, catharsis, and other processes that a dramatic intervention can evoke, even if sleight-of-hand is involved (p. 104-109). The percentage of “psychic surgeries” due to sleight-of-hand as well as the number of their successful interventions is unknown. A few eyewitness accounts (e.g., Krippner, 1976) include suggested research strategies. Frank and Frank (1991) contend that three main factors are present in an effective healing process: (1) the installation of hope through “naming” the problem and making the diagnosis in a context understandable by the client; (2) emotional arousal, dynamic healing techniques, and the creation of catharsis, hope, and confidence; (3) a feeling of control and a sense of mastery gained by the client in regard to the presenting problem. Because Christian Spiritism covers these three bases, it is not surprising that its survival seems assured. Nevertheless, formal investigations of the practitioners, their worldviews, and their technologies seem necessary before globalization, industrialization, and political opportunism erode the unique aspects of this singular system of healing.
Alvear, J. (1998). A short spiritist doctrine: The history, beliefs, and healing practices of the spiritist healers of the Philippines
(H. Martin, Trans.). Savannah, GA: Metamind. (Original work published 1907)
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Hansen, G. P. (2001). The trickster and the paranormal. New York: Xlibris.
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McDowall, D. (1998). Healing: Doorway to the spiritual world. Shepparton, Australia: Cosmos.
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O'Connor, B.B., Calabrese, C., Cardeña, E., Eisenberg, D., Fincher, J., Hufford, D.J., Jonas, W.B., Kaptchuck, T., Martin, S.C., Scott, A.W., & Zhang, X. (1997). Defining and describing complementary and alternative medicine. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 3 (2), 49-57.
Sherman, H. (1967). Wonder healers of the Philippines. London: Psychic Press.
Taubold, S. (2003). What is the system of healing used by the Filipino Espiritistas? Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, CA.
Walsh, R. (1990). The spirit of shamanism. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.
This essay was supported by the Chair for the Study of Consciousness at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, CA. Most of this material was adapted from Scott Taubold’s (2003) doctoral dissertation, and the reader is referred to the original for a more complete description of Christian Espiritism in the Philippines.