Spiritwork & Justice: Maintaining the Balance [Patreon Post Excerpt]

CW/TW: sickness, wrongdoing/transgression, colonialism, ableism/saneism, disability

[Portions of this article was previously posted on Facebook May 31, 2018]

Debt has so many connotations in North America/the West, as so much of our modern capitalist society runs on debt, on money that is owed, instead of money that is already generated. For many, including myself, it conjures up images of years, if not decades, of attempting to pay off student loans or this “mortgage” I and other younger millennials keep hearing about. There have been some periods in my life I’ve lived hand-to-mouth on welfare checks, and couldn’t possibly conceive an end to debt.

There is, however, another understanding of debt, a spiritual understanding– though I’m now loath to use that word in description of this concept that is difficult to translate into English. Perhaps better ways of describing it are “maintaining balance”, “honouring connection”, “honouring Creation”, “right relations”, “interdependence”, and “reciprocity”.

Firstly, this is an underlying principle in the way I do spiritwork, informed by a very specific worldview that I’ve experienced as a Bikol person and spiritworker, but was articulated in Fenella Cannell’s dissertation Catholicism, Spirit Mediums and the Ideal of  Beauty in a Bicolano Community as well as John P. McAndrew’s book People of Power: A Philippine Worldview of Spirit Encounters (entirely about Visayan practices, a culture closely linked to Bikol). This underlying principle is also somewhat captured in the Tagalog phrase “utang ng loob”, and is roughly translated into English as a “debt of spirit/gratitude”. In Bikol, it’s captured in the words “bawi” and “parabawi”, which means “debt” and “exorcist” in the rough English translation, but, of course, it’s so much more complicated than that. I’ve also witnessed with Indigenous folks to Turtle Island that I’ve been in community with, that they have expressed similar principles in the term “All My Relations” (specifically from the Lakȟóta and/or the Anishinaabe, but other nations have also expressed this). I’ve also read something similar in the work of Malidoma Somé (a Dagara spiritworker from Burkina Faso), when he writes about how sickness is a sign from the spirits, a form of communication, as much as success and health is a sign of their joy.

Put simply, in this worldview, we are all connected through space, time, energy, spirit, and blood. Offerings build relationships through “debts of gratitude”, and transgressions create debts of retribution. To restore balance, we must turn debts of retribution into debts of gratitude through offerings– not just in way of apology of transgressions, but to rebuild connections.

A relationship necessitates that everyone is in a debt of gratitude towards each other. For example, I’m in a debt of gratitude to the Sun for the light and life it gives me, and I try to honour that debt through offerings to the Bikol sun spirit Aldao. In turn, Aldao may bestow on me further gifts, which create more debt of gratitude, which I respond with more offerings, and a basic relationship is maintained in that matter. Much of my prayers, rituals, and offerings, are about acknowledging and honouring debts of gratitude– whether it’s to the plants I’ve consumed, the technology that assists me, the ancestors that lived and died for me, or a pet cat that cuddles me while I sleep.

A transgression is harm with or without intent– something that I find fascinating because in my anti-oppression workshops I talk about how impact matters more than intent. This is certainly true among anito/spirits within the indebted worldview. Anito don’t care if you didn’t intend to destroy their home or break your promise to them, all they care about is the impact, which harms and dishonours them. This creates a debt of retribution which they then “honour” or repay usually with what mortals experience as a sickness of some kind in the mind, body, or both. To the anito, it’s simply restoring balance to the situation. We can continue a retributive interaction by creating further harm to the spirits, of which they create further harm towards us, or we can change it back to relationships of gratitude through offerings– basically reparations.

[Several paragraphs were taken out for this excerpt.]

I think my main concern from a social justice point of view is that folks will interpret the viewpoint as insinuating that the sickness is inherently the fault of the one who is sick, a kind of ableist/saneist victim-blaming. I don’t want that to come across– the worldview is more about the function of sickness and the far-reaching impact of our actions because of how we’re all connected to everything else. For example, in the 1920s, when American women painting watch dials with self-luminous paint began suffering from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, the accountability lay at the feet of the corporations who insisted that the radium in their paint did not cause radiation sickness, deliberately continuing to endanger people’s lives despite a group of women’s attempts to get studies done and legal action against the companies that were lying about radium.

There is a definite danger here in how structures of power use disability and sickness, or what they define as “sick”, to oppress groups of people– homosexuality and transsexuality were “sicknesses” and running from a slave master was a “sickness”. However, such a worldview is not predicated on the connection to Creation and reciprocity, even if proponents of such things back then and now will insist it is. Oppression is based on hierarchies that need to be enforced by violence. This is starkly opposed to a lateral connection to all things that needs to be maintained through gratitude and care and the prevention of violence and the reparation of harm, otherwise those relationships sicken and fade. 

Additionally, individual disabled people and chronically ill people cannot be used as “posters” for anyone else’s theories or worldviews. My spiritual experience and understanding of my illnesses is specific to me. If someone comes to me wanting to know why they are sick in a specific way that Western doctors cannot understand or can no longer provide anymore care for, I am very careful to understand what worldview they are coming from. I may refer them to Gabor Maté’s book “When The Body Says No”, if that’s something that may be helpful, in explaining the science of the stress-disease connection (one of my doctors had referred that book to me early in my diagnoses). Each person gets to decide their individual relationship with what is happening with them. Whether they call it illness or disability or dis-ease or a message or a curse or a neurodivergence or a diverse ability or a mutant power, they get to decide what it says about their relations and communities– that is the gift and burden of the world we live in, the balance between our individual free will and the love or hate from our communities and societies. 

For me, my understanding of Disability Justice is founded on “interdependence” (informed by the work of Mia Mingus, Patty Berne, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Sins Invalid). Even though there are individual and personal understandings of what is going on for each of us that are labeled as “disabled”, there is a communal movement to be in it together, to build futures of care and gratitude together. 

In a world continually devastated by capitalism and colonialism, my form of spiritwork has to be founded on justice. Being a modern parabawi, especially in the fraught context of the diaspora, as a guest/settler more aligned with indigenous sovereignty than the settler colonial state, requires teachings, training, and thorough understanding of gratitude, harm, and the reparation of harm– in all its historical and political contexts, for those contexts are inextricably intertwined with the spirits, such as the spirits of the Land and the Ancestors. If one does not understand historical, political, and spiritual harm, how can they maintain the balance between the spirits, animals, plants, ancestors, and the human world? This tradition of spiritwork, translated into the modern day, must be predicated on the collective liberation of all Creation from oppression.

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