Interview with a ‘mankukulam’

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 31, 2015 –

I finally went to Siquijor two weeks ago. My wife has been raving about how beautiful it is. She was there about two years ago.

My APO Hiking Society buddy Boboy, his wife Bong, my wife Lydia and I graced the Maria town fiesta. Boboy and I did an hour-long performance. It was a good show. We sang our hits while everyone sang along with us.

We stayed at the Coco Grove, a sprawling hotel near the beach which felt like it was seemingly situated in the middle of nowhere. That’s because there are very few structures beside it. Inside the property, it was a few hectares big with three swimming pools and restaurants spread out.

I only had an afternoon to go around taking photos. I visited the old Saint Isidore Church in Lazi and the oldest seminary in Asia across it. They were very rustic, historic structures and the mere fact that they were still there standing impressed me. I imagine that in a few years, all that will be left of them will be ruins if human intervention does not prevent this.

But more than the churches, I was curious to know more about what Siquijor is famous (or notorious) for. Everyone knows that Siquijor, for better or worse, has a reputation for mysterious, mystical (some say demonic) healers. They are called mangkukulam, sorcerers and witches who can supposedly cast spells that can affect people in really painful ways.

I asked our host if it was possible to meet and interview a real mangkukulam. The very next day, she invited a 23-year-old man who was very familiar with the subject. In fact, he admitted he was one, as he explained the purpose and the power of their brand of witchcraft, and why he thinks it is a force for good.

He explained to me the purpose of their sorcery, which is to restore “balance” in the world. It was a power that victims of injustice can and do use to get even with people who oppress them. He gave the example of a battered wife, or one who has been abandoned by her husband for another woman; or an ordinary person who may been wronged by someone more powerful. It is a way of seeking redress for injustice, he emphasized. Anyone who is suffering because of the evil actions of others may seek their revenge through sorcery. It is an equalizer of sorts, as he described it.

He made references to the Bible about casting out evil spirits. He says that the power to cast away or punish or direct evil spirits using unseen forces has been present and accessible to mankind since time immemorial. It was nothing new. He emphasized, though, that a true mangkukulam will not use this power to hurt good people.

On the way to Siquijor, I had a conversation with Vice Governor Dingdong Avanzado about this. He lamented the fact that people still looked at Siquijor as a place for witchcraft and sorcery. He noted that his grandfather was one of the first doctors to practice on the island. He said that historically speaking, Siquijor was known as a healing place. Many sick people including priests in the past centuries were sent to this province to heal. And heal they did.

He suspects that there is something about his province that made sick people heal faster and better even without going to a mangkukulam and availing of “magic” powers.

I asked my mangkukulam acquaintance about how they make potions, and about some of the practices they do. I wanted to know how they cast their spells. The potions — made from ingredients such as black candles, anemones caught on certain days of the year, herbs, plants, sap of trees, powdered stones, bones, corals and other things — become potent in the hands of one who has the “gift.” The sorcerer enhances their strength through prayers and incantations recited during “potent” days and nights.

He talked about how some spells are cast. There are many ways. One way they cast a spell on another person is by merely patting a person’s shoulder or back. Yes, it can be as simple as that. Another way is for the potion or the active ingredients to be placed along the path a targeted person travels every day. Every time he passes there, he activates the curse and he will soon be progressively affected until he feels the pain acutely and severely. And the way to end the spell is to simply remove the cursed object from the path.

Can they heal people? They most certainly can, he says. Even if a person is not present, a simple phone connection can do it. Through a cellphone, a sorcerer can cast away sickness, or if a person is a victim of kulam, it can be lifted. If the person is not available, a picture may be enough for the mangkukulam to make a connection.

Frankly, I did not know what to think about everything I was hearing. He was an eloquent young man who had lived all his life in this type of environment. He is familiar with both the destructive and the healing aspects of these mystical, spiritual rituals and practices. And he spoke with patience and seriousness.

I wanted to sit with him for another hour and ask him what the scientifically active ingredients were in the herbs, plants and elements they used. If they really worked, what was in them that made them potent? In short, I wanted a rational explanation.

At times during the talk, I wanted to question it all, to express doubt and incredulity at what he was saying, but I held back. Even when I doubted, I did not want to show it. The truth was, as much as I did doubt, there was something inside of me that considered the possibility that some of this could be true. After all, I have met many people who claim they have experienced kulam.

And science has not totally explained or mapped out the reality we live in. Who knows what forces really rule the world?

After we talked, he gave Lydia a foot massage since she was beginning to come down with a head cold.

That night, after the concert, Lydia felt chills and had high fever. I certainly do not attribute this to kulam from the young man I interviewed earlier. Days before in Manila, Lydia was already complaining about not feeling too well. The extreme heat outside and the cold air-conditioned room may have worsened it.

Just the same, I asked myself whether someone might have taken a fancy for her when she attended the concert in a bright orange dress. Could someone have cast a spell on her?


My scientific mind doubts it. But I bought tawas just in case.

Message from a blank mind

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 24, 2015 – 12:00am

My mind has been blank the past few days. I honestly don’t know how to proceed with this article. I have been feeling like this for quite some time now. After seven years of writing a weekly column, I sometimes feel I have nothing to say anymore.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

People are expressing their opinions all the time, more so today than maybe a decade back. We can’t help but hear them. The world has become noisier with the intrusion of media, social media in particular, into almost every aspect of our lives.

This is the world we live in now. Everyone has his own soapbox and you will eventually hear his views, whether you like it or not. That goes with our addiction to social media. We just can’t help it.

The world tends to looks at people who have strong opinions as brilliant men and women who could be real leaders. I used to automatically assume that to be true, but lately, I have not been so sure.

I have always had strong opinions about many things, but lately, I have been stopping myself from expressing them even when I have a forum to do so. Why? Because I am starting to believe that the world probably needs fewer opinions and more listening

When we are full of our own opinions, we are often not ready to allow new facts and ideas to come in and influence us. We tend to feel that we are already complete, or “together” since we believe that we are on the side of correctness. We do not question ourselves. Filled with self-righteousness, we do not challenge the validity or certainty of our opinions.

We are like a cup where liquid is being poured endlessly even as it overflows to waste. There is no room to accommodate anything new.

Many people think that not having opinions is a form of stupidity or mental slowness. I don’t think that is necessarily so. It could be an openness, a spaciousness that is ready to see things exactly as they are, with no spin, no inherited reactions or opinions from others. A blank and open mind is ready to face any situation and capture the unique gift that it offers without the mental construct or artifice of judgment, taste and public approval or political correctness. It is ready for a direct experience, a pure, spontaneous, uncomplicated encounter with whatever shows up.

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the expert’s mind, few things are possible. In the beginner’s mind, many things are possible.” This is a famous quote from Shunryu Suzuki, one of the first Zen masters in America when Zen practice was in its early stages there.

The expert’s mind is filled with knowledge already learned, and a reputation earned. Thus, it speaks with authority. Its primary reaction to any challenge is to look to the past and reenact what has already been done.

The beginner’s mind operates differently. It comes from a blank mind, a clean slate. It has no reputation to protect and thus can react with openness and spontaneity. It is without guile or fear. It is coming in fresh all the time.

When we come into a situation already filled with our own opinions and a fixed mindset, what often happens is we force, bend or reshape what we encounter to conform to what we already know. We presume that what is before us is something that has happened before. Thus, we react not with creativity but with preexisting knowledge.

I am not saying this is bad. Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to approaching things with a pre-set mind. Architects, for example, must know the elements that hold a concrete and glass building together.

But I like to encounter life with as much wonderment and amazement as I can. I want to be both surprised and delighted. I feel challenged, and when I am, I really pay attention. And when I pay attention, I know I am being alive to the moment and doing something completely new, even if on the surface I may have already done it before.

I try not to repeat myself. When I perform in a concert, I allow great leeway for things to happen by themselves. I may have a ready repertoire and a spiel in mind, but I know I will have to wing a big portion of my performance to adjust to the venue, the stage setup and the audience I am performing for. I also have to pay attention to how I feel about myself at the moment.

I started writing this article without knowing what would follow. One might say, this article wrote itself. I just paid attention to the flow of things.

It is amazing what a blank mind can do!

Seniors rock!

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 17, 2015 – 12:00am
(Sorry. Somehow, I can’t get the to appear. I will fix them soon)

Troggs guitarist can still bash it.

I recently watched the British Invasion concert at the Resorts World Casino. It was a nostalgia show with some of the old British bands that rocked the music scene some 50 years ago. Performing were Marmalade, Troggs, Tremoloes, the Animals and Mike Bender of the Searchers. For the opening act, we had the Philippines’ own RJ Jacinto.

I was amazed that some of these seniors still sounded remarkably good. Even if some of the original group members in the bands have been replaced with young blood recruited to take over the missing , they could still rise to the expectations of the audience.

It was quite a show in many ways, although I had mixed reactions.

It was absolutely great to listen to the old songs knowing some of the performers were the originals who sang and played them. It didn’t make a difference that some of its old members were now missing (or passed away). The songs definitely had not lost their luster and appeal. While I am not exactly a teenager anymore and it’s been five decades since I first heard their songs, I felt the beat and the angst I used to feel as a teen in 1965 as I watched the bands perform them.

Music can really move you. Music is the “soundtrack of our lives,” as Casey Kasem put it, and can bring us back in time when we felt the emotional pull of our youth and all its aches, pains and awkwardness. We were young, unformed as persons, vulnerable, shy and angsty and trying to make sense of the burning teen love and raging hormones that made us feel alive, even though we were mostly troubled and sad.

The songs somehow encapsulated our feelings. The lyrics resonated inside us like gospel truth. It made us feel that we “fit” in some isolated universe but in the company of other people like ourselves. At least we were not alone.

Tremoloes sing Silence is Golden and other hits.

The Animals have lost their lead singer and songwriter Eric Burdon. But they got a younger man to replace the very voice that gave them so many hit songs. It took two songs before I adjusted to the new lead man. He sang with competence and his voice was close enough to Burdon’s that I began to really enjoy the performance. The songs Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Don’t Bring Me Down, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and House of the Rising Sun had everyone singing out loud. Their 10-song set was excellent. No drag. The playing was tight. And they performed without trying to pull you into some nostalgic orbit. They did the songs fresh as if they were a current band playing for a new audience.

The Troggs, which had very youthful, edgy songs like Wild Thing and I Can’t Control Myself among their hits in the ‘60s, gave quite a performance, too. But it was quite ironic to watch these senior citizens still singing about teen love. Sometimes, they hammed it up, but the shrill power of their sound 50 years ago, with its screaming guitars and loud beats, was still there. It was actually quite amazing to see their only guitarist, who was old and balding, strike the guitar with bravado, passion and competence.

“When The Searchers came to Manila in 1965, we could hear a lot of screaming girls. We don’t get that anymore,” said Mike Bender of The Searchers. While he was trying to be self-deprecatingly funny, he also underlined what 50 years had done to the rambunctious wildness of their youth and time itself. The world they created for themselves then as pop icons had all but retreated into the smoke of nostalgia. But it was still potent smoke and he still elicited quite an excitement when he sang songs like Love Potion Number 9, and Needles and Pins, two of my old favorites.

While watching them, I, too, experienced the passing of time. I thought about my own music career. Time was when APO and the artists of my generation ruled the airwaves, TV channels and stage venues. Not anymore. While people look at us with some fondness and respect, we are no longer on the radar screen as public personalities.

Many entertainers, including myself, still love performing. I, as solo performer, or sometimes with my APO buddy Boboy Garrovillo, will never lose the thrill of hearing the audience sing our hits. It is a great and humbling feeling to know that our songs have indeed become the soundtrack of Filipino lives.

A new artist wants nothing more than to be discovered, praised and loved by the audience. He will do anything to achieve it, including performing for free. A senior artist past his hey- day wants nothing more than to be remembered.

Many senior artists like myself and others in my generation who still enjoy what we are doing will continue to write, record and perform every chance we get.

People are inclined to ask why we continue to perform when the cult of youth has always ruled the world of pop. Shouldn’t we retire and give way to the younger set?

The answer is simple. A dog barks. A cat meows. A writer writes. A painter paints. A singer sings. A creative creates.

We are happy doing it. We can’t help but do what we are meant to do.


HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 10, 2015 – 12:00am

I love science, new inventions, gadgets — everything that propels the direction of modern life to newer experiences. But I am also afraid of them for the same reason.

But while I fear it at times, I also marvel at what man is capable of doing. Almost daily, new discoveries are changing our lives, every aspect of which seems to be undergoing software upgrade.

Being alive at this time, in my 60s, I have the unique vantage point of one who grew up in an earlier, slower time, and now fully embraces the conveniences of a fast and modern world.

One might say, I was born in an analogue world when life was simpler, slower and easier to comprehend. It required a different type of education and mindset. We actually read entire books that we borrowed from a real library or bought at the store. We physically held our books, turned the pages and read every word.

We were also less distracted. We did not have gadgets that drew our attention away from what we had to do. We actually wrote out our schoolwork by hand and typed our theses using a clunky typewriter. We did not cut and paste and we had no autocorrect. We could not resize or change fonts, or automatically center our documents after typing. We had to consider everything before we even put a word down on paper.

When we planned our weekends, we took it as a matter of faith that people would show up. We had no such things as cellphones and texting to nag our friends with.

Such was our simple, reliable, analogue life.

Today, we are deluged with more information than we need and that comes to us in real time. We are so connected to each other, we can actually send an email, tweet or an FB comment to anyone on the planet, so long as we have access to the Internet. We are in touch 24/7.

I used to wonder at the pace of life during Rizal’s era. When he was in Europe, Rizal would receive letters from family and friends that were written months earlier. And it would take more than a couple of months for his answer to reach them.

As one who has lived in a slower time at a slower pace but is now thoroughly attuned to modern contraptions, I am disturbed by the disconnect between how human beings throughout the centuries learned the important things that take time to internalize, and how in this new world, people are used to — even demand — instant gratification.

For example, it takes a lot of time to learn patience, gain wisdom, be an adult, build character and develop deep relationships. This time requirement goes against the very grain of modern life where people expect that learning be delivered instantly.

In my experience in a decade of teaching, I find that most students have very little grasp of anything that happened in the world beyond 40 years ago. In general, their understanding of history is bereft of depth and analysis. They have short attention spans, which means lessons must be presented in small bites for them to absorb and appreciate. They want things summarized, encapsulated; they have no patience for long readings.

I sometimes fear that the way technology has made everything too convenient for everyone, could make today’s generation too impatient, too soft, too demanding in their quest for love, compassion, wisdom, friendship and other unquantifiables. They could miss the real thing and settle for cuteness, instant attraction, feeling good, constant stimulation and shallowness.

I know I sound old. As I write this I can hear my mom’s generation complaining about mine. But I could be wrong. After all, every generation in the last 200 years must have fretted the same way as they saw their children born into and living in a braver, newer, faster world than they did. The industrial revolution saw children of farmers flock to the cities and go for experiences so different from what their parents knew. And the world is better for it.

There are conflicting insights on the subject of generations. One says, “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” (That’s US Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day). I think my mom’s generation must have resonated more with this quote. Life then was about giving their kids the chances and opportunities they never had.

To represent my generation, I quote the American novelist Chuck Palahniuk: “Every generation wants to be the last. Every generation hates the next trend in music they can’t understand. We hate to give up those reins of our culture. To find our own music playing in elevators. The ballad for our revolution, turned into background music for a television commercial. To find our generation’s clothes and hair suddenly retro.” This comes from a generation that feels more entitled and is more narcissistic than their parents were.

I worry a lot about the future. But I console myself with the belief that every succeeding generation will likely worry about their own and the generation that follows theirs.

I trust that this present generation will find its own way to learn the life lessons every human being has had to learn since the beginning of time. Today’s millennials may be too impatient for my taste, but I know they will carve their own path, however I feel about it.

After all, what choice do they have?

For a baby boomer like me who sometimes asks what I did wrong and what I could have done better, I am comforted by words shared by Peter Krausse from the TV series Parenthood: “Parenthood… It’s about guiding the next generation, and forgiving the last.”

Wise words.

Taking out the clutter

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 3, 2015 –

I am a packrat.

My son Mio called me on this when he saw the state of my laptop screen. There were icons of apps and files, photos, screen captures, Word documents, random stuff that I had downloaded but never even opened. Even my trash icon was full. It was a mess.

When Mio suggested that I trash two thirds of what was visible on my screen, I felt uneasy. What if I decide later that I need them? I asked him if he was serious. He looked at me and said an emphatic yes, even though he knew it was not the answer I wanted to hear.

His simple rule was: Be ruthless! Anything that you have not opened or used in the past four months will probably never be used and you must get rid of it. Besides, such files only eat up memory. And you can always download them again when you need them.

Without looking back, I did exactly as he ordered. That was a year and a half ago, and now my desktop is again as messy as ever.

In real life, it is even harder to let go of things. Through the years, we accumulate a lot of stuff. In my case, I am averse to throwing anything away. I have this strange attachment to clothes, gadgets, shoes, receipts, or anything given to me. I accumulate clothes but I do not wear many of them. I hardly wear the “special” ones since I save them for “special” occasions. So, many of my “special” clothes remain practically unused. And yet I can’t throw them away because they are “special.”

I used to be a collector. For a time, I liked watches. I had quite a collection of strange watches. They were not expensive but they were interesting. Every time I traveled anywhere, I looked for the strangest, most gimmicky ones and I bought them. Then one day, I just lost interest in watches and ended up giving some away and just losing the others.

Once in a while, I fall in love with an artist and I buy his or her every CD I can get hold of. I have a 14-CD collection of the Brazilian artist Joyce whom I have liked since I randomly picked up her record when I went to Brazil in 1991. I also collect books of writers I enjoy like Neale Donald Walsch, Ken Wilber and Joseph Campbell.

I like collecting them and have no desire to throw them away because I enjoy them and engage with them often.

My wife likes to buy stuff more than I do. She buys art pieces, furniture and other things for the house even if she still does not know what to do with them or where to put them. She also gets into hobbies and so accumulates a lot of things. We have pottery, utensils and cabinets full of ceramic vases, cups, bowls, plates that she keeps years after giving up the hobby. Right now, they occupy a huge space in the living room of our old house. I have no idea where they will end up unless we give them away.

At certain points in life, we are called to give up stuff and remove the clutter in our physical spaces. But there is another call that is just as important and that is to clear our internal clutter.

We are asked to sort out what is important in our lives and throw away old beliefs, attitudes, and mindsets that no longer matter, so we can travel lighter. We don’t want to be burdened by things that are no longer useful at certain stages in our lives. In fact, they may not only be a burden to carry, they could sabotage our journey to the next stage of where life is leading us.

We transferred to a new house recently and I was surprised that I handled the sorting out of what to bring and what to leave behind easier than I thought.

I was guided by a simple question: What am I willing to part with and never see again for the rest of my life? As I went through every piece of clothing, I felt liberated and freed from many items. I discarded more than half of my wardrobe.

Internally, the exercise is a bit more complicated. When I look at my life and I see all my imperfections and character flaws, I know that what is being asked of me is not so much to change myself, but to accept all of what I am — faults, weaknesses, strengths and blessings as well.

I am not saying I am perfect. Far from it. There is definitely always room for change. But the dynamics on how I can change myself are quite different in this arena.

It is not easy. At certain points in our lives, we think we’ve moved forward, and at other times, we know we have not. In fact, we could have even moved backwards.

I used to berate myself for my erring ways and engage in self-loathing. But now, I realize that looking at myself in a kinder way makes it easier for me to let go of habits and ways of thinking that are not good for me. I do not feel threatened, calling myself out.

More than the militant self that wants to put me through boot camp or rehab, I am listening more to the Zen teacher in me that says that I am okay as I am, that I am still a work in progress even at my age. I may rearrange or redesign my life as I please, provided I am doing my internal inventory honestly.

We need to have an intimate knowing of ourselves where we see the fine print that tells us where our true motives lie. If we can be honest with ourselves at this level, we can be more objective and call ourselves out when we see that we are sabotaging ourselves.

One can’t be a packrat psychologically and spiritually and see clearly. We have to let things go. Our souls need the space to be free. If we can’t do this, we should resign ourselves to living stagnantly with the clutter.