The Search for the Self is the Search for the Sacred: Identities, Sacredness, and Indigenous Spiritual Beliefs and Practices

Last year, I was asked to share my thoughts on sacredness and spirituality as encountered by contemporary Filipino youth. Giving some thought and reflecting on my encounters with various IP youth, I’ve come up with this presentation. Sharing it now to address an itch – to write again, and share it with the wider world. 

I would like to thank De La Salle University and our organizers for providing this opportunity to share and discuss observations, thoughts, and perceptions of young Filipinos on sacredness and spirituality. As one of the young myself, such discussions could further provide us textures and points of view as we develop our core beliefs on self and spirituality; also, this is also opportunity for us to, in a sense, explain ourselves to our parents and mentors.

Just to build some context on the ideas I’ll be sharing: the views I’ll be discussing are derived from my personal explorations on spirituality and sacredness, a learning journey that I’ve been actively pursuing for the past 20-odd years; ideas culled from conversations with young Filipinos all-over the country who share the same questing and questioning; and perspectives shared and observed from the young members of cultural communities I’ve interacted with, primarily the Talaandig Indigenous Community[1] of Lantapan, Bukidnon.

My presentation would focus on how some young Filipinos are shaping their spiritual beliefs and practices through a convergence of religious structures, perspectives formed through their socialization, with focus on wholeness and interconnectedness, a quality of the indigenous peoples’ spiritual worldview.[2] Similarly, it can be observed that indigenous spiritual practices can be experienced not only with members of the Indigenous communities in our country, but also amongst a few Filipinos who have embraced a more non-traditional expression of their spirituality and faith. It is with the embrace of what is present and what is forgotten and remembered that these young Filipinos are defining and re-shaping their sense of self today.

Like the majority of the Filipino people, I was born and raised a Roman Catholic. I came from a family that is conservative in religious practice – Sunday masses, intimate relationship with our parish priests, catechism classes, and the observance of different sacraments. I also received an education from a catholic school run by nuns. Suffice to say, I represent the socialization experience of a typical, middle to upper-middle class young Filipino.

My sense of self was formed from these experiences. In my slightly younger years, I defined myself religious, not spiritual. If further asked, I would say a religious person would be an individual who goes to church, observed the 10 Commandments, and fears God. How I viewed spirituality and sacredness was grounded on Roman Catholic dogma and traditions. The structures and rituals of the Church is something that I am familiar and comfortable with.

Not a lot of Filipinos can differentiate religion from spirituality. If asked for their spiritual beliefs, a typical Filipino would either say, “I’m Christian, a Catholic, a Baptist, or a Muslim.” Spiritual beliefs are explained via religious affiliation, which provides shortcuts to what your beliefs are.

In that sense, identity is defined not by the individual’s values and actions, but rather through membership in societal structures. It is where you belong, not what you’re beliefs and practices are that defined you. This assumes uniformity – that all members of an institution share the same core beliefs and practices.

But this is not necessarily the case. In my experience, not a lot of Catholics I know share the same beliefs, or express their beliefs in a similar fashion. One’s understanding of the Church dogma may differ from the other. The differentiation is most obvious in the youth today, who is not only exposed to more information about different faiths and their expressions, but who were also brought up to be more questioning, more open to explore their individual beliefs.

How do indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices apply to this scenario?

Of the 123 ethno linguistic groups in the country, 110 are classified as indigenous cultural community or indigenous peoples. For our discussion’s purposes, we are defining IPs as communities who’ve successfully resisted political, economic, cultural, and spiritual colonization.[3] Despite the large number of their grouping, indigenous communities only account for 15 to 19% of Philippine population[4]. Although some of these groups have slowly integrated to mainstream society through the embrace of Christianized and westernized culture[5], there still exist communities who continue their traditional practices and beliefs.

Spirituality is an important component for the indigenous communities. For the IPs, spirituality is not expressed in dogma, or structures, or hierarchies. Similar to how they view and construct socio-political structures, spirituality and its forms are non-hierarchical, participative, and rooted in consensual values and mechanisms. The focus is on wholeness and interconnectedness. A survey of indigenous communities in the country would point to some common qualities:

1)                      Strong emphasis on the relationship of Man with Nature (Ugnayan ng Tao sa Kalikasan). Man is part of nature, not only a steward and consumer of Nature and its resources. Similar to Sheldrake’s field theory, we share what we are with Nature and Nature shared what it is with us;

2)                      God(s) are manifested in Nature; they have specific nature manifestations, and spirits can direct nature. IPs define spirits either through their environmental characteristics (diyos / diyosa ng tubig, kabundukan, lupa, etc) or as deities or supra-natural beings (diwata). Dead ancestors also become part of the Spiritual world and can be one with the gods and the deities;

3)                      The manifestations of these gods and spirits are sacred. Natural resources that embody environmental gods are sacred. Experiences and symbolisms that evoke and connote gods and spirits are considered sacred. The act of communication with these spirits is sacred, and;

4)                      Spiritual practice is defined by the intimate and balanced relationship with the gods as manifested through Nature and the Other (kalikasan at kapwa). Blessings are sought when Nature is accessed in their daily activities like farming or building a house. Spiritual guidance is also needed when there is conflict or celebrations, like weddings and births.

Given such perspective, each action is seen as having a correspondent spiritual effect, or causation. Illness can either be punishment for displeasing the spirits, and abundance as blessings because the spirits are pleased with Man’s actions. Because the physical and spiritual world is seen as intricately connected, the intention in each action, or what we aspire to achieve, is what is relevant. What is intentional is considered spiritual. And all intentional acts (whether attributed to the gods or to your fellow man) is sacred.

Indigenous spirituality demands a heightened sense of consciousness – we pray not because it is what we were taught but because we seek communion with the spirits. What a lot of young Filipinos discovered is this intentional consciousness is what elevates the structures and mechanisms they’re most familiar with that became habitual and lost some of its essence.

This is not an appropriation of other people’s culture, rather an opportunity to further understand one’s socialization and enrich one’s sense of self.

Such enrichment can be seen in:

1)                      Medicine. Some young doctors include alternative or traditional Pinoy healing arts to their practice. The practice of hilot, or traditional massage, is about balancing the energies in one’s body, as it is the body that relates to Nature and the spirits. Pre-colonization Filipino physio-spiritual doctors, who practice arbularyo, use indigenous fauna to heal illnesses. Most households still practice this traditional medical practice, and more medicines and health supplements in the market today are based in this practice.[6]

2)                      Music. It can be heard in the repertoire of artists who include ritual chants and rhythms, as well as nature sounds, to their discography. Mainstream artists who enrich their discography with traditional music include Joey Ayala, Bayang Barrios, Grace Nono, Pinikpikan, Kadangyan, and others. There are IP musicians who are also creating their name in the music scene, like Waway Saway at and Kadugo Band (musicians from the Talaandig community of Bukidnon), Baba Mitra (singer of Kadangyan, of Cordilleran extraction), Kawangis ng Tribu (Palaw’an IP musicians), and so forth.

3)                      It can also be seen in the paintings, sculptures and installations of artists who include healing motifs, traditional symbols, even baybayin syllabary, to their work. A number of the Baguio Artists Guild membership includes traditional motifs in their paintings (also as a reflection of their cultural heritage and ethnic extraction). The Baybayin network here in Manila not only re-introduces the ancient script to students to promote the appreciation of the Baybayin syllabary, but also explores Baybayin’s healing modality possibilities[7].

4)                      Dance. The Baybayin slyllabary was also turned into a dance form, reflecting the movements of each syllable, similar to eurhythmy of the Anthroposophical Movement. Pi Villaraza is a healer and culture worker who developed Inner Dance, believed to be similar to the movements of the ancient babaylans from the Visayas Region and also believed to contain healing properties. He is now based in Bahay Kalipay in Palawan, doing workshops on inner dance and other healing modalities.

5)                      Application in Sustainable Development Work. Culture and peace workers now include rituals to consecrate their development work. This is most common amongst interfaith groups doing work in Mindanao. This practice can also be seen amongst the membership of the Peacebuilders Community, some of which are Manila-based. There are also Babaylan researchers who are part of the academe, and other culture creatives working in various development initiatives around the country.

Young IPs still learn and perform their spiritual practices. Spiritual leaders are being cultivated and developed amongst the young. In the Talaandig community, the shamans are one of the most accessible elders in the community, sharing their experiences, thoughts, and beliefs with the young Talaandig, even young non-IP visitors to the community. Young Talaandig artists use their spiritual beliefs as themes in their soil paintings. Children as young as 4 years old learn their traditional rhythms and how to play their musical instruments. Such skill is used to converse with their spirits, like offering morning prayers or blessings for community gatherings. Although the youth cannot fully lead community rituals yet (or they can at the risk of consequences from the spirits), their participation in rituals are necessary. Spiritual practice is understood as a practice of their culture.

The search for the self is the search for the sacred, and vis-a-vis, the search for a spiritual identity is an intrinsic part on the formation of self amongst Filipino youth. In my journey, similar to the journeys of several young Filipinos, I’ve discovered that the dogma and rituals I’ve learned in the Roman Catholic Church develops more meaning when viewed from a wholeness perspective. Conservative Catholics might point out to conflicts between Catholic faith with the animistic polytheistic spiritual practices of the indigenous communities, but such fusion allows me to developed a more humanistic, grounded spiritual consciousness.

What is sacred for young Filipinos today? For the culturally aware and conscious young Filipino, what is spiritual and sacred are the intentions carried out with their daily actions. As they say, practice without faith, is both empty and false. As indigenous spirituality is rooted on relationships, what is considered alien to the mainstream society might, in the future, become a vital component of Filipino spirituality and practice.

[1] The Talaandig Indigenous Peoples are one of the seven (7) indigenous communities based in Bukidnon, Mindanao. They are primarily based in the Kitanglad Mountain Ranges. They are one of the more organized indigenous communities, having an active Elder Community, a successful School of Living Traditions, and continuous interaction with non-IP and IP communities around the country. As a community, they actively participate in discourse in promotion of IP culture, fight for IP rights, and participate in Mindanao peace building efforts.

[2] My observation is that contemporary young Filipinos are forming their spiritual identities coming from their socialization, the religious practice they grew up with, merged with new perspectives derived from their own questioning and exploration. In a sense, young Filipinos are “Catholics / Christian / Methodist, etc + another spirituality”. This scenario does not conflict with their original faith but rather complement their own understanding of God, Divinity, spirituality, and sacredness.

[3] This definition is also congruent to how IP’s define themselves as well. Self-ascription is important to the IPs; it is an extension of their right to self-determination. In the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, an indigenous community is a group of people identified by self-ascription and ascription by others, and have continuously lived as organized community on communally bounded and defined territory, and have, under claims of ownership since time immemorial, occupied, possessed, and utilized such territories, sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions, and other distinctive cultural traits. IPs has also, through resistance to political, social, and cultural inroads of colonization, become historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos. IPs likewise include peoples who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country at the time of colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural, and political institutions, but who may have been displaced from their traditional domains or who may have resettled outside their ancestral domains.

[4] Percentage of Filipinos considered IP vary depending of data source (government agency data – NSO, NCIP, etc; local and international NGOs and IOs – UNDP, UNESCO, etc). What is consistent though, is the steady decline of their numbers. Of the IP population, 61% are Mindanao-based, 33% are from Luzon, and 6% are distributed in Visayas.

[5] This is the scenario for most of the Cordillera IP groups, where Christianization transpired during the American colonization. In addition to Catholic missionaries (of all nationalities), Protestant evangelists are also heading to the mountains of Visayas and Mindanao bringing news of evangelization and community development.

[6] Dr. Moon Maglaya of Kidapawan, Cotabato, is an anthroposophical doctor who practices community medicine. Her clinic is one of the pioneers in fusing anthroposophical medicine with indigenous medical practices.

[7] A research done by Bonifacio Comandante together with UPLB researchers explored the effect of Baybayin symbols to the growth of mongo beans. There are psycho-spiritual art therapy sessions in Manila which includes Baybayin writing in their modules.


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