Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)
Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.
Aude Fluckiger was born in Switzerland, but has been living in Taiwan for four and a half years. During that time she worked on a paper titled "Case Study of an Urban Indigenous Healer in Taiwan". In this interview, she tells us about her experiences researching alternative healing in Taiwan and the specifics of one case study in particular.
Investigating healing rituals in Taiwan and the ethnological case study of a sound healing practitioner
What first led you to Taiwan?
Many different things, but I've had this strong fascination for Asia for as long as I can remember, a strong interest to understand local peoples' way of perceiving their own cultures and beliefs in very distant areas of the world, and it is also a kind of personal quest, maybe even a spiritual quest, because I am very attracted to Eastern philosophies and traditions, I'm very sensitive to Oriental aestheticism, Chinese painting, martial arts, meditation, yoga, and so forth. In addition, I completed a Bachelor's degree in Chinese studies and History of Religions in Geneva and had this opportunity to come to Taiwan on a Huayu scholarship and after a while I realized I had to stay to pursue with a Chinese Master in ethnology, because going back to Europe would be a pity, for the language mostly.
What does your current research project consist of?
I've conducted anthropological fieldwork research in Taiwan on an indigenous healer who is not living in her tribal setting anymore and has no connection with her native village, she moved at an early stage near an urban centre in Northern Taiwan. My research was trying to understand how this Amis indigenous woman established a unique healing practice that she calls "Sound healing", as well as to investigate the nature of this particular healing method (e.g. decipher the indigenous features from the more global influences), and tend to understand the conditions for a successful healing process in relation to the quality of the therapeutic relationship.
Does this "Sound Healing" involve a fusion of disciplines?
You could say so. As most indigenous people in Taiwan do, she received Christian influences in her village since she was very young. Some of the older generations were more resistant to this, but she was born in 1955 and definitely felt the Catholic influence. Of course there is also a huge influence of Buddhist concepts in Taiwan, which she references, helping to attract many Buddhists. In addition, certain elements in her speech can also be connected to Taoism. However, the main influences I was able to identify from her speeches and actions were those of New Age globalised religions and movements that have been present in Taiwan since the 1980s. I didn't mention the Amis aspect yet because in comparison to all the above it's practically nonexistent. For the most part her speech is related to those international New Age movements. Sound healing finds its roots in many archaic cultures and societies, but with the present revival of shamanic ancestral practices and worldviews through New Age media, sound healing is also finding its legitimacy and presently a growing number of alternative therapists worldwide rely on theories of emerging fields like "cymatics" (lit. "science of waves or vibrations") to legitimize "sound waves" as a therapeutic tool.
What kind of people seek her help and what kind of ailments do they usually suffer from?
I would say because of the nature of her method, she attracts people that often move in those New Age circles with the means to attend her workshops, which are often very expensive. The majority of them are middle aged women who have a stable economic situation, but there are also men and women of all kind of ages and nationalities, the youngest being usually in their thirties. They generally come searching for spiritual growth. I didn't see that many people come in with physical ailments. When I asked her about this, she said she can help anyone as long as they are willing to "face themselves". She claims that even if you have cancer and you are really ready to face yourself, then she can heal you. She also conducts private healings and in that case the mode of interaction with is quite different..
Can you tell us more about her method?
She's using her own voice as a major tool for healing. Her actual chanting is monosyllabic and without lyrics, it isn't a "language". She considers that the sound of her voice is reflecting the primal force of nature and that it's through that sound that she gets her power to heal people. In this sense she is using sound in a similar way to other practices such as Himalayan singing bowls and other methods stemming from both traditional and New Age backgrounds. She often starts the therapy by insisting that people have to "face" the things they have issues with. In the case of a patient having unresolved issues with a father, for example, she would say she would call his soul (the father being alive or not), she would "become him" (through a "possession" related process), and then the patient would face him and interact with him. It doesn't necessarily need to be a person, it can also be a feature of one's personality, such as anger. In this case, the healer would "become your anger" so you can face it. When she "becomes" those features or embodies a "soul", she claims that the other alien soul manifests itself through her body by standing momentarily next to hers. She's completely conscious, and there is no memory loss. In ethnology this type of possession is certainly not "traditional" in regard of the traditional use of "possession states" employed by the Amis or other Austronesian groups in Taiwan. Because of her connection and past training with international transpersonal models of healing (more psychologically orientated), these types of states can also be put in relation with today's Western psycho-therapeutic developing methods such as techniques to induce so-called "trance-like" states in the patient, or more simply therapeutic "role playing" in order to help the patient to put awareness and re-enact and transcend a painful event. She also developed a more discursive aspect that I call "guided dialogue" where she "guides" patients to realise and speak out so far unconscious parts of themselves, and this speech part has been one of the focus of my analysis as it can reveal how the healer is establishing her authority in the therapeutic relationship.
What is her background?
She comes from a very disadvantaged background and she hasn't had any connection with her tribe for many years. She has been through a lot in her life and is very committed to her spiritual practice At 38 years old she arrived to a non-return point where she realised her mission to become a healer. She was sick with cancer herself. According to my informants at some point she was only given three months to live and she kind of found a way to heal herself. She has mentioned that the main thing that helped her in her healing process was the "facing of herself" with the help of international New Age leaders, amongst them Supreme Master Ching Hai. However she is never specific about her masters and will only divulge a few clues from time to time. This mystery related to her own background is often encountered with certain leaders (not just in the spiritual field) and plays a critical role in the gathering of potential followers and the building of a charismatic relationship.
Are her sessions one-on-one or group sessions?
She actually does both. She holds group workshops about every two weeks in the mountainside, near where she lives. There are always new followers, she is never lacking. She is very popular and attracts people through her various indigenous flavoured performances. I would say that the main difference between the one-on-one and the group sessions is that in the group sessions, the requirement for commitment is much smaller, there is less pressure put on the patient whilst the one-to-one sessions are more challenging in terms of personal involvement and unpredictability.
Is there a personality cult surrounding her?
There is, but it is not so obvious in the group setting. Most of my fieldwork was conducted in the individual setting, and, there it was more intense. In her practice, it is never a case of healing one time and goodbye. Whenever a newcomer arrives, she sets a few rules. However, these have changed drastically in the years I have known her. In the beginning she would sometimes even offer healing sessions for free, but today her one-on-one sessions are quite expensive considering the Taiwanese living standards.. The last time I saw her, however, I was quite alarmed by radical her conditions to accept new patients were, and that's why I had to put an end to my fieldwork. It had come to a point where it was obvious that what she was looking for where not patients, but disciples. She was then requiring that those that come to her be extremely committed, implying in that case a consequent change in their lifestyle, an important degree of suspending one's critical sense and free will. These conditions are not always expressed in a clear-cut way. It also happened several times that maybe after the second or third meeting, she changed the rules of their interaction so that patients barely had any choice about what aspects they wanted to take, which left them in certain cases almost completely disempowered, and at the mercy of the authority of the leader, much like in a sectarian dynamic. People who are usually passionate about her often just break contact and leave within the three first sessions. That being said, there are people it might work for. One of my informants was extremely vulnerable when I first met her, and close to suicide. She is a young foreign woman who was very lonely, with lacking Chinese which made it hard to communicate with others. She was feeling rather left out, and she said that this woman became both a mother and a spiritual teacher who taught her how to manage herself. So, despite what we might say and how we may judge on the surface, it's true her method might help some people. However, I also believe it can be dangerous for some types of personalities who may lack resources to escape her influence. The interesting aspect to study in her case is the efficiency of symbolic ritual in regard to the therapeutic interaction. For example people who are more inclined to submit to her authority claim to feel better quite immediately after the first sessions. People who are maybe more "psychologically grounded" in the way they conduct their lives seem to be much less inclined to assess efficiency in a clear way and they usually don't go back after the three first sessions, the therapeutic frame being unable to offer them a space for doubts or self-process and assimilate the healing experience by referring to themselves fully, rather than referring to the assessment of the healer. The last case is usually part of a therapeutic relationship based on grounds of mutual dependence.
What other healers have you met?
I've met some "titong 乩童" or as they're often called by some specialists "Chinese shamans", Taoist priests and ritual specialists conducting rituals for healing or re-guiding "lost souls" to the other realms, certain mediums in temples or installed in a private practice, and some Taiwanese and Western shamanic workers who are more closely associated to what we can call "Neo-shamanism", as they allow the revival and the spread of ancestral shamanic knowledge of different parts of the world (like the Amazonian traditions) and render them accessible through workshops and teachings worldwide.
I remember when I first came to Taiwan I met this Shaolin master using Qigong to "heal", to work on body energy, and I could see him, it was quite impressive. He had his patients lying on their stomachs bareback with suction cups on their backs, and he would start to work with the energy and you could clearly see the cups moving in all kinds of directions, following the movement of the bones, all while he was one meter behind the patient! Seeing that right after leaving the very Cartesian-structured West-European society I come from, I could only be convinced that what cannot be "objectively visible" cannot be arbitrarily considered as non-existent or discarded for the comfort of the analytical mind that can only show resistance in those situations.
Has your subject read your research?
No, we didn't really keep in contact. Actually, she wanted me to become a healer like her and she didn't really understand the research perspective and my role as a participant observer that is proper to ethnology during fieldwork, so there was a growing tension during my fieldwork. It got to a point where it was impossible for me to observe from a distance because I had to be completely involved, to completely subdue and adhere to her therapeutic frame involving her own beliefs and rules. As there was no in-between ground possible there, I had to leave in the end. In any case, I don't think she would really be interested in reading it as her practice is primarily focused on experience by opposition to analysis, which is what we're suppose to do in a perspective of academic research. This research indicates how preponderant the New Age is in Taiwan today, how it dialogues with tradition and modernity, and points at the fact that the sectarian phenomenon is not an isolate case in Taiwanese religious landscape, the reasons for which would definitely be worth investigating in further research.
Interview and editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy.
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