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Pre-colonial spirituality manifests in self and social psychology

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JANUARY 26, 2023

As in many traditional Filipino families, I grew up Catholic and spent my high school years studying in an all-girls Catholic school in the Philippines. My high school had a very conservative and traditional culture, so initially, I was conditioned to think of many parts of my self-psychology to be stagnant and completely linear in terms of discovery and change. 

Like everything, we were trained to have a very binary way of thinking. It was all laid out for us neatly on a table. This is what is right, and this is what is wrong. Usually, that list lasts a lifetime’s supply of everyday knowledge and notions related to spirituality and this turns over to how we think about the world. 

The Philippines is one of the many countries in Southeast Asia that has a deep history in folklore. In the pre-colonial Philippines, religious beliefs included animism the direct attribution of a soul to an object or phenomena — and influences from Hinduism and Buddhism. Most notably, many believed in the parallel spirit world, an invisible force that could guide nature and people. This turned over to making Filipinos very conscious of their behavior towards the environment and people, since it was believed that everything had a spirit or “Anito.” Spiritual leaders or “Babaylans” prioritized this spiritual belief in practice through effective communication with their respective tribes, making the very core of the Filipino “kapwa,” which is the unity of one’s self and others. 

Socially, this created a lot of solidarity within the Philippine islands. However, this quickly turned sour after long centuries of Spanish colonization. After that, the country became one of the most prominent vessels of Catholicism in Asia. As a result, past spiritual practices slowly died down, and the very root of Filipino camaraderie established by our ancestors diminished. 

This is not to say that Catholicism directly acted as an inhibitor to how Filipino people related to themselves and each other. However, I believe this has inhibited how many perceive the world and interact with diverse identities and beliefs. Growing up as a Catholic, I learned many good and vital values that have made me a better person, but I have been inhibited from thinking about other aspects of my life. 

The fluidity in my gender, sexuality, and ability to connect with a more extensive plethora of people was reserved. It was only unleashed when I could openly learn more about other religions and cultures when I lived outside of the Philippines. Gaining experience living in the West when I moved to the United States for college broke a lot of stigma in my mind. 

A lot of these stigmas surrounded the subject of identity and what it means to be self-compassionate as a queer and non-binary person. Reading more books on Filipino pre-colonial spirituality reminded me of how interconnected I was to my roots and how more open-minded I was to our evolving world. 

To further explore this experience and thought, I spoke with Carl Lorenz Cervantes, a graduate student at Ateneo de Manila University who studies psychology and its relation to the Filipino psyche. Cervantes shared that he has always been interested in this field, being raised religious with relatives who are priests and mystics. He shared with me that he, too, realized that psychology was “magical.” He thought it was nuanced to be able to study transpersonal phenomena like spiritual and paranormal experiences, familiar to most Filipinos. 

In his long-term endeavor to discover and learn more about this study, he wrote a book, “Deep Roots,” about his experiences as a Filipino Catholic through the lens of psychology.

For Filipinos in particular, Cervantes shared that “our pioneering social scientists meant well when they tried to indigenize psychology, but there is a tendency to come from a Manila-centric, Tagalog perspective. Further, due to the influence of the Catholic faith, we have created a stigmatizing distinction between ‘traditional’ religion and folk belief. We slowly realize that there are no singular Filipino experiences but many. There is no one spring from which our culture comes. There are many from all around the world.” 

To learn more about these intersections, Cervantes encourages people to ground themselves in research ultimately. Decolonizing psychology is seen through this outlet of embracing and promoting the nature of spirituality and folklore in how Filipinos think and perceive. One should reflect on your culture and see where these underlying lessons lie. It could help people rise above and realize the importance of pre-colonial practices in their everyday personal psychology. 

Macy Lee is a graduate of UC Davis, with a degree in psychology and international relations. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JANUARY 26, 2023