I recently finished the book I blogged about back on July 9, Boiling Energy: Community Healing Among the Kalahari Kung (Harvard U.P., 1982). The author, Richard Katz, is both an anthropologist and a psychologist, so he writes with unusual authority. He also did fieldwork in Fiji, and in contrasting the two very different societies – the formerly cannibalistic Fijians and the largely peaceful and egalitarian Kung – uncovered some lessons that he feels will be of use to community psychiatrists in the West.
Boiling Energy is a fascinating and clearly written book that anyone with an interest in healing, comparative religion or spirituality should find rewarding. My only wish is that Katz had written a bit more about the ideological foundation for Kung healing. What are the relationships between the tutelary spirits of the dances (giraffe, trees, kite, puff adder) and the various participants in those dances? Presumably, the author felt that since he could not say anything definitive, he’d be better off saying almost nothing. While this is laudable, I fear that he allowed an unconscious humanistic or anthropocentric bias to blind him to the central importance of non-human species, which clearly resemble humans in being simultaneously bodies and spirits (a distinction foreign to the Kung). Since many species regularly give up their bodies for food, might the Kung perceive the human-non human relationship as a template for the relationship between healer and community? After all, every time the healer enters into a healing trance, she or he is said to die and then experience rebirth – and this is meant quite literally, as we saw earlier.
Boiling Energy is a model of anthropological circumspection. Katz makes the provisional nature of some of his conclusions abundantly clear, and in describing the Kung he manages to avoid the twin pitfalls of idealization and subjection to alien worldviews and theories. Only in the last chapter, “‘Tell Our Story To Your People,'” does he venture to draw some tentative conclusions about the applicability of Kung healing methods and philosophies to Western cultural contexts. Since this is the part most likely to be of interest to a general audience, I thought I’d share a somewhat lengthy excerpt. Katz writes,
Several general principles characterize the education of Kung healers, one of which is the healer’s experiences of transformation. Becoming a healer depends on an initial transformation of consciousness, a new experience of reality in which the boundaries of the self become more permeable to an intensified contact with a transpersonal or spiritual realm. At this juncture, prospective healers experience a sense of connectedness which joins a transpersonal or spiritual healing power, themselves, and their community. But gaining access to the healing power is not enough; healers must then learn to apply that power to healing within the community. This application occurs as the experience of transformation is continually enacted and reaffirmed in the healers. This transformation both initiates the intensive phase of becoming a healer and characterizes the healer’s subsequent development.
In these transformations the emphasis is on the psychological process of transition rather than on the nature of barriers crossed or stages reached. Healers move continuously between their fear of transforming experience and their desire to heal others, their search for increased healing power and the difficulty of working with it. The emphasis on transition establishes flexible boundaries between career phases and psychological states. The healer’s career focuses upon one recurring developmental issue, which may or may not be resolved at increasing levels of difficulty, namely, to die to oneself to accept boiling num, or to transcend fear and pain, even of one’s death.
A second principle is that the experience of transformation, which makes healing possible, does not remove healers from the context of daily living not diminish their everyday responsibilities. Kung healers are as hard-working in ordinary subsistence activities as nonhealers, and they contribute fully to their communities. The service orientation of the healing work is a third principle. Although healers themselves must become engaged in a difficult educational process, they do so as their community’s emissary. The healers’ commitment is to channel healing to the community rather than to accumulate power for personal use. Healers struggle for a sense of connectedness joining self, community, and the spiritual domain, and their commitment to community service guides their healing practice and their lives.
A fourth principle is that transformation sets in motion an inner development which is not manifested or rewarded by changes in external [social] status. A fifth principle is the emphasis on heart as a critical context for healing and healing technology. It is qualities of heart, such as courage, that open the healers to the healing potential and keep them in the healing work. And a final principle is that the education of healers stresses the proper performance of the healing ritual rather than discrete outcomes. The cure of a patient assumes importance only in the larger context of the community’s healing ritual. Proper performance demands that the healer serve as the focal point of intensity, embodying dedication to healing and reaffirming the community’s self-healing capacity.
Reading this summary without reference to any concrete examples may leave quite a few readers more confused than enlightened – if so, I apologize. A closer examination of any one of these principles could yield a lengthy blog post in itself. Even as I input the quote, I thought of multiple connections I might draw to the subjects of previous Via Negativa posts: for example, to some of my disquisitions on the grotesque body or on the fraught terrain where healing magic meets the quest for personal power/knowledge. But this post is already long enough – and besides, I don’t know beans about psychiatry.
Katz’s findings about the Kung seem to resonate with the service ethic outlined by Rachel Naomi Remen in an essay reprinted by Sussura de Luz the other day: “We don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals. . . . 0ur service serves us as well as others. That which uses us strengthens us. Over time, fixing and helping are draining, depleting. Over time we burn out. Service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will sustain us.”