When I was living in Italy, I attended a party where a swarm of flying ants started messing up the host’s apartment. I suggested that he turn off all the lights, take a basin, fill it with water, and then place a lit candle in the middle of the basin. Candle flame attracts insects, and then they always fly too close and get their wings burned, and they fall into the water and drown. This is basic insect behaviour, as anyone who has grown up in a tropical Third World country or watches Discovery Channel knows.
One of the guests, who was from Spain (speaking of Third World countries), butted in as I was explaining this and said smugly, “I don’t believe in magic.”
I retorted, “It’s science” but it was clear that I was on my own, and by that time, I was used to having the things I said deemed some kind of backwards traditional superstition because I’m Chinese. Westernized people are proud to think they are scientific or modern, but many of them are really ignorant about science. They just assume that anything Western is superior to backwards non-Western cultures, when in fact, Western scientific discoveries have built on both knowledge taken from around the world.
Recently, I went through a very powerful healing ritual, and I joked with The Unpublishables co-founder Doretta about writing a guide to doing puja if you’ve never done one before because I made so many basic mistakes. At first, I was just really kidding around and didn’t really want to write about the puja. Clearly, I’ve changed my mind, but let me explain why I didn’t want to write about the puja.
Aside from it being a private matter, I felt–and still feel–hesitant because our cultural rituals are now considered superstitious and “woo”. It’s true that some ancient beliefs are ridiculous and outdated (especially the ones that deal with male potency but there’s a context for that which I won’t go into now), but I can’t help but feel that a lot of the contempt shown towards local healing traditions stems from the belief that Western medicine is superior without realizing that modern Western medicine got its start from ancient medicine practiced in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Look, antibiotics are fantastic (although the ancient Egyptians did it first), I’m happy to vaccinate my kid–incidentally, Chinese people in the 10th century were already performing vaccinations–and there’s a lot to be said about the advances of Western medicine. But there is definitely racism in how people dismiss traditional healing practices simply because they don’t understand the science or history behind it.
In fact, Western medicine is only now starting to understand the benefits of medicine that Chinese people have been using for thousands of years. And even the articles that talk about these “discoveries” always hasten to add that people should consult a Western doctor about using traditional medicine, which is dumb and sounds a lot like asking a white person for Chinese restaurant recommendations. Are there parts of traditional Chinese medicine that aren’t effective? Yes, of course! But the same goes for Western medicine, but we’ve been groomed by decades of Big Pharmaganda that there’s a pill for everything.
The point of this post isn’t exactly to address the racism inherent in Western medicine–this article does the job quite well–but to specifically point out the thing that made me want to write this post in the first place. Not long after my puja, I saw yet another series of Tweets from Asian Americans bemoaning the stigma of mental illness in Asian culture and how their parents don’t acknowledge their depression. Rather amusing coming from people who blame their parents’ shitty behaviour on being Asian, not realizing that their parents are likely suffering from untreated mental illnesses like PTSD.
But what these idiots don’t realize is that treatments for mental illness have long existed in traditional cultures in the form of rituals, cultural traditions, and roles. Is there a stigma against mental illness in Asian culture? Yes, but it’s not because Asian culture is cruel or ignorant, but because mental illness has been framed differently in our history. I can’t speak for other Asian cultures, but I know that Chinese and Ayurvedic traditional medicine see illnesses–whether physical or mental–holistically, as a problem with the entire person, not just the brain, as well as that person’s position in the community. The remedies, therefore, rely on the kind of cultural ties and beliefs that have been either wiped out or suppressed by colonization. Western-style therapies and approaches are not always the answer (let’s consider for a moment that homosexuality was/is considered a mental disorder in the West, and it never was in Asia until colonization). For example, Native Americans are mentally healthier when their own traditions are utilized for healing.
Without the destruction wrought by colonization, who knows how traditional medicines could have evolved? It’s only now that Western medicine is starting to understand how trauma can be encoded in DNA, but isn’t this basically what karma is, just without the idea of gods and stuff? It is so ironic that a capitalist behemoth like McDonald’s has more cultural sensitivity when it comes to localizing their menu than Western mental health providers.
My puja was couched in astrology and gods, but throughout, I was asked to take responsibility for my failings and commit to being a better person. And afterwards, I felt like I had a spa treatment for my soul. The post-puja rituals (meditation, mantras, acts of forgiveness and gratitude, charity) are meant to keep me on the right path to wellness, and these are elements that Western therapy has also come to thousands of years after the rituals were first create.
The words “mental health” may not be part of these cultural traditions and rituals, but it’s still the goal. In fact, I would suggest that separating mental health from physical and community health–as if they’re not related–goes against the entire point of mental health.
Also, my short guide to doing a puja if you’ve never done one before:
1) Wear a long skirt/kurta/comfortable pants/leggings (check first if they’ll allow you to wear leggings, though).
2) DON’T FORGET TO BATHE BEFORE YOU SHOW UP. Head to toe.
3) If you have long hair, tie it back. Those flames get pretty tall.
4) Practice sitting weeks before your puja if you can. Work on those core muscles. My puja took three hours, and my back was in serious pain after one hour. Have paracetamol or something ready to take after.
5) Stretch before the puja. Don’t eat anything too heavy.
6) Don’t touch your feet, and make sure your soles aren’t facing the guru.
7) Makeup will melt in the heat.
8) You’ll probably be told this before your puja, but on that day, you need to be vegetarian. No eggs, but dairy is allowed. No alcohol, no sex. For added ass-covering, do that for the next day too.
9) Bring a vegetarian snack to eat after the puja. You will be tired and hungry.
10) Bring a grocery bag to put all the fruits and water you’ll be taking home in. DO NOT PUT THIS ON THE FLOOR OR ANYWHERE CLOSE TO FEET. To store at home, put it in a cabinet that is far away from feet-related things, including the foot of the bed. The best cabinets are the ones are the ones above your head when you sleep.
11) When consulting with the guru before the puja, be as frank as possible about your problems. They’ve heard it all, trust me.
12) Bring a small cash amount to donate to the temple after your puja as a sign of thanks. There’s going to be a container or location for post-puja donations, so don’t put the money anywhere else, and definitely DO NOT put it in the hands of anyone at the temple as they’re probably not allowed to touch it.