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Spirit Mediumship and Mental Health: Therapeutic Self-transformation Among Dang-kis in Singapore

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Abstract

While some early studies suggested that spirit mediums were psychiatrically ill individuals who found a culturally sanctioned role, subsequent work has found that they are generally in good physical and mental health. While the calling to be a healer often involves an initiatory illness, practitioners go on to play demanding social roles, suggesting that involvement in mediumship may be therapeutic for the practitioner. This study focuses on dang-ki healing, a form of Chinese spirit mediumship practiced in Singapore to explore whether participation in dang-ki healing is therapeutic for the mediums. We interviewed eight dang-kis from five temples about their life trajectories and assessed their mental health status with standardized psychological questionnaires. Most of the dang-kis did not appear to suffer from clinically significant emotional distress. Their narratives suggest that involvement in dang-ki mediumship may have therapeutic effects in which the embodied experience of self plays a central role. The dang-kis experienced changes in social identity, bodily experiences during spirit possession, and their overall sense of self through recurrent possession rituals. In general, the practice of spirit mediumship illustrates how the experiences and meanings of the self are constructed and reconstructed through body-world relations in ways that may confer a sense of wellness and social efficacy.

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Notes

  1. Nonetheless, dang-ki practice is facing some challenges posed by state regulations. Religious practices are highly regulated in Singapore due to limited land resources, urbanization, and religious diversity (Goh 2020; Graham 2020; Heng 2016, 2020; Tan 2008). This regulation may have some impact on dang-ki healing as a communal practice. For example, rituals must be simplified to minimize the potentially disruptive effects of crowds, sounds (music, chanting) or smell (incense smoke). This adaptation is especially crucial for dang-kis operating in temples located in residential settings. Dang-kis usually practice in public temples approved by the state; but due to lack of funding, many operate in house temples in public residential apartments (Goh 2020; Heng 2016) where 79% of Singaporeans reside (Singapore Department of Statistics 2021). Although house temples are in principle illegal, the state may only intervene if complaints are lodged against them. Future research could explore how dang-kis’ self-transformation and embodied practices negotiate the state regulations, the dynamics of the urban environment, and in the growing impact of modern technologies (e.g., using social media to promote divine services) (see Goh 2020; Heng 2020).

  2. We do not know how representative our participants are of all dang-kis in Singapore because no survey of practitioners has been conducted. However, our participants’ demographic backgrounds were similar to those of Taiwanese dang-kis, who were mostly male, 41–60 years old, married, had less formal education, and were employed in technical or service lines (Lin 2016; Wang 2004). The overrepresentation of males may be due to the associated practice of ritual self-mortification which would contravene Chinese cultural norms prohibiting females from publicly revealing their bodies. When female dang-kis do take part in self-mortification, their rituals are less intense and usually involve only the back of the body (Tsai 2001).

  3. English is the main language of instruction in Singapore schools. Most participants were proficient in written English but not in written Chinese. However, they preferred to converse in Mandarin during the research interviews.

  4. Mean scores without standard deviations are from Carlson and Putnam (1993) who did not provide this statistical information.

  5. We translated the DES ourselves as the Chinese version from previous studies was not available in time for our study. Since our Chinese version has not been psychometrically validated with a large sample in Singapore, caution must be exercised when interpreting the DES scores. However, only one participant completed the Chinese version.

  6. Possession trance and trance are two different phenomena (Cardeña et al. 2009). Although they are both characterized by a temporary alteration of consciousness, identity, and/or behavior, possession trance involves the replacement of the person’s usual identity by an alternate identity (e.g., a spirit) whereas trance does not.

  7. Yuan was also described as a basic condition for initiation among Taiwanese female dang-kis (Tsai 2001).

  8. Not all forms of spirit possession begin with affliction and aim to heal it. For example, no pre-initiatory distress precedes possession among the Punu of Congo-Brazzaville (Plancke 2011). Although spirt mediums in Ndau communities of south-eastern Zimbabwe may be possessed for health reasons, they may also be possessed simply because their spirits want to do so, as it is believed that everyone in these communities is born with various spirits, and spirit possession itself is a public manifestation of this relationship (Perman 2011).

  9. The Sri Lankan medium in Chapin (2008) no longer had post-possession amnesia after becoming a full-fledged medium.

  10. Their different subjective experiences in possession may also be indicative of individual variations in altered states of consciousness. For example, research on hypnotic responding has shown individual differences in affect, memory, imagery, self-awareness, or attention (Barnes et al. 2009; Kihlstrom 2015). However, it is important not to oversimplify mediumistic spirit possession by reducing it to hypnotic experiences from a Western psychological perspective, which also occur against the backdrop of culturally specific notions of self and personhood (Krippner 2009).

  11. Issues about whether the environment scaffolds, causes or constitutes cognitive processes (including memory) are still subject to ongoing debate in the embodied cognition literature (Newen et al. 2018). Heersmink (2018) adopts a complementarity view whereby evocative objects (i.e., physical objects or structures that evoke autobiographical memories by means of representational or non-representational properties) do not need to possess the same properties as internal cognitive processes but complement the internal cognitive processes with different properties and functions.

  12. We have been impressed by dang-kis’ abilities to maintain focus on the tasks during their spirit possession over many hours during which they performed elaborate and arduous rituals, advised devotees, prescribed talismans, and conducted healing sessions. Perhaps, some of the work of remembering the elements or sequence of these tasks is offloaded onto the environment to lighten the load on working memory and enable their successful completion (see Kiverstein 2018).

  13. Tsai (2001) argues that the names of deities are just designations. Subject to the approval of the Jade Emperor (; the chief deity in Taoism), a deity (particularly a lower rank deity) can adopt the designation of another deity (particularly a higher rank deity). Deities with the same names (e.g., Guan-yin; ), therefore, may not be the same deities, but rather different deities with the same honorific titles.

  14. Due to space constraint, only the means, standard deviations, and range of individual CPAI-2 T-scores and DES scores are reported. Detailed CPAI-2 T-scores, CPAI-2 Validity Indices (VI), and DES scores are available from the first author. Based on the four VI (Number of Missing Items, Response Consistency Index, Infrequency Scale, Good Impression Scale; Cheung 2011), all the participants’ CPAI-2 profiles are valid and interpretable.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the UNISIM Center for Chinese Studies (UCCS) Small Research Grant (Ref. no. 2013SRG01), SIM University (now Singapore University of Social Sciences) in Singapore. We are grateful to Professor Fanny M. Cheung and the Department of Psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for providing us with the CPAI-2 materials and scoring services.

Funding

This study was funded by the UNISIM Center for Chinese Studies (UCCS) Small Research Grant (Ref. no. 2013SRG01), SIM University (now Singapore University of Social Sciences) in Singapore.

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Appendices

Appendix

Mr. E’s Initiatory Story

When he was about 16 years old, Mr. E’s mother became confused and disoriented with medically unexplained symptoms after his father’s death. She consulted a deity and was told that she had been possessed and was destined to become a dang-ki. She subsequently trained as a medium under a dang-ki. Despite his mother’s experience, Mr. E did not believe in dang-ki healing and was baptized as a Christian at the age of 24.

At the age of 34, Mr. E began to suffer from marital problems, unemployment and financial difficulties. After his mother died the following year, he slipped into a depression with suicidal ideation. At a Taoist ritual performed for his late mother, he suddenly collapsed and fell to the ground. He recalled: “When lying on the floor, I was still aware of the surroundings. The only thing is that… I was unable to speak and move.” He regained his normal state after about 15 min. The Taoist priest interpreted the fall as a sign of liak-ki, which Mr. E angrily rejected: “I said nonsense! I am a staunch Christian, I pray to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit… I speak in tongues… How can I be a medium?” He believed he had fainted because of stress. Although speaking in tongues may be associated with traumatic experiences (Kennedy and Drebing 2002), Mr. E’s did not have any history of trauma before his baptism. When asked, he said that he was not traumatized by his father’s death.

After this incident, Mr E encountered many strange experiences at home, which he believed were induced by demons. His family members told him that he muttered unintelligibly to himself; he was preoccupied with death and kept talking about deceased people. “I didn’t know when the spirits would come… They simply came and then they left.” An exorcism performed by his church failed to help him. “I was very confused, hopeless… I didn’t know what I was doing. My wife and other people thought that I must be sick and advised me to see a doctor.” At the psychiatric hospital, he did not reveal his possession experiences for fear of being “labelled crazy”. Since he was not responsive to psychiatric treatments, his aunt persuaded him to consult the dang-ki who had trained his late mother. At the temple, the dang-ki said that his mother’s deity wanted him to continue the lineage of the mediumship because she had died before completing her “contract”. With no other sources of help to turn to, Mr. E reluctantly entered mediumship training.

Although he initially interpreted his possession experience from a Christian perspective as demonic, after becoming a dang-ki, he reinterpreted it as luan-ki (; chaotic possession). Luan-ki is caused by chao-bhok-shins (), which is a form of spirit possessing humans, non-human organisms, and non-living things. It can be evil or benign. He also reinterpreted his fall at his late mother’s ritual as a sign of liak-ki, which “opened” his body not only to a deity but also to chao-bhok-shins. He believed his mother had also suffered from luan-ki:

After my mother was caught by the god, many chao-bhok-shins came to disturb her… Her saliva dripped into the food that she was cooking… she even spat into it. She also bathed 18 times in a day… which means you’re not steady. During luan-ki, your soul and your spirit is very open, anyone can come in.

These reinterpretations suggest that Mr. E attempted to achieve a coherent sense of narrative identity by constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing his possession experiences based on various collective folk narratives. We can interpret Mr. E’s fall at his late mother’s ritual and subsequent luan-ki as pathological possession triggered by life stressors and grief. Chao-bhok-shins are embodied cultural meanings of discontinuities in the sense of self and agency. Expressing his personal experience in this cultural frame helped Mr. E to “bring some order to and control over” his psychological conflicts (Obeyesekere 1990:10). Mr. E felt reassured that his deities had protected him from chao-bhok-shins, and he was now in better control over his possession experiences. His life had become “smoother”. He had learned to control his temper, had become more energetic, was no longer restless, and had a more positive outlook on life. His marital relationship had also improved, and he enjoyed a better financial situation.

In his practice, Mr. E was concurrently possessed by three deities from his shrine. Mr. E said that this “3-in-1” possession was rare as dang-kis were usually possessed by one deity at a time. This form of simultaneous possession is reminiscent of the Christian concept of the Trinity. Asked if he still believed in Christianity after becoming a dang-ki, Mr. E replied:

If you say I don’t believe [in Christianity], it would not be true; after all, I had been a Christian for 8 years. I still believe in Christianity to some extent… but not totally… because I believe that every religion is good for people… I don’t dare to go back to church as I’m now a medium. I shouldn’t serve two masters at the same time. Now, since I am a dang-ki, I should have faith in Taoism, my current religion.

Mr. E seemed to reduce his cognitive dissonance by assimilating his longstanding Christian faith into the framework of mediumship. Through this embodied conciliation, he has developed a more cohesive self-identity. At the age of 37, he formally became a dang-ki with a more controlled form of possession:

When you want to be possessed by a god, you must make sure you agree to it. After becoming a dang-ki, we have proper control… and a proper set of rules. You should only go into a trance if you want to summon a god. He shouldn’t come if you didn’t invite him.

Despite his elevated scores on the CPAI-2 clinical scales, Mr. E did not appear to be clinically disturbed during the interview. At the time the research interview was conducted, he had slightly elevated DES score (11.07) but did not appear to have had any pathological possession beyond his initiation experiences; however, his scores on the CPAI-2 “Distortion of Reality” and “Paranoia” clinical scales were above the clinical cutoff. By engaging in mediumship, Mr. E may have improved his daily functioning even though he continued to experience clinical and subclinical symptoms. His experience may be an illustration of how it is possible to recover in mental disorder rather than from mental disorder (Davidson and Roe 2007).

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Lee, BO., Kirmayer, L.J. Spirit Mediumship and Mental Health: Therapeutic Self-transformation Among Dang-kis in Singapore. Cult Med Psychiatry 47, 271–300 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-021-09765-y

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  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-021-09765-y

Keywords

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