A man is sitting and looks to the left with his hand outstretched as if in the middle of a speech.

Carl Lorenz Cervantes finds Filipino-ness in the paranormal

How telepathy, witchcraft, psychic experiments, and ancient civilizations play a part in the Filipino Indigenization movement

Carl Lorenz Cervantes

Courtesy of Munimuni Studio

Words by Quin Scott

For someone juggling three lines of work, psychologist Carl Lorenz Cervantes is oddly serene. He works as a therapist, writer (for academic publications as well as for his large social media following on Instagram and Substack), and when I caught up with him, was also preparing for the beginning of the upcoming semester teaching at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, Philippines. 

This would be overwhelming for most, but Cervantes makes it seem simple. “I think it all comes together because therapy is essentially just applied research. And research is writing because if I can't write it, then I can’t understand it. And if I can't teach it, I don't understand it either. So it's all somehow connected, at least to me,” he says. 

He also adds, “It's a weird thing to say, but I do feel like I have a lot of time.” Must be nice! 

I recently chatted with Cervantes over Zoom from the Philippine province of Rizal about spirituality and the paranormal, indigenous psychology, and thinking in circles. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Quin Scott: How did you arrive at your work in this field?
Carl Lorenz Cervantes: Well, my initial interest was the paranormal. When I was younger, my grandfather, my lolo, had this book about the paranormal—articles about witchcraft, psychic experiments, ancient civilizations. It felt like I was reading something that was magical and real at the same time, which I find to be a great mix of things. 

As I grew up, that stayed with me. For my master's thesis, I decided to study telepathy. When I approached the panel, they found it a little too wishy-washy, a little too vague, and they suggested that I grounded on the work of Father Jaime C. Bulatao, the founder of the psychology department at my university (Ateneo de Manila University). He was a priest psychologist known for mixing folk practices in his clinical work and therapy.  

I did my thesis on the telepathic experiences of psychologists who were trained under Father Bulatao. This is where it opened up and I immediately saw how my interest in the paranormal connected with experiences in Philippine culture, which are very spiritual. A lot of these paranormal experiences in Philippine culture are interpreted on a spiritual level. 

From there I went to Indigenous psychology, which is really just understanding who we are based on our own ways of knowing. With cultural psychology and other forms of research, there is a standard being used there, usually from a culture studying another culture. So if, let's say, Americans study Filipinos, they're using the standard of American science to understand Filipino psychology. But if it's American science understanding American culture, then that would fit because it comes from the culture. That's a form of their kind of psychology, but for us, if we study psychology through our ways of knowing, it’s more holistic.

A man is sitting on a couch in front of several house plants and smiles at the camera.

Cervantes centers Filipino spirituality in his work as a psychologist.

Courtesy of Jake Advincula

QS: Throughout your life, have you felt a proximity to the paranormal in your day to day?
CLC: I think that's the reason why all of this just seemed like an echo of my actual life in our culture. In individualist spaces it's cognitive, which is why you always hear questions like, “Do you believe in God? Do you believe in spirits?”

But here, it's not a matter of belief. It's a matter of, “When was the last time that you saw a spirit?” It's rare to me to actually meet someone who hasn't seen a spirit or who hasn't experienced something strange. I know a lot of people who have been to folk healers because of a mysterious ailment, who have gone through trance states, altered states of consciousness. All of these people are seen as functional people. It's not a psychopathology as it is in individualist countries, where this kind of behavior or attitude towards the world is seen as a strange thing that interferes with your day-to-day productivity. 

QS: You wrote that “rather than insisting on defining ‘Filipino-ness’ we can free ourselves and focus on community, liberation, and transcendence.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
CLC: It's always been a journey of trying to find ourselves, and it's not just something that happens with Filipinos overseas, or immigrants or children of immigrants. It's also something that we have to ask ourselves here in the Philippines.

People have been telling us who we are over and over again. Throughout the years, the Spanish have been telling us that we are lazy, Americans have been telling us that we are this and that, the education of the colonizers has been telling us “no, this is who you are.” Finally, we said, “Wait, no, that's not who we are.” And that's where the Indigenization movement was born. 

Indigenous psychology started in Asia, and among the pioneers was Virgilio Enriquez, a professor at the University of the Philippines. He did his graduate studies in the States and realized that it did not resonate with him, went back to the Philippines, and said, “Let me study and let me start this movement.” And so it started, along with Alfredo Lagmay and other psychologists in the Philippines. Today, we're still asking ourselves, “Who are we as Filipinos?” 

Filipino-ness is the pattern and the meaning that we create out of all these wonderful contexts, the environment—your history, your memory, the people that you're with.

There's a lot of things to think about here because there's no pure Filipino. I use the metaphor of atoms. Everything is supposedly made of atoms, but the atom of a table is not the table. The table is the meaning we make out of the patterns that this atom creates, in the same way that culture is not a singular item of Filipino-ness. Filipino-ness is the pattern and the meaning that we create out of all these wonderful contexts, the environment—your history, your memory, the people that you're with. What matters is not trying to fight each other over how to define the word Filipino, but what it means to us and how it can be understood in a way that connects us to who we truly are. 

QS: You have a big social media following. Do you notice differences between what you see from your followers in the Filipino diaspora compared to folks in the Philippines?
CLC: I noticed that because of me being in the Philippines, I don't experience the same bigotry that people in the diaspora experience where they are the minority. I'm not a minority in my own country, so that's not my experience. But being ridiculed for your skin color, being ridiculed for trying to learn about your culture, that's incredibly difficult. 

Even though my work is more on the paranormal, spiritual, mystical side of things, there is a connection there. That intuitively, they understand that this is something that's real to them. That's something that's lacking in a society that is focused too much on what their value is—value measured by money and status and usefulness.

I also notice that some touchy topics aren't actually touchy to me and to the people I talk to here, which is interesting. For example, I talk about religion, and I bring up the realities of folk Catholicism, because the people that I talk to are mostly Catholics. But the way we understand it is not the official Catholicism of the Vatican. It's a mix of so many different beliefs, with the metaphors of Catholicism. If you enter a Filipino household, you'll probably see a crucifix on their altar. And beside that, a laughing Buddha or a hanging feng shui chime. And then there are salt containers on the windows to avoid the aswang. 

These things are part of this wonderful mix of spiritual beliefs. But when it's heard by people who have experienced religion on a cognitive level, then it's definitely a “no no, Catholicism is a colonizers religion.” 

There's still a lot of politics, there's still a lot of trauma and guilt. But sometimes we distinguish between the so-called religion of people and the religion that is within us, expressed through the metaphors of whatever it is.

QS: Thinking about these different experiences and ways of knowing between cultures and countries, it’s interesting to think about this interview, and how I’m someone who’s born and raised in the U.S., trying to ask you the right questions.
CLC: Something really changed in me when I started thinking of things as circles rather than lines. This is a metaphor that might be useful also, because with writing, it's linear, right? It's the beginning, middle, end, and that's how you read it. There's supposed to be a sequence of things. But I started thinking in cycles, when things go round and round. Even my curriculum that I use for my class, they're a spiral, meaning that they go around—sometimes we return to concepts, but with a deeper understanding, so it goes deeper and deeper. I invite you to try and think of it as a circle, rather than as a line that has to be orderly. Just a thought experiment. 

A man sits in a relaxed pose with a laptop in front of him.

Sikolohiyang Pilipino focuses on culture, including "Western" concepts that align with Filipino liberation goals.

Courtesy of Jake Advincula

QS: Thanks, I appreciate that. Something else I was thinking about, in terms of this linear versus nonlinear idea, was something you wrote about studying history, cautioning against over-romanticizing pre-colonial history. Can you describe what that means, and what is the danger of doing that?
CLC: The way we think of history is linear and causal, which is why when we search for what it means to be Filipino, we try to look for our origins as the pre-Hispanic Filipino. There's no such thing by the way, as a pre-Hispanic Filipino, but we think of it as pre-colonial. We were colonized and corrupted, and now here we are. But it's not as simple as that. It is all happening at the same time as culture is—dynamic and in a constant state of process. 

In that linear model, going back to the past is a form of regression. We're projecting our modern needs onto ancient man, and that is unfair to them and it puts them on a pedestal as “ascended masters.” It's a form of homogenizing actual people who were just like us—gullible and loving and warm, but also hateful, spiteful, human. When we romanticize the past, we forget our modern issues, who we are today. The past still persists today in the context of who we are. 

QS: How do you see a psychology based in liberation working in relationship with other liberation movements?
CLC: The Indigenization movement here is called Sikolohiyang Pilipino. We do not just outright reject things just because they're Western—that's an uncritical way of thinking. We use what works and we reevaluate things that we don't resonate with. There are a lot of “Western” movements that actually are aligned with our intentions. I think of feminism, intersectionality, critical theory. These are very useful and important in our own liberation. 

And the goal of Indigenous psychology is what we call a cross-Indigenous psychology: We understand who we are and listen to who others say their group is, and then we come to an understanding of an inclusive and relevant global psychology. It also happens within countries, among minorities within a community. People in the Philippines also—the Manileños, the Cebuanos, the Ilocanos, the tribes in the mountains, and different places and different people. We just want to understand ourselves, and we don't want to impose what we think others are. So we ask them, “What do you think? And who do you say that you are?” That's Indigenous psychology. It's cross-Indigenous—it goes across and we listen.

Published on March 13, 2024

Words by Quin Scott

Quin Scott is a writer, painter, and educator in the Pacific Northwest. They like reading, running, and making jokes with their friends.