The aboriginal people call themselves Anangu (an nah new), and their healers Ngankari (nahn gree). I had hoped to meet one of them when I visited Uluru, their holy mountain, but once I got there it seemed unlikely in the extreme.
Uluru has a Disneyland feel to it; surrounding the great monolith is Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. It is a corporate conglomerate that owns the five hotels, apartments, campgrounds, RV parks, its attendant services, and (as of a recent court decision) also the land just outside the National Park boundary. Buses disgorge thousands of people from all over the world at sunrise who stand three-deep clicking away at the gorgeous colors sipping coffee, tea, and hot chocolate prepared by their drivers.
We had booked a tour with the only aboriginal-owned company (managed by non-native people). I shared my disappointment and wish for a more authentic experience with our driver. After talking with me, he gave me the telephone number of an Anangnu interpreter. I called him and told him a little about myself and my interest and he suggested we meet for coffee the next morning.
We talked, he checked me out, and said many spiritual seekers came to this holy place, not all of whom were sincere. After an hour, apparently satisfied, he said he would take my wife and I to meet Reggie Uluru (his real name) and, perhaps, some other friends.
We drove through the flat, red earth of central Australia’s high desert landscape; it seemed all too familiar, including the signs of native poverty and neglect of essential services. We were introduced to Reggie, who was sitting on a sofa under a tent awning. He was about 80 years old, with a glowing smile, a full white beard, and blind in his left eye from some trauma many years ago. He understood more English than he spoke and was more comfortable speaking through our interpreter. He greeted us warmly, called me kuta tjilbi (old brother) and over the next day told us his healing story.
Reggie Uluru is the son and grandson of Ngangkari; they have been healing “the people” as long as the Anangu have lived on the earth. He says the Ngangkari are effective because they get straight to the problem. The heart of healing he said is to see into the person’s spirit (kurunpa). Kurunpa is inside all of us; it is what gives us life. He can work with the spirit of the sick person whether they’re awake or whether they’re asleep.
“Sometimes I work at night,” he said, “when all is quiet I move among the people’s sleeping spirits the same way an eagle soars. My special healing power is called ‘mapanpa’; it is in my hands and in my breath. I search around inside the person’s spirit for a negative force that shouldn’t be there, we call it ‘mamu’. The mamu is the same as having an alien spirit that displaces your own. When I come to a patient I look at the person, feel with my hands and then capture it, or suck out the sickness with my mouth. Sometimes it’s a piece of wood, a bone or a small round bundle that I remove and show to the sufferer.”
Before you cast this aside as primitive mumbo-jumbo, consider that the process of psychotherapy is also about helping patients get out all kinds of negative introjects (traumas we keep inside that come out in symptomatic ways) by getting them to see and identify with a power greater than that causing their illness. I do it by talking, identification, insight, and sometimes creating healing rituals and ceremonies. Reggie does it by moving his hands over the body, rubbing, and sucking to get the rubbish out. The crucial aspect of healing is a belief in the practice and in the practitioner.
Reggie asked me if there was something that I need healed. I told him I had been suffering from a sore throat and chest congestion since coming to Australia. He motioned for me to take off my shirt and worked on me. Then he asked Elaine if there was something she wanted healed, and she said she suffered from chronic migraines, and then told him, more as an afterthought, that she would soon have major gynecological surgery. He told her to pick up her blouse (there is no inhibition to nakedness here). He felt her abdomen, spit on his hand, and rubbed her belly. He moved around her body spitting out the bad spirit to the wind. When he finished he told her not to worry, that she would be all right.
This is the Uluru I came to see . . . not the mountain, but the embodiment of its soul.