Unexpected Encounter with a Traditional Malay Masseur
edited: Sunday, July 01, 2001
By John Herlihy
Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2001
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After suffering for years from chronic lower back pain (sciatica), the author recounts the story of his unexpected encounter and miraculous cure he had in Malaysia.
Anyone who has suffered the agonies of lower back pain will appreciate the unexpected encounter I had in Malaysia. I suffered for years from chronic lower back pain. It always arrived unannounced and stayed for months with a vengeance that was hard to comprehend or ignore. The unbearable pain would be etched upon my face as stark evidence of my suffering.
One evening while drying my feet, I felt with dread the old familiar stab of sciatica pain. By the next morning, I couldn’t lift myself from bed. In desperation, I phoned a Malay friend who asked me if I wanted a “traditional massage”. Who was I to decline such an intriguing offer?
As a group of villagers gathered, Zainul-din and his friend somberly carried me into the Malay kampung house, raised on stilts against invading insects and tropical dampness. They wrapped me in a batik sarong and laid me on a floor mat on my back. The village elders sat down cross-legged around me.
A traditional Malay masseur known as dukun knelt on his thighs at my side. He was a powerful-looking man for his modest size and advanced age, with clear skin and a round moon face that expressed the wisdom of his years. He put his thick, paw-like hands on my arm as if he were handling a dish rag. There was authority in his grip and presence. He asked my name, repeated it aloud, and made several invocations in Arabic. Then he touched the palm of my hands with a home-made herbal oil and proceeded to pressure point his way along my forearm from wrist to elbow.
There was no denying the pain generated by his hands; it was excruciating, as if he were touching the raw nerve of my being. I cried out briefly as the group of villagers chatted and giggled nervously. He worked on both arms and then moved down to the sides of the legs from hipbone to knee. The man radiated vitality and I could feel the power of his concentration and the force of his energy pass from his fingers into the sinews of my body. He worked the muscles as though he were kneading dough and he could have been plucking the strings of a violin the way he pulled them back into line.
Angin, the Malays say, wind. On the physical plane, they believe that wind caused by the icy cold drinks everyone loves accumulates in the body to ill effect. Indeed, as he proceeded with the massage, it did feel like wind as the pain shifted, lessened and disappeared under the stroking of his able hands. On another level, traditional Malays believe that devils – what they call jinn – enter the body and set up residence to create havoc on physical, as well as psychic and spiritual levels. The notion is comparable to our beliefs concerning “possession” in which a person can be “possessed” by an evil spirit on mental or psychic levels.
Curiously, the masseur never touch the lower back. Instead, he moved down and began to work his wonder on the soles of my feet as if he were handling a rag doll. He began to knead and press against the muscles in the arch of one foot then the other with a focused stroke, causing an outrageous pain to run through me like a knife. He seemed to stop instinctively at some pain threshold of unbearability that held the promise of relief and healing. Still, I felt the need to give voice to my distress and I yelled like a banshee in fright and howled like a wolf in distress, much to the amusement of the village onlookers, curious about the identity of this mate sale (white foreigner). Throughout the ordeal, the dukun proceeded serenely with his work.
Malays are great talkers. The masseur and my friend carried on a running dialogue about the treatment, much of it in response to my questions. Such traditional masseurs believe in a holistic approach in which the interaction of both the physical and spiritual serve to effect the best possible cure. To that end, the masseur whispered a litany of Quranic incantations designed to raise the level of the experience and call upon the higher powers that be as protection against all evil.
Finally, after an hour’s worth of intense therapy, the old Malay sat back finished. A sublime feeling of relief surged through my body that was overwhelming and pure. I could hear in the distance the entreaties of the masseur to rest for a while before attempting to move. I lay quietly on my back and surrendered to a rare feeling of absolute peace that coursed through my body, as though a reservoir of well-being had been released in compensation for the outrage of the ordeal I had just endured.
Then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as a summer storm, from some deep well within me, there emerged the inexplicable urge to cry. To my shock and embarrassment, I then began to weep aloud, first quietly, then in great choking sobs that shook my whole body, although the origin of this emotion remained a mystery to me, leading me to wonder who within me was crying in this way and why. I had the feeling not I, but something inside me were giving voice to a terrible sadness. Perplexed, I let myself go and surrendered to the experience with curiosity and detachment, as I watched myself cry my heart out.
The great heartbreaking sobs eventually subsided and I was once again calm enough to inquire what had happened, for I could not explain the reason for my outburst. ‘It was the jinn,’ my friend Zainul-din told me. ‘Whatever do you mean?’ I asked incredulous. ‘The bad jinn are reluctant to leave the body and cry out loud when forced to do so,’ he replied plainly. Improbable as it sounded, I was not in a position to counter his theory with an explanation of my own. Besides, I was summoned by the old dukun to rise. He indicated with gestures to bend forward and backward, then to stand up altogether and walk around the room. I looked at him in surprise as he smiled knowingly. The outrageous pain that I had suffered for weeks, indeed for years, had disappeared.
Was it the rare communion of body, mind and spirit culminating in an experience of healing that seems alien to the realities of the modern world? Was it a foreign presence as suggested, not of alien beings from outer space but rather evil spirits from an inner space with the capacity to transform well-being into chronic and debilitating pain? As the Malays are fond of saying: ‘Only God knows!’
As for myself, while I had been carried into the village house like a sick lamb, there was no denying the special light of the unexpected encounter and miraculous cure that shone down upon me that day. I expressed profound gratitude and with feelings of humility took my leave of the old Malay masseur, walking out of the house and into the wilds of the jungle village on the strength of my own two feet.