“Within the heart of every person there is a compass pointing at the best path to follow. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ paths. There are just paths. And every path leads to a different destination.” The difference lies in the destination you want to reach, what you hope to receive and most importantly what you ultimately hope to give.
As Seamus Heaney reminds us “we are all hunters and gatherers of values” and it’s up to us to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” to create what needs to be created, to honor what needs to be honored and to preserve what needs to be preserved. This is precisely what is accomplished in Marie-Rose Phan Lê’s exploration of the quiet disappearance of spiritual healing traditions around the world.
Presented with an intimate and profound narrative told through the Phan-Lê’s experience of walking her own spiritual path to an unknown destination, while clarifying the importance of preserving fading stories, traditions, cultures and medicinal healing. Talking Story beautifully demonstrates the quintessential example of what it means to be a “gatherer” of the value held in stories that are being lost.
In an exclusive interview, Phan-Lê talks about Talking Story, the documentary that took 11 years to complete:
BJB: What prompted you to make Talking Story as a documentary?
MR: I’ve always been a faithful person. My family is rooted in Buddhism and Catholicism. I think I went through an early kind of existential crisis. I was very successful in the external world, and doing creative work but I really wanted to experience more of the things I knew existed in the mystical realm.
At the height of the New Age movement a lot of good information was coming out but it wasn’t enough for me. It wasn’t deep enough for what I had a hunger for, so I began to look into the roots of Shamanism, healing and spirituality.
As I began to do that, I realized that many of these traditions were beginning to disappear; they were actually endangered. I had a career in television, so the filmmaker in me felt like this would be a great way to combine my curiosity and skill set.
BJB: How did you come to the conclusion that healing traditions and practices are endangered?
MR: I began to see it through the destruction of the environment and modernization. A lot of the young people either can’t afford to, or they want a better material life, and can’t stay with a healer for decades to learn the magic. So they begin to move away to the city. Many factors are causing this endangerment of these traditions.
BJB: How did you decide which healers to profile and which countries to visit?
MR: Being faithful really helped. I put out the wish to do this work and I had a dream board. I also wanted to be of service. I had some ideas of where I wanted to go but, I was also open to what I would be led to. I wasn’t looking for the most famous healers. I started doing research and found these people that I call ‘Bridge People.’
‘Bridge People’ have one foot in the modern world and one foot in their cultural world. They bridge cultures for us, sensibilities and context. They help us to translate. In many ways in my work as a filmmaker and author I have in some ways become a bridge person. I’m now talking to many audiences and translating what my experience was with these incredible people.
I also did research and found anthropologists, ethno-botanists, photographers and filmmakers who have been working with various Indigenous cultures. When the doors opened, I followed. I don’t know that I really chose anyone. I think the forces that be chose me.
BJB: Did you notice any commonalities between the healers?
MR: Among all the people who are spiritual healers or teachers, they all got the calling through some form of suffering, like a physical illness or spiritual awakening. Even if it was handed down from generation to generation, there was always some kind of catalyst which caused them to say, “This is what I want to do.”
This work is not for the faint of heart. To have this kind of commitment to be of service is because one who has experienced suffering understands it; if there anything we can do to alleviate it then that’s what we want to do.
BJB: You had a healing session with each healer. Did you cry during the session with Papa Kay because the release was intense, or because of something else?
MR: I would say it was an unexpected energetic emotional release. Whatever was hiding in my body, or my psyche, and was trying to not come out was brought up through his loving touch and prayers to be released. I write more about this in the book. It’s hard to describe the inner life on film. These type of questions were also asked by audiences who screened the film. I realized to be of greater service I needed to fill in these blanks with the companion book.
BJB: I find myself looking for a standard response after and energy healing session, but it’s always different. Can you talk about this?
MR: This is a great lesson for us in letting go of control. There is a mystical aspect to energy healing but, it’s also very practical. If someone had an injury when they were young and landed on the tail bone, it may have healed physically somewhat but the fear and the pain will stay in the tailbone. When you do the energetic healing work it make sense that there would be an extraction of that energy, just like a surgery.
What’s been fun for me, when I was practicing more as a healer, was to be able to translate spiritual technology, if you will, so that it’s not as random as people think. One thing we can do as healers, is give people a better context of what’s happening to them while they’re having this shift.
Most of the time with people who receive energy work, they tend to overdo too much too soon.
BJB: Your Aunt Lien, who was also a healer said, “You are chosen, and you choose; or you don’t.” She was speaking to you directly. And later in the film, another healer said, “…not committing to be a vessel would be dangerous.” Can you explain what they were trying to convey to you?
MR: It’s acknowledging that you have a gift, or skill set, and that I get to choose if I want to master or hone that gift. We all have a choice if we want to master the gift, or how much we want to commit to it.
My Aunt Lien was saying you do have a choice, but she was also encouraging me to stand in the commitment. My particular skill set would leave me open to various influences. I have an “antennae” that can pick up many different signals and it would be safer for me to master the “dial” and know which channels I want to move through my “radio.”
BJB: It sounds like you have a choice, but then again you really don’t have a choice.
MR: It’s a paradox. The choice we have is how responsible we want to be with the gifts.
BJB: Nepalese healers do not view the role as a position of privilege. Can you talk about how the healers you spoke with view their role with reluctance, gratitude or as a burden?
MR: I thought it was important because sometimes the role of a healer is romanticized. In the Nepal villages I visited, the healers viewed the role as an honored responsibility in addition to many other responsibilities. The position as a healer did not let them escape their responsibilities of the mundane world.
BJB: During your trip to Nepal, you had a profound physical experience. Can you explain with no prior health problems, why you all of a sudden experienced a loss of vision and was not able to walk?
MR: I didn’t want to include this footage in the film because it took a long time for me to understand what was happening. I only agreed to include it because my editors said it would be a disservice to leave it out.
I loss control of my body, my vision and I couldn’t walk. It felt like I was drunk. Apparently it wasn’t that I was possessed by a negative entity, but rather it was a molecular occurrence. It was an energy of an Oracle that came through me. It was a profound spiritual experience for me to have this feeling of an energy taking over my body.
BJB: Are you able to identify when someone is an authentic healer, or not?
MR: Sometimes it’s not that someone is inauthentic. Sometimes it’s the size of their lens. If it’s someone who can’t see the bigger picture, the context in which you work is limited. It’s not good or bad.
For example, if you have a brain tumor, you’re not going to see a general practitioner. You’re going to see a specialist. The general practitioner’s lens of knowledge, skill set or experience isn’t wide enough to deal with a brain tumor. I think that is something people should consider when they see an energy practitioner in any realm.
BJB: What would you like viewers to know about Talking Story that we have not covered?
MR: People have reported experiencing an energetic healing transmissions through
watching the film.
BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of the spiritual journey for you?
MR: The most surprising part is that the spiritual journey always returns me to my humanity.
We tend to think or wonder if we’re going to transcend being human. I’ve come to believe that that’s not the point. The point is to be able to blend this human existence, and the world of the mundane while we reach for the stars and bring heaven on earth, not to replace it. That’s something I didn’t know when I started this journey.
BJB: Having relayed so much information, what questions do you have?
MR: I have so many. My most pressing question is, what else?
What I mean by that is every discovery is so amazing. I’m never bored. I never say, “Oh yeah, that again.” Every time I ask what else, even if the answer is painful or if suffering comes with it, the opportunity of learning and understanding is so great that I just keep asking, what else? What else is there to know, to experience, to see?
BJB: What are you working on now?
MR: A few years ago, I switched from working from one-on-one to see if these practices could work in a business setting. I’ve spent the last five and half years as the COO of a media company to see if I can apply the lessons and the principles that were taught to me in a business setting, and work within a business culture. Can it be more compassionate an understanding, have more transparency, fairness and more successful and profitable?
To find that the answer is yes has been very rewarding.
In addition to the documentary, in 2014, Talking Story: One Woman’s Quest to Preserve Ancient Spiritual and Healing Traditions, was published as Phan-Lê’s final written account of the Talking lessons learned and journeys taken.
Here is an excerpt from the Epilogue:
“I used to believe it was lack of funding that caused the film and book to take so long to be completed, but in the end, I realized that it took me that long to be able to process enough of what was given to me to be able to share it with others on a greater level.”
“Having traveled and visited cultures under the siege of ethnocide, I intend for this book to reflect the story of our collective journey through loss of spiritual identity and the promise of its transformation into something that is permanent in our collective world of modernity. The healers and spiritual leaders I have met on my journey did not ask me to preserve their traditions and practices, but rather to share them with those outside their culture, to translate their spiritual legacy in a way that may be relevant in another context.”
“Talking story is about taking the time to linger over the details of the mundane, to ponder the realms of the profound, and to surrender any structure of time or agenda. It is practicing the art of listening and of being present. It is a story of hope that the essence of our spiritual self can survive and flourish even after adversity, change and apparent loss.”