So, dear soul-sister, about your shit…

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So, dear soul sister, about your shit…

Or maybe that’s too abrupt. Let me explain…

I owe many of the articles I write to the quirky friends I’ve made in Bali. The reasons we choose this island are different for each of us. But I’m drawn like a sugar-seeking ant to those sweet women who, like me, don’t shy away from intense inner work.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all about issues, tendencies, addictions, and destructive patterns that resurface in a different disguise just when we think we’ve conquered them once and for all. When mutual trust and respect pave the way for sharing at this level there is an equal and opposite reaction toward lasting friendships and insane fun. Balance. Bali is all about balance.

With that introduction, allow me to begin again.

So, dear soul sister, about your shit…

Bali magnifies and accelerates the processing of shit.
Maybe it’s the heat, or the multitude of busy spirits, or the daily abundance of prayers and offerings to maintain equality between the light and the dark – or all of the above.

Whatever it is, your shit will come up here, bigger and stinkier, until you own it, embrace it, and make peace with it – until you love your shit as much or more than you love your sane, sensible, enlightened self.

How do you do it – the owning and embracing?

Make a shit altar – a beautiful shit shrine.
Make a representation of every shitty thing you imagine about yourself and place it on that altar. (I would avoid real excrement – just FYI.)

For example, if you are stubbornly attached to some destructive behavior, maybe write the name of that behavior on a rock and stick chewing gum to it.
If you think you’re not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, whatever enough, put a photo of yourself flat on the altar and set an empty bowl on top of it – leave your face exposed so you have to look at your poor, empty self.

Many gurus advocate writing your shit down and burning it.
I say, face it head on, day in and day out, honor it and celebrate it. Have fun with it.

You get my drift?

Burn incense to your shit.
Make offerings to your shit.
Talk to it.

Let your shit stare you in the face until it makes you laugh.

When a breakthrough comes, change the representation of that piece of shit on the altar. Maybe the rock, in time, becomes a precious gem stone; the bowl fills to overflowing and you’re standing tall on top of it.

Remember that all those shitty things happened because a little girl, who still lives inside you, didn’t know how to separate truth from lies, she didn’t know that the things she suffered were not her fault, she took all the blame.

When you can weep for the little girl and have compassion for how hard she tried, what a strong little fighter she was, you can begin to love yourself.

Shit matters.

This may sound ridiculous but it works. It puts substance to the demons and forces you to confront them. It allows you to interact with them in the physical dimension. It brings humor into an otherwise dark equation. It is ritual, which is essential to our well being but has basically been lost in our superior Western culture, which, viewed from this place of immense beauty and profound healing, doesn’t look so superior at all.

Yoga and the Invasion of the Semut

I wake up invigorated. The yoga platform is calling me. As the rising sun’s rays sift through banana leaves I do my 24 sun salutations, 12 on each side. Then tree pose, I move slowly from tree into king dancer without putting my foot on the ground, then stork. (Do you know stork? I made it up!) I complete my regular 40 minute routine, meditate staring into the flashing iridescence of a crystal, give thanks, receive blessings, and feel fabulous. Today is Kuningan, the ceremonial last day of the Hindu celebrations honoring the ancestors. The air is supercharged, sweet with incense and the prayers of the devout.

I gather up my mat and step…oops! What the…? Instead of stepping, I leap off the last stair over a swarming mass. There is a black line stretching from the front door to the back yard, but it seems to have a roundabout right under that step. Mass congestion…traffic jam! It appears that I have been invaded by semut…ants to us in the west. This is unacceptable. My adrenalin spikes. I grab the bamboo straw broom and haul away, brushing furiously to and fro.

My sweeping is utterly ineffective. No sooner are the persistent critters ousted, then 2000 more take their place. There was a storm the other night, a really big storm. I think these semut are homeless. I know Ibu has a can of HIT with pictures of vile insects that it promises to eradicate. I’m desperate. She’s moved it from its usual hiding place. I run to the storage area in the back of the house and, sure enough! Sneaky Ibu! I grab the spray and race back. I’ve been gone just long enough for the entire line to reassemble, as though nothing had happened at all.

When Ibu came later with offerings for Kuningan, I was the picture of contented peace. The deadly HIT can was back in its hiding place. (I don’t think she wants me to know she uses the vicious stuff!) And the bodies had been ceremoniously trashed. She decorated the house with beautiful dream-catcher like weavings, piles and piles of fruit offerings, and her secret incense that smells like cloves.

The house altar decorated for Kuningan

The house altar decorated for Kuningan

Then we sat staring at the garden, talking about the price of onions, and eating tape (tah-pay), the fermented rice dish, slightly alcoholic, that she always makes for this day.

The front terrace

We sat on the bench on the front terrace

My yard in the jungle

Staring at the jungle that Ibu chops back to keep from losing the yard

My front door decorated for Kuningan

Ibu’s beautiful dreamcatchers decorate the front door for Kuningan

Through this doorway is a perfect view of the semut trail. See the bottom step leading up to the platform? Yup! The roundabout is right under it. Who knew? But no more…at least not until time and traffic wear away the toxic remedy. I feel like such a traitor! But there are no organic solutions in rural Ubud. I’ve seen a few measly semut carry off an entire gecko and I have no doubt that 2000 of them could make short work of my carcass. So there’s no cohabitating with with the little buggers. Its them or me, and as long as I can find Ibu’s stash, I have the advantage.

Making Peace with Good and Evil

Good and evil, yin and yang, are balanced today in the village of Bakbakan.  It isn’t easy to maintain harmony with these energies. The level of sensory intensity in the ritual prayers, dances, and offerings that are required to keep peace between the sacred and the profane is unparalleled by anything I’ve seen before.

My friend Wayan invited Nancy (who is visiting from the U.S.) and me to attend the temple ceremony as guests of her family. The village of Bakbakan is about 30 minutes from Ubud. I arranged with Pasek and Ketut for motorbike transport. After a sidesaddle ride, which Nancy accomplished with impressive decorum, we were delivered to our destination and welcomed warmly by Wayan and Komang in ceremonial dress.

A group of women had already congregated. They were stunning. They looked like brides, all in white with a colorful sash at their waists. We had a few minutes to visit and then a line started forming. The row of towering pyramids of fruit, cakes, whole baked chickens, and colorful confections were retrieved by the woman who created them and placed on their heads.

This woman’s husband helps her with her 4′ tall, over 30 pound offering.

I cannot comprehend this feat of balance and strength.  It’s a challenge for me to balance a book on my head for more than a few steps. How on earth do they do it? The stately procession was followed by the gamelan musicians. Nancy and I walked alongside the men, snapping photos as discreetly as possible.

A stunning parade, at least 50 women all in white, carried their towering offerings the 1/2 mile to the temple.

The temple complex has three areas. Those who cannot enter wait in the least sacred area outside the entrance. If a relative has died recently the family cannot enter the temple. If a woman is menstruating she must not enter. At we approached Komang politely asked if Nancy or I were menstruating. There are very few bodily functions that register as taboos in Bali. Community life is an open book. There is no embarrassment around such things. I assured him we were both well past that age. He smiled and motioned us to the holy water where we were sprinkled. Then we passed through the gate and entered a magical realm. All was in readiness for the evening festivities as we passed through this second area.

Stepping through the last gate into the most sacred portion of the temple a riot of color and commotion assailed us. The air vibrated with expectation and the hum of voices. We were urged onto a platform, a seat of honor, and woven bamboo mats were quickly spread for our delicate foreign bottoms. Nancy and I sat by Wayan while Ary slept peacefully in her arms.

Komang’s cousin, Made, appointed himself our teacher and began explaining the events that would take place. His English was excellent and I learned more about Balinese Hinduism in the 30 minutes with him than I have in 5 months of reading and asking questions. We sat and chatted while other friends and family came and went.

The gamelan began, signaling time for prayer. We sat on the ground in family groups. Each family brought, in addition to the 4’ high offering tower, a basket of flowers and incense which Komang’s mother placed in front of us. Prayers were chanted in unison as the intricate rituals were performed. I tried to chant. I’m pretty good at following along with most melodies, but this wasn’t exactly a melody. When we got to the end I recognized the words and gave it my all, Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om.

A buzz of excitement rippled through the crowd at this point and almost as a unit the we moved to the perimeter creating a center space. A cloth was spread on the ground and offerings were placed there. These were different. Some appeared to have been slightly burned. There were a couple of smaller, colorful ones but the rest were almost scary looking. Made explained that there would be a dance and prayers now to balance good and evil energies. A row of holy men in white sat behind the dark offerings. Incense was lighted that did not have the sweet fragrance we had been experiencing all night. This odor was acrid and harsh. The gamelan musicians began again. Then a grandmother appeared moving to the rhythm. Another grandmother joined her and soon a group of elder women were dancing in front of the offerings and the holy men. We had been told earlier that this would be a trance dance. It was eerie. The women appeared to be doing battle with the dark energies. I watched, mesmerized.

The solemnity of the prayers and trance dance complete, food suddenly appeared. Wayan handed us a tangerine, some beautiful little striped crackers, and a lacy confection of shredded coconut glazed with palm sugar. Yum! We ate, visited, and anticipated the beginning of the evening’s entertainment. People started moving into the performance area and Komang hustled us into position at the front. What followed were three traditional Balinese dances, each one more spectacular than the one before.

The first dance, Penyembrahma, was brilliantly colorful.

That was followed by the spectacular, twirling Bird of Paradise dance.

The costumes in deep maroon with gold were absolutely gorgeous.

Bird of Paradise was followed by a brilliantly costumed trio. I missed the name of this performance and it moved quickly so photo ops were difficult. It was hard to keep my eyes behind the camera when I really just wanted to absorb myself completely in the moment!

It was 9 p.m. by the time the dancers finished. We were told that there would be another performance starting soon, but this was a ritual dance and it would be dangerous for us to leave in the middle. It again had to do with balance of good and evil. Once we started watching we would have to stay until the end at about 2 a.m. As much as my curiosity, my heart, and my mind wanted to stay, my body was in protest. Komang graciously escorted us to the street. Pasek and Ketut had returned and were waiting for us. We exchanged sweet farewells and started home. The cool night air brushed by as we zipped through dark, quiet streets. I was overwhelmed once again with immense gratitude for the opportunity to live this kind of life, a life I have created for myself knowing what I need, what I want, and what I love. It is a life that fits me like skin.

Hafiz had it right

I was searching for words this morning. I am a writer, I told myself. There are words for this. Then I asked myself, What is the ‘this’ I am trying to describe? From somewhere subconscious I recalled a poem. I did not remember the author or even the words, but I thought perhaps Rumi, or Hafiz. It took only a few moments of communing with Google to find it. Ahhh. Hafiz. Here is the poem:

I Have Learned So Much

I

Have

Learned

So much from God

That I can no longer

Call

Myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,

a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself

With me

That I can no longer call myself

A man, a woman, an angel,

Or even a pure

Soul.

Love has

Befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash

And freed

Me

Of every concept and image

my mind has ever known.


From: ‘The Gift’
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Isn’t it beautiful that love is the friend that freed Hafiz from every concept and image his mind had ever known? As I sat with that thought it became clear that love is the only thing that will ever free us. To love others is to accept them in all the ways they are different freeing ourselves from judgement. To love the earth is to protect and care for her freeing ourselves from the consequences of her demise. To love oneself is the ultimate freedom for out of that love comes the capacity for all other love.

The past few days my journey has been inward. The name of this village is Ubud. It means medicine. The essence of Ubud is fundamentally healing to the body, the mind, and the spirit. I have asked myself, why is this so? Is it about the thousands of offerings made daily? The scent of incense ever-present in the air? The constant rituals and ceremonies performed specifically to maintain balance in the spiritual realm? Every day hundreds of tourists parade the streets of Ubud. Every day another rice paddy is drained to make way for a new resort or villa funded by money from the West. But inside the walled compounds of Balinese family homes, life goes on as it has for two thousand years. These people have a way of accepting the new, adjusting to accommodate change, but remaining virtually unchanged themselves. They do this with a self-possessed dignity that defies explanation.

I don’t know the answer to my question. All my life I have believed that everywhere was basically the same as everywhere else. I have traveled and visited amazing countries. I have seen works of art and architecture that left me breathless. I have met wonderful people who genuinely cared for me.  Yet nowhere else has a place whispered to my heart entreating me to stay, to learn, to just be.

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