To Risk Being Disturbed and Changed

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From A Morning Offering
by John O’Donohue

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fears no more.

 

 

Bali, steeped in ritual, alive equally to the seen and the unseen, demands offerings.

I came here to ‘break the dead shell of yesterdays’. I had no idea what lay ahead for me but I wanted a life that I would love and I had a shadowy dream of what that might look like.

I noticed the offerings first. How quaint, I thought. How pretty. Weeks later in a small village I saw others that were not lovely. They held dark, partially burned objects. Women in trance danced beside them, swaying, eyes closed. An involuntary shudder rippled head to toe. In an instant it was clear that I was living on the face of things, lost in the romance of paradise while another reality roiled and churned just out of sight.

It’s that Bali I’ve grown to love. I’m still smitten with the enchantments of her beautiful face, but I’m no longer naive. The Balinese devote hours every day making prayers and offerings to spirits both dark and benign. This, they believe, maintains balance between the worlds. Since they operate in both realms simultaneously, that balance is essential. Unlike Western consciousness grounded in the seen, Bali-mind is equally at home with the physical earth and the spirits at play here.

I’ve been ‘disturbed and changed’ by the tremendous power of this island. People ask me, Do you believe all that? And I answer, How can I not? I’ve experienced her transforming fire first hand and I’ve watched as others fall prey to her spell. A friend commented recently that Bali is a karmic accelerator. That’s a piece of it, but it’s much more. If you stay any length of time you’ll see. Bali intensifies character good or bad, manifests intention, spawns creativity, and rearranges beliefs. If you merge with her flow she’ll nurture you. But if you cross her, beware. You’ve no idea what demons you’ve summoned!

 

 

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Black Magic

People in the West don’t pay much attention to the dark forces. Paranoia around all things paranormal runs rampant unless of course it’s vampires, or child wizards wreaking havoc with broomsticks. Those have become acceptable, even desirable in recent literature and film. In fact tales of bloodsucking teens has become a money-making machine. We can’t get enough.

In Bali the dark forces are acknowledged and maintaining balance between the negative and positive energies is a daily practice. Credence is given to blessings but perhaps even more attention is afforded the dark arts. Someone’s father is sick. A skin rash appears. A house burns down. Crops fail. Black magic, they whisper. It’s as though no other possibility exists.

When illness or tragedy strikes, a balian is consulted. There are two types of balian according to Ubud Now and Then.

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud Photo credits Namaste Festival

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud
Photo credits Namaste Festival

The first, known as the ‘balian taksu’, is a kind of shaman or trance medium: he goes into a trance to communicate with the spirit world, and frequently chases away unwanted influences in this way. The second, the ‘balian usada’, refers to sacred medical manuscripts, and uses massage techniques and traditional medicines made from plants and animals. He also works with a spiritual approach, drawing on intuition, visions, mantras and prayer to aid the healing process.

The article goes on to say that a visit to a balian requires sensitivity and openness to the Balinese beliefs about the spirit world and the power of the invisible. It may require a dramatic leap of faith to accept a prescribed remedy which can be unorthodox. Yet many visitors to Bali have found themselves cured by a local medicine man when no Western doctor was able to help.

Some of us can be quite comfortable with intuitive types. Their subtle seeing of things unseen, or knowing without being told, is acceptable and we seek them out for guidance. But Bali takes it a step beyond.

Sanghyang is the Balinese sacred trance. It’s a phenomenon that raised the hairs on the back of my neck when I first witnessed it. Spirit possession wasn’t an everyday occurrence in my upbringing and I was unprepared for the raw power unleashed during a Sanghyang ritual.

But for the Balinese, trance is an essential element of their belief system. Skye Laphroaig, in an article for the Bali Advertiser, says that Sanghyang is a sacred state in which hyangs (deities) or helpful spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of willing participants. The purpose of sanghyang is to cleanse people and places of evil influences to restore spiritual balance.

An example of a Sanghyang is the spectacular fire dance. A man in trance holding a hobby horse walks back and forth through burning coconut husks in his bare feet. Again and again he circles through the fire until he is pulled to the ground by two attendants.  A priest appears and sprinkles him with holy water. The man remains immobile in an altered state for some time.

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

These productions may appear to be for tourists, but I have attended elaborate performances where I was the only non-native person there. The Balinese do this for the Balinese. They do it to maintain harmony on their beautiful island. The spiritual realm is as real and present for them as the natural and they travel fluidly between the two. They accept without question the presence of the unseen, the dark forces and the light. Their offerings, prayers, and rituals are designed to appease both.

The Balinese year ends with the granddaddy of all spirit-balancing rituals, Nyepi. This year Nyepi falls on March 31. Nyepi Eve is a ghoulish extravaganza of ogoh-ogoh monsters paraded through the streets accompanied by pounding gamelan and overwhelming chaos. The negative deities are chased away or driven crazy by the pandemonium. Then the island shuts down. The airport is closed as are all the businesses. People do not go out of their homes. The streets are empty with the exception of the Pecalang who enforce the day of silence and impose fines on offenders.

Ogoh-ogoh

Ogoh-ogoh

In the West the healing arts have become the healing sciences. Science, we believe, can fix people, animals, vegetation, rivers, and every ailing thing. Bit by bit, a more holistic mindset is allowing natural remedies to be reintroduced, suspiciously, into the mainstream. But other than prayer chains, dialed into service for an extra measure of divine intervention, the vast resources of the metaphysical realm remain untapped.

We scoff at the mystical beliefs of the uneducated. We pass judgment on primitive practices and superstitions. We’re so wise. But what if that’s the missing piece? What if it takes science, and nature, and the realm of the unseen working together, to accomplish mighty feats? What if….

You Want Go Dance?

I was about due for another Ketut Surprise, and yesterday I got it. “You want go dance?” he asked. That was a bold move for Ketut and it posed a serious threat to my perception of our relationship. But I’ve learned not to jump to conclusions.

“Where?” I ask. He tells me Jembawan Street, “You know Jazz Café?” he looks at me, his eyebrows raised, questioning. Now I’m really confused. There are places where local Balinese go and hang out with the tourist crowd but Jazz Café is not one of them. I am about to seek further clarification when he continues. “Ceremony for cemetery.” he says. “Dance many-many.”

Relief.

According to Ketut there are two cremation sites in Ubud with a road running between them. Evidently the road wreaks havoc with the supernatural, so every six months a ‘balancing’ ceremony must take place to pacify the restless spirits. The ceremonial dances act out the battle between good and evil and bring them symbolically to a draw. Neither side wins, they simply depart peacefully.

He has already been to Jembawan Street to scope out the site. He tells me it starts at 8 p.m. and lasts until 2 a.m. I don’t doubt it. At 7:50 my phone signals an incoming text. “Pergi sekarang?” (Go now?) I shoot back a quick, “OK,” and I’m out the door. The night air is delicious on the back of a motorbike. As we approach, men in black and white checked sarongs are directing traffic. Finding a spot, Ketut parks and we head toward the sound of gamelan.

Suddenly there are people everywhere, close to 500 would be my guess. As usual, I am stunned with the magnitude of the event. A high-tech sound system has been set up at one end of a long structure. Palm decorations that look like fish skeletons with giant fresh marigolds woven into the design hang from the ceiling beams. It’s beautiful. And there are Balinese families everywhere. Babies that have passed their 3-month birthday are held. Until they are 3 months they cannot leave the family compound. Toddlers sit, well behaved and mesmerized. Teens do what teens do, they roam about. I glance around for other foreign folk like myself. I see one. By the time we leave at midnight there are 5. Although this event is in the middle of a familiar street and is an amazing peek into authentic Balinese ritual, the tourists don’t know about it.

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The gamelan orchestra is stunning in white uniforms with red and gold head gear. Their music is the foundation of every dance. It is non-stop, sometimes a bright sound, light and tinkly, sometimes a crashing cacophony as the dancers reach the climactic point of the performance.

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The Barong comes on first. He seems almost shy. His long body drips with shaggy hair reminiscent of an Afghan Hound. The luxurious tail usually has a bell attached. His face wears a frightening mask with a mouth that opens and shuts making a dreadful clacking noise. It’s hard to know whether to watch the head with it’s snapping jaws or the twitching, hypnotizing tail. I’m told the black beard holds strong magic.

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When the evil Rangda makes her appearance the energy ramps up. She is a powerful witch. Every time I see her she is almost completely enveloped by her own dreadlocks. They reach nearly to the floor. The babuten, in a trance state, challenge her with their spiraled kris swords. Naked to the waist and dressed for combat, their sarongs are drawn up between their legs and tucked in back. When Rangda waves her white cloth at them they turn their swords on themselves. For way too long they gyrate wildly, bending forward and backward, trying to pierce their sweat drenched chests with the wicked instruments. Finally, all at once, they fall to the ground. Holy water is rushed onto the stage and they are sprinkled and prayed over. Some have to be carried away.

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In Bali there’s a ritual for everything, literally. When a woman is pregnant but won’t reveal the name of the baby’s father, a ceremony ensues. Offerings are made and a surrogate husband is found for her. It may be an animal, a stick figure, or any number of other possibilities depending upon the village. Once these steps have been taken, the matter is settled. The woman is considered married.

We left the dancers at midnight, still going strong. The dancers were going strong…I was exhausted. The combination of four hours of gamelan and the intense battling in the spirit realm is a bit of a drain. “Go home?” Ketut says as we pull away from the curb. “Go home.” I reply, then add, “Thanks for the dance.”

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