Bali is a strange and wonderful enclave. It is unusual in that it stands out as a overwhelmingly Hindu island within overwhelmingly Islamic Indonesia; and with a unique form of Hinduism at that. Balinese Hinduism mixes classical elements from India, Buddhism, local folklore, and echoes of Chinese imagery (or perhaps its the other way around).
The history of how this came to be is fascinating. I presumed that Balinese culture was unique to the island because it had simply never expanded beyond it. The truth is, it’s an old culture — one which once spanned across the Majapahit Empire — that has since retreated but thrives on this island after Islam took over the rest of Indonesia.
And now, it is experiencing another invasion of sorts, especially in the two decades since Elizabeth Gilbert made Ubud famous in her book “Eat, Pray, Love”. The ancient customs of Balinese Hinduism mingle with New Age religion: circling classes, breath work, sound healing, authentic relating exercises, and above them all, yoga. Classes are ubiquitous, almost exclusively offered by Westerners for Westerners, while the Balinese go about their business.
I didn’t know what to make of this at first. Why would Westerners need to come to this small island far from home just to learn from other Westerners? Were these Western teachers — many of them very young and short on life’s experiences — helping sojourners find greater peace, or were they financing their expat life by selling an illusion of enlightment to desperate souls? And perhaps most curious to me, how would the energy of this Western-led New Age culture intermingle with Bali’s old traditions and ways? Would one overtake the other, would they blend into something new, or will they coexist side-by-side?
I carry those questions with me as I leave this place, with humility and curiosity. Whatever the answers, I suppose they vary as much as our respective needs and experiences do, and it is fitting in any case that the name Ubud is derived from the Balinese word for medicine. The town has a long tradition as being a place of healing, not only of medicinal plants and herbs, but also of spiritual healing.
Following the privilege but unparalleled experience of seven months away from home, following the beautiful but physically and emotionally trying time and place that was Zanzibar, and following the majestic but chaotic and overstimulating place that is India, six weeks in Bali has been so incredibly healing. In all the ways. Our children are thriving. They are putting together pieces of culture and history that astound me, they have connected in beautiful and inspiring ways with other kids here, and they make me laugh every day (“what is trail mix, really?… M&Ms with obstacles!”). Janet and I have rediscovered much beauty in each other on top of the love we already share, and have ventured into some really special ways to celebrate that together. And we have been surrounded — for the first time in months, really — by deep interaction with people and a sense of community. My heart is still filled with sadness every day over things that feel like were a lifetime ago, but I continue to find gratitude for the lessons they afford.
Here in Bali, I’ve met so many people who are marching to their own drummer — or at least trying do to just that — which presents a fascinating contradiction: when everyone is sure of who they are and follows their own calling, can they hold together with a shared sense of community and values? I believe the answer is not only that it’s possible, but that it’s stronger that way. When a community is homogenous — including all the ways liberals like to pretend it’s anything but — and everyone is too invested in whether they will be accepted by the tribe, no one is truly free. But when diversity is not only tolerated but encouraged; and when humility and forgiveness are more prevalent than judgment and expectation, we all thrive even when we don’t manage to see eye-to-eye on all things.
And that’s perhaps what I love most about Bali. With its indescribable mix of cultures and constant stream of travellers, the energy flows differently here such that we can more readily listen for the sound of our own music and see the light of own own flame — sometimes for the first time, in a world that is all too often all too noisy and bright.