I was in Bali during August 2007, most of it spent in Ubud. In my experience, it’s rare to be in a culture where the spiritual traditions and values are so visible even to a casual observer. There are many things I took away with me, but I’ll offer just a few here.
The first has to do with prayer and ritual integrated into everyday life. There are temples everywhere—public temples, shrines on the streets. And every family compound has an altar even if it’s a small one tucked into a corner, but many are quite elaborate.
The women seemed to spend a lot of time making small, flat offering baskets from bamboo fronds, measuring about 4 inches square. I’d see them sitting outside storefronts or on the sidewalks talking together while their fingers were busy. For the last week I was there, every morning I watched an elderly woman make her rounds in the bungalow compound where I was staying. She carried a large flat basket in her arms, which contained those smaller ones all holding flower petals, incense, rice, things to attract notice of the gods and signify prosperity. Not only did she place one at the compound shrine and at the base of all the statues, but in front of the bungalow doorways and even on the manager’s desk of the adjacent Internet café; all the important places to create a flow. Later walking through the streets or driving through the countryside, I’d note them in front of businesses and homes, almost everywhere.
The moments for remembrance and gratitude were ongoing. Not a time set aside, but included. One day I had hired a driver to take me to the coast. Along the way, he asked if I minded if he stopped for a few minutes. He pulled over outside a kind of marketplace. While I was fooling around with my camera, he got out. When he returned he had rice pressed into his forehead. During one night’s dinner I was enjoying my food (immensely) and observing my surroundings. One of the servers would stop the others as they passed by. She dipped a flower in a water glass and then anointed them on the head with it. Not playing around, but blessing them.
The understanding of interconnection is also prevalent—family, the banjar, the community. Our style of life in the West is shocking to them. The fact that we seem so disconnected when “I am because you are.”
Perhaps more than anything I was taken with the sacred statues that were prevalent at every turn, not just in the temples. They seemed so exotic and expressive to me, not at all benign. I had a very kind driver who was not only quite curious about my culture but also eager to inform me about his.
He said, “Foreigners make a mistake and say we have so many gods. That’s not so. Our gods stay inside the temple and are only brought out for special times.”
I asked him about some of those I saw frequently that look somewhat like serpents or dragons and he disclosed that they were translators, conduits. They took the messages of the gods and translated them so we could understand them. And when I asked him about the black and white checked sarongs on just about all of them, which I was quite fascinated by, this is what he said.
“They remind us that we all have both good and not so good inside of us. This is to remember balance.”
In Bali, those reminders abound. Balance. Work gets done, but the days aren’t overly long. Acceptance of both sides of human nature without going to either extreme, or rejecting part of the self. Connection. And the middle road is valued. No wonder I was so touched—and relaxed.