Meditating in Bali

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NOTE: A shorter version of this article was published in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, February 11, 2012.

As I sit cross-legged on the hard wood floor of Taksu’s luxury yoga studio in Ubud, Bali, I’m trying my best to decipher the rambling of our scraggly-bearded and long-winded Balinese meditation teacher. I dare not meet his gaze as he scans the group for a confirmation that we are following his long-derailed train of thought.

“Kundalini is God. Buddha is God. Jesus is God. The earth is God. The sky is God. […] You IS God…”, he finally says as his eyes widen, and he pauses for dramatic effect.

To my left, I notice Marina is fidgeting around; apparently the red ants have made their way to her as well.

After what seems like an eternity of non-sequiturs in broken English, punctuated only by rolling R’s, we are no closer to understanding anything about Kundalini mediation, the topic of our session.

This is certainly not what I had envisioned when I set out to learn to meditate in Indonesia’s most popular island, Bali. In “Eat, Pray, Love”, Julia Roberts’ character seemed to have no difficulty finding a Balinese healer and wise man.

So why were we having such difficulty?

Just last night, my taxi got lost in Ubud’s dark streets while trying to find a temple that offers a once a week free group meditation.

And now this nonsense?

Perhaps finally sensing our incomprehension, or more palatably our boredom, our Balinese ‘priest and healer’ announces: “Now we will begin Kundalini meditation.”

What follows is a confusing mixture of ill-timed breathing exercises, some talk of chakras, something to do with colours, and a lot of ant bites.

And to end off our session, our instructor yells “I love you bodiee!!!” as he enthusiastically hugs himself.

Feeling defeated in my mission to learn to meditate in one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited, Marina and I head out for a walk through Ubud’s rice terraces. The scenery is stunning, and yet I can’t stop thinking about our missed opportunity.

As we walk back into town on one of Ubud’s many cobbled stone streets, we pass a large temple on our right.

Suddenly, something forces me to stop in my tracks and turn around.

I can’t believe it.

“Marina! I found it! I found White Lotus!”

(4 days later)

White Lotus Meditation Studio

For the first time in my life, my mind is silent, free of thoughts.

Although it lasts for only a second, the experience is remarkable.

Slowly, the clear blue sky that was my mind during that moment again starts being invaded by clouds of thought.

However, like being in a movie theatre, where I watch various thoughts come into focus on the screen, I remain an observer. Rather than reacting to each passing thought, I can acknowledge it, briefly evaluate it, and if I choose to, gently push it away from consciousness.

It is just as Sandeh said it would be.

Just a few days ago, I had no idea how I would ever be able to silence the incessant thoughts constantly nagging for my attention.

As I slowly open my eyes, I become aware of our environment.

Marina is sitting to my left. Her legs are crossed, her hands rest on her thighs, and her eyes remain closed; she has yet to come out of her meditation.

Sitting across from us is Sandeh, our private meditation teacher and the owner of the White Lotus. She sits quietly, meditating as the rays of the setting sun pierce her long silver hair, giving her an otherworldly appearance.

The three of us are seated on cushions in the octagonal, open-air, roof-top, meditation studio, designed by Sandeh herself. Above the tall palm trees, the sky is painted with broad, overlapping strokes of orange, red and purple. To the northeast, the peak of a volcano is visible above the tree line. The smell of burning incense permeates the air, as distant sounds of traditional Balinese music come and go with the passing breeze.

This moment would make Elizabeth Gilbert jealous.

As I wait for Marina and Sandeh to come out of their meditation, I realized we found everything we wanted and so much more in Ubud.

In a way it’s almost comical: a Polish-Canadian and Russian-Canadian learning to meditate from an Italian-German in Bali.

And yet, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Meditating at White Lotus in Ubud

Meditating at the White Lotus in Ubud

You see, before we flew to Bali, I searched online to find the perfect place to learn to meditate. After some digging, I found a few reviews on Tripadvisor of a place called White Lotus, which sounded ideal: a small, unique place that taught meditation without invoking too much voodoo and discussion of spirituality. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I looked, I could not locate any contact information for this place: no email, no phone number, and not even an address. All I knew was that it was near the path towards the rice terraces and was owned by a woman named Sandeh. After several passes to and from the rice terraces without a sight of the White Lotus, I had nearly forgotten about it.

But thanks to my random discovery of a nearly invisible “White Lotus” sign a few days ago, we finally found what we were after.

When I later inquired about Sandeh’s motivation for keeping the White Lotus so elusive, she replied with a smile, “The right people always manage to find me.”

Our time with Sandeh at the White Lotus was easily the highlight of 4 months of traveling through SE Asia. And don’t get me wrong, we had a phenomenal time and met many wonderful people everywhere we went.

But there was simply something magical about that place that I am unable to articulate.

Every morning, after being gently woken by the warm sun, we would slide open our glass doors and walk out onto our private veranda overlooking a garden and koi pond directly below, and rice terraces in the distance.

Private veranda at White Lotus White Lotus garden.

After a healthy and inexpensive breakfast of fresh fruit juice, and a bowl of granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, and honey at a nearby restaurant, Marina would head out on the town to snap some pictures, while I went back to the White Lotus to read about and practice meditating in the garden.

Around 6 in the evening, Marina and I would head up to the rooftop to meet Sandeh for our nightly meditation lesson. On each occasion, Sandeh would guide us through another form of meditation.

At night, we would climb into our comfy bed, and fall asleep to the sounds of the waterfall just beyond the edge of White Lotus’ garden.

On our last night, after completing our final meditation, the three of us remained seated talking on the rooftop long after the sun had set. That conversation we shared under the starry Balinese sky remains my fondest memory of Bali, and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Late that night, the three of us exchanged hugs, as our eyes filled with tears.

Through some stroke of luck we made a connection with a kindred spirit who understood us completely. Possibly more so than anyone else ever has. And yet, Sandeh was a complete stranger just days ago.

“You’ll be back in Bali. I just have a feeling.”

Those were Sandeh’s last words to us, before we headed off to bed.

Somehow, I think she may have been right.

Peter

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VIP seating at Muay Thai fights in Thailand and Cambodia

Muai Thai in Cambodia

As we arrive via tuk tuk to what appears to be a huge mall parking lot in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we catch sight of the bright lights illuminating the boxing ring in the distance.

On the suggestion of our Cambodian friend, Long, we’ve come to see Cambodia’s version of Muai Thai boxing, named Pradal Serey. Although the former style is more popular around the world thanks to the UFC, from what I can gather the Khmers’ (people of Cambodia) style of fighting was actually a precursor to Thailand’s Muay Thai.

The crowd surrounding the ring is substantial; on the periphery numerous locals are seated on their mopeds, in the middle layer hundreds of locals stand together, and finally an inner circle of seated spectators encircle the ring.

Muai Thai Fight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The crowd surrounding the ring (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

 

Since we are late, and the fights have already started, I presume we’ll be viewing from a distance.

Instead, we all follow Long as he pushes through the crowd, and points to the only row of empty seats, directly next to the ring.

We all sit, and immediately become transfixed by the swift kicks, punches, knees and elbows of the Cambodians duking it out. The sound of the traditional fighting music played by a band of cross-legged men provides an eerie melody but sets the tempo for the movement of the fighters.

It is almost as they are dancing to the music; as the tempo of the music picks up, so does the intensity of the fighting.

However, this dance is bound to leave a few bruises.

As the first round ends, we notice both of the local cameramen have zeroed in their cameras directly on us.

“Long, why are the cameras on us?” I ask.

“They want to show the people watching at home, as well as the sponsors of the event how popular this is. If there are foreigners here, it must be good!”, Long replies as he bursts into his characteristic high-pitched chuckle.

Now I begin to understand why we were given VIP seating – we’re practically celebrities in Cambodia! Immediately, I feel a hint of guilt at the preferential treatment. Especially since we haven’t paid a penny to be here.

As the fights progress, a similar pattern emerges that Marina and I witnessed at a fight in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Namely, the pattern of “tough” guys with intense stares, big muscles, and excess bravado getting their asses handed to them by their slighter, unassuming, and seemingly weaker opponents.

In many instances, these surprising victories are achieved by severe knockouts and accompanied by plentiful blood. In other words, not only did the more physically intimidating contenders lose the bout, they lost BADLY.

You can almost see a fighter’s ego being deflated as he gets knocked down by a seemingly inferior opponent.

Muay Thai fight, Chiang Mai

Why you should never get into a fight (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

 

While I was already a pacifist, watching these fights certainly reiterated an important life lesson:

No matter how weak your opponent might look, they could kick your ass. Thus, avoid fights at any cost.

So if you’re ever in a confrontation, do your best to talk your way out of it.

Otherwise, if your opponent doesn’t respond to reason, run like hell!

Peter

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