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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Monkeying around in Southeast Asia

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“I think I prefer seeing monkeys in the zoo”, I tell Marina while walking among the hundreds of curious and mischievous monkeys in Ubud’s Monkey Forrest in Bali, Indonesia.

We have been in Southeast Asia for about 2.5 months now and have managed to encounter monkeys on the road, on mountains, in parks, caves, cafes, temples, and beaches.

While I am all for monkeys living in their natural habitat rather than behind bars in a zoo, given the nature of these frisky primates I would personally prefer some degree of separation.

Nevertheless, due to the frequency with which we find ourselves surrounded by a group of monkeys, Marina and I have picked up a few safety tips from various locals.

Feeding monkeys near Hua Hin, Thailand.

For those of you planning on seeing monkeys in the wild here are a few quick pointers.

1) No Smiling:

Seriously. Even though their actions may be hilarious, it is better not to laugh, or even smile for that matter in a monkey’s presence. Since bearing teeth is a sign of aggression, you showing your teeth while smiling may send the wrong message.

2) No food or shiny objects on your person:

Monkeys are a curious and perceptive bunch and they may become particularly interested in you if you are wearing anything shiny (jewellery, sunglasses, etc.), have any food on you, or are holding something in your hand. The rule of thumb is this: if a monkey tries to take something from you, it’s best to let them have it rather than fighting them for it. Better yet, do not wear anything that might attract attention, and do not carry any food with you. Additionally, if you notice you are being stalked by a curious macaque, show them your open and empty palms and often they will immediately lose interest.

3) Keep clear of injured or dead monkeys:

On one particular occasion in Ubud, we came across a monkey that had just fallen out of a tree and was badly hurt, writhing in pain on the ground. Our natural instinct was to get close and see if we could help. Thankfully, one of the experienced park staff quickly stopped us from getting mulled by the onlooking monkeys. As was explained to us, approaching a hurt monkey is likely to incite an attack by the other members of that group. Thus, if you come across a hurt or dead monkey, best to give it space.

4) Back away slowly:

Finally, if you encounter an aggressive monkey, simply back away slowly while continuing to face them. Since turning your back is a sign of fear, such action may increase their confidence, potentially leading them to attack.

A showdown in progress.

Now that I’ve gotten you completely paranoid, please note that 99.9% of the time you’ll be absolutely fine. Despite our countless encounters (even when I fed a bucket of peanuts to a bunch of monkeys in Hua Hin’s Monkey Mountain) nothing even remotely dangerous ever occurred. And while we certainly witnessed a number of tourists freaking out when one or 3 monkeys jumped on them, no one ever got hurt. For the most part, the monkeys we came across were most often participating in any one of these 3 activities: eating, sex, or resting.

Just look at this face…

Awwww...

Peter

Note: As our few loyal readers may have noticed, this blog has been collecting cobwebs over the past few months. Let me assure you this silence was not due to a lack of adventures. For the past number of months we’ve been exploring Southeast Asia, and just recently settled into our next temporary home in New Zealand. As opposed to our travels through South America where I constantly updated the blog in nearly real-time, this time around I chose to experience everything as it happened without worrying how I could turn said experience into a blog post. But fear not! Thanks to my notes and Marina’s 10 000+ photos, we will be updating the blog with our most recent adventures over the next little while. Stay tuned!

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