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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Scuba diving in Phuket

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With our BCDs (buoyancy control devices) inflated, we’re floating in Racha Island’s Bungalow bay, some 12 km south of Phuket. Alexia, our dive instructor explains our next practical test on the final day of our 4-day open water scuba diving course.

“Ok, once we descend to about 12 meters , you’ll completely remove your mask, swim 15 meters along the sea floor, put your mask back on and clear it.”

As we hear these instructions, Marina and I exchange nervous glances.

“Are you ready?” asks Alexia.

“Ready!” Marina and I respond in unison, hoping the volume of our response masks our trepidation.

Only 3 days ago, while doing the theory part of our course, the mere idea of breathing underwater made my palms sweaty. And yet, that is the least of our worries now.

Before we have time to contemplate any further, as if by instinct, we place our regulators in our mouths, raise the exhaust valve of our BCD’s above our heads, push the deflator button, and begin to sink under the water.

Once we’re all kneeling on the sandy sea floor, Alexia signals that I’ll be the first to go.

As instructed, I slowly remove my mask and instinctively close my eyes as the water rushes in. Although the regulator is still in my mouth, breathing through it while not sucking up water through my exposed nostrils is a challenge. I grasp the mask in my hand, and begin swimming.

Before I know it, Alexia is right beside me, tapping on my shoulder; I’ve covered the necessary distance. With both hands, I place the mask over my face, and secure the strap behind my head. Next I tilt the bottom part of the mask away from my face as I begin to blow air through my nose; an action that replaces the water in my mask with air. After a couple breaths, I can once again open my eyes and avoid the sting of the salty water.

Making an “o” using her thumb and index finger, Alexia signals successful completion. She shakes my hand, and swims over to Marina, who’s about to perform the same test.

After Marina and I do a few more tests, the fun finally begins as we go for an exploratory swim around the bay.

Marina and I swim along as John keeps a close eye on us in the background

 

Moving around through this foreign world, spotting honeycomb eels, porcupine fish, yellow box fish, sergeant majors, among others, I note how relaxed my breathing is, and how calm I have become.

So this is what scuba diving is all about.

When I was younger, I’d watch shows about sea life and often wonder whether the underwater world actually looked as brilliant as it did on television. Being naturally sceptical, I certainly had my doubts. However, this scepticism was quickly shattered during my first snorkelling experience in Cuba in 2001. As soon as my mask touched the water for the first time, I was stunned by how colourful and lively the underwater world really was. Since then, I have been absolutely mesmerized by underwater life and have taken every opportunity to snorkel on our travels.

Not surprisingly, I’ve wanted to learn to scuba dive for nearly a decade. A good friend of mine who also happened to be a scuba instructor even lent me a copy of the study guide so I could prepare to take the course. Sadly, that book sat and accumulated dust on our book shelf for years as we ploughed through our PhDs. And to be honest, I wasn’t particularly keen on learning to dive in the frigid and murky waters of Lake Ontario.

When we initially departed for Southeast Asia, getting our scuba diving certification was a top priority. As soon as we took our first steps on Phuket’s beautiful beaches and swam in the warm and crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea, it was only a matter of time.

And now, resting on our boat ride back to Phuket, we revel in the satisfaction of having finally accomplished one of our long-term dreams. Also, we’re ecstatic to now be able to pursue another one of our dreams: diving the Great Barrier Reef!

Thanks to Phuket Scuba Club, and specifically to Alexia, John, and Nic for making one of our dreams come true. You guys were phenomenal instructors, and great friends. We hope to dive with all of you again!

Us with Nic and Alexia on our celebratory dinner:)

Peter

Note: Thanks to Alexia for taking the wonderful underwater photos

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