I only returned to the United States a few days ago from my truncated trip to Indonesia, which was aborted midstream in order to return home to my family. I am physically here in Philly, but I’m still very much spiritually back in my beloved, second home of Bali. This annual tradition of Nyepi (Nyip-pee) is one I love wholeheartedly, and when I planned to celebrate it with my loved ones in Bali this week, I had no idea that I would be forced to embrace it more completely than ever imagined. Little did we know that the world at large would be called upon to also exercise this tradition, an ancient ritual to balance the struggle of positive and negative elements. Allow me to set the stage.
For weeks leading up to the New Year, in every village on the island, young people come together to build Ogoh-Ogoh, huge paper-mâché Mardi Gras-like monsters that embody the darker or unseen spirits that the Balinese believe live among them, mostly benevolently. These are magnificent creations. On New Year’s Eve, everyone gathers in the village center with all the Ogoh-Ogoh, and parade them throughout town while making loud raucous music and noise to accompany them. The raw energy, a cacophony of sound with the giant demonic creatures swaying overhead, the youth collectively navigating this chaos through the streets, and the rest of the village cheering and shouting creates pandemonium. It is beyond intoxicating; not only for us mortals but for the real guests at this special occasion, the dark spirits who lurk nearby, lured out of hiding by all of this craziness. Eventually, the energetic parade winds down, and everyone returns home to their families (and tourists to their hotels), deescalating from a night of seemingly drunken debauchery. Nyepi officially begins at midnight, and for next the day and night the island is totally devoid of worldly activities, literally on extreme lockdown.
On the heels of this fantastic night, Nyepi day is one of the most magical for me in Bali. A complete silence and serenity blankets the entire island. No noise pollution drowns the birds, frogs, and crickets that are now at center stage. No light pollution cloaks the night sky, making all the stars and heavens acutely visible. Together, yet in our own homes, we share a communal day of introspection, seeking to balance the ying and yang elements that abound. For some, Nyepi is just a day of rest, reading, fasting or feasting, prayer and meditation, and being together. (In fact, in the past several years the government of Bali disables the Internet to force the focus inward, an extreme measure for many.). At night we use only candles, creating the illusion from above of an abandoned island. The following day, the first motor bikes pierce the dawn light, roosters announce the return to our normal routines, and so the cycle begins again. This ancient tradition is rooted in the Balinese belief that the lowly “evil” spirits, who had partied to the max the night before, are totally bored by this deserted island, now absolutely hushed of sound and activity, and they literally leave to seek chaos elsewhere. If, in the previous year they had brought misery, they are now banished, with the Ogoh-Ogoh parade as their big, hooting send-off party.
This year, this ancient ritual connects directly to where I am now, in self-quarantine here in my American home: it is as if the entire world has been forced to practice Nyepi in a profound way. In this light, and following such a jarring juxtaposition of the two retreats, I see shards of light about our own confinement. While none of us are exempt from this pandemic, many in our global family are confronted with fear, sickness and death, isolation, poverty, hunger, the unknown, and more, and my heart bends toward them. And yes, Balinese Nyepi is only about thirty hours long, but for us all, I see this as a new year forward. From our vantage point today we may not see the end of our global retreat. Yet, as if I were still in Bali, I am choosing to use this time as a “blanket of silence” that allows for reflection, re-centering, and resetting with lessons to be gleaned by all who choose to embrace them:. I submit the following:
– What we cannot control, try to release. What we can control, take responsibility for.
– Find some small ways to make friends with the unknown: the ebb and flow of this surreal time seem in constant flux, hour by hour. This new world implores me to practice, beyond words, a more fluid way of being. – Try to be comfortable with yourself, and even love yourself a bit more, whether you’re with others or alone.
– Call someone you know who is in isolation or alone at home. Reach out.
– Trust that we learn lessons, both small and large, from this crisis, and we absorb these on a personal, spiritual, and political level.
– Write down wisdom that resonates during this time so that when we do, in fact, surface on the other side, we can draw on it to become better individuals and citizens, both within and together.
– Recognize how fortunate many of us are who have shelter, food, and health. And, from that perspective, and even with the smallest gestures, extend a hand to those down the ladder from us.
I by no means expect the demons to be banished as easily as the Balinese hold (and practice), but I am mindful of the irony and power that Nyepi is now upon the entire world. As the daffodils smile and cherry trees bloom calling forth spring, I dream across the world of the vibrant green rice stalks outside my Bali front porch, and the ducks chortling away in the still of this quiet day. Small gestures of grace abound all around us during this trying time, if we can feel them and pass them on. From my Balinese heart and soul, now felt deeply in my Philly home, to you and yours, in peace and hope.