"It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
—from "On the Road Home" by Wallace Stevens
The very first time I entered Ubud, Bali, was in a “grab car” (similar to uber) last summer. I knew very little of the place other than the fact it was considered the cultural center of Bali, or that’s what I’d been told from others.
(For those unfamiliar, Bali is an island around the size of Delaware, and a part of the country, Indonesia. Ubud is a village/town near the center of Bali.)
Later, I was also told that Ubud was a place popularized by a Julia Roberts movie, Eat, Pray, Love, which of course was based upon a book that I’d heard a lot of, but had no interest in reading so knew very little about. What I later learned was that Ubud was the scene of the “love” segment (as opposed to the “eat” or “pray” portions) of the movie, and that ever since the popularization of the movie, the scene was flooded with single Western women (or unhappily coupled women) seeking a magical love connection there.
When I heard this, my first thought was, “Ooh, this might mean that there will be many women wanting to dance salsa there,” which turned out to be right. In fact, it’s the only place I’ve ever been where women will pay a man to be their dance escort for the evening at a rate that far exceeds the normal working wage for a local, as there are two to three times as many women as men hovering around the dance floors. (Disclaimer: outside of an abundance of dance partners, I never ran into one of these love-struck women during my time in Bali, or at least anyone who considered me the foil to their fantasy!)
Getting back to that first drive into Ubud—I remember being overcome by a distinct feeling of homecoming, or welcoming. It was as if the trees and rice fields were opening up and whispering to me, “This way. This way... “ The birds were flying toward the car, as if to say, “Welcome… the world is opening for you over here...”
It’s something I’ve experienced only once before in terms of geography, and that was upon my approach to Santa Fe, New Mexico, many decades ago. (That’s an interesting story in itself. I was in my early 20’s and traveling with the girlfriend of one of my best friends at the time. She was a bit older and wanted a travel companion, and in return, she was willing to offer free lodging, so I took her up on it. Only, I found her personality a bit strong, and having spent a few days with her from Santa Barbara, CA, all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was feeling weary. So, when we arrived in Santa Fe, I told her that I’d like to set out on my own. She seemed worried for me, but I told her I would be fine. I then hitchhiked my way around New Mexico and Colorado for the next few days until I arrived at my intended destination of Boulder, Colorado, where I stayed in a hostel for a little over a week! I remember some of my rides were very concerned for me at my naivete and openness. One even gave me a switchblade in case I ran into trouble. I still own that switchblade, and i’ve used it only to sharpen pencils! But yes, Santa Fe became the beginning of an amazing solo adventure that would last a couple of weeks!)
Anyhow, going back to my story of Ubud, Bali—I spent about three weeks in Ubud this past summer, and during that time, I mostly remember drinking iced Americanos and finishing probably my best book to date. I also danced many evenings to wonderful live music. It was like living a dream. And when it was time to leave the island of Bali, I remember saying to myself, “One day, I’m going to move here.”
From there, I flew directly into Tokyo, where I would encounter someone with whom I would share a brief intimacy with, and in that, I forgot about Ubud, and eventually I fell into my daily life in the States.
Once the dalliance with the girl ended, I would sometimes think of my time in Bali. It was mostly the memory of riding a motorbike between Ubud and a seaside town named Sanur, and my heart would swell and tears would come. But no thoughts other than the feeling of fullness and tenderness in the heart.
Like many of us, I’m a person of myriad thoughts, wants, and desires. Many of my wants don’t come to be, and it’s a good thing because I tend to have a two- to three-track mind where one of those tracks is the common male track. The other track might be called “spiritual” in nature, and those come to be for the good of many, usually.
But there’s also a third-track. It’s really the same as the “spiritual,” but it’s a tad bit different in tone. They’re desires of the heart. Not of the mind. Or ego. But purely of the heart.
And here’s what I’ve learned. What I desire in my heart is what the universe desires of me, and so they come to be, usually with ease, or with a kind of effortless effort. (I’ve written of this elsewhere in a number of places, so I won’t elaborate here, and in fact, I’m currently working on a book that explicates this truth in detail.) In other words, there’s no distinction between “inside” and “outside,” which are simply conceptual constructs in the end. That is, the will or desire of the heart (“inside”) is one and the same as the will of the universe (“outside”), or God ("inside" and "outside"), if you will. There’s no distinction that I can find, especially in how things play out.
And how I know that a desire arises from the heart is that my heart swells and tears come.
So I knew, and I announced this to a group of friends back then even while in the midst of some turmoil and grief, that I would somehow be back in Bali, riding a motorbike. (And yes, it’s already been happening, and with little effort on my part! And thank you, Marie, for the regular reminders!)
But this story is being reconstructed backwards, so I’m telling it with current knowledge. It’s not told in alignment with my experience, which is what I’ll begin doing.
During this journey, what I know is that I’ve now taken nine flights, and stayed in twelve different places in a span of six weeks.
And no matter where I went, I thought of Bali. With a kind of longing. As one longs for home. Or a lost love.
When I finally arrived on the island, I decided first to stay in Sanur, the seaside town. I had very fond memories of my time there, and my plan was to stay in Sanur for at least half of my five weeks in Bali. This was mostly a rational and practical decision based primarily around the central locality of Sanur.
But certain things happened. I got held up at customs, probably for looking like a hippie (long hair and sloppy clothes); the ride from the airport was incredibly uncomfortable as I had probably bargained too hard with the driver, and he seemed visibly upset at how little he was making (I gave him a large tip later); then, my first stay turned out to be a dump, probably the most depressing place I’ve stayed at during my entire travels; and mostly, my stomach wouldn't settle.
“This isn't a good sign,” I was thinking.
So on the second day there, despite tremendous exhaustion from all of my travels, I rented a motorbike and rode up to Ubud, which is about a 45-minute ride, just to check it out to see if it was any better.
As I approached the town of Ubud, I underwent the same experience as before! And I suddenly remembered what I described earlier. The rice fields were opening to my consciousness. Or my consciousness was opening in response to my surroundings. The trees were undulating as if waving to me, welcoming me. “This way.... This way…” I was simultaneously experiencing and remembering this feeling of homecoming and welcoming for the first time since it had happened last summer!
It’s interesting the things we lose sight of, that we simply forget. It’s as if they recede from our consciousness only to be triggered again when they reoccur, but until then, they may as well never have happened as far as the conscious mind is concerned.
And yet, they remain deep in one’s heart, continually informing our choices in ways that we may not often be aware of…
Upon arriving in Ubud on my motorbike, I promptly found a place to stay that would start the next day although I still had to get back to Sanur for one more night.
Then, it started raining. Hard. So I decided to wait it out, but even after six hours of waiting, the rain wasn’t letting up. And I was exhausted, not just from the motorbike ride which was stressful enough adjusting to an entirely different set of expectations on the road, but also from six weeks of playing-it-by-ear travel (i.e., no prior flight or lodging reservations, which offered a lot of flexibility and freedom, but a greater degree of unsettledness). Finally, at around 9pm, I gave up on the idea of waiting out the rain and set out to ride back to Sanur.
Because of the rain, the dark, and a poor connection to google maps, I got lost a few times, and a 45-minute ride became a 90-minute ride. By the time I got home, I was soaked, cold, and beyond exhausted.
That night, I got intensely sick and my spirit felt tired for the first time the entire trip.
I find that when the spirit is tired, the mind is vulnerable, and so my mind became unruly. In the throes of a fever, I thought of how filthy my current stay in Sanur felt, and as a fellow host on airbnb, I couldn't understand how she failed to notice that the soap canister was entirely empty; I thought of the passenger behind me on one of the flights who was verbally aggressive with the flight attendant for the first 20 minutes of our flight, and why his girlfriend was putting up with such a douche, and of the many scams and manipulations I encountered in Vietnam, and of my unemployment back home (which suddenly scared me), and many of the other difficulties I had encountered, as my spirit got progressively weaker and weaker deeper into the night. Of course, my body had already given out as I was sitting on the toilet for most of the night with sharp stomach pains and diarrhea accompanied by alternating fevers and chills.
But I also remembered the practice of gratitude, so I did my best to welcome in everything that was happening, including my unruly thoughts, as sincerely as I could.
Things abated by around 5am, and I got some good sleep till about 11:30am, when I had to check out and hail a grab car with all of my stuff to my new place in Ubud.
If I were to split the hours between the time in the evening I left Ubud to the time I returned to Ubud the next day, there’s almost a perfect split in the middle. The first half is of progressive sickness, and the second half is of gradual healing. An easy interpretation is that going away from Ubud was making me sicker, and coming back was making me well-er! That is, from 5 am onward, I got better and better. By the time I was in the car heading north to Ubud at noon, I was finally feeling relaxed in mind and spirit although depleted in body. When I arrived to my new place, I was greeted by Cito, the warmest and kindest airbnb host I’ve ever had in over four years. He and his mother nursed me back to health across the next 24 - 36 hours.
I even saw a firefly outside of my balcony the first night, and I knew I’d be okay. (For those following, here is the third "moment": the appearance of the one and only firefly I've seen to date on this journey, and also, the warmth and care from my hosts surrounding that moment.)
The next day was an island-wide festival involving the expurgation of evil spirits—so very fitting, I thought! The day following that was Nyepi, Balinese New Year—a time when everyone in Bali gets shuttered in their residence for rest and reflection! Again, I thought to myself, my body really has great timing on these things!
On that day, I was telling my host that coming to Ubud was like coming home. He laughed and said that that’s what he puts on his brochure. He mentioned to me that the name Ubud is based upon the Balinese word Ubad, which means “medicine,” and that Balinese people throughout the island would to come to Ubud when they were suffering from various maladies and afflictions.
And this got me thinking about the nature of a homecoming.
"Therefore, Sariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no obtainments, they abide relying on the perfection of wisdom. Having no defilements in their minds, they have no fear, and passing completely beyond error, they reach nirvana.” —from the Heart Sutra.
What follows is the gathering of my reflections on this phenomenon.
What becomes to clear to me is that we come home to that which heals. In other words, coming home has within it an experience of healing. We don’t come home to a place that sickens us. That’s not a home-coming.
But also in reverse, that which truly heals contains within it a homecoming. Taking a pharmaceutical or some herbal concoction isn’t healing in of itself. Those are simply remedies. Real healing has with it a sense of coming home. At the heart of it, they’re one and the same. (So perhaps someone, including ourselves, taking the time and effort to concoct the herbal remedy for us is what is truly healing, as the act helps to create a sense of welcoming.)
This is why, I believe, a sense of community or comradery is often, if not always, implicated in healing. Healing isn’t an individual pursuit (as again, there truly is no individual here). Real healing comes with it a sense of entering into something larger, a coming home into a community of others, to a place, to a larger spirit, and ultimately, to the unity of us—and the larger the “us,” the deeper and more pervasive the healing. In fact, healing might as well be defined as the dissolution of the individual and re-cognizing of the oneness and interdependence of it all.
But also, how do we know within our own experience when we’ve come home?
It's that our souls, our hearts, our spirits, our minds experience a sudden or gradual onset of ease, deep within. And this ease of being is the counter to dis-ease.
In this way, healing at root isn’t a physical phenomenon. It begins with the innermost sense of ease in the spirit and soul, in the heart of one’s heart. To "come home" to a place or to a group of people or to a culture is to experience this quietude of being.
This is the real medicine.
And from this, healing can proceed from the inside outwardly. That is, the physical changes can follow, naturally, almost as an afterthought or side-effect.
But also, what might this mean for our role to others in this life, if we too want to effect healing?
It’s that we’re called upon to cultivate and establish the innermost sense of quietude and peace we can within ourselves, a sense of ease that can remain steady in our daily dealings. That is, we’re called upon to stay “home” within ourselves. Our task if we want to help heal this perpetually blighted planet is to seek out our deepest home and to remain there, abiding, no obtainments (relying upon prajna-paramita ("the perfection of wisdom") if that connects, or one could say, centering into and remaining within the Presence of God if that one connects) as steadily and reliably as we are able. And only then might we bring true healing for those we are most closely and energetically sympathetic toward (or to those who are mysteriously and inexorably drawn to us), and from there, others, expanding ever outwardly.