Down the Ubud rabbit hole

10922787_10152835605896853_7435212503923004836_o (1)Having never been to Bali before, and having made a last minute decision to come here, I did not know what to expect. My lack of research landed me with some visa issues and therefore some restricted mobility, and that is how I came to spend almost all of my time so far in Ubud, the artistic and cultural center of this famed Indonesian island.

Surrounded by lush green rice fields and jungle, dotted with temples and quaint old-fashioned Balinese family compounds, there is immense beauty here. Deep ravines frame gushing rivers. Monkeys hide high up in the trees and huge coconut palms provide shade from the sun’s heat. Some four hundred cafes and restaurants cater to the transient population which is made up of local Balinese, Indonesians from other parts of the country, expats from all over the world (but particularly Europe, the US and Oceania) and the travelers and seekers just passin’ through.

Ubud is generally a quiet and peaceful place. There’s some traffic congestion on the main street and the markets get a bit crowded, but the pace of life is enjoyably slow and the people watching is phenomenal. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that the non-Indonesians who visit here fall into one of two categories: twenty year old supermodel couples or beautiful white, rich, married European couples with equally beautiful 2.5 children.

But then you spend some time at The Yoga Barn, a kind of yoga utopia, perhaps attending a yoga class or even the venerated Ecstatic Dance. Visit any of the dozens of raw, vegan, organic restaurants and cafes that dot the busy streets, rice fields and hillsides and you come into contact with a different beast altogether. I got talking to another New Zealander who has been living here for two years. He told me he calls this tribe the Trustafarians. And that’s exactly what they are: young, rich twenty-somethings living bohemian work-free lifestyles off their inherited money. They come to ‘find themselves’ but, my friend tells me, they end up staying and not really finding anything. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite – I’m all for a good old fashioned Eat, Pray, Love style mission – and indeed, I went on a short one in my twenties. I may even be on one now (replace ‘Pray, Love’ with ‘Read, Sleep’). But how much fucking yoga and eating kale are you going to do? It’s like the kids here have taken the fanatical new age, health obsessed culture of California to a whole new level.

So there we are, trapped far down in the interior, subjective rabbit hole. I hope these man-bunned, tramp-stamped, tie-dyed, colonically-irrigated, glittered beautiful people aren’t doomed to a life of navel gazing and spending their days doing Louise Hay-inspired affirmations (after their coffee enema and morning Vinyasa practice) at the expense of achieving something worthwhile with their lives, of having an impact. But hey, this kind of tourism is helping keep an island economically afloat (even if most of the places frequented by said Trustafarians are owned by expats and the local staff get paid shit and don’t reap any profits).

Perhaps I’m a little bitter. It’s hard not to feel a bit hard done by when you’re surrounded by such self-indulgent, self-absorbed people who don’t know what it’s like to flip burgers at McDonald’s. At the same time, I swing to the other extreme and feel an immense sense of gratitude. Most of the locals have never left the island. Many of them never had the opportunity to get an education. Many are illiterate. I’ve heard the same hard luck story from my various taxi drivers many times – born into a poor family, unable to attend school, limited prospects for employment and earning an income. And yet they managed to teach themselves another language and make a life for themselves. Just to be able to write that sentence (“my various taxi drivers”), just to be here and witnessing this kind of apartheid, the beauty, the poverty, the comedy and the tragedy is an incredible privilege and stroke of luck.


I Take Refuge in The Sanctuary

sanctuarynightSo, what is life at the Sanctuary like, I hear you ask. Well, it is interesting. And relaxing. Sooooo relaxing. Its secluded island location means that there are no roads and therefore no traffic nearby. The only sounds are those of the waves lapping against the shore interspersed with the symphony of bugs and birds that are performing 24/7.

Those privileged souls who stay long-term are walking around in bare-feet, their tanned legs long and toned. Everybody seems to have two things I don’t: A MacBook Air and a tattoo (or five). They lounge around the tree-house like restaurant drinking wheatgrass. Naturally, my first instinct is to eavesdrop and figure out who’s who – where these people are from and what they do. I overhear conversations, many with Australian accents about ‘slinky swarmies’, about friends who have died of overdoses, about the energy channels, the perineum. I even heard one very beautiful woman say after checking her online businesses, “I have to figure out how I’m going to spend all my money!”

On the boat ride over, I met a woman from New York who is studying architecture in Oxford. She saved me from some creepy old guy who hit on me by suggesting we could share a bungalow. We hung out a lot over the next few days talking – she about the man who she moved to the U.K. for and who had recently broken up with her, about her life working for the summer in Malaysia, about the future. Me about my life in Korea, my life generally and the future, which didn’t seem to exist in that blissed-out place.

My new friend seemed to be very spiritual, and into Yoga, Buddhism, astrology, aromatherapy. I could get onboard with some of it, but her extensive knowledge of planets and moons was going too far for me. Still, I believe I am healthily curious and open-minded, so when she suggested we go to a workshop about EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), I said, ‘OK, I’ll tag along. I’m sure my hammock would be happy to have some time to itself.’

Including the teacher, there were five of us (a petite yet aggressive Russian woman, and of course, the creepy old guy). The teacher was a voluptuous woman, tanned and glowing, like there was a candle burning inside of her. She fit the new age hippie stereotype, dressed in bell bottoms, wearing a tiara and having a made up name (Nika One). I was polite and attentive as she spoke about what we would be doing. She had a sing-song voice and spoke beautiful, educated English with a hard-to-pick accent (I found out later it’s part Russian, part Nepalese, part American). Then we started the work of tapping meridian points and chanting phrases related to each of our issues.

statueI found it boring and repetitive. I had made up my mind that this was flaky psuedo-science and a waste of my time. I was trying to plot my exit as I was sure my hammock missed me. I wanted to drink chai tea in the tea temple and read a book. I was yawning and rolling my eyes (not at the same time). Then, the teacher started talking about the fallacies of the western scientific paradigm. And the matrix. I’m thinking, ‘Who are you to talk about science? Is that what they teach you at Rainbow School?’ I can’t wait for this to be over. Eventually, we stop tapping and chanting and it’s time for a meditation. I’m hot and thirsty by this point. And tired too. We lie down and she guides us through it with her soothing voice. Except that it turns out to be some kind of hypnosis as we all fall into a weird sleep-like state. I can’t recall most of what she said, but I wasn’t sleeping or dreaming either. She tells us this is good because it means our subconscious brain is listening.

I’m grateful for the session to be over so I can go about the rest of my day. Before we leave, the teacher passes around a pamphlet about other workshops she is giving, as well as a brief bio. Four words jump out at me: PhD. Neuroscience. Stanford. Neurosurgeon. It turns out, I have been in the presence of a freakin’ genius! My brain can’t quite process the impression I have made of this person versus the reality. We hug goodbye and I trot off to rehydrate and of course, to Google this incredible woman.

According to the blurb on her book, The Human Journey, which showcases her artwork and poems related to her experience, Nika One is:

A fellow traveler who has surrendered the ‘past life’ of a neuroscientist, a mathematician and surgeon after an intense transformation, a genuine Dark Night of the Soul. Everything I knew myself to be has shattered before my eyes as I have faced death through a severe illness. I watched in stunned paralysis as my life burned before my eyes, feeling unable to stop the fire….mesmerized, numb…. I have fought it. I have found the futility of the fight. I have surrendered, finally. From the great Clearing of Surrender has come my greatest gift and access to the Light.

I have read about these experiences in all kinds of spiritual literature. But I never thought they were real. I mean, how many people ever experience this? There was Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight which sounds similar, but I never met her in the flesh. Now I have met someone who has undergone this kind of conversion. Now it seems more real to me.

Incidentally, Nika spent a lot of time traveling around Asia after her conversion. She even did a stint teaching in Korea and has written about this online. I hope to republish some of her thoughts here because her observations of Korean society are so astute. It’s good to know that although she “unidentified” with her degrees, her professional identity, her incredible cognitive and intellectual capabilities remain intact.

So while the Sanctuary was a lovely experience from a vacation point of view, I think that my life has become more enriched from the people I met there. Which is probably always the case.





The Faux Guru

Hipster and Prankster Vikram Gandhi

Jaded, cynical and anti-religion film maker Vikram Gandhi is out to expose the commodification of spirituality in America and comes up with a brilliant yet ethically dubious social experiment: what if he were to start his own Indian religion, find some followers and capture it on film to show how gullible and foolish people can be?

With the help of an orange robe, a blingy Gandalf-worthy staff, and some feral facial hair, the transformation of New York hipster to Indian guru (known as ‘Kumaré,’ a variation of his middle name, Kumar), is complete.

Kumaré travels to Arizona with two pretty actresses who act as his assistants. He is a striking and charismatic figure who exudes charisma and serenity. He soon attracts a dozen or so followers who engage in chanting his name, devour every word he speaks (“I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion”), practice his made-up yoga and welcome him into their homes.

Fake Guru in Action

The plot thickens when halfway through the documentary Vikram/Kumaré starts to feel uncomfortable with what he is doing and questions his motives. He becomes fond of his devotees, feels connected to them and genuinely enjoys their company. He decides to unveil and come clean with the truth. However, he can’t go through with it. “As I sat in that circle,” he tells us later, “I realized I’d connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”

I won’t spoil the ending, as it really is a film worth watching. But, there are several striking aspects of the film worth briefly considering:

  1. Seriously, who (apart from Sash Baron Cohen), would have the gall to undertake such an unethical project and deceive people like that?! Especially vulnerable people who are seeking some kind of spiritual comfort (or is that what ‘real’ gurus do anyway?)
  2. Wow, is it really that easy to start your own religion and are people really that trusting and gullible?
  3. Vikram’s own transformation as he comes to relate to his devotees and question his own (lack of) faith. It is interesting how his new persona takes over and he comes to identify more with his made-up self than his original self.
  4. What happens to his devotees during the course of their relationship with him is very interesting. As his followers, they start to make positive changes in their lives, aided by his support and encouragement. One woman loses 30 kgs, another follows her dream of becoming a yoga teacher. An attorney starts to meditate everyday and vows to get out of debt. A couple in a rocky relationship re-commit to each other.

Kumaré puts this down to a concept in Buddhism – the idea of killing the Buddha. That is, you should not become fixated on a leader or guru. You must realize that he is empty, an illusion and you are seeing what you want to see.

As ‘Kumaré’ states on his Website: “The person you see before you in the mirror each morning can be very convincing, but do not let your reflection define you. You must visualize your desired self, emanate it, and become it. Take control of your destiny, and you can accomplish anything!”

That’s right. He has his own Website complete with teachings and workshop information. I don’t know whether this is a part of the prank or if Vikram is being serious and has really become Kumaré. I guess the joke is on me.