Tonight’s moon would be the last full moon of the month. There were ceremonies across town in the temples, lifting voices up into the humid air like swarms of reverent mosquitos. Tonight was the perfect opportunity to see the guru.
A ride on a motorbike at sunset got me there, through fields of rice and a stain-painted sky. The Ashram was farther than the instructions given to me. Much farther. It was tucked away in a curve in the road at the top of a hill somewhere at the borders of where Ubud began to forget itself.
How in the hell would I have gotten here in the darkness? In the rain? I got off the bike and thanked the Balinese guy who drove me here. Then I was left to be swallowed, spellbound, into the Ashram.
You arrive at the doorway of a mythical place and willingly surrender yourself just as the sun goes down. You’ve gotten this far. You have no idea how long this place will keep you. You have no idea how you’re going to get back.
I stepped through that doorway willingly.
There was no one around. Only the garden, the sly trap. A beautiful maiden of a garden, curling, descending, and pulling me down with it. Tiers and layered grounds, separated by endless steps. Past the point of no return, rang the melodramatic org in my head.
I arrived at a stone mandala in the center, the same way Ofelia arrived at the bottom of the labyrinth. A rambling place to be left to its own devices, to play and toy and perhaps never to let go of that stranger who arrives until some change, benevolent or malevolent, has occurred.
There was no one to talk to. It was getting dark. I whirled around full circle, searching. Until someone crept up on me.
He had a strangely omniscient presence, like he knew I was coming, like he had plans for me…
“Yes?” he said with a voice so deep, so oddly deep, like I’ve never heard from a Balinese man. It made my bones tremble softly. He was taller than me, lean and finely chiseled. His clever eyebrows, hung above his eyes to keep the mystery there shaded. He exuded restraint, discipline, and maybe the ancestral magnetism of those who train their third eye. He was ancient but very young. Somewhere between thirty five and forty.
His dark hair was bound up in an immaculate ninja-bun. He wore a white t-shirt and a sarong. He must have meant to blend with moths.
“Can I help you?” he asked and every word was a meditation.
“Yes. I’m looking for Ketut Arsana?”
“He’s not here.”
I tried not to be too crestfallen. That ride through the sunset must have meant something.
“I was told he had an ashram meditation at 6:00.” I said, hopefully. It was almost 6:00.
“Yes. He does. At 7:30.”
Oh. Oh shoot. What was I going to do in an ashram all alone until then, out in the open.
“You can wait,” he answered my thought, “You can sit in the temple and meditate.”
He led me up another towering set of steps to the outdoor courtyard - or the cave, as he called it - and showed me where to sit. He brought me a mat and lingered around me as I tried to get comfortable on the hard pebbles of the mandala pattern. Around me were trees, growing in the middle of the cave, above me was a sky mellowing into deep periwinkle. In front of me was the guru’s seat and, behind it, the stone figure of the lingam (penis), merging with the yoni (vagina). This was my first ashram meditation.
This man, who seemed to me like an apprentice - and I will call him this from there on - went around preparing the space for tonight’s full moon prayer, to which I was invited. Incense and a bonfire, he lit. Strings of Jasmine and chrysanthemums he carried, flattering the stone Hindu figures scattered about the courtyard. And, of course, frangipani flowers were never absent in Balinese ceremonies.
An hour and a half to go. I don’t know why, but I felt I was being watched. How long could she meditate? How long could she wait?
I took on the invisible challenge, folding myself into a pretzel and closing my eyes. It was easy to slip into the sea of consciousness here but not easy to stop my legs from going numb after an hour and a half or the mosquitos from feasting on me.
The apprentice eventually sat next to me and began to chant, tapping cymbals together for punctuation. I don’t know for how long he kept up those mantras but I rocked to them, losing myself to the monotony that began slowly to creak in his voice. It helped to sustain me.
Night fell and the impatience that I managed to assuage for the past hour was beginning to raise complaint. I unfolded myself. Both legs were gone. The guru was not here yet.
People began to arrive for the prayer, gathering in scattered little white clouds. But I swallowed it, that impatience. Over and over. How would I survive in an ashram if I couldn’t breezily wait for the guru for an hour and a half?
Then, the apprentice came to me.
“You want to see the guru?” he asked. I had passed the test.
“Yes!” I got up gratefully.
He led me through twisted gardens to another set of steps that took us into a small veranda covered with palm shavings. The guru was seated there, surrounded by his white-clad family and village friends. The apprentice led me in quietly as the guru spoke to them in Bahasa Indonesian. The language, of course, was not foreign to me. I grew up hearing it. But what was strange was that gurus, in my mind, were always Indian.
Ketut Arasana laughed with the appetite of a child and spoke with the humility of a sage who knew he knew nothing and, thus, knew everything. His face bore no seriousness because, at his age, the world had stopped being a serious place a long time ago. He reeled people in, only to spear them with a joke, or a ruffle of the head. My body giggled and gurgled in his presence. I was fascinated.
Adults and children took turns sitting in front of him on their knees. He put his hand on their head with the benevolent face of someone who could see past skin and past the illusion of being human.
One of the men who sat in front of him, began to writhe and contort as soon as Ketut put his hand on top of his head. He unleashed a series of startling barks and growls. Something was moving within him. Was it angry? Was it hungry? Was it going to charge? My heart rate spiked watching this. I turned to the apprentice in alarm.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
The guru’s gaze flitted in my direction, seeing my alarm. He laughed. I heard two words in his speech: Kundalini and shakti.
Then it was my turn. I was afraid that he would awaken something within me, the sleeping snake, or pains I had long mourned and buried. I sat in front of him, sending the intention to awaken anything that would me along my path as a healer.
I closed my eyes and emptied the fish swimming and darting in the pond of my mind. Emptiness. I surrender.
He put his hand on my head. I felt something rise, a pull, so gentle. It was pleasant. My breathing thickened for a few seconds. Then everything melted back into normalcy. He lifted his hand and I felt him make a gesture on top of my head. A symbol perhaps?
I opened my eyes.
“Do you have anything you want to ask me?” he asked.
I felt shy and a little presumptuous. I was in the hands of a healer, asking him if I could be a healer.
“I have a feeling, that I would like to be a healer,” I said to him, “I don’t know how to prepare myself for that.”
He looked at me kindly. “Do you believe in God?”
“Then pray to him. He will guide you.”
Then he continued to chit chat with me. Where I was from. What I was doing here. What my profession was.
But inside, my mind was going whaaaat? That’s it? I’ve been praying to God all my life. I was expecting more specific advise. I mean, he was the guru.
“How did a woman from Saudi Arabia find me?” he asked.
“I met you on the street the other day, you don’t remember?”
“No! I meet a lot of people.”
He told me I must come and stay at the ashram, so we could talk some more.
“But you must remember me next time!” I teased. Cheek applied itself very nicely to his man. He laughed.
I tried to hide my disappointment in his advice as I followed his invitation to join the prayer. Also, I knew I would not be able to stay at the ashram right away - perhaps one day soon. But would he forget me again?
The prayer ran for three hours. In that courtyard occurred the most pleasant and joyful prayer I had ever experienced. I call it a prayer but it was really a celebration. The chanting rose to crescendos then calmed into lazy waves, then sparked, then flitted, then flew. The Parvati dance was moonlight. The joy all around was a garment of silk that had sleeves for all of us. With Ketut standing at the front of the crowd, orchestrating silently, not the words or the movements but the energy field of that courtyard, his communion seemed far removed fromours because he had a private understanding with the Universe.
It was a sheer expression of devotion. But I resisted it. I fought and gnashed my teeth at it. I was tired. Three hours of prayer unprecedented for my exhausted body. Also, the word heresy trampled my mind space again. To join Hindus in song and dance! To pray in the name of their gods. This was downright heresy! To many in my part of the world, in 2016, it’s still heresy! The resistance mounted into incredulousness. What are you doing, Maram?
I’m praying with Hindus.
Heresy! Heresy! Heresy! As proclaimed many an angry bishop - or sheikh.
Until one giggly Balinese woman was kind enough to burst this thorny bubble. We were rotating around the lingam and yoni figure in the courtyard, a ritual.
“When guru put his hand on your head, this is like rokiya.” she said, then she giggled some more, “and this one like kaaba.”
She pointed at the lingam-yoni figure. Now that was just ridiculous. I burst out laughing. And from then on I took off the frowning bishop and ran naked into devotion.
On our way to Uluwatu, Dewa pointed out a row of worship on the road. There was a church, a hindu temple, a buddhist temple, and a mosque all side by side, hand in hand. I stopped to take a picture of it on the way. I had to carry this splitting image of oneness with me.
At the ashram, I was thankful to surrender to that oneness and join the foreign prayer to the one and the same Source, underneath a pulsating full moon. I did not know most of the mantras but there was only one that I could repeat by heart. You guessed it.
Aum Bhoor Bhuwah Swaha, Tat Savitur Varenyam. Bhargo devasaya dheemahi dhiyo yo naha prachodayat…(link below to listen on itunes)
That night, after the ashram meditation and prayer, the guru watched over me. I could see his face in my dreams all night, sharp and clear. I knew he was sizing me up. He led to me to healers across time and space, through jungles, forests, gardens, and convoluted pathways.
I was waking up from a particularly vivid dream and, as a stepping stone between sleeping and awaking, I slipped into a calling, brightly white. An awesome force cracked my skull open and took possession of my body. Listen, was what it intuited to me. Something fell through, like a kick in the gut, a “download” as they call it these days.
The download woke me up in urgency, sat me up, searched for my phone and typed the words.
Then I dropped back into sleep. It was not until I woke up in the morning that I realized that Ketut might have dropped me a hint during the night. But what the hell did isi kil mean?
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