What I Learned From a Balinese Healer

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When I first heard about the island of Bali, it was while reading the book titled Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. The imagery she used to depict the small Indonesian island had me wriggling in my lawn chair, desperate to launch myself out of Maui and directly into this undiscovered paradise. Imagine that: a story so persuasive it could make me want to leave Hawaii. I promised myself I’d go there one day.

That day came six or seven years later when I was taking a holiday from my home in the neighbouring island of Java. I went from Bali’s busiest city, Kuta, which is rampant with gaudy tourism, parties, and traffic and I quickly escaped into Ubud. Ubud is a small but fast-growing city away from the coast and tucked in between rice paddies and palm trees, those really tall picturesque ones that look like long green beans with mops on top.

But like most cities in South East Asia, Ubud is busy too. Getting out of central Ubud is like applying calamine lotion on a bug bite, you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. A few steep, winding roads and you’re up and up into luscious green rice paddies that deliver the spirit what a glass of cold water does to a parched tongue. But they’re more than just a relief; they’re therapy for the soul. When you get up close to these fields of splendour, you notice the details that make you realize just how delicate the process of rice cultivation is. Each delicate plant is arranged into precise rows, cracked mounds of mud holding their roots. They’re perfected by hours of hand-fed labour by men and women squatted under the hot sun in tall rubber boots and torn t-shirts or purple polyester button-downs, machetes sticking out their waistbands. And when the morning sun casts its first sharp ray of light, you notice that the air deposited tiny beads of moisture on each leaf. 

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Those rice paddies are one of the main reasons I went back to Bali several times over the next few years. I went back there again this year for a month with my partner as the first part of our return to South East Asia.

Being surrounded by clean, fresh beauty for a month is therapy in itself, even without the reminder that I’m living on a paradise island, one that has a distinct culture and a healing power that is both natural and intuitive. I sometimes forget how fortunate I am to engage in the simple act of observing morning dew on rice plants and then later in the day, visit an ancient medicine man.

I’ve been in touch with Bali a whole new way this year. This time the ground felt different under my feet, more like home. The sky was bluer and more expansive than I remember. The sun was brighter but its heat less intense. I heard every insect chirp and bird call more clearly than times before. It was all the parts of a perfect summer day bundled into a moment that lasted an entire month.

An unfamiliar energy vibrated all around me and lifted my mood. It was through this lightness that I decided to visit a Balinese healer. Alternative medicine intrigues me, primarily because it retreats to healing methods used in ancient times when intuitive wisdom about nature was the primary source of knowledge about the body.

My main pain point for some time now has been my nagging left hip that prevents me from having the mobility I used to have. I thought the healer might be able to move some shit around my body and provide some relief. After a bit of research, I settled on seeing Cokorda Rai, a well-known and highly recommended Balinese healer in Ubud.

On our way there, we stopped to buy a canang sari, a traditional Balinese offering made of banana leaves and flowers, which Balinese Hindus offer to the Gods several times a day. They often place small bits of food and sticks of burning incense on top. You’ll see them at the entrance to temples and even on the ground in front of gas stations and convenience stores. I routinely, accidentally, and apologetically kick them during any number of walks down a busy sidewalk (I also add insult to injury by absentmindedly muttering fuck as I see it skirt across the road). It’s customary to place your donation on top of a canang sari and offer both to a healer as a gesture for requesting help.

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I approached this small man with dark, shrivelled skin and arms like twigs. I kneeled before him and looked into his knowing eyes, clouded with cataracts. He extended long yellowed fingernails as he reached behind my ears where he prodded and pinched. He plucked the tender chords of tissue around my collar bone and I winced in pain. He directed me to lie down on a woven mat. I obliged. He poked at different parts of my body and settled for a minute or so at my feet where he muttered something about a hormonal imbalance and needing omega threes. He pinched the underside of my fourth toe on my left foot. I howled in pain. Was that his fingernail that had jabbed into my tender flesh?

He continued for a few minutes. When the treatment seemed to be over, I sat up and attempted to explain the pain in my hip. He looked deep into my eyes and advised me to follow my desire to achieve lasting happiness. Oh, it’s that easy? I could now write the world’s shortest self-help / pain-management book in the world. It could even be a hashtag:

#pinchyourtoeandfollowyourheart.

Jokes aside, deep down I believed that this man could help me.

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Photo: That’s not my hairy leg but this is essentially what he did to me.

I didn’t feel much different the rest of the day, but the next day I woke up feeling 10 years younger. My legs were buoyant. None of the regular snap-crackle-pop sounded with my steps. My limbs and joints were fluid and flexible instead of stiff and sore.

I looked at my yoga mat and thought, let’s see what else has changed. I whipped it open and slapped it down on the floor. Sunlight streamed in through banana trees and palm fronds and danced joyfully on my mat. Bubbles of anticipation grew inside me as I thought of all the ways my body was about to surprise me and about all the kickboxing, running, Ashtanga yoga, and mountain climbing I was going to do in the very near future.

I child’s-posed my way into a slow, cautious “practice” practice to note my body’s response. It did not disappoint.

My hips were open and unrestrained. My spine was bendy and slick with rich synovial fluid, reminding me what healthy joints feel like. There was no pain where pain had been only 24 hours before. I danced around on my mat, appreciating the full mandala of movement my body allowed.

Had that toe pinch actually worked?

But my inherent skepticism cast its shadow as I also cautiously observed the sudden change in my body. I delayed thinking that my chronic hip pain belonged to the past only to then possibly (probably) discover that it was still there. I asked myself, do I feel different because I believed I would? And further, is my spirit lifted because my body feels better or vice versa? Cause and (placebo) effect is a tricky matter when it comes to natural medicine.

A few days later we saw another healer, a young man named Ketut recommended by a local man and friend of ours. We visited him at his house and our friend, Pena, translated our conversation. Pena is a part owner of the villa we stayed in. He’s also a tour guide. By leading us to the healer and helping us communicate, he was taking time out of his busy schedule, so we offered to pay him. He looked a bit insulted. “No, you are sick,” he said. “It is my responsibility to bring you to the doctor.”

Maybe he misunderstood why we were there. “But we’re not sick,” I replied.

“Yes you are,” he said, “otherwise, why would you go to a doctor?” This question is a gold nugget of why I love to travel. Even the simplest interactions can challenge my assumptions and shake my long-held truths.

This visit was quite a bit different from the one with Cokorda Rai.

I sat in front of Ketut and told him about the sensation in my hip. He instructed me to sit a few different ways so that he could “see into” my body from different angles. He closed his eyes and concentrated intensely for a few minutes and then told me what the problem was (my thigh bone was twisted inward causing friction in my hip and pain in other areas of my body). When I mentally contextualized his diagnosis, it explained a lot of things. The question then was what can I do about it. That’s where my belief changed from a solid brick house to a puff of smoke.

“Go to a black sand beach in the afternoon and make a hole in the sand. Bury yourself in the black sand,” he instructed me, via Pena.

Black sand is essentially tiny fragments of volcanic rock, which contains basalt, a healing stone that some people believe clears negative energy from the aura. It also has a magnetic quality that is considered to have healing power, particularly by enhancing circulation and improving mental health (magnetic therapy is a multi-billion dollar industry).

Exposed to the hot Balinese sun, black sand is also really warm, so I had no problem with the idea of burying myself deep in the sun-soaked sand on a beautiful beach for an afternoon. It was doctor’s orders after all. But I didn’t really believe that a sand bath was going to heal me, especially because I’d only have the option to do it two or three times while in Bali. I also didn’t think his next recommendation would help me much either.

“Eat goose egg white too,” he said.

A breakfast fritter perhaps? I didn’t want to disregard what he was offering but I wanted a more solid solution not dependent on location or making a breakfast out of non-viable goslings. I took his offering with a grain of salt–and sand.

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Then Ketut got into some more subtle stuff. He sat and looked at me for a few minutes, peered into my heart chakra, and told me that my aura is white, clean, that I used to be a healer in a past life, and that I’m not fulfilling that purpose in this life. He told me I knew things, and that I could help people. He asked me if I wanted to “open” myself. He also saw something else he refrained from sharing, saying it would upset me. Of course, I latched on to this like flies on fresh dung.

“You can tell me, I am open to whatever you have to say,” I assured him, without asking myself if I really was.

But he didn’t tell me (perhaps he could see the skepticism in my eyes when he mentioned the goose eggs and saw that I am not as open as I assert to be). He relayed to our friend that opening the chakras and healing power takes time and commitment. I would have to return when I was ready for it.

So, what does all this mean?

When I think about it, these two healers didn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know about myself on some level.

I know that following my desire will lead me to good places. But what do I truly desire? This is not always a simple question to answer.

I also know that my intuition is strong, but what good is it if I don’t trust it and I continue to believe that what I know is based only on what I can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch?

I know that I have the power to heal because we all have the power to heal. But it’s not something we are encouraged to nurture. When we admit to being sick or in pain, what’s one of the first thing someone asks?

Have you seen a doctor?

Not–

What does your inner voice say?

That would make us sound like we’ve been eating voodoo-nut sundaes. And further, we wait until we experience pain before we realize that something is not quite right.

Physical suffering is hard to accept. It’s why we go to doctors, to assure ourselves that our pain and discomfort are real, to uncover their origins, and to seek relief. Or we avoid it, depending on what we think we should handle. Physical suffering is difficult to ignore so we’re more likely to seek help for it. And sometimes, doctors are necessary. The inner voice doesn’t have an M.D.

But what if we thought about pain like this?

Pain can be an opportunity to transcend unhealed emotion.

Pain can be a gift that shows us how to weave mind-body awareness into our daily lives as naturally as we engage in good hygiene practices (please).

Pain can teach us how to heal ourselves.

I’m beginning to discover that sometimes, the origin of chronic pain is emotional energy trapped somewhere in the body. How we experience certain emotions (and whether or not we allow ourselves to feel them), is an indication of our ability to accept and love ourselves. Acting strong, “fighting the fight”, and denying our emotions does not make us courageous people; it makes us hide from ourselves, and that’s when things get stuck.

We can allow emotion to guide us forward, rather than hold us back, by becoming aware of it and examining it, objectively, kind of like how we study the ingredients on a box of crackers in a supermarket. Knowing what we’re feeling and why gives us the opportunity to understand our feelings better and understanding paves the way for acceptance. Eventually, we start to release the weight of emotion, the same way having our feet massaged relieves tension, and we prevent a whole cracker jack box full of pain and suffering.

This is our healing power. And I’m beginning to tap into it.  

What I learned from these two healers, and the two subsequent ones I met, is far more valuable than walking into a doctor’s office and being handed a prescription. They were the beginning of my journey into the power of self-healing…

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… And there’s more to this. Something rather mind-blowing happened to me in Bali and made me realize the power of human connection and empathy, and the intuitive nature of the physical body. Stay tuned for the follow-up story.

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