Drowning in a Blessing

There are no pictures of this ceremony, so here's a pretty picture from a walk I took in the rice paddies of Ubud. 

I gasped for air as the water ran over my face, up my nose and into my mouth. “I’m drowning,” I thought, as I forced air from my mouth and out in the world. “I wonder how clean that water is,” I thought as I snapped back into my most current reality. I was being blessed, I remembered vaguely, but let’s back track a bit.

I was on month seven of  a “round the world” type trip. You know one of those ones where you hop from place to place squeezing as much into a year and a day as you can, seeing the world, as they say. I had done two months in Europe, taken a month off for a wedding and a few things at home, and then set off on “Leg 2” of my trip. Leg 2 was now a little over 4 months old. I spent the majority of Leg 2 in Southeast Asia, doing a grand tour loop with no particular plans. Sometime in the first month of Leg 2 a friend mentioned she was planning to go to Bali and asked if I would like to join. Bali was nowhere on my radar for this part of the trip. I didn’t really know anything about it except that it was a Hindu island in a Muslim country, which made it very unique. The friend ended up changing her plans but Bali became a real part of my trip.

I decided to go to Bali at the end of Leg 2 because it was most convenient for the loop I was going for and because I thought it might be a little reward for surviving that portion, if I did in fact survive. Survive, I did, and when Bali came around I could hardly believe I was really going. A long travel day later, I arrived.  Instead of running around the island and trying to see everything I decided to settle into Ubud for a week and do some yoga at one of the big centers there. I got lucky because they had just built a new guesthouse right on the property and it included a 4 bed dorm. I stayed in the dorm because I wanted to force myself to begin my yoga practice again and proximity to the studios (there were 5) would assist in that.

I arrived after dark and entered an other worldly experience. There was a ferocious beat pounding through the jungle, all I could see at that point. As the guest house came into view I was enveloped by the beat and soon learned that Friday night Yoga Dance was in full swing. My well apportioned dorm room gave me a view of the studio across the jungle where a fury of bodies were freely being flung around at the will of the drums. I loved it from that moment on.

I met the three other girls in my dorm, all of whom had been there for at least a week. I was pretty happy about this because they were all nice and had great information about the area of Ubud and about yoga, and Bali in general.  The night I arrived two of them had had an incredible day being blessed by a “young female high priestess” and visiting healing waters, waterfalls and temples. I tried to get as much information as possible, it sounded right up my alley.

They told the story of their day through excited shrieks and belly laughter. Besides the blessing, one had also been drenched in the torrential rains that pelted the roof as the story was told, a double blessing if you will. They talked about the blessing in broad terms as an experience and “oh totally do it if you have a week here.” Several days later I got all of the information from them including their driver who now knew how to get there (it was new to him when they went).  After trying to recruit a few others all week and plans continually falling through, I eventually went on my own, my last day in Bali.

Traditional offering. 
“John,” a young guy with a friendly face picked me up at the yoga studio and asked me more about what I’d like to do besides seeing Ida, the priestess.  I mentioned some of the things my new friends had told me but said seeing Ida was most important to me. We set off on a 45 minute car ride through the middle of the island discussing the upcoming political election, the different parties and a bit about his life. I always relish the chance to talk to people about what their life is really like and this was no exception.  Somewhere around 40 minutes we took a turn at a huge tree in the middle of nowhere and ended up in a village with small compounds, the normal housing structure in Bali.  All except one were small. The one that was clearly Ida’s was going through an expansion.

John asked me if I had brought a sarong and extra clothes. I only had a scarf which he clearly told me was not going to do the job. “Didn’t your friends tell you about this,” he asked with a surprised expression. I told him they had been vague. He laughed and handed over his sarong for me to use. I put it on over my clothes. As we entered there were a few locals waiting on the first platform and I was asked to sit there as well. They all looked at me curiously for a few minutes and then smiled and offered me tea. Close to an hour later I was still sitting there, uncomfortably wondering if I had made a mistake in coming. I was the only Westerner there and I was beginning to feel like an intruder, interrupting something sacred.

Ida finally made an appearance with several people in tow and smiled and walked straight for the altar. One of her “assistants” ushered us over to another platform closer to the altar.  A local woman sitting next to me kept smiling at me and then eventually engaged me, asking me all sorts of questions, specifically how I had heard about Ida. She became my guide through the rest of the ceremony. Ida, perched high atop her altar began her preparation which was a variation of chanting, ringing a bell and concocting flower water for the initial blessing. It went on for what I imagine was more than a half hour, I had no concept of time at this point.

Ida called over two men for the first blessing. She took her flower stuck it in water and whipped it at them, spreading droplets over them.  That’s not that bad I thought, wondering why John and the girls had made such a big deal about the water. And then it came…buckets and buckets of water were poured one man at a time. Ida was instructing them to stomp their feet and rub the water all over their bodies. I could not believe how fast she could grab each ornate silver container and dump it on them. The process of the assistant filling the container and then handing it to her was so rapid it seemed impossible.  I started to feel affected by the ceremony and tensed up. To prepare and compose myself,  I went to change into just the sarong so I would have something dry for later on. The bathroom was little more than a shed with a makeshift half open door, the least appealing place of the whole brand new compound.

The women went after the men but because there was an uneven number I was paired with a man.  Ida called us over; my new guide/friend had already gone as had about 10 other people. I found my nervousness reaching mountaintop proportions as we were called over by Ida. Ida looked at me and began to instruct me in English. She asked me to take my hair down from its bun and to close my eyes. Let me be very clear here, my heart was in my throat. I can’t explain why but there was a palpable movement of energy and emotion already, maybe from the waiting, maybe from the whole unusual situation, maybe from the intense fear I had been dealing with regarding snakes all week, I can’t pinpoint it.

Eyes closed, water began to flick onto me from the flower wand, and then bam, I was hit by a massive bucket of freezing cold water, and I gasped hard! It was involuntary. From that point on, I had very little control of what was happening. I was at the mercy of my body, my emotion and her instruction which I had to strain to hear. She instructed me to rub my body and stamp my feet as hard as I could. She was forceful in her tone. Then it stopped, briefly as the process was transferred to the man next to me. Although there was a break, it still wasn’t enough to catch my breath before I was again doused. This happened several times in succession, all the while she is telling me to let it go, release and to cry, my question, with that much water was, how did she know I wasn’t crying? The emotion got stuck in my throat and hung out there, unable or unwilling to move.  There was something to release and the tears were there trickling but they wouldn’t flow. I stomped harder, I tried to relax and let the flow come but my body had tensed so much from the shock of the water and the struggle against the sensation of drowning that it wouldn’t come. Fight or flight took over.  I was in disbelief that I could feel like I was drowning just from consecutive buckets of water.

The blessing probably lasted 7-10 minutes at the most but the after effects lasted for days after it. I went to change what I could and peeled off the soaked clothing, shivering so much that my teeth were chattering. It’s Bali, it was not cold out. I realized I was shaking. My head was swimming. I could barely make sentences but I realized I had not given my “offering” aka money. So once I had changed I wandered out, awkwardly, and tried to find the place where John and the girls had told me to put the offering. I couldn’t find it and I was so lost that Ida actually stopped what she was doing, another blessing, and asked me what I was doing. I managed to get the word offering out and she called her assistant over and I put it in a straw box. I stumbled away bowing, feeling like an utter idiot for interrupting someone else’s blessing.

I found John gave him his soaking sarong and we went to the car. I told him I wanted to go back, skip all of the other things we had planned for the day. This man who I didn’t know before that day, said “I thought so,” able to see how affected I was, how altered I was. I was silent all the way back, a complete contrast from the ride there. I wasn’t exactly thinking, I wasn’t exactly awake or asleep, I was in between in every sense of the word. I moved through the rest of the day in a blur, out of touch with reality and the present.  I am still amazed I got on a plane the next day.

I am still processing this experience so many months later. The intensity of this experience cannot be understated. I have never been so wet without swimming or taking a shower.

I have never felt so much like I was drowning in my entire life.

I felt helpless.

But, I would recommend it.