The Joy of Quiet

I awoke yesterday to a blue sky peeking through stormy clouds, and to the sound of roosters, birds and rainfall tapering down to drizzle. Not a single dog barking, and other than a couple of errant motorbikes and cars, the only sound that could be heard was…silence. The city was almost biblical in its sheer stillness. For one whole day, I was ushered into a world unlike anything I’ve experience before, nor one that I’ll soon forget: a day in paradise, a real garden of Eden.

Welcome to Bali’s Hindu New Year, Nyepi, also known as the Day of Silence.

So this is what it must have been like in Ubud thirty years ago.

It’s still before 7 am when the sun suddenly brightens, shooting beams of light onto the side of my face. My eyes are closed, my mind clearing, my heart humming: right now, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

I’m reminded of a line from Shakespeare: All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players. Well the usual actors are absent today, so center stage yields to nature’s creatures: voices of roosters, birds, cecaks and tokeks ring out without competition from humans and man-made contraptions; snakes, fish and other jungle inhabitants can move about without fear. Birds and vultures too: Bali is the only place in the world where the airport completely shuts down, once a year, for 24 hours.

By government regulation, and banjar enforcement, Balinese all around the island (expats and tourists also) are prohibited from leaving their homes – for the entire day. People are exempted from work (excepting those who must, for example in hotels or emergency services), the use of electricity is forbidden, driving is taboo and food cannot be cooked. Even walking outside one’s compound is reason enough to warrant reprobation from the pecalang (banjar men designated as the day’s security detail) or, in some cases, a fine may be imposed. The more observant Balinese fast and spend the day in utter and complete silence.

Indeed, Nyepi is a day dedicated to introspection, reflection, meditation, prayer and solitude. It’s when Balinese stay in their homes, commune (if at all) with family, refrain from work and movement so as to confuse evil spirits who hover over Bali, convincing them – by this display of silence – that no humans live on the island. But Nyepi also symbolizes the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, which emphasizes the importance of a three-pronged but integrated approach to a life of well-being – harmonious relationships between man and the Divine, man and other human beings, man and nature.

As I lie outside, I’m astounded at the sights and sounds of the day’s quiet unfolding all around me. Muffled voices and some clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen below (behind closed doors) are to be expected, but otherwise, just a whole lot of nothingness… a far cry from the raucous and festive mood the night before!

I spot a lone bird perched on top of a tree in the distance. I wonder if it’s puzzled at all this sudden stillness, Where did all the people?

So this is what it’s like…

To spend a day in Bali without the constant rumbling sounds, tourists buses, the emission of noxious fumes, people’s loud voices. So this is what it’s like when nature takes over, when nature returns – albeit temporarily – to a state of grace and purity.

In mid-afternoon, the quiet is suddenly broken with the sounds of kids’ voices. They’re laughing and yelling outside on the street. A few of us dare to open the compound door slightly, peeking outside to ensure that the pecalang are out of sight. A group of boys is hard at play right out front with a soccer ball; evidently letting off steam, getting rid of their cabin fever. A mother and baby are walking slowly in another direction while a few dogs are splayed out in the middle of the road.

During the day, I find enough to do: writing, meditating, doing yoga, eating meals, coloring with pastels and reading articles from the New York Times and Bali Advertiser; then move onto Bernard Glassman’s Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters.

I re-read a NYT article by Pico Iyer from earlier this year, January 1st to be exact – New Year’s Day in another universe. Its title is The Joy of Quiet. No coincidence, I’m sure. There’s so much food for thought in his writing, but I linger on one line in particular:

It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.

I realize that the silence of Nyepi brings with it a distancing from the world in a way that even travel does not; the world as we know it, or as we’ve come to know and interact with. When we distance ourselves from that world, even briefly, turning it over to the natural world, when we take a back seat, becoming passive but watchful observers, we can find time breathe, to hear, to see, to learn and to appreciate in entirely new ways.

Imagine how much wisdom, wonder and creativity is to be found in silence. And so much gratitude – for the gifts & mysteries of life, love, nature.

So what would it be like to mark a quiet-filled Nyepi once a week… not just on this little island of the gods, but around the world?

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