What is it like to return to a place that you once helped bring to fruition – even if your mark was relatively minor?
I had a chance to find out the other day, when my French friend C and I set out on a day trip, to temples and a butterfly park, as well as the Bali Silent Retreat. A sprawling property nestled in among large tracts of land in banjar Mongan, the BSR’s various structures are tucked in between terraced rice fields, valleys, a small ancient family temple, organic and medicine gardens. On a clear day, the uninterrupted views of Mount Agung and the Batu Karu mountain range, are unmistakable and, by all accounts, simply breathtaking.
I’d not been to the BSR for more than a year (or was it two?!), and was overwhelmed with the changes that greeted me. The bungalows, with flip flops parked outside each door, towels hung over wooden railings, and a book or two on an outdoor table, bore a weathered look; well-lived and loved. The rice paddies in front had blissfully remained untouched.
The reception had been moved out of the main lodge, and was now positioned closer to the main road and entrance driveway – undoubtedly a move intended to eliminate echoing voices of newly arriving guests. Not yet initiated into the silence that permeates the rest of the sanctuary, as if it were ethereal, aural liquid gold.
The jungles and greenery had gone mad and wild. Off in every possible direction. Taller than I’d remembered, denser than I’d ever seen before, immeasurably more abundant. Colorful splashes of color from the tropical flora; hibiscus, heliconia, alamanda, and more. Fields of well-tended lettuces. More than a dozen species of banana trees. Herbs. Aloe vera plants. Bushes sprouting baby pineapples.
The spacious plein air balé (covered octagonal yoga and meditation space), was well-stocked with yoga mats, bowls, crystals and a hammock, hanging alongside one edge of the balé, piled high with cushions. A small jug of holy water and a bowl of stones, were placed on a pedestal at the entrance.
The place was filled with little nooks and destinations; star beds for gazing, a jungle path, a fire house and a cry bench (I confess these last 2 terms confused me and I didn’t warm to them at all).
Every way we looked, we were overcome with the scent and beauty of this largely untouched landscape – the kind that has become increasingly hard to find in more populated areas around the island. Cicadas could be heard, some sawing off in the distance. But otherwise: shhhh. We breathed deeply, sucked it all in, marvelled at this oasis of quiet.
The sky grew overcast as we continued on, and I showed C around. The single rooms to the left, more organic produce even further to the left. And to our right, we stepped up onto a well-maintained terrace, where the labyrinth appeared in its majestic simplicity – just in time for the first raindrops to touch our skin.
The labyrinth that I had built a few years ago was still the same, underneath all the changes; the half-painted stones were still placed along the imaginary lines marking boundaries. The kumis kucing (cat’s whiskers), perfectly manicured and squared off on top, looked like it had existed there for decades. I picked off a leaf and chewed it – as I had so many times before. Now, there were crystals placed around the labyrinth; two small wooden posts containing prayer pages, each from another religious or spiritual practice; a shrine filled with offerings, and a periphery that had been rebuilt with bricks at its base (so as to prevent erosion from rain).
No doubt it had changed. And aside from slipping a few errant stones back onto the invisible lines demarcating one circuit from the other, it was clear that my work here was done.
The grassy paths of the labyrinth were now imprinted with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of bare or sandaled feet. And an equal number of bodies walking silently, slowly – I hoped – intentionally, meditatively. Perhaps contemplating. Maybe praying. Possibly just slowing down; their thoughts, their heartbeat, their lives. I wondered, quietly to myself, how many people might have found solace in this circular oasis of green. I suddenly realized that perhaps, not just for myself, but for others, this too might be a sacred space.
The gods gave us only a few minutes more on the labyrinth before the monsoon-rains were unleashed. We each grabbed an umbrella and made for the closest women’s dormitory. When we stepped inside, the high-ceilinged room was eerily empty. We reclined on mats and triangular meditation pillows, underneath a large skylight. Listening to the pitter-patter of drops above, we were lulled into an easy nap.
For those of you who are, like me, lovers of nature, an experience of this magnitude can’t but seep deeply into every bone and cell. This little corner of Bali remains etched in my DNA; the good earth, the process and challenges of creating the labyrinth – as a gift to those guests who’ve walked the path, and those yet to come. For healing. For peace.
If the Bali grass beneath the feet of even one walker, meditator, visitor, has imbued her with a sense of wonder, calm, acceptance or joy, then… amen.