Heaven and Hell in Bali

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Photo is one of the stunning views from my room at Samyoga in North Bali

Every night for the past week I have fallen asleep to the sound of Balinese cremation ceremony chanting and music. This sounds like it should be a beautiful experience, being carried away on the hypnotic rhythms of island music. It is not. It sounds like a dying cat. A dying cat with a microphone. Not satisfied with being quietly off-key, for the last ten years the Balinese have pumped their cremation ceremonies through a sound system.

But I am not mad. Cremation ceremonies are one of the holiest rituals on the island. And I am a guest. If the Balinese want to broadcast holy dying-cat noises through the hills at volumes that will keep everyone around for miles awake until midnight, then I will just take that as a feature of the island.

As I sit here writing this at nine at night, ipod headphones firmly planted in my ears (Indian raga music), I think about how our thoughts about a phenomenon can totally change our experience of it. Because I have certain beliefs about the origin and nature of the music, I am not angry. Instead, I simply find a way to deal. If it was club music, then maybe my mind would create the story that those people had no right to be blasting music. And then I might feel mad that they are keeping me awake. Same music. But my mind creates two different experiences based on my beliefs.

I was hiking through some rice fields a few days ago with a Balinese guide and we were discussing religion. He told me: “The Balinese don’t believe that we go to heaven or hell when we die. We believe that we create heaven and hell here, with our minds. If you are angry all the time, that is hell. If you are happy and have a positive outlook, that is heaven.” Another Balinese person I spoke with echoed this thought: “The Balinese, we are always positive. If you lose an arm, we say, wow what good fortune that you still have another arm left!”

As a lawyer, I have been taught a language of privileges, to question whether someone has a “right” to do something. The Balinese speak a different language. They speak a language of peace of mind. The focus is not on the other person or the external event. The focus is on your internal state, and what action or belief ultimately brings you the greatest happiness.

You can stay stuck in resentment and anger, but the one who suffers is you. Forgiveness and compassion bring us the greatest joy. So the Balinese tend to be overwhelming pleasant and easy-going. This positive outlook is the cause of their happiness, not its result.

Bringing this back to my current situation, I see how my acceptance of the cremation music has brought me peace. Viewed objectively, the issue has not gone away. The music still sucks. And I have lost some sleep. But internally, I do not feel frustrated or angry. From that perspective, there is no problem because my mind is not creating one. It is just a fact of life, to be handled in the best way possible. Which in this case, happens to be beautiful Indian music played at a high volume.

So, what if the music blasting through the hills did come from a club? It would be the exact same physical experience. The only difference would be my mind, and my ability to accept the world as it is. If I could learn to train my mind to accept the club music just as I accept the cremation music, then I would be able to hear the club music and remain peaceful. Again, it would be just a situation to be handled in the best way possible. Perhaps in that case, given that the music was not sacred, I might actually try and ask the partiers to turn it down. But whatever the outcome, I would still be at peace.

Sounds good … but how do you actually train your mind to hold different, more peaceful beliefs? In the case of the club music, I could tell myself stories about the club goers that help me feel compassion and forgiveness (it is someone’s birthday, the people partying just had a big loss in their lives). Or I could remember the pain I feel when I wallow in resentment, and choose to let it go rather than suffer myself. It’s not about being a saint. It takes conscious practice to retrain our minds.

Fully adopting this way of thinking is ultimately about taking 100% responsibility for our experience of the world. It means admitting that no other person or event can be blamed for our own feelings. The choice to be angry, or to feel any other emotion, is ours. For me, this insight brings me a sense of inescapable responsibility, but also a sense of freedom and power. I can choose heaven, or I can choose hell.

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