Lisa Mitchell

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What the Balinese do for anxiety.

Lisa Mitchell | Aug 18, 2016 | 7 comments

My 2 week writing retreat in Bali with Laura Davis was an adventure, a vacation, and a profound education. I’m certain I will have many things to share as my experience becomes more integrated. But one big take away from Bali cries out to be told, honored, and even implemented here in the States.

The Balinese practice Bali Hinduism which is a unique mix of Hinduism and Buddhism. They bring strong beliefs in animism and naturism to their daily practices and make it a priority to relate to all things and beings as one. The Balinese are stunningly beautiful people. Their faces aren’t pinched with worry. Their attention isn’t a mile ahead or on what’s next. They are engaged in the moment and their wrinkles are smile lines and crows’ feet mixed with the evidence of living in nature—fully, every day. Yes, the Balinese have struggles. I heard stories of domestic violence, gambling addiction, conflict between tradition and contemporary values, and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill. But, their daily offerings practice gives me ideas about what’s missing in our culture when it comes to coping with anxiety.

When I first arrived in Candidasa, Bali I was enthralled by the calm ocean and blue sky, but I fell in love with the offerings. Everywhere I looked, in doorways, in store fronts, in roadside ditches, on stone temples, on scooters, on car dashboards I saw these hand sized sculptures made from coconut palm leaves and flowers. They were varied in design, some pinwheel shaped and others triangular basket shaped. Some were intricate with delicate arrows shooting up from the sides and others were simply a conical container. Most were held together with small “stitches” created by poking a toothpick sized bamboo stick in and out of the palm leaf. All held flower petals of many colors and occasionally a mini Ritz cracker or Oreo on top.

2offering making

1offerings

I was so enamored by these tiny hand crafted delights that I wanted to collect them all. I was a bit appalled by what seemed to be a lack of respect for the creations. They were strewn all over the place–used up, dried up, and forgotten. I spied them in trash heaps–mixed in with plastic bags and Bintang beer cans. I wanted to scoop down and rescue the trampled offerings and make my own shrine to revel in the daily hand work of the Balinese. To my eye these offerings were precious. To the Balinese they were offerings that had already been dedicated, and therefore had already done the job.

3 offerings

The daily practice of ritual offerings permeates the life of a Balinese family. Children learn to make these intricate weavings as early as age 6. An average family will make as many as 50 per day. As a Balinese woman, I would probably spend an hour or more a day gathering and creating these offerings and then another hour distributing them throughout my home, my store or hotel, my temple, and even on my scooter. If I had a boat to take tourists snorkeling, I would even float an offering into the sea.

The offerings that are set low—on the ground in front of a temple or at the entrance of a house or store—are meant to appease or distract the low gods. The low gods are thought of as demons or ogres and the cookie or candy set on top of the offering is meant to lure the low gods away from the doorway. A low god comes along and thinks they’d like to come into the home or store but sees the yummy treat waiting for them. Then, the demon munches on the cookie and gets all happy and playful in the flowers and forgets to come into the house or store. The home is protected, the low god is happy, and all is well.

4offering

There are high offerings and high gods, too. These offerings are usually placed up high in the empty chair of the stone temples in order to invite the high gods to come and sit. Or they are placed in special cubbies on either side of a doorway at head height in order to guide the high gods into the home or store.

5high offering

Whether the placement is high or low, the most important moment of the ritual is when the offering is dedicated. That means that incense is lit and placed with the offering, holy water is sprinkled, and the ritual is done. After that, the offering can be trampled, relegated to the trash bin, or collected by admirers like myself—it doesn’t matter. I even witnessed a lengthy temple ceremony where, midway through the ceremony, three of the women involved gathered up the used offerings and crammed them into a green waste trash bin. There were so many that they filled the entire bag and had only been used for the 1st half of the ceremony! The act—the very doing of the ritual—is the essential part of the practice.

The thing that is so striking to me about Balinese daily offerings is that it is an active process that involves making something by hand. (Sure you can buy already made offerings—but even then—there is an active process in the ritual of dedicating the offering.) If you are worried or anxious about bad things happening, you create and dedicate an offering. If you want help or good fortune, you create and dedicate an offering. You don’t hold your worries inside and try to cope with them. You don’t sit still and try to be mindful instead of freaking out. You don’t pray in your mind alone—you offer with your whole body.

Here in the US, we don’t DO enough with our worry. I see clients every day who have long internal conversations about their worry and anxiety. They try to rationalize or tell themselves things to stop their anxious thoughts. Some pray. Some ask for help. Many are simply paralyzed by their anxiety. I know enough now about the brain to understand that this kind of coping with anxiety just doesn’t help. The accumulated cortisol and adrenaline doesn’t have anywhere to go if we don’t DO something—act on our anxiety—have an experience that shows our brain a different way of perceiving things. I also know enough about the healing practice of hand work. The repetitive nature of using our hands to create an object outside of ourselves triggers our ancient brain—the one that is still in charge of our survival today. It tells our brain that things are good. We are creating. We are doing. We are fully embodied humans.

I’m thinking of weaving some of this practice into my work with clients. I’m also thinking that it would be a lovely practice for myself. Want to join me?

7 responses to “What the Balinese do for anxiety.”

  1. Rhonda Hailes Maylett says:

    BlessU for sharing your remarkable and spiritual trip to Bali Lisa! So happy you had a wonderful experience. ❤ So surprising their offerings aren’t cherished in the end but it’s true how the act of creating heals the soul. I understand fully as an artist.
    Carrying around and internalizing massive amounts of anxiety aka oxidative stress is killer on our neurotransmitters and precious hippocampus. Americans suffer greatly in their own minds. :**(
    So refreshing reading your impressions about another country who knows what is… (>‿◠)✌
    I loved your knowledge about the Ritz and Oreo offerings ’cause it ROCKED! I’m a newbie and when I learned about Animism, I thought what’s wrong with that and finding it’s considered a disorder freaked me???Maybe I belong in chillsville Bali. HaHaHa… ♫

  2. Miriam Berkman says:

    Do I want to join you? Yes. As I was reading this, I was already thinking about how to do this and how to incorporate the thinking behind it in my life and the lives of others. Thank you, yet again, Lisa.

  3. kate mackenzie says:

    Thank you Lisa. I love being reminded that if I want something different from what I have then I must change my focus. Taking my energy away from the anxiety by focusing on creating something of beauty releases me from the worry. Finding places to bless with the renewed energy is another movement away from the anxiety.
    I have to say that anxiety seems like on the most prevalent daily troubles we human have and the more ways to simply change it the better life is.
    Looking forward to seeing you. Hope all is well.
    Kate

  4. Vikki Ziskin says:

    hmmmm, interesting food for thought. I would also be interested in ways to incorporate ritual as this is a common coping strategy I am often searching for with my clients. We need more ritual in our lives!

  5. I love that you discovered this link between offering and anxiety Lisa. It helps me understand a bit more about the neuroscience behind the use of head, hands and heart in art making. In short why, after art making, we feel such a release of worry/anxiety. Will definitely combine this notion in my art and atx. Gracias!

  6. I went right to my craft bag and created a tangled web that represents my anxiety and sadness. I don’t know if this is exactly what you intended, but it felt great. It is now sitting right outside my front door. I feel like I’ll want to add to it as I go along, a bigger and bigger tangle, a visible representation of what’s going on inside of me. I’ve been harrassed and tormented by this anxiety for many many months, and have resorted to many meds. I’ve tried – for a long time – valiantly – mindfulness. It has never felt like enough.

    Thank you.

  7. Lisa says:

    Thank you! This reinforces so many of the important aspects of art making. What a useful reminder in both our personal and professional lives. Bonus: Makes me want to consider a trip to Bali 🙂
    Thanks

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