A Thoughtful Westerner Participates in a Fire Ritual in Bali

Friday, 14 March 2014

I was surprised that I didn’t feel uncomfortable at the fire ceremony. Later, in a conversation with another Balinese man, Wira, I was able to articulate why. The officiants of the ceremony were not doing it for show. They weren’t selling us a ceremony or showing us a ceremony. They hadn’t turned it into a product or spectacle and thereby subsumed it within our system of categories. Their attitude was more along the lines of, “The fire ceremony is good for everyone, whether Balinese or foreign.” Their own cosmology was primary. They gave it to us in the spirit of a gift.

I said to Wira, “It isn’t only to photograph and say they’ve done it, that Western people go to your ceremonies. There is another reason. You see, in my country most of us no longer understand that rituals hold together the fabric of the world. The worldview we were brought up in says that your ceremonies are just empty gestures attached to superstition. We might value them as cultural objects, but we don’t understand that they are actually a kind of technology that has a powerful effect on the social and material world.

“A few of us do understand, but even if we understand it doesn’t do us much good, because we have forgotten our ceremonies, and we have forgotten how to see the world through they eyes of ceremony. That is why we are here, some of us. We recognize that we have something important to learn here. We come in respect and gratitude for the treasure you have kept safe in this corner of the world.”

... Imagine if ETs showed up in our society and began appearing at serious occasions with cameras. “Wait,” you might protest, “we take photographs at our own rituals (such as weddings) all the time.” But that isn’t the kind of ritual I’m talking about. We misunderstand ritual – real rituals are sequences of actions that we experience as more real, not less real, than other activities. They draw their significance and importance from the world-story behind them. A visit to the doctor’s office is a good example. The ritual waiting period, the outer and inner chamber (waiting room and examination room), the ritual ablution the doctor must perform, the disrobing, the body ordeal, the writing of the sacred writ in an arcane language (of pharmacology), the preparatory ritual overseen by an assistant shaman (the nurse) followed by a visit by a fully initiated one (who has undergone a multi-year initiation and ceremonial addition to his name)… this is one of the true rituals of our culture, though it falls short of being a ceremony. We think it isn’t a ritual; we think it is “real,” and can explain each of its components in terms of a world-story (that includes things like germs, insurance, money, etc.) Imagine the effect it would have if strange and technologically super-advanced humanoids showed up in gaggles and groups, asking to watch blood tests, PET scans, and colonoscopies, and even to experience them themselves in order to have an authentic Earth experience, holographically recording all of it, throwing around huge amounts of money, and meanwhile implying that our medical theories were superstitious nonsense by setting up their own healing clinics and schools advancing a knowledge system that seemed, at least superficially, far more powerful. The result would be a devastating loss of confidence in our own medical rituals and their underlying worldview. It wouldn’t help if some well-meaning ETs said, “Oh, you must preserve these beautiful rituals, even if they are based on mere superstition."
What distinguishes a ceremony from a ritual, in my mind, is the presence of the sacred – the feeling that one is communicating with a vast intelligence beyond one’s self. The rituals that we call medicine, law, finance, and technology lack that dimension; in they case of technology they explicitly deny it. In the absence of the sacred, we treat the world as just a bunch of stuff. Ultimately we treat ourselves that way too. For our healing, sometimes we need to seek the medicine of a place that relates to the world as sacred. We become no longer tourists, but pilgrims.

  Thought-provoking post by Charles Eistenstein


  1. I love this post, Sue. I've always found the subject so fascinating.

    Rituals. Richly woven from folklore and tradition, borne from an ancient world of long ago. Of our ancestors and their gods - who were an everyday, integral part of life and death for them, and in nature.

    Many important rituals have been lost in time and translation in modernised and “advanced” societies.
    Sadly forgotten, but, never truly gone
    Deep down, our soul fibres are woven and meshed from the DNA of our old ones.
    Every once in a while, some thing or some one, stirs a memory, a "knowing" that can shake us to the core.
    We realise nothing is, as we “see it”. Nothing is, black and white.
    There, in the grey, lies our past. And the rituals that we once knew.

    Observation, and paying homage, in our “mundane” lives is an important part of re-connecting.
    And, it’s surprising how many rituals we really do observe :)

    Myth. Magic. Reality.

    1. Mmm. Myth. Magic. Reality. Yes.

      I'd like to incorporate some Liminalian rituals if that space ever becomes a reality. Will you come along to the winter Liminal storytelling in the dark with mulled apple cider evening? That could be a nice ritual :)

      Woven and meshed soul fibres - what a lovely image :) For some reason I got in my head a picture of, like, jute or something. I must have cruddy ancestors. I would think silk or cashmere soul fibres would be much more comfortable.

      I like what he said about the doctor's surgery as ritual. I agree, I think there are so many things we do that are rituals and have ritual ingredients. Interesting to think about, isn't it.

    2. ... "storytelling in the dark with mulled apple cider evening"... for real?? Count me IN!! Awesome :)

      For me, I imagine homespun linen and hemp fibres - rustic and real. The stuff long before industrialisation made everything so perfect.
      I think I'm a Luddite at heart. Perhaps my very own ancestors were too :)

      I absolutely hate doctors' surgeries/waiting rooms, what does that say about me I wonder? That's a ritual I'm happy to pass on. Makes me feel like climbing the walls.

    3. Homespun linen and hemp fibres - from what I know of you, that suits you down to the ground and reminds me of that lovely post you wrote where you talked about handcrafted linen.

      Yes, I hate them passionately as well. Let's catch up for a coffee and talk for three hours about why we hate them :P I've thought a lot about this since I did Medical Anthropology last year at uni. One of the major problems for me is that the a visit to the doctor is your stock-standard Western version of doing stuff - impose your control onto the patient, and remove any internal power the patient may have to assist in their own recovery. I HATE it. Luckily it's starting to change as we all wake up to being able to change the crap and destructive elements of our culture. Rawk on.


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