What I Learned in Bali


Bali can be a transformative place if you give it time to let it soak into you. It took me about a week to chill out and let the energy of the island in. I was so self-absorbed in my perceived challenges back home that it not only took the gentle nature of the Balinese people but also my children to remind me over and over again to relax. More than once my kids said “Dad you never seem happy” or “Dad you are making that ‘I am frustrated sigh again’”? From the mouths of babes come wisdom. I really wanted my kids to see the smiling Balinese children, who had little more than the clothes on their backs, running around happy in the villages. “They have so little, how can they be so happy?” was the life lesson I wanted to impart. But maybe it was I that needed the life lesson. In my haste to teach was “I” the one that required the schooling? Once the tours slowed down and my voracious appetite to “take it all in” subsided, I finally started enjoying the simple things like taking a long walk through the rice fields or actually being in the moment at a yoga class. My company reminded me constantly that everything was fine at work, that they had things handled and to stop checking in every day. So I can’t blame my stress on anyone else. It wasn't until I finally slowed down and started tapping into the rhythm of Bali that I began to breath and be mindful of my surroundings. There are three things that I learned from this trip about me that I think are good lessons for anyone that has a difficult time with disconnecting and is afflicted with the need to be busy for the sake of being busy.

Be in the present

I have two very strong personality traits (also called “signature themes”) that on the surface seem to be in diametric opposition to one another:

1). I look back to the past for context
2). I peer over the horizon to paint a picture of tomorrow

So if I spend a majority of my time researching the past or visualizing the future, what about the here and now? When I first read my Gallup Strengths Finder report I thought I was done for. While I completely agreed with my other top traits, namely being a good “conductor”, “thinker” and “includer”, my top two seemed in such contrast with one another. I was never a big believer in astrology but it appeared that my Pisces sign was ringing true. Think two fish swimming around in a circle chasing each others tail.

In Bali I made sure I took yoga classes and had numerous massages. Ok so my massages outweighed my yoga by 2 to 1. But the way these two art forms worked together was magical for me. Sure on the surface the massages were great and believe me there was years of stress that needed to rubbed, poked and kneaded away. But at a deeper level I found that it was on the massage table that I was able to use my two most dominant traits to think about past events for context and project future actions based on my experiences. But one place it is very hard to be thinking about the past or day dreaming about the future is in a yoga class.

I did a Vinyasa Flow class at the Yoga Barn in Ubud and one at Oasis Now Yoga on the beach in Sanur. Both yogis that I encountered said the same thing a number of times during the class — “Be in the present”. Prior to my trip to Bali, I looked at yoga as a means of stretching and exercise. I have been doing the both the P90X and P90X2 workouts for a couple of years now. While the yoga classes in both of these programs are good, I actually hadn't attended many yoga classes where I was given one on one instruction. The concept of being in the present and experiencing the moment is something that I have always struggled with. In a yoga class, if you aren't “in the present” you fall down and who wants to fall down in front of your peers? So yoga for me is one of those things that really forces me to be in the present.

The other one was riding a motorbike around Ubud and Sanur, especially when my wife or son was on the back. After all it’s not just my life it’s theirs too. In Bali you drive on the left hand side of the road, not the right like in the States. So an American who wants to scoot around on a motorbike needs to not only learn how to get into the flow of the motorbike mentality that permeates Bali but you also have to remember to be on the left side of the road. The tendency to drift right could prove fatal. Not to mention I am on a motorbike, not driving in my car back home, so balance is important too. All of these factors forced me to focus on what I was doing and concentrate on the traffic, street signs and where I was going; as opposed to driving my car on auto-pilot like I do in the States. “Autopilot” is used as a metaphor of course but this is the reason I believe so many “texting while driving” accidents happen in the States. It’s a result of the monotony of driving and being so addicted to being busy and staying connected. The motorbike required me to be in the present and live in the moment.

When we left Bali I began to contemplate the past to seek context and project my eventual future back in the States. There are three things I am going to do to continue the practice of being in the present:

1. Practice yoga on a weekly basis: My reward for this practice aside from the physical and mental benefits will be a massage after class.
2. Buy a Vespa: Since we live near downtown Stuart, having a little Vespa to scoot around in would be ideal. No texting while scooting.
3. Take surfing lessons.

Surfing is sadly something I was unable to do while in Bali. We had a week at the beach in Sanur so you would think that I would have had time but since we were there in July, the good surfing was actually on the southwest side of the island. I opted instead to go scuba diving with my son (which was awesome!). He now wants to get his diving certificate.

Be thankful everyday

One of the things that bothered me about our outbound flight was the fact that we weren't flying in business class once we left the States. We had selected Economy Class on Singapore Airlines because I simply couldn't justify paying an additional $20,000 for my wife and I to travel Business class to Hong Kong, Denpasar, Seoul and then back to San Francisco. Because of my status on Delta I upgraded my wife and I to first class from Florida to San Francisco and back, surely we deserved to fly Business Class overseas, right?

For starters, Economy Class on Singapore Airlines is basically equivalent to Delta’s domestic First Class service. But more importantly, what the hell is wrong with me? Why would I care so much about this? Part of me was thinking that “this” was our trip of a lifetime, something we’d been planning almost two years for. If I am going overseas I want to sit up front. Anyone can do it of course, you just need to pay up. But at the end of the day I was unable to justify the value of satisfying my fragile ego with the cost of the upgrade.

When I got to Bali and began to finally “get over myself” it was then that I realized how totally misplaced my values were and how it was such a waste of energy to get upset about the fact that I wasn't able to work a deal to get upgraded. What is really important after all? Do you look at a set of stairs as an opportunity to get some exercise or as an inconvenience? If you lost your legs in an accident you may look at life (and stairs) differently.

It wasn't until I finally settled down in Bali and began to really observe my surroundings that I began to appreciate three things that I thank God for everyday: my family and friends, my health and my financial freedom. While walking the rice fields in the small villages near Ubud, we saw Balinese people who were barely above the poverty level rejoicing in the fact that they were among family and community, had enough to eat and had the physical capacity to earn a meager living.

We toured the home of a typical Balinese family that still live the way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. The house had dirt floors and no running water or electricity. The most advanced piece of equipment was a gas stove and an air rifle to shoot the rats that invaded their rice crop. In Bali both elders and children are revered instead of being relegated to nursing homes or pawned off on nannies. The senior citizens of the family are given the most comfortable room in the house which is often a separate living quarters elevated higher than the rest of the rooms in the house.

The Balinese have a deep respect for nature and quite literally live among the bugs, monkeys, rats, bats and geckos that share the earth with them. All of the architecture, from the most lavish hotels to peasant homes are built in an open-air fashion. Even the resorts attempt to use air conditioning sparingly. As a native Floridian, I was comfortable with this for the most part. We slept well and every bedroom was appropriately air conditioned. But these are comforts typically only enjoyed by tourists and the Balinese elite. They have a completely different attitude towards nature.

In Bali, like in many parts of Asia, the custom is to kick-off your shoes before you enter a home, shop or restaurant. This is why flip flops are so ubiquitous among the Balinese. I remember walking into a tiny art gallery on one of my morning rice field hikes. It had been raining earlier that morning so I was wearing my hiking shoes. I walked into the an art shop that had white tile flooring. After getting the guys floor dirty I apologized and his response was “no problem…it’s just nature”. This mindset of take it easy and let things flow got me thinking more and more about what I have to be thankful for; my wife and kids, my physical health and mental capacity and of course the financial freedoms I have to enjoy a trip on the other side of the world.

My take away from all of this is to continue the practice that I started a number of years ago of saying either in my mind or aloud how thankful I am for the things that I take for granted which is family, friends, health and basic freedoms. Typically when I complete a workout or yoga routine I end it by saying audibly or silently what I am grateful for. But I'd like to incorporate a practice that I had heard about years ago in a self-help book and that is to carry a coin, pendent or some other physical object around with me that will help remind me to be thankful and grateful every day.

Look deeper for happiness

As I mentioned, people in Bali with little more than a sustainable food supply and shelter are constantly smiling. The horrendous traffic in Bali doesn’t create road rage in people. Drivers let other drivers pass in front or to the side of them constantly. It has to work this way because if the American driving mentality were transplanted into the brains of the average Balinese driver they would all be dead. You hear lots of honking on the streets of Bali but it is typically to “politely” warn another driver that they are approaching or it’s a taxi making a tourist aware that they are available for hire (the latter was admittedly annoying). I had an easy time getting into the motorbike mentality of both Ubud and Sanur because the other bikers tended to give me a pass when it was clear to them that I was a tourist. If you observe it closely enough, the traffic patterns don’t look as erratic as they initially appear and actually they have a way of meshing and flowing like a complex organism.

We were told by westerns who have been to Bali that we would experience the pleasantness of the Balinese people. While tourism has certainly taken over this tiny island and continues to erode much of the true Balinese way (women began to commonly wear tops and stop exposing their breasts in public in the early-80s), there is still a genuine happiness in the people that becomes somewhat intoxicating. At least it was for me. I found myself being more mindful of saying “hello” to the staff in stores and restaurants (warungs) and greeting them with the traditional “namaste” hand gesture.

One of the lessons I was hoping that our kids would take away from our visit to Bali is that money can’t buy happiness. I wanted them to see people (primarily children) living in poverty who were happy, smiling and seemingly enjoying life. The same day that we observed the family in their dirt floored home we also went out to a rice field to meet four of the most miraculous ladies I had ever met. Women do much of the work in the rice fields in Bali, at least in this one stretch of fields northeast of Ubud. The rice was ready for harvesting and the women were taking the dried rice stalks and basically beating the rice out of it. Once this is done they sift the rice to remove any unwanted byproduct. The rice is then dried in either the fields or as we observed on the side of the road. Once the rice is dried it is it put into sacks weighing up to 45 kg each. These women carry these sacks for a km or more on their shoulders back to their villages. I picked one up and believe me they are heavy. But seeing these women in the fields, smiling while they worked and seemingly enjoying the fact that tourists had come to observe them gave me a very different perspective on the value of time, effort and reward. You see these women aren't paid in money but in rice. They get to split among the four of them half of the rice that is harvested and bagged by them. For each bag harvested, half goes to the landowner and the other half to the workers.

We tend to idolize ourselves, our problems and our successes. We become so caught up in our own little worlds that we forget what makes us happy and that we all play a role in the destiny of each other. I am not trying to sound condescending or awkwardly metaphysical here. What I am really talking about is thinking rationally about who we are, where we are in comparison to those around us and lastly to not project our biases, problems and assumptions on others. I don't know why the guy that just cut me off in traffic is driving so erratically. Is he a jerk or worse yet drunk? Maybe. But he could have also just received a call from his wife that their son was rushed to the emergency room too? Like David Foster Wallace says we all worship something and he doesn't believe that anyone can truly be an atheist. You may not be religious or even spiritual and don't worship God, Buddha, Allah or some other deity. But if you don’t what do you worship? Money, power, intellect or your own physical appearance? The great thing about life is you get to choose and that’s something worth being thankful for.