Social (Media) Distancing (and my Balinese New Year)

Publish September 30, 2020

Happy (Balinese) New Year! Today is the first day of the Balinese year 1942. Bali’s new year falls on the day following the dark moon of the spring equinox meaning we have a relatively quick succession of ‘regular’ New Year, Chinese New Year and then finally Balinese New Year or ‘Nyepi’.

Nyepi is by far my favourite new year. For weeks local villagers make giant bamboo and paper mache monsters called ‘ogoh-ogoh’ to parade through the streets and scare away evil spirits from the island. In a ritual called ‘pengrupukan’ we noisily bang pots and pans in our houses to drive out demons (note: this will destroy non-stick surfaces).

But by far my favourite part of Nyepi is New Year’s Day, otherwise called ‘The Day of Silence’. On this day everyone must stay at home, refrain from making noise and even using lights and electricity. The internet is shut off. The only people allowed on the streets are the local village security ‘pecalang’ whose job it is to make sure no-one is using lights or making noise. During the day, this is a novelty. At night, it is magical.

Legend has it that after scaring away the demons the night before on their return the evil spirits find the island empty and decide to move on. Hence Bali is annually cleansed. In practise you can either stockpile snack food, tin foil your windows and watch Netflix in the dark or use the day as it was meant for. A time of silent reflection, meditation and fasting. I’ve tried both options. Cooking can be difficult when you’ve destroyed your non-stick pans but I stop short of fasting and use the day for self-reflection and the night for star gazing.

This year was different though. Due to a ban on large groups there were no parades of ogoh-ogoh although ‘pengurupukan’ was celebrated (using large stainless-steel bowls which make an excellent racket). The Day of Silence was like all the other days I’ve celebrated here before. It was liked everything had slowed down. It’s amazing how the world sounds when all of the electronic and mechanical background noises are turned off. When you turn everything off it becomes a lot easier to turn inward. I’ve always used Nyepi as a day of digital detox.

I kept my phone turned off in my room and it was at first shocking and then amusing to see how many times I reflexively reached for it. How much was I really in control of my actions? I started to sense my nervous and impulsive mind jumping out for information. And when I denied it, the fear of the unknown. What was I missing out on? Perhaps some vital piece of information I needed to know right away. This is the perfect death-metal guitar solo of the mind and ego grinding you out of control.

I’ve learnt to try and ‘sit back’ and observe this. If you can observe your thoughts and feelings then you are in your true state of consciousness. If you can observe your mind and ego, then it’s really you. You are the observer, not the thoughts and feelings you observe. If I ask you to say ‘hello!’ in your mind – go on, do it – who is it that says ‘hello’ and who is it listening?

The mind and ego are your tools. I think of them like a computer and ‘emotional radar’. But in today’s society we’re often controlled by our tools not the other way around. We never turn them off. A craftsman can put down her tools. But if we can’t put down the mind and ego – step back from our incessant thoughts and feelings and simply ‘be’ – it’s means we’re not in control. And that’s why the world is kinda crazy right now.

I’ve got some tips and tricks for this (for another time) but sitting here after my ‘Day of Silence’ one thing struck me that I wanted to share. A day off social media, and particularly a day off media, has helped me to relax and gain some perspective. Before I ‘switched off’ I don’t think I was really aware of how much everything was grinding me down. How many times a day I was checking things and getting updates about Covid-19. Reading them all and then playing it back in my head in an endless gymnastic ping-pong rally between mind and ego.

We don’t need to do this. Checking up once or twice a day and then getting on with your life is more than enough. Instinctively sharing stories via WhatsApp or Facebook is not OK. If you’re on autopilot, snap out of it. The good news is all you need to do to stop this is to become aware if it. Trip the circuit breaker in your head and observe your actions. Don’t try and stop them all at once, just observe them first. And then slowly take control, one thought, one click and one post at a time.

Nyepi turns magical when the sun sets. It’s the night of the new moon so the sky is pitch black. With no lights on across the island there is no haze. And with no devices turned on there is no sound. It is dark and quiet and before too long a speckled quilt of stars spreads across the sky. A bright Venus slowly setting in the west. All the other planetary bodies won’t be rising for a while so it’s the expanse of the Milky Way that takes our breath away.

My son and I lie flat on a yoga mat passing a pair of binoculars between us. Looking up at the stars like this poses the big questions. Are we alone? How big is the Universe? Where did it come from? What was there before? I feel my son move his head slightly against mine, ‘Why is the Universe?’ he asks. Why indeed, I thought. What’s the purpose of it all?

Carl Sagan famously said “We’re made of star stuff” meaning the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies were first created in old snuffed out stars over 4.5 billion years ago. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from the Universe just like we shouldn’t separate ourselves from nature which is made from the very same stuff as us.

So my answer was ‘to experience’. We are made from the Universe to experience the Universe. A type of cosmic self-awareness occurring just as we are trying to make sense of our place on Earth. And for the world right now that means waking up. It means finding the balance and harmony in the emerging age Bill Gates has coined ‘The Great Correction’. And this means putting our minds and egos aside and becoming truly conscious. It means letting go of all our differences as we become one people and discover true happiness.

(I use an app called Rescue Time (not affiliated) that I download onto my phone and computer which then emails me a summary each week of how much time I spend on what apps. Wow, talk about eye opening! There’s another (android) app I use called Stay Focussed where I can manually limit my access to certain apps (either during time windows, number of opens, etc..). This is a bit more extreme but it can be a good way to stop reflexively opening apps after a certain time. For example, I set it so I can’t open my email (easily) after 8pm. I figure I’ll more than likely be at home and should be focussed on my family. I can disable it but it takes a few menus to get there and by then I’ve normally come to my senses and put the phone down.)

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