The Balinese tradition of Nyepi should be exported
There is a beautiful Hindu celebration on the tropical island of Bali in Indonesia that’s comparable to what we in The West call New Year’s Day. The Balinese Nyepi is a public holiday on the island and a day of silence. Nobody is leaving the house, there is no internet, no entertainment, no travelling, no activities and even the airport closes down. Complete silence for twenty-four hours, from six in the morning till the next day at the same time.
And there is more to it, with a kissing ritual and a parade of demonic statues (‘Ogoh-Ogoh’) the evening before, but I want to focus on the silence aspect of Nyepi. The tradition dates back at least two thousand years and the main goal for this day is self-reflection. There are restrictions on using lights and obviously, without anyone leaving the home, it’s very quiet in the streets as well.
I arrived in Bali a year ago and I remember my first Nyepi very clearly. It surprised me what kind of effect it has on the mental wellbeing to not use the internet for a whole day. Clarity of mind and relaxation of the body that is hard to describe. Since then I’m a fan of this holy day and I’d wish the Balinese tradition gets exported to the rest of the world. Because we really need less twittering and more silence.
The word ‘twittering’ I use here explicitly because for many journalists Twitter has become the main social media platform. It’s the place where you’ll find your colleagues from all around the world and where there is a debate between journalists, opinion leaders and politicians.
Twitter is negative and vulnerable at the same time
It started quite enthusiastically in the beginning years, with an amazing opportunity to reach out to people who would otherwise be untouchable. Twitter created connections that weren’t possible before and the platform contributed hugely to a rich debate. And at the same time social media in general also provided a space without any filter. The straightforwardness that comes with communicating online has become tough at some ends. In the past decade people regularly left the platform (sometimes temporarily) because of digital threats and blocking each other isn’t a novelty anymore either. One could say the enthusiasm of the early days has turned into a fighting stance, where you arm yourself before you enter the digital stage to shoot your 280 bullets and wait till others fire back.
Maybe the war comparison is a little exaggerated, but I think there’s a shared opinion globally that Twitter has become quite a negative space. The fascinating thing is that it’s become a more vulnerable place at the same time. More and more people share their mental wellbeing challenges and some are even tweeting about the last days of their lives.
The cycle of suffering continues through scrolling
It caught my attention that especially recently — due to the COVID-19 restrictions — journalists frequently mention the ambiguity they feel towards Twitter. On the one side, it’s a good way of keeping updated on the work of your colleagues or interest fields, on the other it’s easy to spend way too much time a day scrolling through tweets, digesting new information every time your thumb slides over the screen. And while people also share how depleted they feel by all the news at the moment, they don’t always seem to realize that Twitter is probably a big reason for bringing the mood down.
The theory behind Vipassana meditation explains it to me very clearly: if you keep reacting to everything that is happening instead of acting from a place of peace within yourself, you’ll continue the cycle of suffering. Sure, words such as ‘peace within’ and ‘suffering’ might sound too ritualistic to secular people in The West, but the message between the lines from this century-old Buddhist meditation technique is valuable in this modern time.
We all seek refuge in digital devices
Not just the aspect of action versus reaction, also the element of being aware of the sensations in your body is beneficial. How often do you touch your phone in a state of mind that isn’t really balanced? I mean we all grab our mobiles to distract ourselves from certain difficulties in real life or to not feel the emotions in our bodies. Noticing that you’re holding tension in your neck and shoulders or that you’re having an irregular heartbeat and rapid breathing helps to find healthier solutions than to seek refuge in digital devices.
And lastly, Vipassana literally means ‘seeing things as they really are’. You’re being trained to experience the world at the moment, as it is, not as you want it to be. This mindset comes with the art of listening and the craft of being silent. Quite the opposite of being active on a social media platform.
And isn’t that one of the major lessons we white people have learned from the Black Lives Matter movement, to listen more carefully to unheard voices and instead of bringing ourselves to the centre of attention, being quiet and letting the silence speak for us.
Appreciating silence doesn’t mean shutting up or not speaking out
Spiritual practices aren’t meant to stay in books or to be limited to yoga youtube channels, the popularity of ancient eastern philosophy practices should be transferred to mundane, daily life. And we desperately need the techniques at the moment, to protect ourselves from becoming depressed through twittering, through constantly reacting and through ignoring the wisdom in our bodies.
It’s these exercises that help us to self-reflect, necessary to learn and understand our blind spots, to reduce the feeling of being personally offended on the topic of racism and to keep looking at ourselves as part of a bigger picture.
And from a place of knowing ourselves better, the content we’ll share with others will be of more value. Appreciating silence doesn’t mean shutting up or not speaking out. On the contrary, the stillness learns us to find a more powerful voice, coming from a constructive place deep within instead of a superficial response to negative emotions.
A good deal of people in The West come to Bali every year for a vacation dedicated to relaxation. Some find rest in activities around the island, some look for serenity in the spiritual industry on the tropical destination. I’d highly recommend you to visit Bali once during Nyepi, most probably held in March every year, and experience the power of stillness. Of course, you can also celebrate Nyepi yourself at home, wherever you are. Just unplug your devices, turn off the internet for a full day, pay attention to the sensations in your body and the twittering in your mind and create equanimity within yourself. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll gain from that. It might change your perspective.