Balians; Bali’s traditional healers

In the five years that I have lived in Bali I have visited three different traditional healers, each providing a unique and profound experience that my western mind has struggled to fully comprehend. With my most recent treatment for a painfully damaged rib, I resolved to stop questioning “how” and “why,” and instead simply accept the experience for what it was and be grateful for it. I had gone to see one of the island’s well known healers, Pak Sircus who specialises in bone problems. The traditional Balinese compound was packed with people, and he worked from an open air pavilion in the corner, in full view of everyone. Each patient would take their turn and he would take his time chatting with them, often giving a massage and perhaps disappearing out the back to whip up a potion of some kind. The atmosphere was light hearted and relaxed, and Pak Sircus drank tea, smoked kretek cigarettes and told jokes throughout the sessions.

My turn eventually came. I was brittle and nervous, especially as I had noticed that most treatments seemed to involve a painful yelp or two from the patient. My friend had described it well, “He hurts the hell out of you – then you feel better.” As I sat down he pointed straight at my rib, “Its not broken,” he said, “but it is badly stressed.” I gingerly lay down and he massaged my side, it was painful but not too bad, and I tried to relax. After a while he tapped my shoulder and looked deep into my eyes. It’s hard to explain but I felt this incredible sense of connection, it was like he could see right into my soul, and in this moment he drew me out of myself and our energy melded into one. He smiled serenely and said, “Remind me, what is your name,” and my tension melted away as I took a breath and responded, smiling back at him. Right then he jabbed my rib with his fingers. I screamed – the shock of the pain sent me bolt upright. It was intense, but fleeting, and then I couldn’t stop laughing. “You tricked me,” I said. “I know,” he replied “and I know you understand,” and we laughed and laughed –with each peal of laughter a layer of pain fell away. I will not say that I was suddenly and miraculously cured – I still felt tender and sore, but it was as if the core of the pain had been removed, and most importantly, the depression that had accompanied it had been instantly lifted. Balance and harmony were restored and I felt like myself again.

It is this sense of harmony that lies at the heart of Balinese Hinduism – the constant struggle for balance between the opposing forces of darkness and light; sekala (the seen) and niskala (the unseen.) For most Balinese, sickness is deemed the result of an essential disharmony between a person and his/her surroundings. While natural herbal cures and western medicine are seen as appropriate for more tangible (sekala) forms of illness like a skin infection of a common cold, when it comes to less easily diagnosed, intangible (niskala) maladies, a traditional healer is generally the first point of call. Known as balians, these healers work on a number of levels, but generally practice an intuitive form of healing that is very different from a more western clinical style, and may have been learned from a parent or grandparent, of acquired directly from a Hindu deity. Some balians are essentially herbalists, while those like Pak Sircus, who specialise in bone problems may work with massage and manipulation. Some act as mediums or will contact the spirit world for guidance on certain issues related to your health, and you may end up having inscriptions drawn on your body or wads of chewed up herbs spat at you. A common thread with all these healing modalities is the opinion that sickness is often caused by the deeds of an individual, who might have acted disrespectfully or done something inappropriate. In this way, rather than providing a cure per se, a balian may grant atonement or neutralise bad intentions.

A balian usada, known as a literate balian is often in possession of sacred ‘lontar usada’ (healing books) that he may have studied with a guru to learn his craft. He might use natural medicine obtained from plants, which can be enhanced with amulets or ritualistic ceremonies. A balian tulang is a bone setter and will be called upon in emergencies to set dislocations or severe muscle sprains. A balian apun will generally work with massage, while a balian manak is a midwife. The role of a balian tasku is a little harder to define, they definitely work with niskala – the unseen forces – and are believed to take power from nature or holy spirits, and may create medicines from holy water, flowers and plants, or conduct cleansing rituals. The balian ketakson is generally a women who will communicate with spirits (often ancestral) to seek insight into an illness. This is particular useful for chronic illness when other treatments have failed. With knowledge gained through divine blessing, she may heal people through trance possession. Strictly speaking, not all balians are healers, but will provide advice and guidance on how to deal with troubles caused by unseen spirits, or even emotional problems that may be manifesting as physical illness.

My very first ‘healing’ experience in Bali perhaps fell into this category. Dressed in a sarong with a sarin canang (offering) in hand, I arrived at a house in Gianyar and was greeted by Cokorda Bagus Astawa, a wise and kindly man. We sat down facing each other. “Why are you here?” he asked softly “I can see there is nothing wrong with you.” I explained about the recurring problem with my chest – I struggled to breath and felt like I was suffocating. Assuming it was a chest infection I had taken three courses of antibiotics, but the problem remained. A year before I had ended a long-term relationship, “And now I feel lost, its like my spirit is broken,” I told him. “But of course,” he replied, “that is normal, you feel bad because your heart is aching, it will take time to heal.” And with these few simple words a huge weight was lifted, and I realised that I had been denying myself permission to grieve, and that this enormous sense of loss was necessary to honour the most significant relationship of my life. He told me I was storing sadness and negative emotions in my solar plexus, which was creating pressure in my chest. “This part I can help with,” he said reassuringly, as he stabbed my little toe with a stick. It felt like there was blood gushing from my toe, but actually it was emotions that were pouring out as this incredible sadness coursed through my body and passed out through my toe. It was such a relief to finally let go and surrender to this grief, and the pain in my chest disappeared immediately. Of course I still felt sad, but accepted that this was a necessary stage in my journey and learned to made peace with myself, in so doing I shifted into a greater state of harmony and the healing process began. He was right, when it comes to personal loss only time can heal, but you need to let it.

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With the book, and subsequent film, Eat Pray Love the spotlight shone brightly on Bali’s healers, with balian’s such as the books central character, Ketut becoming a ‘must see’ on many tourist itineraries. However, it’s important to remember that a balian is not a tourist attraction or object of curiosity, but rather a well respected member of the community with a crucial role to play, and should be respected accordingly. If you feel like you may benefit from a visit to a balian, find out if you need to make an appointment (not all balians will see tourists,) make sure to dress appropriately (cover your shoulders and legs,) and never point your feet at a healer as this is considered very rude. Most balians accept donations, but do not hand over money directly, either conceal it in a canang (offering) or place the donation in the family temple after the treatment. Be warned, not all healers are genuine so its best to go on personal recommendation and choose the correct type of healer for your predicament.

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Holistic v Western medicine

       

 While there are definite crossovers between western and holistic approaches to health – the two differ fundamentally in concept. To take a very generalised view, western medicine (known as allopathic) tends to focus on diagnosing and treating a specific illness once it occurs – it is designed to attack, and will often use pharmaceutical drugs to do so.  On the other hand, a holistic approach (derived from the Greek word halos for whole,) is not so much a system of  treating illness, but rather a way of preventing it in the first place, by promoting healthy living and integration of mind, body and spirit. It may (but not necessarily) favour alternative therapies or it may be used in conjunction with western treatment. Neither approach needs to be exclusive as each has its strength and weaknesses, so ideally they can be used to complement each other depending on given circumstances. Stay well and healthy and you will get sick less often, and thus have little need for western medicine, but when it comes to a sudden life or death scenario, it is the fast responding, western-trained A & E team who will probably save your life.

Holism

Although the term holism wasn’t coined until the 20th century, the practice dates back thousands of years. Chinese medicine and India’s ancient Ayurvedic traditions emphasised healthy living, while the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were herbalists, using  common plants and herbs for healing. In fact Hippocrates, (a physician in Greece in 400BC) who is  considered to be the father of modern medicine, had one foot in scientific reason and the other in the power of natural healing. He believed that the task of the physician was to help the healing process along rather than to take it over. A holistic approach to health fell out of favour with radical advances in allopathic medicine around the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1970’s it was making a resurgence . While some dismissed this practice as ‘new age,’  actually holism is about as ‘old age’ as it gets.

 

Prevention as a cure

There is, however, no denying the impact of advances in modern medicine, with developments such as antibiotics, neurosurgery, transplants, ultra sound, immunisations and so forth having a radical effect on the quality and quantity of human life. Until the 1800’s the average life expectancy was 30 – 40; in the ten generations since then it has doubled.  Obviously  increased sanitation, access to clean running water and better nutrition have a huge part to play in this shift – but there is no denying the crucial role  allopathic medicine has played.  Nevertheless, a valid argument is  that western medicine treats only the symptoms but not the underlying causes. Take recurring chronic sinusitis. You could take a course of antibiotics every time it occurs, or you could look at what is causing it – maybe a dust allergy, or perhaps too much dairy in your diet. Then by making some lifestyle changes you could prevent it.  Here in lies the difference. With western medicine, you go to the doctor to get healed, with a holistic approach the onus falls on YOU the individual. What about a wheat or dairy intolerance? There is no magic pharmaceutical pill to cure this, only you can heal yourself by changing your diet.

Again, when it comes to common colds and flu, many people will go rushing off to the doctor or pharmacist. But, there is no antibiotic that will attack a viral infection. Paracetemol and decongestants may give temporary relief, however your best bet is to rest, take Vitamin C and eat lots of garlic – which is proved to be anti viral, anti fungal and anti bacterial. In fact, regularly eating garlic in the cold season, or at the first sign of a cold will help prevent you getting ill, while a strong tea infused with ginger, garlic, lemon and honey will provide greater relief than over the counter medicine – and will also fight the virus and strengthen your immune system. Again, the onus is on the individual. If you pay attention to your body you will notice that you tend to get sick when you are run down, stressed or overworked and not eating properly. These are things that most of us can take some control over – should we choose to. We can redress the balance by joining a yoga class, eating well and doing things that make us feel happy.

The beauty of Holism is that it encourages awareness, and responsibility for our  own health, which makes total sense. But no matter how healthy we are, sooner or later we are all exposed to bacteria, succumb to genetic predispositions, or suffer from serious accidents and injuries, and at times there really is no disputing the power of western medicine. Managing chronic asthma is a good example of taking a combined holistic/western approach to well being. Avoiding triggers such as dust, smoking, dairy products and certain foods such as tomatoes can lessen the frequency of attacks, but when a really severe attack hits, the administration of hyrdrocortisone and oxygen in a hospital may be the only thing that prevents respiratory failure. And if your head is split open in a serious car accident – you are probably going to want the skilled neuro surgeon using advanced western techniques to be the one who treats you.

 

Reducing dependency on western medicine and synthetic drugs by  taking responsibility for your own health is a great thing, but  remember that sometimes taking responsibility for your own health means visiting the doctor. While it is well documented that many people successfully treat cancer holistically – your greatest chance of survival is to detect it early (while it is still isolated and treatable) through medical imaging or blood screening.

Perhaps the best way forward is not to debate holistic v western, but rather to embrace the notion of holistic & western.

 

 

Published in Kula Magazine July 2013