Accidental Grace - Divinity

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Accidental Grace

My final story comes from Bali—from a culture that does creativity quite differently than we do it here in the West. This story was told to me by my old friend and teacher Ketut Liyer, a medicine man who took me under his wing years ago, to share with me his considerable wisdom and grace.

As Ketut explained to me, Balinese dance is one of the world’s great art forms. It is exquisite, intricate, and ancient. It is also holy. Dances are ritually performed in temples, as they have been for centuries, under the purview of priests. The choreography is vigilantly protected and passed from generation to generation. These dances are intended to do nothing less than to keep the universe intact. Nobody can claim that the Balinese do not take their dancing seriously.

Back in the early 1960s, mass tourism reached Bali for the first time. Visiting foreigners immediately became fascinated with the sacred dances. The Balinese are not shy about showing off their art, and they welcomed tourists to enter the temples and watch the dancing. They charged a small sum for this privilege, the tourists paid, and everyone was happy.

As touristic interest in this ancient art form increased, however, the temples became overcrowded with spectators. Things got a bit chaotic. Also, the temples were not particularly comfortable, as the tourists had to sit on the floor with the spiders and dampness and such. Then some bright Balinese soul had the terrific idea to bring the dancers to the tourists, instead of the other way around. Wouldn’t it be nicer and more comfortable for the sunburned Australians if they could watch the dances from, say, a resort’s swimming pool area, instead of from inside a damp, dark temple? Then the tourists could have a cocktail at the same time and really enjoy the entertainment! And the dancers could make more money, because there would be room for bigger audiences.

So the Balinese started performing their sacred dances at the resorts, in order to better accommodate the paying tourists, and everyone was happy.

Actually, not everyone was happy.

The more high-minded of the Western visitors were appalled. This was desecration of the sublime! These were sacred dances! This was holy art! You can’t just do a sacred dance on the profane property of a beach resort—and for money, no less! It was an abomination! It was spiritual, artistic, and cultural prostitution! It was sacrilege!

These high-minded Westerners shared their concerns with the Balinese priests, who listened politely, despite the fact that the hard and unforgiving notion of “sacrilege” does not translate easily into Balinese thinking. Nor are the distinctions between “sacred” and “profane” quite so unambiguous as they are in the West. The Balinese priests were not entirely clear as to why the high-minded Westerners viewed the beach resorts as profane at all. (Did divinity not abide there, as well as anywhere else on earth?) Similarly, they were unclear as to why the friendly Australian tourists in their clammy bathing suits should not be allowed to watch sacred dances while drinking mai tais. (Were these nice-seeming and friendly people undeserving of witnessing beauty?)

But the high-minded Westerners were clearly upset by this whole turn of events, and the Balinese famously do not like to upset their visitors, so they set out to solve the problem.

The priests and the masters of the dance all got together and came up with an inspired idea—an idea inspired by a marvelous ethic of lightness and trust. They decided that they would make up some new dances that were not sacred, and they would perform only these certified “divinity-free” dances for the tourists at the resorts. The sacred dances would be returned to the temples and would be reserved for religious ceremonies only.

And that is exactly what they did. They did it easily, too, with no drama and no trauma. Adapting gestures and steps from the old sacred dances, they devised what were essentially gibberish dances, and commenced performing these nonsense gyrations at the tourist resorts for money. And everyone was happy, because the dancers got to dance, the tourists got to be entertained, and the priests earned some money for the temples. Best of all, the high-minded Westerners could now relax, because the distinction between the sacred and the profane had been safely restored.

Everything was in its place—tidy and final.

Except that it was neither tidy nor final.

Because nothing is ever really tidy or final.

The thing is, over the next few years, those silly new meaningless dances became increasingly refined. The young boys and girls grew into them, and, working with a new sense of freedom and innovation, they gradually transformed the performances into something quite magnificent. In fact, the dances were becoming rather transcendent. In another example of an inadvertent séance, it appeared that those Balinese dancers—despite all their best efforts to be completely unspiritual—were unwittingly calling down Big Magic from the heavens, anyhow. Right there by the swimming pool. All they’d originally intended to do was entertain tourists and themselves, but now they were tripping over God every single night, and everyone could see it. It was arguable that the new dances had become even more transcendent than the stale old sacred ones.

The Balinese priests, noticing this phenomenon, had a wonderful idea: Why not borrow the new fake dances, bring them into the temples, incorporate them into the ancient religious ceremonies, and use them as a form of prayer?

In fact, why not replace some of those stale old sacred dances with these new fake dances?

So they did.

At which point the meaningless dances became holy dances, because the holy dances had become meaningless.

And everyone was happy—except for those high-minded Westerners, who were now thoroughly confused, because they couldn’t tell anymore what was holy and what was profane. It had all bled together. The lines had blurred between high and low, between light and heavy, between right and wrong, between us and them, between God and earth . . . and the whole paradox was totally freaking them out.

Which I cannot help but imagine is what the trickster priests had in mind the entire time.