Why I left the US and my Rebirth on BaliJul 03, 2023
My family and I are enroute back to the United States for the summer break. It’s been a year since we relocated to Bali, and I’m in a reflective mood. I’m often asked why I left in the first place and what life on the sacred island has been like?
One reason I left the US was to give my boys the mind expanding, international experience that I had growing up in Hong Kong. I’m happy to report that after a year on Bali the boys are thriving at the Green School, a wall-less environment and mentality that values eco-sustainability, the innate learning styles of each child, as well as practical and hand-on experiences with real world application. The boys are no longer captive in a concrete jungle, being spoon fed right-left extreme ideologies, trained to sit long hours memorizing data and facts, put on a cocktail of potent medications to control the entirely appropriate symptoms of their soul screaming out how unnatural their world has become. Rather, they’re being raised without walls, in sacred ceremony, barefoot immersed in nature, with their imaginations inhabiting their young rambunctious bodies rightfully encouraged to play and run wild. Nearly every parent I’ve met shared the same heroic story as Emily and I, of selling their homes and possession, saying goodbye to friends and family, and jumping into the unknow for a chance to start a new life. Watching Pema graduate two weeks ago from kindergarten in a beautiful Balinese ceremony, was confirmation that all the sacrifices have been worthwhile.
The second reason we left was that we wanted to escape the ever divisive culture wars. I started to feel suffocated by the encroaching political polarization, censorship, and unceasing barrage of bipartisan propaganda forming a media gauntlet of fear and intolerance. Reading the astrology for the United States as it experiences its Pluto Return (born 1776, a 248 year cycle), I’m convinced this will be an enduring (several years long), necessary process of systemic collapse and civil unrest as things get worse before they get better.
Perhaps the most important reason was that my soul needed to #followthemagic that still exists on the island of the gods. Balinese culture remains steeped in tradition, mysticism, and harmony with the ecology. When I was here scouting Bali in February 2022 I was following synchronicity and the stars, and indeed the portals to the netherworld opened. Wisdom keeper Tjok Gde Kerhtyasa, prince of Ubud, whom I’ve affectionally dubbed the Wizard of Bali, received me with open arms, and guided me through with unfettered access the most beautiful and sacred sites of the island. Our inspiring adventures together are chronicled in my forthcoming book Return with Elixir, which I look forward to sharing with you, and a smaller group will get to meet the Wizard in person on our upcoming pilgrimage to Bali this September 2023.
Moving to Bali has not been without challenges and my pix on Instagram rarely tell the whole story. I’ll spare you the mundane obvious trials one expects when moving to a foreign, less developed country, rife with corruption. Perhaps the most unanticipated experience was the slow-creep of my ego death. Beware what you wish for. When I left the US I was exhausted, and in desperate need of a change. The production and consumption treadmill had worn me down, and the incessant ambition of building and maintaining momentum in my professional career, constantly developing new products and services, had taken its toll. Don’t get me wrong, I love my work as a psychotherapist, I invest greatly in my clients, have derived tremendous meaning from building programs at Nalanda Institute, and I am proud of what we accomplished with Contemplative Studies Program before for we closed it, converting it to a life raft and refuge in the cloud during the pandemic. But by the end of the pandemic, I had nothing left in the tank, and rather than force my way through yet another year of more productivity, I did the harder thing, the more terrifying thing, and just pulled the plug.
Guided by a new mythological perspective, my move to Bali was also a voluntary dissolution and death, for a chance at rebirth. Sounds poetic on paper, doesn’t it? But it is only when you arrive into the deafening silence of an unknown world, where no one knows you, when the phone stops ringing, the next project is not even conceived of to get off the ground, when the treadmill of productivity itself comes to a sudden standstill, that you realize just how compulsively driven you have been all these years. I was so focused on what was coming next, that I was was missing out on my life and precious time with my kids at their most critical phase in life. Many of us know a small taste of this, it usually happens on day nine of a ten-day vacation, or day four of a ten-day vipassana retreat, when you realize just how chronically stressed, uptight, and disconnected you are. For me, there was no going back to the old way of doing business, the old life, because quite literally the businesses, home, and my public persona had largely been relinquished.
Instead, there was only a slow and steady descent into the underworld, like an enduring psychedelic trip without substances, first losing my orientation and external bearings, then facing my deep seeded fears of rejection and irrelevance, my long-standing yearnings for recognition, and most glaring, how compensatory behaviors to defend against these vulnerabilities conspired to solidify and prop up my identity irrespective of the consequences. Who was I without my career and social network? Our social context, our environment, and our work life are the very milieux that mirrors and define us. To alter this context in a sustained way, is utterly disorienting. At least when you come off a plant medicine ceremony, meditation retreat, or pilgrimage you can go back to some semblance of your old identity and life. But what if you literally don’t return home?
For me I was lost for months. The hours after my early morning therapy calls and getting the kids ready for school were extremely long. Other than writing the book I had no long term focal point. For the first time in my life no destination on the horizon. No spinning wheel to keep me in motion. No social network or Amazon deliveries to distract me. No self-aggrandizing scheme to cathect or satisfy my unconscious impulses. Nothing to chase. Time can be a double-edged sword. The alure of the verdant rice fields of the village eventually became redundant, and I entered a period of karmic purification in which my past trauma - successfully kept at bay with my incessant pursuits - finally broke through the levees like the rising rivers during hurricane Katrina. Bali is situated in the so-called Ring of Fire, it is literally and metaphorically a place of volcanic eruptions, tectonic shifts, a constant dance of death and rebirth, forcing you to adapt to groundlessness. People live here day by day, far less consumed by the externalities like career or building empire. There is more time for introspection and nurturing the soul. The spiritual energy is extreme and potent in both directions, you are visited by angels and breakthroughs, but you must also feed demons and experience breakdowns like never before. Here madness is the companion of creativity, chaos and insight walk hand in hand. You cannot taste the nectar without facing the shadow.
Of course, one advantage I had during this process, is that I was writing a book on death and rebirth based on a weaving of esoteric traditions East and West. I was living Elixir as I wrote it. Following the stars, embodying mythology, heeding the guidance of Buddha, Campbell, and Jung, turning myself over to the unconscious, and relying on the bardo map of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These tools didn’t entirely ameliorate the fear or despair of surrendering my old life and identity-habits, while losing my mind, but they did offer safe direction when things got dark and tumultuous. There were days I wanted to give up, but I understood what was happening to me in the labyrinth, had the hero’s thread to follow, and the resolve not to quit. In Buddhism, we call this confidence born of finding true refuge.
Now I’m back in the US for the summer break after a year of metamorphosis. What is my message, my elixir, after such an enduring decedent? I’ll save those details for the book when it launches, and we can go through them together in good time. But I’ll say this for now, the archetypal ocean we are all swimming in is one of death and rebirth, as the world collapses, we are all entering the bardo. And while you may not sell your house and all your possession to move to Bali, something in your life will undoubtedly have to change; it will either rudely break when you least expect it or you will surrender it voluntarily in advance, to make room for something new to grow. Hopefully it will lead you to a life that is more humble, simple, sustainable, and spiritually enriching. Perhaps that’s already taking place, or it will occur soon enough. There is a choice point upon us. Nothing comes easy, everything has a price, but the journey is itself the destination that changes us, so I hope you will embark on the path less traveled. When that time comes for you to cross the threshold into the unknow bardo between worlds, to face whatever demons lurk in the darkness, as well as the light of your own soul, I hope my nearly four-year journey teaching and writing the Elixir will be there to support your journey home.