How A Traditional Balinese Fire Ceremony Transformed My Spiritual Beliefs
When a distant friend offered to help me jumpstart my travel dreams by showing me around Bali, where he lived at the time, I said yes without hesitation. I had waited too long for my journey to begin. It was time.
The entire trip was magical – it literally changed my life and my worldview – but there was one special evening in particular that I will never ever forget. My friend had connections to the organizers of a special spiritual yoga retreat and he asked if I wanted to attend with him. In addition to kundalini and spiritual cleansing, we would get to participate in a traditional Balinese fire healing ceremony known as Agni Hotra.
Uh, yeah, I wanted to go. An amazing spiritual Balinese experience for free? Why wouldn’t I? I looked forward to that particular evening with curious anticipation. I’d never done any kind of holistic cleansing before, but I was more than ready.
The event stretched from the afternoon into the night, but it felt as if time stood still. We arrived in the most beautiful place imaginable, tucked back securely from the main roads among rice paddies and free-roaming livestock. The yoga center’s open-air, thatched-roof huts sat nestled in thickets of bamboo and the squawks of jungle birds rang out around us. Serene and uniquely comforting, it proved the perfect backdrop for the intensely emotional experience awaiting me.
The fire ceremony would take place after nightfall. Before we got to the main event, we went through a hybrid program of Native American and Eastern healing rituals. The woman leading the retreat, Olga, had this lovely, open, otherworldly quality about her face. As soon as I met her, I sensed something special about her. Her eyes were large, blue, simultaneously gentle and penetrating.
After we were smudged with burning sage to cleanse our bodies and minds, we entered the main meditation hut one-by-one to meet Olga for the first time. The moment I met her gaze, I felt that she could see right down deep into my soul. She does claim to be clairvoyant. It unsettled me, but I went with it. She stared into my face, asking me what my deepest fears were, and I felt somehow compelled to speak truthfully.
Tears pouring down my face, I sobbed freely as she rhythmically pounded a drum to cleanse me with sound. Then, she gave me private words of wisdom and applied sacred ointment to my sternum. Before I knew what was happening, I was heaving and screaming and crying all at once. I bent over at the waist and howled out all my pain and frustration. It was frightening yet wildly freeing.
Much happened between that moment and the fire ceremony, but none of it stands out in my memory the same way as those two rituals. Our Balinese healer did not appear until night fell with velvety insistence over the surrounding wilderness. He was small, thin, unassuming, with a smooth, ageless face and long black hair tied up into a bun low on his neck. I ended up behind him for the majority of the ceremony and could not see his face, but felt his presence powerfully all the same.
After hours of chanting in Sanskrit, repeating mantras and throwing offerings of grains and flowers into the flames, we took the pieces of paper on which we had previously written everything we wanted to banish from our lives and burned them as a symbol of soul cleansing. We were covered in rice and flowers and water that the healer had blessed with mantras. I was exhausted but exhilarated.
I had no idea that the most remarkable moment of my life was yet to come.
Once again, we lined up one-by-one, this time to sit with the healer and receive his personal blessing. I went dead last, acutely aware that the others in attendance paid a good amount of money for this retreat. I watched each and every interaction before mine with fascination, confused by the reactions spreading across the faces of the suddenly familiar people surrounding me. What was happening?
When I got my turn, I finally understood.
We sat cross-legged, facing each other. His smile was gentle and serene. I followed the actions I had seen over and over already, accepting his blessings as he sprinkled holy water on my head, afterwards sipping it from my own hands. I can still recall the faintly perfumed scent of the flowers floating on the surface of the water bowl. I cupped my palms, reaching down into the vessel yet again, this time drenching my own head and face with the refreshingly cool liquid.
The healer smiled reassuringly once more as he dipped his hand into a jar of special ointment. As he placed one finger on my forehead with a smudge of the substance and held it there, I closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure what I expected to experience. I felt calm, steady, happy, but nothing unusual.
Then the magic happened. Removing his fingertip from my third eye, he took another liberal dab from the pot and held it right in the middle of my sternum. Eyes still shut, I suddenly felt the most amazing sensation I’ve ever experienced.
Even if I could describe it adequately, no one would understand unless they’d felt it themselves. It was as if everything in my brain zipped together to focus on one microscopic point and the entire universe was there in sync with me. I felt my eyes roll way back into my head and I let a gleeful smile spread across my face. That was the moment in which I truly began believing that humans can carry special spiritual powers.
My epiphany ended too soon, and I couldn’t stop grinning as the healer mirrored my expression, his teeth and eyes flashing white in the flicker of the fire’s dying embers. We understood each other fully in that instant. He twisted three strings together, blessed them, and tied them around my left wrist. They are still there to this day. I dread the moment that string breaks, unsure of what it means symbolically.
I could say so much more, but I will leave it at that. I’ve been a changed woman since that moment. It added a dimension to my spirituality and my belief in the interconnectedness of the world that I now always carry with me. It may sound cheesy, but I found something special deep within myself that evening. I’ve felt more confident and beautiful and joyful ever since. I had no idea that I would walk away with such a priceless gift.