The Bali high priestess is chanting over the water, turning it into holy water. When she finishes, she calls us forward in twos and threes, for the purification ceremony.
She chants as she pours water over the heads of three young men, first from a golden cup, then from a small metal pitcher.
It doesn’t look too bad, kind of like taking a shower. The water is cold, but the day is hot and sticky, and we’ve been waiting for over an hour in the heat. The cold water will be welcome.
My friend and I step forward for our turn to be purified. The high priestess asks us to breathe deeply and close our eyes. As the first cup of water hits me, I gasp and start to shake. Like in the movies, when holy water touches a demon or vampire, it is a physical shock to my system.
As more water runs over my face, I feel terror take over. I might die if this doesn’t stop. I take a step back and open my eyes, fighting the urge to flee. “I can’t” I whisper up to the priestess on her platform above.
“Listen to me” she says calmly, her eyes filled with compassion. “Let it go”, she tells me.
I shake my head, watch as she pours pitcher after pitcher of water over my friend beside me. I start to cry. I cannot endure that. My friend is stamping her feet, gasping and shaking.
“Close your eyes” she tells me. “Not the water” I beg her. She pours the small cup over the top of my head, telling me to wash my face. I do this as another involuntary gasp comes. I have no explanation for why my body is reacting this way.
I realise that if I hold my hands over my forehead, the water doesn’t come down my face and I feel more able to cope. She chants and says more words over me as the water runs down my shoulders, but the only one I register is ‘compassion’.
Afterwards my friend and I stumble into the temple to pray, holding hands and clinging to each other, me sobbing and her drenched to the skin. “What just happened?” she says, digging out rescue remedy for us both.
I put my feet in the grass while the flower essence does its work. My heart stops racing and my shaking subsides, but the tears keep flowing.
Others who go through ceremony after me are all visibly affected in some way, shouting or retching or looking blissful. My friend has energy buzzing through her like electricity.
The Balinese tell me that having a hard time with the ritual means I have released something bad, but I didn’t complete the ritual so I’m not convinced of this. I am still mostly dry.
For me it feels like the familiar overwhelm of a traumatised nervous system. This sudden awakening was a shock. It is the astonishment of birth, the jolt of entering the world, coming to life.
My friend tells me that one of the things the high priestess said to me was ‘let go of the abuse and have compassion for yourself’. How did she know?
Flashes of early experience come into my mind – having my head forced under the shower to have my hair washed while I screamed in terror. Falling sideways in the bath and the bubbles covering my face, my screams being ignored because my mother was putting on her makeup. Being thrown into the deep end of the public pool by the neighbours, sinking beneath all the legs around me, and then being pulled out by my laughing parents.
My nervous system learned to numb the terror early. I have been gently rewiring my brain , building my capacity to feel, and as I do, the grief for what being numb has cost me is rising. There is sorrow in realising how little of life has been allowed into my days, how frightening it is to feel it.
The high priestess has given me a wake up call. I didn’t know what was beneath the surface, but she did. The grief for all that has gone unacknowledged, the realisation that living fully has felt like death. Because it was once.
When your life force shines too brightly for those around you, and those around you are your caregivers, then you learn to turn your light down, way down, to a simple spark.
You are required to serve as their shadow, not shine brighter than they can bear. To do this, when you depend on their care as a very young person, is life threatening.
This is the holy gift of the water: to remember life, to want to wake up, to learn to live again.Share