Imperialism and Ceremony in Bali

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The following originally appeared on charleseisenstein.net.

After participating in a fire ceremony in Ubud, Bali, I had a few conversations with local people to clarify my feelings about rituals, tourism, and cultural imperialism. On the one hand, the ceremony had an undeniable authenticity and power that affected me deeply. On the other hand, I am grieved by the conversion of traditional customs, arts, ceremonies, and whole cultures into spectacles for tourists to gawk at, photograph, and purchase paraphernalia from, or to acquire as “experiences” in their traveler’s backpack. I wanted to understand whether my very presence there was contributing to that. Maybe we should just stay away from places like Bali, seeing what our money and worldviews do to the fabric of local culture. So I talked to some Balinese to help me find clarity on this.
 
First, let me expand on the problem, which might be summarized as cultural imperialism. What’s that? Well, the essence of political imperialism is to subjugate another land’s government to one’s own. The government of that country becomes no longer its own.
 
Economic imperialism is similar: it turns the subject economy toward serving the interests of the imperialistic power rather than those of its own people, usually by compelling it to grow commodity crops for export, strip its natural resources, and turn its society into a labor pool and a market. The wealth of the country becomes no longer its own.
 
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Fire ritual in Bali. Photo: V. Vasant.

So cultural imperialism, which I see in action everywhere I travel outside the “developed” world, would be to subjugate another culture so that it no longer is its own. (In fact, the very words “developed” and “developing” encode a kind of imperialism, because they imply that “your destination is to be like us.”) An obvious form of cultural imperialism would be to commodify the cultural traditions, ceremonies, handicrafts, and cuisine of the subject culture. When, for example, a traditional ceremony or dance becomes a spectacle put on for paying tourists, it has been removed from its former context and relocated to the category of a product. What is is, really and primarily? Is it to serve gods that are a living reality? Or is it to sell to the tourists?

The essence of responsible tourism is to respect the culture that one visits. To respect it means to value it on its own terms, rather than subordinating to the visitor’s ontological categories and standards of value. That is why photography is often disrespectful. By taking pictures of a ceremony in progress, you are implying that you don’t really take it seriously on its own terms, that its value is as a curiosity piece, an acquisition, a spectacle.
 
When foreigners from developed countries see one’s ceremonies and traditions in that way, it is inevitable that their implicit disrespect will infect the local people themselves. The visitors represent not only a different worldview, but one from a culture that also exercises military, economic, and technological dominance. Cultural, or, if you will, epistemological imperialism says, “We know better than you do” – a message that other forms of dominance seem to verify. They are so rich, so powerful – it would be crazy to doubt that they know better.
 
The traditional world-story of Bali, it seems, is still strong. We asked our driver whether his family practices the fire ceremony at home. “No,” he said, “we use incense instead.” The answer, basically, was not no but yes. And this is not a trivial ceremony. We asked what time of day they perform the ceremony, and he said it could be any time, or even several times a day. “We know that the gods are always watching us, not just five times a day like the Muslims,” he joked. What I took from it is that these are not empty rituals performed as a nod to tradition; for this man, at least, they are a part of culturally ingrained perceptions of the world. Nor do they exist in isolation from non-religious social relationships. They are an integral and inseparable thread in the fabric of life.
 
That is one reason why cultural imperialism usually accompanies economic imperialism. When the fabric of economic life unravels, when commercial relationships replace gift relationships, when work becomes detached from local needs and instead serves the global economy, when local interdependency erodes and people no longer need each other, when livelihoods no longer depend on an intimate connection to the land, then the mythology that reflects and references this kind of life loses its relevancy. When education, hospitals, and the media affirm a worldview that directly contradicts the traditional one, the ceremonies that draw from the old worldview seem antiquated, superstitious, and irrational.In Bali I considered whether my very presence there, as an outsider contributing to the tourism industry and therefore to the monetization of life, were disruptive to the integrity of the culture.
 
One might say that if I don’t go there someone else will; that it is better to be a respectful tourist than to leave tourism to the yahoos. Rampant tourism is not an inevitability however. While it is not realistic – nor do most local people desire it – to cut off all intercourse with the outside world, judicious limits on tourism, such as those implemented in Bhutan, make a lot of sense. They can slow the pace and soften the impact of the dominant global culture’s incursions. In the West we typically decry any limits on travel, on the media, on consumer goods, on advertising, and so on as evidence of political repression: that, for example, is how we characterize Third-world politicians railing on about keeping “Western decadence” out of their countries. But seeing how all of these are creating a global monoculture that is indeed decadent, we may want to reconsider whether “openness” might really mean openness to imperialism in all its forms. No one can look at the crass commercial resorts on Bali’s coast and not think they are decadent.
 
While I had some intellectual reasons to think that my presence there was harmful, I like to trust my feelings on such matters. I was surprised that I didn’t feel uncomfortable at the fire ceremony. Later, in a conversation with another Balinese man, Wira, I was able to articulate why. The officiants of the ceremony were not doing it for show. They weren’t selling us a ceremony or showing us a ceremony. They hadn’t turned it into a product or spectacle and thereby subsumed it within our system of categories. Their attitude was more along the lines of, “The fire ceremony is good for everyone, whether Balinese or foreign.” Their own cosmology was primary. They gave it to us in the spirit of a gift.
 
I said to Wira, “It isn’t only to photograph and say they’ve done it, that Western people go to your ceremonies. There is another reason. You see, in my country most of us no longer understand that rituals hold together the fabric of the world. The worldview we were brought up in says that your ceremonies are just empty gestures attached to superstition. We might value them as cultural objects, but we don’t understand that they are actually a kind of technology that has a powerful effect on the social and material world.
 
“A few of us do understand, but even if we understand it doesn’t do us much good, because we have forgotten our ceremonies, and we have forgotten how to see the world through they eyes of ceremony. That is why we are here, some of us. We recognize that we have something important to learn here. We come in respect and gratitude for the treasure you have kept safe in this corner of the world.”

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 Foreign spectators at an Indonesian ritual in Bali. Photo: N. Murayama.

“Maybe today most Westerners are still here as agents of cultural imperialism, pushing you to make the Bali experience into some kind of tourism product. But that is changing, because our belief in our own superiority is eroding. How can we believe it, when our world is so obviously falling apart? You see, we are experiencing the truth of what you know here – when we stop performing the ceremonies that hold the world together, then everything falls apart. That is what is happening in our country.”
 
Then I told Wira about the obesity, the suicide, the depression, the poverty, the prisons. Western technological culture sees the world in a way that precludes the kind of ceremony that is common in Bali. To perform ceremonies, one has to believe that the universe is alive: not just the plants and animals, but everything: the rocks, the streams, the mountains, the clouds, the forest, the wind, each and every thing. Seeing them as having beingness, as having the qualities of a self, including a kind of intelligence or consciousness, desires, purpose, and a necessary role to play in the unfolding order of the world, then it is quite natural to want to communicate with them, and to believe that they can hear and respond. The Balinese world is alive with gods, and they are watching all the time.
 
Bali’s culture is under pressure, but it is still strong. A long-time expatriate there told me that if anything, the Balinese are responding to the stresses of the impact of the West with more ceremonies, not fewer. In their worldview, the way one responds to social illness is with ceremony.
 
Even though I came to Bali as a tourist (well, a retreat leader), in complicity with the monetization of the culture, I hope that the conversations I had and the attitude I bore had a countervailing effect. Intention is important in such matters. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with visiting another culture if you do it with respect. People have been visiting distant lands for thousands of years. Respect is the opposite of cultural imperialism, because it values the culture on its own terms rather than subordinating it to ones own.
 
Imagine if ETs showed up in our society and began appearing at serious occasions with cameras. “Wait,” you might protest, “we take photographs at our own rituals (such as weddings) all the time.” But that isn’t the kind of ritual I’m talking about. We misunderstand ritual – real rituals are sequences of actions that we experience as more real, not less real, than other activities. They draw their significance and importance from the world-story behind them. A visit to the doctor’s office is a good example. The ritual waiting period, the outer and inner chamber (waiting room and examination room), the ritual ablution the doctor must perform, the disrobing, the body ordeal, the writing of the sacred writ in an arcane language (of pharmacology), the preparatory ritual overseen by an assistant shaman (the nurse) followed by a visit by a fully initiated one (who has undergone a multi-year initiation and ceremonial addition to his name)… this is one of the true rituals of our culture, though it falls short of being a ceremony. We think it isn’t a ritual; we think it is “real,” and can explain each of its components in terms of a world-story (that includes things like germs, insurance, money, etc.) Imagine the effect it would have if strange and technologically super-advanced humanoids showed up in gaggles and groups, asking to watch blood tests, PET scans, and colonoscopies, and even to experience them themselves in order to have an authentic Earth experience, holographically recording all of it, throwing around huge amounts of money, and meanwhile implying that our medical theories were superstitious nonsense by setting up their own healing clinics and schools advancing a knowledge system that seemed, at least superficially, far more powerful. The result would be a devastating loss of confidence in our own medical rituals and their underlying worldview. It wouldn’t help if some well-meaning ETs said, “Oh, you must preserve these beautiful rituals, even if they are based on mere superstition.”
 
This has been a thread in the story of cultural imperialism. The situation is changing now, though, as the power of our own rituals wanes, and the world-story that embeds them crumbles. Many people go to Bali for healing from chronic conditions that modern medicine can only palliate. Emerging from the fog of our old narratives, we are able to appreciate Bali on its own terms. The same goes for any culture that has preserved a worldview alternative to our own.
 
Another way to look at it is that the world-story of the West may be no longer strong enough to conquer all before it. Its hegemony, which compelled the whole world to “modernize” in our image, to think like us and see like us and buy like us and sell like us and join us in laying waste to the planet, is coming to an end. I realize that is a highly optimistic view; that around the world the degradation of traditional culture reaches new extremes. In Bali one sees teenage boys everywhere slouched on motorbikes , smoking cigarettes, barraged with technology and media that alienates them from the culture of their parents and makes them seem backwards. Yet our certainty in our own superiority is waning. The economic and political mechanisms of cultural imperialism operate as before, but their ideological core is hollowing out. The old arrogance is losing its foundation.
 
As the word decadent implies, Western civilization is decaying from the inside. We face a crisis of meaning, a crisis in the world-defining stories that we will someday recognize as myths. Some of the Westerners who come to Bali, and in particular the spiritual center of Ubud, do so for reasons outside the cultural-imperialistic norm. They go there not only for the “experiences” that constitute what the tourism industry calls a product. It is a place that reminds us of what we have lost and, more importantly, can give us a hint of how to recover it. It is perhaps significant that Bali means “gift” in Sanskrit, and Ubud means “medicine.”
 
Each place on earth is a gift and has a gift to give to the world. One of the gifts of Bali, and many other places where old ways still live, is to reawaken the perception of a sacred world in those who have lost it. My own culture has its rituals to be sure, but these draw from and reinforce a world-story that explicitly denies the sacred, seeing the universe as a purposeless melee of force and mass, generic particles and impersonal laws. What distinguishes a ceremony from a ritual, in my mind, is the presence of the sacred – the feeling that one is communicating with a vast intelligence beyond one’s self. The rituals that we call medicine, law, finance, and technology lack that dimension; in they case of technology they explicitly deny it. In the absence of the sacred, we treat the world as just a bunch of stuff. Ultimately we treat ourselves that way too. For our healing, sometimes we need to seek the medicine of a place that relates to the world as sacred. We become no longer tourists, but pilgrims.

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Ketamine vs. Esketamine: 3 Important Differences Explained
Ketamine and esketamine are used to treat depression. But what’s the difference between them? Read to learn which one is right for you: ketamine vs. esketamine.

Guide to Ketamine Treatments: Understanding the New Approach
Ketamine is becoming more popular as more people are seeing its benefits. Is ketamine a fit? Read our guide for all you need to know about ketamine treatments.

Ketamine Treatment for Eating Disorders
Ketamine is becoming a promising treatment for various mental health conditions. Read to learn how individuals can use ketamine treatment for eating disorders.

Ketamine Resources, Studies, and Trusted Information
Curious to learn more about ketamine? This guide includes comprehensive ketamine resources containing books, studies and more.

Ketamine Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to ketamine has everything you need to know about this “dissociative anesthetic” and how it is being studied for depression treatment.

Ketamine for Depression: A Mental Health Breakthrough
While antidepressants work for some, many others find no relief. Read to learn about the therapeutic uses of ketamine for depression.

Ketamine for Addiction: Treatments Offering Hope
New treatments are offering hope to individuals suffering from addiction diseases. Read to learn how ketamine for addiction is providing breakthrough results.

Microdosing Ketamine & Common Dosages Explained
Microdosing, though imperceivable, is showing to have many health benefits–here is everything you want to know about microdosing ketamine.

How to Ease a Ketamine Comedown
Knowing what to expect when you come down from ketamine can help integrate the experience to gain as much value as possible.

How to Store Ketamine: Best Practices
Learn the best ways how to store ketamine, including the proper temperature and conditions to maximize how long ketamine lasts when stored.

How To Buy Ketamine: Is There Legal Ketamine Online?
Learn exactly where it’s legal to buy ketamine, and if it’s possible to purchase legal ketamine on the internet.

How Long Does Ketamine Stay in Your System?
How long does ketamine stay in your system? Are there lasting effects on your body? Read to discover the answers!

How Ketamine is Made: Everything You Need to Know
Ever wonder how to make Ketamine? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how Ketamine is made.

Colorado on Ketamine: First Responders Waiver Programs
Fallout continues after Elijah McClain. Despite opposing recommendations from some city council, Colorado State Health panel recommends the continued use of ketamine by medics for those demonstrating “excited delirium” or “extreme agitation”.

Types of Ketamine: Learn the Differences & Uses for Each
Learn about the different types of ketamine and what they are used for—and what type might be right for you. Read now to find out!

Kitty Flipping: When Ketamine and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Read to explore the mechanics of kitty flipping.

MDMA & Ecstasy Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to MDMA has everything you want to know about Ecstasy from how it was developed in 1912 to why it’s being studied today.

How To Get the Most out of Taking MDMA as a Couple
Taking MDMA as a couple can lead to exciting experiences. Read here to learn how to get the most of of this love drug in your relationship.

Common MDMA Dosage & Microdosing Explained
Microdosing, though imperceivable, is showing to have many health benefits–here is everything you want to know about microdosing MDMA.

Having Sex on MDMA: What You Need to Know
MDMA is known as the love drug… Read our guide to learn all about sex on MDMA and why it is beginning to makes its way into couple’s therapy.

How MDMA is Made: Common Procedures Explained
Ever wonder how to make MDMA? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how MDMA is made.

Hippie Flipping: When Shrooms and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Explore the mechanics of hippie flipping and how to safely experiment.

How Cocaine is Made: Common Procedures Explained
Ever wonder how to make cocaine? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how cocaine is made.

A Christmas Sweater with Santa and Cocaine
This week, Walmart came under fire for a “Let it Snow” Christmas sweater depicting Santa with lines of cocaine. Columbia is not merry about it.

Ultimate Cocaine Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
This guide covers what you need to know about Cocaine, including common effects and uses, legality, safety precautions and top trends today.

NEWS: An FDA-Approved Cocaine Nasal Spray
The FDA approved a cocaine nasal spray called Numbrino, which has raised suspicions that the pharmaceutical company, Lannett Company Inc., paid off the FDA..

The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Bioavailability
What is bioavailability and how can it affect the overall efficacy of a psychedelic substance? Read to learn more.

Cannabis Research Explains Sociability Behaviors
New research by Dr. Giovanni Marsicano shows social behavioral changes occur as a result of less energy available to the neurons. Read here to learn more.

The Cannabis Shaman
If recreational and medical use of marijuana is becoming accepted, can the spiritual use as well? Experiential journalist Rak Razam interviews Hamilton Souther, founder of the 420 Cannabis Shamanism movement…

Cannabis Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to Cannabis has everything you want to know about this popular substances that has psychedelic properties.

Cannabis and Ayahuasca: Mixing Entheogenic Plants
Cannabis and Ayahuasca: most people believe they shouldn’t be mixed. Read this personal experience peppered with thoughts from a procannabis Peruvian Shaman.

CBD-Rich Cannabis Versus Single-Molecule CBD
A ground-breaking study has documented the superior therapeutic properties of whole plant Cannabis extract as compared to synthetic cannabidiol (CBD), challenging the medical-industrial complex’s notion that “crude” botanical preparations are less effective than single-molecule compounds.

Cannabis Has Always Been a Medicine
Modern science has already confirmed the efficacy of cannabis for most uses described in the ancient medical texts, but prohibitionists still claim that medical cannabis is “just a ruse.”

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