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The last sunset I saw in Bali

Coming off my three week adventure to Bali, I can admit: returning to New York City haunted me the whole time. Not only because I faced a 28-hour flight (with eight-hour layover in an obscure Southern Chinese Airport where the barely functioning WiFi restricted all access to Facebook, Instagram, or the New York Times). But because it meant that fairytale, find-your-soul, fun time would be over, and I would be faced with the question: “So, do you feel refreshed?”

And: “Are you ready to get back to work?”

I met many people in a similar state of simmering dread while vacationing in Bali — they were taking their ‘well-deserved’ R&R underneath the shadow of coming back to reality. There were also those ex-pats who committed to drifting on one-way-tickets-to-who-knows-where-next, but that’s not so much my style. After three weeks of traveling, I was homesick for my apartment, my dog, complaining and loving and living in NYC, and getting back to creating my new future here, whatever it may be.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of synchronicity. The idea that things happen for a reason. And yet, I have found myself again and again in environments that curate a sense of spontaneity, letting go of planning, and trusting in whatever comes up. Places like Burning Man, or Esalen, or Bali…where events sometime seem to fall in place effortlessly. Such as after a fruitless day of searching for my friend on the playa at Burning Man and giving up, I grab a coffee at center camp and end up in line right next to her. Or I stumble into a life-changing event…like what happened on my last day in Ubud, Bali.

In Ubud, there is a place called 9 Angels. A hidden Never-Neverland tucked away down a barely-marked alley (except for a white painted sign of 9 and a cryptic symbol of an angel). Follow the alleyway to an outdoor playground of the imagination, with a fully-stocked vegetarian buffet (all payment by donation), a dance floor replete with musical instruments and weekly tango lessons, a garden with hammocks galore on which to snore, books and art to inspire, unique clothing and artifacts on display — every nook and cranny touched by wonder and whimsy. It is my top recommendation for visiting Ubud, a secret place to recoup from the tourism throngs and maverick scooter drivers.

And so, on my last day in Ubud, I first went to The Yoga Barn for a final class to center myself, but it was closed for repairs. Aimless, I decided to kill some time at 9 Angels. I arrived around noon. I was the only person there. Except, as soon as I sit down, I recognized the owner of 9 Angels — Thony — hidden behind a tree, smoking a Sampoerna cigarette. I’ve never spoken a word to this man; I’ve just noticed his photo hanging around the place on flyers for some sort of therapeutic workshop he teaches. I nod politely and turn to isolate myself when he says, “Who are you?”

I expect a cordial give-and-take of hellos: “I love your place; you’ve built such a wonderful retreat; etc.” He cuts directly to asking why I am here in Ubud. I explain I’m restoring myself. He asks why. I say, well there’s been some exhaustion, some trauma in the past I think I’m still working through. Trauma, eh? What is your trauma? We slide instantly into one of the most raw conversations of my life. He’s whip-smart. So am I. I’m enjoying our repartee from the get-go. I whirl my mouth off all about my troubles. He nods and continually says, “Good.” Again and again: “Good.” I’ve never told someone how my life sucked and had that person say “Good.” “It is all learning,” he says. He waves his cigarette, drawing in the air, and says he can help me, but it will take at least two hours, and once we begin, we can not stop. I say let’s do it. He says when. I say how about right now. He says see you in ten minutes.

“Imagine a timeline,” Thony begins. “You can see a road laid out before and behind you. What color is it?”

“White and lit-up from inside, like the road in The Wiz,” I reply.

“Good. Now in front is the future, in the back is your past. You can float above it and travel to any point and safely return to exactly where you are now. This is called Timeline therapy, and it will encompass five steps. There are three you can do on your own, whenever you need, but one step you must promise never to do without a person to help you. Agree? Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Then we begin.

I first write down on paper every idea about myself that I feel is holding me back, how those ideas manifest in actions, and where perhaps I learned these behaviors: from a parent, from a bully, from work, from wherever (despite this story already dipping into quasi therapy territory, I’m not going to copy and paste what I wrote).

Then I write down all my positive qualities and how I manifest them in what I do and share with the world.

Then I write down my limiting beliefs and behaviors.

(Then I write down a bunch of very important other things about myself I desperately want to recall right now but which I can’t because they were only recorded on paper and well…just do not ever give me hard pieces of paper to keep; I lose every piece of paper I am ever given; I am a digital man; and so naturally all the records from this life-changing event are somewhere lost in Bali. Whoops! I’m writing this from memory.)

All of this self-reflecting comes expeditiously to me. I’ve always intellectually understood what bothered me about myself. But feeling it is another thing. Acting on it is even harder. Changing it — God help me. If I don’t have someone to guide me, I fall into the same routines and then feel guilty about my lack of discipline to make a change. I’m starting to believe that knowing something intellectually about yourself, but not being able to act to change it, is really the same thing as not knowing it at all.

With this roadmap of vomited out truth before us, we begin:

Step 1: Look into your future. Thony asks me to imagine a point of time in the coming year. Hover above the Timeline until you reach that point. Do you like what you see? If you don’t like what you see, take it out and replace it with what you want to happen. I see myself in a complicated state of affairs. Struggling to achieve new work and life goals with some minor successes, still caught in old behaviors and making baby steps toward changing them; but feeling like I’m in a melancholy limbo, determined but plodding away. I see myself partnered with perhaps my first real long-term relationship, but we could be on the rocks because I’m still too immature to fully realize it. Basically, I’m dreaming of a compromise between what I wish for and what I fear things will realistically be. It’s perhaps a safe vision, a pragmatic vision, and it’s depressing as hell to me. Why am I choosing to project this complicated story — is this mixed bag of an outcome something I really want to manifest in my life? Would it be possible to imagine things turning out idealistically (with an understanding that they probably…no definitely…won’t turn out that way), but choose to dream of the most hopeful future possible? Is that a delusional strategy? Would that be just setting myself up for disappointment? Or could that vision inspire me? Can I give myself the permission to think that everything I want is possible and that I don’t have to brace for mediocrity out of a fear I will fail? I take a couple breaths and then mentally snip out the parts of the Timeline that bother me and replace them with fresh images infused with a sense of promise, even if things aren’t perfect. I return to the present, and I feel lighter — the dread of returning to NYC alleviated…just a bit. Who knew you can just decide to be wholly optimistic about the future?

Step 2. Write down a recent moment you felt anger, fear, sadness, guilt intensely (this is the one step not to try on your own). Look into your past to find the first memory that comes to mind of each emotion. The memory can be from way, way back when…even from “before I was born” (though I don’t really get what that means). For each emotion, my subconscious spits out images that range from traumatic (my mom dying on my birthday) to events I can’t believe I even remember (being the laughing stock of the T-Ball game in 4th grade when I got hit by a baseball in the face, broke down crying, and quit the team on the spot). In each instance, I travel back to the initial memory, face it on timeline, and wait until I have fully experienced the feeling of the memory in my body. I then hover above the event, imagining myself lifting farther and farther upwards above the timeline until I see it as just a minuscule moment in a long life. I go upwards until I no longer feel the emotion—and then I float back into the heart of the event to check for any left-over emotion, to double-check my progress. Then it’s back to the present, traveling through and releasing each subsequent time I have ever felt the same negative emotion and reactionary responses that protected me from re-experiencing the pain. I realize that I’ve been reliving arguments and conflicts with ghosts. These people and events don’t exist anymore — except in my head — and while it’s useful to reflect on what I learned from them, it’s just torturing myself to relive them. And then I’m back in Ubud and voila — I’m not feeling the weight of that emotion anymore. The results are precipitous — I rated the intensity of each emotion on a scale of 1 to 10 before and afterwards, and I see my pain release from a “9–10” to a “1–2.” This process takes an uninterrupted three hours of reliving emotions. I’m chain-smoking cigarettes. I’m wrung out. Things go quicker toward the end, only because I’m so train-wrecked by exhaustion, my ego can’t put up the fight to hold onto the past anymore.

Step 3. Facing Anxiety. Thony takes me through this step in about five minutes. It’s simple: whenever you feel anxious about something upcoming, just imagine a tangible end of the event having gone not as you dread it will, but just fine. If you are dreading that 28-hour return flight, imagine yourself soaring through it stress-free, sleeping most of the trip, landing safely, getting your bag in hand, and making it home in no time. It may or may not turn out that way — but you are reducing the need to worry about any problems until there is actually something you need to worry about. I tend to anticipate 99% of things going wrong out of a need to protect myself for all possible scenarios — but really this just proves to be an endless energy drain and does not serve a purpose in improvising my life. Boom. Anxiety gone.

Step 4. Look into your limiting beliefs or behaviors. This one we go to my initial writings, looking at where I disapprove of myself and encourage self-sabotating behaviors. Why do I set myself up to fail and be miserable?Perhaps out of self-pity, or buried rage, or wanting the world to give me an apology for life being unfair (whatever that means). Maybe I can appreciate these limiting behaviors being born from a need to protect myself from a challenging and unfair world. Maybe I can even be grateful for my fears and pain — they are the reasons I have learned so much in my life up until this point. Thony asks me to re-phrase my limiting behaviors as corresponding positive ones, framing each around the qualities I originally described loving about myself. If I see myself as a selfish or self-centered person, can I turn that coin over and believe in the power of taking care of myself, so I can meet my needs and be more present with others? Can I have empathy for these limiting behaviors and then choose to flip them to serve my strengths? Yes.

Step 5. The final step: creating a future you want. Call up an extremely specific image to match a dream of yours, something definitive that would be the step right before you realize this dream. If you want 10,000 followers on to read and follow what you write— then imagine the moment when you get that 10,000th follower. Imagine exactly where you are sitting, the time of day, what are you wearing, and the last story you wrote that moved someone to engage with you. Take that image, walk up to your timeline and put it firmly in the future. Paint a frame around it. Toss on some glitter. Dress it up however you feel. And now you have given yourself a specific, tangible picture of the moment before your success, an image you can quickly call up whenever you need it.

Six hours later, we are finished. Thony spent six hours with me, a stranger. I tried to pay him for his time and he refused, asking me instead to spend the money on a nice gift from Bali for my best friend getting married (I did). I thanked him, many times over, and haltingly made my way home. I was bowled over, and I felt a strange buzzing in the middle of my forehead around what I know people call your ‘third eye.” I have never experienced something like it; it was pulsing involuntarily; this was real, not imaginary, throbbing in rhythm with my heart beat. I just sat in silence in my homestay, feeling the sensations, light-headed, curious about my surroundings, and absolutely free of worry. Then, I slept very well.

On my flight home, I wrote down that my new job is to work on myself. To not assume my recurring negative patterns will just take care of themselves unconsciously in NYC if I go back to constantly busying myself and staying occupied with whatever distracts me from my feelings. These limiting behaviors will persist unless I pay attention to them. So, my new job is to have the courage and discipline to finally work on me, putting myself and my needs first. Look to separate and create some boundaries in the parts of my life: between spending time to make money, spending time to express my art and creativity (and hopefully make some money from that also!), spending time on love and friendship, and saving some time for doing nothing but holding space to feel gratitude for myself and the ones I love. Can I let go of evaluating whether my life is a success or failure solely in terms of my external accomplishments (and the criticism or acclaim they receive)? Can I instead focus on and evaluate what’s going on inside me…and even perhaps change how I deal with external stressors by first giving myself time to process things internally. Engage with life more thoughtfully, without just automatically reeling and reacting and worrying about what may be.

Synchronicity is a tough idea to swallow in a city like New York, where it feels like the status quo is pushing a boulder up a hill with one hand while counting on the other all possible contingency plans for everything horrifically falling apart. In the past, I have only breathed a sigh of release when events are in the past and I know for sure I’m not going to get burned…and then I start to immediately worry about the next hill to climb. Some of my cynicism remains. I mean — look at this bleeding-heart story! I almost feel embarrassed. Can there really be such a thing as synchronicity, where things just align when you stop trying so hard to make them so? Can you really manifest things just falling into place by seeing the future more positively? Is The Secret on sale this week at Barnes and Noble? Does Barnes and Noble even exist anymore?

When I’ve come back from previous life-changing experiences, I’ve normally flaunted my adventures, acting euphoric, declaring to everyone how I was 100% changed— and every time the glow faded. I feel different this time — it feels like a more muted transition, and it doesn’t promise to be easy or simple. I could write that I worry this post-vacation glow will fade as it has in the past. However, I realize I have the power to choose the stories I tell about anything. This whole ‘life-changing event in Bali’ could register as bullshit in my brain. The goals I’ve committed to — actually working on myself every day — could fall away if I sell the story that, “Well, I came back refreshed, and boy I tried but I just couldn’t maintain my high.” Or I begin spinning a tale of how “hard NYC is to achieve mindfulness — it just isn’t possible for me outside of spiritual places. I can’t live here!” All of these ideas reinforce my limiting behaviors—but now, when I start the runaway doomsday train in my brain, I can interrupt it with gratitude and see myself having made it safely and surely to the end of the station. I can feel gratitude everyday for every little thing: good, bad, boring, thrilling. There is no reason to anticipate everything turning out poorly or mediocre. Shit will happen whether you anticipate it or not (who knows, maybe you will get bedbugs out of the blue…I did…five days before I left for Bali!), but you can handle it; you can deal; you can even be grateful for catastrophes because they teach you the most about who you are.

I can’t think of a single circumstance so far that I didn’t survive. After all, I’m alive and typing this right now.

Goodbye Bali, and see you soon I hope.

PS: Check out 9 Angels when you are in Ubud, Bali:

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