I WAS TALKING with Fahmi, who is from a village in West Java and came to Bali to work. Curious, I asked which he preferred. Was Ubud, with it’s art and foreign tourists and stimulation, interesting to him? Or would he rather be living in his village? He didn’t hesitate. “My village,” he said. “But there is no work. I would not have come here except to work. It’s lonely here. I go back to visit whenever I can.”
“Americans often leave home to work or to experience other places,” I told him, “but most of us don’t have a village to return to.” I felt wistful as I said it, and he looked at me with sympathy.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time the last number of years living as a foreigner for extended periods. Doing so changes things. There have been riches: it has deepened my sense of connection to the world at large and opened my mind to other ways of living and being and loving. More and more, I feel humanity as one giant family–not as an idea, but as a daily experience. And I’ve gained perspective –a platform from which to observe the assumptions informing American culture that would be difficult to see clearly if I were mired in daily life there.
This has its downside. The most difficult is a strange sense of exile. I no longer feel at home in America. I am too aware of blind spots in the culture that I find jarring when I return, particularly the overemphasis on career and ambition and material security. When as a “foreigner,” I visit my former home in California, it’s easy to see that the culture of ambition and it’s accompanying busyness gets in the way of intimacy—with one another, with ourselves and with life itself.
I see similar values taking root in Bali. As foreign money comes in, ambitions rise along with the prices. I’ve been told that a large number of the workers here are from Java, and I’ve heard business owners complain that many Balinese don’t want to work—that they have no ambition. If that’s true, then I’ve met some exceptions. One ambitious young Balinese man who is finding success by opening spas to serve the tourists, proudly tells me that he is teaching Balinese villagers “how to work” and helping them get over their reticence around foreigners. I hear in his tone the implication that they are deficient as they are, and he is doing them a great service. His younger brother complains to me that the people in his village are closed minded. They want to stick together, keep doing things the old way. They aren’t interested in the wider world.
I want to say to them: Don’t be so quick to judge. The villagers might know something important. They might be preserving something of real value by not being taken in by material ambition and the allure of the wider world. Go slow. Be careful. But they are young and on fire with curiosity and appetite. I keep my thoughts to myself.
My friend Wayan speaks for the other side. He told me that his wife has started working at a fancy tourist restaurant owned by an ambitious foreigner, and it troubles him. “She gets up, makes offerings, then goes into town and doesn’t get home until 5 or 6. She’s away from here most of the day,” he says, gesturing toward the family compound. “And she’s always tired. That’s not a life.” What he says rings true, and at the same time, I can’t help but think that he is describing a light schedule for most Americans.
The traditional Balinese who content themselves with simplicity preserve something valuable that many of us give up for the sake of ambition: time for intimacy. Last week, I took a walk across the rice patties into the little strip of jungle that separates one village’s land from another. On a narrow path in this lush gorge, I happened upon a tiny elderly woman picking wild plants. The ease with which she moved barefoot over the moist earth spoke of an intimacy with the landscape and it’s inhabitants that was as startling as it is rare. Everything in her demeanor suggested that she was at home, and the plants themselves were among her intimates. I sensed that she was fully there–not on her way somewhere else, as ambition would have it. Perhaps she’s the one who ought to be teaching about the proper place of work in our lives.
Meeting her got me contemplating: what if ambition isn’t something to be cultivated, but something that needs to be seen through and dropped? The Tibetan Buddhists have many repetitive spiritual practices, some of which I’ve done: 444,444 liturgies to complete the Ngondro, for example, and 1,000,000 mantras to complete a Tara retreat. I’ve heard two explanations for these sizable numbers: one is that we are constantly repeating our habitual thought patterns and it takes a lot of repetition to compete with that groove. The other is that we need to be given these big goals in order to wear out our ambition. If that’s true, then even the carrot of reaching enlightenment is really just a wholesome red herring at which to aim our ambition so it has somewhere to go until we can be utterly convinced that it makes more sense to give it up.
How can those of us conditioned by a culture that glorifies ambition and its products take in such a point of view? After all, to give up ambition is to give up a whole orientation to life: that we are supposed to get somewhere better than here. At the very least, we’re supposed to maintain what we’ve got, even if it hasn’t been all that satisfying. Anything less is failure, and many who’ve lost jobs and prospects in the economic downturn are suffering from these assumptions right now.
But one doorway into intimacy with life–which for me is the definition of presence–is the moment that the world disappoints us and we don’t have anything to aim for, anything we think we can get. Then we are just here, in the uncomfortable present moment. This can feel pretty raw and unbearable at first, especially if we’ve been using ambition to avoid our own confusion and have gotten used to the buzz of being in constant motion, always on the way somewhere else. But if we can resist the impulse to find relief in the familiar escape of anticipating the goods we might get later, we might finally have something: our lives as they are now. That’s all we’ll ever get anyway, whether we allow ourselves to be fully here for it, or send half of ourselves up the road in search of something better.
Trungpa Rinpoche said, “People always want to change their lives instead of using their lives to wake up.” Embedded in that comment is an implied instruction: Don’t just do something. Sit there. Sit down in the center of your life and see what it has to teach you—just as the village woman crouched down on the forest path in the center of her world and listened deeply to the plants.