Over the last several years, Eat Pray Love’s popularity has caused women from all over the world to make their way to a little island called Bali, looking for the Balinese Shaman Ketut Liyer. His pronouncements about Liz’s life and future so profoundly affected her that you could say they became the center of everything that happened to her after that, including her wildly successful book. As Liz herself says, Ketut will be happy to tell you you are going to live to be one hundred, and we have received several disappointed emails from people who have gone to see him and received the identical readings (down to the exact phrasing).
From Greg Roach’s forthcoming book, The Wisdom of Ketut Liyer and the Balinese Shamans, comes this marvelous excerpt:
I think it’s easy, based on what I’ve just said, to misunderstand or misinterpret Ketut as some goofy charlatan who happily bilks foreigners out of $25 to tell them they’ll all live to 100 and die rich.
But this would be a gross disservice to, not only Ketut himself, but to the role of Balians historically, and spiritually to the Balinese.
The first time I ever sat with Ketut, and heard essentially the same patter delivered to fifteen people in a row, I decided to have a little fun. To let him know I was on to his game. So after the last client was ushered out of the courtyard I said, “Now, Ketut I’m going to give YOU a reading! I’m an American Balian and I’ll give you a reading!”
I grabbed his hands as his eyebrows reached skyward.
“You’re very smart. You’re lucky!” I said, parroting him exactly. “You will live to be one hundred. And you will have lots of money!”
Grinning, I looked up from his palms, expecting to see a smile of appreciation at my rapier wit and the way that I had so cleverly deconstructed Ketut’s patter. Instead I encountered one of the most earnest expressions I’ve ever seen. With deep concern, Ketut asked: “And my health? My health be good? I had some problem now. Will this go?” I knew that Ketut had recently been hospitalized for a kidney stone.
Oh, shit. What a colossal miscalculation. Not even a glimmer of recognition, no hint of awareness that I was just teasing him. He wasn’t winking back.
Ketut wasn’t lying to people… or even just telling them what they wanted to hear. He meant the things that he said. And worse, he believed that I could really divine his future.
I had just stepped into a steaming pile of my own smug assumptions and cultural prejudice and I was now staring into the imploring eyes of an old man freshly out of the hospital and looking for reassurance about his future. I felt like a total jerk.
I have spent a lot of time trying to understand what happened with Ketut that day and it ultimately gave me a critical insight into what a Balian does for his “patients.”
A few weeks later I visited a traditional Balinese herbalist and medical healer. After a pretty thorough physical exam she gave me a spot-on overview diagnosis that included accurate assessments of things like cholesterol, digestion and sleep habits. I was quite impressed, as was my friend who came with me and who suffered from an unusual chronic ailment that she also diagnosed accurately.
She mixed up batches of “Jamu,” the traditional herbal treatments so widely used throughout Indonesia and South Asia. Mine included freshly ground tumeric and raw honey, which was delicious, while my friend cursed as he choked down some swampy green concoction that seemed to taste at least as vile as it looked.
What surprised me was that after the diagnosis and Jamu treatment, she then proceeded to give us palm readings – which were identical to Ketut’s! It was almost like they were reading from the same script.
I realized that part of healer’s repertoire was manipulating the patient’s psyche, catering to their hope and expectations, playing on the power of the placebo effect. Of course we all want to hear, from a figure of authority, that everything is going to be fine. There are few human needs more basic. And up until very recently, it was an accepted practice in Western medicine to not reveal to the terminally ill the true extent of their sickness.
Modern allopathic medicine is just now, begrudgingly, acknowledging the subtle but powerful “mind-body” connection that was almost universally understood by ancient, indigenous systems of medicine and wisdom.
I realized there was more to Ketut’s “You’ll live a long, healthy life” schtick than dunning tourists. Imagine you were a native Balinese – even just a few decades ago – and you went to visit someone like Ketut: a Balian, a healer, a person possessed of spiritual power and insight. What would be more beneficial to hear? That you were beautiful and lucky and destined for fine things? Or that you were a lumbering dolt with no friends who was going to die broke and alone?
This was an aspect of the traditional healing legacy that Ketut practiced. Wrap it in the context of a brief tourist visit, stripped of cultural and psychological heritage, and it’s like a Chinese knock-off souvenir. But see it within its native frame and purpose, and it becomes an ancient mantra that can change your life.
Spirit Quest Tours heads to Bali for our next Eat Pray Love tour in June, 2013.