I did fieldwork for this book in Solo, Central
Java and the surrounding district of Surakarta
September 1978 and July 1980. My wife and I
arrived in Indonesia in the beginning of June for
the Cornell Summer Institute in Advanced
Indonesian Studies which was held in Malang, East
Java. I had studied Indonesian for an academic
year in the intensive program at Cornell before
going to Indonesia. My study of Javanese began in
the Summer Program.
During the program my wife and I went to Solo with one of the other students and she introduced us to the Sumarah people there; Laurie Sears had spent a year practicing the meditation in Solo. This is a common thing to do and number of Westerners studying Sumarah at any given time while I was there varied between five and fifteen, with a rough average of ten.
The sort of people drawn to this study tend to be associated with the "counter-culture" and to live often as solitary drifters. Many have backgrounds involving drug use. Generally, they find there way to Solo at the recommendation of someone who has been there. This has been going on for more than ten years. The group tends to be of mixed national origin. While I was there, there were participants from the United States, Australia (the largest group), Canada, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, the Netherlands, England, Sweden, Finland, Italy and Switzerland. The length of a person's stay tends to be fairly restricted because of visa regulations.
There is a meeting for Westerners every day except Saturday with an English translator. The meetings are split among three leaders or guides (pamong). Darno Ong does the Monday, Tuesday and Thursday meeting, Suwondo leads the Wednesday and Sunday meetings, and Sri Sampoerna leads the Friday morning meeting.
We arrived in Solo in September and at first I attended every meeting with ten to fifteen Westerners and ten to twenty Indonesians. The meetings are held in houses, tea is served and on Monday night dinner is provided. Meetings generally last between two and a half and three hours. The meetings are quite strictly patterned. In fact, the Westerners' meetings are more predictable than the Javanese meetings. First, there is a period for questions about the meditation and for discussion of problems and experiences. This is followed by a meditation, another period of questions, another meditation, and then a closing period for questions.
The way that the guides respond to questions has already been described, but at first I did not understand what they were doing. I tried to phenomenologically open to the situation; but the occasional acuity of the guides' responses was somehow disturbing. There is a tendency to look for the trick but at the same time to classify the guides as being very keen observers of human nature.
My most dramatic experience with this inexplicable acuity occurred almost a year later (described above as well in Chapter 11). Suhardo is one of the founding members of Sumarah and he came over from Yogya on August 30, 1979. While he was in Solo, he guided the leader-training meeting which is in the early afternoon. I met him in the evening and he accompanied my meditation, which means that he monitored my condition and told me what to do to improve it at the same time. I was impressed. The following is from my fieldnotes:
I asked him about the levels he had spoken about in the meeting. He then led me through a meditation. It was like someone with sight guiding a blind person across the room. Incredible specificity.
One example of this specificity came when I misunderstood an instruction. He had first instructed me to have my attention down in the heart area and then he told me to bring my attention up into the head area. I misunderstood and remained down in the heart area. After a few seconds he said, "No, no, not down there; bring your attention up now".
My skepticism remained, but by this time I had stopped looking for a trick and had become convinced that there was something going on that I did not understand. However, the experiences were not always so inspiring. The following is from my fieldnotes of September 17, a few weeks later.
I met with Pak Hardo in Yogya at about 12:15-1:30. It was not as impressive an experience as the initial ones from my perspective. I asked him about X [another mystic not connected with Sumarah]. He said to go into meditation and then said that this was X, meaning that my feeling was supposed to have shifted to parallel X's. It had not. He then tried to show me Wondo with similar results.
After a few months of the Westerner's meetings, I
grew very tired of them. I was having trouble with
my research permission, my Javanese language
studies were not progressing very rapidly, and I
was forced to take the night train to Jakarta once
or twice a month trying to get my visa
straightened out. I lost twenty pounds. In late
February, the research permission came through and
I went to Singapore to get my visa.
There were some conclusions and directions based on the first months of research as I entered into my official status. First, there was a great deal of personality conflict and confusion at the Westerners' meetings which made the practice harder to understand. Some of this interference came out of the Westerners themselves, but some of it reflected the type of Indonesian who gets involved in such mixed gathers. A linguist friend from Malang named Jeff Dreyfus went to a meeting with me in which the elderly owner of the house got up and gave a ranting half-hour speech to the Westerners in Indonesian which most of them did not understand but whose tone was clearly hostile. Jeff remarked that a study of the group dynamics of the situation would be interesting. I was not attracted.
A second impression was that there was an excessive focus on entertainment or diversion in the Westerners' meetings. This was often expressed by having someone dominate the meeting by talking and taking up the time of the guide for conversation.
A third complaint that I had concerned the translation offered in the meetings. Two of the regular guides do not speak English. The translation is provided by a dedicated Javanese and this was a great service to most of the Westerners who did not speak Indonesian or Javanese. However, from my perspective, his translations were a distraction.
A fourth observation concerning the Westerners' meetings had to do with the way the practice itself was perceived. The Western understanding of mysticism conflicts with the Javanese. The Westerners seemed to anticipate a removed, metaphysical (in some indistinct sense), pleasant and enjoyable experience. There was often a taint of utopianism in their interest and a search for comfort or escape. I had begun to see that mysticism serves a very different function in Javanese society. I later came to realize that it is not primarily a belief; it is a practice. It is viewed as a discipline to bring you more into the world, that is, to increase awareness. The way the Javanese see it, increasing consciousness involves facing your life squarely. There is no running away. The experience of many of the Westerners seemed to substantiate the Javanese feeling that this can be a painful and sometimes psychologically dangerous practice for those whose lives are not yet "settled".
In March and April I started accompanying Suwondo to regular Javanese meetings. There were meetings on Monday, Thursday afternoon and evening, and Friday. In addition, about twice a month Suwondo would visit two or three meetings in towns to the south of Solo on Sunday. At the same time, my new language teacher, Sularko, was from the Mangkunegaran family, and his amazing tongue could wield words with a grace and fluency that equalled Solo's magnificent peach-colored sunsets during the rainy season and revealed the source of the kancil tales of which there is an example in Chapter 3.
As was mentioned above, Javanese is a very rich language with separate vocabularies for informal (ngoko), formal (krama) and highly formal (krama inggil) speech. The informal vocabulary is complete, the formal has about 900 words and the highly formal has about 100 words. The formal codes supplement their vocabulary with words from the lower forms. Before too long I could converse in any of these codes but a problem then became apparent: the conversation in the meetings was by no means restricted to these three levels of Javanese. Depending on context, Indonesian, madya (a middle level between high and low Javanese), krama desa (a rural variant of krama with some rustic vocabulary) and an occasional Dutch or English word are all used as additional levels of speech by the Javanese. It was only in the last six months in the field that I was able to understand everything that was being said at meetings. In most conversations I used Indonesian.
In the beginning of May, I was run over by a truck and was laid up for nearly a month. In early June, my advisor, Jim Peacock, came to visit and stayed with us for a month. He went to meetings with me and his comments, support and experience were extremely helpful and welcome. I came home with about 45 hours of tapes of some of the meetings. Dr. Peacock urged me to do a transcription and translation of a complete meeting, and this provided many of the examples above. Two Javanese students did the transcription in July and August. I finished the translation by early December with the help of Sularko, Joseph Errington (a linguist doing a study of madya) and Suwondo. The translation was contributed a great deal to my understanding of the language that was used at the meetings and of the practice they were discussing. I discovered that I had been introduced to a simplified version of Sumarah that roughly corresponds to the material presented in Part II of this book.
As for my own practice, I had continued to attend meetings with Suwondo while I was doing the translation. My experience with the meditation went through a number of phases. The initial phase was when I was attending the Westerners' meetings. I felt intellectually constipated. There seemed to be something going on but I could not figure out how to get at it.
The second period started after my return from Singapore when I began to attend Javanese meetings. I did not understand much of what was being said at first, but the approach seemed more proper. In June 1979, I had an experience that Suwondo described as the reception of rasa (discussed above). The experience was my first of undivided reception. It was rather like coming out of the cave where I habitually hid, which was my thoughts. The experience itself was stark and simple, and I felt exposed and somehow vulnerable. It was unconsidered and uncontrolled; when I tried to analyze it while it was happening, it disappeared. According to the practice, this was my first experience where the immediacy of the reception of the moment managed to get around the interference of thought.
For the most part, the meditation involves learning to bring your attention into the present and relaxing the tensions you find in you body and mind. After the experience that was termed the reception of rasa, in July, August and September I found myself doing a lot of snoozing during the meditations. I would go into a meeting very alert and within five or ten minutes of starting the meditation, I would be asleep. Eventually I sheepishly asked about this and was told that it was luyut (described above) which was a transitional stage between a thought-oriented perspective and a rasa-oriented perspective.
The following comes from my fieldnotes of September 25:
During the meditation I was trying to open to my body and for a time was pretty successful. Body awareness increased and body image [perception] increased in size. I felt a kind of thickening of energy in the chest area which was new. Then I got tired and ended my meditation before the others. During the question period I did some further meditation and found myself in a place inside with visual components. It looked like a rim of innumerable solid, angular shapes with various colors forming a circle or sphere (somehow the same). Inside was a soft, light, almost white, blue star-type light.
I entered and the boundaries [rim] disappeared. It was blue light from here to eternity. Very pleasant and it was as if this was fundamental. There was nothing behind it. There were no words, just wisdom at the base of everything. I was impressed and that started me out of it.
This experience was described as the reception of the "true teacher", who is discussed above in Chapter 6. It was a one-of-a-kind experience; however, the increase in perceived body size was very common. I speculated as follows in my fieldnotes of September 29:
I suspect that this sensation of increased [body] size during meditation has to do with increased appreciation of the information which is present. If you perceive more of the detail, it fills out and seems bigger. It also spreads things out. Whereas previously two sensations would seem the same, when they are spread out [in the larger frame] each has its own source and meaning.
On November 11, Suwondo started to give me training in the techniques of guiding. These techniques are described above, but, in brief, the simplest form is called "checking". Previous to the checking, you enter a calm, relaxed meditation in which the tension is cleared from body and mind. The idea is that when the body is not taken up with its own tensions, it becomes a potential receptor of the condition of other people. When your state is relaxed and calm, your attention is "flashed" on the person being checked. The attention is then returned to your own body and the changes are noted. Answers are based on these changes. My first attempt at checking is described in my fieldnotes:
Rudi [a young Javanese man] asked to be checked and Pak Wondo told me to do it. Rudi had told me his present state so I may have been influenced. First, nothing, then a feeling of tension in the back of the abdomen. I said there was tension in the stomach area and like a bubbling of ideas. Pak Wondo said that this was right. He said that this was an opening of elements in the unconsciousness.
Once your meditation gets to a certain point, acquiring the techniques is a matter of trial and error. The training was of various kinds and in various situations. I went to Yogya with Suwondo to visit Suhardo. I rode on the back of his vespa and he quizzed me on the way. The following is from my fieldnotes of December 16:
On the way, Pak Wondo had me check him first to see where his attention was. It was in the middle of the back. Then to check his condition. On the second I got some sort of thinking. He said that the reception was right but that he was receiving a kind of grace and that the two look alike if you don't know. He described the problems of distinguishing between the inner voice and something coming out of ego. He said that it is sometimes hard to distinguish. Sometimes you must rely on reality to distinguish for you.
In October Suwondo recommended that I start
attending his Wednesday and Sunday Westerners'
meetings. I started trying to translate and answer
questions for the Westerners, and in early
December was asked by the Westerners to start a
weekly meeting. I saw myself more in the role of
someone who understood the language and thus could
phrase some of the practice in more familiar
terms, but I tried to guide the meeting in the
normal fashion which meant meditations and
This was not a comfortable role to settle into because when it is done correctly there is a lack of ego involvement and control; but, at the same time, the ego is sure to take delight in the new status at first. The following is from December 16:
I told Pak Wondo that guiding was bad for the ego. He said that you get used to it. He also said that he doesn't like to be believed in as an individual. That is bad for the ego. It is better to accept what comes to you and trust in reality to show if it's right or not. Too much belief is bad for the believer because it blocks out experience and it is bad for the one believed in because it inflates his ego.
The following are my notes about a meeting on December 31:
Another meeting with Cathy, Judy and Ralph in the morning. I was shaky at the start coming from ego. The meeting went okay. I still felt a little overwhelmed. The meeting was taped and a couple of interesting images came out. One was that emotion and thought combine together to form kind of rooms which are attitudes or stances. There are lots of these and one [the ego] usually spends one's time going from room to room. However, there is one room which when entered turns out to have no walls or ceiling, no thoughts or emotions. This is the present, the real relationship with reality, and the meditation is designed to help you find this room and to get used to being there and relating from there.
Guiding is an important teacher, as is discussed above. However, the following notes are from a meeting on February 9 and they illustrate this and show some of the accommodations I made in trying to adjust to the role:
Acting as a guide is extremely educational. One learns about the material as it comes out of ones mouth. For example, a great deal of emphasis has come out on physical, emotional and body awareness; that is, not approaching and attempting to control emotional responses in the mind but, rather, going directly to the emotional tension in the body and releasing it there. The idea is that emotions and thought are connected but that the use of ideas [thought] to control emotion is inappropriate, evasive and messy. The guiding continues to upset me at times both in terms of doubts about my capacity and in the stresses and confusions which arise in the meetings. Ego involvement is still there but [the meetings] have gotten a bit more usual. One change has been to have them [the participants] do some of the meditation guidance. It helps to spread around some of the burden and gives me a chance to relax in the meditation while giving them a chance to see how involving trying to lead the meditations is and how difficult it sometimes is.
Guiding must be spontaneous if it is to be done
properly. This caused me a great deal of
confusion. The way this is presented is to say
that it is very much like any other capacity that
the body has. An example of this appreciation of
the body as a "tool" is in the sense of hearing.
One can say that "I can hear", but, more
literally, it is obviously not the "I" that
performs the function of hearing but the ear and
it is the tool itself which does the hearing. The
"I" just receives the result. Similarly, but in
this case with a learned capacity, one can say
that "I can speak", but the "I" cannot pretend to
control or understand the capacity or tool of
language which Chomsky calls the "language
acquisition device". The techniques of guiding are
viewed in the same way.
From my experience, I found some of the techniques much easier to accept than others. When I did the others there was always a sense of intellectual unease or frustration. One of these was checking a person's experiences in the past. In checking in the past a person asks about his condition at some previous time by giving the hour and day. My intellect always protested that it did not make sense. The following are some instances of this technique from my notes of February 29:
Meeting in Colomadu [Kartasura] with Pak Wondo, Pak Easno, Ari [my wife] and about 35 teenagers. I have never seen so many teenagers at a meeting. Pak Wondo had me do some checking. The first one asked about his trip to the meeting. I asked him if he had been frightened and it turned out that he had been attacked by a dog. A second asked about the pain two days before in her chest and I said it was tension. She asked what was causing it and I asked what she was worried about. She turned all red and embarrassed and didn't respond. Another asked about an experience the week before and whether she had been right or not. I replied that she was right but that she was forcing [the position was true but it was coupled with an improper emotion]. I didn't understand the interchange she had with Pak Wondo about it, but he said that it was correct. Last night [the 28th] at Grogol, I checked Dewi [who is prominent in the cases material] for that afternoon and asked what she had been so worried about. It turned out that a child in her class had some sort of attack.
Thus, in one sense, the meditation can be viewed
as a capacity for acquiring capacities or tools
through the practice of a relaxed reception of the
present. However, on a deeper level, the increased
sensitivity and receptivity of the present is the
primary goal and the capacities are incidental.
Increasing the accuracy of reception is felt to
necessarily involve a broadening of perspective
which is connected with changes in attitude and
understanding. So it is.
Beginning in August 1979, I started to write in order to clarify my thinking and to highlight areas that I did not understand. In February 1980, I started to write in earnest and most of parts I and II were completed in the field. During the last six months in the field, my time was divided between going to meetings, guiding and writing. This worked well in that it gave the opportunity to check understandings with the guides and in practice as well as making it possible to get feedback on what came out from those able to evaluate it in terms of their own experience and understanding. During the two years I was in Solo, I estimate that I went to about 250 meetings and guided 30.