Going Mad/Sane

Lavinnia told me near the beginning, “Subud … It’s well, if you have a religion already, you’ll find that it will deepen your understanding of it and make it more meaningful to you. And if you aren’t religious to start with, then, well, you just might find that you’ll start to get interested.”

Subud could be described as a religion without any rules as to what to believe, presided over by its founder, a funny little Muslim patriarch from Indonesia called “Bapak” (“father”), but read on.

Subud can also be described as a place for women to meet together twice a week and for half an hour, safely and in a sacred setting, to go mad/sane together.

This practice, the heart of the Subud religion, is called “latihan.” (The words “going mad/sane” are mine; members would be much more likely to describe it as “surrendering to the will of God”.)

Women and men latihan separately, in different rooms or at different times. The groups are small, except in a few cities. I have latihaned with twenty women in a rented church, with two in an old chicken coop, with four in the board room of a credit union (available to groups on Sundays), with one in her otherwise sedate rooms at a “Retirement Manor,” and often, often by myself. Living in a small town, I’ve been an “isolated member” a lot. But the group latihan is strengthening; there’s power in coming together.

As to what this “latihan” is, well, it goes like this: We gather and sit silently for ten or fifteen minutes of “quiet time.” When the room feels ready, we stand. The helper says, “Let us now surrender ourselves completely to our inner guidance .. BEGIN.”

At first, there’s apt to be some sighing, stretching, yawning, as if we were coming awake, or maybe just relaxing into the absence of the normal restraints. Then one, perhaps, will begin to sing, and someone else’s voice will begin to speak. Soon latihan is fully underway. For each woman it is different. There’s generally a lot of singing, full-throated and grand. Some talk in tongues, or any sounds. There is skipping, dancing, stamping, clapping. There is laughing, crying. Some are very still. (Some women speak of feeling a vibration or other definite physical sign when in latihan. I don’t experience it this way.)

Often in latihan I’ll find my mind running along its own track while my voice is doing something else en­tirely, singing, perhaps, full of some feeling. My body, meanwhile, may be performing the actions of some undefined ceremony. (I have surprised it casting continued seeds, or praying); or perhaps the body is stretching in a way it has been needing.

Each woman listens within herself, eyes closed, following the weavings of her own latihan.

This harmonious bedlam continues for the better part of half an hour. Gradually then we each become quiet, and stand in quiet “receiving” until the helper’s voice says, ” … and FINISH.”

And we do. We stir, breathe, sit back down, don our shoes, glasses, jewelry, if any. Often we visit a little bit then, and hug.

At first, my first few latihans, I stood there and did not feel moved to move. I could hardly stand the disappointment, until finally I couldn’t stop the aching tears that nothing was happening. So, of course, then something was happening, and it went from there.

… Children, you know, are seldom still. Part of the latihan, clearly, is simply allowing yourself to forget these learned rules of adulthood, that artificial imposed stillness of limb, body, voice that we have learned to live with, that paring down to only “efficient movements.” It is allowing oneself the luxury of superfluous, the felt, the uncensored movement and sound. But what has all this got to do with religion? Maybe this: Maybe some of the things we censor out of our daily lives are things like: the need to pray, to give thanks, to ask for guidance.

I learn things. Sometimes I go to latihan expecting to cry or to give God another good bawling out, only to find myself lightheartedly dancing. Once an intense headache drove me to try latihan; I discovered that my headache was from needing to give thanks that two I loved were not dead in the Guatemalan earthquake, that the next order of business was to offer heart­felt thanks, tears and all, for long enough.

For me, latihan frees up my creativity and my imagination. (I often get good ideas during latihan.) It gives me a place to complain even when I’m not sure who I’m complaining to. Likewise to praise. It’s a great release. It also seems to increase the serendipity1 in my life. And Lavinnia was right, I did “get interested” in religion, though with me it takes a highly personal form.

You really have to want to join Subud to get in -­there’s a probationary wait for three months.2 During this time you come every week or two and sit outside the room while they do latihan. This is to give you some sense of what it’s like before you plunge in.

The time period seems to me excessive, but they may know best. At the end of the three months the women helpers involved “test” to see if you should be “opened;” they latihan, seeking guidance in the matter, and receive an answer. (In the early days of Subud, I hear, they were not always so careful and a few people were initiated who shouldn’t have been. One suicided, two “went mad,” that is, could not stop latihaning and were misunderstood by the world at large.) If “testing” indicates that you should be initiated (and it usually does, if you have stuck it out so far), you are then “opened” in a small ceremony, a latihan with the helpers, and then with the whole group.

Being “opened,” what’s that like? D … the first woman I knew in Subud had a dramatic opening. At the time, she felt myriad presences surrounding her. For the next three days she lay in bed, helpless from a splitting headache and bathed in white light and none of it mattered because she was in ecstacy the whole time.

As I say, I didn’t feel a thing.

Openings are different for each of us. Latihans are different for each of us; we always try to keep that in mind.

Another thing you hear about “openings” is that sometimes someone who is already in Subud can accidentally “open” another person by making love with them. I actually think that that was how I was opened. D… was also my first woman lover. At Bandon we watched the rocks and the waves until it was too dark to see, and lay then in the one bed, touching, breathing in one another’s exhalations, and falling together into a presence to each other that was a kind of one-ness. All that weekend I was making discoveries on many levels and coming to know answers I’d been seeking. I think that I was “opened” then.

( … If you want to ask Bapak about it, he will tell you that “homosexuality” “must not be practiced”; but you don’t have to ask Bapak about it.)

I would certainly prefer something imbued with a more feminist consciousness. But sometimes I think that it really doesn’t matter, because latihan keeps right on yielding its results, its constant help in returning to my own path, its almost magical help in encouraging magic to tip its hand in my life. It’s a once-or-twice-a-week commitment to a spiritual focus and a letting-be in the safe and understanding company of like-minded women, a letting-be, and a remembering to ask for asking and for thankfulness.

  1. unusual coincidences, “magic”, etc.
  2. waived under some circumstances; age is one.