Discovery — a way to rebalance elements 

From my apartment window the gigantic eyes of Buddha stare at me once more. Until this moment the eyes were covered, but as I write this, men unveil the all-seeing eyes on the golden tower that rests above a stark white dome. Boudhanath Stupa is a 1600-year-old giant mandala. Now it’s golden tower glitters in the sun, thousands of prayer flags flutter, flowers carpet roof and dome, clouds of incense smoke rise, people chat and sing. Here they believe that the earthquake damage was a product of imbalance and the restoration set out to restore the balance, not just of stone and clay, but of humans and communities. Reconsecration ceremonies have brought thousands of lamas, monks, nuns and local Buddhists to witness this rebalancing. Once more the Stupa glows with candles and light and the heart of this community beats again.

Rebalancing elements is endless.  

It feels like a lifetime ago that we sat amidst the destruction and despair of Kathmandu post-earthquake and wondered what we could do to help. We decided that not-for-profit mindful trekking might help provide staff and community with much-needed income. Back then there was no room for my self-advice to cast doubt, no room for worry about how I would survive without income, there was space only for my discoverer – pushing out, try something, try anything that might help. 

I had no idea that these trips would be powerful for the professionals who attended, for the staff who ran them, and most of all for me. Life changing. An honour. On our Mindful Adventures treks each moment is interconnected; we slowly abandon individualistic mindfulness taught in the West and we learn mindfulness as a community. Over time we share everything from our vulnerability, to toilet paper and even smelly socks; jokes become, “We must be family now.” 

It seems fitting that the Stupa reconsecration is the last day of our final Mindful Adventures earthquake relief trip. Throughout the last 18 months, the daily throng has continued to circumambulate beneath a sad and broken shrine. No prayer flags. No eyes of Buddha. No music. Just piles of rubble and greater piles of sadness. But still they came every day; broken-hearted but resolute through practice. Mindfulness has lived here for centuries. Come what may, this community will rebalance the elements with daily practice of being mindful together. 

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 Restoration is slow. Thousands must volunteer.  But rebalancing always goes on. 

At the Stupa, people went inside the hallowed dome to remove the sacred relics. They formed long conga lines, singing and chanting as they worked – monks, nuns, mothers, children, husbands, the elderly. Hand over hand they passed precious relics from high inside the Stupa’s dome (about 20 stories high), outside into the light, down a long human chain and placed into the golden monastery for safekeeping. As the months went by we watched community members volunteer together, labouring in the hot sun. Removing thousands upon thousands of broken bricks from inside the Stupa and then passing thousands of new bricks back inside. Ancient labouring skills of stonemasons and carvers slowly guiding them. 

Meanwhile, three groups of Mindful Adventurers joined us in the Himalaya. Together we also learned that mindfulness happens in a community, in vulnerability, in openness, through inter-being. On Mindful Adventures a Sherpa guide is always watching. Within days they learn to read a body’s messages. A lifetime of moving mindfully gives them skills that we word dominant westerners lack. A discreet, “Give me your pack” occurs before you get too tired. “Look there is a wild daphne”, another says, building in a sneaky pause just when you need to breathe a bit more. One group member struggles, and explains, “Oh it’s because [insert any wordy reason] ……..”. The Sherpa nod quietly, never disputing, never revealing the knowledge they have, but they know this person’s battle is psychological. Her body is strong enough but her mind is playing tricks. As Mingma, our group leader, told me once, people who think too much in the mountains get sick, the way through is one foot in front of the other. The inner advisor gets tricky in these mountains. Another person shows signs of mountain sickness, just a hint of change in facial colour that cannot be hidden by words like, “Oh I am fine”. Yet another meets her own demons as she insists on ‘keeping up’ ignoring her body whispering, ‘Go slow’. We move together here, weak and strong matters little here, we are one.  

I am left with one message. Mindfulness is together. We move with our efforts large and small. The mindfulness revolution can only create balance when we look outside our skin and practice being together. 

 

Tashi Delek my fellow humans

50 Rupees exchanged for shared compassion.

As I walk the morning kora I marvel at the older women. I love their dignity: long hair in braids, often woven with brightly coloured thread, ‘uniform’ of long skirts with sneakers, multi coloured striped sashes as symbols of marriage, and the ubiquitous left hand swinging their mala beads as they chant ‘om mani padme hum’. They depict a life where walking is a ritual in every single day, from birth to death.

Walking is social too. Although its a fair distance to walk 3 times around the great stupa, each morning and night the sight of thousands of elderly women and men walking 3 times around brings a smile. A community event enacted twice a day. No need for elderly folks to be locked in their houses in isolation here. If one gets tired, simply sit on a bench with all the other oldies and chat. I vow if I am ever elderly and cast off by the west, I will live here, where elderly women have a place in the open.

Walking is life here, like breathing in a community. I wonder, “What is the real price we have paid for our cars?”

Along the kora there are various folks seeking alms. My favourite is an elderly nun (ani in Tibetan). She sits on the cold path and radiates warmth. She is always there. Every year. Sometimes I hand her a few rupees, 10 or 20 is the common rate, and she gives me a smile and a warm Namaste.

Today I only have a 50 rupee note, so I hand her this; it’s just 50 cents afterall. Her smile of delight is so beautiful it brings me to instant tears. I am taken aback at my response. Tears at her warmth and kindness toward me. A tiny gift on my part, and she returns a glow of kindness and compassion that reverberates still.

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The ‘Himalaya effect’ begins

I rarely see it coming. I arrived in Kathmandu and felt grumpy. It’s dusty, dry and cold here, in the depths of winter. The internet isn’t working and I have a full day of Skype supervision scheduled for the next day. The stupa isn’t repaired and I felt sad and grumpy about that too. The wind blows freezing down from the mountains and I wondered if people will enjoy the Mindful Adventure we are going on. On and on it goes…..

Finally I reached out and sent a few messages of distress to friends. I didn’t realize it then, but I am doing what Porges calls step one in the mammalian distress response – seek help from the social engagement system. My dear friends reply. One simply says, “I see you’re taking your uninvited guest on the trek”. Bam. Thanks Carly instant perspective change. I didn’t see it, but my Advisor was at work, telling me I have to make the trek ‘amazing’ for people, “I have to” as if the Himalaya and her weather is my sole responsibility.

I step into my noticer space.

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Rising this morning I head out to do the morning kora. That is 3 times circumambulating The Great Stupa of Boudhanath. I notice my pace is slowing. The morning candles are stunning in their beauty. One can never get from photos how deeply moving it is to walk the kora – a mindful experience of the senses. Here mindfulness is not only done internally and privately, it’s just as often in community, a shared experience. Loud. Fragrant. Visual. A feast of the senses. I am a noticer.

A massive reconstruction is underway even as the kora continues. The stupa was originally built 1600 years ago, reconstructed again 400 years ago, and is being reconstructed now after last year’s earthquakes. This stupa is one of the most important sites in the world for Buddhists. Inside it is hollow, like a vase, the relics were removed and stored at the local monastery, and now thousands of bricks are repairing the inside. Up, and up, into the great dome.

It’s in community that it’s being reconstructed. I watch as many people volunteer their kora time and work in a conga line, passing bricks, hand over hand, one at a time. This line happens each morning and evening. Working on the stupa is thought to bring one closer to enlightenment, a mindfulness experience. This place of daily ritual is the spiritual home for thousands of locals who come here daily.

I notice peacefulness in my mind and body, and reflect on how it usually takes a few days to shake off my western mindset. “The Himalaya Effect” has begun. Kora ends in coffee time.

Soon I will be able to share these experiences with the coming guests.

I plan to blog a few times, as internet allows, so you can join us on our Mindful adventure.

 

 

 

We are humans together, in trauma and healing

My travelling writing sabbatical has been turned upside down and my brain often feels scattered. It has been a month since my last blog; that sounds like a confession. I could say I haven’t had time to write, but in truth it is because I have been avoiding writing about May 12th, the second big quake. I felt I had overdone writing deep and meaningful blogs and I ‘ought’ to write something light hearted and funny. A friend reminded me of this the other day, commenting on my Facebook, “Louise I had forgotten how funny you can be.” But it just isn’t the time for writing something light hearted and funny. It is serious or nothing. Feel free to opt out now dear reader if funny is what you need; I want to write about fear and altruism.

**

Altruism helps humanity survive. I see this everywhere in Nepal. We humans have a strong fear response to cover and stay safe, but our need to help others pushes us through this. Altruistic behaviours may even be the key to our recovery from trauma.

First there comes fear. The Gorkha quake has shown me just how efficient we humans are at learning about danger. One trial learning. We just need one trauma to teach our mind and body to look out for similar danger.

My learning went like this: During the first quake I had stared with wonder as my tea spilled over the cup and across the table. I was thinking, “Why is the tea doing that?” For just a brief few seconds I was totally confused. I noticed the world moving. I noticed the loud sounds. But I had no experience of earthquakes and what this kind of shaking might mean. So I just sat there stunned.

As I work now, and talk to the volunteers I have been training in workshops, I have found many people share this experience. For a few brief seconds in the Gorkha quake they were not afraid, just confused, puzzled, and curious. Then the fear came.

I marvel now at how efficient we are once we know to be afraid. Immediately after the quake my body became tuned to every tiny vibration. I began to notice that my apartment shook when planes flew overhead, when trucks drove by, when the wind whipped up, and when someone walked heavily or slammed doors. In fact, I discovered that the whole world vibrates constantly. I just never had the reason to pay attention before. Now my body was on full alert, waiting, needing to be tuned in to these sensations. Each time an aftershock did come, I froze like a rabbit in the headlights, waiting, feeling the world. My mind also joined in the fun. My mind, my keep me alive machine, was constantly ready to interpret any sensations detected in my body. Sometimes my mind even made the earth feel like it was moving when it wasn’t; creating it’s own aftershocks. No wonder traumatized humans, such as abused children or war veterans, are always on the alert. They’ve had many learning trials with fear and are experts at fear detection.

Gradually however, as the aftershocks came and went with regularity, my newly learned fear changed to become calmer. First, my body notices vibration, then I pause, assess risk, and then most often, resume what I was doing. I slowly learned to get on with things and have the fear rise and fall. Other humans seemed to get on with living too.

Within a matter of hours after the big quake, humans began to help each other. As I train volunteers in psychological first aid in Nepal, a common theme emerges; a deep urge to help others. Everyone I talk to says this same thing; it was uncomfortable ‘not’ helping. It was frustrating. Within hours Kathmandu folks quickly began helping each other, pulling people from the rubble and clearing the roads. I was amazed at their resilience.

So what did I do to help after the Gorkha quake of April 25th? I left for Tibet on a holiday. Ouch. I flew out on a trip that I had purchased months before. Tibet was beautiful, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I was edgy and shadowed by guilt. It was the wrong time to be on a holiday. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was only my luck to be a Westerner that I could just up and leave Nepal. The contrast to Nepali people, living on a few dollars a day and having no means of escape, was stark. They must stay and mop up. I was able to run from it. I felt bad.

It came as a weird relief to fly back into Kathmandu. Landing in the city and heading out onto the crazy ring road I held my breath wondering what I would see. I expected calamity. To my surprise it looked normal for Kathmandu. As the taxi wound through the traffic I marveled again at the resilience of humans. In everyday life we worry about things going wrong — a lost job, an ended relationship, our children struggling — yet here, in the midst of a gigantic catastrophe, I saw a profound coping.

We underestimate our capacity.

**

May 12th rolled around. I noticed just that morning that there had been no big aftershocks for a few days, so I decided it was time to be in my own head alone for a few hours and do some writing. It was my first time alone in Kathmandu without having a neighbor within shouting distance. The apartment block was empty. I sat on the edge of the bed, MacBook open, feeling content to be back to normal. Work is so comforting. It was a very hot day; the pre-monsoon tension was heavy in the air. I sheltered inside and hoped the afternoon would bring a little rain to settle the dust and clear air pressure. My peace was short-lived however, less than one hour alone.

The now familiar sensation of quake came. I paused, no confusion this time, I know to fear this now, this crescendo of moving earth. I crawled five meters out the open door and onto the marble rooftop. The ground seemed to be roaring with the noise of everything shaking. I knew the safe thing to do was to stay here until the shaking stopped. Nearby on the roof were two water tanks up on metal stands shaking like trees, 2000 kilos of water. It shook like a sapling in a storm. I could not take my eyes off the bent leg on the tank-stand as it ground into the roof gouging out the marble. I made it my ‘job’ to stare at it, telling myself if it fell I would scramble in the opposite direction to the tanks. Silly really. I’m sure if 2000 kilos of water gave way I wouldn’t have time to escape.

I had no idea how big this quake was, but I knew it was big and long. It seemed to go on forever. Suddenly a loud crashing told me buildings close by were falling down. “Oh jeez” I thought, “not again.” The noise was deafening. The noise is the most frightening of all; our primitive fear detector goes crazy.

Once the ground stopped shaking I grabbed my keys and my pre-packed backpack and headed for the stairs. I was shaking like jelly. I made my way down the marble staircase and came to the stairway’s steel mesh gate. It was closed. I looked and saw the padlock on the gate was locked. I yelled to no one, “Fuck they’ve locked me in.” I wondered if the neighbors were mad. Who locks the door during this earthquake prone time? A vision flashed of the building collapsing while I was locked in the stairwell. I had the key in my hand but I was shaking so much I couldn’t get the key in the keyhole. It was like trying to thread a needle while sitting on a jackhammer. Eventually I got it unlocked, slammed the gate across and ran down the stairs two at a time. I joined all the locals standing out on the road by the river.

In a disaster situation, humans stand together and they quickly become a group. I am foreign to these locals, but they included me as part of their refugee group that day – I was ‘in.’ The women pointed and told me with sign language about the four apartments that had all crashed down. The kids who are learning English translated. Women pointed at my roof top room and asked if I was alone. They shook their heads and said; ‘Don’t go back up there, too dangerous.’ We all just stood and waited. We shrugged. How long do we stand out in the blistering hot sun? All the while we kept staring over to the new space in the sky where the apartment buildings had disappeared.

Eventually I returned to the apartment, there was nothing else to do. I lay down on the floor of the kitchen and sobbed. I had been so scared. I later found out the stairway gate had not been locked at all, it was merely jammed tight from the house shaking but with my fear and flight response I mistook it as locked. This second quake brought up a much stronger fear response. I now know the dangers of earthquakes and the damage that they bring to life and property.

The mood in Kathmandu after May 12th was dark for days. It seemed sadder than after the Gorkha quake. People hid in their shelters, tents, or apartments. The streets were abandoned. All their gung-ho had gone. In its place was a sad resignation. People said, “The experts are wrong, another big one can happen at anytime.” They hid. They left the city. Learned fear and helplessness hung over Kathmandu. As I speak to people in my training workshops, many people say they were more scared in this second quake. I think we knew what to fear.

Yet, the human spirit is unstoppable. We don’t stay down for long. Slowly, slowly each day people ventured out from their tents to return to their apartments. People came back to the roads to get about their business. Although it seemed to take longer this time, they still returned to living. People went out to discover what they could do for others. Me too. Many people report strong urges to help – to do something. As I go about workshops on psychological first aid, participants talk of an overwhelming self-sacrifice. We felt better as soon as we could help. We hated the feeling of being helpless, we felt guilty, frustrated, and irritable. We needed to help.

It seems clear we humans are deeply altruistic. It is embedded in our psyche. We need to do something, to help others to get through. The days of waiting were over. We were now off and running, discovering how to help, people helping any way they could. The spirit returned.

A teacher said to me, ”Nepali people are tough, they are resilient and they will get better.” Yes, I said, they are indeed a resilient people.

We humans are resilient. Fear does not stop us. We get together, we become altruistic, we help each other, and we get on with living. So there will be no more sad blogs, we are healing now.

We face a trauma and we heal together.

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Then Kathmandu goes eerily quiet

I am scared tonight, more than I was yesterday after the quake. It is the evening of the second day and I’m frightened because it’s dead quiet. There is no sound. The relentless hustle and bustle of Kathmandu has been silenced. Even the barking dogs are quiet. I look all the way up the valley and the apartments are dark and empty, many darkened apartment windows are visible in the moonlight.

Hundreds of people are camped under truck tarpaulins down on the riverbank but they are silent too. Last night they were noisy as they set up tents for their first night by the river. All through the night people talked, the sounds of drinking and laughter arose; it seemed festive but for the collective screams as each aftershock rocked the valley.

Still a noisy city last night was normal. This second night terrifies me more because it is weird for Kathmandu to be quiet.

**

This morning I woke still having no power, no Internet, no phones, no radio, no newspapers, and no TV. I had no idea how bad the quake was. I tried over and over and eventually got a phone call through to Australia. I discovered from my son in Australia that 1300 people were dead in Kathmandu. He told me the images were terrible. He knew more than me, even though I was standing in Kathmandu and he was in Australia,.

Today a friend and I walked the city to see if others were ok. We saw devastation everywhere. There were electricity wires running all over the ground and poles down across the roads. I tiptoed around them, copying other locals tiptoeing across the wires too. Sometimes I needed to duck under the poles or step too close to a broken house in order to avoid the danger. There were many broken houses leaning strangely with walls gaping open. Sometimes, the streets were narrow and the leaning houses seemed to loom over me. I walked quickly past; worried any second the houses would fall over with my steps.

As we walked rescue choppers were flying overhead, up into the mountains and back again. This was a sign that things were bad. Their job is to bring in the injured to hospitals. I shuddered every time I saw one.

Finally we got to the teahouse and saw friends. Tenzing had the look of a terrified man, he scampered around not sure where to sit; he told us his home village had been hit by an avalanche. Then Sunita kept suggesting we sleep in the jungle tonight, she said we could take food and stay there till the danger passes. I saw she was terrified and to her the jungle was more predictable than the city; but sleeping in the jungle just wasn’t safe for me.

In the afternoon the ground trembled again. People started screaming, running out of the teahouse. Another after shock, this time a big one. I grabbed my bag and ran too. We waited again, out in the car park. Eventually there was nothing to do but walk home again.

**

That was today, now I stand here listening to the silence. I am here on the roof of the apartment waiting the night out. Tomorrow I have flights for Lhasa Tibet. I hope that commercial flights will run because I desperately want to get out of this city.

The rooftop is safe. There are no apartments overhanging it, and no cracks in this or the adjacent buildings. I have a bag packed by the door. I will leave the door open while I sleep. That way if a big quake comes I only have a few meters to run and I can lie flat out on the marble roof until it stops. I hope tonight is calmer. The strong shocks kept me awake all last night, sometimes sitting bold upright on the bed, gripping my bag, trying to decide if I needed to run or stay. Each time they’d quiet down again, and I’d breathe a sigh and try to sleep.

**

That second quiet night rolled on endlessly. Sometime in the small hours a dog began to howl, a crying sound that echoed up the valley. I shuddered and hoped he wasn’t able to sense earthquakes coming.

The morning finally arrived. I catch a taxi to the airport 5 hours before the flight because I expect the airport to be chaotic. The streets are still. The taxi driver plays quiet sad Nepali folk songs. I look at the disaster in the streets and the tent cities that have arisen. I feel a sense of sadness and guilt that I am leaving. It seems bad to be leaving when I could be helping.

Even in this earthquake the dichotomy of escape and value is present. I was desperate to leave a few hours ago, now I want to stay and help. I’ll be returning to Kathmandu in two weeks and I resolve to help then. No doubt when I come back I’ll wish I hadn’t.

The earth roars under Kathmandu

It’s a quiet Friday spent reading in a coffee shop, chatting on the advantages and disadvantages Nepal faces after 30 years of international aid. The topic turns to the regular disasters Nepal faces: landslides, avalanches, monsoon, and–you guessed it–earthquakes. I say, “In an earthquake you climb under a table.” However in Nepal there is rarely a heavy table to climb under. My friend says,  “Stand in a doorframe, you don’t climb under weak furniture, and you don’t run out while it’s shaking. It’s incredible to me now, just twenty-four hours later I would need to use this information.

Saturday rolled around just like any lazy Australian weekend. A slow breakfast first, plans to make a trip across Kathmandu for a coffee meeting, and then come home to get some serious writing of a new newsletter for clinicians.

We arrive at Bikash and Mishra’s apartment. Over Nepali style sweet milked coffee Shelly tells of her recent Sanjiwani Public Health Mission week long dental camp. Suddenly, Kathmandu releases a deafening roar. The coffee splashes out of the cups and across the table. Water in the fish tank gushes over the sides and the floor is suddenly swimming. I sit frozen; puzzled for what seems like a long time but was probably microseconds. I have no idea what is happening. Mingma jumps and heads for the doorframe, “quickly, quickly” he says to us. I crawl on my knees to the door. We hold on to each other under the doorframe while the world roars in our ears. It is only now, when I am under the doorframe, that I realize this is an earthquake. It seems to go on for a long time.

When it stops. Bikash and Mishra appear with their one-year-old baby and two teenage sisters. Mishra is crying loudly. We all stare at each other stunned, and then the silence is broken. Suddenly everyone is moving, “Hurry, hurry, get out, get out, get out!”. We race down the stairs and out into the narrow street.

Once out of Bikash’s apartment we head down the narrow street looking up at the sky trying to find the clearest place to stand. Anywhere where there is not a tall building hanging over us. Everyone in the street clings together in a spot of street where a high fence hides a vacant block of land. We look up, no high buildings to fall on us in here, but the gate to the vacant lot is locked. The neighbours begin shouting, men grab rocks and break the fence down. People pile into the vacant lot. Just two houses away is a 7 story skinny apartment block, swaying with the land. We all look at it terrified.

Women cling to each other crying. A man is wearing just a towel. A woman has her hair in plastic bag covering hair dye. Mishra cry and shakes. She sits down and people rub her feet, she looks as if she is having a panic attack. She vomits. People pray loudly together. Some little girls come up to me to say hello and practice their English. A man who’d spent the morning knocking down a brick wall decides to continue his work and we laugh; he has extra help from the earthquake today.

And we wait.

And wait.

Shocks come every 10 or 15 minutes. No one know how long to wait for. How long do we stand here in the vacant lot amongst the piles of bricks?

I check the news on my phone to see if we can work out what is happening. Google tells me the Australian ABC news have reported the quake, 7.7 on the scale, with the epicentre 80 kilometres outside of Kathmandu. I realise my family might hear this news, so I quickly text. Simple messages: “I am ok. Whatever you hear on the news don’t worry. I am fine.”

We wait a few hours amongst the piles of bricks in the vacant lot.

Eventually we decide there is no option but to walk the two hours back to the apartment. We head out, picking the safest looking streets. This valley city is haphazard, with narrow streets and even narrower brick apartment buildings. They’re mostly 4 or 5 stories high, with several small apartments on each floor. We choose streets that are not too narrow, with not too many high houses.

Along the way we see groups of people everywhere. Sitting in small parks, vacant lots, in the sanctuary of small farm plots. All of them sitting, talking, and waiting.  All afraid.

We see injured and dead people too.

Cars and busses are at a standstill all along the highway. Ambulances scream past, as do trucks loaded with police. The air is thick with dust. We see fallen houses. Row after row of collapsed brick fences, are plopped over still in their fence shape, they look like they’re just lying down waiting to be propped back up again. There are wide cracks in the road. Walking carefully down the centre of the road, we see buildings collapsed all along it. A bright yellow four story apartment block is half gone, it’s interior exposed. An ancient looking brick house reveals large pottery water jugs and deep inside a person already sorting through the rubble. Everywhere is littered with bricks and debris.

I think, “This must be what an apocalypse will be like.” I had no idea what had really happened to Kathmandu.

Part 2 coming soon…

Taking my mind and body for a walk

You need a strong body and a peaceful mind to live in the Himalaya. As we walk I see both everywhere in the hill people. What’s more I am confronted by my weaknesses in both. “You are neither mindful nor strong,” my mind flashes these messages like an annoying neon sign.

As I write this I am in Limbu country in the Kanchenjunga region of Eastern Nepal. Limbu’s are friendly peaceful people who smile and say “Sewaru’ (their version of Namaste) as we walk through villages that are nestled on the side of 2400 metre, almost vertical, mountains slopes. Limbu are an indigenous culture of Nepal, along with Tamang, Magur, and the more well known Sherpa (Sherpa is an ethnicity not an occupation). There are 125 cultures here, so much variety in peoples. The mountain cultures are descendants of Tibetans and have Mongolian features. Each culture have evolved their own language, dress, dance, religion, and cultural ways.

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In the mountains there are no roads, everything moves up and down these steep mountain paths by walking, with loads carried on the backs of men, women and children. They walk for hours, even days, often with nothing but their thoughts, and nothing for distraction but the wilderness. This is living mindfulness. It’s one reason I have returned here often, mindfulness training is built into living.

The locals start training very young. As small children they walk for hours alone through mountain paths, to school or to the next village. While we are walking through the jungle we come across two small girls in school uniform, perhaps 5 and 8 years old. They are alone in the middle of the valley, steep vertical rock faces rising high above, a long valley stretching as far as we can see in either direction, and the raging river below. No village in sight. No people in sight. Just two little girls alone. They are walking to school — a one hour trek through the jungle. My western mind brings fears for these little girls alone in the jungle, but my guide reminds me that this is not wilderness for them, it is merely the path to school and home. They grow up here with a lot of practice at being with their thoughts and nature.

Although hard and unforgiving, the mountains are an adventure into mindfulness. I can’t say I’m good at it. My mind is often screaming, “how much longer…where is the next village…will I be able to make it…..” On and on it goes. Meanwhile young children scamper up and down, flying past me in flip flop sandals along rock steps, along rivers and through jungle.

Then there are the bodies of these hill people, remarkable for their flexibility and strength. Elderly people seem as flexible as children, with movement I cannot comprehend in elderly Westerners. I watch an old woman of about 70 spring up from sitting cross legged on the floor, while she has a 2 year old toddler tied to her back. I see old women with wrinkled sun scorched faces glide over rocky paths, easily squat at village taps to wash dishes, sit on the floor while cooking, quickly rise from sitting to standing. No grunting or groaning, it appears effortless. People here have strength trained from a lifetime of carrying loads using a tumpline    a headband made of old rice bag, tied with a rope that goes across the forehead, down the back, and under a loaded bag. Small boys and girls, perhaps 10 years of age, learn to carry loads of 20 to 30kg as a family chore. My local friend recalls how hard it was as a 12 year old boy to carry a 30kg bag of salt for four days up 2500 meter mountains and down into deep valleys, taking much needed salt home to his village. This is how they train to be men. The men here carry loads incomprehensible, 50 to 60 kilos, up and down steep rock steps, usually in sandals. When necessary they carry sick people to hospital on their backs. I watch men building a timber house, squatting barefoot on raw timber 18ft up in the air, nailing beams into a roof for hours on end. Everywhere I look there are people carrying loads, running up and down vertical rock faces in sandals, moving, working, playing, even crushing rocks by hand to make gravel. No doubt there are downsides of this hard living, using the body for survival, but their body is at least used to it’s maximum potential.

As we walk an old woman with a small old wrinkled frame walks briskly past me on mountain slopes carrying a 30kg bag of grain. I am overtaken like this all the time. As people pass me they mutter ‘bistari, bistari’ (slow slow), while I am carrying nothing and panting for breath.  I am struck by the difference in my body. I have valued my mind more. My body has not been used for an income, or for survival, it has mostly played second fiddle while I  prioritised my brain. My mind is a far better asset I have thought. How absurd it is writing that. It makes me cringe with shame that a wonderful asset has been so neglected. I feel clumsy here, often foolish physically.

The final shame arrives as we walk though a Limbu village and small children run out to play and say hello. They chatter and love to practice their English. One little boy of about 7 gets all excited and begins to tell his friends something in his mother language, I don’t understand it, but his hand signs reveal all. He is talking about the size of my body, especially my heavy calves, telling his friends and mocking me with actions I can easily understand. He mocks me as only a little 7 year old can. I know that here people have skinny legs and he has seen few Westerners. Although I try to tell myself he is just a kid, I cannot be fooled, I burn with shame and really wish I could just run home to the west were I am comfortable and accepted, where my weight is not so unusual, where my mind is valued.

But the next day dawns as always, I must rise, confront my own monsters and walk. There is always walking. There is always more practice at mindfulness.

The sweetness of new contexts

Yet another Kathmandu rookie error. In the shower combined toilet, I drop my expensive bon voyage gift of hand made soap on the floor, it shimmies across the floor and scoots down the toilet hole faster than a goal shooter’s hockey puk. I can’t grab it while holding the water jug, and shampoo, and keep my balance on the slippery floor; and there is no way I am putting my hand in the hole for it’s retrieval. Sure it is just soap, I shrug, but I find myself staring down the now soapy hole feeling a twinge of loss.

Later I tell my Nepali friend what happened, and I get a big laugh and told the ‘obvious way’ as if I was a 5 years old, “Why aren’t you putting your sandal over the hole?”

Uhm? Because I never thought of repurposing my sandals as a toilet plug, that’s why.

These are stories of old clinging and new discoveries. My soap is not just for washing here, it functions as a memory of home, hot showers, and my dear friend; it disappearing feels like I have lost them all. And my use of sandals is limited to functioning strictly as footwear, not toilet plugs. Both these events highlight my contextual history.

As a functional contextualist we talk of context all of the time, one might think of it as little pieces of our lives that evoke responses; context includes our personal history, time, interpersonal and intrapersonal factors, and of course the physical environment. Our contexts evoke responses, pieces of what we know from the past influence how we respond in the present. Often we are not fully aware.

Life in Kathmandu, is an experiment of dramatically changing ones context and watching what happens with one’s history.

We have 8 hours of electricity a day, now that isn’t 8 hours straight in civilised time like 9am to 5pm. No. It is usually two blocks of 4 hours at any random time in the day, so one might have electricity between say 2am and 6am, but one might not have it, and never know why. Then there is the water problem, at times the entire apartment block runs out of water, and I seem to be the only one really bothered by it. When there is water it is strictly cold, no hot water here, unless you boil it. There are squat toilets, no heating, no television (which I love), and definitely no dishwasher, washing machine or air-conditioning. Oh and there’s no refrigerator in the apartment either, not much point when the electricity rarely works. It is a challenge to be here and not think I am totally crazy, not be an impatient demanding westerner, and not want to flee home.

Let me tell you about the middle of the night pee run. My bedroom is gloriously on the rooftop, and it overlooks the 2000 metre forest covered ‘hill’ of Nargajin (I say hill because it’s not called a mountain here unless its 6000 metres). To go to the bathroom I have to go outside in the night air or rain, cross the slippery marble tiles of the roof, down an outdoors marble staircase and into the unlit dark toilet/shower room. It does make me long for home and the adjacent ensuite bathroom with hot water a flushing toilet and electric lights – remember that tonight wont you.

Each day the west feels further away. Sometimes it even feels like it has disappeared altogether, like a lost time. Everything here is so new, everything so unfamiliar that when old pieces of context comes up it looks, well, weird. I can see it. I miss home and realize how attached I am to my family or friends, and that makes sense. But attached to soap? Or toast? Or red wine in a wine glass? I did try buying red wine but I couldn’t find a wine glass and without the glass it totally missed the mark. You see context (our learning history) is everything.

Here, there is a dramatic change to home, I can see how much context is a part of being human. There is me here now and me back home. I can see how I am long for home or how I cling to it. Removing oneself from the familiar is illuminating and liberating.

Take the illuminating part. On a trek in the mountains, we are sitting eating mandarins during our break, lying in the sun, on the grass, I throw one to a friend and accidentally hit him in the head. My heart stops for a second as I wait, like a rabbit in the headlights, I feel a microsecond of panic. I say, ‘Oh sorry, sorry” as quickly as I can. My friend just laughs and says, ‘no problem’. My behaviour was from the past, like lightening I had a flashback to past times when a similar accident on my part led to a very different outcome. It’s almost like a reflex, I was instantly on alert, waiting to run for cover. When nothing happened but laughter I was dramatically aware of my old context clashing up against this new one. Like thunder that follows the lightening — I have a space to see two contexts clashing together.

Then there are the liberating experiences I have never had before that allow me to look at everything with fresh eyes. To see this world as wonderful. Take this morning, we are walking through the forest, the snowy mountains are in view, and the forest is lush green and quiet. We’ve been walking for ages and all getting hungry, when my Sherpa guide stops, plucks a big red rhododendron flower from the tree and begins to shake the raindrops into his mouth. I do it too and discover the drops taste like honey! As we walk we eat the rhododendron flowers too. I’m told to eat only the red flowers, because the pink are bitter, and the white are poisonous. In this new context I am discovering peace and nature and joy. It is delightful.

Maybe we should all spend time in different spaces so we can see our old learning and experience new. This is the advantage I see of dramatically pulling myself away from a place like my western home and planting myself in the Nepal Himalaya. I get to see how I use context. I’d like to think I could let the past be, but as a human we need the past. Perhaps it is enough just to see the past and how I use it.

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My inbox is not a friend

I look around the Asian style longboat, some travellers are reading, some just staring out, many are are asleep on each other, heads in laps, collapsed together like rag dolls. Time stretches like the suns rays across the teak boards. Time. I have found you again. Welcome back.

My destination is nowhere, a two day ride on a slow boat up the Mekong river, just for the hell of it. The sound of the water rushes against the boat making a peaceful swoosh, the mountains glide by like multiple layers of a theatre diorama. Heavy jungle, wild banana trees, waterfalls, the occasional hut or tiny village appearing on the river bank. Every now and then a rock mountain appears mid river, rising out of the water, gliding right past the boat like icebergs drifted past the Titanic.

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I shake my head in disbelief. Just a few weeks ago everything had been so different. My life was being held to ransom.

By what you ask?

My inbox.

My email, like some evil deity, had control. Or to be honest, I was in a battle to control it. Yet it was only briefly appeased. I made constant resolutions to stay on top of it, only to lose control when I turned my back for 2 or 3 days. Saturdays, Sundays, the wee hours, annual leave, it never stopped. Three hours, four hours, five hours a day lost to feeding the beast, feeling success, until the next day rolled around. I no longer had choice but if I could control the flow I felt good.

Except, I mostly felt like a failure. I began to steel myself as I opened the lid of the laptop each morning, praying to only have 80 new emails. Anything less than 100 unread at the end of the day was measured as a good day. Eventually I took to just avoiding the email folder altogether, or I’d flick through the flood of emails coming in but couldn’t bring myself to answer half of them.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love to hear from people, they make my heart glad with their emails. This wasn’t the fault of others. The fault lies with me. I have come to realise that one can never appease this ‘Email God’. Worse, the appearance of control is so reinforcing – if I can just keep the unread emails down I am in control. Wrong. Control is the problem here.

‘Fear of one’s inbox’ is indicative of a problem. So I made the decision to step away. I closed the lid. Set up an auto reply – “I’m gone, your mail will not be read.”

Then I changed contexts. To Asia, where the world is vibrant, loud, full of people who see the world differently. New contexts help when one is wanting to change, it gives perspective and distance on the familiar.

Life has opened up into a big expanse of days. I am now choosing not following. I have time to pause and reflect. Life here is not just slow, it is peaceful. I am sure my heart beats slower. My health is returning. I have sleep, good food, and I pray I will survive with little money. I think about the people I love, I have time to miss them now, and that is a good thing. There are no new deadlines, no imposed pressure, no work other than those of my choosing; a new writing project, delicious because it is mine.

On the Mekong now it is Saturday. I smile writing that because I no longer need to know what day it is. I realise calendar time does not matter, only a life with time is a life. Life with time and with others. Every now and then, my inbox beckons. The addictive hit of opening and checking mail, like every addiction, lasts a long time. Even worse, a sudden fear will strike that I might be missing an ‘important’ message. I take this behaviour as a sign, I have not been gone long enough.

Perhaps it is as simple as this – vitality wont be found in my inbox, just appetitive reinforcement for seeing the numbers go down. In the end, I would be quite happy for my epitaph to read, ‘she was shite at managing email’.

My inbox is not a friend. Is yours?

The lesson of Lumbini: Find your story of peace

I did not want luxury travel I remind myself, I wanted experience. I wanted a story to tell. Still, after 11 hours on a bouncing bus with bad suspension, a seat that refuses to stay upright, a window that wont shut, and loud Nepali music blasting in my ears, my discoverer side is wavering. I resolve never to complain about long haul economy flights across the ocean in the comfort of Qantas ever again. We have driven for hours through the winding jungle covered hills, across the plains they call The Terai, land historically so infested with malaria carrying mosquitos it was only inhabitable by indigenous folk. Eventually we are just 8 kilometres from the Indian border in the village of Lumbini. This is the birthplace of the Buddha, the prince born as Siddhartha Gautama in 623 B.C.

Stepping off the bus late at night into the dark dusty village is a shock, it’s dark as pitch with no electricity, we are promptly approached by Indian children begging, stray mangy dogs wander past, and people walking or cycling into the dark beyond. Lumbini’s main street is dirty and dusty, a short 100 metres of dirt road. With only spasmodic electricity the nights here are dark, as mother nature intended. It’s a very distressing sight that leaves me somewhat depressed. That long bus ride for this place?

History tells that Siddhartha Gautama left the palace and was so distressed by the poverty of the people outside the palace walls that he went in search of an end to their suffering. I wonder what he would think today, after thousands of years it seems little has changed. Can we humans ever change the suffering of others?

Tomorrow I will tour the site of the buddha’s birth. In my mind I imagine a tour to a few shabby temples. I resign myself to practice being in the moment no matter what that reveals.

Next morning we enter the main gate of Lumbini World Peace Park, a World Heritage listed pilgrimage site for buddhists across the globe. My grim expectations of the night before are promptly overturned. Countries from all over the world have built their own style of buddhist temples here, to honour this sacred place where the buddha was born. We wander through miles and miles of paths nestled within The Terai scrub land. This is a remarkable place carved out of seemingly unusable jungle and swamp, turned into a place where peace is marked. No car or motor traffic is allowed, only pedestrians and bicycles. Strolling one hears only the sounds of water birds hidden in scrub trees. The winter sun lies low and red on the horizon, and many miles away the snow covered himalayan mountains peak tantalisingly though the haze. Hidden within the scrub, each monastic centre is a unique sanctuary of manicured gardens, monastic residences, temples, stupas and shrines. The contrast is not lost — manicured green tranquil gardens oppose jungly malaria infested marshland  — paradise versus the netherworld.

There are so many temples. Three days wandering does not allow me to see all. Their variety is impressive: Myanmar’s emerald green and gold spire sparkles like a woman’s emerald jewels; Manang’s tibetan monolithic temple depicts finely detailed thanka paintings telling Buddha’s life story. Germany’s statued gardens tell the cycle of the wheel of life, from birth to death. On and on they go, each temple telling a story for those who take time to hear it. Everything here has meaning. Hand gestures of each statue reveals a message (mudras – knowledge, peace, circle of life etc). Mandalas represent the wheel of life. Thanka paintings tell the story of fighting demons to find release from suffering. However, these stories are not just of one man, they are the story of us all. Humanity. Our story of peace versus struggle.

We each have this story. Life is peace. Life is struggle.

Bookmarking each end of the peace zone is the Maya Devi temple and the World Peace Pagoda. World Peace Pagoda is a white marble shrine, it’s purpose is to spread peace into the world. At the other end, kilometres down the central peace canal, we see Maya Devi Temple glimmering.

Maya Devi temple is the treasure of Lumbini. This, so the story goes, is the exact spot of Buddha’s birth. Queen Maya Devi, Siddhartha’s mother, nearing the end of her pregnancy, left the royal palace headed for her maternal home to prepare for the birth of her child. On route she unexpectedly began to labour, and gave birth to her prince son under a tree with her hand maidens in attendance. Some time after, Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, marked the spot where his son was born. Today this site is the Maya Devi temple.

We are required to leave our shoes at the beginning of the garden that covers several acres. We wander barefoot in the garden, past rings of stupas and monasteries erected in the  3rd to 5th centuries B.C. Past ancient stupas celebrating the buddha’s teachings, erected long before the birth of the christian Christ. In the centre is a white building that houses the most sacred spot, a 3rd century B.C archeological find (in the background of accompanying photo). Inside it is dark, no photos are allowed here. People are quietly meditating around the perimeter. A centre stone marks the exact birthplace of the buddha; an ancient rock that lies behind glass and protects the mark made by the king where his son was born. It lies in the darkness. We shine a torch to see the exact spot where the buddha was born. The birth of a story too.

After a few quiet moments we exit the temple into the light, surrounded by bodhi trees with thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze (see photo). Monks, mediation groups, and lone peace seekers sit quietly across the acres. A group from a Japanese sangha are chanting softly. Local women are squatting, cutting the grass with hand shears.

On this site, story after story is revealed amidst thousands of years of archeological history. At birth the buddha took 7 steps,  on each step a lotus appeared. Maya Devi was spellbound by the beauty of Lumbini, so she bathed in the sacred pool in the gardens, then grasped a tree and gave birth. All story? Perhaps. It matters not. The key message is this, we humans live inside the stories we create. True or not true does not matter. Fact or myth does not matter. What matters is how the story works for us. Whether we use it for peace or struggle.

Lumbini is a humbling experience. No wars have been fought in the name of the buddha, so this peace site is true to its story.

I am reminded of the key messages we use to help our fellow humans when they are struggling with their own stories of trauma and pain – hold stories lightly. Perhaps there is a corollary too — when the story brings peace, bring it closer. Allow your peaceful stories to bubble to the surface and bring peace within. Perhaps this is a story I can tell to myself too.

thuchuche, Louise

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