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, mountain 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 has evolved its own language, dress, dance, religion, and cultural ways.
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 from a lifetime of carrying loads using a tumpline – a headband made of an 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-metre 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 its 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 through a Limbu village and small children run out to play and say hello. They chatter and love to practise 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 where 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.