A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up
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- Sometimes, we think we’re happy when we feel we’ve achieved a sort of stability or success with our jobs, our bank accounts, our love life, and other relationships. Happiness is complicated, no doubt. It is a lifelong quest. A huge part of being happy, and the quest for it, is actually knowing you’re happy, or rather knowing what makes you happy. It is deceptively simple. That’s why it’s so hard! That little children’s song that starts out “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” while ever so slightly cloying, is also prophetic. Happiness is harder than it looks because so many other things get in the way. So we have to simplify things, strip them down, gut the house, and then build it back up. (Page xiii)
- Everyone wants to be happy.
- Happiness begins with intent.
- Happiness doesn’t just happen; it’s a result of conscious action (and sometimes that “action” is to do nothing).
- This action involves doing simple things well. (Page xiv)
Chapter 1 - Calm Down
- I think these kinds of stresses (getting food and shelter) are actually easier to cope with in some ways because they are basic, fairly uncomplicated needs. Culture is also a stressor for me because no matter how long I live in Bhutan and no matter how much I like things about the culture, I have to work to adapt myself to them and include them in my belief system. Like, for example, learning to be patient and wait amidst the chaos that is the Bank of Bhutan. (Page 3)
- Speed begets speed. All of this efficiency only makes us want things faster. If we could time travel we’d get everything done yesterday so we could have today to get more done. Right? We’re not used to taking the long view, centering ourselves and making ourselves even and calm. Frankly, slowing down frightens us. The irony is that even as we want things to move faster, they often move too fast for our human brains. There’s just too much to divide our attention. (Page 4)
- I think we not only need to have a back-to-the-earth movement, but we also need a back-to-doing-things-with-our-hands movement. It is the most calming thing you can do. Get your fingers busy and your mind will relax and balance itself. Not only that but you’ll have a finished product and a story behind it. Texting doesn’t count-in fact, anything you do with a smartphone doesn’t count. It makes me sad that cursive writing is a dying art. We’re all up in that instant gratification thing and that need to connect that’s really no connection at all. If you can get over the intense need to pull out your smartphone and pull out your ball of yarn instead, then you will be instantly connected to that warm, loving, interesting, honest glowing being that is inside of you. (Page 9)
- I learned in Bhutan that it naturally follows that to be calm you must develop an awareness of your mental states and the physical states they manifest. It seems self-evident, but as we get busier and more involved in daily things, sometimes we lose touch with our feelings and emotions. It’s important to get into a habit of checking in with yourself: feel how you’re feeling. If your head is throbbing and feels tight, if you have that feeling of a weight behind your eyes, if your arms and legs and back feel stiff from holding them rigid, then you are probably pretty wound up. If you have trouble focusing, if you’re tapping your pencil on the desk, just note how you’re feeling. Sometimes our moods catch us by surprise. We don’t realize how tense we have become. Everyday stresses raise our blood pressure and affect our sleep, what we eat, what we think-every part of our lives.go Train yourself to check in a few times a day and note how you’re feeling. Are you tense, angry, relaxed, calm? Check in after you’ve gotten a speeding ticket, after your boss yells at you, when a driver pulls in front of you and cuts you off, when you get a bill for something you didn’t buy. How do you feel? But don’t just focus on feelings that are negative like stress or nervousness. Check in when you’re feeling good, too. How does it feel to pet your cat, to walk your dog, to hug your partner, to laugh with your friend, to work in the garden? Check in with your feelings 20 times a day. Or more. Because when we get tense and nervous and wound up, we lose the thread of how we’re feeling. We have to reconnect. (Page 11)
- year of intention - Intend to be calm. No smart phones. Do something tactile, hand labor. Playing music, knitting, etc. I love woodworking and there’s a craft to it, even if you’re not all that good
- Writing letters to people as an act of being calm also sets the mood. I should really try it. Instead of a happy birthday text, why not a happy birthday card?
- Intend to be calm has a flip side - intend to stop worrying: about work, about social feeds, about the next craze
- intend to make. Making and creation helps the mind and soul. And just creating without stress and worry - no project deadlines, no planning, keep it simple, silly
- One thing in reflection is to keep to doing one thing. Too much context switching and meetings distracts the mind. Allow nature to help guide you
- you can create a routine of checking in with yourself.
- Physically - where are you feeling tense
- Friends - who are you around who causes you to tense or be stressed
Chapter 2 - Lose Your Luggage
- Saying good-byes to family and friends, believing it possible that I’d never see many of them again, upped the reality factor a bit. I ignored their polite entreaties to rethink this folly. I was focused, alone, and single-minded. I’m not sure what made me do it. I think I was in serious need of adventure. Also, it is partially the circumstances of my birth, my DNA; I like change. I like it more than most people. I decided that however long I stayed in Bhutan, it would probably make returning to my old life impossible. I felt a little sad about that, but there are trade-offs in life, I reasoned, and I was ready. I knew that I was headed for interesting times that would lead to knowledge and maybe something close to enlightenment. I felt lucky and scared and kind of crazy, walking on a razor edge. But I also felt strong. Deciding to take this risk made me feel stronger almost immediately. What I was doing was, if not the right thing, then certainly an unusual, notable thing. Unusual worked for me. (Page 18)
- From this day forward I would have to let go of even more stuff-emotional stuff. It was “past me” versus “future me” for the rest of my life. That time in Kathmandu, with no physical baggage and with precious little hope of ever seeing it again, did something profound to me. It was better than years of psychotherapy or counseling or drugs. I went through a fire and came out on the other side. I had put myself in a position where I’d have to work even harder to create a new life, even to survive. But I was still alive. I was still in the world. (Page 22)
- We reach a point in life, through age or through experience, where more and more things we do or don’t do end up a response or reaction to loss or an attempt to stave off death, that ultimate loss. Knowing this will change you. We lose things: jobs, opportunities; people die; things fall apart; opportunities present themselves and then fade; lights go out; friends move away. But then we understand that we have something at our core that makes us wake up every day and get on with it a strength, or a guiding light, a purpose, a self-love. Our soul or essence. Our personhood. Something we can’t lose. The most important thing. This realization helped me get rid of some emotional baggage. Maybe like the sadhu, not having anything but myself helped me realize my own self-worth. I had something I couldn’t lose. (Page 23)
Chapter 3 - Learn to Breathe
- Be gloriously happy that you are human and you have air to breathe. That was my friend’s message, and I suppose I had to get myself on a remote mountain to hear it, to figure it out. Breathing is also useful in and of itself as a meditation to calm your mind. The next thing to do is to practice being aware of your breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Do this ten times slowly and feel the flow of air as your lungs rise and fall. Feel it flow through your nose and course through your body. And then note how you’re feeling. It’s calming. (Page 31)
Chapter 4 - Rusticate
- We can’t even begin to realize how far from the natural world we live in the U.S. until we consider a place like Bhutan, where, if you have moles living in your house, you can’t call an exterminator because there aren’t any. It’s a Buddhist country and Bhutanese don’t kill, unless you really piss them off. To deal with rodents, the Bhutanese have cats and fashion litter boxes filled with rice hulls from the rice mill down the road. The rice hulls make perfectly clean, perfectly functional cat litter that’s even cheaper than the store-bought kind. It’s free, biodegradable, and works as a good fertilizer after the cat has done its thing on it. That, my friend, is rustication. (Page 35)
- As you rusticate, you’ll encounter beauty and ugliness, peace and danger. But it will be real and of the earth. I’m an optimistic person, but deep inside all optimists, there’s a bound-and-gagged pessimist sitting in the basement, struggling to get out. I believe if we don’t deconstruct our lives and learn to be more earthbound and earth-friendly and sustainable, and try to live with all God’s creatures, even if they’re not big-eyed and behind bars in a zoo, or on our screen savers, then sooner than expected we’ll be forced to, through political mandate or economics or from overuse of our resources. If Marie Antoinette had not been born the daughter of Maria Theresa, and if she’d been able to live honestly, un-extravagantly, in a village somewhere in Austria, and if she hadn’t been killed by an angry mob because of her extravagances, then she’d be telling you the same thing. (Page 42)
Chapter 5 - Drink Tea
- Tea makes us calm but alert and focused, the perfect state of mind for meditation, visions, and prophecies, or for an afternoon doing general accounting, for that matter. Tea was a big part of my courtship with Phurba Namgay, which began in earnest when a matchmaking friend of mine invited him to my house for tea. Over the ensuing week he kept coming back and we drank lots of it, and we eventually got around to marrying. When we moved in together that afternoon cup of tea with each other after work became a ritual that we continue to this day. Tea is so much a part of our lives, and we are thrilled when we can find the exact same teas we like in Bhutan at our local Indian grocery in the U.S. It gives us continuity and comfort. (Page 44)
- I had been in this particular room many times before, once or twice a week, over a period of about eight years when my friend Louise lived in the house. She’d recently moved and now our friends had it. Louise and I drank Darjeeling tea in the sunroom from her English tea service and Wedgwood china. I’d take a little splash of milk in the cup before she poured the tea, the English way. She drank it plain, with no milk or sugar, in the manner of true tea connoisseurs. George Orwell was one. He wrote a lovely essay called “A Nice Cup of Tea,” in which he states his belief that the milk should be added after the tea, to get just the right amount. And by no means should you add sugar; sugared tea is an abomination, and he didn’t much like Chinese tea, either-real tea is Indian grown. Above all, one must become accustomed to the bitter taste as well as the soothing quality of the tea. (Page 47)
- What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up
- Turn off the television, computer, phone.
- Find that mug or that teacup you like
- Boil some water.
- Put a tea bag in the cup.
- Pour in the boiling water. It’s important for the water to splash over the tea and wake it up. Let it steep for a minute or two. If you put a little saucer over it, it will suffuse the water nicely.
- Sit down. Drink.
- Now, this is the hard part: Don’t do anything else. Finish the cup of tea. And don’t put any sugar in it. Drink it as it was meant to be drunk. Let the bitter taste be a reminder to manifest compassion for all beings chased by karma. (Page 52)
Chapter 6 - Kindness Will Save Us
- We are more apt to express displeasure in the U.S., but what if we didn’t? Ninety percent of the time the salesperson you’re complaining to doesn’t make the store’s policy, and the server has very little control about how the food is cooked. Service people in general are the foot soldiersunderpaid, overworked, and possibly unhappy-and so complaints made to them beat them down even more. Most are just trying to get through the day, hang on to their jobs. (Page 58)
- There’s an ingenious Buddhist practice, a meditation technique, to help disengage from anger. It’s a way to alter one’s mind-set, manifest calm, and get free from anger so that kindness has room to come in. Here’s what to do: When you feel angry, don’t try to calm yourself at first. Go the other way. Go crazy with your anger-at least in your mind. Remember, you’re not acting on any of this. You’re just meditating. You’re angry your boss criticized a project you spent months on. You feel she did it out of a need to sabotage you or your work. Go ahead and feel that feeling of anger; feel it, and then feel it even more really amplify and exaggerate it. How dare she! This is the worst possible thing that could have happened to me! I hate her! She must be punished! Now get creative. Imagine her awakened in the dead of night, arrested in her ratty old pajamas, going on trial; visualize her going to prison. Send her to Texas and let her be electrocuted. Visualize it playing out to the next level, and the next. Your fantasy will reach a level of absurdity or violence or both until the anger deflates like a balloon. It takes practice, but eventually you can learn to control anger. Then you can move on to doing other enlightened things. (Page 58)
- On a fundamental level anger protects our egos. We get angry when we’re fearful, when we think we’re losing control, or when we can’t handle the real emotions we’re feeling. So the first thing to do to be kinder to the world is to manifest kindness and compassion for yourself. That’s really the key. As you gradually begin to manifest compassion for yourself, then you naturally begin to have compassion for other people. It’s a matter of cutting through the anger and fear and most of all, forgiving ourselves. Then kindness feeds itself. (Page 64)
Chapter 7 - It’s Okay To Be Who You Are
- I don’t know why I was so adamant to domesticate him. I thought I could tame him, that he understood quid pro quo, like dogs seem to and cats understand but ignore. If I fed him peaches and scratched his back I felt as though he should have the courtesy not to charge. Now I understand that he was just doing his thing. Bulls have no morality or civility. They are just bulls, like Namgay said, doing their aggressive, dumb, bull thing. The older they get, the meaner they are, which isn’t unlike some people I know. (Page 73)
- Sometimes I feel sad for the racehorse that couldn’t live in the mountains. I look at my garden every day and pine for the chaotic color it once had, but I love my friend Pema more. He makes me understand that our hearts contain our greatest strength. I’ll probably never stop trying to tame the bull. I know who I am. I’m not perfect. But it’s really okay. Acceptance is so much a part of being happy. First of all, accept who you are in all of your misshapen glory; and then, accepting others is a piece of cake. Mmmm, cake. (Page 74)
Chapter 8 - Laugh in the Face of Death
Chapter 9 - Generosity is Contagious
- “I don’t mind giving to people, but I don’t like them to ask me or beg me for things,” I said to Namgay. “I like to give of my own volition.” Volition? Why was I sounding so pompous and dragon-y? Even I wasn’t buying it. “The people who ask, the people who may not even need it and ask you for something, are the people you have to give to. People who are ungrateful and who don’t thank you,” Namgay said, “if you can give to these people, then you are a bodhisattva.” “That’s right, play the bodhisattva card,” I said. (Page 87)
- You’ll never outmaneuver a Bhutanese in largesse. They understand that generosity and kindness make a society. Nothing more. It’s so simple. If you do something nice for somebody you actually get more karmic points if you keep it to yourself. So I can tell you that now I do take opportunities to be kind here and there, but I won’t say too much more than that. And I’ll graciously give a cup of rice to a downand-out farmer if he or she shows up at the door. (Page 94)
Chapter 10 - Walk in Sacred Places
- Ani Palmo was the daughter of a king in ancient Bhutan who, against her father’s wishes, became a Buddhist nun, a devotee of Chenrezig, the Compassion Buddha. She lived in a nunnery high in the mountains until she had the bad luck to catch leprosy and was kicked out. Hey, it wasn’t all roses in the nunneries, folks. All alone, save for a devoted attendant, she tried to make a pilgrimage to a Chenrezig temple somewhere in Eastern Bhutan. On the way her body failed her. I imagine bits and pieces falling off. She collapsed and prepared to die. Then, the story goes, the temple turned around and came to her (Page 96)
- What I love is that in Bhutan it’s immaterial whether stories are mythical or real. And what is real, anyway? Certainly not the “reality” we see on American television. But I digress. At 17,000 feet in the Himalayan foothills all bets are off as far as what’s real and what isn’t. I’m not a doctor, but I know that there are three very important things that happen physiologically and mentally to your body when you spend time up in the mountains: you develop a high threshold for pain, your memory goes away, and I forgot the third thing. That’s an old mountain climber’s joke. (Page 97)
- Your sense of time and space and your vision and your sight and your sense of touch-everything changes walking in the mountains. Life is measured not by time, because time stretches, but by place. Each step moving yourself over the landscape reveals the organic connection between this Buddhism in Bhutan and how it meshes with the natural world. It’s spiritual, but not religious, a tangling of body and mind. If your mind and body aren’t working together, then you simply won’t make it. (Page 98)
- Slowly it dawned on me that as I learned to live with this new order in our house and with this new being I must feed, clothe, educate, and otherwise nurture, I had to be sure also to do all of that for myself. It’s like the instructions they give you before you fly: put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on the child.
Chapter 11 - Parent Yourself
Any good parent, or in my case, any half-assed parent, understands the value added to parenthood is that you get better at parenting yourself. At least, you should. (Page 105)
Chapter 12 - You Are What You Eat
- To the average American it probably sounds boring. Living in Bhutan makes me realize just how difficult it is in the U.S. to eat healthy and well. And focus on quality as opposed to quantity.
- In my life I have been something of a craving queen. As Americans we are taught that it’s our right to satisfy our cravings. We’re encouraged to do it. But I learned that if your taste buds and brain aren’t in overdrive, continuously being overstimulated, confused, and marketed to, you can taste and enjoy the subtle deliciousness of simple, whole foods. Your brain and taste buds actually start paying attention to your stomach. Food is not such an emotional issue.
Chapter 13 - Move to the Middle in All Things
- In the sitting room the mediation was more akin to a cordial chat among friends and family than a divorce proceeding. Tashi, Dorji, the mediator, assorted interested parties, and many children and babies congregated.
- As negotiations went on it was clear the marriage was irretrievable. Both parties wanted out. This was obvious by the second night, and so for the remainder of the week the rights to properties owned by the couple were worked out. It was her family’s land and her family house they had lived in throughout their married lives, so there was no question that she would keep the house, the paddy, all the property she brought to the marriage. The Bhutanese system is matrilineal, so the women generally inherit property, and men, when they marry, move to their wives’ houses.
- Family situations like this aren’t all that unusual in Bhutan and it speaks to the idea that in reality nothing ends in this world, especially marriages that produce children. The Bhutanese are practical and they have equanimity in spades. They might lose their tempers—after all, they’re human. But something in their upbringing or their society or their DNA brings them around. It makes them calm and levelheaded and able to see clearly and they instinctively gravitate to the middle path. This isn’t always the case, but it seems true in so many family situations. I know several happily married Bhutanese who started off married to other people, specifically brothers or sisters of their spouses. When it was clear that the brother or sister wasn’t a good match, the husband or wife married other members of the same family. And everyone gets along. This would be unusual in the U.S., of course.
- Don’t go too far one way or the other; don’t do too much or too little. Eat, drink, sleep, work, play, do everything and anything, but do it in moderation. Talk when necessary, not too much or too little. Practice self-control, temperance, and fairness. Watch your tendency to be loutish when you encounter someone who has opinions different than yours, curb your passion for always being right, and quit trying to control everything. Maintain equanimity with everything you do or say, even in pursuit of the middle path. It is a life’s work.
- Coming back to Nashville from Bhutan is like jumping off a bicycle that’s still in motion, or getting off one of those moving airport walkways—we have to speed up to stay on our feet. Friends talking about their lives, the cars they drive, their plans and politics—it all seems deeply fascinating, but I have a hard time getting on board. It’s like coming into a lecture on particle physics that’s already half over. You’ve read the homework chapter but it’s still a little fuzzy. But you know what? Part of me likes the feeling. I’m here but I’m not. Actually, I’m kind of in the middle. There are so many more ways to communicate in the U.S.; everyone has a cell phone and we’re all hyper connected. There are hundreds of ways to express ideas, and access to food, clothing, shelter, and information is super easy. As long as I can occasionally cut through the clutter and simulate that slow, sweet existence I have in Bhutan when I’m in Nashville or elsewhere, then all is well. It’s the best of both worlds.
Chapter 14 - There Are No Accidents
- My life with Namgay confirms for me that there are no accidents and that we are all connected.
- I think about it all the time, and now I look for connections in things, and for lagniappes—a word I love, which means “unexpected gifts.”
- Deepak Chopra said, “There are no accidents … only patterns we haven’t yet recognized.” I’m certain this is true.
- What’s the difference between taking a healthy chance and making a reckless decision? Damned if I know. It’s tied to synchronicity, the idea that two things that happen have subtle connections—maybe not causal connections, but connections nonetheless. You run into your college roommate in Italy, and it’s just after you’ve thought about her or had a dream about her.
- I have never met anyone who seems to be on the one hand so earthly and grounded, and on the other so esoteric and otherworldly. This is, I believe, the essence of Buddhism—to contain opposites. Sometimes I think he’s gone to another place and we’re sitting with his earthly remains; he’s in the world but not of the world.