I sense excitement rising as our small plane makes its way north. The green expanse of the Bay of Bengal lies below us, patterned with arteries of water that run life from the Himalaya southward . We fly towards the Kingdom of Bhutan, a special ‘Royal Bhutanese Airlines’ flight into the land known for happiness and sustainability. We are privileged to be on the first flight in since Covid. I feel grateful for this rare experience to explore what is known as the last Shangri-La; somehow reverent and with a sense of unexplainable responsibility to share insight and learning from this journey with others.
What will we discover from this magical place that was isolated from the outside world for so long: the only carbon negative country in the world, leaders in sustainable conservation, valuing human wellbeing over finance and materialism? The government makes development decisions based on impact to Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. Bhutan is a country that maintains its cultural identity, resisting the tentacles of globalisation -television was only introduced in the last two decades, and it is still a difficult place to access without effort and resources.
We are welcomed with celebration thanks to Tourism Bhutan. The slogan of ‘Believe’ accompanies a warm runway welcome as we spill from the plane to dance, music, an early lunch of local fare, photographers and gifts of local honey and Turmeric tea to take with us.
A few days later, we are in an early morning meditation with nuns, later sharing a chili breakfast with them that burns our lips and strips our insides. We walk through the heart of the giant golden Buddha that sits above Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu and find ourselves somewhat beyond words. We are already imbued with the energy of Bhutan: forest-coated mountains, friendliness and smiles and a spiritual fabric of being that embodies deep-held values of kindness and compassion.
We explore the ideas behind the Centre for Gross National Happiness. We listen to the vision “to create a unique place of reflection, learning and action where nature, culture and spirituality blend in a harmonious way towards happiness and compassion for the world”. We are fascinated and inspired to take the vision home and translate it in our own unique ways.
An unexpected visit from His Holiness Khedrup Rinpoche is the icing on our day. The fifth reincarnate of a lineage, he joins us for dinner and shares insight from his Buddhist wisdom and practice. Marinated in the spiritual culture of Bhutan, sleep is the only obvious fremedy to embody all we are experiencing.
We journey deeper into the Black Mountains to the heart of the Trongsa valley and central Bhutan. We are now pilgrims to Khedrup Rinpoche’s monastery. Clinging to the mountain-side the ‘blessed rains’ fall upon as we toss and turn on hard mattresses designed to ease occupants into a 4.30am rise for morning meditation. Clouds swirl below us and mist hangs on the peaks above as we lift our sleepy selves into the eight-century monastery. We are led by His Holiness through a gratitude practice, a breathing exercise, and a mantra meditation.
A chili-free breakfast prepared by monks leads us into the larger, colourful temple: neither austere nor grand, we sit on mats and between large hanging drums and listen. Distracted only occasionally by the more mischievous monks, the youngest aspirant dressed as Spider man, we learn about Dharma – the Buddhist philosophy of how we experience reality.
Through meditation we can calm the mind and connect with the emptiness within. On encountering that space inside, we experience a form of bliss or peace, and from that place we can see the world around us with new eyes. It is our perspective that manifests all that we experience. I am neither Buddhist nor disciplined in practice as these dedicated monks, but I resonate as I hear the path: the overcoming of suffering, the journey through the emotional spiral from lower to higher realms, the growing sense of peace. The external world is a mirror of our internal, and in tending to our inner nature, we are able to experience more transcendence of problems, perhaps more wisdom and certainly more peace.
Before we leave, I catch fleeting moments with Khedrup Rinpoche, and share the idea of ICE that we will explore in Antarctica: inner gold, connection and environment. He links in his wisdom. The light shining within us is often concealed with ‘dirt’, the layers of suffering, and Dharma is a way to connect within and find the shine inside each of us. When our outer environment is pure it can help us find that too. He expresses the urgency to protect our natural world.
The monks lay planks over puddles and sink-holes in the rain-washed mud road, easing our passage out of the valley, beneath waterfalls and upwards to the misty mountains, the clouds and the heavens. Our bodies feel numb with the shake and shiggle of the bumpy road, and perhaps our minds too. We are lulled into sleep as we pass eastwards toward Bumthang and we each grapple to make sense of all we are experiencing.
In the valley we pass fields and forests, cows and crops, smiles and waves and sense the simplicity and proximity to nature in all we see. It seems that Bhutan, its King and people and Buddhist culture embody values that create optimal conditions for happiness. It is obvious that the problems of being human exist in Bhutan too: circumstances can be hard and there is depression, alcoholism, mental and physical health issues in the country too. However, beneath it all is a fabric based on wisdom and compassion.
There is care and curiosity within our group, and in our Bhutanese support team and guides too. We all seem able to be our authentic selves. There is humour and honesty, care and vulnerability, curiosity and insight. Everything about our journey feels rich in compassion and full of heart. We laugh, cry and explore together.
We chant around the fire, mesmerised by the flames, and I reflect how wonderful it would be if life felt more like this more of the time. In the quiet space within, we all have capacity to feel more ‘happeaceness’.
How? That is for each of us to find, but peeling away layers of protection, tarnish from the past, and reminding ourselves that the wealth within contentment and appreciation of ‘what is’ along with an attitude of kindness is way greater than any monetary wealth. That is inner gold that we all have.
Thanks to all the team at My Bhutan for co-creating this journey and to the special group of people that joined. To Scott Wurtzbacher and his podcast ‘Inspire Campfire’ for attracting a fabulous group, and to our guides Kinley, Sonam, Tshering and Ugyen. To ‘Thimphu Muscle Factory’ for their strength in getting me to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. And to John Baikie for filming.
A poem I wrote in Bhutan…
I had learned
That dependency was a no-no
I turned within
In search of courage
And found noise
That accompanied me through fear
That I did not have to be my thoughts
I turned outwards
In the mountains, seas and forests
That helped calm my grieving soul
That nature was my friend
I turned to pedalling
A bike, revolutions with intention
Twisting, turning and unravelling with roads
Ribbons of tar that turned to gold
The resonance of head & heart & hands
I turned to exploration
On an unconscious quest for insight
Via continents, oceans and rivers of life
Inner gold became easier to hold
That life is an adventure in grace
I returned within,
To unravel, integrate, meditate
A journey through inner space
And the light grew brighter
To sense peace
And so I turned to Bhutan
In search of wisdom
For sustainable ways of being and doing
An enquiry into happiness
With magical people in a magical land
Lies not in misty Himalayan mountains
Nor in an endless search
But in the silent space within
That in wisdom & compassion & togetherness
Lies infinite possibility