(1) When the llama, who looked to be my age, maybe younger, said he’d been diagnosed with bipolar and depression in his 20’s, he said it so sweetly, so softly. He’d heard about depression, but until he experienced it, he said he had no idea. And because he didn’t have medicine, he relied on his mindfulness practice, separating what was real from what was not. “It was very hard,” he said, looking down and then looking away as if remembering that time. “Very, very hard.”
(2) He’d come to the monastery at 9 years old because his father had died. He said families collapsed after the death of the father, so his mother walked with him through the mountains for eight days, arriving at the monastery in Kathmandu for an education. “I cried every day,” he told us – he was close to his father, and it would be a year until he saw his mother again. The monks, feeling for him, excused him from class to go outside and play.
(3) At the Nagi Gompa nunnery high in the mountains, it was Ani, the abbess, the head nun who greeted us with a tray of cookies as we entered the monastery, later standing behind a picnic table in the field, ladling yellow Dahl into our bowls for lunch. “Time to eat,” she sang, in the few English words she knew. And when Jeff couldn’t hold his plate, his walking stick, and the banana Ani offered him, she tucked it into his pants pocket for later.
“I don’t know anything,” she told us through an interpreter, but we leaned in, wanting to believe everything she said, that all you needed was a teacher who could help you train your mind away from negative thinking and practice loving kindness.
(4) “I’m really enjoying my time with you,” I told my co-teacher, and dear friend, Jeff, whom I have known for 38 years. “It’s because you like me better here,” he said, referencing the way his personality is a little more abrasive back in the Western World. “No,” I answered, “I like myself better here.”
(5) 6 a.m. and we’ve entered the hummy buzz of the Boudhanath stupa – the largest stupa in the world – where hundreds of monks and ordinary Tibetan men and women – many quite elderly and shuffling with canes – are ambling around the stupa fingering mala beads and chanting. They spin prayer wheels, and pass through juniper smoke, dodging pigeons and dog shit. The tinkle of bells is in the air, prayer flags flapping overhead, barking dogs, and the promise of a cappuccino from Himalayan Java Coffee when we’re done. An older Tibetan woman dressed in maroon robes and I bump into each other as we circle the stupa, and she shrugs and giggles as if to say, “What can you do?”
(6) When I walked into my bedroom at the farmhouse, I immediately felt depressed because of the dirty floor and the three lumpy beds covered with sad, old blankets. I’d told James that the paying guests should get the best rooms – the rooms with porches and fireplaces. Very noble of me, until I saw my room, and the stinky bathroom I would be sharing with the farmhouse cook. But Bidur, the bodhisattva who poses as our driver, had walked in first, extending his arms and shouting, “Wow!” like he was walking into a palace. His eyes were on the distant peaks of the Himalayas out the window, mine went to the lumpy beds and the dirty swinging lightbulb overhead. “It’s fine,” I lied, mostly because I didn’t want Bidur to see my smallness, and because I wanted to see the world the way Bidur sees the world.
That night I lay in bed grumpy. That sad room triggered all sorts of stories I wanted to tell myself – how my darkness would keep me separated from others forever. Eventually, I fell asleep. In the morning, I came into the meditation room, eyes cast down, ready to banish everyone from my heart, and also ashamed. I let myself breathe and relax, and by the time we were done, my story had softened, the details had blurred, and the narrative had evaporated like particles of dust, ash after a house fire. An hour later I was laughing in the sunshine with my friends, and I honestly couldn’t believe how quickly that darkness had burned through me.
(7) How even 7000 miles away, both my children reported that they were anxious about the Thanksgiving pies that they were taking to the party and that they both had to take some CBD just to get to the party. I’m remembering the night before I left for Nepal two weeks ago, how I had both of their heads in my lap – one on either side of me – as they lay under blankets on the couch. I remember the silence, my hands lightly stroking their heads, how I needed them as much as they needed me.
(8) The dog is dirty, flea-bitten, and sorely in need of a bath, and it’s startling to see him inside the majesty of the monastery with its bright gold-leafed walls, and dozens of monks in red robes. But he takes his place next to the young monk on the bench like they’re best friends. There is chanting and singing, and the thunder of the drum, but the dog isn’t startled. He yawns and scratches behind his ears with his paw, settling even closer next to his friend.
(9) It’s the way James, who leads our meditation each morning reminds us to ask ourselves if we know where we are. “You’re walking,” he says, “but do you know that you’re walking? And when you’re eating, do you know that you’re eating?”
I’m eating, we say. Walking, we say, in an effort to wake up to where we are.
(10) It’s true that Jeff is a little scruffy and his coffee has gone cold, but he’s happy, happy in a way that he isn’t always happy at home, happy in a way that looks good on him, happy in a way we all mean to be; content with the way things are, nothing different, nothing better, everything exactly as it is.
Listen to Laurie read this piece …