Over Spring Break, I had a chance to take a deep breath and feel some peace inside. It’s not hard when I’m walking on a beach, especially on a cool day when the sky is grey and it’s mostly just me and the gulls. In Nashville I often feel pulled in many different directions, and crowded days make a cluttered mind. It’s also true that a cluttered mind makes days feel “crowded.” I thought a lot about how I might bring some peace back with me.
I picked up a book on the “local authors” table at Parnassus right before the trip that ended up being a big help. Author Linda Leaming also found her peace somewhere else – halfway around the world, in her case – and writes about it in a very personal and engaging manner in A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up. A Field Guide finds a sweet spot between memoir and self-help, and the fact that Linda grew up in Nashville and now divides her time between here and Bhutan makes it all the more interesting to me and perhaps other Bacon readers.
True confession: I had to go to Wikipedia to locate Bhutan. In case you are also geographically challenged:
Leaming defines happiness as “being a state wherein we are ‘without want.’ Happiness is linked to kindness, compassion, having what you need, and being comfortable with yourself, but it’s not necessarily linked to outward comfort.” She finds this kind of happiness prevalent among the Bhutanese – where living conditions are very hard – and rare in the U.S.
The culture shock when Leaming first arrived in Bhutan (after the airline lost all of her luggage) was profound. “We Americans are brilliant at many things: we’re ingenious, we work hard, we’re resilient,” she writes. “Even with difficult economic times, and the fact that everything and everyone has become politicized and polarized, we live well compared to many people in the world. We are energetic, interesting, intelligent people, and if I might continue to generalize, we are also the most impatient and easily addled people on the planet. We can’t handle too much randomness. We pack our days with appointments and events, and even our ‘days off’ are full of activities. In Bhutan, if I have three things to do in a week, it’s considered busy. In the U.S., I have at least three things to do between breakfast and lunch.”
Everyday life in Bhutan is full of what I (and she!) would call stress. Stores are not always well stocked with food; you can’t count on always being warm and dry in your house; water shortages are common. Perhaps the greatest challenge for Leaming is getting used to the pace of life. In the U.S., she notes, “speed begets speed. All of this efficiency only makes us want things faster.” And she admits – “On some level, it’s kind of fun to get worked up about things, knock things out, and be superproductive. It can make you feel alive. But it’s a false sense of living because you can’t be in the moment. It doesn’t touch your core.” In Bhutan, where even the simple task of depositing a check at a bank can be time-consuming and aggravating, Leaming learned to cultivate a sense of calm and patience about these things. This led her to a greater realization:
If you are calm, then you are able to do more. There’s evenness to your emotions and thoughts, and you will be amazed over time at what you are able to rise above. If we can learn to cope and be calm during the little disasters we have every day, then we are more able to handle the really big things when they come along. Because they are coming along. So burrow in, calm down, get in touch.
Each chapter in Leaming’s book takes on a specific element of finding and cultivating this inner calm – “Lose Your Baggage, “Learn to Breathe,” “Generosity is Contagious” – you get the idea. This book often feels more like memoir than self-help, though; each chapter relates a deeply personal story about Leaming’s experiences abroad and back at home. Each story finds its way to a point – but the point doesn’t feel any more important than the story.
Take, for instance, one of my favorite chapters – “Learn to be Water.” In it, Leaming relates what happened after her washing machine broke, but she conveys the experience in the form of a fable: “Once upon a time there was a woman who loved many things in this world… most of all she loved her washing machine. Yes, it’s true, her washing machine was right up there in the top four or five things she loved most. That’s because she liked to be clean and deep down inside she was terrified of washing by hand. Terrified, because it would take an excruciatingly long time….” The washing machine breaks, and the woman’s husband goes on a Jack-in-the-Beanstalk kind of quest to find a replacement belt. I won’t give the rest away, except to let you know that it ends unpredictably but well. Leaming concludes: “To get to a simpler level of existence, to think differently about time, to live with more grace and humor, to adapt yourself to your environment, to let go of control, to quit pushing so much – this is learning to flow, and this is what I learned living in Bhutan.”
You’ll recognize before the end of this book that much of it is Buddhist teaching, but (speaking as a practicing Presbyterian) you don’t have to shed any pre-existing religious beliefs to benefit from what Leaming and the Buddhists have to say. This book is a breath of fresh air. A long walk on a cool beach. A reminder of many things I get wrong. And a tremendous encouragement to seek a calmer mind in the small things.
Photos by Linda Leaming (for more, visit LindaLeaming.com):