06 Apr WellBeing Magazine Lessons in Happiness
My heart is going pitterpatter. I can hardly contain my elation. An hour out of Bangkok, we’re cruising at 36,000 feet — on our way to heaven. Mount Everest is coming up on our left. HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck of Bhutan is sitting right in front of me. He turns. His soft brown eyes sparkle when he recognises me.
“We met four years ago in Washington DC,” I remind him. “I am just returning from there,” he says. “It is my first time out of the country since we met.” “Uh oh,” I chuckle. This is not a coincidence, I think. “Ahh, there is a reason we are meeting again.” He shoots me a mischievous grin as if he’s read my mind.
On our way to celebrate his father’s 60th birthday, we land briefly in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the scene of my memoir, Love: The Saint and the Seeker, about my transformative experiences with Mother Teresa. Now, 22 years later and through a beginning just as transcendent, I am returning to the land I loved before I ever set foot upon it.
Though I knew very little about Bhutan, nine years ago I was inextricably pulled to it, the way you are when you are tired and weary and just want to go home.
The legends surrounding the Bhutanese, these handsome sentient beings with their generous smiles, elegant manners, vibrant dress and idyllic countryside, will strike you with wonder and awe. Stories you’ll find hard to believe: sagas that dig deep, touching that warm, meltable part of your heart, tales that tug at your sense of right and wrong.
You will marvel at why every country in the world is not following in this little kingdom’s footsteps.
Idea that can change the world
How could a tiny developing nation with its almost medieval rituals guide a developed world happily into its future?
Protected by the highest mountain peaks on the planet, yet threatened by the ever-hastening melting of glaciers, the people of Bhutan live quite consciously as one family. Admittedly, everyone in the state seems to share a handful of first and last names but their sense of community is the more telling sign that everyone is connected.
Progress and change have not wiped out this remote mountain kingdom’s identity. The influx of modern ideology and our current global instability have reinforced the domestic belief that inner happiness is more valuable than outer wealth.
They call it Gross National Happiness (GNH). Don’t get me wrong — the joys and perils of a world without borders have touched Bhutan, as they have all nations. Yet the four elemental pillars that hold up their happiness index are simply defined: good governance, socioeconomic development, resource conservation and cultural promotion and preservation.
Ideas that can change the way you live
Where do we begin to transform a world of conflict, greed and waste into a flourishing community of sharing, happiness and trust? It starts at the top, and it starts at the bottom.
Good governance Royalty in Bhutan is very much loved. When there were few roads to speak of and less mechanised modes of transport, the king would walk, flanked by his ministers, to all corners of his kingdom. Though the journey could take months, he consulted every man, woman and child on intended national policy changes.
Bhutan first loosened its self-imposed isolation in 1961 when it became a member of the postal union. A decade later, it joined the United Nations. After that, television and the internet arrived. The world was growing smaller and it was growing bigger and, from all corners of the Earth, people came and Western influence entered the consciousness of the Bhutanese.
Perhaps that may have prompted the one decision where His Majesty did not consult his citizenry. It was a surprise to all, even to the Crown Prince who at the time was a student at England’s Oxford University. At first it made the people of Bhutan very sad. In l998, HM King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Fourth King of Bhutan, set a revolutionary precedent when he gave up absolute power and sent every household in the land a new draft constitution which allowed for his impeachment.
HM King Jigme is almost deified in his nation and yet you won’t find a humbler man, indicative of his explanation to his people: “The flaw in monarchy is that you reach that very high and important position not due to merit but due to birth. Too much depends on one individual.”
He had borne the mantle and responsibilities of Sovereign King from the age of 16 and, as he said selflessly, it was time for young energy and wisdom and a new paradigm for his people. When his son HM Jigme Khesar stepped up to the throne, he echoed his father’s pledge: “I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son.” The people had their new King of Hearts.
One year later, true to the former king’s decree, and almost reluctantly, the people of Bhutan became a democracy.
When every member of a family has a vote and a voice in their future, a new respect enters the home. Little children may have squeaky voices yet their wisdom is pure and direct, unencumbered by social expectations and judgement. They have much to offer the governance of a family.
The trust factor of stepping knowingly into the unknown is heightened and everyone has a vested interest in its success. The family goes forward in unity. Why else have we all been put on this Earth, if it is not to nurture, develop and grow … together?
Social economic development In Bhutan, there is no development without consideration for all whom progress will impact: the people, the land, the banks, the corporations, the local businesses, the flora and fauna — yes, even the little animals. For everyone, the only win in advancement and change is a win-win. In each family, the practicalities of growth and improvement take planning and money. Money is always an issue and yet money is simply a tool. When you’re building a home, a career or a life, you don’t focus on your tools; you focus on your creation. When you keep your eye on the prize, the means of getting there will simply unfold. Law of attraction: know that the wish has already been granted.
It’s all about focus. Cover your bases and focus on what you want, not what you don’t have. Put your thoughts and energy around what riches are in your nest egg and not around an empty nest. Greed comes from need. Curb the greed and you will no longer feel the need. Know that you have all the abundance you need, right here and right now. The momentum of that feeling will pulse through your DNA and intensify and multiply.
Resource conservation All the measures of a sustainable lifestyle are the norm in Bhutan. Through their hydroelectric plants they create more energy than they consume, which makes them a carbon-positive nation. The Bhutanese understand how valuable their canopy is to combat global change and close to 70 per cent of their land area is by law, and in perpetuity, forest. Plastic bags are nonexistent and agriculturally the country is dedicated to becoming 100 per cent organic — to mention just a few of Bhutan’s eco-sensitive initiatives.
As a family, there are a myriad of ways you can conserve your resources, no matter how small they seem: recycle and reuse as much as you can and change habits to conserve water, electricity and fuel.
There is one personal resource we can all use more consciously and that’s our human resource. Don’t waste a moment. Live in the flow of “now”. Don’t look ahead or behind, don’t live in your past or worry about your future. Look at clocks less. Some days, don’t wear a watch. Have faith in your internal clock and listen to it. Be present and you will be gifted with presents galore.
Say “yes” and trust that yes is the right answer. Negativity spirals down and sucks up energy. It cannot build or sustain itself. Positivity reinforces, strengthens and grows. When that little voice says “no” (and we all have that tiny person inside who wants us to stay small and safe in the tried and true), tell it to go take a hike. Take care of your small thoughts and your big ideas will take care of you.
Cultural promotion & preservation The Bhutanese nurture their culture knowing that it’s only from deep roots that we grow tall and powerful. As citizens of the last Buddhist kingdom on Earth, their philosophy of nonviolence and inclusion of all religions is expansive. They love a good festival and a reason to dance and sing. Even in their saddest moments, they have a passion and a reverence for living that we have perhaps forgotten.
Laughter is a cultural favourite of the Bhutanese. Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck shared in her personal memoir one of her favourite childhood rituals.
On weekends, she and her sisters were called by their grandfather to gather in the living room. They would open their doors and windows so others in the village could partake in this special treat. When everyone was seated and quite still, grandfather pulled out a 78rpm record, placed it on the turntable and, with a big grin, played it. Just as a family somewhere else in the world might sit down to listen to music, this Bhutanese family sat together listening to a recording of laughter — plain, simple, infectious laughter. It would play until everyone in proximity had caught the bug and was laughing uncontrollably. Family culture is as unique as a drop of water.
Family will teach you the foundation of unconditional loving. Hold tight to it. Support it and encourage it. Your family is the jewel of your growth, the temple of your presence in this world. Honour it and it will honour you.
When you dive deep into your personal family culture, you land in the one place where all cultures reside. It hits you that you are a spiritual being involved in a physical existence, with its own unique expression. Then you realise you already live in a magical happy kingdom.
Upon landing, the Prince turns and kisses me on both cheeks. He motions for his secretary to give me his card. “Call me,” he says as he quickly deplanes.
I step down the stairs onto the tarmac and immediately I notice the crowds of people. There are more planes coming into Bhutan now. More people are discovering my happy place. On one hand I’m delighted for the Kingdom, as more tourists mean more affluence for this tiny land and more people in the world will discover what true happiness is. Yet on the other hand I’m frightened, concerned that the crowds will trample this beautiful land and the people will change. But then I realise, thankfully, they have their pillars of GNH to protect them.
As I walk across the tarmac, a giant billboard greets us of HM King Jigme Khesar and his exquisite young and pregnant Queen. A big stupid grin takes over my face. I am going to a huge birthday party. I am going to sing and dance and, best of all, I am going to laugh.
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