Living from the Heart… & Other Lessons from Bhutan

I was slowly settling into a new life in Amsterdam when I saw the advertisement for the Slow Change program in Bhutan.  Despite being a world away, I instantly knew I needed to join.  2016 had been a challenging year for me – I moved countries twice, ended a meaningful relationship, and despite having the intention to ‘lay foundations’, spent most of my time country hopping on over 30 flights between 14 countries, searching for something I felt I had lost.  Bhutan, it seems, was it.

Bhutan is a small, mountainous country nestled between the giants of China and India. No paved roads until the 1960’s, no TV or internet until 1999, no GMO’s and almost entirely organic farming. A country that is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative, and a land with no foreign tourists until the 1970’s. With an entire series of kings that prioritised the wellbeing and happiness of their people, Bhutan is a country like no other.

Landing after a mildly harrowing flight from Bangkok to Paro, the crisp mountain air and startling warm sunshine provided me with an early appreciation for the small mountain kingdom, and marked the beginning of what I knew would be a transformative journey.

The Slow Change program was a two-week workshop run jointly by the Gross National Happiness Centre and Humankind Enterprises, bringing together 20 young changemakers to learn about the intersection of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and Slow Change – a deep inner transformation in the way we live and work. We travelled across the country exploring the country’s cultural vibrancy, strong sense of spirituality and the nations governing principle – Gross National Happiness.

I first heard about Gross National Happiness, or GNH, about five years ago, and although I was fascinated with the concept, I remember thinking that it sounded a little like a puff piece, a nice idea with no real substance. What could a country so small, so isolated, and so radically different have to teach the world? As it turns out, a lot.

While I won’t go into the history, pillars or domains of Gross National Happiness (you can read more about these here), the deep complexity and versatility of GNH became clear as we visited local schools, attended daily lectures and were given opportunities to question local spiritual leaders.

Being a Buddhist country, mindfulness quickly became a daily practice, and we were privileged to visit sacred meditation sites, some as old as 800 years. The stillness embedded in the land  was palpable, and although we were encouraged to ponder the meaning of Gross National Happiness and Slow Change, another topic – living from the heart – was begging for my attention.

It’s not news that the world faces challenges never encountered by earlier generations, whether it is climate change and sustainability, plastics pollution, increasing refugee numbers, fear, xenophobia or terrorism. We see over 350 million people worldwide suffering from depression, soaring rates of anxiety and a culture that glorifies burnout, exhaustion and chronic over-working. We are more digitally connected than ever before, but rarely know the names of our own neighbours.

These problems will not be solved by a quick fix or magic bullet, but are representative of the need for a fundamental shift in the way we live and work, a large reason I was drawn to Bhutan. As Albert Einstein once said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

In the pursuit of happiness, western culture encourages us to pursue extrinsic goals such as financial success, an ever-growing economy, popularity, networking and looking attractive, as ways to be successful.  It’s these same values, however, that have us pursuing endless growth or ‘more’ at the expense of our communities, our environment and our connection to nature and each other. 

If you ask the average person, however, what is most important to them, they tend to list intrinsic motivations such as family, friends & community (connection), health (physical wellbeing) & feeling good (self-love & acceptance), which research backs up as ultimately being more fulfilling.

Intrinsic goals like the above, along with values such as compassion, mercy, wisdom and love, have long been associated with the idea of heart, and as I travelled through Bhutan I began to answer my own question of what a heart-based society would look like. Gross National Happiness is an example of one such way of life, which is why it is so radically unique. Its guiding principle is not the endless pursuit of ‘more’, of searching for fulfilment outside of itself, but rather the wellbeing of its people, its environment and its culture.

Bhutan is not a perfect country. It is not without problems, and it too is facing unprecedented challenges as it moves further into connection with the rest of the world. For me, however, it is best described as a heart opening land. Its stillness allowed me to stop chasing the extrinsic goals I had been pursuing all year. It reminded me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and that the first step to creating a more heart-centred society is to tune in and listen to my own heart.

Bhutan provided me with a deep sense of connection to my values of compassion, connection and grace, and it showed me that not only must we live by heart-based values as individuals, but as communities and nations too.

Concepts like Gross National Happiness, and even happiness in general, don’t fascinate us because they are a pretty term or a fancy band-aid for the world’s problems. They connect with the part of us that recognises our current model of living is not working, and our endless desire for endless growth is no longer fulfilling.  As individuals, communities and nations, we crave something more – something embodied by Bhutan and its philosophy of Gross National Happiness.  Perhaps the small Himalayan kingdom, with its radically big idea, can show us the way.

I’ll write more on my Bhutan experience and the lessons I have learnt from Gross National Happiness and Slow Change over time, but if you’re interested in learning more, you can check out the blogs of some other participants, Sophie Benbow, Samantha BennettMike Davis & Christiane Schicker

Have questions about Bhutan, GNH or happiness? Send me an email at laura@appleseedcoaching.com

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