Bringing Back the Beauty of Bhutan

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country. . . we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look on it more as an occasion for spiritual testing…
…Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.  – Albert Camus

This place is inside of us. We bring it with us. Manifest places like this in our practice. We come for a reflection of it. – Dawa Tarchin Philips

I used to be different, now I’m the same. – Werner Erhard

Yesterday I met a rancher as I was hiking and he was rounding up his cattle. He was friendly, so I stopped and leaned on his truck while he told me his story. He’s lived in our little town of Salida all his life and watched it change over the years. He travelled once in the ’70’s to Montana with his family but other than that, he has not left. For 80 years, he’s slept in the same house.

He asked why I moved here and I gestured to the 360 degree view of the valley and the towering mountains all around us, and said, “The beauty.”

“I have been looking at this scenery all my life, is it really beautiful?”, he said. I nodded, and he then replied, “Huh, I guess it is.” He asked what I do. I told him I’m a writer and he responded, “Well, maybe you can write about this place.”

In some ways, I wish I could (or would) write historical accounts of a place and it’s people, but I write about internal landscapes, the human heart, the human struggle. A writer attempts to make sense of the world through our words and one of the gifts after the fire was my ability (and willingness) to bare it all on the page. I wrote the messy and the dark, the not yet worked out, the struggle. I let it all hang out there without wrapping it into a neat package. This was freeing both as a writer and as a traveller on the path of being human.

Lately, I have been afraid to put my writing out there. I have been messed up by our cultural confusion about grief and censoring myself. I haven’t wanted to admit the extent of my grief about losing my mother. And conversely, I haven’t wanted to share all the good in my life for fear it will diminish my “right” to have my grief.

As a writer, I have been both misunderstood and judged. And for us tender-hearted writers who wonder whether our words matter, to be met with judgment can bruise us. But we know, it’s part of the job description, and bruises heal. Still, I have internalized particular people’s critical voices which threaten to stop me, even now. Some I can easily dismiss as “clearly not my audience”, such as the one who sifted through hundreds of my blog posts to one that was 6-month old and felt compelled to comment, “Oh my how you prattle on…”  (I considered making that the title of my next book – and still may). Another voice is an old friend who would rather I be twisted and funny than moved by love, and his voice threatens to pierce the love balm I’m bathing in today.

I fall in love. It’s just what I do – and it’s what I have always done.

When my heart opens, I feel most alive. Although, sometimes it opens so wide I’m not sure I can bear it. We should travel to expand ourselves, and for me, expansion happens in my heart. While I may protect my heart in my day-to-day life at home, I let my heart crack open when I travel to far-away places. When I left India in 2013, I wept deeply. I had fallen in love with her gorgeous chaos, the smells, the colors, the inconceivable sights of all walks of life, the crowds, the cows in the streets, the blaring horns, the smoke, the music – and the people. Ah, how I loved the people.

I wrote this in my journal after my return –

India, what have you done to my heart? Moments of bliss. Moments of knowing.  Moments of utter stillness. Countless moments of true joy. Even more moments of love, of being annihilated by love.

What’s the difference between enormous joy and intense sorrow? Maybe nothing. As I was leaving and saying goodbye, I began to weep deeply and then laughed as deeply which turned into a snort and more laughter. It was a perfect moment of expressing all I felt. My heart held it all.

Today, sitting in the quiet in my beautiful home, next to the dog whom I so adore, I give myself the gift of exploring the terrain of my pilgrimage to Bhutan in my mind and heart.

In awe of Tiger's Nest

In awe of Tiger’s Nest

It’s still too big and too close to take it all in. I’m still jet lagged enough that my mind isn’t sharp. I can’t put it in a box but want to capture as much as I can while it is still fresh. In one word, it was extraordinary. I lightened my grip on expectations before I left other than my commitment to give myself the gift of space: a reprieve from responsibilities of home, a recoup from the stress of Jerry’s heart attack and my trips to FL to be with him, a break from social media, a stepping out of the drama of our election season and the constant bombardment of our ‘rightness’ and strong opinions about that.

Our Dharma teacher clearly distinguished from the beginning that we were not traveling as tourists, we were pilgrims. This was not to be a ‘sit back and enjoy the ride’ type of trip. This was one in which required full participation and for us to be engaged, to learn, to expand, to be uncomfortable, to traverse the countryside – and to walk in the “Footsteps of the Guru”. (1)

Upon our arrival, we were met by our guides. At first strangers to us, with their gentle smiles and spectacular knowledge of their country and their traditions, they began to open our eyes to what we were witnessing as they opened our hearts with their beauty. They were all so easy to love — sweet, personable, thoughtful, kind, funny, dear young men who were there to take care of us and show us their Bhutan. All thirty of us, women and men, ages 17 to 89, fell in love with them in our own ways.

As is natural, we all had those we spent more time with based on our activity level or chosen bus seat. My love was Sangay. 28 years old, a sparkle in his intelligent eyes, not afraid to love and be loved.

We all had those we spent more time with based on our activity level or chosen bus seat. Sangay, 28 years old, with a sparkle in his intelligent eyes, was not afraid to love and be loved.

Why travel at all if we don’t let our heart expand? Why fall in love with a country, if we don’t fall in love with her people? What better way to come to know a country than through the eyes of her citizens?

There were times I wanted to go home so badly it was close to unbearable. Mostly, I knew that the homesickness would pass, but one morning I awoke and it took my breath away. So far from home, coming down with a cold, panic started.

…seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits… 

…feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.

We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity.

It’s been a helluva ride the last four years. True, deep losses and foundation shaking events – losing our home to the fire, the death’s of Bill, mom, Denise, Dane, a 3 year IRS audit, moving seven times…

Now, I feel on the verge of something. A coming back alive after being asleep. Enthusiasm. Maybe it’s the tail end of jet lag and the excellent coffee this morning. Maybe it’s my zest for life soaking back in to my parched pores. I let myself be battered by the winds of life, I got waylaid in the mud, I lost a sense of myself, but I was also deepening in ways I couldn’t always recognize, especially as I rounded the corner to 50.

So what did I bring home from my pilgrimage to Bhutan? Reminders of what matters (and what matters to me as I tend to apply what I think should matter and I skip over what matters to me). What matters to me is love. Love and connection. Human connection. Falling in love with people. Not one thing “happened” that had me shift but I went there with a commitment and according to our fearless leader (who is gorgeous inside and out) Karma, “What you bring to Bhutan, you receive from Bhutan.” I brought openness, willingness and no agenda to become spiritually enlightened. I didn’t expect it to change me but I was open to change. Bhutan didn’t change me, it returned me to my heart. And, I made a vow of compassion, to not be a slave to my mind, a commitment to freedom, to return to love when I get lost.

Prayer flags are blown by the wind spreading the good will and compassion.

Prayer flags are blown by the wind spreading the good will and compassion.

Bhutan stands for something. It is not perfect, but it strives to be. It has a depth of cultural history that we lack (and we have tried to wipe out) here in the United States. It’s no wonder that so many of us crave something bigger as we grasp for substitutes that never quite do the trick.

How easy it is for us in modern times to feel moved and then move on when the mood changes. To feel disappointed when we no longer feel ‘filled up’ by an experience. To make commitments and then change our mind. To look outside ourselves for inspiration and joy. I was given the task to deepen my own joy, keep my heart open and to bring compassion to others. As we all know, this is tall order. It’s easy to have compassion for those we love, for children, for puppies, for the sick and old. It’s harder to have compassion for our neighbors who play rock music into the night, the driver that cuts us off in traffic, Trump or Clinton (whatever your flavor), or the people who love either Trump or Clinton (for gawds sake). But when we are tasked with being compassionate beings, it is not a selective choice.  And, we can have compassion with ourselves when we don’t (or forget to) have compassion.

All we get to do is stop and remember. Slow down and regroup. It’s not going to wash over and clean us completely (for most of us anyway). It will have to be a pause and a second thought. The first thought is often not so great. It’s often filled with fear, with judgment, with resistance to what is. I resist what is and how life goes all the time. I know how easy it will be to sink back into cozy cycles of falling asleep at the wheel, and then seeking something from outside to soothe me, to fix what feels broken.

Maybe, as the Buddha said, we are actually not broken.(2)  I may be broken open by much of life, but I am not broken. We all have Buddha nature, we just have to stop long enough to remember that.


(1) Padmasambhava, the ”Lotus-Born Buddha of the Himalayas”, also known as Guru Rinpoche, was an 8th-century Indian Buddhist master who is widely venerated as a ‘second Buddha’ across Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Himalayan states of India. Bhutan has many important pilgrimage sights associated with Padmasambhava, including the famous, Paro Taktsang or “Tiger’s Nest” monastery which is built on a sheer cliff wall about 500m above the floor of Paro valley.

(2) Buddha didn’t really say this but I’m sure he meant it.

About the trip: a 14 day pilgrimage led by Dharma Teacher Dawa Tarchin Phillips and Bodhi Path Santa Barbara, in conjunction with Bhutan Orient Expeditions, through the sacred valleys of Western and Central Bhutan – retracing ancient pilgrimage routes linking many sacred sites and monasteries, immersing ourselves in the culture of Bhutan, while falling in love with its people.

  • Wendy
    Posted at 15:35h, 15 October

    I too was moved to my core after my trip to India. I wasn’t sure what to do with all the feelings I had. Thank you for putting into words what I wished I could. Now, Bhutan, and her people call to me as well.

  • Eleanor
    Posted at 21:37h, 15 October

    I struggle with remembering to practice compassion especially in today’s political arena. I find myself holding my breath until 11/8 and the election is over. Thanks for the reminder to stop – and practice.

  • Susan
    Posted at 23:36h, 15 October

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Alison Smela
    Posted at 00:25h, 16 October

    “Bhutan didn’t change me, it returned me to my heart.” That sentence alone caused me to take a slow deep breath and feel my own heart break open to your experience. What a beautiful expression of what shifted you. I hung on every word.

  • Jen Coken
    Posted at 04:35h, 16 October

    As always, beautifully written. I could identify with so much – the want to connect, the yearning to love, being returned to your true Self. Thanks for sharing you.

  • Sandy Golnick
    Posted at 04:29h, 20 October

    Kristen, your words fill me up with a peace and understanding and compassion for all. I am so blessed to have come across your gift tonight.

    We arrive in the Denver area tomorrow….so wish you were close so we could hug and share our hearts with each other.

    Love you to the max! xS