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Good morning, world. 13,800 feet. Good morning, world. 13,800 feet.

From the 10th-15th centuries, Bhutan was a land conducive to spiritual treasure-hunting. Treasure-finders, known as tertons, were generally monks with spiritual powers that allowed them to see and bring forth treasures including ritual objects and sacred texts. The area where I’m trekking holds the story of one of these treasure-hunters and is filled with treasure lakes, but it’s the gorgeous alpine valleys I’m longing to see.

Alpine lake that is home to a sacred yak deity--herders make offerings here as they head to higher pastures in the spring or lower pastures in the fall. Alpine lake that is home to a sacred yak deity–herders make offerings here as they head to higher pastures in the spring or lower pastures in the fall.

 

Pack horses coming up the trail. Pack horses coming up the trail.

The trek runs almost entirely between 12000-14,500 feet, which is a particularly sweet spot for trekking for me. The earth is still green (not entirely rock and ice, though that has its own stunning appeal). Wildflowers and rhododendrons spread across rocky crags and around a series of alpine lakes. The weather is temperate enough to have tea outside in the afternoon, be mesmerized by the Milky Way at night, and take an early morning hike just after dawn, though a cold wind stirs up some days and rain drizzles down some nights.

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The regional legend is that a Buddhist treasure-finder drained a lake and revealed ritual objects such as drums and trumpets, but the people were more interested in the gold at the bottom of the lake. Angry, he threw aways the religious treasures–each item forming a lake where it landed–and let the water back into the lake, drowning the people whose only treasure was gold.

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Heading out for a few days of trek scouting (which means walking a 5-6 day trek in 3 1/2 days), we are a team of 4: a guide, a cook, a horseman (with 4 pack horses), and me. We will not find a single village in this wide wilderness and have all our supplies with us, though a few yak herders are now encamped along the way as the cold weather pushes them to lower pastures. I eat rice morning, noon, and night like a local, keep pace ahead of the horses, and track hiking times and campsites. Although we cover a lot of ground, the days are still pervaded with peace and ease. I gaze out at the mountains while drinking tea, carry stones to repair rock chortens, and hike with a perpetual (and slightly goofy) smile across my face. The wind and the clouds, the rhododendrons and rock faces, the shimmering alpine lakes and stark high passes–treasures abound.

With my guide, Jigme Jigme the Guide and me

 

Camp kitchen and Tsering the cook whipping up breakfast.  Tsering the Cook whipping up breakfast in the camp kitchen

Jigme the Guide chants prayers as he fixes prayer flags come undone by the wind and suggests little side trips. Because I never met an alpine lake I didn’t like, I follow him off trail, up what feels like 500 feet but is probably less, to check out a few extra lakes. Along the trail, I pick up candy wrappers and other plastic tossed aside by locals…and after seeing me, Jigme starts doing the same. We become the trail clean-up crew. Tsering the Cook makes delicious meals, provides an endless supply of tea, and chews betel nut night and day giving him a red-stained smile. He’s been the cook on my last 3 treks in Bhutan and has walked more of the country than any of us. Dorje the Horseman ties up the loads in the morning, hobbles the horses at night, and wrangles unruly black Norbu and stubborn brown Mindu. Shooing rogue horses back onto the trail is a team effort. Dorje tells me his biggest problem at home is that he doesn’t have a power hand-tiller. They are very expensive, even to rent from a neighbor, so he still uses oxen to plow the field. Education and health care are provided by the government, so it’s not surprising to me that farming technology is his biggest concern. For his part, Karma the Horse begs like a dog at mealtimes and earns himself some rice or a treasured apple…treasure, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

 

Karma the Horse begs like a dog at mealtimes Karma the Horse begs like a dog at mealtimes

Buddhism in Bhutan

October 20, 2017

in Bhutan

 

Tantric temple Tantric temple

Around Paro, the capital Thimphu, and surrounding areas, we can’t pass a temple without my wanting to explore it. I’m gathering stories and looking for interesting out-of-way places to build into future trips…and Bhutan does not disappoint. Dark rooms are painted with winged wrathful deities to protect the land from disease. Centuries-old wooden ladders have steps worn smooth and sloping in the middle from thousands of feet climbing to higher altar rooms. Legends abound of evil spirits subjugated by Buddhist masters, and yes, sometimes they involve Tantric sex.

 

This man has left behind home, work, and worldly life to live as a hermit in a one-room temple built into the side of a cliff. This man has left behind home, work, and worldly life to live as a hermit in a one-room temple built into the side of a cliff.

In remote monasteries, I meet young boys who chose at age 12 to leave their families and become monks. I meet a hermit who has left behind home, work, and worldly life to complete 100,000 prostrations (which will take more than 3 years of a few hundred per day). A monk stops our car because he is helping a caterpillar in the middle of the road onto a leaf so that he can put it out of harm’s way. Young and old, they possess a seriousness in their clarity and devotion to spiritual practice that impresses me.

 

At age 12, this boy chose to leave his family to become a monk At age 12, this boy chose to leave his family to become a monk.

 

Young monks playing volleyball Young monks playing volleyball.

Spiritual devotion is not limited to monastics. Thousands of people turn up for a 3-month reading of the Buddha’s teachings at the foot of a giant Buddha statue on a hill. A local political leader makes the 5 hour round-trip hike three times every month to a forest temple to make offerings at the altar of a powerful feminine deity. Villagers donate their labor to rebuild a local temple destroyed in the 2011 earthquake (which did serious damage to historic temples across the country). By labor, I mean they spend months hauling 60-pound sacks of dirt up three flights of stairs to pound into rammed earth walls or take turns providing food and cooking for the 30+ people working on any given day. A woman who was diagnosed with a serious heart problem at age 60 came to live near the monastery where she has chanted mantras and spun a prayer wheel for the last 20 years. A check-up last year shows no heart problem.

Spiritual practice pervades every part of life here. Rich and poor, educated and not, most people offer a little of every meal to the deities or recite a prayer before eating (and I fit right in, as I make my own offering of gratitude before every meal). Homes are blessed annually by monks. Prayer flags are strung on high passes.

 

This man makes a 5-hour hike to a forest temple 3 times every month. This man makes a 5-hour hike to a forest temple 3 times every month.

Some of the best parts of Bhutan can’t be captured in a photo (although the picturesque country and self-possessed populace certainly lend themselves to photos). Every temple prohibits pictures inside, every person practices in their own way, but Buddhism is part of the daily fabric of life in Bhutan.

Exploring Bhutan

October 15, 2017

in Bhutan

Greeted as we land by the golden rice fields of Paro Valley Golden rice fields of Paro Valley

 

Bhutan is everything I love about trekking and travel. Endless expanses of alpine wilderness are dotted with high altitude flowers and sacred lakes, and yak herders roam the high country. In the valleys, richly painted monasteries are full of red-robed monks and secret markers lead to forest temples of fierce Tantric deities. Traditional farmhouses have red chilies drying on the roof, and people everywhere are ready with a smile or a cup of tea for a curious visitor. So much to explore!

My heart surged before we landed, as the plane banked into Paro Valley and golden rice fields ready for the harvest were spread before me with green forest all around. Bhutan’s constitution mandates forest preservation, and over 70% of the country remains forested, which is part of the country’s allure. For trekking, this means you can walk off into real wilderness–vast tracts of land still inhabited by abundant wildlife, occasional yak herders, and perhaps a yeti. Another part of Bhutan’s allure rests in the deep Buddhist belief and practice held by everyone from the king to local farmers. Buddhism is an integral part of preserving the environment, conducting daily rituals, building monuments and monasteries, and governing the country based on Gross National Happiness (GNH), a defining marker in policy and decision-making.

After a summer immersed in research about 1200 years of Bhutanese history, little-known trek routes, and ancient Buddhist masters, I am spending 5 weeks in Bhutan this fall, with a trekking group as well as scouting areas for new journeys. In the first moments exiting the airport, where all the local staff in formal Bhutanese clothes stand quietly smiling, allowing travelers space and time to get their bearings, my body relaxed into a peaceful joy that has only expanded in the days since. At home in the Himalayas…

Trekking past a sacred alpine lake Trekking past a sacred alpine lake

 

Young monk Young monk

 

IMG_1111 First days in Bhutan

On Fire!

September 5, 2017

in Transformation

Cathedral Lake CO Last day of an inspiring Colorado sojourn: perfect rainbow came out as I was contemplating my future…a sign beckoning me forward on my path.

 

Fire is the element of vitality and passion. It springs up fast and wild, and needs to be fueled to remain bright. It’s symbolic of energy, creation, and transformation. This has been a summer of transformation, and I feel myself burning wild and bright!

Within days after my last heart-wrenching post, I sat a 10-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat and loved every minute of it. Truly. The relief of silence, the crisp beauty of the rolling mountains, the sweetness of simple things, the shared wisdom from down-to-earth teachers, the slow and spacious pace of living, eating, and breathing–I felt myself slip out of the stress and patterns and presence I had been stuck in and reconnect with the sources of joy and peace within me. I felt like I had a fresh beginning in the world. I stepped back into the flow of life as a different person, a different presence, inspired to higher purpose.

Connecting with your higher self doesn’t fix the world or even make daily life easier. Sometimes it’s harder. It’s hard to keep up with my morning meditation practice when I’m tired. It’s hard to watch myself slip into busy-ness and lose track of that centered person I was only a few hours ago. It’s hard to witness the struggles and suffering of friends close to me, of the nation, of people across the world. It’s hard to keep track of all the things I want to accomplish, much less actually begin them. And yet…I’ve somehow returned to a place of balance, a place where I can witness all that and still feel joy, purpose, passion, a place where I slowly move forward on my path, one step at a time, until I look back and can’t believe how far I’ve come.

This summer, I received updates from both of our non-profit partners detailing a variety of successes. Project info will come out in the fall newsletter, but it reignited my faith in my work and in myself…and I dove into that. As the months have unfolded, I’ve jumped into professional development workshops and career growth, garnering new clients and expanding my skills. I’ve watched friends become parents and shared the sweetness of their joy. I’ve allowed my grief to come forward–and also to be ritually relinquished. I’ve stepped into the discomfort (and the fun) of new social situations and dating. I’ve made time for friends, new and old, connecting with so many amazing people from my immediate community and across the country. I’ve traveled to Yosemite, Colorado, D.C.–and I’ve also shut my door at home and not gone outside some days. I’ve danced with abandon until dawn. I’ve put my focus on work and not moved for 7 hours. I’m volunteering locally. I’m discovering new power in my yoga practice. I’ve carved out time for everything important to me: friends, solitude, purposeful work, working out, being in nature, dancing, art, culture, and travel. I don’t know where all the energy suddenly comes from, but clearly a fire burns inside me again–and I have been fueling it with every experience within reach. It’s a fire purifying the past and heating up possibility for the future, drawing everything together and sealing it into something new.

These past weeks in Colorado, I’ve hiked, run, or biked nearly every day in the mountains, and it has fed my soul. I watched the solar eclipse as I hiked what was described as an “intuitive trail” after the main trail ends, which means I hiked mostly straight up 1000 feet over tundra scrub and then rock scree, to reach 13,108 ft with not a soul in sight. I looked out over the Continental Divide, over mountains and alpine lakes in every direction, and I was ready. From the limitless possibility of the sky and the solid clarity of the earth, from the thousands of creations in the world and from my one true heart, I called the future into being, committed to my work and my purpose, asked for everything I’d been envisioning, asked for all that my soul desires. I returned home only to spontaneously go to Burning Man on about 2 hours notice–and revel in the magic of community, art, dance, desert. Now I look ahead to the fall, to travels in Nepal and Bhutan, and I can feel the way forward unfolding.

After feeling heavy, stuck, and torn apart for so long, I’m now on fire–coming through the process of transformation and inspired to greater purpose. I’m ready for the future…and creating it.

 

 

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.  –Rumi

A New Geography

April 28, 2017

Deep fissures carve their way into my heart from watching the aftermath of destruction in Nepal, as well as from exhuming my own past. Two years this week since Nepal’s devastating earthquakes, and so many people still living in dire conditions.   The government has signed agreements for $3.1 billion in aid and is still collecting […]

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What’s Happening in 2016…

October 1, 2016

Hi–This is a blog post of our recent newsletter. If you did not receive this as a newsletter last Thursday and would like to know about our programs in Nepal, please email me.  I’m delighted to say that we have wonderful news and photos from our projects! (I won’t be posting the updates here this fall…only in the newsletter.) […]

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Upheaval and Restructuring

April 25, 2016

  A year since the Nepal earthquake, and I am finally feeling like myself again, feeling whole again. Healing is a slow process. At first I didn’t even realize how broken I was. My focus was entirely outward—on the safety and care of the clients I needed to evacuate from the country, on the staff […]

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Be A Part of the Positive Transformation in Nepal

April 25, 2016

April 25th marks one year since Nepal’s major quake, followed by over 400 aftershocks and a 5-month political blockade of essentials such as fuel, medicine, and food. Changing Lives Nepal is working to make communities stronger and more resilient. We are excited about everything we have planned…and we have a special gift for donors! READ MORE FROM OUR […]

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Over $80,000 Distributed for Earthquake Reconstruction

January 24, 2016

Reposting our update on distribution of earthquake funds for those of you who may have missed the story during the bustle of the holidays… Rebuilding Nepal Final Update Rukman Sunwar, kitchen staff (wearing the hat), with his parents and children in front of their flattened home. Amazing–giving out more than $80,000 to 19 families in Nepal […]

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Changing Lives Newsletter

January 21, 2016

In case you missed our recent newsletter in the busy holiday season, I’m reposting it here… Dear Donors and Friends,Nancy and I have deep gratitude for all of you, as you have supported our work and the communities in Nepal in years past, through this disaster, and into the future. Many of you contributed greatly […]

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