There’s no getting around it, life is finite. Some people realize that earlier on and for others it doesn’t come until later. But for Lisa Napoli, author of Radio Shangri-La, that day came at the age of 43 when her mid-life crisis hit and she was confronted to come to terms with who she was. By chance she was invited to the landlocked state in Southeast Asia, Bhutan and what she found there are some nuggets of wisdom that can help the rest of us through our own moments of crisis and even be a path to happiness.
Today, I’m happy to bring Lisa to you answering what she learned about happiness, how it changed her life and some advice about how to deal with the inevitable challenges of suffering. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area, this weekend Lisa will be speaking on her transformational journey through Bhutan at InsightLA in Santa Monica, Ca on January 12th from 7-9pm.
Elisha: What does Bhutan have to teach us about how to be happy?
Lisa: I think changing your location always changes your perspective on where you live, who you are, how you conduct your daily life. For me, because Bhutan was so vastly different than Los Angeles or New York, the two places I’ve lived over the last 20 years; it reframed how I looked at the busyness of my surroundings. Life was slower paced, people walked more, they dropped in on one another unannounced (and lived more communally in the first place) and were unafraid to express their spirituality. On my first stint in Bhutan, it was almost unheard of to eat out at a restaurant—there just weren’t many. So cooking and eating together was a big part of the day.
I loved the casual spirit of the day to day life there. It’s what I’ve always aimed to mirror in my life here, although circumstances conspire to make that a challenge, especially in LA.
And yet: Bhutan is changing, fast, as modernization creeps in. I have mostly spent time with people in their twenties, since I went to volunteer at a radio station (with no small amount of guilt for being ‘part of the problem.” Since media are changing how Bhutanese perceive themselves, giving them a window to consumerism and desire that they didn’t have before…)
In the end, people are people and want the same things, and that message was important for me to learn. We are all struggling with the same issues; it’s the particulars that change.
So it wasn’t as much Bhutan that taught me to be happy—as it was my openness to rethinking how I was living my life. I could bring some of the slower pace of a less developed and deeply religious country into my more modern world—by giving up habits and work that was not making me happy.
That said, the natural beauty in Bhutan is extraordinary. And so is the culture. And both those of things greatly enrich our lives, my life.
Elisha: How has Bhutan changed you as a person?
Lisa: I wrote an entire book about that! It’s hard to distill. But basically, for me, going to Bhutan to volunteer unlocked a deeply hidden spirituality that I now feel comfortable exploring and expressing. It also showed me I could not go back to the old way of living (for me that meant leaving the daily news business.) It made me understand certain deeply personal life choices I’ve made. It made me come home and commit to volunteering here, immersing myself in my community more than I had allowed myself before. (Work was always an excuse, but dialing down the work made it possible.)
And it made me less afraid to proclaim that my priorities were people, time, silence, worship, healthy food and living. Those were my priorities—not wedging those things around an insane work schedule and making tons of money. (Not that I ever made tons of money.) Of course this meant dissonance with some people in my life, because not everyone understands. But it also meant welcoming in new people with similar values.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone experiencing the inevitable sufferings that life sends our way, what can you share about what you learned that may be helpful?
Lisa: Take a deep breath. Slow down. Listen. Walk. Change your scenery. Be in nature. Turn off your cell phone, instead of clutching and being afraid that you are going to ‘miss’ something. Be kind to yourself.
After a personal loss 13 years ago, I found myself being drawn to swimming. At age 37, I did not know how to swim, but I learned. I immersed myself in the experience, and swimming became an integral part of my life. Breathing, I realized, is the essential ingredient—I learned to meditate in the water!
I also love the Three Good Things exercise. It’s simplistic to some, but it works. You make a list of the three things that happened that day that were the best. They are usually small things, like something you ate. My swim and the view out my window are routinely on my list. But doing this makes you focus on the small beautiful things that make up a life—rather than focusing on what you perceive as missing. (i.e. relationship, house, baby, lucrative job, fame.)
Elisha: Thank you so much Lisa!
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Bhutan monastery photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 10 Jan 2013