Being in Nepal has reminded me how important it is to leave our cultural comfort zones and allow ourselves to experience those slight shifts in perspective that pave the way to major insights and life-changing revelations. It is so interesting to realize, again and again, that there is no objectivity- what we believe to be universal truth quickly disintegrates when we are immersed in another culture that has been built upon entirely different universal truths. It is humbling to remember that, no matter how certain we are, our particular perspective of reality represents nothing more than our own cultural indoctrination of what is good, what is bad, what is normal, what is desirable.
In New York, the prevailing cultural doctrine that underlies everyday thought and behavior (in my opinion) is that life is stressful. Satisfaction, inner peace, and personal fulfillment are goals that are constantly pushed farther and farther into the future but rarely achieved right now. Materialism has taught us that we deserve more, that no matter what we have it is never enough, and that something is wrong with us if we are not willing and able to make ourselves sick with stress and exhaustion in the pursuit of health and happiness. We live in a crowded and sometimes hostile environment that requires self-imposed alienation from a very large percentage of the people we cross paths with on a daily basis.
Like the horses that plod through Central Park, we put blinders on as we move around the city, in the form of vacant stares, sunglasses, and unwavering engagement with our iPhones, to most efficiently shield ourselves from the world around us. It is a survival technique meant to conserve energy for interactions that really matter- interactions that we sense will benefit us in some way. An unfortunate con of the New York lifestyle is a pervasive sense of loneliness and mental anguish that stems from feeling unseen, misunderstood, and unfulfilled. Many of us frantically, and unsuccessfully, try to fill this void with drinking, shopping, exercising, yoga, tinder, nostalgia about a glorified past or obsession about a better future.
I have been so surprised that out of the 200 Nepali patients I have treated in the last week, only one has mentioned anxiety and depression. After the horrific earthquake, not to mention decades of imperialism, civil war, Tibetan refugee crises, Maoist terrorist attacks, unstable governments, and limited access to electricity, gas, and water, I had expected to treat mass trauma and PTSD on a regular basis. Instead, the majority of my patients seek treatment for persistent arm or leg or back pain, compounded with other medical disorders, due to poor diet, pollution, and full days of back-breaking labor in the fields. Yet, aside from the pain, or the hypertension, or the gout, or the dizziness, they are happy. They smile easily, they sleep well, they have no issues with ruminating thoughts, grief for the past, or longing for the future.
In contrast to New York, where the dominant cultural message is “life is hard” (even though compared to most places it is really really good), in Nepal, it seems to be “life is good” (even though it is really really hard). In terms of health, it is incredible to think about how drastically that slight difference in perspective impacts physical, mental, and emotional perception of every single life experience. In Nepal, tourists joke about the pervasive Nepali phrase and gesture that signifies, “what to do?” As in, there's a major petrol crisis going on and life is even harder now- what to do? The tourists want action, indignation, rage. Yet, the Nepalis seem to be conserving their energy for actions that really matter- walking for hours or braving the dangerously crowded buses and vans, gathering wood for cooking fires, not freezing to death in the tents or concrete houses that have no heat.
The dignified acceptance of what is that my Nepali patients so effortlessly carry into the clinic, is the exact medicine that so many of us Westerners seek and crave. The cure for the deep spiritual void that materialism has created in most of us is not accessed through consuming more, as the advertisements would have us believe, nor through numbing behaviors such as drinking, shopping, or exercising, nor through attempts at spiritual by-passing with yoga, meditation, or philosophy. In Nepal, spiritual healing is ingrained in the culture, providing an intrinsic ability to live in the present moment, free from suffering, pining, and longing. It is a survival mechanism that arises as naturally as the impulse to eat or sleep, offering resiliency in coping with the immense hardship, disaster, injustice, and trauma that the Nepali people are, sadly, so accustomed to and continuously subjected to by politicians, natural disasters, and foreign powers.
The essence of this spiritual medicine is found in the most frequently uttered word in Nepal- the simple salutation, namaste,used for both greeting and departing. In New York, namaste is an exotic word said at the end of a yoga class, hands pressed together in prayer form, meant to imply, “Thank you, goodbye, we all just shared a great experience for me.” In Hinduism it means, “I bow to the divine in you.” Or in other words, “The divine in me recognizes itself in the divine in you, and we both acknowledge that sacred bond.” Namaste is a way to say to someone, I see you; I see the goodness, the truth, and the beauty in you and I have faith that you see it in me too.
It is a conscious choice to let go of fear, judgment, and distancing techniques, to embrace the rare opportunity to be free enough to give and receive love spontaneously, without shame and without commitment. Namaste honors the present moment, as an expression of gratitude for glimpsing the divinity carried within each sentient being. Even if only for a second, witnessing that luminosity is profoundly healing.