Coping in Bhutan

While sitting in my room, sick as can be, facetiously thinking, “I feel like I’m dying” I started contemplating death. Death, in general, is an uneasy topic for most. It brings up sad memories or is associated with the fear of the unknown. However, this is one aspect all people, regardless of their beliefs, have in common. We all will die. Most of us go through life without thinking of our demise from day to day. The thought of our death is usually only upon tragic incidents. While it may seem distorted to talk of how we will die or what we would like to happen after we leave this life, in Bhutan this is the norm. Ironically life in Bhutan has a lot of focus on death.  Addressing their death produces happiness, less stress, and a fuller spiritual path.

Arial view of Bhutan's capital, Thimphu.

Aerial view of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu.

The Bhutanese people’s ‘secret to happiness’ is to incorporate the meditation of death into each day. CNN’s Eric Weiner spoke to many people on his recent visit to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, and found death was not an unspoken fear to any of them. While opening up to a stranger during his travels he mentioned his panic attacks he’d experienced, despite the fact that his life was going particularly well. The kind stranger, Ura, replied with “You need to think about death for five minutes every day… It will cure you.” This statement left Weiner both stunned and intrigued. Ura continued with his advice, “It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you”.  This task of thinking about death each day would seem to send most into a downward depressing spiral, but Ura explains that in Bhutanese culture the thought of death goes hand in hand with happiness and the attainment of a full life.

These prayers flags are found all over Bhutan to represent the lives that have been lost.

These prayers flags are found all over Bhutan to represent the lives that have been lost.

Their acceptance and comfortable nature with death allows them to live a less nerve-racking and fearful life. While expected to think of death five different times a day, the Bhutanese people work on the their acceptance and readiness for death. A University of Kentucky study in 2007 found that, “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”. This reaffirms Ura’s message that the recognition of death is a necessary part of having the ability to live a whole life.

The psychological cost of not expressing things we fear can take atoll on the satisfaction we have within our lives. The teaching of thinking about your fears so much until they no longer are a fear is a process that differs from our western lifestyle. Western civilization centers on success as a key to happiness. This success typically pertains to one’s career and the strides they take to rise up.

Massive Buddha Dordenma statue found in Thimphu, Bhutan.

Massive Buddha Dordenma statue found in Thimphu, Bhutan.

In eastern cultures it has been observed that success is rooted in spirituality, personal happiness, and mental wholeness of the person. This is evident in Buddhism, which is a prevalent religion in Bhutan, where death is not the end of the spiritual life of the person, but it is the end of the body. This belief gives comfort to Buddhists who lose loved ones or are near death themselves.

In recent news a tragic earthquake has struck Bhutan’s neighboring country, Nepal, has produced a large death toll.  This earthquake was a 7.8 on the Richter scale resulting in casualty count surpassing 4,800 .

Map showing Nepal and it's proximity to Bhutan.

A map showing Nepal and it’s proximity to Bhutan.

Their lifetime of meditation practices helps them prepare for unexpected sorrow like this.  The belief in an afterlife provides an explanation of death and also a meaning to life. Meditation every single day makes passing on seem less devastating.

Life in Bhutan and in other eastern cultures’ daily meditation leads to very happy lives for its locals. This practice could teach westerners that the mere thought of our departure can make the anticipation involve less fright and leave room for more joy.