Hi, my name is Kesang Doma Sherpa. At the time of writing this, I am 34 years old. I am a woman and I write from Kathmandu. Mine is only one story among 7 billion stories so please don’t attach much importance to it. This will help me not to attach too much importance to my story.
Physically, Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal. But I refer to Kathmandu equally as a place and as a state of mind. One can be in Kathmandu anywhere in the world, whether one is in Kathmandu or New York.
All Roads lead to New York?
I completed my undergraduate studies at Yale University in the United States with a major in Film Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies with the help of a scholarship from the university and financial aid.
When I was close to graduating in between 2003 and 2004, I happened to speak with a fellow “Yalie” about future plans.
I had always maintained that after I graduated from college, I would return to my home country, Nepal, my happily-sad, sadly-happy, third-world paradox of a country with some of the world’s most beautiful and happy people and equally the same number of the world’s most difficult and unhappy people.
We score very low on Gross National Product (GNP), but maybe slightly higher on Gross National Happiness (GNH). Thankfully, even though we appear quite backward and crazy, with our bipolar standards and schizophrenic systems, I think, most of us are -for the most part- quite sane. We don’t (yet) have shootouts at cinema halls over small irritations like the beeping of a phone while text messaging, and generally strangers still talk on the streets or while using public transport.
When we greet one another, we say “Namaste” which means “I salute the divine in you” and at least in theory and for the most part, in practice, we have some sense of humans, men and women, as being divine. That kind of thing.
I had bravely written about my intention of returning to Nepal in my college “personal statement” so I felt there was no backing out. I had laid out all these grand statements about how I was going to transform Nepal.
But times had changed since I wrote that essay in 1999 when I first joined college. Nepal’s immediate royal family had since been massacred due to internal fighting allegedly by the crown prince. This was such a jolt that everyone from my generation remembers where they were and what they were doing at the time they heard the news.
Then there was a decades long people’s war, fully escalated in early 2000s. It was a rebellion led by the socialist faction, the Maoists, in Nepal, and Nepalis as a whole suffered a lot, on both sides, and as collateral damage. As we were a business family, my family was one of the many, many families at the receiving end of extortion and threats. I had to field a lot of those calls.
It was a confusing and nerve racking time but we never gave in to our nerves. We never reacted nor gave in to the threats. However, unfortunately, due to the bleak economic scenario, my parents had to sell the house they had built, along with most of their assets.
Overall, it was a time that now seems like a blur.
But I remember when my father visited me in university in 2002, I told him flatly that Nepal had it coming. There are gross inequalities, so obvious to anyone who looks beyond themselves, the perfect breeding ground for violent, bloody revolutions. But nobody looks outside Kathmandu.
In my childhood days, I remember I used to love to spell out the acronym for Nepal.
This acronym is hardly used by children here anymore although most Nepalis would desire peace more than anything else. But I think that most of us anywhere in the world would desire inner and outer peace more than anything else – what is the point of amassing wealth, knowledge and status if you can’t live without anxiety and fear, and can’t sleep at night without the aid of alcohol or pills?
My “friend”, the fellow “Yalie”, who shall remain unnamed who was not that keen to keep a future connection with me, as probably many superficial college friendships go, when I asked him “so when do you think we shall meet again?” replied to me something like; “well, you know, all roads lead to New York”.
But my journey has taken me from Kathmandu, where I was born in December 1979, close to the Boudhanath stupa, a revered Buddhist pilgrimage center of learning and practice, to the west, and back.
It’s been a difficult and dangerous journey in every sense of the word. Dangers, physically. Dangers, mentally. Dangers, financially. Dangers, spiritually. But yet, the biggest danger?
I have not transformed Nepal. I am transforming just one person – myself.
How? By always looking at the mind.
A free spirit embraces difficulties
“Western” point of view of freedom might differ, but this is how Buddhists describe freedom – to be free mainly from internal chaos, negative emotions, all that pain and suffering, which seems soooo unbearable that one then has to either react or crash in a heap, run away, shut down, or pop all kinds of pills. (I put western in quotes because these days east is looking and thinking like west, and many Buddhists are western or in the west. Many Buddhists and so called Buddhists are in the east, west, south, north, everywhere due to globalization. Fixed ideas of physical appearance and geography are completely blurred).
The outside world can be chaotic and stressful with all kinds of personal and professional dramas, but inside, it should be quite orderly. At least, that’s the aim.
But most of us focus more on creating a sense of order and controlling our external conditions and situations, a losing battle, because trains and cars, the plumbing or the government will eventually always break down at some point. Eventually the truth is our looks will change, we will get older, and our bodies will break down too. As for controlling people, forget it. That’s probably where most of our suffering comes from.
During my holidays during the Maoist years, Kathmandu bore the look of an empty parking lot patrolled by armed men, trying to keep the insurgents from entering Kathmandu. Families were broken apart and beaten down – physically, emotionally or financially.
In my case, it happened to be all three. Amidst it all, the main breadwinner in my family, my father, suffered a stroke, and my mother went through a deep depression as a result. Our financial affairs were a mess. As a result, emotionally, we all suffered.
My parents stood to lose everything. Pretty much everything except a few moveable possessions.
With my father reduced to half his usual size (but thankfully, not half his spirit), I found myself along with him and my siblings, sitting opposite a large, western man who was at that time the governor of the Nepal Rastra Bank.
He was throwing words like “defaulter” and “liquidation” at us. As I had never taken a single Business or Economics class in my life, I had never heard these words before and so I had no idea what they meant. I just sat there shaking my head, trying to look intelligent, pretending I knew what he was talking about.
To gather every ounce of grit and gumption required to face this troubling time, I wore my light blue t-shirt with dark blue piping on the arms. On the front of it, it read “YALE” in large letters. Well, there must be some time this might come to use, and it seemed like as good a time as any to use those four letters. I then took some “time off” from college to wrap my head around my family’s affairs and to help my parents. In Nepal, and many Asian countries, we have some sense of karmic duty toward our parents, ingrained into our DNA.
In 2006 I came back to Nepal. Nepalis living in the United States asked me; “are you sure you want to do this?”. It was as if I was walking into a trap or a landmine or a slaughterhouse, going by the looks on their faces. I gave different replies to different people. But for me it was always about stepping up, being a tough girl in tough times. I would say to myself; “a girl’s got to do what a girl’s go to do.” or “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.
During those years, there were sad eyes everywhere. Lines outside psychiatrists’ offices grew and grew day by day. The changes brought about were so deep, a lot of people needed medication to help them sleep through the night, forget the horrors they had witnessed, or their everyday worries.
Generally, people lived in fear, not knowing when the carpet was going to get pulled from underneath their feet. A lot of Nepalis ran away to other utopias; those who could went to the west, as far as New York, but also to other cities and towns in other countries.
Beyond Kathmandu, it was much worse. Kathmandu is the center of the universe. Everyone in Nepal wants a piece of Kathmandu. All roads (for village folk) lead to Kathmandu, one way or another because of the heavy centralization.
Meditate, Don’t Medicate
I am what I call “a born again Buddhist.” Along the way, due to various karmic twists and turns, I made a connection with what is generally called the “dharma,” basically a bunch of universal truths such as impermanence – that absolutely everything and everyone is impermanent, from our bodies to our houses, to our feelings and thoughts. Change is the only constant.
You can realize the latter if you look at the movement of the mind through meditation practice. Thoughts come and go. We don’t try to stop them or put our attention on another object; we just sit and we let them come and go without judging or labeling, without grasping, rejecting, or reacting.
We become aware of a simple thing we forget about in our modern day lives. Our breath. We become aware of our bodies, the present moment, our thoughts, our selves.
My experience with meditation in our modern social media world is equal parts hilarious as it is insightful and I hope to “share” soon so you can “share” and “like”.
When I couldn’t sleep at night, I meditated.
On some days that are just like that, hectic and going full speed, or when I have a million thoughts and strong emotions overtaking me, and I find it difficult to sit down on the cushion at home, I just take a break and go to one of the holy sites inside Kathmandu, Boudhanath or Swayambunath, or outside Kathmandu to Pharping or Vajrayogini above Sankhu, and just practice “sitting and doing nothing” meditation for a few minutes.
I meditated through 14 hours of pre-labor contractions during my childbirth, an experience anyone who has given birth will not describe as the most calm experience. I hope to write about it so that women can hopefully have fully lucid childbirth experiences without epidurals and pain medication, which can be a very transformational, very powerful experience. I am not suggesting it as the only way, just one way; some have to face medical intervention.
Although I have almost died about three times in this life, not doing anything as dramatic as climbing Mt. Everest, but due to situations that came on my doorstep, I am glad that I took this journey and that I lived through it to share all kinds of personal experiences, musings, insights, and sometimes spin some stories. Some are real, some are imagined, some are ordinary, some are extraordinary.
This blog is a work in progress. But aren’t we all? Please expect that things will keep changing on this blog as also on this About page.
With the help of what someone called “The Buddha” taught, supposedly a prince who abandoned his palace in search of “the truth”, I have realized;
Whether male or female, we all look to be happy and free. But we look for this “happiness” and “freedom” everywhere else but inside ourselves and while on our personal journeys, we face quite a bit of stress and angst.
Our minds are the generators of these states. Inner peace, happiness, freedom and bliss. We know this in theory, or at least some of us do. We read about it, we write about it, we joke about it. Think Yoda from Star Wars or Kungfu Panda. “Inner Peace”.
Yet, in the jumble and jungle that is the modern world, we forget. We look at others’ lifestyles and feel we lack. We feel poor, we feel unfulfilled, we feel fettered.
We look at other indices of success and perfectness. It’s difficult not to as we are constantly bombarded from the outside, what with so many other people’s opinions, women’s and men’s magazines, TV, advertising, facebook and other social media, so much societal conditioning that goes on from our homes to our schools and universities, our work places and in our public spaces.
Looking for freedom, we climb mountains like Everest, whereas the mountains we should really climb are inside.
We are always trained to look outward, hardly ever inward.
In Kathmandu, we think those in New York are free. There are 24 hr shops, not many problems with electricity and water, a functioning, orderly system of some sort. In New York, they think those in Kathmandu are free, what with Kathmandu being the last stop on the counter-culture hippie trail of the sixties and all, even today carrying a general air of fatalistic nonchalance, an almost infectious couldn’t carelessness.
Neither is true nor untrue.
Happiness and freedom are within us, no matter the place or the personal journey. So both Kathmandu and New York are states of mind.
There was another time in my life I had a lot of difficult situations. I was going through a terrible break up from a very toxic relationship which unfortunately turned abusive and violent when I made the mistake of taking him back. He said “I love you” but the only reason he wanted me back was to punish me and because he didn’t want me to belong to anyone else, like I was a possession.
Using the double standards typically used by men in our narrow minded,conservative society, I was punished for the same actions that my ex boyfriend had indulged in (taking a new lover) while in every effort to deny his actions and behavior, he punished me emotionally and physically till I was completely broken down mentally. I have since learned that this kind of behavior is called ‘gaslighting’. This was a horrible episode in my life I still get shivers thinking about and it’s hard not to get that faraway look on my face when I think back to those scenes. Now, many years later, they play like scenes from a movie. A horror movie.
Like many modern women of my generation facing difficult emotions, I read the bestselling book by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love”, felt inspired enough to pack a backpack and left Kathmandu to eat foreign food, pray, do yoga and meditate in a meditation and yoga retreat and hoped secretly to find a kinder, gentler love along the way. But it didn’t quite pan out for me like that. We all have different stories with different endings.
I became very depressed.
On the outside because of all the “me time” and the looking after myself with better diet, yoga, a new hair style and clothes etc. I looked “beautiful” (or so some people told me) and well put together on the outside, but inside, I felt completely limp.
There was no joy in my life. I felt like a pretty robot. My spirit had been blown away to bits. The glass was always half empty, never half full.
I couldn’t sleep at night and had to take sleeping pills. I even took some prescription medicine given by a psychiatrist in Thailand. He looked as lost as I did when I bawled in his office, letting open an avalanche of tears I had dammed in for so long, then after thirty minutes of my trying to lay out my life’s problems and why I was at his office, he starting fidgeting and looking at his watch. I don’t remember his name. I am sure he doesn’t remember mine either. I don’t remember a word of what he said. I just took the prescription and got the pills he thought I needed after thirty minutes of meeting me.
This was followed by all kinds of troubles, including financial and emotional. The decline of my father’s health had started. He had been a great source of strength and friendship for me, despite his stubbornness, so it was difficult to see him slip away day by day.
I used to be content just getting through the day, waiting for it (the day) to end. All troubles came on my doorstep at once and I was at a loss. I wanted to just run away.
Thoughts of suicide even entered my mind many times. Depressed, I would lie in bed for hours and hours, and in my mind, I imagined I raised a handgun to the side of my head. The ironical humor in this is that I was sooo depressed I was not motivated enough to even go and get myself a gun.
I can joke about it now and it seems funny in hindsight. But I have that moment of myself raising the handgun etched as art in my mind. A handgun with graphic images of all the things that were causing me to stress out enough for me to raise an imaginary handgun to the side of my head. It was a recurring idea in my mind, obviously never acted upon. It feels like a shot from a movie now. It has an avant garde texture to it.
Thankfully, just at the right time, I made a connection with a teacher, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyenste Rinpoche, who taught me how to as he puts it simply “sit and do nothing” and encouraged this as a daily practice to become habituated, rather than sitting for long amounts of time. When I first saw him, it was like looking in a mirror. I saw anger, pride, jealousy, my own mind’s doing, my own reflection.
As I had previously started meditating on my own and with the help of books, I was already aware of a lot of my thoughts. But with no philosophy, nothing to occupy my mind with, my guru just asked me to “sit and do nothing” for a minimum of 5 minutes up to 15 minutes to 20 minutes a day. During that time, just being aware but not giving a terrible amount of importance to my thoughts and feelings, and not reacting to any thoughts that arise, just being aware of my form and little things like the desire to scratch an itchy spot, during formal meditation.
Someone who lives in America at this time suggested twice I visit a shrink who might prescribe me some medication. I refused. I wanted to go through this journey without chemical aids which are more like a temporary band aid and also of course impact your brain chemically in the long run. I felt confident I could do it. I wanted to do it. Be completely stark naked in mind, face every movement. Like looking in the mirror. But really looking.
My guru had started by saying “you know meditation, it’s very scientific…” He had my full attention.
I have heard that mindfulness meditation is getting quite popular in America and there is even a senator endorsing it.
In Nepal, there are Vipassana centers, although many so-called Buddhists do not learn to meditate at all and a lot of people are more interested in sharpening the intellect.
Over time, I realized the nature of thoughts, that they come and go, and if one does not chase after them or feed them, they have less control or less power.
One grasps less, one judges less, one learns to observe the quality and usefulness of one’s thoughts and feelings before chasing each and everyone like a dog chasing its own tail.
Slowly there is a pause, you learn to breathe and relax, knowing one is not prey to one’s thoughts. You become comfortable with your past, you don’t live in the future. If you are lucky, you might even learn to cherish the present moment and the people in it, even the ones that you feel have harmed or slighted you or who criticize and oppose you. You might even drop your fears, anger, doubt, your petty jealousies, and attachment to this unchanging idea of “myself” and “my story” and “my views” and start to genuinely care about other people and others’ views. You might liberate your thoughts and open your narrow mind.
Someone, it might have been “The Buddha” said you become your thoughts. It’s true. You color your world, add and take away from it with your thoughts. That’s why Buddhists pay so much importance to thoughts and what’s going on inside.
If only the Nepali crown prince who allegedly killed his family members before killing himself had had a chance to examine his thoughts and practice “sitting and doing nothing.”
If only…if only.
In Samsara We Trust
But at that time my limited understanding of the world was that it was a very painful place. “Samsara” in Buddhism is described as an ocean of suffering, the idea being that human life is generally suffering from the moment we are born, and we suffer because of change – the cornerstone of what the Buddha discovered from meditating. I thought one must physically get away from this “samsara”, the relationship troubles, the family troubles, the business troubles, the social and political troubles. I wanted to renounce the world and run off to a faraway cave in the Himalayas. Get away from facebook and everyone, and all that.
Reading the story of Prince Siddhartha (who later became the Buddha), who left his palace and his family in the middle of the night, I felt inspired and found myself thinking; how will I do it? Will I throw a big party and let all my family and friends know? Will I just slip away in the middle of the night? Will I announce it on Facebook, the cheap and time efficient way?
The closest reference I have for one who renounced, a “renunciate”, are the Tibetan Buddhist lamas and nuns as I was born into a Tibetan Buddhist family. So I thought about becoming a Buddhist nun, an ani, putting on some red robes, shaving my head, taking a few vows including maybe a chastity vow and just running away from all my troubles. I will be writing more about this in the days to come and how I found refuge in my own mind, learning that neither place or dress is all-important.
But one can never run away from one’s troubles. Even if one is physically in New York, one can be in Kathmandu. Even if one is in Kathmandu, one can be in New York. Even if one goes to a faraway cave, one can also still be mentally in Kathmandu or New York. One can also never stop living in the past or one can always be living in the future, never in the present.
Although it took me a very long time to realize that one’s appearance, the physical place itself and the people in it are less important as are other external factors and that it’s how we struggle internally that makes our “oceans of suffering,” what Buddhists call samsara, maybe you could say;
Got lost in New York
Still looking for myself in Kathmandu?
( I dare not say found myself because I think we are always finding ourselves, always changing and evolving)
Why do I choose to write my personal stories?
What I have found is that most people suffer unnecessarily a lot in Kathmandu or elsewhere because they don’t ever show their inner condition, their pain, they don’t own their past, always in fear of what society will think, what others will say; I suffered a lot as a result of this kind of thinking as well; and I have found often that opening up and showing your scars, your so called negative sides, not only helps you heal but also makes people more open to you and to one another. The more you hide, the more you suffer.
Everyone is so bent on showing how in control and perfect their lives are. No one really wants to reveal the underbelly. We are all too focused on our outer conditions. How we appear externally. So if we believe our perfect lives and our photos of ourselves always on vacation or on the beach on Facebook or elsewhere, none of us apparently ever gets sick, cries, hurts or has problems. Few of us have the courage to show the real changes going on in our lives, and the pain that comes with it.
Especially in a conservative society like in Nepal, there is so much shame associated with opening our problems for everyone to see, so we never share beyond a few close people if even that, and as a result we suffer endlessly. In Nepal what I have heard is that although psychiatrists and psychologists’ demand is growing day by day, people generally still have time to sit and drink tea for hours and share each others stories and difficulties. Although of course there are many cases of young people committing suicide because something happens in their life and they feel they can’t bear the shame by sharing. The highest rate of suicide is among young girls of reproductive age in Nepal. It’s because of the stigma of shame.
But in the west also, people have their own unique problem; people in general have either no time nor the inclination to listen to your problems. I found during my time in America, when someone asks the generic “what’s up?,” it’s not really an invitation to tell them what’s really going on. The standard reply should be “nothing much” even if say, your whole life is going upside down. So then we have to go to shrinks and pay lots of money to buy their time and expertise and prescriptions of pills like mood stabilizers, anti depression meds, sleeping pills, Ritalin to control Attention Deficit Disorders and all kinds of disorders. We have to take all kinds of uppers and downers. I heard some people even take Ketamine (strong tranquilizers that are given to horses during a surgery to numb the pain).
A few friends who visited me in Kathmandu from first world, modern, developed countries have told me that they can never have the kinds of conversations they have with me with their friends there. Maybe it’s because of the stigma of imperfectness? Everything is fine, everything will be fine. Everything runs on time, everything is under control.
Of course, I am not saying in some cases, chemicals are not necessary. But isn’t prevention better than cure? Meditate, don’t medicate?
Although meditation might not suit everyone and the same type of meditation will not suit everyone. My guru had said to me; “you know, some people they need coffee…some people need something else.” I am one of those people who needs my daily dose of caffeine. I drink at least two cups a day. A qualified teacher well trained in matters of the mind is necessary. Not everyone is the same.
By writing my personal story and insights and sharing it publicly, I am choosing firstly to overcome this fear and stigma of shame, and show that although life will not always be a bed of roses, external situations and internal moods can be overcome using intelligent methods, foresight, analysis, patience, good humor and faith.
If we apply the law of impermanence, we will come to understand that situations might change, people might change, but just as situations can change people, people can change situations, and people can change themselves – and possibly other people.
I know that it goes without saying, but by going public, I am also opening myself to a famous past time of Nepal and the east in general, gossiping (did you hear; falana falana is a complete nut case, she almost committed suicide re, or bichara, poor thing, thank god my life is not that bad and I hope my life never gets so bad I have to meditate or medicate), and to a particularly western trait – scrutiny, skepticism and criticism (Does what she write really hold weight? Isn’t it just a bunch of eastern new agey, finding yourself hocus pocus B.S? Is she even for real? Can this information be verified?)
I am opening myself to people being annoyed and threats of various kinds, possibly violent. Who knows whose toes I might be stepping on? It will be difficult for “free” westerners to imagine this but for me, writing my story is really no less than Neil Armstrong taking humanity’s first steps on the moon. You really have to be a Nepali woman in Nepal to understand this fully. You have to witness our lives from the time we are born and when we are little girls through our teenage years, twenties and thirties…these are the most crucial years, I think, when we either allow present society to mold us or we go against the grain and mold society. By the time we are forty, we have that look of resignation of having given in, or of having talked back and been defeated. I see that look everywhere.
It’s really no surprise there are so few women in meaningful positions of leadership here. There is so much holding us back and we hold ourselves back as well – due to lack of self confidence, fear, social norms and so on. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is fear.
But I genuinely feel that one of the reasons Nepal is where it is is because we spend too much time and energy gossiping about others, hardly ever looking at ourselves and our faults, being active and engaging, and also because of the male gender’s sense of entitlement which means a bulk of those who are in the ideal position to do so are hardly motivated to create a better world.
Well, why don’t we just sit around and wait to inherit a crappy one from our forefathers? is the general thinking. So the ones who are capable of doing the most to help the country end up helping no one, not even themselves. Then there are women who sit around and wait thinking “well I’ll just wait for him to inherit his crappy world from his forefathers”. So we end up a $700 per capita income country with no electricity, no water, where people’s lives are hardly valued, and yes, bloody, violent revolutions.
Although writing my personal story is probably more of a selfish act of “letting go” or liberating “my story” and “my suffering”, and the thought of helping even one person seems daunting and impossible to me (as human beings are totally complex, unpredictable and undependable), I see many people stressed and lost these days, looking for themselves, the meaning of life and their purpose in it, so I hope my writing eventually helps others who might be in similar difficulties as I was or to add some insight and perspective to our modern life – as I have now come to understand that there is not a single person without some kind of suffering, real or self created; rich have their own suffering, middle class have their own suffering, poor have their own suffering, men have their own suffering, women have their own suffering, the ones who fall into neither man or woman category have their own suffering, westerners have their own suffering, easterners have their own suffering, as do northerners and southerners, first world have their own suffering, third world have their own suffering, those in between these two worlds have their own suffering, “high” caste have their own suffering, “low” caste have their own suffering, no caste have their own suffering, married or couples have their own suffering, unmarried or single have their own suffering, young have their own suffering, old have their own suffering, traditional have their own suffering, modern have their own suffering and those in between the two worlds have their own suffering and so on, and in fact the one who pretends has no problems, and his or her life is perfect and she or he is in control, that he or she is above and beyond samsara, insulated and safe from it, is the one who likely is suffering the most. We are all in the same boat, so to speak. The samsara boat. No one is specially excluded.
As for me, I have now grown quite fond of the external and internal dramas, the ups and downs, the hues and textures, the chaos, madness and pain and stories of samsara, as well as the laughter, bliss, and joy.
Keep smiling, keep shining…
Happiness, freedom, prosperity, peace and love, and…
“May all your roads lead to Kathmandu”