As of April 18, 2020, Bhutan has 5 cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths.
It’s been awhile since I visited Bhutan back in 2013, but the memories are greatly inked in my mind. Bhutan is famously known for its measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH,) instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP.) One week traveling through the mystical kingdom surrounded by steep forests and the majesty of the Himalayas is a serious practice of zen. To observe the Bhutanese people from their traditional garments to the slow pace of their footsteps is a deeper understanding of a balancing act between materialism and spirituality. I came away from Bhutan as a quieter (if that was at all fathomable,) and a more grateful person.
Many restrictions enforced upon us during the coronavirus pandemic have triggered angst or jitters as people are growing stir-crazy inside their homes. It seems that maybe right now, we can all use a little bit of advice, especially from a place where living with a holistic approach seems so blissfully natural.
1. Balancing material and spiritual happiness.
It’s only been the last ten years that Bhutan has been truly affected by globalization. Generally speaking, consumerism is a relatively new concept in this Southeast Asian country. Landing in Bhutan itself was equivalent to stepping inside a time machine, where the latest technology wasn’t highly coveted and trending fashion styles weren’t flaunted on streets that don’t even have stop lights. Until the 1960’s, Bhutan was an isolated rural society without currency, telephones, schools, hospitals or public services. When I visited the Kingdom of Thunder Dragon, however, Bhutanese people were full of smiles. It seemed that a simpler life with less materialism was one with far more fulfillment. They appeared happy just to be alive.
As we visited several shrines, I had the privilege to engage in fascinating conversations with a few monks and rinpoche (an incarnate lama or a highly respected religious teacher.) What I understood from them, was that humans all have desires, sadness as well as happiness. But the key to Bhutan’s measurement in Gross National Happiness resides in the sense of balance. While we’re locked up in our homes participating in Zoom calls in our pajamas, this might be a good reminder to think about how we want to calibrate our own happiness and how we should partake in consumerism.
2. Buddhism practices.
Not only is 75% of Bhutan’s population comprised of Buddhists, the state religion is also financially supported by the government through monasteries, shrinks, monks and nuns. Monks follow Mahayana Buddhism teachings that revolve around meditation and prayers for enlightened liberation which is considered as the highest form of practice. It is not unusual that locals practices meditation, attend monthly religious ceremonies or pray at monasteries on a regular basis. This results in a sense of tranquility throughout the majority of Bhutanese towns, where fights and disputes rarely occur. The easiest way to replicate a similar zen is to practice a 5-10 minute meditation whenever feelings of angst or jitters start to overtake any decision-making process throughout the day.
3. The narrow gap between royals and common people.
For many years, the Bhutanese government has defended its philosophy to as “a compass towards a just and harmonious society.” Since Bhutan is difficult to travel to, it’s long been known as somewhat of an isolated nation. Therefore, local communities build close bonds with one another. According to an experience recounted on One World Education, a traveler saw a young man playing basketball with several kids in public. Later, that young man was introduced as the Prince of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. It’s clear that coronavirus is blind to caste system, race, religion and gender. If the Prince of Wales can be tested positive, so can anyone else. If anything, COVID-19 is here to teach us that we are all equal, at the very least, as victims to this virus.
4. Eat, sleep, repeat.
As we all know, sleep is imperative to our wellness because it enables the body to repair and be fit and ready for another day. Getting adequate rest may also help prevent excess weight gain, heart disease, and increased illness duration. According to national surveys, approximately 2/3 of all Bhutanese people sleep for at least eight hours per night. That number is higher than most industrialized societies. Imagine having a nation full of well-rested citizens, so go get some zzz’s!
5. Exercise, not extra rice.
50-year-old Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, has emphasized that Bhutan isn’t the “happiest country in the world,” but GNH focuses on the psychological wellbeing of its people. Lotay himself, exercises daily. On Thursday, he pedals up a steep hill, aiming for the world’s largest Buddhist statue: the 169-foot-tall Dordenma statue. In doing so, he can kill two birds with one stone: exercise and meditate. For those religiously following online gym classes or YouTube yoga instructors, keep at it.