It was just a few short months ago, somewhere in my last semester of acupuncture school, sometime after completing my last board exam, and shortly before graduation and leaving for a trip to China, that my colleague Jackie proposed the idea of going to Nepal as a volunteer acupuncturist with Mindful Medicine Worldwide (MMW). For many reasons I was hesitant, but the day before Jackie and I left to finish our clinical hours in China, I submitted my application to Mindful Medicine and let it go, somehow thinking that I would never be accepted to the program. So it was with great surprise that we received an acceptance email from MMW while we were in China and 6 short weeks after our return from that trip along with some major fundraising efforts, we boarded the plane to Nepal with excitement and wide open eyes. I carried with me the offerings of good luck for this learning experience and offerings of financial support from more people than I could have ever imagined. The weight of the financial burden was lifted substantially and I somehow transformed my gratitude for all of the support into a humble walk toward the unknown of being a volunteer acupuncturist at the SheChen clinic in Boudha, Nepal.
We came to Nepal to be volunteers. We came to Nepal because we were now acupuncturists and it would be a great step to transition into professional practitioners. We came to Nepal to learn from Bob Flaws and Honora Wolfe, and as recent acupuncture graduates, we were bounding with enthusiasm to get into the clinic and start treating patients. It was very early on that we started to realize this trip was going to be life changing and deeply moving, and for me, that realization was evident before we even started in the clinic. It happened when I saw the Great Stupa for the first time from the rooftop restaurant the day after our arrival and my heart quickened, and again the next day when we met Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and I welled up with tears at the sight of him, a profound teacher that I had never even heard of before. Being an acupuncturist was just the catalyst to get us to Nepal, and even though we were there to serve the local people, the meaning of the trip transformed into something much different.
To really understand the community around Boudha and the people that we saw in the clinic, I must take you on a somatic journey. While you are reading this, imagine that the air you breathe is thick with pollutants; you can smell exhaust fumes and feel a burn in your throat. Imagine there is no central air which means no heat and the air is cool around you especially in the shade, riding through the town on a moped, and more so during the dark hours. The cold and damp temperatures sink to your bones and for many older local people four or five layers of clothes may or may not be enough. Now, imagine walking down a narrow street lined with shops containing Himalayan wares, convenience stores, meat or vegetable shops where the meat sits on the counter all day and the vegetables are fresh and colorful. Also you will see cyber cafes and restaurants with both traditional and western type foods. You notice that most shops are probably no more than 15 feet by 15 feet in size and filled to the brim with products to sell or workers sitting/squatting on the floor crafting their product. The restaurants appear to be bigger in size and frequented by non locals called “Engies” (the local term for English people or Westerners which may include anyone Caucasian is my understanding).
As you continue to walk down the street, you find it difficult to walk in a straight line because you are constantly avoiding walking into someone else, quickly avoiding an oncoming motorcycle, stepping around a beggar or stray dog, or getting out of the way of the cow that is about to pass you without stepping on a trash pile. As you look up, you notice that the buildings are colored with squares of red, blue, white, yellow and green prayer flags; some are new and some are tattered and weathered but every building is somehow decorated with these. Most people hold brown or colored malas in their hand or wear them around their neck. The clothes that the people wear are multicolored, multilayered and mismatched (US judgment) and the appearance of the deep maroon robes the monks wear is just as common as anything. We are, after all walking the streets of Boudha, the home of the Great Stupa. The neighboring streets feed into this focal point of the district and as you enter through its gate, seeing the size of the stupa alone may stun you, and if it doesn’t then maybe it would be the large painted eyes peering out at you from near the top of the structure. After a deep breath of fragrant incense, you start on the clockwise journey walking the kora and listening to the complex and wonderful sounds that fill the air.
Imagine this complex symphony of sounds:
- General talking/begging in multitudes of languages
- People haggling over prices of items
- Himalayan music played on speakers from the shops
- Singing bowls
- The gurgling and flight of the hundreds of pigeons along with the sound of popcorn being thrown onto the ground to feed them
- Barking dogs
- The shuffling of hundreds of slippered feet on brick
- The sliding of wooden pieces (attached to a person’s hand) across the brick as they do prostrations
- Hundreds of people saying mantras, some may be a whisper, others may be a vocalization, but separately all together they accumulate into a powerful resonance
The complexity of the area surrounding the Stupa is AWEsome. Not only is it intricate as a visceral experience, but also in the vast amalgamation of cultures and belief systems that reside in the area: Nepali, Tibetan, Sherpa, Indian, Caucasians of all sorts, Buddhists, Hindu, Monks/Nuns of various sects, and so many more. My mind boggles at all of the apparent differences in culture, but there is a common theme of tenacity, commitment, and graciousness to those walking the kora and walking the path to enlightenment. These were our patients and our teachers.
I thought a lot about safety while I was there. Not because I felt unsafe but because I wondered what the crime rate is in an area where concepts of compassion, kindness, and stillness of mind are at the forefront of daily thought. Prayer is constant there and in the 2 ½ weeks of our visit, there was not a day went by without experiencing some sort of interaction with prayer. We began our day with a walk around the stupa or a quiet breakfast by the fountain with a Buddha sitting on top and ended our days with a walk by the stupa and then through the monastery. During these times we would often pass by a person saying their mantra, having a Buddhist philosophical discussion or we would witness the younger monks at the monastery practicing a drum ceremony. The walking was a relaxing and refreshing way to interact with the complexity of the traditions with which we were just getting acquainted. The constant hum of mantras or the drums of the monks were reminiscent of a subtle deepening and expansion occurring within. I found myself wanting to say hello to every person I passed because I loved putting my hands together in prayer position and bowing to the other person. To me it was like a reset button on my soul and it opened my heart to strangers in a new, fearless and humble way. It allowed me to experience the concept of non-separateness like I have never before. It helped me feel appreciative for each and every experience with another human being.
The clinic was saturated with grateful people. Being new practitioners and never having experienced a real life community style acupuncture clinic, Jackie and I were quickly in it- trial by fire. For various appropriate reasons, Bob and Honora vigorously encouraged us to needle freehanded and taught us some wonderful new techniques to do just that. The patients were amazingly tolerant even when we were sure to be hurting them while honing this technique, and still they would get off the table and bow over and over again repeating their thanks and return to the clinic in two days for more treatment. I will never forget the day when we were helping an elderly Ani (nun) walk out of the clinic after her treatment (I believe this was the day that Jackie got to treat her) and she kept bowing repeatedly and then took off her little hat and insisted on putting her forehead to each of our foreheads. It was a touching moment, literally and figuratively, and again my heart (and eyes) welled up, especially upon learning the significance of the gesture.
Before we left, I believed conceptually that there is no separateness between people. However, until Nepal I had never experienced this type of connectedness nor had I expected to experience this on such a deep and real level while I was there. There existed so many moments of synchronicity and deep connection with people and knowing that feeling may wane upon our return home, I loved up every moment of it while I could. At one point before leaving for Nepal, I remember Honora talking about how traveling to Nepal requires a certain toughness of skin and at the time I believed her to be referring the ability withstand such drastic change of conditions of a sudden decrease in creature comforts and seeing the poverty among the people in a third world country. I now believe that this toughness of skin is also required to reintegrate into the craziness that exists in our US society. Going home has been more difficult than the traveling because the mindlessness, ignorance and greed are overwhelming once you’ve had the physical experience of such extremes. I say that returning to the US from a third world country visit shortly before Christmas is something that every American should experience! I believe it would return and increase the lasting time of the true ‘Holiday Spirit’ to a larger majority of the country and the money that is spent endlessly on children who tear through their gifts and move onto the next one without even looking at the previous gift would soon be spent on sending Nepali children to school or on building better schools across the globe. Let us not forget our brothers and sisters around the globe and in our backyards, and let us remember that we can manifest greatness; the potential of the mind and the heart are too significant to ignore and it begins with a few simple acts done in multitudes.
As I reflect on this trip, I will always see the eyes: