Wellbeing starts by knowing who you are

You may say I am a teacher, or a civil servant. In Bhutan, we often refer to ourselves with our jobs and titles and designations because we think that is who we are. That’s also why we take offence when there are criticisms directed at our organisation, even if they are positive.

However, our titles, decorations, or our positions do not define who we are. They just give us a social standing, a place in this world but not our greater purpose or happiness. Titles will leave us one day. They will get taken away.

I know asking an abstract question, “Who am I?” is not easy – especially at your age. So I suggest you start by exploring your roots, or your ancestry. For example, if you find that your ancestors were lamas, you could create an identity for yourself as someone who helps others all the time. But again, that’s just your social identity and not your true self.

Unless you know yourself, you will never know what you want to do, or what you want to be. You will never be happy. Wellbeing, then, would be a distant dream. It won’t matter how big your car, or your office is. The question is to look for what truly makes you happy.

Likewise we also need to delve on who we are as a nation. One positive offshoot of the pandemic has been that people have started pondering on this question. Who are we? Do we keep depending on others for everything? Are we not better than that? Can we be appreciative of our own people, our own country, our own leaders? Can we stop exporting potatoes and importing labourers? Can we roll our sleeves and get to work?

You may think that you are too young to be concerned of these big national questions. Well, the fact of the matter is, this country belongs to you more than to me. I mean you have a longer stake than me. You may think that you are only twenty. But another 20 years will just fly away in a wink and you will find yourself suddenly in leadership positions. What do you do then?

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(Some random excerpts from my talk on wellbeing on the second day of a three-day training in ECCD facilitation in Paro where I was encouraging to make wellbeing part of the ECCD classes )

Return to Rukha

I spent the past week in Rukha catching up on my research writing and checking the works at the two temples of Rukha and Lamga. Sacred paintings going on in the former and community kitchen and Lama’s quarter getting done in the latter. Progress has been slow because of the pandemic.

Now we are kicking off a new initiative: a permanent Mani Dungdrub and meditation hall.

I am also intiating a monthly Tara rituals (Drolma Chho or Droe-chho) and mass chanting of Lhamo Oser Chhenma ngag in Lawa Lamga. This is in view of the fact that very few people there make it past their 60th Birthday. In other words, life expectancy in that village is still that from the medieval Bhutan. The spiritual initiative also needs a parallel health and hygiene program from the public agencies, which of course is not in my power. So, we do what we can, and what is in our own hand.

The brighter news is that the whole valley has received a bumper harvest of cereals and vegetable and nga dosem. They all attribute to the bi-monthly rituals to deity Palden Lhamo, which Rukha Lama Ugen Tshering and I initiated in the beginning of this year.

If it makes them happy, I don’t want to disagree with their belief.

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(Background – Athang Rukha is my adopted village having been working there since 2007. I started off as a volunteer for Tarayana and after the project folded in 2009, I continued to go back and continue on my own. We have done some pretty amazing stuff together)

(Not) Playing the Indiana Jones

The lower hillock of Rukha is shrouded in mystery and in fear. Since time unknown, no one dared enter that area. Whoever defied it and even stepped in to collect few twigs would fall sick. When cows accidentally strayed there, the locals would quickly and quietly get them out without making a whispering sound. Below the hillock is the main footpath leading to the village. People taking the route would stop talking or whistling – and instead walked in silence.

Legend has it that, in the distant past, there once stood a Dzong (castle-fortress) where a demon King ruled the region – and beyond. The evil king had servants who would capture young children and women to be eaten alive. Every now and then the Khandroms (dakini) would descend from Tushita heaven and would challenge to a game of dice. If the Khandroms won, a child would be set free for each game. If not, the fate was clear. Eventually, the powerful Tantric deity Palden Lhamo came around and demolished everything, before making the upper hill of the village as her abode. A temple in her honour now stand there. A temple I helped rebuild together with the locals.

No people ventured into this hillock until very recently, when the Rukha Lama Ugyen Tshering led to explore the forested area. According to some old people, there were ruins of mud walls and stone slabs of the castle, which they saw when they went in to find their cattle there. And then, they had this story and the legend that survive to this day.

In the many years that I have been to Rukha (my first visit was in 2007) I was not allowed to enter the area. I complied. I have always respecting the local norms and beliefs, wherever I went.

Recently, two women following the advice of the Lama (and with his spiritual protections), and with the directions and descriptions from the old people, spent three days looking for the stone slab dice board. They finally found it. The stone slab is at the level of the ground but many old people remember seeing standing higher – at least three feet above the ground. The legend says that if and when the slab disappears into the ground, the world would end.

During this visit I was invited to take a look at the slab. It is hidden deep in the jungle. They asked me if I could “see” anything. Meaning to interpret from my scientific trainings. There are chessboard patterns on the slab. However, since I am not trained in archeology or Khandroma dahyig (dakinis’ scripts), I had no idea what the stone slab was.

But it doesn’t matter. Why do I need to invent another theory – or a story. I would rather like to believe that a demon King and his castle once stood here. Going by the ruins, there was a castle here. I would like to believe that the dakinis came and played dice with the demon-servants and rescued many children and women – and set them free.

I would like to believe that deity, Palden Lhamo, ultimately descended here, defeated the demons, destroyed the castle, and set all the children free. I believe she established her abode in the adjoining hill, where the current temple now stands – and which we rebuilt after it was destroyed somewhere in the 1940s.

This is their story. This is their land. This is their past. This is who they are.

Wellbeing in education

The second day of the webinar focussed on the importance and relevance of wellbeing in schools. This is because of the role of teachers now changing from being a repository of information and knowledge to that of a provider of wisdom and inspiration. To fulfil this, however, first teachers need to feel well, feel motivated and feel inspired. While much of the reforms in education have focussed on school curriculum and students, it’s time teachers take the centre stage.

Second, social and emotional learning (SEL) has to be integrated into the classical system of education. It is not a choice of either-or. Rather it should be a merger of the two. Meaning both the IQ and EQ have to be embraced.

In the real world, from my own experience running various organisations, employees rarely default on what they studied. Rather all issues I had to deal were HR related, such as insubordination, misuse of office property, false financial claims, ego trips, emotional outbursts etc. In short, all related to EQ and almost never concerning the IQ.

Therefore, as parental education decline (because parents are busy earning the livelihood) teachers have to take on the additional responsibility of making our children emotionally and socially intelligent.

It is, therefore, heartwarming to witness initiatives in recent years in this direction. Topics such as mindfulness, meditation and positive psychology have come into the discourse in the education system as well as in governance.

During this session my colleagues, Tshering Eudon and Karma Doma Tshering shared the experience of the ELC Schools in embracing the Educating for GNH Initiative in 2010 and then piloting the Four Pillars of Wellbeing Curriculum.

The stars of this session were the three students who have tried out the social and emotional learning and how they benefited.

Leadership communication

In March 2020, the country went into a “lockdown” where schools were closed, and classrooms moved online. While the focus of the government and the public has been on students and their learnings and exams, teachers and school administrators faced some of the most daunting challenges. Almost overnight, classes and course materials had to be delivered through distance-mode putting additional stress on the teaching profession. One of the responses to that call was the formation of VTOB (Voluntary Teachers of Bhutan). On the request of this group, I conducted a webinar for teachers on the topic, compassionate leadership and communication.

My choice of this topic was based on the premise that in this digital age, where information and knowledge are lying around everywhere, the role of the teachers will be to inspire and facilitate and produce leaders. Otherwise the new generation of Bhutanese will grow up with the illusion of being wise and knowledgeble, while all they have is a sporadic set of disjointed information gathered here and there from the social media and search engines.

I introduced the participants to the following:

Three rhetorical approaches

  • Ethos (ethics)
  • Pathos (passion)
  • Logos (logic)

Three personal communication approaches I use:

  • Begin with WHY
  • Follow the Rule ofThree
  • Tell stories

And thirdly, three elements of compassionate leadership

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Empathetic joy
  3. Wisdom of ramifications

The presentation slide can be downloaded here

Keep it burning

The flame never goes out in my house. 
A fire keeps burning all the time.

Yes, this is a metaphor that points to both the philosophy of my life and a physical reality based on a true story. Let’s start with the latter.

When I was growing up in Tashigang Tongling, we didn’t have matches. There were no matches those days. So the wood stove in the kitchen of the house had to keep the fire burning whole day. At night we had to cover the embers with hot ashes and lit up the next morning. The term is called “mi singsho” (Literally meaning, give birth to the fire or raise the fire). The “birth” of the fire in kitchen welcomes a new day. These practices are still there in many remote villages in eastern Bhutan – even now. If fire goes out, then we had to go smd fetch from our neighbour’s place, which was at least half a mile away. As todler that was a long walk.

Childhood memories, or traumas, follow you into your adulthood. Some kill you, some make you stronger and some just philosophical. In my case, with this thing with fire, I made it my life motto: Keep it burning – both philosophically and physically.

So a flame never goes out in my house even now. With urban amenities replacing the mud fire stove, the flame is now in the altar room, where a butter lamp burns – day in and day out.

It just reminds ne never to let the Fire die in your heart. And not to let the flame go out in your house.

To selfie (the charity) or not

“Raba raba warong. Shisha shisha warong” is a phrase that comes from my area in eastern Bhutan. Told in my mother tongue, Tshangla, it literally means “Goat goat horn. Sheep sheep horn” and the proverb implies that we are all different and that we have our own ways of doing things. For, the horn of a goat is straight, and that of a sheep is curly.

During this on-going pandemic there has been quite a lot of debate on whether people should make their acts of generosity, or volunteerism, public. One school of thought strongly argued, and even went on to shame the do-gooders, with the argument that one’s acts of generosity should be almost a secret. Otherwise it not a good deed but a publicity stunt. While I respect this view – and all the constructive views and opinions because we now live in a democratic society, my position is the exact opposite. 

First of all, as the Tshangla proverb goes, as much as one’s good deeds should be personal and a spiritual journey, it should also be left entirely to the person to decide whether to advertise the selfies from the frontline, pictures of volunteerisms or the other altruistic acts. After all, we are all different and every personal choice, or decision, needs to be respected. After all, there is no harm to any third party.

Furthermore, to provide a broader context, the social media is swarmed by fake news, conspiracy theories, and various scams that otherwise wouldn’t find a space in decent public forums and in the mainstream media. Furthermore, the social media has also come to now host the public discourse. It is both the source of information and the space for vibrant discussions. Eventually, the social media shapes the individual thoughts, and also the public opinion, and to certain extent even the policy making.

Therefore, my reservation on this issue is: if all the good and well-intent people hide their good works or views, or worse still, if their acts are slammed as showy or swanky, then the social media will be completely inundated by narcissists, critics, whiners, skeptics and sociopaths. And we all know that there has not been a short supply of these characters in this pandemic – not in Bhutan and definitely not anywhere in the world. 

Sadly, the world needs some good news, and reasons to smile. Human interest stories and heartwarming acts need to come out and dominate the public sphere so as to spread the message of kindness, compassion, selfless service and humanity. I say, “sadly”, because these are becoming rare nowadays.

One shining example of what I am talking about is the Facebook initiative, Citizens Giving Back, where inspired by our fellow Bhutanese who were giving even their last Ngultrum, many unexpected people came forward and gave what they could, or what they had. I believe, more than 10 million ngultrums have been offered to the government, which can now at least buy enough face masks for all the health workers to outlast the pandemic. How more beautiful can it be?

My invitation therefore is that, during these depressing times, keep the smily selfies and selfless acts flowing. Let us not be overwhelmed by professional hecklers or enamoured by superficiality. Let the social media be conquered by deeper sense of loving kindness, generosity and hope – and not by hate, fear or negativity. This, I believe, is who we truly are as a nation – and what we need right now for our country, and for the world, to heal.

#LockdownDiaries

Lockdown ends

#LockdownDiaries

August 31, 2020

Day 21 of lockdown ends with 108 prostrations to our protecting deities, to my lamas and to my ancestors – to thank them for alerting us with the Gelephu woman case, which sent the country to a lockdown. Imagine if that had not happened. Despite all our tantrums and complacencies, it is my firm belief that our tutelary deities have not abandoned us. 

Legend has it that deity Pelden Lhamo appeared in Zhadrung Ngawang Namgyel’s dream to wake him up from his sleep because his Tibetan rivals had gathered 200 ngagpas to conduct a massive sorcery rituals. Likewise I believe our deities woke us up from our laxity towards Covid 19 with the Gelephu case. As much as we are alarmed by the recent spikes in positive cases, it could also have been worse. We never know.

To all those who have been affected and hospitalised, Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese, I pray that you all recover soon. Compassion and solidarity are what we need, irrespective of our nationalities.

Besides the valuable lessons we are all learning from this crisis, I am still inclined to believe that in a broader perspective, years down the line, we will look back at this period and be convinced that everything happened for a good reason.

Meanwhile, may the blessings of our deities, divinities and our ancestors never cease. 🙇🙇🙇

Misinformation & Disinformation

In crisis communication, there is a premise that information is the first victim in any crisis – be it war, a pandemic or civil unrests. It seems that this hypothesis has proved to be true in this on-going global pandemic.

Communication gaps have been happening with different people understanding the same messages in different manner coming out from the same course. Fake news have been hitting our mobile phones and social media newsfeeds. Unfounded conspiracy theories, like government hiding information, is taking root, which, as a result, is pushing the small team of media officials in the government to wage an information war on several fronts.

Misinformation

The first concept we need to understand is what is called misinformation. This can be defined as information that is inaccurate, or false, but not created to cause any damages intentionally. For example, someone could share an outdated news or totally an out-of-context information without realising the consequences. This is inevitable and it happens all the time, even the official communication. In many ways we accept it as a norm – as a communication gap or simply as miscommunication.

Disinformation

Of totally different nature is disinformation, which is false information that are disseminated to deliberately create confusion, or to harm an individual or institutions. It originated during the the Stalin era as State propaganda that were directed towards the West. Under the current circumstances some of the fake news and wrong information circulated in the social media would fall under this category. In these trying times for everyone, where the limited resources and people are wasted to counter such mindless activities, I feel this is a crime. And I hope that law enforcement agencies will not take them lightly.

Information is the first victim in any crisis – be it war, a pandemic or civil unrests.

At the heart of the matter, though, is the gullibility of the mass, or the inability to separate the truth from the fake. Of course, what is even scarier, these days, is the superficiality of our people brought about by easy access to information – of thereby giving the illusion of being knowledgeable and wise. There is big difference between having information, being knowledgeable and possessing wisdom. This topic, of course, will be for another time. So, let’s go back to the point on gullibility. 

This behavioural pattern in a society can be exploited by groups or individuals trying to destabilise a country or its economy or cause chaos. The best example is what happened with the US elections in 2016 and the Brexit vote in the UK. Being gullible, or superficial or ignorant, as a society makes it an easy target. And mind you, for all the nice things on us that you read or see in the foreign media, Bhutan is not a darling of everyone in the World. Unlike in the past this new era, which some communication scholars have termed as the Post-Truth period, will see information wars being increasingly launched as a way to dominate another group, race, or an economy.

I hope that some large and long-term investments in mass media literacy programs will be initiated and implemented in the country in the post-Covid era – in earnest. Otherwise, we may need to deal with severe consequences that may even border on a compromised internal security of our nation.

My (scholarly) life goes on

August 28, 2020, Thimphu

As the global pandemic keeps me happily locked back in my home country since the New Year holidays, my academic career has taken another leap forward. 

Happy to share with my friends here that a paper I co-authored has been accepted by the prestigious academic journal, Language & Communication, published by Elsevier. 

The paper looks at the chronotopic affordances of technology in a remote community in Lhuentse in Bhutan. This is my 7th peer-reviewed paper in international journals/conferences and 10th academic publication.

Special thanks to Kuenga Lhendup for opening up his village to me, and for making me a part of the community WeChat group, and for all the translation works from Kurtoepkha.

Thank you all for your wishes and blessings
(This is also the title of the paper)