Trip to a Temple

This weekend we we took an amazing trip to Wangduetse (Wang-DE-Sey) lhakhang, an ancient temple in the mountains above Thimphu. It's only a few hours walk from the center of Thimphu town, but it's a world away. Perched on the side of a mountain, the temple's grounds afford gorgeous views of the surrounding valley and mountains. One old gomchen (lay monk) chanted as he sat and turned a nearby prayer wheel with a little bell on the top that went ting ting ting almost the whole time we were there.

Wild roses with intoxicating sweet smell.

Wild roses with intoxicating sweet smell.

One of the things I love most about walking in Bhutan is the smell. This May the wild roses are spectacular and give off an intense aroma. They, combined with clean mountain air, the pungent smell of pine resin and the slight whiff of smoke-- a smell that is forever associated with Bhutan-- make me feel kind of drunk. Walking in Bhutan is one of my main reasons for living. Some kind of physiological thing happens apart from the endorphins that separate my head from my feet. As my feet and legs negotiate the occasionally trecherous mountain paths, my head goes off into infinite space.

Often the custom in Buddhist Bhutan is to save the lives of roosters by letting them live out this samsara on the grounds of temples and monasteries. So you can see lots of roosters at many of the temples in Bhutan. Wangduetse has two monk roosters, and here they are.

Two monk roosters.

Two monk roosters.

They, along with a little black dog, visited us as we ate a small lunch of jam and bread. The "pecking order" was obvious. The dog got whatever scraps of bread he wanted as the roosters deferred to him. He'd take a piece and walk over to a tree and chew on it and lick it for a moment, until we threw down another piece. Then he'd go and get it and put it with the old piece. Clearly he didn't really want the bread. He just wanted to keep his place. The smaller, more colorful rooster was dominant, and as we finished eating and were admiring the view of the valley he jumped up on the table and started crowing, I guess maybe to make sure we were clear about his position. The other seemingly more sensible rooster went and sat down in the shade under a tree and puffed himself up nicely.

Wangduetse in the distance.

Wangduetse in the distance.

Later, as we were leaving, the gomchen's wife walked with us out the gate and said something to me. "Na me sa me cadenche," I said to her. Thank you so much.

"Did you hear what she said to you?" my nephew, Dorji, asked.

"No," I said, "I didn't catch it."

"She said lob jege." We'll meet again.

What a nice thing to say.

Doing Nothing

I was born with a special skill which is the ability to do nothing at any time and any place. I've been doing this a large part of my life, so I'm a bit of an expert. Some would call it meditation. I think of it as day dreaming, just sitting and thinking with no one around, letting my mind wander wherever it wants to go. Day dreaming fuels plans and hopes and dreams and give us the direction we want to live our lives. It’s great for writing. It's the natural tendency of the mind to wander, but the way we live these days isn't conducive to down time. We don't value it or even tolerate it. It’s shameful to do nothing. And we have the internet to constantly divert us and keep us occupied.

Most Americans love the idea of doing nothing. As an abstract concept everyone is pretty much on board. But it's definitely a skill we’ve lost. Learning to relax and do nothing will actually increase your productivity, make your mind more focused, and foster creativity. And it will make you happier, which is kind of the point.

I live in Bhutan and we don’t do busy like we do in the West. After over 20 years living here, I'm still trying to figure out what makes the pace so different. Genetics? Thin mountain air? Certainly it is the isolation. Surrounded by the Himalayas, Bhutan is landlocked between Chinese Tibet to the north and India to the south, west, and east. Even now, not a lot comes in or goes out of the country.

Bureaucracy is slow. There's no such thing as fast food. It's an exercise in futility to try to rush at the bank. Nobody really gets upset if you're late somewhere.

The other day I did a little math and since we measure speed using kilometers here and I haven’t really been paying attention, I finally figured out that going 40 kilometers per hour is only 25 MILES PER HOUR. All this time I’ve been thinking I’ve been flying around these mountain roads, cruising through town in Thimphu, but nope. I have just been poking around the place. Even in town we go about 30 kilometers or less. It’s like driving bumper cars at the state fair. All the roads are narrow and winding so no need to post speed limits. Speed is self regulating. If you go too fast you'll miss a turn and end up 30 feel below the road surrounded by what's left of your vehicle. Slow is a good thing.

Living in Bhutan helps me reconnect with my tendency to day dream, and I block out time to do nothing. And so I schedule it.

You're probably a lot busier than me, but you can learn to block out little bits of time for yourself, even if you’re out of practice. Here's how to teach yourself to daydream:

1. Turn off all devices. This might take you a while to pull off. But it's compulsory and you will be glad you did it. No television, no phone, no texting, no tablets, no computer, no books, no food, no talking. This will make you uncomfortable at first, even anxious. Do it for a minute. You can do it for a minute. Then do it for two minutes.

2. Find a comfortable, inviting place to sit, preferably some place where you can look at something beautiful. I recommend being somewhere high up, like the top floor of a building, or on the side of a mountain, or somewhere lofty where you can look down on the world, or a small part of it. It’s best to be in nature, a park, or a place where you can look at trees, mountains, or water. If you can't find a private place, go and sit in your car.

3. Just sit. Every cell in your body will want you to get up and you'll feel like you need to do something. Resist the urge.

5. Keep practicing. Like any other habit it takes time. If you can’t bear to just sit and do nothing, then knit, sew, do something with your hands.

Four Things I Love About Bhutan


I came to Bhutan the first time in 1994 and, like so many visitors, fell hard for the country and its people. I came back two more times, and then in 1997 the Royal Government was kind enough to let me come and teach English. I wasn’t much of an English teacher, but I did learn quite a lot of Dzongkha, the ntional language of Bhutan, from my students. I also learned a lot about how to live the Bhutanese way. Over the years Bhutan has become so much a part of who I am.

Here, are four things I love about Bhutan. Of course there are hundreds of other things, but this is a blogpost, so I’ll give you the top four I am thinking of just now, in no particular order.

1. Flying in to Paro

In a word, it's breathtaking-- a little frightening, crazy, hilarious, awe-inspiring, and memorable. I’ve done it on and off for the last twenty-or-so years, and it never fails to thrill me. Coming in to Paro, the plane starts to dip down out of the clouds and into the not so large valley, and depending on which approach it takes, you get to see an awful lot of the landscape close up.  If you come in at the other end of the valley from the airport, Taktsang, the Tiger's Nest monastery built in the 8th century, is eye level, and you can just about see the veins on the leaves of the nearby trees, as one of the Druk Air pilots used to say. Farmers working the paddy will look up and wave, and the beautiful white farm houses perched on knolls, or sitting in the middle of rice fields, make it look like you’ve crossed into some alternate, magical universe, Narnia-style. Gazing at the majestic mountains, half covered in mist, the tallest, most remote mountains in the world, make it seem like it would be perfectly normal to see a dragon or two peeking out from the clouds. Flying into Paro is magical. It really sets the tone for a visit here.

2. Trekking in Haa

I’ve done quite a few treks during my time in Bhutan, but my favorite is a trek that begins in the Haa Valley and takes you on ancient yak herder trails, through pine forests, and rhododendron forests, and up above the tree line, where you can see blue sheep, marmots, yak, and all kinds of alpine flowers. The last day of the five-day trek you walk along a ridge toward Chele La Pass, and you can see both Paro and Haa Valleys to your left and right, respectively. The views are fantastic, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It feels like you’re closer to heaven than to earth. I can’t get enough of walking in Bhutan, and this trek is fairly easy, and full of jaw dropping beauty.

There are so many places in Bhutan I love, so many breathtaking scenes, and temples, mountains, flora, and fauna. But so many times I think I’d love to be on that Haa trek again.

3. The Bhutanese people

What can I say? Before I came to Bhutan for the first time in 1994, I’d already become friends with some wonderful Bhutanese people in New York. They are the reason I visited Bhutan in the first place. I liked them so much; I wanted to see their country. There’s an innate friendliness about the Bhutanese, and they have an ease of living that I don’t find with many other people in the world. I like to say the Bhutanese are some of the few people in the world who aren’t mad at anybody. I feel this so strongly when I leave Bhutan and travel elsewhere. If you’ll allow me further generalizations, I think it’s partially the Buddhism that permeates the country as well as the DNA of the Bhutanese that make them kind and caring, and some of the most generous people I’ve ever met.

Ap Phuntsho, the trekking chef in Haa.

Ap Phuntsho, the trekking chef in Haa.

Also, Bhutanese are very funny, and they enjoy very raucous humor. In short: my kind of people.

4. The way I feel in Bhutan

I love the way I feel in Bhutan. To say I’m happy in Bhutan is true, but it doesn’t quite say all of how I feel here. Being in Bhutan is so relaxing. And by default I have to walk around quite a lot because I don’t like to drive in Thimphu as it’s getting too congested. And truthfully, you can easily walk from one end of Thimphu to the other without a vehicle; it isn’t very big.  Walking in Bhutan gets my endorphins going, and I feel great. I love walking to Sangaygang, the hill above Thimphu to the northwest, and looking out over the valley toward the Big Buddha and Semtokha. I’ve done it for so many years that I can close my eyes anywhere I am in the world and I see that scene. If I want “violent exercise” I don’t take the road, but I go up the path that cuts straight up the side of the hill. It’s a real work out. Walking in Bhutan, everything seems right with the world.

The most wonderful thing about being here is that any little thing I do, any interactions I have with people, are for the most part positive and uplifting. Here, it’s easier to be kind. And being here for so many years has made it possible for my Bhutanese friends to teach me quite a lot about how to be generous. I like myself in Bhutan.  And this makes me very happy.



Here's a close up of a Garuda's head that Namgay. Garuda in Buddhist mythology is a birdlike creature, able to move very fast, and make itself large or small or disappear altogether. It can change itself into a human, too. It can swoop down on an enemy and grab it like the snake it holds in its powerful teeth. It's a protector and an enemy of nagas, or earth spirits that usually come in the shape of snakes. It can also rip up whole trees with its claws and destroy villages by creating storms with its wings. The Buddhists believe there were four of them-- like the four direction kings. You can see Garudas in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia. The main thing is, all over Asia, Garudas are badasses and you shouldn't mess with them. This Garuda is a commission, but I think Namgay is painting another one because he's in that kind of mood.

In this part of the world there's a lot of iconography, religious or otherwise, that is symbolic of protection. You see it everywhere. I was wondering if there are symbols for protection in the west, namely in the U.S. I found this guy, looking a little like a Garuda.


Rain is My Favorite Season

Historically, I've not been that interested in rain. It makes cancelled picnics, gloomy clouds, and most importantly, it makes my hair frizz. I live in a place where summer monsoons happen from around the end of June to mid September. The days start out clear and sunny, but the heat builds as do the cumulonimbus clouds, and by late afternoon they dump what moisture they've been collecting onto the countryside. The rain makes impromptu gullies, wild muddy rivers, and rains turns the fields and trees a rich emerald green. By end of summer everything is fertile and bursting with fruit.

Living seasonally in Bhutan is addictive. Our minds and bodies naturally crave living close to the earth and although it creates hardships, I love the summer monsoons here and look forward to them. They are part of the pattern of life. Let the showers begin.

A summer storm makes its way across the Thimphu Valley. This particular storm blew through in about 15 minutes. It looks ominous but was very mild.

A summer storm makes its way across the Thimphu Valley. This particular storm blew through in about 15 minutes. It looks ominous but was very mild.


I have my stalwart rain hat, some waterproof boots and I carry on. Summer is off season for tourists so rates are lower and even your flights into the country are discounted.

Tashichhodzong in Thimphu in summer. The fields are terraced rice paddies which you see all over Bhutan.

Tashichhodzong in Thimphu in summer. The fields are terraced rice paddies which you see all over Bhutan.

Kittens and corn, Wangduetse.

Kittens and corn, Wangduetse.

Shabdrung temple at Cabesa. This is late summer.

Shabdrung temple at Cabesa. This is late summer.


I don’t write much about the act of writing because I am superstitious about it. If I talk, think, write or otherwise focus on it too much I lose the momentum. But like most superstitions, it doesn’t really hold water.  Writing is a delicate balance: part forced march, part relaxation until inspiration strikes, and fun when it’s working.

Writing is making order out of chaos. It’s regurgitating ideas on the page and then going back and arranging and trimming and plumping up. 

 Here are ELEVEN things I do that work for me.

1. I keep a schedule, but it’s a daily schedule. I am not someone who writes every morning then goes for a walk. Looser works best for me. Writing is about focusing my energy. I don’t have an endless supply and that’s why when I’m writing I wake up every morning and make a plan. That plan may be to hold off for a day and not write. I may write after a walk, or after I answer emails, or after I read something. Or I may jump right in. But everything else in my life, and I mean everything, is subjugated to writing. See # 2. 

2. I have an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona, and for a long time I wrote short stories. One day I got a letter from an agent, Nat Sobel, and he asked me if I was working on a novel. I was. We stayed in touch for a while and he sent me a great article called, “Writing in the Cold,” about how hard it is to go from the relatively nurturing, safe environment of an M.F.A. program to try to be a successful writer in the real world. I remember it said to write well you must “forgo the love of beautiful men and women.” I took that to mean you have to make writing the focus. You have to let things/people go if they get in the way of writing. 

3. Keep a pen and paper next to your bed. Go to sleep thinking about what you want to write the next day.

4. Stop writing before you finish a scene or thought so you can easily pick up the next day.

5. I take Ann Lamot’s advice in Bird By Bird and keep a piece of paper with me all the time to write down ideas. I have little scraps everywhere. I also talk into my phone a lot with ideas but these little scraps help me more. I think because they are tangible and tactile, and I have to do something with them. But I can channel William Faulkner on the phone.

6. Tell stories: Talk to people face-to-face. Tell them stories you’re thinking of writing. If they seem bored, or it’s hard for you to keep their attention, don’t use it. Tighten it so it’s shorter and try it on someone else. You have to develop good radar for how people react to your stories. You’re looking for engaged listeners. Sometimes I can’t let go of a story even though I never get a great reaction to it. But I don’t write it. I just keep telling it. Look for clues in body language: walking away, grimacing, shaking of head, taking a swing at you-- these are all clues your story is no good— or maybe just too long.

7. Do what you can. You have to do a lot of sitting down and staying put to write, but you also have to be in the world. And when you’re out in the world you have to be always looking at things and analyzing. I think for good writers this is instinctive. It’s in the DNA. 

8. Walk or do some other exercise. It gets your brain working. I can’t write unless I walk.

9. Did I say 11 things?  Okay.  Here’s 9, 10, and 11: Do it, do it, do it. I talk with so many people who have great ideas, or they say they want to write something and it seems like they have great ideas and strong desire, but they don’t do it. 

Dragon Emerging, by Phurba Namgay, 16" x 12" acrylic and natural pigment on canvas

Dragon Emerging, by Phurba Namgay, 16" x 12" acrylic and natural pigment on canvas


A few articles and interviews I've done:


An interview with the Women Writers School

Thank you to ASPIRE Magazine for naming A FIELD GUIDE TO HAPPINESS one of the Top Ten Inspirational Books for June 2015!

 Eric Weiner  author of The Geography of Bliss, writes BHUTAN'S DARK SECRET TO HAPPINESS in BBC Travel  . I'm in it!

MARRIED TO BHUTAN will be published in Taiwan! It's being translated now.

A FIELD GUIDE TO HAPPINESS will be published December 2015 in South Korea! This version will have pictures.


And this:

Even Google Maps takes beautiful pictures of Bhutan

Three Things to Know if You Plan to Write a Memoir

 Five Things to Do Before You Get Happy in Heal Your Life

More from Heal Your Life

The Debt Ceiling, Happiness, and Bhutan in Huffington Post

Blending the Ancient and Modern: The Thangka Art of Phurba Namgay in The Culture Trip

Follow Your Heart: Four Tales of Holiday Romance in The Guardian

Bhutan's Velvet Revolution in Reverse in Mandala Magazine

 Back to Basics in the Times of India

And some about my books:

Charlotte Observer Escaping the Hamster Wheel

Chapter Sixteen  Walking the Good Path

A Field Guide To Happiness - Sarah Joy

Nashville Arts Magazine 

Consciously Frugal

Susan Heim



Interview in Speaking of China






Bhutan's Magic

I'm so grateful to live in this tiny, peaceful place. It's such a refuge from the chaos of the world. I pray every day it will remain so, and I wish the people I love who are tired and struggling could get some relief and come here.

Bhutan's magic includes the ability to get things in perspective. Living here is grounding. Even winter we're very much tied to the land, which is both harsh and beautiful. I love to walk up and down mountains. It takes stamina, focus, sure-footedness, and commitment. It's toning for your body and your mind. I look at the image, below and think how gorgeous these mountains are, and the little farming valleys that thrive in pockets all over the country. I feel tremendous respect for mountains and a little fear. There's no controlling the Himalayas. In Bhutan there's unpredictability. Even though it's a very peaceful place we're still at the mercy of the elements. Walking in the mountains in Bhutan teaches you to focus, breathe, and be ready for whatever happens. Keep going no matter what. 

It does not matter if lightning strikes from above, if the earth caves in from below, if the land and the sky crash together like mighty cymbals, if your head is ablaze, if poisonous snakes crawl on your lap, whether you have time or are busy, are hungry or well fed, happy or sad; whatever happens you should not give up.

--Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, high holy man, statesman, magician, warrior, unifier of Bhutan in the 17th century.
The village of Kabesa on the way to Cheri Monastery.

The village of Kabesa on the way to Cheri Monastery.