Monday, July 20, 2015

Understanding the mysterious country of Bhutan with Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth


Ashley Kalagian Blunt reviews one of the few books about the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Renowned as the “Last Shangri-La,” a reputation fuelled by its government’s creation and pursuit of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has piqued international interest in recent years. The reality of this tiny Himalayan nation is far more complex than glib coverage of GNH can reveal, as Jamie Zeppa’s engaging but at times discomfiting Beyond The Sky and The Earth: A Journey into Bhutan shows.   

Zeppa’s memoir is a present-tense account of her two years as an expat teacher in Bhutan. From Toronto, Zeppa has experienced little outside metropolitan North America. Her knowledge of Bhutan comes from black and white photos found in library books – it’s the late 1980s, so her access to further information is limited.

Zeppa conveys a powerful sense of Bhutan’s renowned beauty. At first, the mudslides, the remoteness of her posting, the lack of electricity and the potential for foodborne-illness slow her appreciation of her new home. She writes, “I have done nothing but worry since I arrived in Bhutan, two and a half months ago. … I live in a tiny cramped room of what-if.”

As she connects with her students and neighbours, however, Zeppa begins down a path of deep transformation. The memoir’s most compelling story is her transition from secular Western urbanite to eager student of eastern thought and Buddhist practice. She discovers and practises mindfulness, teaching herself to overcome homesick feelings. She comes to understand that “Buddhist practice offers systematic tools for anyone to work out their own salvation. Here, the Buddha said, you’ve got your own mind, the source of all your problems, but also the source of your liberation. Use it. Look at your life. Figure it out.”

The narrative style eloquently traces her efforts to adjust to cultural quirks that at first she finds unfathomable – such as returning home to find a houseful of guests. Still, she struggles, particularly with the policy of beating students for punishment. “I remind myself that this is not my country, not my education system. … it is part of a bigger cultural system, it involves different values. You can only judge it from your perspective, from your own cultural background and upbringing, and even if you are right, what can you do about it? Back and forth I argue right-wrong, east-west, judgment is possible-impossible.”

This difficulty is magnified when political problems ripple across Bhutan. Zeppa happened to be in Bhutan as the issues between the ethnic-Bhutanese ruling class in the north and the settled Nepali migrant population in the south disintegrated. Eventually, nearly 100,000 ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan, an instance of ethnic cleansing that is rarely mentioned in news stories touting the Gross National Happiness model. Zeppa describes the difficulty of understanding what is happening around her as the situation becomes more violent.

Throughout the book, Zeppa’s voice matures along with her understanding of Bhutan both as a mythical Shangri-La and as a troubled nation beset by the same challenges of identity and belonging playing out around the world. Zeppa’s ability to interrogate both herself and the culture around her with curiosity and compassion make this book a memorable read. 

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer, reviewer and trainer. Originally from Canada, she now lives in Sydney where she is an enthusiastic member of that city's literary underworld. Ashley teaches creative writing, speaking and self-development. She has been published in McSweeney's and the Griffith Review.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Greater awareness from Irvin Yalom's classic account of psychotherapy in action, Love's Executioner

Jasmine Rae reviews Irvin D. Yalom's acclaimed examination of life's big topics.

Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D Yalom

Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy was recommended to me by a wonderful person,  a counsellor who was offering some group grief counselling which I gratefully accepted after the loss of my beautiful Dad in 2012.  I went out and purchased the book straight away but as life goes (at least for me) I didn't actually open it until 18 months later. From that moment I simply couldn't put it down. It felt like gold in my hands, like a portal to my innermost thoughts and fears and a connection to others who felt the same way. The words flowed so easily and somehow humorously across some big topics like life, purpose, relationships, our relationship with ourselves, and the inevitable end of life.  It was nothing like I had imagined it to be.  I laughed out loud in parts and was hanging on the edge of my seat most of the time.  It was honest and in tune with what I had secretly always wanted to talk about,  but would rarely allow myself to, for fear of seeming 'negative'.

Irvin D. Yalom

Irvin D Yalom is a world renowned psychotherapist and author of both fiction and non fiction. Love's Executioner is a tale of 10 patients seeking therapy for similar reasons but at very different stages of life. I could identify with each of the 10 characters on a human level and when learning about their triumphs, I celebrated with them.  When reading about their struggles, I cried with them and learned from them. It was also empowering to know that the man writing these discoveries was also very candid about his own struggles with what he labels "existential pain" and "death anxiety." I hope these labels don't scare you away from this book, they are spoken about so openly in these pages that it feels liberating to discuss them and it becomes apparent that nobody is a stranger to them. Knowing that even the most psychologically-equipped of us has their own journey in the same direction as everyone else was very comforting.

After reading Love's Executioner I was more solid in my belief that being aware of my own mortality doesn't make me a morbid person.  For me, it makes every day and every lesson after every mistake so much sweeter. I won't get to be on this 'journey' we call life forever. I also won't always have the opportunity to possess this vessel (my little 4 ft 9 inch body) to get around in, to see things, to meet people, to READ, and create. So there's no better time to do the things I've always wanted to do… right now… while now is still mine for the taking.

About the reviewer:

Jasmine Rae is one of Australia's most acclaimed country music artists. She has toured all over Australia and overseas. She has had many #1 singles in the Australian country music charts and has been nominated for Aria and Golden Guitar awards.  Her latest album is Heartbeat.