January 2, 2015

Everyday Suffering is Underrated: Life Lessons from Mongolian Nomads.


On a recent trip to the Mongolian countryside I was taken aback.

I witnessed the profound joy of the people there coupled with the knowledge of the profound suffering that was waiting for them just beyond the Fall. Despite understanding all they would have to endure when the long winter came, they seemed to me the happiest people on earth.

These nomads live simply, each household owning one or two Gers (round tent-like structures made of felt), a herd of goats, yaks, cows, sheep, or camels, a couple of guard dogs and perhaps a horse, truck or motorbike for transportation.

Living in harmony with the ebb and flow of the seasons, nestled in an ever changing landscape and dependant solely on their environment for survival, the people accept the natural balance of abundance and scarcity and exist accordingly.

“Isn’t waiting itself and longing a wonder, being played on by wind and sun and shade.”

~ Annie Dillard

Long and harsh winters can deplete food stocks, sometimes wiping out whole animal herds. Even when times are good there is much work to be done daily to care for the animals and environment that are the staples of Mongolian survival.

But the joy in the people of the Mongolian plains is palpable. At the end of a long and fruitful summer a camel herder grabs his wife around the middle, grinning proudly that she is round and fed. Wide, white smiles glow in the firelight and laughter permeates the wide valleys and lush hillsides.

There is an understanding about the fragility of human life, the brevity of abundance and the transitional nature of all things. So whether they be surviving day to day through the bane of a long winter, or enjoying the fruits of their toil, the Mongolian nomads submerge themselves in every moment.

In our industrialized version of reality, where convenience is paramount and almost any material comfort can be bought nearly any time of year, we have rejected the notion of suffering. Suffering, to us, has become something simply to be avoided.

We consciously sidestep pain or hardship if we can, or if we can’t, we run from it into distractions, smother it with any of the available modern day opiates. Television, internet, shopping malls, drugs, social media; we stimulate our pain into oblivion. But what if suffering can’t be ignored, or sedated?

What if hunger, and longing and hurt are as fundamental to the human experience as food, water and love. And what if by repressing and rejecting our pain, it is surfacing in us in other, more abstract and destructive ways?

What if anxiety and depression, psychosis and violence are all just manifestations of the suffering that we have blockaded, ducked and weaved under and around and oh so cleverly avoided in other parts of our lives? What if by rejecting suffering we are actually just creating more and deeper suffering?

The crime rate in the Mongolian countryside is low. People do not fear one another. Hitch hiking is an accepted and widely practiced form of public transportation. Perfect strangers are welcomed into one another’s homes like old friends.

The Mongolian people feel as connected to one another as they do to their horses, their hills and their vast blue sky.

We have a lot to learn from these old cultures. What we can take from the nomads of the Mongolian plains in particular is humility and mindfulness—the ability to acknowledge our personal suffering without fear.

Instead of running from our hardships, let us accept them, blend them into the watercolor of our experience. Let us see our environment as the complex set of opposites that it is, and learn how to find harmony within the opposing forces of nature and ourselves.

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Author: Kirby Browne

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: courtesy of author

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