“Perhaps the most important lesson of Ladakh has to do with happiness. Only after many years of peeling away layers of preconceptions did I begin to see the joy and laughter of the Ladakhis for what it really was: a genuine and unhindered appreciation of life itself. In Ladakh I have known a people who regard peace of mind and joie de vivre as their unquestioned birthright. I have seen that community and a close relationship to the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication.”
– Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures
Learning from Ladakh
One example of the social consequences of Official Culture meeting pathology-free communities is from the thousand year-old Buddhist people of Ladakh situated in the desert of the Western Himalayas known as : “little Tibet.” There is no romantic gilding here, theirs is a story of survival, endurance and physical hardship set against a harsh environment. The essence and principles of their continued existence and the coming of Western “development” places in sharp relief the kind of values necessary to create a community and to see it function and thrive. Yet, the deep spiritual resource that the Ladakhis embodied and which pervaded every facet of their lives was a lesson in ancient humility and reverence for a sacredness that we have lost – to our absolute detriment. Simplicity, yes, raw nature, indeed. But the Ladakhis appeared to have a spiritual health that was far in advance of our own. Like many indigenous cultures, it is not so hard to see why. For all our intellectual feats of daring-do, our Western populations in particular, remain desperately unhappy and dangerously lost.
So, what does that mean? That we all give up our i-pads and urban lifestyles and go and live in yurts and commune with nature?
Actually, that’s probably a very healthy thing to do for a while. But it’s deeper than that. This is about reclaiming who we are, and what we choose to see. It is about discovering a state of Being not a physical location or lifestyle. If the new science is correct at the cutting edge of physics, then perhaps such changes can potentially cause ripples throughout the fabric of reality which might lead to a practical application of new ways of living. Maybe these new visions can be divorced from the ridiculous, unsustainable and pathological road to hell which characterises the disease of Western culture. Can we not collect the building blocks of Western innovation and transmute them into something quite different? I think we can. But first we must look squarely at the most basic nature of Western – largely Anglo-American – perception has done to an old way of life which could have taught us so much. This “dis-ease” of the West made quick work of subsuming the Ladakhi youth into that same materialist, “little picture” prison, changing their lives forever; first economically, then culturally and finally eroding their living spirituality. Their story represents a cautionary tale for us in the West about to embrace the promise of a Brave new SMART society.
Helena Norberg-Hodge * lived with the Ladakh people for over twenty years documenting her experiences in Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (1991). Despite living physically arduous routine of subsistence, she described a people who were, in a word: happy. Not in the superficial sense based on what we have or don’t have in any given moment, but from a contentment that sprung from deeply rooted ethical values, grounded in practical needs and sourced from a complex spiritual and artistry of understanding of the interconnection and interrelatedness of all things. Buddhist philosophy, in the Ladakhi’s world was the foundation to that inner nourishment and satisfaction that was unalterable. At least, until a consumerist culture arrived.
Norberg-Hodge questions her friend about one of the central elements of Buddhism: the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness:
It is something you can only fully grasp through a combination of reflection and personal experience. But I‘ll try to explain it in a simple way. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it—all form part of the tree. Ultimately, if you think about it, everything in the universe helps make the tree what it is. It cannot be isolated; its nature changes from moment to moment—it is never the same. This is what we mean when we say that things are ‘empty,’ that they have no independent existence. 
As a consequence, the real emptiness found in the West has ironically supplanted a perception and way of life which is infinitely more stable and enduring. Whereas the monotheistic religions have given retributive rules and the abdication of responsibility with little incentive for self-knowledge, Ladakhi Buddhist values offer the opposite, despite unfounded accusations of nihilism. In reference to Christianity: “Everything is all laid out for you … Everything has been determined by God and is controlled by Him. It must make people very apathetic. There seems to be no room in Christianity for personal growth in the way there is in Buddhism. Through spiritual practice we have an opportunity to develop ourselves.” 
The relationship to the world exists not in polarities and resistance and forcibly attaining what one wants by “making it happen” or “giving till it hurts” but by stopping long enough to catch sight of the essential nature of the human self with its biorhythms and cycles intimately connected to the environment that mirrors the same. It is then that we come to know when to be active and when to be passive in time to the mini-cycles of our daily lives and the larger ones such as seasons and solstices. It is an unsentimental and pragmatic philosophy of perspicacity where everything has its place – both predator and prey; a dualism which is present in our own minds, where each needs to be honoured and integrated.
Indeed, in Ladakhi terms: “Illness is caused by a lack of understanding” which is increasingly confirmed by both Eastern and Western medicine where a more holistic approach gives – more positive holistic results. In reality, this represents yet another return to ancient ideas of the body-mind complex where listening and understanding are two sides of the same coin. How often do we genuinely listen to another and make it clear that we hear them, even if we disagree? How often do we listen to our body when it manifests denials and unresolved emotional trauma? Validation does not have to mean agreement but it can mean a respect and a foundation from which progress can build. Reaction only creates more chaos and mis-diagnoses based on mis-understanding too narrow a view.
The root cause of so much unhappiness and imbalance appears to be from the pursuit of our desires dictated by those whose nature is desire, at any cost. This has become the standard by which society defines itself. The Ladakhis find meaning in their lives through: “… a lasting happiness that is unaffected by the transient flow of outer events.” What is more, it is not about denying desire, any existence or escaping into something better, it is concerned with altering our perception and assumptions of what constitutes healthy living, many of which have taken root as a result of social engineering sourced from those unwilling or incapable of conceiving something other than their own limiting beliefs. These willingly accepted limitations have now become normal stifling creativity and trust. As that wise old Frenchman Voltaire once exclaimed: “Common Sense is not so common,” because we have been stripped of the innate inner-tuition of our instinctive unconscious which has been forced to adapt to an entirely foreign set of artificial and entropic constructs. Our loss of deep purpose and meaning is exactly what the Ladakhis had in abundance and which gave them a spiritual synergy we so desperately crave.
The Ladakhis have a spiritual belief, yet it is rooted in a practical, common sense approach to the material world and the minutiae of daily living. It therefore can be described as information which has been applied and overlain with archetypal symbolism. It is therefore knowledge grounded in the wisdom of generational experience; a rich communion with realities beyond the purely material world. This is not the kind of belief that conforms to unhealthy restrictions borne of fear or the need for security. Faith is consistently provided with evidence of its worth. The instances of anthropomorphism of spiritual realities is merely a technique to cloth certain principles with culturally suitable imagery for coming generations so that the underlying meaning is naturally conveyed and assimilated. it provides the intrinsic glue of the oral traditions that serves as the heart and soul of community relations. This, after all, used to be how European folktales provided deep archetypal nourishment to the young in order to assist in the harmonious inner development of the child’s psyche.
In this way, they see the folly of self-aggrandisement because, as Norberg-Hodge describes in the Ladakhis’ living philosophy:
The ‘Self’ or ego, is ultimately no more separate than anything else in the universe. The delusion that self exists independently is perhaps the greatest obstacle on the path to enlightenment. The belief in absolute, permanent existence leads to a cycle of endless craving, and the craving brings suffering. In our attachment to the notion of a separate self and separate things, we end up constantly striving and reaching for something new. Yet as soon as we have attained what we are seeking, the luster is gone and we set our sights elsewhere. Satisfaction is rare and brief; we are forever frustrated…Tashi would often remind me that knowledge and understanding were not sufficient in themselves. In fact they could be dangerous, he would say, if not accompanied by compassion. 
Compassion is antithetical to those who govern and broker power in the world today which merely underscores the fact that power in the hands of those without such principles will always be a recurrent disaster for the world. Compassion is eaten by psychopaths and reconstituted into further energy for rapacious, predatory behaviour. As Ladakh was effectively isolated from the activities of the West for so long and when such an open, loving, profoundly connected network of communities of people made contact, change was inevitable. Like the physical diseases brought by European man to the indigenous races of the past, the Ladakhis were no different except that the presence of a psycho-spiritual corrosion took place where psychopathological tendencies and a collective psychosis spread across the culture. What author and teacher Paul Levy calls a malignant egophrenia, Andrew Lobaczewski called the psycho-pathogenic infection of ponerology and which the Native American Peoples called the crypto-geographical presence of “Wetiko” – these are all terms for the same sickness of the soul which has swept the globe and remains undiscovered in the hinterlands of our unconscious.
The youth of Ladakh, once exposed to the quick-fix contagion of our culture were quickly and tragically made to feel inferior to it. While absorbing the apparent material benefits of such consumerist excess, they could not see: “… the social or psychological dimensions—the stress, the loneliness, the fear or growing old. Nor can they see the environmental decay, inflation, or unemployment.”  As we saw in Official Culture, the social engineering of sexuality and the idea of sex and sexuality as a component of something sacred and mysterious – not least, as a consequence of the natural expression of love – is something quaint, antiquated and even amusing in our so called age of liberation and freedom. Sex, love and the role of women have a different meaning in Ladakhi culture:
One of the first things that struck me on my arrival in Ladakh was the wide, uninhibited smiles of the women, who move freely, joking and speaking with men in an open and unselfconscious way…women generally exhibit great self-confidence, strength of character, and dignity. Almost all early travellers to Ladakh commented on the exceptionally strong position of women. […]
Are there special qualities that people look for when choosing a wife?
Well, first of all, she should be able to get along with people, to be fair and tolerant.
What else is important?
Her skills are valued, and she shouldn‘t be lazy.
Does it matter if she is pretty or not?
Not really. It‘s what she‘s like inside that counts—her character is more important. We say here in Ladakh, ‘A tiger‘s stripes are on the outside; human stripes are on the inside.’ 
As a result of this practical philosophy of life, Norberg-Hodge discovered during her stays with the Ladakh people, that their sense of self was inclusive to the extent that they did not retreat behind barriers of fear and self-protection but in fact: “… they seem to be totally lacking in what we would call pride. This doesn‘t mean a lack of self-respect. On the contrary, their self-respect is so deep rooted as to be unquestioned. I have never met people that seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis.”
Can you imagine a society devoid of pride or narcissism? Think what that would for the decision-making process in business, economics and community relations? It would totally change the very nature of society itself. But is that a utopian perfection?
As Norberg-Hodge explains: “The reasons are, of course, complex and spring from a whole way of life and world-view. But I am sure that the most important factor is the sense that you are a part of something much larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and your surroundings.” 
That being so, why has such a profound truth been erased from our memory? Religion, science and education have utterly failed to deliver a true sense of meaning though the idea that we are part of something mysterious and which transcends the material world is intuitively known by most people. Political ponerology has warped and contoured global populations to a singular world-view which places any idea of multi-dimensionality and cooperative visions beyond the reach of ordinary people. The cost to our spiritual heritage has been incalculable where the impetus of desire and the need possess to fill up this unfillable void defines our status and our identity.
Norberg-Hodge describes a healthy society as:
“… one that encourages close social ties and mutual interdependence, grating each individual net of unconditioned emotional support. Within this nurturing framework, individuals feel secure enough to become quite free and independent. Paradoxically, I have found the Ladakhis less emotionally dependent than we are in industrial society. There is love and friendship, but it is not intense or grasping—not a possession of one person by another.” 
Yet to possess, in all its forms is the hallmark of capitalist societies. For the Elite and the apathetic, it is the: “close social ties and mutual interdependence” and “emotional support” that must be systematically replaced with dependency on the State, whilst fulfilling our obedient roles as consumers with its inculcation of fear and insecurity should you determine to live your lives outside Official Culture.
The “success” of the West and its agribusiness is a seductive illusion from which millions have been drawn, including those from Ladakh. Norberg-Hodge explains why: “Previously, with cooperative labor between people, farmers had no need for money. Now, unable to pay larger and larger wages for farm hands, some are forced to abandon the villages.” Some in the global market place and mass immigration from Western-backed destabilised countries have found their fortune but most have not. The end of blue collar work is in sight through computerization and robotics. It has long been a familiar story characterising the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the global industrialists.
The monoculture of the mind that inevitably descended on Ladakh infected first the minds of the young and old alike with a culture-shock which led to a restructuring of the notion of time and with it the sense of place within the fabric of Nature. The Ladakhi connection to and between the land and psyche, community values and Western precepts merged to create disorientation and obligation to a world that was essentially alien. Insecurity and lack of self-esteem logically had to follow as did the Western template of self-importance or pride:
The Ladakhis now have less time for each other and for themselves. As a result, they are losing their once-acute sensitivity to the nuances of the world around them—the ability, for instance, to detect the slightest variations in the weather, or in the movement of the stars. A friend from Markha Valley summed it up for me: ―I can‘t understand it. My sister in the capital she now has all these things that do the work faster. She just buys her clothes in a shop; she has a jeep, a telephone, a gas cooker. All of these things save so much time, and yet when I visit her, she doesn‘t have time to talk to me. 
The consumerist ethos of possessing products and by extension, possessing another has radically changed a thousand of year-old way of life into a complete dependency towards agribusiness and factory-farming, where the use of animals reflects our steady commodification. In Ladakh, though essential to survival, animals were respected and treated as a gift from Nature. As one Ladakhi mentioned: “They become your friends, you relate[d] to them. If they have done a particularly good job, if they have worked particularly hard, you might give them something special to eat. But machines are dead; you have no relationship with them. When you work with machines, you become like them, you become dead yourself.” 
And once “dead” inside we begin to seek anything and everything to fill up that void. This meant for Ladakhi people that the very notion of living and working became an entirely different measure of survival. No longer was living lightly on the Earth as natural as the seasons, it was a function – albeit efficient – of machine consciousness:
In the traditional subsistence economy, money played a minor role, used primarily for luxuries—jewellery, silver, and gold. Basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter—were provided for without money. The labor one needed was free of charge, part of an intricate web of human relationships. In one day a tourist would spend the same amount that a Ladakhi family might in a year. Ladakhis did not realize that money played a completely different role for the foreigners; that back home they needed it to survive; that food, clothing and shelter all cost money—a lot of money. Compared to these strangers they suddenly felt poor…Tourists can only see the material side of the culture—worn out woolen robes, the dzo pulling a plough, the barren land. They cannot see peace of mind or the quality of family and community relations. They cannot see the psychological, social, and spiritual wealth of the Ladakhis. Besides giving the illusion that all Westerners are multimillionaires, the tourist also helps perpetuate another faulty image of modern life—that we never work. It looks as though our technologies do the work for us. In industrial society today, we actually spend more hours working than people in rural, agrarian economies. But that is not how it looks to Ladakhis. For them, work is physical work, walking, and carrying things…
…Every day I saw people from two different cultures, a world apart, looking at each other and seeing superficial, one-dimensional images. Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, ―How terrible; what a life of drudgery. They forget they have traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountains with heavy backpacks. They also forget how much their bodies suffer from lack of use at home. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club—across a polluted city in rush hour—to sit in a basement, pedaling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege. 
The diversity of other cultures touching our own, sharing our values and experiences should be one of the greatest joys of the human journey. But the root causes of our collective meeting across oceans and national borders will often define how the social integration and tolerance plays out. If these cross-fertilisations of culture and race have been enforced through colonialism and economic hardship then fear, survival and psychological trauma are the foundations upon which future relationships are based and ordinary people must deal with the complex fallout. As such, education can help with communication and tolerance, enriching the mind and expanding the knowledge base.
But does it?
Ladakh in 1981, locality unknown, photo by
Western ideas of education have been justly lauded as a human right yet they are devoid of a pragmatic spiritual framework and worse still, when it is present it is spawned from a big mix of urban, religo-occult, Christian, Anglo-American, and Euro-centric models which amounts to an indoctrination of the Western ideal to which all should aspire. It offers the same bland, Universalist information as though all cultures and countries are alike. Western education reinforces competition and a strangely Darwinian and materialist world-view that is devoid of context and cultural nuance. It therefore helps to foster dependency on unsustainable resources and increases scarcity, a perception that is funnelled through globalised pupils: the new channels of production and homogenisation. Alternative modalities, emotional and interpersonal skills and multi-disciplinary approaches offering the cutting edge of new thought are seldom brought into the light of day. Therefore, the price of education and being “informed” is to lose the sense of identity to be replaced with another that is rootless. It offers an education that promises its students of developing nations to become more aware of what is happening in the world and how to join the global economy that is DE-pendent when once you were IN-dependent.
Like so many ancient and indigenous cultures forced into the Western fold Ladakh is no different, where modern schooling, just as it does to the young American or British child: “acts almost as a blindfold, preventing children from seeing the context in which they live. They leave school unable to use their resources, unable to function in their own world.” In traditional cultures there was no separation of education from their environment and the intimate relationships between the ecology of the mind and land. Learning came forth naturally from the extended family and friends who were all involved in maintaining the organism that was family, and community. The spiritual, economic and emotional nourishment came from hard work, a deep knowledge that was transmitted to children, by example.
Unlike generations of children in the West who are force-fed learning that is designed to contour the developing mind towards the implacable necessity of the global market, the Ladakhis were taught something quite different. For instance, regarding the practice of sowing: “… they would learn that on one side of the village it was a little warmer, on the other side a little colder. From their own experience children would come to distinguish between different strains of barley and the specific growing conditions each strained preferred. They learned to recognize even the tiniest wild plant and how to use it, and how to pick out a particular animal on a faraway mountain slope”. 
Portrait of a Hanu woman from a Ladakhi tribe (wikipedia)
In comparison to children in most of our mega-cities, many of whom have no idea what or where a cow comes from and exhibit a complete disconnection from the concept of the natural world, Ladakhi toddlers absorbed more knowledge about the intricate processes of their environment than the average adult urban dweller would in their life time. There was no separation between themselves and Nature thus there was a profound heart to heart connection between people which embraced the dark and the light as an integral unit. There couldn’t afford to be imbalance as it was both their inspiration and source of survival – the very locus of their ancestors:
For generation after generation, Ladakhis grew up learning how to provide themselves with clothing and shelter; how to make shoes out of yak skin and robes from the wool of sheep; how to build houses out of mud and stone. Education was location-specific and nurtured an intimate relationship with the living world. It gave children an intuitive awareness that allowed them, as they grew older, to use resources in an effective and sustainable way. None of that knowledge is provided in the modern school. Children are trained to become specialist in a technological, rather than an ecological society. School is a place to forget traditional skills and, worse, to look down on them. […] The new economy cuts people off from the earth. 
Can the people of Ladakh reverse the tide of exploitation and ride the new technologies and rising awareness in people all over globe? The ancient models that promoted ecological consciousness and innovative and creative thinking are making a comeback, but psychological knowledge must also go hand in hand. A restored connection to the earth is only viable if the social systems are founded on knowledge that prevents the rise of pathologies in the first place. The so-called civilised West has destroyed, converted, “integrated” or wiped out cultures like Ladakh that do not adapt to the neo-liberal economic model of consumption. It is the history of the founding fathers and the Natives American Indians; the conquistadores of Spain and the Incas; the British Empire and the trade of the East Indian Company that laid the foundations for colonization and the mark of European progress, translated as the disbursement of psychopathic genes across the globe. As a consequence, we are labouring under a serious erosion of spiritual meaning in so many of our lives and an explosion of mental illness.
The Indus valley and Indus River near Leh, Ladakh, India
We know that perhaps such rampant pathways of exploitation are not an inevitable part of man’s evolutionary destiny and do not necessarily have to re-occur and repeat. Nature is no longer our Mother nor are we her children. She will carry on regardless. By taking care of our own inner ecology we attend to the larger ecology of which we are a part. We have come of age with enough knowledge to know how to achieve a more harmonious way of life. In one sense, there is no need to “heal the Earth” or “Save” it. It is time to grow up.
If the Earth decides we have chosen to sign away our potential to the destructive nature of the psychopath and the Wetiko disease, then she will wipe the slate clean as overwhelming meteorological and geological evidence attests. Therefore, it behooves us to understand not only the seeds of our present state but the signs that are all around us: that humanity may have reached this stage many times before.
Which brings us to our final piece of the puzzle: the little matter of global change and cyclical cataclysms ….
* I was privileged to attend one of Helena Norberg Lodge’s seminars at the Schumacher College a few years after her book had been published. She was enormously eloquent, passionate and overflowing with knowledge about Ladakh. It was infectious. So much so, it prompted me to dig deeper toward my own quest which may not have led me quite where I expected (when does it ever?) but it certainly brought me face to face with exactly the same universal precepts which the Ladakhis so naturally embodied. I then had to discover why it was that they were not present within me.
You can see more photos on the Ladahki culture at www.beforethey.com/
 p.73; Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh by Helena Norberg Hodge. Published by Sierra Club Books, September. 1991 | ISBN-13: 978-0871565594.
 Ibid. (p.74)
 Ibid. (p.75)
 Ibid. (p.97)
 Ibid. (pp.68-71)
 Ibid. (p.85)
 Ibid. (p.106)
 Ibid. (p.109)
 Ibid. (p.111)