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Walls and bars do not make a prison, only thinking does

Hi Lam, I started on a three-year course in Kolkata in September. The course is ok, but I’m really missing the fresh air and mountains. Also, I miss my friends and Bhutanese food. I feel unhappy here and want to come home, but my parents will be disappointed if I don’t finish the course. Also, they have already paid my fees. Please advise me?

ST, Kolkata

Well, it is quite common to feel homesick when we first move away from home. In reality, there is nothing wrong with missing our friends and family, but these feelings should not become extreme to the point that we feel miserable.

To pull yourself out of this state of mind, it is important that you do not compare your new home with your former one. That does not mean that you forget about where you grew up, but just that you stop looking over our shoulder and thinking of the things that you miss.

For sure, you will not find ema datsi or clean mountain streams in Kolkata, but the city does have great street food and markets that are bursting with life and colour. In reality, you should stop looking for Bhutan in Kolkata. It doesn’t exist and searching for it only serves to make you feel unhappy. Instead, embrace your new life and your new home. Basically, when in Thimphu, be fully in Thimphu. When in Kolkata, be fully in Kolkata.

Actually, the city on the Hooghly is one of Asia’s great cities. It is rich in culture and full of charm. However, because your mind is focused elsewhere, you are unaware of this wealth. In this respect, you are like a man who is standing on a pile of gold, but who cannot see it because he always gazing into the distance.

To help you discover the magic of Kolkata, I suggest that you commit yourself to staying there until you complete your course. At the moment, you have one foot in and one foot out, and this is preventing you from embracing your new life. Just say to yourself, “I’m staying here – no matter what.” Once you have cut off any escape routes, you will begin to focus inwards.

As a saying goes: “Walls and bars do not make a prison, only thinking does.” To put it in another way, it is your mind that is creating your misery, not Kolkata. Here’s a silly example, but maybe it will work to prove this point. Imagine that you are an alien who once flew freely around the universe. You visited beautiful planets and played with meteors. One day, however, you crashed on our world and could not leave. This made you feel upset and  depressed. In contrast, the people of Earth are happy here. We enjoy the quiet of forests, the excitement of large cities, and the tastes of different kinds of food. So, why are you depressed? It is not because this planet is a gloomy and sad place, but because you are constantly comparing your former life with your present one. And, the way to change this mindset is to accept that you are on Earth and will not be leaving. If you can do this, you will learn to love the forests, the cities, and the food. In reality, you can live in the most beautiful place on Earth, but if you are always thinking about somewhere else you will not enjoy it. Likewise, you can live in a tough environment, but can still find the magic in your life if you accept the reality and just be there. It really all depends on your mind.

In short, I suggest that you cut off the hope that you will return to Bhutan until your course is complete. Like mountains and valleys, hope and disappointment are a pair and you cannot have one without the other. In this respect, when we drop hope, we also drop disappointment.

Actually, this is true for every situation, not only with regard to finding contentment in a new home. A relationship, for example, will only work if you are fully committed to your partner. Likewise, we can only find contentment in a career if we do not jump from one job to another.

Don’t be like a dog with skin disease that blames both the sun and the shade for its irritation, but instead recognize that your unhappiness has absolutely nothing to do with your environment but is caused by you. Only when you accept this fact can you begin to address the situation effectively – which means that you stop comparing Kolkata with Bhutan and instead fully embrace life in the city. If you can do that, I’m sure that you will come to appreciate the street food, the markets, the architecture, the people and the overall charm of Kolkata.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes. Email to jjwangchuk@gmail.com for any queries

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