Knowing Your Place

Decentralization is a prerequisite for the rekindling of community in Western society. Mobility erodes community, but as we put down roots and feel attachment to a place, our human relationships deepen, become more secure, and - as they continue over time - more reliable.

The broader sense of self in traditional Ladakhi society contrasts with the individualism of Western culture. A Ladakhi's identity is to a great extent molded by close bonds with other people, and is reinforced by the Buddhist emphasis on interconnectedness.

People are supported in a network of relationships that spread in concentric circles around them - family, farm, neighbourhood, village. In the West we pride ourselves on our individualism, but sometimes individualism is a euphemism for isolation. We tend to believe that a person should be completely self-sufficient, that he or she should not need anybody else.

The closely knit relationships in Ladakh seem liberating rather than oppressive, and have forced me to reconsider the whole concept of freedom. This is not as surprising as it might appear. Psychological research is verifying the importance of intimate, reliable, and lasting relations with others in creating a positive self-image. We are beginning to recognize how this in turn is the foundation for healthy development.

Ladakhis score very highly in terms of self-image. It is not something conscious; it is perhaps closer to a total absence of self-doubt, a profound sense of security. This inner security breeds tolerance and an acceptance of others with all their differences.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.186-7

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I was with about fifteen Ladakhis and two students from Calcutta on the back of a truck taking us along the bumpy and dusty road from Zanskar. As the journey went on, the students became restless and uncomfortable and began pushing at a middle-aged Ladakhi who had made a seat for himself out of a sack of vegetables.

Before long, the older man stood up so that the students - who were about twenty years younger than him - could sit down. When, after about two hours, we stopped for a rest, the students indicated to the Ladakhi that they wanted him to fetch water for them; he fetched the water. They then more or less ordered him to make a fire and boil tea for them.

He was effectively being treated as a servant - almost certainly for the first time in his life. Yet there was nothing remotely servile in his behaviour; he merely did what was asked of him as he might for a friend - without obsequiousness and with no loss of dignity. I was fuming, but he and the other Ladakhis, far from being angered or embarrassed by the way he was being treated, found it all amusing and nothing more. The old man was so relaxed about who he was that he had no need to prove himself.

I have never met people who seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. 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 part of something much larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and to your surroundings.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.84-5

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