To conclude the search for a rich and free life.
Five years ago I started on a journey. How much do you need to be happy, to feel rich and free? That’s what I wanted to know. I was looking to Mongolian nomads for answers: roaming freely, few possessions, survival art.
What I learned in Mongolia.
At first sight my Mongolian hosts did not have a whole lot: ten buckets, two tents, a truck and some rusty tools. But when you looked closer you could see that Oeltziie’s family was surrounded by wealth: five hundred animals, many acres of grass, rich forests filled with nuts and berries, clear spring water and the impressive landscape enveloping it all.
The herders I met were survival artists. When you combine knowledge of the weather and the animals with incredible inventivity, you don’t need much more than a few buckets. Of course every chainsaw was enjoyed, but an ax would do just fine. If you knew how to make rope from horse hear, just your clothes, your horse and an ax would suffice to survive. Everything after that was a bonus. Used when there, cast aside when worn out. I saw an amazing ease in their relationship to limitations and the imminent end of anything.
On the steppe many herders were isolated during the long winters. Oeltziie and Oeltzieeburen would retreat onto their winter pastures, eating home grown potatoes in a ger. The racing horses and cows stayed warm in the stable, sheeps and goats roamed outside. The couple would spent hours herding every single day, whether it was minus 20 or 40 degrees Celsius. They would seldom visit the village and the children stayed at school during weekdays.
The summers were a completely different story. Then they would live on the free grounds, between family and friends. They would herd each other’s animals, share washing machines, celebrate the summer without holding back. Then the steppe was generous and you only needed each other to live in abundance from animals and land.
Life wasn’t always easy as you might suspect. If she could, Oeltziie would like to live in a house. But the animals needed a nomadic way of life an she was proud of her herd and her profession. She was an independent business woman.
Can only nomads be so rich with so little?
Mongolian nomads are not at all rich with little. They have a great wealth. Free resources, sophisticated skills, lots of space and a firm social network. No mortgage to weigh them down, assurances or tax. Few possessions nor restrictions dictated by their government. They are completely naked to the humours of fate and navigate it like masters all the same.
Simplicity helps me, but is not the basis.
What do I truly need to be rich and happy? I wondered back in the Netherlands. I decided to strip away as much possessions and security as I dared. I lived on borrowed ground for a while. As a guest in backyards, in the attic of friends, in a tent on a campsite. To survive I did not need so much. To survive, but not to live and celebrate. That required more than the minimum. Living on the generosity of others has its limitation. I wanted to balance receiving and giving, to have abundance to share. For me that meant to be able to cook elaborate meals for guests and always have a spare bed at hand. I wanted to be able to work with my hands, to enjoy trees around my home and grow a few herbs. I wanted to build up. To build up my life with attention and love and have ownership over what I do. I wanted a slice of land and to provide for my family. My partner Elliot feels just the same.
Consciously enjoying the here and now, acting intently to enrich life. Accepting what is here, letting go what is no longer necessary. Taking responsibility for our own happiness while embracing the muddy reality of everyday life. Mindfulness master Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it Full catastrophe living. And it is something we can learn.
Mindfulness seems to come easier to Mongolian nomads than to us. Maybe it is their buddhistic heritage. Or their unpredictable circumstances and our stubborn ideas about the malleability of life. Maybe because they feel more strongly imbedded in their environment with few illusions about autonomy, while we see our environment more as separate and controllable. I don’t know why really.
I trained in mindfulness a year before I went to Mongolia, but it was there when it truly sunk in. Funny how far I traveled to learn to be simply present in my life. To open up to the immense interconnections between self and surroundings. To learn to observe. To dance with life, whatever shape it takes.
Thank you for this journey.
Whatever I learned these years is carried by many. The mindfulness program at first but then the many people that hosted me or supported the journey with finance and advice. I feel privileged for having had the opportunity to follow and share my curiosity. Thank you so much.