BRUCE KIRKBY’S BLUE SKY KINGDOM AND THE GIFT OF ATTENTION
By Meghan J. Ward
Adventures can often be adrenaline-fuelled undertakings. In Blue Sky Kingdom, author Bruce Kirkby treks into Zanskar with his family and learns how to slow it all down.
Senior lamas at Karsha Gompa wearing ceremonial yellow hats. Photo: Bruce Kirkby.
“The sky was overcast, and the great valley appeared mute, as if sketched in pastel. Dust devils skittered across the plains below. The two great rivers, the Stod and the Tsarap, reflected the sky like veins of tarnished silver.”
It is passages like this one in Blue Sky Kingdom that brings to life a land that readers may never see for themselves. Author Bruce Kirkby writes wonderfully rich descriptions with a simple and subtle touch, as though influenced by the philosophy he’d come to respect in the people he lived with for three months at a Buddhist monastery: less is more.
How he found himself living with his family at Karsha Gompa, a monastery tucked into a mountainside in the Zanskar valley, is a story that speaks to the same concept. Kirkby, an acclaimed Canadian author and adventurer—with a mile-long resume of expeditions, publications and on-camera appearances—has adventure built into his bones and an innate desire to escape to the wilderness, yet he is no less immune to the soul-sucking powers of modern technology and busyness.
“Absently spooning granola to my mouth,” he writes in Blue Sky Kingdom, I scrolled through Facebook, my phone casting an eerie blue light over the boys…. I kept on digging, driven by the same urge that draws the beachcomber to the ocean, or the gold panner to the river; the eternal hope that somewhere amongst the crap might lie a treasure.”
Yet, the treasure was sitting with him at his kitchen table: 3-year old Taj and 7-year-old Bodi. It was just one of many occasions that Kirkby found himself “drifting through life.” He knew he needed to do something about it. He and his wife, Christine, had an idea—one they’d been floating for years—but now it seemed fitting, vital even. They would leave the technology and distractions behind and take their family to live in a Himalayan Buddhist monastery.
Norgay, the young tulku, believed to be a reincarnated lama, peers from an abandoned monastery rooftop. Photo: Bruce Kirkby
Blue Sky Kingdom documents the family’s 100-day journey from their home in Kimberley, B.C., to Zanskar (in the Indian union territory of Ladakh), by canoe, cargo ship, train and on foot. At the monastery, they live with Lama Wangyal (once the Head Lama at Karsha Gompa) and teach English to the novice monks. They embed themselves into monastery life, attending puja ceremonies, helping with harvest and visiting with the relatives of their new friends. And though Kirkby doesn’t claim to be Buddhist, nor to have mastered the practices of Buddhism, he comes away from the experience with a greater connection to himself and his family, as well as a newfound perspective on Bodi’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Kirkby also walks out of the Zanskar valley with a deeper understanding of what we could do be doing to live happier lives as North Americans.
“I had begun to wonder if we were
not simultaneously growing poorer, in ways
that bank accounts and standard-of-living
indexes couldn’t measure—
time, connection and community.”
Blue Sky Kingdom is indeed an adventure story in that it transports us through a range of landscapes and the discomforts that come with physical challenges, language barriers, foreign foods and unfamiliar social norms. It is also a family adventure, as the book’s cover promotes, though as a parent myself I found the “family” aspect to be more of a subplot to the ongoing narrative.
I asked Kirkby what he thought this book was really about.
“It’s about attention,” he replied. “And it’s about the fact that our attention is the most valuable thing we have…. And it is so valuable, but we have none of the tools to marshal it and navigate it. In fact, our society’s evolved to do the opposite: to reward giving [attention] away easily.”
Attention isn’t only the message, but also the means in this book. A lack of attention was, of course, the reason Kirkby travelled to Zanskar in the first place. The writing itself is infused with attentive details that pull the reader into each moment and slow the pace of reading—in a good way. Kirkby’s writing is captivating: you can smell the incense, see the light moving over the landscape, hear the ceremonial horns. And it’s in his reflections throughout the book that bring the reader back, time and again, to the ills of our modern society.
“…Despite the wealth of Canadian society,” he writes in Blue Sky Kingdom, “I had begun to wonder if we were not simultaneously growing poorer, in ways that bank accounts and standard-of-living indexes couldn’t measure—time, connection and community.”
We see this lack of community and connection even in our tight-knit mountain communities, Kirkby remarked. Community building requires time. “We are all so damn busy. And we are missing life because we’re so busy.”
Mountain dwellers are not immune to the feeling of drifting through life, despite the priority we place on spending time outside and being in the present moment—activities that can feel like a form of meditation. And they are. Yet, as Kirkby reflects, he wasn’t often able to transplant that frame of mind into his daily life. How do you get through the more mundane moments of life, such as waiting in line at a grocery store, without a need for distraction? Or the countless hours families, couples and housemates might be spending together throughout the pandemic? His time at Karsha Gompa began to change that for him.
In our conversation, Kirkby pointed to a few methods that can pull us into the present and help us live in community with others. Focusing on the breath is one way, whether as a period of meditation or a few deep breaths when we’re feeling untethered. In Zanskar, he also encountered the concept of a paspun, wherein a few families unite in an official capacity to support one another, especially during times of birth, death or marriage.
“There’s a lot to that model in terms of trying to navigate our current challenges,” said Kirkby.
“We are all so damn busy.
And we are missing life
because we’re so busy.”
The paspun speaks to the Zanskaris’ dependence on others; they know they cannot do it alone, and neither should we. Our own paspun might be the bubble we form during the pandemic or the friends and family we rely on to help us through tough times and celebrate with us in the good times.
Kirkby also spoke to the fact that many of us have needed to relearn (or even learn) how to be with our partners and our children 24 hours a day. His time in isolation with his family during the pandemic has been oddly reminiscent of their time in Zanskar.
“We have all these escapes that take these sharp edges off,” he said. “But I value that ability I had to simply be in that oceanic eternity of time with my family because I had lost that skill.”
It’s one he said we’re being pushed to confront right now, but we can learn to face it.
(L) Bodi and Christine add a khata scarf to the offerings on the summit of the Sisar La pass. (R) Bruce and Christine with Taj (L) and Bodi (R). Photos: Bruce Kirkby
As an example, Kirkby pointed to his cold-water baths. Two years ago, he had grievously injured his back and had taken to cold water therapy as a means of relief. It was a struggle at first, but he stuck with it as a daily practice. Gradually, it got easier and now he’s cracking through inches of ice on wintry mornings to take a dunk. “I actually find joy in it,” he said.
Breaking ourselves away from distractions and ignoring the voice that arises in times of boredom, monotony or stress may feel like breaking through two inches of ice on a cold water tub. But, eventually, attention can bring us greater joy, and greater happiness, as the people of Zanskar demonstrate in Blue Sky Kingdom.
If you’re looking to read a book worthy of your own precious attention, Blue Sky Kingdom is an immersive story with ample lessons for our fast-paced lifestyles, drawn from an ancient culture and simpler way of life.
Find a copy of Blue Sky Kingdom here or consider shopping from your local independent book store.
Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler, Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.