Founders with Purpose: Monika Schaffner

by Monika Schaffner

What brought me to work in the Himalayas, towards individual transformation and positive global change? The answer is simple: I was born here.

I was born into the situation of a country opening up to development. My father worked on a Swiss development cooperation project that built one of the first rural roads connecting Kathmandu with the eastern hills. I remember happy childhood years in the villages and on trekking paths of the Himalayas, in a time when these remote areas still knew relatively little of the outside world.

And I remember watching, over the course of the last decades, how development moved into these spaces. How its positive elements – buildings, roads, goods,… – brought comfort, opportunities, mobility, wealth, connectivity to the world. But I also observed the negative impact of this movement: the traffic, waste, wastewater, pollution, destruction, loss of calm, loss of beauty.

I observed this with concern from my personal perspective. Moving through Himalayan valleys and peaks as a trekker, first with my parents and later with friends or solo, I often experienced the precious regenerative quality of these pristine spaces – essentially for us human beings who have become so immersed in the “civilized” world. Places of wild, calm and beautiful nature are places where we can come to, to detox, regenerate, to reconnect to ourselves. We are all made up of the elements. And so we are all a part of nature, we originated in nature. But we have moved far away from these roots. Spending time in pristine nature helps us remember. And this process of remembering and reconnecting is transforming and healing, on a very deep level. For whatever questions we may bring, for whichever reason we have come, or whatever state we are in, spending time in nature enables us to regenerate.

Photo by Daniel Pittet

Having been raised in a Swiss family, and having spent my youth and higher education in Switzerland, I also know the “other side”. I see how many people in the highly developed west have lost this connection over the course of modernization; how the urbanized, “developed” lifestyle has led to loss of orientation and meaning, loss of the deep sense of knowing where we belong and why we are here. We modernized people are now gradually realizing this lack and how important it is to regain, re-access and recapture this inner home. So we are coming back to spaces like the Himalayas, in search for pristine places of nature; wishing to experience the original sense of living in connection, in contact, in close relationship with nature.

These insights have led me to work on the front of sustainable development: With my company Connecting Spaces we design and implement – jointly with multi-disciplinary partners – holistic, innovative ways of developing remote mountain areas so they maintain their beauty, power and regenerative value while opening to the benefits of modernization. Approaches, e.g., where waste is valued as a resource and brought back into the natural cycle, instead of polluting nature; where roads are planned with foresight, taking care of the landscape they cut through; where indigenous crops are celebrated in their diversity and unique nutritious value, and proudly introduced into the value-chain; where buildings are built in harmony with the space, using natural materials that are available on site; remembering the original way of building which had an innate meaning, and which can now be enhanced in terms of modern comfort. So that today’s people coming from the west or having lived in the west or aspiring to western comfort can feel comfortable, while at the same time embracing and recognizing the authentic value of their ancient heritage.

With so-called mindwalks, I connect people from urbanized centers to the beauty of Nepal’s mountain spaces. Mindwalks are exclusive, conscious trekking retreats in the Himalayas, for individuals or small groups. Mindwalks create a format of space out of daily life, for people to travel through these pristine mountain spaces and tap into their transformative and regenerative power. People who long for this re-connection, wishing to come in contact again with primordial cultural and natural energy, searching for the deep values their own cultures have lost. People in need of a time-out, to reflect on where they stand, where they are headed, and what they may need/want to change, in order to be more strongly aligned with themselves. Mindwalks essentially offer a journey in nature to feel and explore, to understand and remember our purpose of being, and to find the “home” within ourselves.

Photo by Daniel Pittet

Through their conscious appreciation of the areas they travel through, mindwalking visitors at the same time raise the awareness with the local caretakers (local communities, authorities), of how valuable “their” spaces are. Recognizing that development should not mean to modernize at any cost, but essentially, to safeguard, in a way that modern amenities can merge with traditional values in a beneficial way.

I see myself as a bridge builder, literally connecting the spaces, having seen both worlds, knowing both cultural settings, seeing what one lacks and the other one is in search for. As a foreigner with roots in Nepal, I can merge the outside perspective with my soul connection and care, remembering what these spaces looked like 40 years ago. Considering how in the west, where we have gone through the whole development cycle, we are now beginning to move “back to” regenerative approaches, I ask myself: Could Nepal actually take a leap and learn from these novel approaches, not having to go through the whole process again?

In the mountainous regions of Nepal, tourism is one of the main driving forces of development. Be it the western tourists that have come for the past 50+ years, be it guests from neighbouring countries, be it the rising numbers of domestic visitors exploring their country. Tourism has a great potential, because it brings income, opportunities, exposure, and connectivity to previously very remote areas. But it also bears a tremendous risk if the associated infrastructure and services are developed with purely economic interest. That is where I see the crucial point of entry: To work with tourism as a motor, pioneer and strong accelerator of development, but with the holistic intention to take care of the very assets it thrives on: Its unique environmental and cultural heritage.

Photo by Daniel Pittet

Sustainability is about welcoming the ever growing numbers of people and the modernization they bring, in a way, so that much more than 40 years from now, Nepal will be able to offer its unique mystical quality to visitors in quest of experiencing the power of Himalayan valleys and peaks. If this potential can be evaluated and proudly, consciously built on, that is true development. As in: Evolvement, holistic growth and beneficial transformation, for the good of all “stakeholders”, including essentially nature and her living beings.

Cover photo by: Remo Eisner

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