As the morning sunlight streams in through the windows, Manaslu Gurung places a plump pillow in the center of the floor.
As she sits on it, crossed-legged, she positions a brass bowl in front of her. She closes her eyes.
The room – and her thoughts – disappear.
In 20 to 30 minutes, she will emerge from her reverie, calm and collected and ready to start the rest of her routine.
“Meditation sets an intention for the day,” she says. “It really makes a difference.”
Manaslu manifested meditation only five years ago. Her first session was at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal, the land of her birth.
“My husband, Chris, had always wanted to go on a meditation retreat,” she says. “I love to talk, and when I heard that it was going to be seven days of silence, I didn’t think I could survive.”
She smiles. She not only survived, but she also thrived.
Once she learned to meditate, her life took an entirely new direction, one that she would never have chosen had she not been forced to apply mindfulness over matter.
Manaslu, who was named for the famed mountain in the Nepalese Himalayas, was born in Kathmandu, the country’s capital.
One of four children, she spent the first 17 years of her life there.
She had what she calls a “balanced” childhood. Her father had a doctorate in geography and traveled the world for work, and her mother, who didn’t finish high school, stayed home raising the family. It was she who taught Manaslu to cook, knit and garden, pastimes she still passionately pursues.
“My dad was one of the first people in the nation to get a PhD,” she says. “He believed in education for girls, which was unusual for the times, so I was sent to a fancy, all-girls Catholic convent school that was very strict.”
Manaslu knew she wanted to earn a college degree, so she went to Bangalore, India, for the last two years of high school.
“At that time, Nepalese high schools ended at grade 10,” she says. “There were no good colleges in Nepal, so everyone went to study abroad, where high schools went to 12th grade. I wanted to come to America because women have more freedom here.”
Manaslu followed a friend to California, enrolloing at UCLA, where she earned a degree in geography.
“I wanted to be like my father and travel the world,” she says.
Her next stop was the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned a master’s degree in the same subject.
After an internship at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., Manaslu returned to Amherst, where she got a job with the international students office while earning a master’s degree in education.
“It’s hard to find work in geography, and I was on a student visa, so I had to enroll in something to stay in the country,” she says, adding that she was, indeed, interested in teaching.
As it happened, Manaslu never taught a single class while she was there; her pedagogical pursuits would come later.
She married Chris, a classmate, and when they finished their degrees, he got a job in New York City.
“I was 29,” Manaslu says. “All my friends were married and had children. My parents were worried I was too old. I thought they would object to Chris because he’s not Nepali, but they didn’t.”
In 2005, they settled in the Bronx, and Manaslu commuted to a job with a nonprofit in Westchester, where she worked with international students.
“I loved it,” she says. “I got to travel all over the world and the country.”
A decade later, when new owners took over the company, Manaslu quit.
She and Chris decided to spend a year in Nepal with her family.
While they were there, they backpacked through Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
“My mom used to joke that we were gone more than we were there,” she says.
During Nepal’s April 2015 earthquake, which killed nearly 9,000 and injured nearly 22,000, they were among the first to join the rescue relief crews.
She and Chris raised money for batteries (people needed them to charge cellphones so they could contact their families) as well as children’s books, games and musical instruments.
“Most of the relief organizations were focusing on necessities,” Manaslu says. “We wanted to give children something to engage them.”
Right before they left for New York City, where Chris’ original job awaited, they went on that silent retreat that Manaslu can’t stop talking about.
They settled in Astoria, which Manaslu says “is the place I can call home.”
Manaslu is spending her time exploring different career options.
A teacher and assistant organizer at the meditation community Mindful Astoria, she studies Buddhism and recently completed her 200-hour teaching training in Kripalu yoga.
“I have such a rich life in terms of culture and community,” she says, adding that she’s made many friends through Mindful Astoria.
She wants to do meaningful work, but she’s not yet sure what that means.
“I can’t do 9-to-5 any more,” she says, adding that money is not her main motivator. “Buddhism is a deep philosophy that I find useful in my daily life. I want to invest my life in it and share it.”
Meditation, she says, will help her find a way to do this.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling