Bangladeshi Climber Shares Her Spiritual Journey for the Women of Her Country

Wasfia Nazreen‘s story will captivate you. We first came to know the Bangladeshi climber and activist when she was honored as one of our Nat Geo Adventurers of the Year for her quest to become the first person from her country to ascent the Seven Summits—and inspire the women and girls of her country to follow their own paths in life. Since climbing Carstenz Pyramid in 2015, her final of the seven summits, the newly named 2016 National Geographic Emerging Explorer has been hard at work on her forthcoming Ösel Foundation, which she describes as an “educational institute set in the outdoors, which integrates the latest scientific findings about development of the mind and combines it with mindfulness techniques and training in nature to empower adolescent girls.” A new film entitled Wasfia, which takes us along to see what motivates her to use mountains to strive for cultural change, will premiere this weekend at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado. (See times and locations.)

We spoke to Nazreen about her life and the new film. Come back on Monday, May 30, when we will post the film exclusively on NationalGeographic.com.

I love when you say, “if anything natures conquers you,” in the new film about your life, Wasfia. When did you come to understand this?

I have been extremely blessed this lifetime to be introduced to nature and wildlife from very early on in my life–whether that was through upbringing near the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world or living in Chittagong in close proximity with the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Growing up in Bangladesh, I witnessed natural disasters as long as I can remember–hurricanes, floods, typhoons, cyclones–you name it. As a child, one of my earliest memories is, having to wade out of our living room in boats when the floods came every year. All the pets and animals that lived on our land, would be struggling to swim across with us–the dogs would eventually be rescued out of water, and so on. Abbu, my father was in shipping so we also got to witness the wrath of raging Bay of Bengal a lot as kids.

Even though all these experiences combined instilled the exposures required to realize firsthand who was the real boss–I think people in general in my region and culture, from time immemorial treated nature differently. For example the mountains are referred as gods and goddesses. So I always found it strange, when people so gallantly proclaim to have “conquered” an entire mountain, which is also a very patriarchal perspective if you think about it. Before summit bids on big mountains, the usual scene is that everyone’s praying and promising of things they’d do only if allowed for that one short window to open up just so we can stand on top in all her glory for a brief moment. Therefore, it’s really a process of surrendering to nature and then if it’s your time, she will most likely bless you.

Photograph by Pat Morrow
Photograph by Pat Morrow

What did you want to be when you were a small child?

A nun. And be of service to people. Don’t ask, haha. Ammu, my mother would laugh it off too and one of her cousins from our village, who was living with us at that time, would keep telling me that those were “just wishful thinking—after reaching teens, priorities would surely change.” It did. And I wanted to be able to fly planes as a teenager. But I think the basic wish to “remove suffering of others” remained.

How did you find the courage to free yourself from the expectations of society?

I guess courage births itself—when you refuse to be a puppet of any person, institution or society. For many women across the world, we are always told what to do. It was more of a “realization” that I didn’t want to waste my precious journey living someone else’s life. No matter what you do or who you want to be, a part of society or humankind will always talk or have issues with it. But the greater the obstacles, the greater the realizations—in the end, it only makes you come out stronger! It was a matter of recognizing and sorting out what held truth in my own psyche and how far I was willing to go to make it a reality. The will to act on it just follows once I have the clarity to recognize the chosen horizon.

Did you begin meditation before you started climbing mountains? Can you imagine your life without it now?

Life is meditation–it’s not a separate thing. Essence of meditation is recognizing awareness. If we’re not aware, we cease to exist. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness—these are like compasses when we’re lost at sea. Thanks to my mother, I was born into yoga. And then later in my adult life I have been extremely blessed not only to be directly guided by some of the most profound teachers of our times, but also to work in movements and environments led by HH the Dalai Lama and HH the Karmapa, and experientially learn how great beings like them who also went through so much atrocities in their personal lives—deal with it all, behind the limelight. Whenever I have (in the past) got derailed somehow, they’ve pulled me out, often in miraculous ways. So having this circle of family, and the particular purpose I have–I’m really blessed and I wouldn’t in my awakened mind for a second want to imagine it any other way.

What has loss taught you about life?

I may be the wealthiest and happiest person today, but I might wake up in the morning to find out that an earthquake took it all. Life is unpredictable and there will always be loss, and in fact, a myriad of joys and sorrows. If we can recognize difficulties as opportunities–as methods to improve ourselves, our perspectives–then I think we are able to bear it better. We then learn to identify loss as a blessing, and not as a curse. In one sense, it may be the most brutal and morbid experience—but it’s also the most basic teaching in life–that every thing, every being, every state, no matter how powerful they may seem—is impermanent. It’s when we take everything for granted, is when we suffer so much.

I still remember the times when I barely had the money to eat, or the time when I didn’t have any guarantee about the place I’d be able to live in the following week. Because I experienced that, am able to appreciate loving homes and the families I chose, much more. Likewise, Khalamoni, my aunt who raised me, has firsthand accounts of depression and trauma that I battled as a child following my parents tumultuous divorce. But it’s because I experienced that so early on in life that I pursued true friendships and am able to appreciate the art of joy much more. I guess what I am trying to say is that in the longer run, “loss” has taught me gratitude, strength, and resilience. Loss has taught me abilities to bounce back after adversities and greet change and difficulties as an opportunity to welcome greater self-reflection, learning, and growth.

Now that you have done the seven summits, are there more mountains to be climbed?

Oh it just started! When I went climbing before launching the seven summits campaign–I had the experience all to myself–sometimes shared it with my teammates and a selected few–and I miss that. There were so many that were calling in between the seven as well. Because the seven ummits campaign was something I had promised to my country, there were certain expectations and I had to remain focused on getting myself there and making sure I wasn’t dying somewhere else in between. And now I can finally hide from the spotlight and venture out on my own again (not necessarily having to do social media updates). One is coming up soon—but I can’t reveal much about it just as yet!

Tell us about the work of your foundation?
Well, it hasn’t officially launched so I hope I am able to pursue all that is set in motion. It’s an educational institute set in the outdoors, which integrates the latest scientific findings about development of the mind and combines it with mindfulness techniques and training in nature to empower adolescent girls. Am really excited about creating environments through challenging learning expeditions, which hopefully will inspire self-discovery. Along with couple of friends, we have been working on the curriculum real hard–which includes customized courses in the sciences of human mind—and when you combine that with art, backpacking, camping, trekking, climbing, and other activities in nature and focus on character building, engaged living, leadership, social activism, service and building empathy for humanity—it’s quite an inspiring mix! We will be doing a lot of skills-focused learning, problem solving, team building, and self-reliant journeys and activities—always with an environmental focus! But Ösel is not just a foundation—we are hoping it would grow as a movement and evoke a heart-mind inquiry into all education systems and recognize that educating the heart is as important as educating the mind, if not more. It is a conscious movement to conserve and bring balance to Mother Earth through empowering women to harness their inner luminosity.