Lisa Napoli hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., but has lived off and on in Los Angeles for quite some time. It was there when, at the age of 43, she had a midlife crisis.
The Southern California blueprint for a midlife crisis is to “have a little work done,” a euphemism for undergoing plastic surgery, purchasing a sports car and moving to Marina del Rey in search of a meaningful relationship, usually with someone much younger.
Ms. Napoli did something else. She decamped to Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation that was probably the last Buddhist monarchy in existence and became a democracy only five years ago. The country also is noted for tracking its citizens’ “gross national happiness” and, until recent years, being rather closed off to the world. When Ms. Napoli went there, television had only recently been reintroduced after having been banned for decades.
Ms. Napoli told her story in “Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on My Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth,” released last year in paperback by Broadway Books, and very recently published in German and Korean editions. What began as a flight from the workaday pressures of being a journalist for CNN, MSNBC and “Marketplace,” the public radio business program, ended up as a personal revelation apart from her role in helping establish an FM radio station for the Bhutanese people.
Bhutan, Ms. Napoli said, “couldn’t have been further from any reality than I have ever been in. Being a media person, and from Brooklyn, I had been conditioned not to talk about organized religion — it was uncool. I was not a religious person in any way, shape or form. When I set foot in this parallel universe of Bhutan, it just came alive for me in a way I had never experienced before.”
What flipped the switch, when neither nature nor nurture succeeded earlier?
“I think that I was ready for it,” she said. “I found — and this was in no way unique — everybody gets to midlife and starts questioning the big questions, the future, how to wrap up your life in a more significant way.”
The location also played a role, she said.
“Being in this place that was so far away touched me deeply on so many levels, partly because I was attracted to Buddhism, but also that there was something bigger than me. Being in another world touched me. Being in such a radically different place, where people all together practiced the same religion, where it was so colorful and openly practiced.”
She added, “I think it was the place and I found the messaging inherent in Buddhism meaningful to me. I think the messages of all religions are the same, but it’s the trappings that are different.”
“When I got back, I couldn’t live the same way I was living, or doing the same things I was doing,” she said. “I came back to Los Angeles and needed to make peace with the world as it was. I couldn’t keep propagating bad news to the world. I couldn’t keep going to a job that felt like a factory. I needed to be around people who understood.”
She downsized her life and eased back into radio, ending up not as a reader of headlines but rather as an arts and culture correspondent for public radio outlet KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, Calif. Her latest piece was a profile of 91-year-old Chicago photographer Art Shay, who was out West for an exhibit of his work.
“The idea that everything in the world is impermanent, that everything is connected, those are the prevailing messages that were very, very resonant,” Ms. Napoli says of her encounter with Buddhism in Bhutan. “Those are very, very important messages to hear.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.