Below are some reflections from the students after returning from India. Click the title of this post or the read more button to see all of them.
I haven’t figured out how to go on from India yet, and I don’t think I ever will. Like a hand pressed into cement, India has left a permanent impression on my heart, a stain that can’t be blotted away or forgotten. I look in the mirror, and I don’t see the me that left for India three weeks ago. Instead, the image I see is not of a single person, but of an entire nation. Embedded within me are the Indian people, for they have stayed with me even as I have flown back across the ocean. In the people I met, and even in those I didn’t, I found a power that is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. I fell in love with their truths, their beautiful vulnerabilities that lie so clearly displayed and unpolished for the world to see. And above all, I fell in love with the love I both received and witnessed. Whether it was the love of someone like Dr. Metre, who has dedicated her life to help rural villages, or the love of the Sri Ram Ashram kids, so unconditional and pure, India opened my eyes to the sheer magnitude of what love can do. It can heal, protect, save, rejuvenate, and above all, bring light to the darkest of times. India has taught me how to love, and as I slowly reintegrate back into life in this hemisphere, I intend to bring that gift with me wherever I go.
Gratitude is a common takeaway from immersion into a developing nation. Through my experiences, I learned just how lucky I am, and that I should be thankful for everything that I have. However, as I have described it, gratitude sounds like a debt that should be paid, instead of an ideal that everyone should strive for. After all, it is people who are grateful that are happy, not happy people that are grateful. I can’t count how many times I’ve given thanks to my parents for the little things that I used to take for granted since I’ve come back from India, and even though they say that I don’t need to express gratitude for every little thing, it really does make me happy to let them know that I appreciate what they are doing for me. I only wish that one day I can repay them.
This trip was an absolutely worthwhile experience for me. It has made me significantly happier, and the exposure to the culture, history, people, and ideals of India have helped me develop myself in new and improved ways.
When people told me that I was privileged, that our upcoming trip to India was a major opportunity, and that I should consider myself lucky, I almost began to resent them. So many people telling me how to feel and what to expect made me agitated. I wanted them to just let me figure it out for myself. However, as the result of a few moments of reflection whilst on the trip, my resentment faded.
The first moment came when I was looking out the bus window. I saw families living in something we wouldn’t call a home here. It occurred to me how comfortable my own life was. Just knowing that the seats of our rented bus were probably more comfortable than the beds of the people we were passing and that the food we were eating was more plentiful than theirs changed my perspective. Food and shelter are just mundane things I don’t really have to think about.
My second reflection came after our visit to the Heritage School. I was pondering the educational systems. I remembered the girls at Pardada Pardadi and their deep desire to attend school, the battles they have to fight every day just to get an education. Then I realized how much of a given education is in America. How it isn’t a matter of if you go to school, but where you go to school. Never in my life have I questioned attending school. Even going to college was just a matter of where, and I was still stressed out of my mind about it. When I forgot my expectations and resentment and just thought, I found out for myself just how lucky I am.
Expectations limit everything new, and sometimes even the old. I find expectations to be hard to get around, but if you limit the amount and strength of your expectations there is more to experience. This is what I tried to do on our trip to India, and it worked perfectly. It was a mixture between not wanting to have expectations, and not being able to expect anything in a country that is so different from any I have been to before. Without the big bully of expectations standing in my way, I was able to gather new insight and a new understanding of the world we live in.
Our first interview was with Samdhong Rinpoche, a Buddhist scholar. I knew his words would be powerful but I did not now just how powerful. He completely changed my opinion on religion. I had never understood why I was so against religion. Was it because I was not brought up in a religious household? No, I don’t think so. I realized it was the concept of blind faith that put me off. Samdhong Rinpoche explained that Buddha, who in my mind is a very religious character, said to not trust his teachings on blind faith, but to try them for yourself, and then believe it. This changed my views on religion instantly. This one sentence gave me the freedom to see religion from a clearer standpoint and helped me get rid of my negative expectations.
When somebody asks me how India was I find it almost impossible to answer, and when I do, the words that come out are only partial truths; small pieces of a gargantuan experience that will take me years to fully understand. India was extreme, amazing, confusing, intense, and crazy, all at the same time, all wrapped up in a little two-week package. It seems impossible that something so huge could have happened in the space of a couple of weeks. It feels to me like I was there so much longer. The thought of how it would feel to have stayed there longer fills me with a kind of nervousness but also gives me an exited shiver.
When I think of all the things we did in India, and then compare that to a normal day in my life I feel partially useless, as though I’m just letting my potential, as well as potential opportunities, just slip by me. In India we were always moving and even when I was moving I was writing in my journal about the previous day, struggling to put it into words. If I wasn’t writing then I was either singing with the group, or doing what I love to do most on long journeys, simply looking out the window. What was out there was remarkable.
People now often ask me if I want to go back, and the answer to that is one of the few things I have absolute certainty of. My answer of course is yes because if one two-week trip could create all these feelings then what might multiple trips do? Perhaps with more time I could come to truly understand this completely, indefinable place people call India.
Even during the most difficult parts of the trip, I was always learning and experiencing. I saw humanity in its most raw form. I saw the hole between awareness and progress, between preservation of the environment and progressing as a thriving economy. The best part of the trip was our time in Dharmashala. It was like thrusting your head out of the water after holding your breath for a way too long. We visited a Tibetan temple that held a statue of the Buddha. He was happily staring at me, like he knew something I didn’t, and was laughing. He seemed like someone who knew everything. What gave him access to all that knowledge, and why was he watching me? This experience gave me the oddest feeling. I liked the wonder.
The words used to describe India can go on forever, but there is only one word that describes the experience I had in India. Adventure. It’s hard travelling halfway across the world and not have it be an adventure. I honestly believe that adventure and travel can make the world a better place. By visiting and experiencing foreign places we gain a better understanding of the world, and the people on it. We learn to understand that it’s not just about our little lives in California. We learn that no matter where you go some things will be different. We learn from this, so it is vital that we travel as much as possible.
India, Mount Madonna School, Ward, Shannon and everyone else who helped me take this journey deserve thanks for helping me understand that there’s a lot of world out there to see and experience.
Before going to India, I associated the idea of people living in rural villages in India with poverty and helplessness, but what I actually saw when we visited them was quite different. In the first village we visited, while staying at Pardada Pardadi, I saw a group of fabulous, stylish, and colorful women joining together to make the lives of their families and their communities better. Led by Renuka, the fearless CEO of Pardada Pardadi, these women were jumping over the hurdles of culture, and the battling the “dead ideas of the living.” At the second village we visited, I saw another group of equally colorful, sovereign women, working together for similar causes as the Pardada Pardadi group. These women had taken over their community, and had drastically improved their own lives. One of them told us that before they started the co-op, many of them had never really left their own houses. Now, they can independently go to the bank, and take out a loan, understanding completely what that entails. Even though India has far to go in the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality, the progress I saw being made there was truly incredible.
Rinchen Khando said something that has stayed with me. She said, “If you do what you are passionate about, even if you don’t become famous or get praised, you will still get satisfaction.” I found this to be really inspiring because in America people say that we should follow our dreams and be happy, but not a lot of people actually follow through with this idea. We get so caught up in the temporary rapture of money and fame, and the random stuff that we can buy with that money. I don’t really understand how people began this whole idea of “money is the answer to all of our problems.” Money may fix some things, but what is the point in fixing something if afterwards we just continue to drill ourselves into the ground with work, and never take a moment to look up and see what our lives really are?
Rinchen Khando’s words were important to me because not only did she say something that is very vital to everyone’s happiness, she also said why it is important to do what you are passionate about. We have put it into our heads that following our hearts is not always going to be financially rewarding. Some jobs pay more than others but more is not always better. The moral that I took from her words of wisdom is to make sure that you’re happy before you try to make other people happy. To me that means not telling people to follow their dreams until you are following your own. You owe it to yourself to try.
An aspect of India that gave me a new perspective is religion. It is so cemented in the culture. I have been lucky growing up around Mount Madonna Center because I was able to participate and learn about Hinduism. My parents always encouraged me to shoot arrows at Ravana on Navratri and stay up all night during Shivaratri. I didn’t understand how much had sunk in until we did evening aarati at Sri Ram Ashram. I found that I knew many of the words to the songs, and even when I didn’t, the tunes were the same ones my mom plays from her iPod while we are cooking at home. I felt such a sense of nostalgia and melancholy because I realized that I had given up a part of my childhood because I believed that in order to be a pragmatic scientist, I couldn’t try to understand religion or be a part of it. I found what Samdhong Rinpoche told us about the similarities between Buddhism and science to be so wise. He said that one should not accept anything on blind faith alone. Only what one has experienced for oneself can be seen as true.
For the first time in my life I regret not waking up at six to go to a yanja or staying up on Shivaratri. I thought that I was being intelligent and rational, but now I believe I have missed out on some of the wisdom that the mountain could have offered.
Once we left the familiarity of our homes, we entered a completely new culture. We were thrown into the wonders of the unknown. I learned that without question, when you are offered any new opportunity, you must engage; even in spite of your initial fears and vulnerabilities. One of the most powerful moments on the trip for me was when we embraced the unknown and went to a local village and sat in on a women’s self help group.
At the Sri Ram Ashram, Pardada Pardadi, and the Maitri widows project, I was able to make immediate connections and bonds that I will remember for the rest of my life. Young to old, rich to poor, speaking the same language or not, I discovered an openness both within myself and those I interacted with.
I will never forget when, at Sri Ram Ashram, a small hand grabbed my hand, creating an emersion of colors. She dragged me to the swings and insisted I gave her a push. The joyous smile and serene sound of laughter made me feel at home. I felt present. I was not thinking about anything other than the pure happiness I felt. I felt welcomed, I felt important, and I felt like I had a purpose.
Culture shock. Those were the two words that stuck in my mind when we first arrived in India. Never before had I observed a world so immersed in poverty. After we got home, it made me seriously re-think the way I live my life. I’ve grown up accustomed to a lavish lifestyle where I can have almost anything I want, at the snap of my fingers; food, water, technology, schooling. It is all so easily accessible, and I took it for granted. The term “first word problem” is tossed around very casually today. It has become a joke in American society. Although each time it’s used, it’s treated as a joke, I still never really stopped to think about the problems people face in other parts of the world; no food, no money, the inability to support your family. All these problems are very real and very alive in India.
India was the most culturally different experience I think I will ever have. As cliché as it sounds, it really makes me appreciate all the small things I have in my life. Not only physical things like access to clean water and fresh food, but things like peace and quiet, the sound of the clean air rustling the trees above my house or personal space. I definitely didn’t truly appreciate all the wonderful things I have access to in my life, and am thankful for our trip to India because I now know that I will cherish these things more than I ever have before.
As we have started to say goodbye to our experiences in India and have tried our best to explain them to those not on the trip, I have begun to think about how the experience has changed who I am. I have seen past classes talk about all the amazing and different experiences that altered their lives in some huge way. I Initially felt bad because I couldn’t think of one particular event that was life altering. In reflection however I now see that the experiences have changed me, though perhaps not dramatically. I’m not now relinquishing all of my privileges and gizmos because of India, and I have found myself falling back into the same culture that produced me. Yet I know that deep down, whether consciously or not, the experiences from India are affecting my decisions in life. I cannot say with any absolute certainty how the trip has changed me, or my perspective. However, I know that every choice I now make is affected, even in some tiny way, from the things I saw, and the actions that happened half a world away.
The chaos, noise, smells, and vibrancy of India was shocking and new, but paradoxically I felt like I was coming home. That’s something that really struck me about India. Culturally and geographically, the U.S. and India are drastically different. For starters, the daily fast paced life of India is absolutely insane compared to the much slower and structured U.S. experience. India is bright and vibrant; it sucks you in and embraces you immediately. We don’t have that so much in the U.S.
For the first few days of the trip, I was distracted by these obvious distinctions, failing to see the deeper, more fundamental similarities. However as the trip progressed and we began to meet and interact with more and more of the Indian people, I started to draw comparisons to my life and the people I know back home. The girls from Pardada Pardadi grabbed our hands and pulled us into their hearts within minutes of meetings us. The widows at the Maitri Project broke down language, cultural, and age barriers with their love of music and their joy. At Sri Ram Ashram we were welcomed by strangers, who transformed into family within seconds.
We ventured into rural villages and were reminded of the incredible strength of humanity. In true Mount Madonna fashion, we gathered in circles with the Pathways and Heritage students, where we discovered that our wish for a holistic education is universal. Every single day, I looked around and saw people working, worshipping, loving, and suffering. I began to realize that some things span the globe and are an inherent part of human nature. When I looked past the external facade, I saw my friends and family from home within all of those new people. It was comforting to realize that wherever I go in life, I can always forge connections and create friendships with the people I meet, no matter what. So I think that when it really comes down to it, that realization was my favorite part of India.
India is a country of moments. Thousands of moments happening so fast that you think you might miss them. But there is no choice but to be present, because there is no time for anything else. So I will tell my story in moments because that is all I can do to express the experience in its entirety.
Red Beards and Redder Sandstone
Men with red beards splash their faces with the water from the reflective lake that is in front of us, while people snap pictures of the foreigners taking in the breathtakingly vast structure of red sandstone. Red sandstone towers above, imposing spiritual respect and devotion into my being without any awareness of it. Ushered into a tucked away room, that turns into a tucked away world, as the white doors open to unleash Mohammed’s relics. As I peer into the intricate script of an ancient Quran, I finally realize the role of spirituality in shaping the Indian culture and maintaining its vibrancy.
The Grace of the Neglected
The ukulele stops and my hands fall to my sides. Knowing that the awkward dancing is over, a grateful feeling settles in. But then I look into their eyes and I see how much our uncomfortable impromptu dance meant to them. One by one they get up and their quivering arms clasp around us and bless us. I can look down on every single one of their heads, but I have to look up into heaven to see their souls.
Prayer Wheels and Dharma Bums and Lasting Happiness
Fog hurdles over the mountains that threaten to pierce the sky, as dharma bums meditate in their Lululemon legging and Huff hats. Prayer flags all but cover the sky, but the light bursts through onto my shoulders. My fingers are numb from twisting the hundreds of prayer wheels, but when a monkey scuttles across the path they twitch to life with the urge to run after it. They say that an emotion only lasts for six seconds if you don’t put a thought to it. Whoever proved that has never experienced the contagious joy that saturates the air in Dharamsala.