By Mount Madonna School alumni Emma Petersen and Courtney Bess

Emma Petersen
Emma in 2011

Flashback to April 2011, I had never been out of the United States and I was preparing for a trip I knew could change my life but still was not sure how I was going to absorb the experience. I didn’t dive right in. I stayed to myself and my friends for the first few days of the trip. I stuck to what I knew. But then, when we started going to schools, hearing about how students in this country learned, and were given the chance to speak with them about it, I started making friends and connections I never thought I could. I was making friendships with people that grew up completely differently than I had, in school and home life, yet we still had a lot in common.

It took me until my second year of college to fully understand the opportunity I was given by Sadanand and Mount Madonna School. I started taking classes that I was able to relate my trip to, things I had heard and the things that had changed me. I remember specifically talking to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, I asked him, “What to you is happiness?” I remember, I was a sophomore in college at the time, I was dealing with some personal anguish about what major I wanted, and if I wanted to change from a psychology to a teaching major. I was struggling because I was afraid to disappoint my parents. When I called them to tell them what I was thinking they were overjoyed, and my mother told me she knew that was the path I was always meant to go down, and that she just wanted me to do what made me happy. I thought back to the Dalai Lama interview and what he said, “You know when you pet a dog and he wags his tail, that is happiness.” How can someone so wise give us such a simple, modest answer, I had thought at the time when he answered it, but hearing my mom say those words to me, it was that simple. Why trouble myself doing something I did not like? I should be wagging my tail because I am being fed with the knowledge of how to grow young minds.

Fast forward to April 2017, I am now preparing for the journey home. I traveled back to India with the Senior Class of 2017 and a fellow alumni, Courtney Bess. I had always dreamed of coming back, older and able to understand the experience more. I told myself the day I got on that bus leaving the Sri Ram Ashram in 2011, while Kiran held my hand all the way to the gate, I would be coming back again. I never could have imagined it would be like this, a chaperone to a class I greatly respected.

This trip has deepened my senses for my emotion, everything from the interviews to the connections I have made with the children we have met along the way. I found myself in the interviews truly absorbing what the people were saying, not just thinking I need to take notes in case I am asked to write a blog post, but truly understanding and getting goosebumps because I was able to relate to them. Rinchen Khando spoke about compassion and how it overflows with students that are excited to learn. I feel that every day with my students. They are so eager to learn new things and are appreciative when I teach them something new. It is refreshing. Dr. Metre spoke about allowing differences in the villages and how their goal is not to make all the villages the same, but to keep their traditions and help support the women be able to stand on their own financially. I was able to relate to that because I teach a class that is predominantly Hispanic, and even though I am teaching them English, I strongly encourage their families to continue speaking Spanish to them. It is important for the children to keep their traditions at home and be able to speak freely about them at school and know they are supported. Both Rinchen Khando and Dr. Metre spoke to me and made me feel more proud than I normally do about the work I am doing.

Lastly, driving into the gates of the ashram once again, I immediately began crying, it felt as though I was home. It had been six years since I had last been there. I didn’t imagine that the children I had bonded with before would remember me, specifically Kiran, 9 at the time and now 15, and Jhanvi, 6 months at the time and now 5. As we unloaded the buses, Kiran greeted me, she shook my hand and introduced herself to me, I told her we had met before 6 years ago. She scurried off to her room and when she reappeared she had the picture Devin captured of us saying goodbye on that day in 2011. She remembered me! Jhanvi on the other hand, I knew wouldn’t remember me, but it was like she was drawn to me. We continued our relationship and it was as if I never left. As we said our goodbyes and I loaded back into the bus, I reflected back on how this trip is not only a continuation from my last trip, but has increased my appreciation for this bright, colorful, energetic, inviting country. India has given me a second home, I knew I was meant to come back and visit, and I know now that it is forever a place I will return. It has given me memories that I will never forget and ones I wish to expand upon in the near future. Namaste.

Courtney Bess

Khushi…the Hindi word for happiness. While I expected this learning journey to be influential and expose me to unique opportunities, I did not anticipate that it would result in a personal redefinition of the word happiness.

Sri Ram Dance Party

The night I watched the series of performances put on by the kids at the Sri Ram Ashram, I felt tears welling in my eyes. It wasn’t the typical reaction one might expect from someone watching an upbeat dance carried out by adorable, smiling faces. My emotions were stirred by what was physically happening on stage, but they were intensified even more by the ease with which the kids seemed to exude authentic happiness. In this pivotal moment, I felt a mixture of envy, admiration, and wonderment.

This expression of genuine happiness proved to be a common thread amongst the many individuals and groups of people with whom I interacted during my time in India. Since finding myself consistently surrounded by such sincere contentment, I have been making a conscious effort to examine the similarities across these groups in an attempt to discern a formula for happiness that I can carry with me for the rest of my life.

At Pardada Pardadi Educational Society, the students demonstrated a passion and appreciation for education that was absolutely inspiring. These students all come from homes with an income that places them below the poverty line. They have reasonable hope that a quality education will lead to a better life for them and their families. I could see that this opportunity to receive an education brought them all such joy, as they eagerly told us about their studies and showed us around their school with energetic grins and radiant pride.

The Sri Ram Ashram is a place where children who are not fortunate enough to have come from loving homes are given the chance to be a part of a safe and loving family. At the ashram, children may not have a profusion of material items, but they are allowed an opportunity for a better life. They are showered with more love and support than can be put into words. In spite of the adverse circumstances in which these children were born, they are now thriving as part of one big devoted family.

Dr. Kshama Metre

When we spoke to Dr. Metre at CORD (Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development) another source of happiness was brought to my attention. At CORD, women are given the tools and education necessary to allow them to minimize their over-dependency on their husbands. This functions to build the self-esteem and confidence in women in hundreds of surrounding villages. Those who have been helped in this way by CORD programs are now living freer and happier lives than they had been previously.
Genuine happiness is something that has always been tough for me to find, despite my relatively privileged upbringing. It was something that was palpable amongst the inspiring people I have engaged with over the past two weeks here in India—people who are not nearly as fortunate in regards to their life circumstances. In what I witnessed at Pardada Pardadi, Sri Ram Ashram, and CORD, I recognized that material wealth is not the sole measurement of one’s happiness. I realized that some of the key ingredients to a life of happiness are education, love, support, and opportunity.

Before I make it sound like my life lacks education, love, support, and opportunity, I want to clearly state that I have all of those things. The difference is that I have yet to understand how to use these tools to build myself a life of happiness. Dr. Metre shared with us a story that referenced a “mind bath.” Essentially, a mind bath is the creation of mental silence to ignite mindfulness and obtain clarity in one’s thinking. Using this idea, I have decided that I am in need of a mind bath. I need to combine the resources with which I’ve been blessed with my redefinition of happiness. If I do this, I can construct a life filled with the kind of joy I saw in the eyes, smiles, and souls of the kids at Sri Ram Ashram as they performed for us that night.