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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Conversations

Since arriving in Princeton, NJ two weeks ago, I’ve been challenged, frustrated, entranced, and fascinated by so much of what I’ve seen and learned about, but the most impactful moments of my experience thus far have been in the conversations I’ve had with my amazing co-participants and instructors.

When I was first applying to Bridge Year, the opportunity to explore religion and spirituality in one of the holiest cities in the world, Varanasi, was one of the main things that really drew me to India. However, dialogues about these topics began to organically emerge as early as the first night of orientation at Princeton, picked up during our short time in Delhi, and continued throughout our week in Sonapani and the beautiful surrounding region of the Himalayan foothills. Turns out I didn’t have to wait until Varanasi!

Ever since my first car ride with our incredibly thoughtful and insightful instructor Greg, I have been in dialogue with him about Tibetan Buddhism and its concepts of “bardo” and levels of consciousness (which inspired me to purchase “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” a couple days later), as well as other topics relating to spirituality and truth. I have also continuously been learning more about Christian theology through conversations with Josh, an observant American Baptist from West Virginia and probably one of the most brilliantly articulate people I’ve ever gotten to interact with. And, as I am in India, I have been constantly exploring the richness of Hinduism and its traditions through many of the planned and unplanned portions of our trip, as well as through discussions with my awesome and hilarious instructor Hemant about reaching the mind through the body and breathing. In the future, I also hope to have learn more about Islam, Sikhism, and Jainism, as well as to further explore my own Judaism and its role in my life.

Through all these amazing conversations (and the many others that I don’t have space to share here, some of which relate to religion and many others of which relate to different thought-provoking issues and topics), there has been one ongoing dialogue that has occupied much of my thinking and reflection since our last night in Delhi. This conversation, which has taken place in multiple parts, in several contexts, and with different combinations of people, ultimately deals with the fundamental nature of being a meaning-seeking being and has explored some really challenging questions:

  • What is the nature of faith? How does one trust in the non-recreatable testimony of others?
  • Are all worldviews grounded in tautological, circular arguments that ultimately cannot be “proven” objectively outside of themselves? And what causes/allows people to enter or exit a tautological worldview? How do processes of “education” and moments of revelation or epiphany play into this, and how do they work on a psychological level?
  • Does a worldview reliant on personal perception, “logic,” and science make an assumption that all is material, and is it also tautological? Can there be meaning at all if one believes that human actions are ultimately driven by a pursuit of positive neurophysiological reactions?
  • Why do people seek meaning in the first place: because there is inherent meaning to be found, or because we have a fundamental need for hope and purpose (especially once more basic needs are taken care of, as per the hierarchy of needs)? Why does the question “why” exist if there is no inherent meaning? Why do so many people find religion in the moments where they most need hope?

I can’t fully answer all of these questions yet, but it has been absolutely exhilarating to wrestle with them together with my peers. It’s also kinda crazy to think that we’ve already reached such difficult philosophical and epistemological topics within two weeks of meeting one another! Ultimately, what makes an experience is not so much where you are – it’s about who you are with, the relationships you build, and what you learn from and with one another. I look forward to further exploration and discussion together!