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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).

Contentment and Cow Poo: Lessons from Laxmi

22 Sept. Kausani – Uttarakhand

Today has been an incredible day. In one peculiar way, I’ve come into a new and profound freedom. I will attempt to explain this new sense of freedom as I walk through the day, and doubtless you will find my description strange. I will do what I can to connect the experience of the day with this new freedom; bear with me, and let’s begin at the beginning.

We woke up early this morning and had breakfast at 7:00am. Stav, who is currently our appointed Barack (team leader), ordered the breakfast for us. It consisted of chai, omelettes, porridge, and two mountains of toast–40 pieces in all, or 20 large pieces cut into halves. Not wanting to waste anything, the group forged forward with strength and determination and was able to conquer the bounty of toast that was poured out upon us.

Soon after breakfast, our group began the walk to the Laxmi Ashram. We walked a short distance into Kausani proper and turned up a concrete path next to one of many tire stores. The path was slick and steep, and the concrete steps were broad. The walk turned into a short hike, and we soon arrived, breathless and refreshed, at the gate of the Ashram. Let me now give a brief summary of the place: what it is, who it serves, and why we came to be there.

Th Laxmi Ashram is an all-girls boarding school that mixes modern, textbook education with Ghandian “Basic Education”–subsistence agriculture, community, culture, and self-discipline. Girls who attend the Ashram are welcomed into a close-knit community that fully relies upon each of its members for success. Days begin for the girls at 4:30am. After washing and dressing, spending time in prayer, study, and an early breakfast, the girls break into nuclear teams and undertake jobs around the Ashram; some girls cook lunch, some work in the garden, some work with livestock, and others clean and perform general upkeep and maintenance. The work continues for upwards of four to five hours. The philosophy behind this work is manifest: (1) every member of the Ashram community directly and tangibly contributes to the well being of the other members, (2) every girl becomes a master at a variety of practical skills, such as animal husbandry, subsistence agriculture, and cooking, (3) every girl learns to function well in a team and serve a purpose beyond themselves. Originally, the more “traditional” subjects, such as math, science, history, geography, and language were taught in conjuncture with the various tasks and chores the girls undertook, such that all learning was presented and processed in practical contexts with real-world examples. In recent years, the pressures to engage in state standardized tests (for entry into post-secondary schools) has shifted the traditional subjects to classroom, textbook style.

The Ashram serves these girls, and the girls serve one another. The community we witnessed today was one of the seemingly closest, kindest, and joyful communities I’ve ever seen, even during the intense morning labor. It was a pleasure just to bear witness to the love these girls had for one another and the dedication they had to each task they undertook.

We ourselves came to the Ashram because of shared educational philosophy between Where There Be Dragons–our parent organization–and the Ashram’s founders and administrators. Furthermore, a relationship has been fostered over the course of many years between Where There Be Dragons and Laxmi Ashram, even to the point that some Dragons instructors financially sponsor the education of girls there at the Ashram. Therefore, our visit was a benefit to us students to be able to see an example of communal, subsistence living and experiential education, and our visit was a benefit to Where There Be Dragons to be able to continue to foster their relationship with the Ashram.

Our team arrived at the Ashram around 9:00, give or take. The girls were already about their morning chores, so our group was immediately divided up and sent to participate. Peter and I chose to work with the girls who were cleaning out the cow stalls. In some ways, this was the worst possible decision we could have made. In the end, though, this is what eventually led to the aforementioned newfound freedom. Let’s now go to the workspace, and I’ll try to describe Peter’s and my time there:

The floor was brick. A thick, wooden beam rose from the center of the room, supporting a 6′ ceiling. The space itself was lit poorly by a single light. The first room was about 20′ by 20′, square, and was conjoined to a second room–identical–via a door in the wall towards the back of the present room. The rooms had a general appearance of a squat dungeon, furnished with nothing but hay, bovines, and their by-products.

Approximately six cows were tethered to various poles in each of the two rooms, making up about twelve cows in all. The brick floor undulated with between 2 and 6 inches of hay, and that hay was thoroughly mixed with the primary objects of this story–tremendous quantities of cow manure and cow urine.

Our task was simple enough: clean the two rooms. What were our tools? Well, they were universal implements, common to every man, woman, and child–our hands. Yes, we had approximately 800 square feet of warm, sloppy cow waste to gather, carry, and deposit elsewhere with our bare hands.

It is important to note here that the physical appearance of the cow stalls was not the most striking aspect. Indeed, the rooms’ character can best be understood in terms of smell. The present concoction of manure, urine, rotting straw, bovine breath, and mold created a stench most distinct, permeating and oppressive. When Peter and I stepped into the rooms and stood among the quadrupeds, our cursed noses immediately intensified the crushing weight of the task before us.

Here, at a moment that seemed quite hopeless for Peter and myself, was the beginning of my newfound freedom. Never before had I undertaken any task so genuinely repulsive to me. The smell, the dungeon room, and the prospect of managing all the waste with my bare hands, compounded into one big NO–in Hindi, NAHEE. Before this moment, I was more than willing to entertain the mental prospect of this kind of work, but now here I was, standing in cow poo, knowing that I would need to reach down and bury my hands in the muck. I had committed myself, and I had arrived at the scene of action.

The Lakshmi Ashram girls whose daily tasks involve this cleanup launched directly into the work, free from the reproach I was feeling about the job. Their hands went straight to the largest piles of poo, lifted up the patties, and tossed them into buckets. The faces of the girls showed no sign of the disgust or repulsion I was feeling. They were exemplars of toughness and discipline. They were models too of freedom–freedom from the fear that was crippling me. I was afraid, truly afraid, of being dirty in a way I had never been dirty before. The work promised a physical dirtiness that surpassed my heretofore subconscious limits.

I had thought myself a lover of “doing the dirty work” and taking on the jobs that no one else wanted, but I’d never been confronted with a job like this. Now, seeing the girls dive right in, I forced myself to do likewise. I sought out a solid-looking pile of cow dung, grabbed hold, and put it in the bowl. I shuddered. Then I forced myself to find another, and another, and another. Then all the solid ones were gone, so I began to go after the sloppy cow patties. Some were the consistency of jello, and others quite akin to a chocolate bar in your pocket on a hot day. Just 10 minutes into the work, Peter’s and my hands were thoroughly encrusted with warm excrement.

As we pored for cow patties in the grimy light, our searching stirred up pockets of ammonia and methane which continuously intensified the already unbearable odor. As I  cupped one particularly soupy portion of poo in my hands, my stomach revolted, and I began gagging. Tossing the soup into the nearby bowl, I ran outside to gulp some fresh air. I stood for a few seconds, then, ashamed of my inability, dove back into the room. Immediately, I started gagging again, and so as to not add my own vomit to the mix, I left the room again. I must do it I told myself, and, mustering all my bodily self-control, I forced myself once more into the room.

Soon thereafter, my nose miraculously began overproducing mucus, which helped me tolerate the smell. As I transferred kilo after kilo of poop from the floor to bowls, I became more and more comfortable with the level of physical dirtiness. I began to realize that my past inhibitions to such labor were breaking down, and the work began to be a great pleasure. The deep contentment and joy that covers my life began to incorporate this new state–elbow deep in urine and manure–and this was to me a great freedom.

Yes, freedom. Before today, I was a slave to my own inhibitions against dirtiness. I had consigned myself to enjoy only a certain standard of physical cleanliness, and therefore was robbed of finding pleasure in poop. It may seem a strange thing that I should want to find joy in moving animal waste with my bare hands, but to be unable to find joy therein would leave me quite unfree. Hence, to have my past disgust shifted through today’s work to present contentment is a great victory in my heart, for I strive to be content in all things, in all states of cleanliness and dirtiness, whether I have all things or have nothing. Today, I have learned to be content in a new a previously abhorrent situation, and this is freedom.

The girls worked alongside us with great patience and joy, and they pushed us to excellence. They expected us to do exactly as they did. They didn’t coddle or wait upon our inhibitions. Instead, they asked us to grab that pile of poo-sludge, or rake our fingers through this puddle of urine to find and sodden straws. They were exceptional leaders, and their own willingness and joy to serve their Ashram community spurred me to serve alongside them, leading me, now, to this new contentment and freedom.

Such was my greatest takeaway from the Ashram today. I entered clean and shackled to my cleanliness; I left dirty and free to be content in a new circumstance. My physical cleanliness was perhaps a dirtiness of my spirit; the physical dirtiness helped wash my spirit a little cleaner. And the laughter, songs, and chiding of the Ashram girls taught me to be a better, more willing servant. It seems paradoxical that my feelings of freedom increase as the extent of my willingness to serve increases, especially since we tend to confuse service with bondage. Nonetheless, it seems to me a principle of human life that those who freely choose to serve are much freer and more content than those who demand to be served.

May I then learn to better serve those around me, at all times and in all ways.

Grace and Peace,

Joshua Eastman