Max Samuels '15
Student Director of Language in Motion (LIM)
Major: Theater and Chinese
Hometown: Westport, TNRead the full interview
My sense of faith or spirituality over the past three years has been grounded in the exploration of what I'll call the "inner life." Things move really fast here, and there's always a lot to do, deadlines to meet, people to get to know...although all these things are important, given my temperament, I find such a climate overwhelming. As such, I have found the BEMA, right behind East Wheelock to be a breathing space for me. Sometimes I attend a Church service given my religious upbringing, but being outdoors in nature has been quite grounding for me. I love this particular spot in the BEMA where I get to witness the cycles of life: birth, growth and death over a period of time. I find a sense of wholeness from witnessing the trees, other plants, the birds, the squirrels and the wind as well. By internalizing the cycles of birth, growth and death in nature, I'm led to reflect on these same cycles in my life both literally, and figuratively. I also take walks down to the river, and also in pine-park.
Being outside has helped me get some space for quiet and solitude; I sing, write, grieve and dance also, as a way of exploring big questions or expressing my gratitude for being alive or simply expressing myself—in that space, I am free of judgment or ridicule or quick advice—I find the freedom to explore the range of my feelings, thoughts and imagination. It's amazing to watch how the four seasons play out especially here in the North East—they are so distinct.
The reason why spending time in solitude outside matters to me is precisely this: it makes me aware of wholeness, like the cycles of birth, growth and death. There's been a big paradigm shift for me in the past three years, in which I've come to understand that my life is less about perfection and more about wholeness. This plays out in various ways in my daily life at Dartmouth. I love literature, and I love to write. When I'm composing or preparing to write a paper...it's like a spiritual process for me: something like giving birth. It always seems an enormous task to start from scratch, on a blank page—my initial desire is to have a perfect already finished paper, and this freezes me up, but then, I draw from the patience I witness from the plants and this patience helps me to remain grounded as I give birth, so to speak, to this paper I'm writing. On a grander scale, I've been drawn to elements in nature at times of transition. I also use different elements in nature to mark transition times, for example, at the end of my first year, I used a pinecone and a small log as symbols representing specific themes about my first year. I took these and dropped them into the river as a sign of letting go of my first year, and transitioning into a new experience. I see this process as letting go of stories, narratives or identities that have become too constricting for my emerging self.
I also remember sitting by a fallen tree in the BEMA last spring; I could see its roots still intact, but pulled out of the ground. I was considering transferring from Dartmouth at that time and I sat there wondering: I wonder what story this tree has to tell. The dialogue within myself directed me to pay attention to the roots of the tree. I imagined that the tree had grown so tall that its roots were not able to hold it up anymore. This metaphor struck me at that point and I thought: "Gosh, If I forget my roots (what grounds me), I will fall like this tree...no wonder I'm feeling this way." By reflecting this way, I realized that one reason I wasn't thriving at school was over commitment and failing to create time for myself to breathe and relax—creating time for those things that ground me.
At the beginning, in the middle and at the end of each term, I spend time outside asking myself three questions at each of those points in the term: "Where am I at this point in my journey? Where am I going? How do I get there?" These questions help me reflect on what matters most deeply for me and give a certain coherence to what often feels like a rush do-this, get-that atmosphere at Dartmouth. Through these small rituals and ceremony, I feel a sense of coherence and wholeness, again marking the cycles of changing seasons. This has been a big part of my understanding of my own identity and development from an adolescent to an adult. Out of spending time outdoors, I have been awed by the interrelatedness of all living things, and in this way, I have embraced the complex interrelatedness of my aspects here at Dartmouth, knowing that I'm actively participating in integrating my life in class, my life outside of class, with friends, time alone and time away from Dartmouth. And when I fail to live up to my highest truths, which happens frequently, I remind myself that perfection was never the goal in the first place, wholeness is; this way, I'm able to love and accept myself, claim the gems and lessons hidden in those seasons of failure and also free to fully enjoy those seasons of blossom and success.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you all for coming out tonight to listen to us speak. My name is Anirudh Jayanti, I'm a '14 here at Dartmouth. I'm part of Shanti, the Hindu student group here. How many of you were at our Diwali celebration a couple days ago, or saw the candles on the Green? I hope everyone who was there enjoyed it. I think Dartmouth has really had a big impact on how I think about my faith. Before coming here, I was definitely a practicing Hindu because my parents are both very religious, but it was more just following their lead. We would go to temple every Sunday and I would always be excited because I'd hang out with my friends after the service (you can see what my thought process was like as a 10-year old). And as I got older, I went less and less until eventually, towards the end of high school, I stopped going completely.
When I came to Dartmouth as a freshman, I was – like many of my classmates – scoping out some extracurricular activities that I could get involved in. I thought I had this mastered after high school. My goal was to find a couple of activities that would provide a good blend of my own interests and, let's be honest, some resume-building. So I looked around, tried out some different things, and somehow ended up going to Shanti's weekly pujas (which is the Hindu version of a religious service). And at the end of a long stressful week, going to those pujas was really helpful to just relax and unwind. (Also, don't you think the college would be proud of how I spent my Friday nights as a freshman?) Eventually I got an invitation to join the Shanti board, which is where I met some of my closest friends here.
Beyond just my friends on the board, I got to see what a great Indian community there is here in Hanover. It was beyond anything I ever expected. (Although maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, Indian people are everywhere now. Which is good – this country could always use more doctors and engineers). But the community is such a key part of everything we do, whether it's Diwali or any of our events. After being here for a couple years, I realized how important it is to have that support group of people who understand and share your beliefs.
Now, throughout this speech I've kind of been making jokes and talking about the awesome people I've met through Shanti, but I haven't really talked about faith per se. Unfortunately, if you were hoping for some sort of profound statement about faith and spirituality, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you. Not only do I not think I'm qualified to make those types of statements, I don't really think there's any need to. I think everything I've talked about is a big part of faith. It's not about how often you go to temple or how long you pray, but just trying live right. Shanti is a place where I can reflect on how well I'm doing that and how much further I still have to go. I have a poster in my room that hangs right above my desk. It has a quote by Swami Vivekananda, who's kind of the equivalent of a saint in Hinduism. It's a pretty long quote, so I'm not going to repeat all of it here (but trust me, it's inspirational). The part I want to single out is at the very end, where he says "To be good and to do good – that is the whole of religion." Since coming here, I think I've really started to understand and internalize that.
Before talking about my Buddhist practice here at Dartmouth, I have to go back a ways and give you a little background information. My extended family has strong Baptist roots but today is best described as Christian by culture and more spiritual then religious, fascinated by the variety of world religious and open-minded. In this context, I was raised Christian and attended a Protestant school from ages four to fourteen. My school was affiliated with a beautiful church next door from which the school had grown. Thinking back on my experience with religion in childhood, my strongest memories are of sitting in that glorious Gothic-revival church at weekly chapel services, listening to sermons and singing hymns with my classmates while admiring the beautiful stained glass that illustrated the Biblical stories I learned in Sunday school. I looked forward to these services every week; I became familiar with the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Virgin Mary, of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. The sermons that accompanied these stories emphasized the importance loving one's neighbor as oneself, of selfless service to others who are less fortunate. These values shaped my childhood and have remained important to me even after moving away from Christianity.
I converted to Buddhism when I was thirteen, which looking back seems like an absurdly young age, but I was confident in my decision at the time and still am, so I suppose it has worked out well. In the last years of middle school I grew a bit restless with those weekly chapel services and bible classes. I still enjoyed them, but I was no longer satisfied with them and wanted something deeper, something more nuanced then the my elementary school understanding of Christianity. In seventh grade I took a class on World Religions, and learning about the beliefs of other religions and reading their sacred texts was an eye-opening experience. When I read the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, I had a deep feeling of recognition, a feeling of coming home in a way; I can't put in into words, but suffice to say it resonated with me and I became fascinated with Buddhism. (In case you have not read them, the Four Noble Truths state that life is filled with suffering and happiness is transient; the origin of suffering is desire or craving, which comes as greed, ignorance, and hatred; that liberation from this suffering is possible in Nirvana, and that the Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of suffering). That same year I was fortunate enough to go on an exchange program to India and had a first hand experience of the depth and richness of other religions, mostly Hinduism and Islam. I came home even more fascinated with eastern religions and set about learning as much as I could about Buddhism, mostly through the internet, podcasts, and books, since I didn't know any Buddhists. I took up meditation and gradually began to consider myself a Buddhist, and have practiced Buddhism ever since then.
My Buddhist practice and my Dartmouth experience have each influenced each other. First, coming to Dartmouth has led to me becoming more devoted to my meditation practice. The transition to from high school to college offers a chance to assess what I consider the most important and want to devote my time to. After receiving my acceptance letter last year I eagerly made a long list of the clubs I wanted to join here, essentially a continuation of what I was involved in during high school. It didn't take long here to discover that simply isn't possible to commit oneself to seven or eight clubs. During freshman fall, Dartmouth is a blank slate teeming with possibilities, but possibilities are nothing but imagination, so I am facing the challenge of reassessing my priorities and filling in that blank slate with two or three commitments. I have chosen to delve deeper into my Buddhist practice at Dartmouth, and have found a wonderful community in the Zen group here, which is more active then the Buddhist community at my high school was. There is another way in which Dartmouth has influenced my spiritual practice, an everyday occurrence I didn't consider until recently. Since September, my new friends have often been surprised to find out I am Buddhist, since most people's vision of a Buddhist is not a young white American. I have told an abbreviated story of how I converted to Buddhism many times for those curious about it, and have found that explain why I am Buddhist and meditate reinforces the significance of my practice to myself and helps motivate me to get up for early morning mediation!
When describing why he went to Walden's pond, Thoreau explained
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
I will not use these five minutes to summarize what seems to be my somewhat unoriginal story of shaken and regained faith in Dartmouth's sometimes-suffocating secular environment. Instead, I will try to express how Mormonism is my Walden's pond inasmuch as it allows me "to front the essential facts of life". When intellectual dissidence or, more often, social inconvenience have threatened and nearly beaten my faith, there are certain memories that rear their heads in defensive protest. There are thousands of these memories, and they stick with me because they are undeniably real. I hope you will let me share a few of them:
I remember visiting an older woman on a particularly cold Wednesday night during my freshman year. She was living alone, but her walls were crowded with pictures of two different children taken over what I estimated to be a 30-year period. I was with a fellow-church member and every time we asked how she was doing, she would somehow find a way to talk about those two children. I remember that at least one had moved to Manchester and that they were both doing very well.
That same winter a good friend's brother went missing. The police suspected suicide. We went to visit her and found the curtains pulled down and the lights turned out in her dorm room. I listened to her cry and I thought about how rotten it all was. We prayed together.
After my Freshman year I went to Brazil as a missionary and met people for two years. I met a 40 year old woman who was living with her sister. Her ex-husband had left deep knife wounds in her forearms and an even deeper depression in her heart. I met a father of five. The only times I saw him he was either passed out drunk or crying with his head in his hands. I met an older women who lost two sons to stray bullets. I met a women described herself as the mouthpiece of the universe. I met a professional fighter and a former politician. I met some transport-industry millionaires and was hustled by an ex-convict with a clown tattoo. I met a kid from Northeastern Brazil who woke me up at 4am to pray with him because he was worried about the future. I met a lot of happy people and I met a lot of less-happy people who had not been listened to in a long time. I listened more than I talked and learned more than I taught.
I remember a woman who suffered a stroke. She lived in a small informal community in the periphery of Sao Paulo and had recently lost her 28-year-old son. I remember the entire congregation coming together to provide her food, and much needed transportation for her frequent hospital visits. That was in 2011 and when I returned to Brazil this year and saw her again her memory was so far gone that she didn't recognize me. She pulled me aside and explained that her son had died a few years ago. She sort of smiled and told me that if I had met him I would have liked him. We were in the chapel and there was a teenage boy from the congregation waiting patiently behind her, ready to push her wheelchair.
For me, Mormonism is not a list of doctrines or dogmas or a list of rules and ways to dress. For me, Mormonism is my connection to what, so far, has been the realest of realities. My heart breaks when I hear my (or any other faith) condescendingly dismissed as an interesting but ultimately misguided anthropological or sociological phenomenon. My pain is not as much a fear for the validity of my beliefs, as it is a sincere pity for anyone who would mistake the sterilized world of strictly academic or intellectual thought as an accurate illustration of reality or, to quote Thoreau, an encompassing indication of the "essential facts of life".
While at Dartmouth I've come to recognize that by bringing incredibly diverse people into tight-knit communities, Mormonism demands its followers to open their hearts and love people that are often very different from themselves. Put more personally, for as long as I can remember Mormonism has required that I interact with and sacrifice (what I see as) my precious time and energy for people I hardly know and sometimes hardly like. Although I often fall short of this requirement, the resulting interactions (some of which I have shared today) confirm for me at least two "essential facts of life": The first is that Jesus Christ embodies the kind of community-building love Mormonism (and I believe God) requires out of His children. The second is that I feel most connected to "reality" when I am serving and in even the simplest way trying to reflect His love.
My experience at Dartmouth has been one of transformation – from a Chemistry major to a Classics major, from an Episcopalian to a Lutheran, and from a stranger to a member of God's family here. It was in these transformations that I came to know God more fully. Let me explain: as Christians, we serve a God who created us, became human for us, served us, suffered for us, died for us, and is ever present with us. This God is a God of love, and we serve Him in love – loving Him and therefore His children. So often, this love – which is a gift from God – manifests itself in community. I found this community at Dartmouth, and it sparked my own transformation. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says, "Our heart is wide open to you" (6:11). At Dartmouth, this community welcomed me into God's family here with an open heart. They encouraged me when classes got hard, they wept with me when my grandparents died, they celebrated with me when my father recovered from severe illness, they helped me to see where God was when I despaired. They poured the love of Christ into me, and allowed me to pour love into them. Furthermore, they allowed me to challenge them, even as they challenged me.
I came from a very traditional Episcopalian background. This means liturgy, this means formal church services, with priests in robes. I grew up singing traditional hymns in my church choir, with an organ, and it was there that I learned the meanings behind traditions – that we reverence the altar because of the gifts of bread and wine within, acknowledging Christ's sacrifice for us and His presence with us; that we sing not for any human audience but for praise of the God who created and saved us.
Now this may all sound like religious gibberish to you, but these are the traditions of my denomination. Worship, however, comes in many forms, and upon coming to Dartmouth, I learned that even most of my Christian friends were a bit confused about the traditions I knew. In the Dartmouth fellowships and at many churches in the area, worship often means modern praise music, with guitars, drums, speakers, and words projected on a screen. Although I had participated in worship like this before, I was out of my comfort zone. Where was the rich symbolism? The tradition? The sheet music? It all felt so informal, so similar to a rock concert, so indistinguishable from culture. From the community of Christians, however, I slowly learned to appreciate the simplicity of a modern service, even though I felt at home in the symbolism and richness of traditions. I began to see the potential of transliterating my faith into Dartmouth's culture – the possibility to turn Christ's love into free waffles on Friday nights behind Robo, to pray while lying down on the Green at midnight after a run, to read the Bible in Greek with an eye to rhetorical devices as well as religious meaning. I came to see that our faith and love distinguish us as Christians, rather than the language in which we express that faith and love.
Now, this should be the place where I tell you that I've transformed my worship, my way of communicating with God. I have certainly deepened my understanding of what it means to be "church" in a modern world. However, I also gained a greater appreciation for my roots, for the depth tradition offers. In fact, this summer I took the flexibility that I had learned from working with Navigators at Dartmouth into an urban Lutheran church, watching the pastor love her flock in a myriad of ways – through block parties, jazz vespers services, and Sunday morning breakfasts, as well as in the traditions of that church. I discovered that I loved the mixture – the symbolism and the "down-to-earth" realism of connecting with everyday life and God's promises. Coming back to Dartmouth this fall, I was excited to pour a new enthusiasm into the community that had already helped me to grow so much. You can ask the Navigators if they're actually happy for all this renewed enthusiasm, but I do feel that the transformation in my life has intersected with that in others'. Through this Christian community, we have been able to transform one another, and work beside each other in love to offer the next generation a place in our community, as a member of our family. Christianity is all about transformation rooted in the firm foundation of Christ – and it has been a privilege to transform in and with the Christian community here at Dartmouth.
Last Updated: 11/21/13