“Now, scholars can be very useful and necessary in their own dull and unamusing way. They provide a lot of information. It’s just that there is Something More, and that Something More is what life is really all about.”
– Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

I struggle with this quote. During my last four years at a New England boarding school, I was fully thrust into the world of academia. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that immersion, so Benjamin Hoff’s harsh words cut deep. At the same time, however, Hoff’s message really resonates with me, for even at my high school graduation, I felt like there was something missing – something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. That missing piece is ultimately what led me to Nepal. I’ve carried it in the back of my mind through the last month and a half, but when we arrived in Balanchaur, the site of our rural village homestay, it all made sense.

Allow me to set the scene. Balanchaur sits stoically atop the hills of the Himalayas, surrounded by rice fields and dense forests. Rising above Balanchaur are the mighty snowcapped “himals” (Nepali word for mountain). Manaslu, a mountain rising to 8163 meters, feels as though it is within an arm’s reach. My words really can’t do the setting justice and unfortunately I don’t have enough service to upload a photo, so just imagine a landscape that would accompany the dictionary definition of picturesque.

The village itself is home to about 400 people, all of the Gurung ethnic group. Their ancestors came from the higher forests and settled in these open fields an estimated 300 years ago. Since then primary and secondary schools have been built and a limited supply of electricity has reached the village, but the Gurung people still carry on lives as subsistence farmers.

Our daily schedule in Balanchaur is simple, and that has made has our stay here so meaningful. Aside from an afternoon lesson with our instructors, we spend our time with our host families, immersing ourselves in their culture. From helping my aama around the house to learning new dance moves from my sisters at nightly village-wide parties, I’ve gotten an authentic taste of village life.

My most notable experience in Balanchaur, however, has been sitting in on a shamanistic house cleansing. After a series of bad omens, the village chief worried there was an evil spirit at work in his home and called a local shaman for assistance. To conduct a house cleansing, a shaman enters a trance that allows him or her to travel freely through the three spirit realms and locate the source of negative energy. It may sound like a joke on paper, but witnessing the shamanistic ritual firsthand has proved to me that it is quite the opposite. As I sat there in that room, surrounded by hopeful villagers and a shaman shaking into a trance, I felt an energy that could not be replicated by books, or any other medium for that matter. In that moment, I understand what Benjamin Hoff meant by Something More, for it was right before my eyes.

You could study Shamanism in an academic setting, as many do, and be able to pick apart each ritual object and its significance, but that information alone won’t get to the root of the topic; it won’t lend a complete understanding. The essence of Shamanism only becomes clear when you sit inches from the shaman as he or she moves into the trance, and you engage all the senses to experience that shift in energy. That physical moment transcends academia.

After giving that house cleansing more thought, I have come to realize that it is merely the tip of the iceberg, for I could define so many of my experiences in Nepal as Something More. For example, approaching Buddhism from a scholarly perspective pales in comparison to our experience at Kopan Monastery, where we felt the power of prayer as hundreds of monks chanted mantras in the gompa for an early morning puja. Additionally, no matter how much I were to study the caste system, when my host grandparents in Patan considered me of a lower caste and therefore refused to eat meals with me, the emotions I felt could not have been replicated in a classroom. It is experiences like these that I yearned for when I came to Nepal, and I have been lucky enough to find them.

I took a gap year because I am on a quest for Something More. Even so, scholarship has been a vital component of my path and will continue to be, so I do not mean to belittle its importance. I would just like to recognize that high scholarship ought not to be an end goal, for there is an essence that it cannot capture. I have found that essence in the streets of Kathmandu, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and the Himalayan countryside. After spending the majority of my life thus far in a classroom, I can see that our journey through Nepal, in the words of Benjamin Hoff, is what life is really all about.