Augusta Thomson ’06: Balancing Knowledge and Wisdom

The film begins with flashes of urban life seen from a bus or a train. Quickly the miles speed by and a mountain appears in the distance, but suddenly the mountain, Kailash, is no longer in the distance, but above and seemingly around the photographer. The whirling experience that opens the film captures the initial impressions of Augusta Thomson ’06 and her fellow filmmakers as they embarked on the Mount Kailash pilgrimage trail, within the Ngari prefecture in the western part of Tibet.

Augusta shared a rough cut of that documentary during a Chapel Talk earlier this month. The film and Chapel Talk spoke of a religious pilgrimage important to many faiths, including Hindus, Buddhists, Bon practitioners, and Jains. But it was clear from her talk that Augusta herself has been on her own pilgrimage since graduating from Groton.

With a British sensibility bestowed on her by her British mother and relatives, Augusta easily determined that a gap year was the sensible course of action following the intensity of her Groton experience. So with little more than a passport, a Eurail pass, and a good map, Augusta took to the Continent. Spending weeks at a time in Venice, Paris, and Stockholm, staying with friends and family, she took courses in art history, worked on the Kings Road in London, and reveled in the colors and cultures that infuse Europe, from Italy to Sweden and back again.

Until that point, she had seen herself as a poet and writer. Having deferred her acceptance to Wellesley to travel, she looked forward to college as an opportunity to immerse herself in the literary world, but her time wandering the streets and museums of Europe altered her perceptions. Once at Wellesley, she struggled with how she would make poetry relevant, how it could have an impact. At the same time, she was interning with the Actor’s Shakespeare Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and helping Wellesley College Professor Lawrence Rosenwald analyze a variety of plays. She discovered a sense of herself as an artist that hadn’t previously been clear. Around that time, she began to practice yoga seriously, and, following her sophomore year, took off again to stay with an aunt who lives off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, on the island of Holbox.

It was on Holbox, home to a number of archeological sites, where Augusta suddenly knew that she wanted to combine her love of writing, her appreciation for myriad customs and cultures, and her need for artistic expression into an exploration of anthropology through journalism. This epiphany led her back across the Atlantic to Oxford University. Knowing full well that in choosing Oxford she would have to start her college career all over again, the opportunity to focus on one discipline—Cultural/Social Anthropology—more than balanced the additional years of study. The time between acceptance and matriculation meant she had more than half a year free, so off she flew to Northern California to work in a book bindery and retreat founded by a Tibetan monk, where the twofold mission is to provide copies of the sacred Buddhist texts to monks and nuns whose libraries were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and to provide Westerners a means of mediating the frantic work ethic prevalent in American culture.

She bound books for six months. Initially she thought she would go mad with boredom from the same task, day in and day out. But the practical work, free from the demands of listening, reading, writing, and ruminating (the hallmark of a Groton student’s life?), eventually opened a sense of inner calm. She recognized that the repetition allowed her to meditate in a way that simply sitting still did not, and she practiced patience every day. The importance of preserving the cultural heritage of a people through its artifacts and literature became clear, and her seemingly disparate choices reformulated and refined her world view. This intellectual journey ultimately led her to the foot of Mount Kailash, where she observed and documented the pilgrims’ way of life.

At Oxford, she was able to link a research expedition to Mount Kailash to her dissertation, ensuring the documentary work would dovetail with her degree. She presented her proposal to a panel of academics, researchers, and geographers on the board of the Oxford Expeditions Council. Her project would intertwine her own spiritual journey with a desire to make a positive impact through journalism and filmmaking. The film and accompanying book about the pilgrimage will inform the final year of her academic study.

Augusta’s Chapel Talk highlighted her journey toward wisdom. She hopes this balancing of knowledge and wisdom will set her on professional path that can highlight and preserve endangered cultures and peoples around the world.

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