Can Poetry Heal Collective Trauma?

Three ways poetry can transform our wounds into compassionate action

Indian sprinter Milkha Singh was destined to win gold in the 400 meters race at the 1960 Rome Olympics. After all, he had clocked the world record of 45.8 seconds at preliminaries in France. At the final in Rome, he was leading the race till 250 m when he unexpectedly slowed down to look back and ended up fourth. While the legendary sprinter regretted this moment for the rest of his life, we wondered, “why did he look back?”

Many years later, his biopic revealed that what made him look back in that decisive microsecond was the memory of his painful past. When his family was massacred during the India Pakistan partition violence, his grandfather commanded him to “Run Milkha run. Don’t look back”. He ran from his traumatic past and became one of the fastest runners on the planet. But when he expected it the least, his past caught up. 

Little did he know that the collective trauma lives in the subconscious of our body. And it keeps surfacing again and again till it finds its resolution. 

After the Rome Olympics, Milkha Singh got an opportunity to travel back to his village in Pakistan, where his parents were murdered. He cried his heart out and met his childhood friends. That one visit healed his wound. In the following race in Lahore, Milkha Singh ran like nothing could hold him back. The President of Pakistan gave him the title of “The Flying Sikh.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Milkha Singh to physically visit their past and heal their wounds. We need poets like Gulzar, whose poems create portals for us to travel back to the source and heal our souls.

I am back at the Zero Line
My shadow whispers from behind me,
'When you give up this body
Come back to your home
Your birthplace, your motherland'.

― Gulzar, Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition

Poetry has played a crucial role in healing our collective trauma. Whether it was the world war, holocaust, slavery, partition or a profound personal loss, poets have worked like earthworms— composting the unresolved trauma and making the soil fertile for the future to be reborn.

Poets are sensitive beings who notice the societal divides, let them sink in their bodies, and germinate into verse. Poetry transforms personal pain into archetypal messages. Whether it’s Gulzar writing on Indo-Pak partition trauma, Elie Wiesel reminding us of horrors of the holocaust or Maya Angelou capturing the essence of racism in the USA, they speak to people across generations and geographic locations. In their poems, we are seen, comforted, awakened and released. 

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

― Maya Angelou, Caged Bird

Writing poems has been my healing practice since the age of nine. But I did not know how to help others in a similar journey till I met my teacher Arawana Hayashi at the Presencing Institute.

Arawana introduced me to the awareness-based social arts called Social Presencing Theater (SPT). I soon learnt how awareness practices could help embody and express the deeply felt experiences at a personal or societal level. I started integrating SPT and poetry in working with gender trauma in my work and personal life. The poems and insights generated over seven years of inner work were published in my first book, “Trading Armour for a Flower“, as a poetic pathway. 

I thought it was my personal journey until a woman from Israel asked my permission to translate the poems into Hebrew and change the pronoun from “he” to “she”. Zohar Zoharah Noy-Meir started reading them to the victims of gender trauma in the Red Tent circles. She told me that the poems gave voice to the unexpressed emotions and healed their divides. 

For the first time in my life, I realised that poetry could create space for collective healing. Zohar inspired my wife, Sonali Gera and me to host SPT based Embodied Poetry dialogue circles in cafes, public grounds and living rooms across India. 

Soon, I had a humbling realisation. No one came to these gatherings to read my poems. They came to meet themselves. Poems were a doorway through which they stepped in to meet their wounded parts. And as we did this collectively, we mirrored each other and created a new narrative. In short, we transformed our wounds into collective poetry.

***

After ten in-person and ten online circles, I saw a three-step process through which poetry facilitates collective healing. Very similar to Milkha Singh’s healing journey.

1. Collectively witnessing our wounds 

Spiritual teacher and author of the book “Healing Collective Trauma“, Thomas Hubl says that the way to heal our trauma is to witness it collectively. Poetry creates such a space. 

Like Milkha Singh, Amrita Pritam also took the long train ride from Pakistan to India amid the partition riots. She became a “refugee” overnight, travelling alone to an unknown land with two kids and one blanket. That night she wrote a poem that called us to reckon with the collective suffering on both sides of the divide.

Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere

- Amrita Pritam, A call to Waris Shah (translated by Khushwant Singh)

Amrita’s verse takes us beyond shame or blame to embrace our shared brokenness. My wife and I experienced a similar phenomenon when we were invited by MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse) to host a poetry dialogue circle in Shivaji grounds of Mumbai. Men and women from diverse walks of life attended. The gathering opened up with the poem “Million Small Irritation” as the genesis of gender violence. We invited participants to form small groups and create social body sculptures (like tableaus we see at the Republic Day parade) to show how they experienced gender trauma in their lives. As we embodied each other’s struggles, new wisdom started emerging as phrases and sentences. We weaved it all together to co-create a new poem– “Purity hidden in our blindspots“. 

A woman shared that “I could voice the cry that my grandmothers had muted for generations. It found resonance in our shared space”. Another participant, a retired Army Officer, said that “poetry gave legitimacy to the emotions that I had buried inside”. The irritation that had the potential to become unacknowledged violence had found its place in his living room.

2. Integrating our past  

As Milkha Singh revisited his old village and embraced his painful memories, he started feeling whole again. Thomas Hubl calls this process “integration”. It is how we metabolise our painful past to create fertile soil for the emerging future. Poet Amanda Gorman did it when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony. In her lines she integrated all our divides and created a new field for hope and humanity.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew. 
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.

- Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb 

In another poetry dialogue circle, we were hosted by a women network. Around twenty women and six men gathered. We opened the dialogue with the poem “He Longs to be Understood” that touched the unexpressed power needs of men and women. It led to an animated conversation on patriarchy. Many women were angry with men for exploiting the power and controlling women’s expression.  

Neel, who was quiet so far, finally spoke. He shared how he might be the patriarch in the women’s narrative. However, he did not choose to be one. His mother and wife expect him to be the tough guy, manage finances, take unpopular decisions and be a bad cop to his kids. He sits alone on many nights, longing to be home, cook food and play with his kids. Neel’s vulnerable reflection opened many hearts. Shobha, an entrepreneur, shared that while her father was alive, she could not relate to him as a patriarch. But after his death, Shobha took over the family business and the provider role. Within no time, she found herself behaving exactly like her father. A patriarch she never wanted to be. 

This heartfelt poetic dialogue helped us reconnect with our base relationships and embrace the parts we could not relate to so far. It gave birth to a new narrative with a sense of wholeness.  

3. Transforming our wounds into compassionate action

For Milkha Singh, his wound transformed into freedom almost immediately. He became the “Flying Sikh” he was born to be. Later he established a charitable trust to help other struggling sportsmen. 

Poetry, too, has similar power to heal what’s broken and inspire compassionate action. When a defaulting tea-seller was presented before the Railway Magistrate, Bharat Chugh, he was torn by the tea-seller’s poverty. Instead of following the legal mandate, Chug acquitted him and wrote a poem. In a recent article, Justice Muralidhar shared that Bharat Chug’s “poignant poem” is shaping the High Court judgements and inspiring others to serve the poorest of the poor.

The law required me to punish him, 
it’s dry, blindfold diktat and arbitrary whim; 
I chose to exonerate him, but didn’t say anything; 
how could I ask him not to earn his bread — when the state couldn’t bring…
Could I think of a more honorable way, 
this boy could have earned a living — 
selling honest tea — with fair billing.

For legal authority was there, but moral authority I had none, 
my nation’s law had somewhat failed, and poverty had won!”

- Bharat Chug, Tea Seller and the Judge 

Sometimes poems are the keys to unlock a movement. A poet has very little say in what may unfold. I had one such humble keymaker experience when India announced a lockdown on the 24th of March 2020. Within a week, 23 million migrant workers had no option but to walk on foot, thousands of kilometres back to their villages. When the images of millions of men, women and children walking and dying on roads came through social media, my heart broke. Their collective trauma was unbearable for my little ego world. I cried for many nights letting my helplessness and angst transform into a poem, “A Long Road of Inhumanity“.

The poem triggered conversations that resulted in a citizen movement called Dignity of Labour. My colleagues at the Presencing Institute invited me to create a social art performance based on the poem. Our performance video was featured at the Global  Forum, followed by a dialogue among more than a thousand global changemakers. We did similar forums in India, leading to rapid funding and the launch of new initiatives to support migrant labourers. 

However, the most transformative part of this journey was the shift we experienced within ourselves. Poetry and embodiment helped us to see the world from the eyes of the migrant labourer. It dissolved our rescuer-victim duality. We could feel the strength of their spine. We decided to call them “nation builders” and support them in creating local, rural enterprises. 

***

The pandemic proved to be much bigger than all our relief work. It brought humanity to its knees. The collective trauma and resulting systems crisis have pushed us into deep fear and fragmentation. It’s a call for poets and social artists worldwide to create spaces where we could reckon with our collective suffering, reconcile with our loss and regenerate wellbeing for all. 

As poet David Whyte shared in an interview with Thomas Hubl at the Collective Trauma Summit 2020

“Healing is in being found and giving words to parts of our body that had no voice yet”.

_____________________________

Gratitude: I am grateful to:  

  • Sonali Gera for co-hosting many embodied poetry dialogue circles
  • All the wonderful people who organised, hosted and participated in 20 online and offline gatherings over last two years.
  • The Himalayan Writing Retreat team and the participants of the Blog Writing Workshop for co-editing and shaping this article 

———————————-

Manish Srivastava  is a senior faculty and co-director of Social Presencing Theatre at Presencing Institute. His first book, Trading Armour for a Flower, has become part of gender trauma healing circles across many countries. His upcoming book “Midnight Journey of a Seed” offers a poetic pathway to develop resilience in the face of the pandemic. Follow him on www.sacredwell.in for the upcoming poetry healing circles. 

The Magician Named Sonali Ojha

Five Mystical Practices to Transform Spaces

Magical was her presence
And magic is what she felt
when she unlocked the dreams
hidden in every soul she met

But you can’t take magicians for granted
They leave sooner than you think
They have many realms to serve
and many wounds to heal

In her final gesture of generosity
she left us with five essential gifts
As the fire transformed the matter into spirit
I could see what makes her an alchemist

* * *

When you listen
Listen with your whole being
Letting yourself dissolve
into the space in between
Listen to fully receive the words,
the pauses, the breathlessness
and its resonance

When you speak
Speak from deepest of your heart
Speak the truth that is naked and not yet born
Let the words rise from your gut
where kindness meets courage
to sing the song that we all long for

When you lead
Lead like the earth
Vast, spacious and invisible
Like a vessel that holds the whole
where all are welcomed
and everyone is transformed

And when you celebrate
Celebrate like little children
Meet each other on the playground
Laugh, play and rejoice
Every moment of your life
with innocent tears and gracious smiles


But when you leave
Leave quietly
in the silent hour of the night
The dreams you sowed will carry your essence
The butterfly that nurtured the flowers
will now fly into the eternal

* * *


Magicians don’t leave us
They only dissolve
Inviting us to source their message
within our heart


With deep gratitude
Manish Srivastava
_______________


My friend, mentor, guide, Sonali Ojha, left us quietly on 20th July night. She touched so many souls and transformed so many spaces. Gathering a constellation of awesome people in a short lifetime. We don’t know how we will ever fill this void. We can only sit in silence, letting her essence dissolve in our being.

Indian Migrant Crisis: a call for societal transformation or an irreversible collapse?

A soul unknowingly born in a world
So broken and so inhuman
Crushing his innocence with structural inequality 
That we create and endorse every day

Their pandemic is not COVID
It’s a fragmented society, failed governance, fake capitalist dream
And heartlessness of people like you and me
Residing in the top slots of the pyramid
Unaware of the collapse at the bottom

(Lines from the poem A Long Road of Inhumanity)

This article explores the deeper layers of the current migrant crisis and proposes areas for collective action. These insights have emerged from the Dignity of Labour Action-Learning Dialogues, initiated by citizens and changemakers to provide immediate relief support and co-create long-term systemic solutions. 

 

PART 1: Beginning of a societal collapse

Why is the current migrant crisis a trigger of the systemic collapse that has been brewing for a long time?  

In 2014, Nasa funded a study that brought natural and social scientists together to study— What made the greatest civilisations like Roman, Han Dynasty, Mauryan, Guptas, Mesopotamian and Mayans enter into a cycle of irreversible collapse? 

They found a common pattern that’s repeating itself right now. Highlighting the prospect that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to… unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution“. This happens when few elites exploit all resources and remain oblivious to the catastrophe brewing at the bottom. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, barely survives on subsistence. This eventually creates inequality-induced famine (or similar disasters) leading to the collapse of society.

In January 2020, Oxfam reported this pattern by highlighting that “Wealth of India’s richest 1% is more than 4-times of the total for 70% poorest” 

On 24th March 2020, we experienced that first major blow of this extreme inequality when the Indian government announced total lockdown. While city elites and the middle-class resorted to their reserves, 139 million migrant labourers suddenly had no job or means to survive in the cities that they built and took care of. 

They account for ~35% of urban India, who travel 1000s of kilometres across the country to earn livelihood in the industrial cities. They work as cheap labourers on construction sites, sewage cleaners, and on other poorly paid hazardous jobs. They come to cities with dreams but end up living in abject poverty in urban slums with almost no welfare. Many of them face problems of non-payment of wages, physical abuse, accidents and even death

Most of us living in cities are aware of the plight of the migrant workers, yet we take it for granted as collateral damage for our development. However, the pandemic has ruptured our illusionary dream and activated a collective trauma that we can’t deny any longer. 

Collective trauma and denial 

Within weeks of lockdown, 23 million migrant labourers had no option but to walk thousands of kilometres back to their villages on foot without food, water, shelter or transport. 

It’s difficult to be a human and not have your heart broken by looking at the images of millions of working-class men, women and children stranded on highways. Inhuman pesticide cleansing of returning migrant labourers. A father breaking down, unable to reach his sick son. A toddler waking with his dead mother on a railway platform. Children walking barefoot on concrete roads. Innocent eyes with tears that were never wiped. Some died of hunger. Others survived to encounter a lifetime of misery. 

These heartbreaking images reflect intense trauma of the poor and blatant apathy of the affluent, just like the way Nasa study had predicted.

The Indian government enforced the lockdown at 4 hours notice with no consideration for 139 million migrants. Many businesses refused to pay wages and triggered the crisisThe Supreme Court let down migrant workers for more than two months before it recognised their inhuman misery. 

Amid the crisis, the state government, of the most populated state, suspended the labour laws to support industrialists while pushing labourers into the vicious cycle of bondage labour. The urban middle-class either remained silent or blamed the migrant labourers as “irresponsible” for walking on the road and putting the rest of us to risk. 

These reactions made me wonder— Why can’t a large part of the affluent class see and feel the misery of working poor at the bottom? 

As we read this article, the survivors among the 23 million are reaching their villages carrying fatigue, shame and anger for what they have been through. Their impoverished villages have quarantined them and have no resources to support their livelihood. Rest of the 139 million poor are still in cities and are running out of their savings. Covid-19 is on the rise among the overcrowded and unsafe slums where most of the migrant workers live. 

The pandemic has exposed a crack that runs deep to the foundation of our socio-economic system. It calls for courage to surface the deeper truths and compassionate action to transform the system that creates inequality and suffering for millions of people on our planet.

~~~~

 

PART 2: Uncovering the deeper structures and agreements of violence: 

What is our collective role in co-creating this crisis?

 

Dayna L Cunningham, Executive Director, MIT CoLab, recently shared at the Presencing Institute’s Global Forum that societal divides are the result of “structural violence“. These are “series of human agreement” that lead to the misery of a group of people. It’s an invitation for us to reflect— What are the structures and unconscious agreements that lead to the misery of 139 million migrant labourers in India? 

 

While the current migration crisis is a complex societal challenge with multiple dimensions, let me explore two underlying meta socio-economic structures:

  1. The economic class structure that treats labour as a commodity 
  2. The social caste system that locks millions into intergenerational suffering 

These two structures leverage each other to create a sophisticated web of misery. Each of these structural arrangements has unconscious agreements made by us individually and collectively. As I wrote this essay, I got in touch with how I am part of these agreements and the role I play in creating structural violence every day. It’s a painful self-realisation and a necessary one if we wish to transform the current crisis. 

For many of us it’s difficult to stay with the collective pain. We long for immediate solutions. However, unless we stay long enough to examine the underlying root causes, today’s well intentioned quick-fixes can become tomorrow’s new problems. I therefore invite readers to join me in exploring the root causes before we reflect on solutions (in part 3 of this article). 

 

Economic class structure: treating labour as a commodity  

Post-colonial governments adapted the dual-economy model that fuelled urban industry through cheap labour migrating from poor villages. Industrialists leveraged it by exploiting the temporary, just-in-time, low-cost migrant workforce. Lawmakers managed any potential unrest by amending the labour laws in favour of enterprises which in turn funded the elections. Urban middle class thrived as white-collar instruments as well as mindless consumers of this dualistic, exploitation-based economic system. We turned a blind eye to the poor workers living in unimaginable conditions in our cities, sidewalks, slums, construction sites. We sanitised our hearts by calling them “migrants” (does not belong here). In exchange, we got cheap, unorganised maid-servants, sewage cleaners and drivers. 

While supporting relief work for stranded migrants, we came across the story of more than 1000 construction workers from Nagpur. Their employers gave them Rs 3000/- (~40 USD) and fired them. When asked, business contractors justified that it was enough for labourers to survive 2 months of lockdown if they eat rice every day. The recent documentary “Saboot Evidence” made by People Archives of Rural India, demonstrates that the employers of migrant workers have violated most of the labour laws by firing them without notice or settling any of their dues.  

Some business contractors even assaulted their workers when they expressed their desire to return home. Contractors feared losing low-cost labour from their construction projects. Once the lockdown was loosened, the same contractors who led to the exodus of millions of workers, started wooing them back with flight tickets and extra salary.

This whole human drama makes us wonder— Why do we treat a fellow human like a commodity that can be exploited as per market conditions? What are our collective agreements that allow this inhuman treatment of the poor working class? 

Underlying agreements: 

As I introspect, I came across some collective agreements that result in the current economic paradigm and are internalised by us in our daily life. 

“Poor people do not deserve equal rights or equal access.” 

This assumption is visible in double standards of the middle class. When it comes to our own job, we want salaries that cover not just our needs but also our future, insurance, welfare, holidays and more. But when it comes to domestic workers, we negotiate the minimal possible wages with no conversation about their health insurance, welfare, future aspirations, housing etc. Most of them work for more than 12 hours with minimal or no off-day. 

I recall driving past a slum area in Mumbai with some guests who lived in gated-townships in Delhi. They peeped into a 3 by 6 feet shanty on the footpath and were shocked to see television and quipped “Look they are so well-off, and we think of them as poor!”. When I pointed out that these slum dwellers have no access to toilets, water or healthcare, I got a reply that I was being too idealistic. It seems, as a privileged upper class, we have normalised the inequality to the level that a poor possessing a TV is disrupting. However it is normal if they do not have access to basic human rights and needs of water, education, health and sanitation. 

Many businesses have institutionalised this agreement. They proudly announce their employee’s welfare programs. But they outsource the responsibility of blue-collar workers to the third-party contractors, who generally do not care for labour welfare. Thanks to the few generous industrialists like Ratan Tata who called this out in an interview “the way these labourers were left to fend for themselves with no work, food or place to stay speaks volumes on lack of business ethics”.

We saw another glimpse of this assumption when the government provided free air rescue for Indians stranded internationally but made the poor migrants pay for train tickets. It seems our collective minds are obsessed with the needs of the affluent while the poor remain in the complete blindspot.

“It’s okay to exploit another human for our convenience” 

When I was buying my flat in a township, I did cross the slums at the construction site where Migrant Labourers lived. A part of me did notice their extreme poverty, lack of safety and innocence of their children. A part of me knew that it’s not fair, not human and perhaps not even legal. I still signed the cheque. I became part of the system that legitimised enslaving and exploitation of the poor. 

Whether we build our house or buy it, we pay for the bricks that make our walls and foundation. We get the good quality ones at best rates. These bricks are made by men working in brick kilns, who are given fraudulently manipulated loans (as low as $100) to keep them and their families in bondage for years, “costing the slaveholder little more than subsistence food and lodging each year. All of which maximizes the slaveholders’ profits — estimated at an average of $1000 per year per bonded laborer — at the cost of human misery.” 

How many such bricks are there in our living rooms, offices and foundations? What then is the real cost of our houses? Who has paid for the rest? How many times a day do we legitimize exploitation and modern slavery— from houses to coffee to the electronics that we are holding right now? 

How different are we from the colonialists? They used military power to push poor into slavery. We use sophisticated economic class systems that create similar results.  If we are not actively engaged in uplifting fellow human beings from the historical systemic slavery, we are part of it. Whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. It’s happening! 

We may wonder why does law permit such exploitation? Why government colluded with business in midst of crisis to suspend labour laws and expose labourers to slaveryPerhaps our economic and legal structures are built on deeper societal agreements that make it okay to lock fellow humans in intergenerational misery.

 

Social Caste System: Justifying intergenerational suffering 

Sai Balakrishnan, Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, has published research that maps this flow and analyses the migrant crisis and its roots in regional and caste politics. He writes, “It is crucial to note that historically marginalised groups—Dalits and Adivasis [tribals]—disproportionately make up the distressed migrant labour force”. Few higher and privileged castes like “Jats, Patidars, Marathas, Vokkaligas, Gounders, Kammas, Reddys” etc. took advantage of the green revolution and built infrastructure for growth. However, they needed cheap labour that came from poor castes residing in poor states. 

A report from The Guardian accounts that most sewage cleaners come from “…Valmiki community, regarded among the lowest in the intricate caste system. When they migrate to cities, they are excluded from any jobs but cleaning. At least one Indian worker has died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017, according to the first official government statistics on the work, considered one of the country’s deadliest jobs and most insidious form of caste discrimination”. 

Whether as industrialists or city householders, we live in comfort because of an old exploitation system that we institutionalised through our scriptures. 

This is the privilege blindspot of our society that higher caste takes for granted and lower caste accept it as fate. “Studies provide evidence on the barriers faced by workers belonging to historically disadvantaged caste groups in the Labour Market”. 

Most of the educated upper and middle class in India must have written an essay on “evils of caste system” in their schools. Yet it persists. Why? What are unconscious agreements that we fail to acknowledge? 

 

Underlying agreements: 

Our collective agreements related to the caste system are more inaccessible and unspeakable. Perhaps each one of us needs to examine on our own: how are we playing into the caste and race discrimination? 

Caste and race privileges (or lack of it) are divinely justified.” 

Many of my colleagues coming from higher caste outrightly reject the above statement, but those coming from lower castes feel acknowledged in it. So many times, we come across brahmins or thakurs or sindhis asserting their racial identity to justify their status. Likewise, we name the communities of potters, cobblers, sweepers, plumbers to justify their misery. They even have separate Gods and place in the divine order.  

Last summer I visited an old roadside cobbler to get the sole of my shoe fixed. He sat on the footpath in front of a mega-shoe-mart. I was perplexed by the irony of the societal divide. I asked him about his well being. He shared with me about his financial struggles and societal discrimination as a matter of fact. Then he pointed out the little poster of Sant Ruidas who is a divine spirit, a saint and a cobbler. He told me that his professional suffering is his destiny and that Sant Ruidas will protect him and his caste from any evil. On that very evening, I had a meeting with the Dean of a corporate learning centre. As I was explaining the research basis of my work, he suddenly stopped me and said that I don’t have to give all that research validation cause he is a Saraswat Brahmin and well-deserving of his role as the Dean. I was surprised by his sudden introjection and emotional charge. I had said nothing about his role or status. Later I realised that just like the Cobbler who is justifying his misery through his caste destiny, the Dean is defending his privilege through his caste status. 

This is a deep unspoken belief that gives unconscious permission for higher castes/races to claim their power, and it makes lower ones to internalise oppression. 

Manual is menial” or “cleaning my shit is not my job”. 

An extension of the internalised caste system can be seen in the way Indian affluent, and middle class engage with manual work like cleaning toilets. Parents train children saying if you don’t study, you may become a cleaner or labourer one day. Hidden in this insult is an assumption that manual work is menial work, and it’s only meant for underprivileged people. Most adults living in upper-middle-class households have rarely cleaned their own toilets. We may champion the cause of women empowerment but rather hire a woman coming from marginalised communities to clean our toilets. We justify her low wages as “generous enough” for the unskilled labour. When the lockdown made it risky to have maid-servants, we were confronted with our own lack of skills. Desperately trying to get our cheap low skill labour back or invest in expensive cleaning gadgets. It’s not just a “skill” issue. It’s a “will” issue that comes from a belief that “cleaning shit is not my job”. Often the unconscious and unspoken belief is that shit cleaning or all other menial work is the job of shit cleaners or Dalits– the lower caste of India. 

As long as we look down on a part of our own work and life as menial or lowly, we can’t think of eradicating the caste system. What’s disowned within us is projected on underprivileged sections of society and creates casteism. 

 

My teacher, Systems Thinking pioneer, Peter Senge, often says, “You can’t change a system unless you see your handprint in creating it”. What he meant is that unless we see our role in creating the current crisis, we remain outsiders or victims. And victims don’t have any agency within them to transform the system. Structural violence exists because of our collective agreements. Each one of us needs to introspect and examine:

  • How am I promoting, ignoring, endorsing or not-challenging the current agreements? 
  • What were the moments when I could have spoken but didn’t?
  • What is my privilege or power that I may be taking for granted?

Reflecting on how we create structural violence is a pre-work before we could transform the system and develop new agreements for structural love. 

~~~~

 

PART 3: Recreating new structures and agreements based on dignity and love

What is our role in transforming the current system? 

One of my friends who was helping migrant labourers in Nagpur (in central India) met a group of construction workers who had already walked ~400 kilometres on foot and had another 500 kilometres journey ahead of them. They were exhausted lying half-dead on the roadside. He offered them food and asked them how they will manage the rest of the walk? 

One of them replied— “We have no option, no job, no money, no food here. Back in the village at least we can die with dignity.” 

This one statement broke my heart. 

These are the men and women who build our cities. We turned our back on them. They have the courage and capacity to walk 1000 miles. What they long for is not money, work or food. They long for dignity! 

Moved by the collective pain, some of us initiated “Dignity of Labour (DoL) Dialogues” — an action-learning platform to bring citizens and changemakers together, to co-create solutions for relief and long-term systems change. Over the last 2 months, we did several online dialogues engaging up to 900 changemakers worldwide, supported over a dozen initiatives in India and co-created new prototypes. 

Dayna Cunningham motioned in her video that antidote to structural violence is structural love. That may emerge as new agreements based on empathy, dignity and love for every human being. 

There are major structural reforms urgently needed at policy level to create inclusion and dignity for all. Here are some of our insights on how we can individually initiate the transformation from structural violence to structural love:

 

1. Release the default pattern of shame and blame. Listen with an open heart. 

When we started DoL Dialogues, many of us were feeling extremely pained and sympathetic to the migrant labourers, angry with policymakers and helpless and stuck as middle-class. We got stuck in a reactive pattern of either shaming oneself (introjecting) or blaming the system (projecting). Creating a stuck drama of guilt-ridden privileged or angry activists. Either way, we were robbing the whole system of its agency to create change. 

However, after listening to stories of migrant labourers from the field and embodying various roles using Social Presencing Theatre, we started seeing and sensing the struggles and agency with each role. We learnt that: 

  • The migrant labourer has most agency in the system. They are the ones who build the cities. They are walking 1000 miles, and when they find their ground, they can recreate a new grassroots economy. Our paradigm shifted from seeing them as helpless victims to co-creators of a new economy. 
  • Policy Makers needed the most help. We realised that they are overwhelmed by the crisis and stuck in their old privilege paradigm. They need support to be vulnerable and open. 
  • The middle-class has the most leverage. It has equal access to the migrant and policymakers. But they are stuck in their fear-based ego bubble. They long to join migrants and return to earth and their home. 
  • We found another subtle role that mirrors the longing of humanity. The “Consciousness” that lives within each of us and is manifested as artists, storytellers and conscious media. It has the power to empower all other roles. 

All these insights became available to us only when we dropped our shame and blame pattern and started listening to the whole system with an open heart.  

2. Reframe Relief work as introspective atonement/ praayashchit (shadow work)

Manasi Saxena, Founder of enCOMPASSion, shared her inspiring story of leading relief work for migrant labourers on DoL platform. She reflected that “charity is not enough”. It can create dependence and divides if we become judgemental and not mindful of our privilege as volunteers. 

Sometimes the one providing relief or support may operate from their ego-self (“I have more and so I can help or solve or fix their issue”). This results in a victim-rescuer dynamic, where the rescuer fails to acknowledge the agency in the one they are helping. 

This conversation made me reflect on the meaning of “dana” (donation) from Vipassana practice. Dana is an expression of loving-kindness and gratitude where we give we thank others for allowing us to serve and let-go of our own ego-attachments. Thus it’s done without any self-identification, conditions or control.

Many of us city dwellers extended our generosity by continuing to pay full salary/ wages to the maids, cleaners, workers even if they could not come for work due to lockdown. It is a great opportunity to practice “dana”. Unfortunately, some of us started operating from the ego. We began cutting wages and demanding our servants to come back. 

In doing so, we are missing an essential spiritual dimension of this crisis. If we reframe this as an opportunity to provide relief to those who have served us, our unconscious arrogance will give way to gratitude. The same giving or donation will become a spiritual act of atonement. Each floor we sweep, each dish we wash and each toilet we clean will become an expression of thanksgiving to all those who took care of us. 

The current migrant crisis is offering an opportunity to attend our collective shadow. 

From that lens, I sincerely appreciate all the communities that came forward to serve migrant labourers with pure love— cleaning their feet, feeding them with love, providing personal transport etc. My wise friend Samata Vashisht shared— “when we give unconditional love, we can heal our collective past in an instant”. 

 

3. Recreate structures of love through the web of micro-actions 

Once we see our role in co-creating the structural violence, we can also make choices to recreate structural love. How do we do that as ordinary citizens? 

First, we need to notice the agreements that we consciously or unconsciously make to create structural violence: How we might be perpetuating the caste and class system in our home or at work? 

Then, we could think of one micro-action that would shift the whole paradigm. And slowly practice it in spite of the status quo on either end of the divide. 

Finally, encourage others to join us in that micro-action and create a web of goodness. 

Vinay Kumar, a scientist, working in Bangalore, role-modelled the process as mentioned above for us. When the migrant çrisis hit Bangalore, he was appalled by the citizen’s apathy towards the poor. Vinay’s first micro-action was to provide food and bike-transport to migrants on the way to his office. He then used his phone to create a short video to make visible the reality of the crisis. The video went viral and initiated the #migrantlifematters campaign and a network of hundreds of citizens organising relief and influencing government for immediate action. 

The same process of micro-actions and wave-of-goodness apply to businesses that employ migrant labourers. Irrespective of our role, power, position in a system, we can take a moment to reflect how we actively or inactively support the agreements that keep workers locked in poverty. And then take one micro-action today. And invite others to join tomorrow. One of the changemakers from our network, Vikram Sood, is a passionate Social Entrepreneur who hired carpenters from West Bengal to work in Bangalore. Amid lockdown, he helped them go back to their villages. On reflection, he decided to shift the machinery and tools to their villages so that they can work from home and break the pattern that forces them to migrate in search of livelihood. His action and story inspired many participants from the business world. 

It’s time that we all create new agreements for the wellbeing of all. Imagine a million acts of love transforming the massive structures of violence. Imagine that you and I are part of that story! 

 

4. Regenerate rural economy to heal the urban-rural divide 

While doing Social Presencing Theatre to understand the deeper dynamics of this crisis, I chose the role of a Migrant Labourer. The process allowed me to embody their current reality and to let it move to wherever it longs to go. Initially, my back of bend with immense invisible load and head was low with a sense of shame and failure. As I moved to the edges of the system where I felt the presence of my village, my spine became straight. My shoulder broadened, and my heart opened. Now, I could see the whole system. Standing in my village, rooting in my dignity, I could not only support myself but also the policymakers and the entire nation. 

This embodied insight was validated by a village woman farmer from Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP)  grassroots women network, who messaged me “we don’t want anyone going back to cities and sacrifice their dignity again”. 

Later I learnt that she, along with other village women, raised Rs 90,000 through their Self Help Group (SHG) and helped 5 migrant youth to start a new agri-based enterprise. 

While the pandemic has broken the capitalist economy, these grassroots women are presenting an alternate rural, organic model that is regenerating the local economy and integrating the returning migrant labourers. Join us on 30th August to hear Prema Gopalan, Founder SSP India and other women leaders share their story. 

Another Changemaker, Purnima Upadhayaya, who leads KHOJ, NGO in Melghat tribal area, asked us to reconsider Gandhi’s vision of local self-sustained village economy (Sarvodaya). She shared that the villages that adapted the local economy model had less than 10% migration and were able to sustain better through the crisis.  

One of our thought leaders, Dr Arvind Chinchure, proposed that we need to shift the centre of the economy from a few urban centres to a cluster-based connected rural economy. He believes that by applying modern principles like Industry 4.0, we can create a distributed economy that addresses the root cause of the migration crisis and restores their dignity of labours as local entrepreneurs. 

What does it mean for the rest of us? — as businesses, consumers, investors and storytellers?

It is a call for policymakers to shift the attention and investment from industries that thrive on cheap migrant labourers to distributed micro-enterprises that create value for people and the planet. 

It is a call for businesses to innovate their business models to leverage technology and create value without making villagers migrate as cheap labour. 

It is a call for NGOs and social enterprises to rise as a network that can support the new economy by building grassroots capacity at scale. 

It is a call for those living in cities as consumers, investors and storytellers (media) to commit to this new economy by consuming and promoting what’s local, fair-trade and organic. 

It is a call for all of us to make a radical commitment and unplug from the seductive slow poison of mindless consumerism, exploitative capitalism and ultra-urbanisation.  

~~~~

This pandemic has exposed the broken foundation of our development narrative. In the heart of our heart, we always knew that the current socio-economic system is not creating wellbeing for all. The painful exodus of 23 million fellow humans on highways has given us a glimpse of the massive disasters awaiting for 116 other migrant labourers suffering in cities. The ripple effect of this may eventually impact all of us.

NASA analysis highlighted that great civilisations collapsed after reaching their high points of development. We are seeing a similar pattern being repeated on a global scale. 

Referring back to NASA study, I wonder what must be going on in the minds of people when their civilization showed initial signs of collapse. When they noticed the ecological disasters and socio-economic divides, did they get together to transform that opportunity? 

Deepak Chopra made a crucial point while introducing his new book “Meta-Human“. He said that “Humanity is poised at a fork between the extinction of human spices or next leap of evolution”. Either we rise together beyond our old patterns founded in ego, greed, societal divides and evolve to the next level. Or we go down the path of extinction. “It depends on us. If we go extinct, universal consciousness will say— it didn’t work. Dinosaurs didn’t work either. Let’s keep trying”.  

I do feel we are at the very end of this fork and the current migrant crisis is a call to choose the path. 

Each one of us has a choice, and each one of us matters!

~~~~

Manish Srivastava (srivastava@presencing.com) 

22.08.2020 

~~~~

Gratitude:

I am grateful to:

  • Sonali Gera, Anupam Rawat, Nirvana Laha and Vijaya Nair for reviewing and encouraging me in publish this article 
  • All changemakers from Dignity of Labour Action-learning platform who have inspired these insights 
  • Presencing Institute Social Arts team for helping me deepening my wisdom through contemplative arts  
  • 139 million migrant labourers who inspire us with their resilience and spirit to serve

Pls feel free to share your views and engage in further dialogue at the facebook group

A long road of inhumanity

IMG_A1AB2C17A407-1Let’s walk with this migrant labourer for a while
A father in his late 20s
Walking with his bags
and barely leftover pride on his back
Balancing his child
and hope for survival on his shoulders

He left his poor farm
To earn a living in big promising cities
He slogged day and night
To help his landlord and employers
Build their houses and live their dreams

When pandemic demanded all go home
He and his family were kicked out on the street
Government ceased the public transport
Forcing them to walk on foot
100s of miles to their village
On a long concrete highway
No food, no water, no shelter
Desperately turning back
on the sound of every passing vehicle
Hoping someone would help

An overloaded truck slows down
100s like him rush to cling with its ropes
He is not an insensitive father
When he throws his child on to the truck
He is desperate to save him
With all that he has
His body, his strength
And his determination to survive

IMG_4E4B0C523EC2-1* * *

Now, walk with the woman
Catching up right behind her husband
Her steps way bigger than her frame
Carrying a bag in left
And her toddler in the right arm

She left her village
To support her man
In his struggle against poverty
And it’s evil cousin of gender oppression

She gave him hope
To dream of a family
In the Eden garden of capitalist schemes

Pandemic busted their hope
And robbed her dignity overnight
Left stranded between–
a lost dream and a fading homeland
She walks on a long lifeless road
Gathering her last strength
Bearing the child, the shame
and broken hope
Ready to give every drop to her life
To her family
She is a moving home
She is a woman too!

* * *

And if you could stay a little longer
And walk beside the child for a while
Look within his innocent eyes
Wondering quietly
Why his school, his playground, his safe home
Was snatched overnight
Why do his parents choose to walk this long road
Why does his stomach hurt so much
Why he can’t ask for food
Why no one would wipe his tears

A soul unknowingly born in a world
So broken and so inhuman
Crushing his innocence with structural inequity
That you and I create and endorse every day

Their pandemic is not COVID
It’s the fragmented society, failed governance, fake capitalist dream
And heartlessness of people like us
Residing in the top slots of the pyramid
Unaware of the collapse at the bottom

— manish srivastava
from the sacred well
on sleepless night of 13th May 2020

…………………………………………………………

Photo credits:

Some more info on state of stranded migrant labourers in midst of COVID lockdown:

Some grassroots efforts supporting migrant labours and their villages:

Virus & the stories we tell

Does this virus really care
For the stories, we tell
Is it aware of its lethal spread
Or any benign side effects

Will it spare you
For your bureaucratic power
Political maneuver
Or grand religious affairs

Will, it ever feel remorse
For unfair deal, it gave to those
With more burden and suffering

Will it get any credit
For the radically reduced carbon footprints
Or the management insights generated on LinkedIn

Is the virus aware that we are already infected
By the destructive pathogens of fear, greed, and hatred
Can the virus stand its own insignificance
And bear our unprocessed projections
Does the virus know it could be an unconscious cure
for many ills, we humans cause on ourselves

Viruses are innocent
They come and go

Humans need stories
Some to scare
Some to survive

Life sits alone
On an old armchair
Always beautiful
Always fragile

 

-Manish Srivastava

(from the Sacred Well)

19.03.2020

Added on 21 March after this news:

Does the virus care for your entitlements?
Your power or status won’t help you get out of this one
Look within O Powerfuls, its a lesson in “responsibility”

Free Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Sacred Fire

As we celebrate the sacred fire of Holika Dahan, I am reminded of all the pain and conflict, our land has witnessed in the recent past. 

Rituals offer deeper meaning. Mythology is collective psychology. A sacred fire is more than the annihilation of evil King Hiranyakashyapu or celebration of faith of a divine child Prahlad.

The sacred fire is the flame of truth within each of us that longs to burn all that hold us from our true nature. Beyond our armours of race, religion, gender, or region. To rebirth us into the field “out beyond our wrongdoings and rightdoings” that great poet Rumi spoke about many years back. 

As I stand in reverence to the sacred fire of Holi, my heart opens up…

 

At the threshold of our knowing 

Between day and night 

Right and wrong 

Wild and civilized 

Swells a Sacred Fire 

 

Little flame of inner truth 

Transformed into a blast furnace 

Burning all that holds us 

From our authentic core 

Fierce and intense 

Kali’s tongue or Rudra’s breath 

Rising within each soul 

Destroying all facade 

Restoring humanity 

Healing old wounds 

 

Tonight let’s surrender 

To the sacred fire within

 

~ Manish Srivastava @poetmanish

http://www.sacredwell.in

(On sacred occasion of Holika Dahan)

 

 

Longing for Dignity

Transforming  human trafficking ecosystem

Sometimes we need to walk to the edges of our civilization to see deeper truths. Human trafficking is one such edge. It is a story of how human can reduce humanity to an object for flesh-trade.

I was ignorant and apathetic to the world of human trafficking until two leading non-profit organizations, working on anti-trafficking, invited me to facilitate a dialogue. They asked me to help them solve complex systems challenges in their field that was leading to internal ideological conflicts and impacting their collective work.

We convened a group of men and women committed to fighting against this gruesome act of humanity. At the end of the first day, we sat in a circle and shared painful stories of how young girls and boys are sold, how their innocence is manipulated, and their dignity is destroyed. As they introduced me to the dark world of human trafficking, I felt deeply sad, angry and helpless. I had no courage to facilitate a dialogue on such a painful topic. At some level, it was hard for me to relate to their complex challenges.

Honouring the FieldKali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Coincidently, the workshop was scheduled during Navratri (April 2017)– a festival where Hindu’s worship nine avatars of Goddess or Divine Feminine over nine nights. On that particular night, it was Day 7, Kalaratri pooja. I invoked the Goddess in my meditation and confessed my limitations as a man holding a conversation that related to deep dishonouring of the feminine. I asked her to help me in my role as a facilitator. Image of Kali with Shiva lying on her feet popped up with two clear insights: 1. Listen to the body (Kali doesn’t like anything heady) and 2. Surrender (as Shiva did)!

Next morning, instead of conversations, we used an embodied contemplative theatre practice called 4D Mapping to understand the social system that leads to trafficking of girls. 4D Mapping is one of the practices of Social Presencing Theatre developed by Arawana Hayashi. In this, we work with complex systems challenges, embody key stakeholders and co-create a social sculpture of current social reality. This process makes visible the hidden dimensions of the social field and generates in-depth data about the shifts that could move the whole ecosystem towards its wellbeing. Most importantly, this process required us to surrender our agenda and listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Participants played different roles representing victim girl, her family, her dignity, police system, shelter homes, anti-trafficking NGOs, the justice system and customers. As we embodied the roles and relationships between various actors, all the stories from last night and many generations, become alive. We were uncovering the primal patterns of systemic oppression: where suppressed-sexuality turns women into objects of sex; and upheld-morality fights back to give her justice. She suffers on both ends. Sacrificing her dignity and freedom. While we walk the clean streets with our pants zipped and collars upright.

Collective Resonance: 

When we sat back in a circle to reflect on what we just experienced, the whole room went in deep impregnating silence. There was an unspoken resonance vibrating through space, transforming words into tears. After a while, few spoke from their heart. Others nodded in deep acceptance.

A man who played the role of a ‘victim girl’ shared that while embodying her role, he could feel her trembling fear and pain in his body. He added that while every other player in the act were pulling or pushing the girl to justice, all that she longed for was acceptance and dignity from her family.

A woman who played the role of a ‘policeman’ shared that while playing the role, she felt exhausted and misjudged by others. All that policeman wanted was appreciation and dignity for his work.

Another woman who embodied ‘family’ found herself powerless and filled with shame. All through the exercise ‘family’ kept lying on edge away from ‘dignity’. She said, “I know the girl longs to come back, and everyone else judges me (family) for letting her go, but I have no dignity left within myself. I have no agency or power either.”

Everyone in the room, including me, cried as we embraced the fact— we all were somehow victims and contributors, unfairly stuck in this systemic suffering. And each one, irrespective of our gender, longed for acceptance and dignity.

Collective Resolution: 

Slowly our heart-felt reflections transformed into collective resolve.

A program leader opened her heart and said “I think we got it wrong from the beginning. We got so invested in our idea of justice that we turned insensitive to girls need. How different are we from the trafficking ecosystem that robs her of her dignity? We need to redefine our purpose from anti-trafficking to pro-dignity”.

A young man who works with communities and shelter homes said “I have been feeling this for long. Her dignity dies at the source: when her family sells her due to their vulnerable social-economic conditions. We should work at the source instead of trying to fix the problem after she has lost all hopes in the trafficking system”. Another leader declared: “Let’s redirect our attention and funds for bringing dignity to girls and working with their vulnerable families”.

In following days and weeks, insights were translated into new projects. Relationships between the partners has deepened and so is their collective advocacy for draft bill on anti-trafficking in India. However, there was another piece of the puzzle lying in the outer circle.

Customers & Citizens: Two sides of the same coin?

Throughout our reflective dialogue, I kept wondering about the mysterious role of the customers. How could men be so inhuman to turn a woman or a child into an object for the sex-trade? Don’t they get curious about her feelings, her fears, her helplessness?

In the paralysed stuckness of the customer, I could see wounded masculine energy that falls prey to their own repressed sexuality, and, gets stuck in corrupt game of sex, money and power.

Towards end, my attention shifted to yet another invisible role– bystanders or citizens. Those of us who are aware but choose to disengage from the dark quarters of sex-trafficking or prostitution. We do not want to get our linen dirty in this mess. We would instead write college essays on ‘legalization of prostitution’ or share WhatsApp jokes on ‘Bangkok holidays’. Aren’t we part of the social system that creates the ground for sex-trade? Haven’t we invented and upheld morality that shames sexual desires? Pushing it to shadow realms of prostitution and pornography. In that sense, how different are we form the customers who create demand and activate the human trafficking system?

We generated powerful felt-insights when we created the embodied map of the stakeholder, oppressors, rescuers and oppressed in the social system. I wondered, how we would place the feminine, masculine, child, shame, sexuality, dignity within our hearts? Who oppresses whom? What accentuates the customer? What disempowers the bystander? What is the divine within us really longing for?

Returning to the Woman within

After the workshop, I sat alone in the room, feeling the resonance of the dialogue we just had. Unresolved, I turned again to the Goddess, the divine feminine. She responded from within:

A woman is reduced to an object for sex
So you can strip her of all her dignity
And redeem yourself from your shame

A stone is turned into a revered Goddess
So you can project her dignified presence
And redeem yourself from your guilt

Where have you lost it, O civilized man?
Couldn’t you pause and feel the woman within?
She longs for dignity and your presence!

—————
This experience led me to a poetic exploration of the inner dimensions of masculinity; and it’s journey from woundedness (exploiting feminine) to wholeness (honouring feminine and healing the world); in my upcoming book “Trading Armour for a Flower: Rise of New Masculine
—————

– Manish Srivastava


Gratitude:

I am grateful to the leaders and team members of Kamonohashi Project and Save The Children India for this opportunity to learn and work with them. They are doing incredible work to transform the trafficking ecosystem. Pls, visit their website to learn more about their work and contribute to their projects.
Kamonohashi Project: https://www.en.kamonohashi-project.net 
Save The Children India: https://savethechildrenindia.org 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 2: “Grandiosity and Shame”

Café Coffee Day founder #VGSiddhartha death revealed the debt crisis in India. It also revealed an empathy crisis of the world we live in. 

Frozen TV Screen in a Cafe Coffee Day

When a self-made, socially-committed entrepreneur commits suicide, we are left with an unexplainable void. In my last blog (Death of an Entrepreneur: Our collective Blindspot), I explored how we all are becoming the part of the invisible forces, within our social ecosystem, that makes and breaks an entrepreneur.

I received many responses from other entrepreneurs, bankers, tax officers, psychologists and artist. They resonated with the blog and shared how they feel stuck and helpless in the ecosystem that accounts for the death of talented and conscious entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Some of the readers knew Siddharth personally. They shared stories of his commitment to uplift underprivileged communities, educating youth and his diligence to pay off all his debts. Yet, he ended up seeing himself a failure and killed himself.

Interestingly, some readers saw it differently. They hold Siddharth as a defaulter who took the system for granted and killed himself when questioned. They wonder how can one have empathy for those who default the system and fail their dependents. This contrast in viewpoints made me wonder why do we fail to see and feel the ecosystem that we are part of. How do we get obsessed with the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, while, the script and the scriptwriters go unnoticed?

Perhaps, how we see the world depends upon what lenses we wear. Do we tend to look narrowly at immediate parts or we look at the whole? Do we look mechanically at structural/ logical elements and externalise responsibility? Or we also look empathically at emotional/cultural dimension and take collective ownership of what happened?

This made me draw a matrix to map all response. There seem to be four distinct viewpoints:

Narrow mechanistic view (Fault-finding): Holding the entrepreneur accountable for his or her wrong decisions and lack of responsibility. From this viewpoint death of entrepreneurs like Siddharth is a result of their own mistakes and failure. They misuse the system and fail to deal with when questioned. This is similar to the patriarchal, alpha male paradigm that blames the entrepreneurs (the masculine provider) for defaulting the system and shames him for making his family or tribe suffer.

Systems mechanistic view (System-analysis): Holding the system accountable that’s victimising the entrepreneur. This viewpoint shifts attention from the individual to the whole system and analyses the structural and policy dimensions. Many business leaders and politicians have been speaking from this viewpoint, when they refer to tax-terrorism and insensitive policies by the current government.

Both the above viewpoints on left side of the matrix, are logical and persuasive. But they lack empathy. They look at the issue and try to quickly fix it by holding either the entrepreneur or the system accountable. They don’t put themselves in the situation. To understand the right side of the matrix, we need to step into shoes of the entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Something we were able to do when we created a Social Presencing Theatre based systems map (refer last blog)

Narrow empathetic view (Mental-wellbeing): Reflecting on the mental and emotional stress an entrepreneur undergoes that makes him take such drastic step. Those holding this viewpoint empathise with Siddharth and call upon other entrepreneurs to take care of their mental well-being. They advocate that entrepreneurs must have close friends and professional support to help them through these situations. 

Holistic empathic view (Co-sensing and transforming the ecosystem): Reflecting not only on the emotional struggles of the entrepreneur but the larger field that co-creating the suffering. Those holding this perspective are like gardeners who go beyond sympathising with the dying plant and attend to the whole ecosystem. They feel the collective pain and reflect on their own role in co-creating the mess.

The holistic empathic view reminds of something my teacher and systems thinking guru Peter Senge told me ten years back.

“You cannot change a system unless you see your thumbprint (role) in creating it”.

This quote changed my perspective in life. Unless we see how we are creating the current state of suffering, we will only remain helpless victims of the same. And victims have no power to change the system anyways. From a holistic systemic viewpoint, we all are interconnected. We can see how we are co-creators of the capitalist economy that creates, exploits and kills entrepreneurs like Siddharth.

As investors, we are only invested in higher returns on the capital we invest in. We create pressure on enterprises to take the risk and return higher dividends. We don’t care anything about sustainable practices of the enterprise or well-being of the entrepreneur. Together with banking system, we have co-created a short-term, individualistic growth culture cares little for people or planet.

As the government, we want to control and claim higher taxes. We citizen elect governments and become part of the impersonal machinery that puts undue pressure on entrepreneurs. I recall how voters celebrated the demonetisation and GST policies while so many small scale entrepreneurs struggled to survive. It was painful to see an entrepreneur friend of mine breaking down financially and emotionally during that period. 

As employees of these enterprises and banks, we want job stability, salary raise and secure lifestyle. We don’t know the risks and burden an entrepreneur takes to feed his enterprise. As family and friends, we often want the status quo of lifestyle to continue. Praising the patriarch and never letting him off the hook. As a community, we shame and blame if they fail their role as providers. Makes it difficult for entrepreneurs like Siddharth to retreat, surrender or restart.

As a society, media and consumers, we have co-created a narrative of “grandiosity and shame”. We feed on rag-to-riches, alpha, hero stories. We inspire our youth to think big, dream big, and leap beyond their own bearings. We have created systems that seduce them do so through low-risk loans, venture capital and so on. 

We first feed them to the “grandiose” narrative. A few may succeed, temporarily. Sooner or later they fail. Then we trigger the “shame” narrative. Shaming them for failing the system, the family, the community, their own image. Some sneak away unceremoniously out of the limelight. Some bear it all and commit suicide.

 

Something in this story reminds me of the 2017 biopic “The Mercy“. It is a real-life story of a  businessman, Donald Crowhurst, from the United Kingdom. He had a beautiful family and a decent lifestyle inspite of his struggling business. He got seduced by the grandiosity narrative and, in spite of being an amateur sailor, he applied for the Golden Globe Race to sail solo around the world without any stop. Media made him an instant hero. Investors put their money to help him build a new boat. Rest of us projected our unlived hero dream on his frail shoulders. A few weeks before his journey he realised that he has bitten more than he could chew. As a technologist, he was certain that his new boat would fail. Yet the media refused to listen, investors got hold of his house mortgage, everyone put pressure on him, and he, himself, could not fail his family. And so he went on the expedition. Though he sailed half way around the world, impressive for an amateur, he could not return as a failure and face the shame. He jumped in the sea and committed suicide. When the news of his suicide reached his wife and children, media surrounded their house, hurling insults and demeaning him. At one point his wife opened the door and said

“I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell, or if he jumped… as you’re now saying. But I would like you to rest assured, that if he did jump, he was pushed. And each and every one of you here had a grubby hand on his back. Every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a newsstand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement.

Last week you were selling hope, now you’re selling blame. Next week you’ll be selling something else.

But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father. And I will still need my husband.”

 

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

——————-

Gratitude & Dedication:

I was inspired to write Part 2 of this blog by Shamnad Basheer. A spirited soul, a legal academician, social entrepreneur and innovator. I had met him and fourteen other inspiring legal professionals at a gathering in Kerela organised by Agami last month (some of work is reflect in Part 1 of this blog). 3 weeks back, Shamnad was travelling in the region where V.G.Siddhartha came from and shared inspiring stories encouraging me and others to “step beyond atomistic thinking and reconnect with the whole we are part of”. Unfortunately, Shamnad died in an accident on way back from Chikamangaluru on 8th Aug 2019. In a short span of few weeks, he inspired me to keep activating the ecosystem of goodness. Unfortunately, he is not here to read this piece. 

~Manish

 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 1: “Our Collective Blindspot”

When a plant dies, the gardener does not blame the plant. He checks the soil, water, sunlight, in short, the ecosystem that helps a plant nourish or perish.

VG Siddhartha, the founder of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD), committed suicide. He has been known as role-model, self-made, successful business entrepreneur. Industry leaders remember him for his sincerity, dedication, and commitment to social upliftment. CCD grew rapidly and became a brand known as Starbucks of India. Newspapers say that he was under heavy debt and broke down from continuous harassment from government and banks. Three days back, he went missing and left a letter on social media. The letter reflects his good intention and his breakdown to the institutional pressures.

Maybe there is more to the business story that we will know in days to come. Right now, as a social witness, I am saddened to see a life gone. Like many entrepreneurs of the capitalist economic system, he took too many risks, grew too fast and collapsed.  We can blame him for impractical decisions and being too aspirational. He blamed himself for the same and took away his life. I wonder why he did not use his political connections and flee the country like many others. Maybe he was too thin-skinned to not take responsibility for his actions. But wait a minute. Is he the only one to be blamed for what happened? Is he the only one failed in this story? 

Coincidently, two weeks back, I was working with a group of social entrepreneurs and innovators from the legal field. They were convened by Agami to reflect on how we could transform the current legal system in India. One of the cases we worked with was about “how Alternative Dispute Resolution could help financial institutions resolve disputes with loan defaulters?”. 

We used Social Presencing Theatre (SPT), a contemplative social art practice, that helps in making visible the hidden dimensions of our current systems challenges. After understanding the complexity of our challenge we identified key stakeholders and co-created a social sculpture (a systems map) representing how these stakeholders are stuck in the current reality.

Our systems map had two main players— “the bank” and “defaulters”, who were influenced by other stakeholders including lawyers, the justice system, financial institutions, family etc. While we mapped the inter-relational dimensions of the legal system around the bank and defaulters, the map also illuminated the systems blindspot— the powerful financial system that produces and promotes capitalist web and punishes when one falls out of it. Somehow the players representing “finance system”, including government & investors, remained almost invisible to other players. They were powerful and kept controlling others indirectly, while the rest of the system struggled to work with the stuck between demanding bank and struggling defaulter. This made us wonder— who creates the defaulter in the first place? 

In the case of CCD, VG Siddhartha was the good-hearted “defaulter”. He was created and destroyed by the crony capitalist systems that we are part of. Unfortunately, we have co-created a capitalist economic system that thrives on rapid growth and risk-taking of individuals like Siddharth. And when they struggle, we call them as “defaulters” and suck every ounce of spirit till they drop dead.

We all are part of this system. We don’t think twice before demanding high dividends from our shares invested in these corporations. We want our coffees and products cheap and of high quality. We, just like those impersonal banks and demanding tax authorities, are least invested in the success or failure of the one who is creating value for us.

No loan-seeker goes to banks intending to become a defaulter one day. No bank professional wakes up intending to harass an entrepreneur. We all are equally stuck in same system. We need to ask— what are the deeper systems that are promoting the values of unchecked growth that leads an entrepreneur to a point where they have no option but to fail or flee? A change at that level would ask us to step beyond our current sectoral role into larger systems transformation role. Something that is much more complex, collaborative and necessary.

Afterthought: (added on Aug 3, 2019, after a conversation with few friends): While entrepreneurs and bankers are obvious stuck players in this situation, there are powerful, impersonal Invisibles. This includes demanding investors, regulating government and mindless consumers. All demanding higher returns, seeking higher control and extracting higher value. None of them cares for the well-being of the entrepreneur. They need “more” and are “happy” as long as the business entrepreneur serves their demands. Together they promote and control the ego-driven, limit-less growth paradigm that seduces, creates, exploits and kills an entrepreneur.

We weave the carpet for our heroes to rise
We set up the guillotine for them to be sacrificed
While the higher throne remains unchallenged and smiles
Who needs a warrior once the kingdom survives!

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

 

Gratitude:

I am grateful to the Agami team including Supriya, Keerthana, Artika and my co-conspirator, Sonali Ojha.  In these moments of sadness, Agami brings hope by gathering 15 path-breaking young social innovators who are committed to transforming legal ecosystem in India. The pictures above show them in action— mapping the ecosystem by activating the wisdom of the social field. 

Indian Leadership Crisis- a compromise of conscience!

This election is a political manthan (churning) that has surfaced a deep leadership crisis in India.

In their race for power the current political leaders have shown their worst— ego-centric, manipulative, self-obsessed leadership that exploits emotions, religion, defence and public institutions on name of stability and victory. They hide development failures behind war, religion or caste rhetoric. Is this the leadership we want, to govern our country? 

When questioned, all the logical supporters come with only one consistent argument— “we don’t have any other option!” 

It’s like saying— let’s keep feeding on slow poison cause we don’t have any other healthy option. Or keep burning fossil fuels and poisoning our air cause we don’t have any viable option.

Fair enough, the only other strong political opponents come with their share of corrupt history. They lack credibility or gravity demanded by a large democracy like ours. Then there are those who are neither corrupt nor inefficient. They have demonstrated development results in their constituency but they are small players and relatively inexperienced to manage complex national politics. 

Where does this lead us to?

A compromise. 

Not just for a political leader but a compromise of our own voice, values and conscience. 

“We don’t have another option”— is not a narrative of choice. It’s a narrative of a victim. It’s a narrative carefully created by those in power by ridiculing the opposition to hide their exploitation. 

“We don’t have another option” is a political game and it not true for those who design it. A political party has a choice about whom they give tickets to contest elections. The party chief endorses that choice. He gives sanction to that kind of leadership. Now think of all morally-corrupt, hate-promoting, criminal choices that the party chiefs have sanctioned. It’s the kind of leadership he stands for. He could have said “no” and stood his ground. It’s a choice he has made and it’s the choice we are making if we don’t see the game we are being fed to. 

If you discover that the class teacher and other staff in your kid’s school are corrupt, incompetent and abusive, what would you do? Will you hold the Principal and Management accountable or keep singing Principal’s praise and ignore the mess that he is creating? Will a good speech by the celebrated Principal, about how the school won lost pride in last football tournament, and, how they are better than previous management, cover up for their lack of focus on what matters— quality education for your child? What if you raised the issue and the Principal and staff called you anti-education, anti-national and hinderance to their leadership? If all this happened to our own kids in a school, wouldn’t we hold the school leader accountable for results and for those they give power to? Will telling our kids that “we don’t have better option” be enough? 

 

Seeing the binary game of compromise

We are forced to choose between corruption of resources and corruption of character. One threatens our development by exploiting public resources. Other threatens our democracy by dividing us on basis of religion, caste and nationalism. At one end we argue against re-distributing wealth to the poor as freebies. While on the other, we don’t mind the politician-capitalist-nexus that gives free access to a few capitalists to exploit our resources and control our lives.

Stuck in this binary narrative we end up choosing political leaders half-hearted (conscious compromise) or devoted (unconscious compromise). “This leader is our best option” (devotion/ bhakt narrative) is another way of saying “we don’t have any other option” (adjustment narrative). Either way it’s a compromise. It only serves the power-accumulator, weakens opposition, shuts the dissent, kills creativity, threatens democracy and divides a community into a binary of staunch-supporters-vs-anti-nationals. 

Why do we get stuck in this game of limited choice? Why we loose the capacity to see the grey? And courage to be vulnerable about our limitations? Why do we end up giving all our power to a few leaders and feel helpless about our own destiny? 

We are in middle of deep leadership crisis. And we can’t overcome it unless we learn to see thru the game and call out the corruption of either kind. We may have limited choice about political parties but we do have choice about what political narrative we buy. We can choose our own leadership as citizens and hold our political leaders accountable. 

 

We need a new leadership narrative 

I recall the community leadership development work I was doing in tribal villages of Melghat. We were inviting community leaders to step forward. When I translated “leader” to “neta” in Hindi, everyone in the room stepped back. I learnt that we see “neta” as someone who is corrupt, ego-centered, exploiting and even criminal. When I tried give examples of Gandhi or Bose, they appeared too idealistic for our current times. The current examples of political leaders only inspired youth to accumulate power, show might and eradicate other religions and nations. There was no way people could relate “public leaders” to community based service. This is worrisome. This leaves a void for corrupts to exploit. This is the way current leaders make corruption, power-hoarding and communalism a new normal. 

Our country needs a new leadership narrative. A narrative where political leadership honours humanity beyond communal or caste divides, pursues development before nationalist politics, and, puts community service ahead of their political aspirations. We need leaders who are honest about their limitations and collaborate with people across societal divides or ideologies to create policies that benefit all. We need leaders who are vulnerable enough to admits their mistakes, courageous enough to invite and listen to opposition and critics, and humble enough to give credit to people who make change happen. 

We need leadership that stands on moral grounds and can say No to their own party when greed or power overtakes; who can take full accountability of their position including the ones they select to lead and the mishaps that take place in their command. 

We as citizens need to redefine what kind of leaders we want. We need to start now. Name the leadership qualities or practices that we want and what we are not okay with. Voting is only a beginning. Naming, developing and holding self and other accountable is a long-term daily work. 

We Indian are natives of one of the richest, wisest and oldest society. We have capacity to hold diversity and dissent as part of our pluralist, wise tradition. We are way more than the reduced, binary, either-or narrative that our leaders are dividing us into.  This election is a manthan of a new kind. Along with its poisonous painful patterns, its has also surfaced some divine amrut (elixir). Perhaps, it’s a call for seeing active citizenship as powerful as the leaders we choose. We need to role-model the public leadership we seek in at the centre.

 

~ Manish Srivastava

PS: My intent here is not just to notice the deeper games we play (irrespective of our side) but also to turn this crisis into an opportunity. What if we could co-create a new leadership narrative? What if we start role-modelling and holding our leaders accountable for the same? If you feel the frustration, compromise or apathy like many others, I invite you to name the shift in political leadership qualities you want to see & live with #callfornewleadership in comment. A journey of thousand steps starts with first.

(from the Sacred Well)

 

Related earlier articles:

 

Decolonizing the Collective Wisdom of our Bodies

Decolonizing the Collective Wisdom of our Bodies

Noticing the power game of knowledge that disempowers our embodied wisdom.

Around 2600 years back, Buddha differentiated between knowledge that’s downloaded from external authority and real knowledge that emerges from felt-experience of the body (Pragya or Pratyaksh Gyan). He urged us to go for latter. And yet, we did just the opposite. 

If we pay attention to the relationship between our mind and body, we will see that most of the time, our mind controls, exploits and uses our body to meet its ego needs. We get so obsessed with ideals of progress that we disempower the innate wisdom and needs of our body. All our life-style diseases, depression and anxiety are result of years of slavery that our mind subjected our bodies to. 

This is the way our mind colonises the body. 

And this is how powerful social actors (intellectual authority) colonise the free agency and wisdom of the collectives (social body). 

Those located on the top of economic pyramid, colonise knowledge to dictate and control our experiences & identity. It’s true not just for profit-seeking corporations and media houses, but also altruistic policy makers, development agencies or academic institutions. They often come from historically powerful countries and privileged contexts, proclaim their intellectual or moral authority, intervene in less-privileged worlds, dictate their frameworks (often sourced from native wisdom), sell their knowledge products, protect their copyrights, ignore the wisdom of natives and walk back with their royalties or righteousness. 

As an Indian working in western context, I have been aware of the knowledge-colonisation of west and pained to see their entitled arrogance. However, what shocked me most was how I ended up playing this game. 

Five years back, SSP India, a leading social enterprise working on women empowerment, invited me to design a leadership development program for their grassroots women leaders. Some of their enterprise staff were fascinated by my experience with societal transformation leadership frameworks developed at MIT & Harvard and its application across business and development sectors. I felt excited to bring the new global transformation processes to grassroots in India. Some of my colleagues even envisioned a new case-study coming from this project to demonstrate the power of our work. 

However, every time we tried to work together something was missing. I realised that the western frameworks that I was bringing were not resonating with the felt experience of grassroots women’s empowerment journey. I was touched to see them struggling to fit their narratives in the lens I was providing, while I was busy proving them lesser and preparing their development plans. Their love and faith broke my heart. It made me aware of my privileges and blindspots as a western-trained-Indian-man. 

At one stage, I surrendered, admitting that, I really don’t have anything that truly honours their journey. That’s when few women offered to help me. They shared their story about how they gathered as a collective, negotiated power with village men and local government, co-created innovative prototypes and transformed their village cropping pattern. They not only reversed the water table but brought farmer suicides to zero in a draught-hit region. 

This experience revealed to me, the power and embodied wisdom hidden in the grassroots. I was able to access it only when my concepts, ideas and frameworks failed. And when, I accessed the helplessness and brokenness within my own body.

As my role transformed from teacher/ facilitator to a witness/ celebrator of their native wisdom, I felt ease and aliveness in my own body.

Later, while practicing Social Presencing Theater, a contemplative embodiment practice, I started seeing deeper connections between how we disempower our bodies and how social elite or think-tanks disempower the wisdom of collectives. 

It felt like a vicious circle that works both ways. When our mind is disconnected from felt-experience of our body, we have little sensitivity to what others feel. This lack of empathy, disconnects us from the social body. We feel lonely and vulnerable to the institutional narratives of hatred, greed, fear and helplessness.

On the other hand, when those in power, assume that they have better solutions than the native wisdom of communities, they end up promoting their thought leadership (ego-power) inspite of their altruistic persona. Their framework becomes their only lens and creates ego-reinforcing bubble. Making them disconnected from their own and the collective body wisdom. 

However, when we start honouring the felt-experience of our body, as Buddha invited us to, we stay closer to truth. We are not seduced by ego and fear based narratives. We develop courage to call the colony over and return to the fields where we belong. 

Decolonizing is a courageous act to give power back to where it belongs. At personal level it is our own body and at societal level it is collectives of natives and grassroots. It requires us to let-go our agendas, concepts, frameworks, even save-the-world narratives. It’s an invitation to feel vulnerable, helpless and look into our inner power-game. It calls for developing deeper capacities of mindfulness, acceptance & honouring.

Imagine if we could truly listen and honour the wisdom of our personal, social and earth body, what a beautiful world would that be? 

Manish Srivastava

from the Sacred Well
(17.04.2019)

I am grateful to:

  • Anil Kulkarni for graciously offering his picture from “Stuck” exercise during Future Field Studio
  • Arawana Hayashi for introducing me to contemplative and movement based practices and SPT community for creating such deep reflection spaces.
  • Sonali Gera for reading and advising on first draft of this blog

 

Anatomy of an emotional storm

A Million Small Irritations

Build together into a cloud of resentment
Unspoken, they multiplied
Floating aimlessly, creating restlessness
Blurring the vision, blocking the light
Till one day, they precipitated
Altogether, at one point, one place, one person
Outburst!!!

A storm ended
Leaving disaster- an uncalled for silence
Neither the sky nor the earth
Neither the rain nor the drenched
Neither the oppressor nor the oppressed
Knows— why this happened?
They were just tools
The parts that played on behalf of

A million small irritations
Who are you?
Little deviations from my idea of how the world ought to be
Little disconnects in values
Little voids of needs unmet
Little thought of anger, hatred, violence

A million small irritations
Where do you come from?
Out beyond my personal journaling
Floating free in the sky
Having power and potent to precipitate
On me or others
Through me or through others
Leaving us both helpless creators of emotional storms

Oh, how I wish to be an autumn tree!

Manish Srivastava

This poem was published in the book Trading Armour for a Flower

Subtle violence of new year resolutions

And an invitation to experiment another approach!

New years often begin with setting goals & revisiting visions. Sometimes it is like repainting the walls to hide cracks of an old building. New goals help in overcoming guilt of the unmet old lot. New visions create temporary high necessary to forget the unrealistic pain created in pursuit of last year’s rhetoric.

Corporate culture has taught us to set stretch targets that would lead to creative tension and push us to achieve more.

Now read the last sentence again. Do you feel the pain and subtle violence in that?

Often goal-setting and visioning starts with discontent with our current reality. Be it an increasing waist line or declining profit margin. In some cases it’s reframed as love. Like “this year I will spend more time with family”. Every “more” has an unacceptable “less” that sets us up on a war against self. An illusory new self will wake up at 4 am, run a marathon, save every nickel and so on… to liberate the not-so-good old self.

That’s the story of most new year resolutions. Most wars fade away as we exhaust our resources. Only a few survive the first month.

What if there is another way to pursue what we most long for?

What if, we could start our new year with full acceptance of our current reality. We could say to ourselves… “Well, right now I am here and that’s great!”. Even in most gruesome life conditions there is something to celebrate. There is breath and there is hope.

We could end the old year with gratitude for the many gifts that life has given us— failures with lessons, relapses with messages, successes with struggles and so on.

And we stay in the space of acceptance & gratitude for a while… without planning a different reality. We stay in the richness of now. We see it fully— the hidden beauty. We witness our struggle, pain, regrets and we embrace them as part of being human.

Radical acceptance of the now is not a passive surrender to an old pattern. It is a deep acknowledgement of the whole being. It’s courage of a warrior to see life as it turned out to be, without judgements. It’s confidence of a sailor to stand and witness the massive tide in silence before adjusting the sail and riding the next wave. It takes wisdom and humour of a sage to chuckle and accept the mess. A child could do it with ease.

How do we overcome our current patterns and strive for a better future?

We can’t stay in the current reality even if we want to. Striving is a problem though. It’s a recent human construct. Nature never strives. It only evolves towards holistic wellbeing. Human striving is driven by our ego-need and messes up with nature.

I am therefore proposing to myself and my readers an alternate way to evolve. Like nature does. And children too.

Practicing radical acceptance of current reality gives way to a new future.

By following our evolutionary impulse we learn to ride the wave to our next stage of well-being. I have learnt this from contemplative movement practice called Social Presencing Theatre. Let’s try it now.

If you stay in your chair (or whatever posture you are in while reading this blog) and drop all agendas for a while, your body will first come to rest. As you tune in your awareness to your resting body, after a while, something, some part of your body, would move. Slowly taking you to next stage of wellbeing. Be it stretching, contracting, standing, walking, dancing… it’s all beautiful and you don’t have to plan or strive for that.

Let’s take this embodied wisdom to all aspects of life. Here’s the experiment I propose:

Step 1, drop all agendas and fully accept the current reality of where you are with the particular life context— health, relationship, profession, spiritual. Feel the joys and struggles in your body. Let all judgements and ambitions drop away. Be a witness to your own drama of life. Appreciate it’s beauty and ordinariness. Stay with it as long as you would.

Step 2, pay attention to the micro movements. Somewhere in your body or consciousness or life context, you may feel an impulse. Something that would tell you to move, take a baby step, toward the emerging future. It could be an urge to wear dusty running shoes, make an unplanned call, cook a healthier meal, take a walk in an unknown street, confess it all in an open journal or whatever. Follow it. Just do it fully and without any expectations. Feel your body as you do so.

Step 3, go back to Step 1. Before mind seduces you into planning next thing, take a short break. Be still again. Be the witness to this new reality of yours. Having followed your first natural impulse, how does it feel now? Accept this moment fully. Appreciate it’s beauty. And wait… till you get the next impulse.

Sometimes you nudge a little to let it happen. Like a trekker taking baby steps, aware but detached to the mighty cliff. Or a painter making brush strokes in oblivious anticipation of what may come.

This approach may sound counterintuitive to some. Instead of big goals and painful schedules, what-if, we follow the next natural impulse. And then the next and next… with stillness, acceptance and appreciation of wherever we are in-between.

Let your body, your relationships, your work, find its own rhythm. With no promises to keep except a deep commitment to love self and naturally evolve every moment!

Wish you a beautiful new year!

Manish Srivastava

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PS: Re-starting this blog this year, to reflect on what’s evolving within me and my social context, is my evolutionary impulse. Let’s see where it goes. Please keep tuned in by entering your email address in the follow tab on http://www.sacredwell.in

You can also like my Facebook page for regular updates https://m.facebook.com/sacredwell.in/?ref=bookmarks

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Gratitude:

I am grateful to Sonali Gera for being first reader and editor to this post. Also to http://www.futurefieldatudio.com for inspiring the artwork.

Why is it hard to forgive? (Part 2)

WIP (Manish)Four self-protective mechanisms that never let us heal !

My last blog on the above topic resonated with many readers. Some of you shared deep insights on “forgiveness” from your life experiences. From your comments, I have summarised four main themes about what keeps us stuck in our emotional wounds.

 

Illusion of forgetting
Forgetting is not forgiving. It’s only a quick fix that keeps us way from real healing 

Imagine a thorn pierced your bare foot. It’s so painful that you didn’t want to touch it. You stopped walking that path and swore to never see that thorny bush again. That’s forgetting. However, a part of the thorn still lives in you and every time you walk, it hurts.

Forgiving, on the otherhand, is coming to terms with the reality. Developing courage to look at the wound directly.  Pulling out the part of the thorn that does not belong to you. Healing what’s yours. Keeping the lesson. And, developing courage to walk the path again if you chose to.

When in pain our first reaction is to protect ourselves and so we tend to cut-off the relationship or situation that we associate pain with. Forgetting is like taking a painkiller to survive the night. Suppressing pain makes sense when it’s unbearable. However, our attempts to cut off or forget makes pain unpredictable and chronic. The real root cause never gets addressed. And the pain surfaces again and again in other life situations and relationships.

Novelist Paulo Coelho captures this difference while saying “Forgive but do not forget, or you will be hurt again. Forgiving changes the perspectives. Forgetting loses the lesson.”

Prison of stories
We are hurt not cause of what happened but the stories that we tell ourselves about the same.

Lets look at our most unforgivable wounds. What hurts us now is not the incident itself. It’s the memory of what happened. When we feel violated or wronged, we weave a story. We tell this story of our own pain, shame, blame & victimhood to ourselves again and again. Its like rubbling salt to keep the wound fresh. Why do we do that? 

Transactional Analysis defines such behaviour as “rackets” we get stuck in. If we examine deeply, we are stuck cause there is an illusionary pay-off and a hidden cost to our persistent stories of pain. We often repeat these stories cause we believe that it may help us feel justified or righteous about our victimhood. Or it may protect us from future insults. Whatever our payoff is, it’s illusionary. It would never heal us. The cost of living in pain is way too high as compared to justification about that pain 

What happened is as unpredictable as what would happen. Each actor in our play had his or her own story. Any attempt to figure out who is right or wrong is a zero-sum game. Forgiveness is letting go the story we tell ourself about our suffering.

After 27 years of unjust imprisonment, Nelson Mandela exemplified the act of forgiveness in his quote— “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Myth of resolution 
We can wait for life-time to seek resolution for our hurts or find another way to unleash their creative purpose  

As we heal our wounds thru forgiveness, deeper ones may surface. Some go back to childhood. Some pre-verbal. Some come from the collective suffering, from many lifetimes of disrespect and violence. When such a deep void opens what do we do? How do we forgive when the perpetrators are long gone or incapable of any confrontation or reconciliation? And what do we do with those arrows that have become part of your tissue? 

My friend Rie Gilsdorf made a great suggestion on Facebook post referring to the book, My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakim. She said “when the arrow is so deeply embedded and enmeshed in scar tissue, there’s no way to pull it out any more. But perhaps we can digest it, dissolve or catabolize it with an accompanying release of stored energy”

I feel she pointed out to what I now call “radical acceptance”. Radical acceptance is as simple as innocence of a child and as sophisticated as spiritual mastery. It may take us lifetime to embody it or it may happen in an instant without any training whatsoever. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, could be that simple and easy. It is the act of  gathering all our courage and saying “Whatever happened, happened. I know I can’t change the past. However I choose to influence the future. I fully embrace the current reality, with its incompletions, pain and hope. My past alongwith it’s joys and sufferings is my gift. It’s a part of who I am. I embrace it with gratitude and I step forward with confidence.” 

Sometimes resolution is not an apt solution. We seek deeper resolution and integration within. Psychologist Carl Jung reflected on the importance of integrating for our own development. “Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries”. 

Hidden purpose of wounds
Wound are an invitation to step into higher spiritual realm and unlock our creative energy  

Imagine that the jewel you were looking for all your life was delivered as a dagger pierced in your heart. What would you do now? Walk with pain and curse the messenger or thank them for the dagger and heal your wound?

In Sita Ramayana, Devdutt Patnayak writes about a lesser told story from the famous epic Ramayana. Royal maid servant, Manthara had influenced Queen Kaikeyi’s to ask King Dashrath (Ram’s father) to send Ram on exile. Everyone hated Manthara for corrupting Kaikeyi and bringing grave misfortune to Ram. When Ram discovered that what did he do? He met Manthara and forgave her. Ram could see the divine purpose for which he was born. He could see that Mathara had only done a divine error to enable his path. He accepted that and moved on.

Now that’s mythology not our daily life. However, we do have little Ram and little Manthara living within us. We do have deep power to forgive and wisdom to see the divine path we are born for.  It’s important to understand that emotional pain is a doorway to our spiritual growth. The unforgivable “other” has showed up in our life in a particular way to help us deal with some aspects of our own mess. In a mystical way they hold a piece of the puzzle that we long for our own liberation.

Forgiving requires courage– to look within our wound, to reframe our pain as our teacher, to rise beyond transactional field of right or wrong and embrace that grand play that we are all part of. 800 years back Rumi noticed that field— “Out beyond our ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.. I will meet you there”

….

I am grateful to my readers and their contributions. It’s helping me (and hopefully all of us) in deepening our practice of forgiveness. 

Wishing you a wonderful new year 2019

Cheers 

Manish Srivastava 
(Artwork by Manish Srivastava)
http://www.sacredwell.in

Why is it so hard to forgive? (Part 1)

There are hurts that could rob us from our deepest power!

I started this year with a blog on forgiveness. It initiated me into an inner journey that made me confront some deeply frozen parts of my heart. I could not publish much through the year. As we reach the end of 2018, “forgiveness” has become a recurring theme again with reminders coming from the universe at an alarming consistency. The two recent ones — a video by holocaust survivor Eva Moses Kor and an insightful summary of Anne Lamont writings by Maria Popova, made me contemplate deeply on “Why is it so hard to forgive?”

There are hurts that are hard to comprehend. The sharp arrows that enter our castle before the defences were given a chance to stand for their honour. Those sophisticated insults wrapped in culture of neo-elites or seasoned patriarchs. The games played with our innocence. Those are hardest to forgive.

How shall we confront? It’s too old. Context has transformed to the extent that the oppressor looks more fragile than the oppressed. Inspite of re-building years of confidence and power that old arrow still lies frozen in some unhealed part of our heart. Why did we not let it go with other scrap sold at the end of each year?

Why do we keep these hurts alive? For logically we know that it serves none. Except, perhaps, a part of us that cries — “it was not right!”.

A big part of our anger is towards self for not being able to stand against that wrong. And somewhere we fear that if we let-go of that arrow we may make them appear right for all they did.

So the arrow persists with its wound and pain. Wish there was a way to let-go the old arrow. May be, turn it into an artefact, return it to the shooter as a gift or make it a part of wind chime hanging on the neem tree next to the village well…

Wonder, what would the world be if that unhealed part of us discovers, that neither the oppressor nor the oppressed was right or wrong. May be, the arrow went both ways. The shooter bled way more than the wounded all these years. Though knowing that won’t heal or change anything either.

May be, it was all part of a grand design weaved for our own liberation. And while redeeming that wrong seem to be the only right choice, there may be another purpose this pain was born for. To help us reclaim our deepest power — — power to forgive!

As Eva says in her video “I have the power to forgive. No one could give me that power. No one could take it away. It was all mine to use in anyway I want”.

As we reach end of the year, I hope we make a humble beginning by letting-go old, deep arrows and healing our wounds. For “forgiveness” also comes from the same origin as ‘give’ or ‘gift’. This Christmas and coming new year, why not we gift ourselves, our dear-ones & our shooters, a gift of forgiveness!

Wish you a free and happy 2019!

Manish Srivastava
http://www.sacredwell.in
(Artwork by Manish Srivastava)

Forgiveness- an old mantra to create new possibilities for coming year! 

Threshold of the new year is an invitation for us to reflect on the passing year and make a new start for the coming. Today’s cover page article on “Forgiveness” in the Pune Mirror brought a refreshing perspective on forgiveness as a way to dissolve our old hurts, angst and helplessness, and, create new possibilities in the coming year. It made me contemplate on what forgiveness means to me.

 

What is forgiveness, really?

Forgiveness is a magical mantra that can
Dissolve eons of hurt
In an instance

Forgiveness is an ancient wisdom
that healed broken hearts; restored sanity
And weaved the quilt to keep our children warm

Forgiveness is a paradox that’s simultaneously
Selfish— serving the deep individual need to be free
And selfless— opening our hearts to others vulnerability

Forgiveness is a choice that refreshes the earth,
Soft, tilled, black soil
Ready for rebirth

Forgiveness is the only way a victim is
Liberated from the prison of lifelong misery
Riding the wings of grace and compassion

Forgiveness is where the anger of past
And the fear of future dissolves in
The present moment

You and I are mere parts
In the grand play
Now relaxing in the script we never wrote

 

How do I forgive in true sense?

True forgiveness is not a transaction triggered by an apology
Sometimes, eyelids are more expressive than lips
Silence has more sorrow than “sorrys”
Regrets are realisations too fine for linguistics
Then why do we get stuck?
Waiting forever for a well articulated confession

Forgiveness is an inner journey that starts only when
A soul sees the self-destructive pay-off of nurturing hurt
Pointless power game of victimhood
And disproportionate suffering on behalf of a collective
that we have little or no memory of

Forgiveness is a calling for
The courage of Rama,
Fierceness of Shiva,
Grace of Shakti
And innocence of a butterfly

It is a radical simplicity—
of seeing yourself mirrored in the others
Acknowledging the broken humanness
Dropping the sword of vengeance
Becoming the Sovereign
And embracing the wounded heart!

 

Where do I begin? 

Oh my bleeding heart!
How deeply I long to forgive
Most of all, my own self!
For failing to stand for my innocence

All those faces, I love to despise
Hold a piece of my broken heart
Standing in a hesitant circle around me
Hoping to return what’s truly mine

As the year ends
I restore the lost pieces of my heart
Sitting alone with my brokenness
Letting others dissolve within

For the old soul taught us
“Wound is where the light enters…”

 

 

 

 

 

Wish you a wonderful new year!

Manish Srivastava
The Sacred Well

December 31st 2017

[Poetry & Pictures by Manish Srivastava]

……………………….

Afterthought:

5 questions that helped me in practicing forgiveness and freeing my inner power: 

[I am a practitioner and a poet. I need to integrate the insights in my practice. So, I reflected on 5 questions to help me release old hurts from 2017 and stepping in 2018 with new energy. Adding them below, in case, the practitioner-in-you longs to take similar journey]

  1. HURT: This year, what were the moments when I felt most angered, hurt, helpless or victimised? By whom and when?
  2. MY NEEDS: What needs/values of mine were most compromised? What are my regrets from self?
  3. OTHER’S VULNERABILITY: What might be the helplessness/stuckness/ fears that others might have experienced that made them behave the way they did?
  4. LET-GO: What is the burden (hurt, emotions, old story, memory etc) that I do not wish to carry anymore? What I am ready to let-go off now?
  5. HONOUR: How can I truly honour my deep needs/ values myself in future? What learning, resources, strengths I have gathered in all these year(s) to honour myself?

Divide and rule

(A reflection on current political environment in India and world. Poetry in Hindi followed by translation in English)

Divide and rule
इतना विदेशी नहीं 
जितना बताया गया 
धर्म और जाति के नाम पर 
इंसानियत बाँटने वाले 
आज भी सत्ता पर विराजमान हो रहे हैं 

Invitation card
पर किसी और का नाम है 
और अंदर कोई और मेज़बान है 
सत्ता का खेल है भाई 
कल तू देश से खेला 
तो आज मेरा एक प्रांत तो बनता है 

Nationalism
के नाम पर कितना खेलोगे भाई? 
आज इतना समझ आने लगा– 
नेताओं का nation जनता से अलग होता है 
उनकी परिभाषा में तो 

हम बस उनकी सत्ता और स्वार्थ के ग़ुलाम हैं 
पर ना जाने कब ये मदहोश जनता समझेगी 
Nationalism एक national-illusion है! 
जनता के अनजान डर पर पनपता
ये उसी “divide & rule” का वंशज है
और इंसानियत को बाँटने वाले -isms का बड़ा भाई

यदि दिल की खिड़की खोल के देखें 
धर्म के जड़ों को झँझोड़ के देखें
सम्प्रदाय के बेड़ों को चंद पलों के लिए तोड़ के देखें
और तकिए के नीचे से सत्य का पन्ना पलट के देखें
तो एहसास होगा कि हर लिबास के पीछे मैं हूँ
और समाज का विभाग कर के राज करने वाले खेल का 
सबसे बेख़बर मुहरा और सबसे बड़ी मात भी मैं ही हूँ 

— दिल की गहराइयों में क़ैद एक आवाज़ 
………………

Divide and rule
(English translation)

“Divide and rule” 
Is not that foreign 
As we are taught
Those who divide humanity
On name of religion and caste
Are still rising to power 

Who invites us to the show
Is way different from who rules 
So is the game of power 
Yesterday, you played the nation 
Dare not stop me from playing this faction 

Nationalism 
How long will you play this chord?
We can see now–
Nation defined by political leaders 
Is different from the ones they serve 
In their definition, 
Their ego & power is the center 
And we are their dumb slaves 

Wonder, when will we the intoxicated people realise 
Nationalism is a national-illusion
Thriving on the unknown fear of its people
Running the bloodline of same old “divide & rule” 
It is the big brother of all other “isms” that fragment humanity 

If we open our hearts 
Shake the roots of religions
Break the bounds of caste and creed
And pull out the truth hidden below our pillows 
We will know..
The one hidden in any costume is “me”
The one who gets played this dirty game of divide and rule 
And the one who looses the worst…
Is also “me”

— a voice prisoned in depths of our hearts!

from the Sacred Well
@sacredwell.in
(Manish Srivastava)

Image from https://m.downloadatoz.com/two-cats-and-a-monkey-story/com.storybook.catsmonkey/

We the celebrated slaves of social media

We pledge to let the propaganda roll…
Much before the penny hits the ground
Or logic intervenes for better
Or curiosity questions the hidden agendas..
We would broadcast your message to millions!

slavesofsocialmediaWe feed on rhetoric.. especially the one dressed in fear
Hit us under the belly and we would chant a nuclear reaction
Consider us, yours best mass media advertisers!
Often we are the krill unaware of the whales feeding on our big numbers…

For we are the celebrated slaves of social media

We are a bunch of nerves
Buzzing on surface, transporting million bytes every second
Who cares for where it came from
And what impact will it leave

As long as it’s fun
We will accentuate and spread anything
that catches our attention
We traded our intelligence and palette
For few extra emoticons by Mark Zuckerberg

Cause we are the celebrated slaves of social media

We work for free and proudly
In exchange of an illusionary freedom
We became the mini-news-producers
With 140 characters on our plate
We could shift the global debate

And that too with no accountability
To validate or verify, any fact or reality
We defend and offend but rarely repent
Unaware of the big games played at our expense

Try us, we are the celebrated slaves of social media

Give us any complex issue
And we will turn it into black and white
It’s worth only determined by number of likes
Who has patience to scroll down for nuances and minority voice
When we can reach conclusions by scanning digital headlines

When you have burgers and pizza at your doorsteps in less bucks
Why care for hunting, gathering, farming, cooking and cleaning
Screen is our buffet, our pride
Who cares about lives on other side of the digital divide

Indeed we are the celebrated slaves of social media

We conserve energy and boycott effort
Reducing activism to fingers tips and clicks on small screens
While farmers toil the earth, masons bear the heat, rest of the world walk the street,
We click, swipe, like, react, forward, comment, tweet but we never log off…

Our thumbs cries for mercy
Head low and lost in virtuality
While the real world dances and dies
A million deaths and resurrections
We wake up to the sound of new notifications

We… wait for it… are the celebrated souls of social media!

 

Manish Srivastava
http://www.sacredwell.in

Are we appreciating or idolising our leaders? 

There is significant difference between appreciating and idolising.

When we appreciate, we acknowledge the good in someone as we do it in ourself. We are at same plane. We learn from them. We honour both.

When we idolise, we put the other on a pedestal. We project all our good on to them. We make them demi-gods and rob them of any capacity to err like human. We free ourself from any responsibility to learn or to hold either of us accountable. 

Idolising quickly turns devotees into advocates of the one (or what) they idolise. As if they have an unconscious contract with their idol. 

Appreciation on the other hand, leaves room for inquiry. There is curiosity that’s open to both “how did you do that?” and “what happens if that does not work?”.

In appreciation there is a field of “and“. We see the gold in our leaders and we see their limitations. We see their strengths and their vulnerability. We can praise them and we can criticise them. 

In idolising, we get stuck in an “either-or” field. We assume that one can either support our leaders or be against them. We can’t see their faults and we refuse to hear any criticism of their decisions. There is no place for nuances. It’s all black or white!

Humans and societies evolve when they learn to appreciate the grey. The nuances. The field between and beyond “either-or”. When they can tolerate an alternate view and see the value even if it’s radical to the mainstream. When they are not threatened by criticism. They don’t have to defend. They resort to child-like curiosity, innocence and acceptance. 

Diversity is not merely a threat but an opportunity to learn and integrate. 

While idolising, we glorify our leaders and ignore their shadows. If they also promote the same (as most politicians end up doing), sooner than later, we have disasters, failures and corruption. 

When we are out of the spell of idolising, we fall flat on earth. Feeling cheated, exploited and used. Desperately looking for another pedestal…

from the Sacred Well
(manish srivastava)
24.10.2016

India- Its time to own our own shit!

This poetry-prose is triggered by recent uprising of dalits (permanently untouchable low castes) as a response to increasing atrocities and injustice they have faced in recent times. Indian society is at another verge of evolution. This is an opportunity for us to clean years of shit that we had conveniently put under our archaic carpets!


It’s time for those
dancing on white marble floors–
To know where our shit goes,
who wipes our streets,
and mops our floors
Cause those who were
systemically condemned
to live in hell,
have awakened
and won’t do it anymore!

It’s time for all of us
to own our own shit!

While we dipped our fingers
in sandalwood with care,
They were neck deep
in our gutters and sewers
While we donned our white kurta
and self-righteous ego
They were stripped of their shirts
And dragged naked in streets…

Now the dirt inside
is staining the white

It’s time for all of us
to own our own shit!

As long there is a task in our mind
that we look down upon
And a part in our psyche
that we shudder to own
Or a longing in our vanity box
Thats too comfortable with low-cost helps…
There will be untouchables!

Untouchability is a social innovation, created by & for, all of us!

Ensuring guaranteed supply of cheap slaves generations after generations!

High castes download it as their birthright. Finding nothing weird in expecting a fellow human being to live on leftovers, forever. Neo-rich and middle-class play another game. On surface they try to look good by giving their used clothes and old electronics to their domestic helps (not very different from skinning dead cattle). However, deep down they also enjoy the convenient and low-cost labour that cleans their shit and supports their life while they pursue their big dreams. Thus they also collude with the existing system that cares nothing about equality, education and progress of dalits.

Lets face it…
Are we providing employment benefits and respect to maids, drivers, cleaners just like employees in business or public organisations?
Can we imagine them sitting on same table for dinner with us?
Why are the jobs like cleaning, sanitation, service, least valued and least compensated?
Why do we strive so hard to gather and show the power and influence but absolve ourselves of any responsibility to change the life of those living in slums and streets? Are we really curious? Or too quick to justify their condition as not our business?

We need to look within..
Each one of us
To shift the paradigm
From our homes, to our streets and the state

(Watch this video and read more below or click on this link)

 

A quarter of India is Untouchable
A quarter of India is systemically oppressed, dehumanised, suppressed–
to serve rest of us,
to clean our shit,
skin our dead cattle,
from generation to generation..
Keeping their mouth shut!

A quarter of India
Is excluded from the GDP growth saga
A quarter of India
Is not counted in great story of Indian compassion and humanity

This quarter of India is 300 million people.
As large as entire population of USA.
This quarter of India is boiling right now
Gathering like a human tsunami
Asking for justice
for generations of atrocities
Calling the facade off our faces

They have thrown the wrench
They are showing the mirror
and awakening the conscience of our country
its another service
This time they are helping us
clean our conscience!

Wake up India!
Its time to clean our own shit

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.sacredwell.in
manish srivastava
03/08/2016

—–

Some references:

Who are dalits? 
An assault on Dalits may have triggered the biggest lower-caste uprising in Gujarat in 30 years
Dalits pledge not to lift animal carcasses in Gujarat
Descent into hell: Mumbai’s dehumanised sewer workers