Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Two Faces of Convenience

by Miki KashtanI landed in Delhi on Friday morning, Jan 13th. By noon I was already in love with India. By the time I left 3 weeks later, I was committed to going back to learn more about life, to offer, humbly, what I have learned about human relationships and systems, and to nurture relationships that have become significant in a matter of days.Except for a small minority of affluent city dwellers, people in India don’t have access to the amenities we have come to take for granted in North America. I was only in one place that had a shower with running hot water. The streets, even in large cities I was at, were only partially paved, and partially covered sewer trenches were a common sight. The hotel I stayed in for the first few days did all its business on big handwritten ledgers. Tap water is unsafe to drink. A bank advertising itself as “international” in a major metropolitan area carries out most of its business manually. Many live in what here would be considered sub-standard housing. Shopping often takes place outdoors, without anything resembling sanitation. The kitchen that supplied food for five days to 135 people who attended the NVC convention for which I traveled to India didn’t have a refrigerator. Our breakout “rooms” were outdoors, on sandy ground. Traffic is unmanageable, and the sound of honking never stops. The trains are crowded and often filthy. One of the main halls in the university that Gandhi founded contains construction debris and is used by female students to change diapers. The absence of resources and infrastructure is painfully obvious.Without forgetting any of this for a minute, I haven’t felt so alive, connected, or hopeful in a long time. When the Velcro on my friend Sue’s sandal disintegrated, all we could think of was how to find glue. Our friends and hosts dismissed this notion and suggested taking the sandal to a cobbler. We found him on a busy street corner, sitting on a blanket with some rudimentary tools and no glue. He took one look at the sandal, and without losing a beat took one of his little tools, punched holes in the strap, and within minutes had the sandal sewn fixed. Everywhere I turned I saw people poring over an apparent problem looking for solutions, usually in collaboration with many others. The people who came to my workshops were dedicated to service and to giving back to their communities, especially the youth from marginalized communities that had been invited and were honored by the rest of us. I cannot remember a person whose eyes or face I caught and who didn’t smile broadly, children and adults, women and men, of all classes. India is teeming with life, everywhere, in color and sound and action. To figure out transportation, untold numbers of Indians have taken to riding motorcycles, zooming around each other, passing cars and being passed by them, honking to ensure that everyone is safe. Night schools have been created to make education possible for rural children who are indispensable to their family’s survival. Anyone’s problem on the train becomes everyone’s problem. The presence of resilience, aliveness, and creative use of every possible resource available, human and otherwise, was unmistakable.I hope I am not romanticizing India, certainly not poverty, which I do not wish on anyone. I also do not wish our way of life on India. I didn’t see any evidence in India of the crushing isolation so many here experience. I didn’t see people afraid of each other, of life, of discomfort. I witnessed generosity happen constantly, as a matter of course, a part of life, absolutely necessary to make things work. Indians do not have access to the kind of resources we have here which make it possible for us to have the illusion we don’t need anyone else. Indians know in their bones that they need each other to survive any day. They know hardship, illness, death, and loss as integral to life, because they don’t have the sanitized version of life which relegates challenges some place else - to other people, other rooms, hospitals.Convenience, the easy access to external resources, makes life comfortable. We all want it. Who would use a bucket for bathing when a hot shower is available? Who would live in narrow quarters when space is abundant? Who would choose to walk or rely on unpredictable public transportation when a personal car is an option? Comfort becomes addictive when we can’t imagine life without it.Still, here and there people choose against all of the above, and more. Often the reason is about consumption of resources. For one example, since I’ve been back from India I have been using a bucket for bathing, which uses about 1/10th of the amount of water I would otherwise use. I also believe choosing inconvenience provides other direct benefits. I get the satisfaction of knowing I am doing my tiny part to keep water available. Given the circumstances, each time I do it I reconnect with my time in India. I derive pleasure from the confidence that I can stand by my commitments even when challenged (oh, yes, on a chilly morning I am challenged). And, lastly, I love to know that I am free of the compulsion of comfort. Our reliance on comfort and convenience is getting us into a runaway scenario of losing planetary resources, all of which are finite. It’s making us forget that we are an integral part of life and nature, that we partake in death and decay by virtue of being alive. It reinforces in us the fear of scarcity which no amount of additional resources can assuage. It deprives us of opportunities to figure out creative solutions to problems, such as how to repair the many things we throw away because it’s cheaper to buy than to get the parts and the labor and figure out a solution. And it divides us from each other, allowing each of us the illusion that our money can “free” us from depending on others, thereby creating a form of self-sufficiency that perpetuates our isolation. Will I continue to hold to this fledgling habit when nothing systemic encourages it? Perhaps, or maybe not. More to the point, can we find a way, collectively, to nurture these habits in the population at large? The assumption of finding technological fixes to social problems is losing ground. Can we find pathways to collaboration on a massive scale? In particular, can we bring to conscious, active awareness our irreducible dependence on other people, which no amount of money we give them can hide? What will it take to reawaken our joy of living, the generosity that I believe is our birthright to experience, and the flexibility to adapt to changing life circumstances within interdependent relationships?

Photos by Miki Kashtan


  1. Your writing inspired me to connect the dots of our human relationships, our communal sharing with the entirety of the inhabitants on the planet. I haven't experienced India, my husband spent most of 2 years living there for work, it changed him in such positive ways. Thank you for your writings, always inspirational.

  2. You took me right back there.
    People ask me about our India trip. Now I want to tell them "what SHE said" and point to this blog page. What you describe is what I already miss. For me, in India, in the absence of some of my habitual comforts, the abundance of human warmth even from strangers easily outshone the comfort of convenience. I loved the freedom of it. How to keep up that practice of freedom? How to live it in a way that transforms my world?

  3. Miki, this writing is very powerful for me. I have not experienced India but your writing brings to mind the years I lived outdoors (and led groups) for extended periods of time, year round and in all weather. We camped but with little fancy camping gear. Though not another culture, it was still a very different world. We found ourselves without habitual comforts and part of different rhythms, (both light and dark). We encountered hardships, lived interdependence, solved problems creatively with limited resources and found resilience. I felt very alive. We often said, for us that world was the “real world” and the inside world we encountered upon return was in some way “fake”. I understand we could view it that way because it wasn’t forced on us through poverty. That said, I do believe Western culture has lost a certain connection with “reality” and lost something very precious in the process.

    You ask “What will it take to reawaken our joy of living, the generosity that I believe is our birthright to experience, and the flexibility to adapt to changing life circumstances within interdependent relationships?”

    Also, how can we start to remember that “we are an integral part of life and nature, that we partake in death and decay by virtue of being alive?”

    Obviously I don’t have the answers. For me, and many others I talk to, I find it’s easy to lapse into hopelessness and despair. But I also see a lot of hope, Miki, just in the way you frame the questions. In posing these questions in this way, you help us all bring awareness to what I believe is a firm and important base rather than the surface smokescreen of so much of our media. I also see hope in the angst that many people are feeling, strange as that may sound. It’s that angst that leads us all to search for answers to these questions.

  4. And are you using a bucket instead of toilet paper too?

    I'd just like to defend India trains - many of them are great, especially with open windows in second class, going down the coast - one of the great joys - see a universe pass by.

    Nice post!

  5. Miki said: "Comfort becomes addictive when we can’t imagine life without it."

    Right before reading your blog I was looking at a fellow's Facebook page whom I had just met today on a phone call that he initiated. The following was among his "favorite quotes" on his page.

    "Luxury is the guest you invite into your home who stays to become your master."

    This essay is an astute and heartfelt observation which holds important wisdom that will become more and more important as our world enters into the coming state of resource depletion. Every point you made will be critical for adapting and adjusting to shocking changes.

    Additionally, the three times I returned to USA from India were also culture shocks.

    Thank you for sharing, as always.

  6. Bucket baths in the villages in Sri Lanka used a LOT more water than my low-flow showerhead in the US! A guy stands on the lip of the well, pouring bucket after bucket of water on my head, as I grip my sarong in my teeth and try to soap up under it...

    The trick: the buckets of water soak right into 60 feet of sandy soil, filtered and ready for the next days baths...

    I completely agree with you regarding the ALIVENESS of... well, just about everywhere on Earth, except for the US. Poverty, sickness, dysfunctional systems abound: but, beneath it all, a SPIRIT that keeps one coming back.