Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gandhi and the Dalit controversy: The limits of the moral force of an individual

by Miki Kashtan

When I first heard that Gandhi was viewed as “the enemy” by many Dalits in India (formerly called “untouchables”), I was dumbfounded. How and why could Gandhi be seen as having betrayed the Dalits when he opposed untouchability even in the face of active discomfort on the part of close associates?

Last month, while I was in India teaching Nonviolent Communication to 120 people, including a significant number of Dalits, I had the opportunity to explore this question further. During a session called “Gandhian Principles for Everyday Living,” a topic about which I have written at length, one of the 60 people present expressed anguish, pain and anger towards Gandhi. He was a Buddhist, like many other Dalits who had chosen to follow the Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in leaving behind centuries of mistreatment under Hinduism.

I dedicated much of the two-hour session to hearing and understanding his experience. I learned more about the power of deep empathic reflection than about the issue itself. With the presence and active attention of an entire group, he experienced a profound shift in his perception. In the end he said: “Perhaps it’s personal pain from my childhood and all the experiences I had that I just attached to Gandhi.” He didn’t actually know the details of what Gandhi was held accountable for. Nor did I.

After the training ended, I went on a personal pilgrimage to Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state and the birthplace of the Salt March. I met with the editor of a Gandhian journal in Gujarati, who told me that he believed Dr. Ambedkar saw things more accurately than Gandhi, and that his followers have something to teach the Gandhians. Slowly, the details emerged.

The bitter dispute originated in the 1930s, when Gandhi mounted a “fast-unto-death” in response to a British proposal, based on Ambedkar’s recommendations, to award the “depressed classes” (the Dalits) a separate electorate in the Indian parliament. Frantic negotiations under pressure of saving Gandhi’s life resulted in the Poona Pact which substituted a guaranteed number of seats in the parliament for the separate electorate. Although the pact was signed by Ambedkar, his followers, and many of Gandhi’s followers, the complex provisions elaborated in it appeared to many to deny the Dalits any real access to power.

Despite what Ambedkar said at the time to Gandhi and others, he later said he signed under immense pressure and claimed that Gandhi was actually against equality for the Dalits. Ambedkar suggested in a 1955 interview that Gandhi didn’t truly “deserve” the title of Mahatma (great soul). And yet, a close look at Gandhi’s own words leads me to conclude that his position was based on a deep commitment to fully eradicating untouchability from Hinduism.

I have no difficulty understanding and even sympathizing with Gandhi’s reasoning. Gandhi didn’t see political solutions per se as fundamental and lasting. He sought, instead, moral and spiritual paths. He called on Hindus to atone for and redeem the sin of untouchability. He was concerned that being politically separated from the issue would leave Hindus without the motivation to create the necessary change of heart. He believed that his willingness to die would awaken Hindus to the poison of untouchability. Indeed, following his great fast, scores of communities removed barriers to “untouchables” attending temples and drinking water and eating with others.

Nonetheless, I see Gandhi as having made a serious mistake in pressing the point, and am not surprised that his strong opposition to granting rights to a despised minority has been seen as lack of interest in their equality and empowerment.

Knowing people’s dedication to him, Gandhi used the moral force of his person to call on people to live up to a vision that was not yet possible. In other instances, he accepted purely political and less-than-ideal solutions to work with practical realities. This is what Ambedkar was proposing, and what the Civil Rights movement in the US was able to press for: despite a lack of true change of heart, legal-political solutions can make a tangible difference in the lived experience of disadvantaged groups. The vision of a united Hindu society was so dear to Gandhi that he wasn’t willing to accept a partial solution. This error is one of the reasons why Gandhi ultimately failed. The moral force of a person is not sustainable. The partial gains made at the time of his fast were short lived.

Once Gandhi died, all that remained was what people had internalized and integrated. A true change of heart happened only to a few. The legacy of separation, endemic to most of our human cultures, took hold again, and violence swept the country. Instead of the unity and transformation Gandhi sought, and the empowerment and freedom that Ambedkar stood for, India remains saddled with the weight of untouchability, which is still widely
practiced despite being proscribed since 1950, and the Dalit community is splintered into several religions and still separate from the rest of Hindu society. As the Dalit Freedom Network tells us “In 70% of India’s villages…non-Dalits will not eat or drink with Dalits” who also “constitute the largest number of people categorized as victims of human trafficking and human enslavement in any single nation on earth.”

I struggle with similar dilemmas today, albeit with far smaller ramifications. Hardly anything possible in the present would ever align sufficiently with my large vision for me to support it. I nonetheless know that to remain relevant and respected I need to balance vision with practical reality.

No easy answers, ever. Working for a true change of heart may well be an unaffordable luxury when urgent action is required, such as when global planetary resources as well as social, political, and economic institutions are collapsing. And yet, no matter the urgency, if we want to create sustainable long-term change and establish relationships, structures, and systems that serve all life, we need to augment political and structural arrangements with ongoing efforts to transform how we approach social change work. Gandhi’s fundamental lessons still stand. There is no substitute for an inclusive vision and actions based on love.

published originally by Waging Nonviolence

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Conflict and the Illusion of Safety

by Miki Kashtan

“I will do everything in my power to resolve every conflict, however small.” -- Thich Nhat Hanh

I think I am not alone in nursing the fantasy that if I only got the “right” people in some “right” configuration, we would essentially have no significant conflict. Of course I know better. From personal relationships to organizations, conflict is an integral part of life. Still, when conflict arises, especially for the first time in any particular grouping, I recognize in myself and know in others a kind of disappointment, a loss of some hope that maybe this time we can have it be different, perfect.

I think about these things a lot. I am blessed to have some very few relationships which are, essentially, conflict-free. What makes it possible, I keep wondering, and why is it not replicable in other instances? Is there something present in these relationships that’s missing in other places? So far, I’ve identified two main ingredients for this magic. One I call the assumption of innocence, which is about a fundamental, implicit trust of each other. In these unique relationships, when one of us does something the other doesn’t like, we nonetheless trust each other’s basic care; we assume the best about each other’s intentions. The second ingredient is that when conflicts do arise, we attend to them. The two aspects reinforce each other. As we get to understand fully what the situation meant to each of us, we get to know ourselves and each other better, and the level of trust between us increases. At the same time, the assumption of innocence makes it easier to engage with each other when in conflict.

Why would this be the exception? What is it that makes it so easy for people to jump to conclusions about each other while at the same time keeping them from approaching a friend, colleague, or family member when their actions are not to their liking?

Many people view conflicts as fundamentally unsafe, and it’s the main reason they cite for why they don’t speak up, address conflict, or tell each other what’s really going on. Because I see withholding truth in this way as diminishing the quality of personal relationships and potentially destructive in communities and organizations, one of the key practices I want to bring to people and to the world is the choice to tell the truth even when painful, even when we are scared about consequences, and even when we are not sure how to do it.

By habit, we respond to fear by contracting and withdrawing, sometimes by lashing out against others, all in the name of creating safety. Protection of self is the only avenue many of us know for maintaining a sense of safety. For myself, after years of being on the path of vulnerability, I have learned a different kind of safety that comes from knowing I can survive that of which I am afraid. I have learned that opening up to whatever comes my way increases my strength and allows me to recognize that I am not in any real danger. The next time becomes easier, and over the years speaking truth and engaging in conflict have become commonplace for me. Often just naming the fear tends to open up the possibility of dialog. Verbalizing the vulnerability or shame that live in us takes away some of their power to hold us back. At least it transcends the paralysis that comes when we hold the pain inside and call upon safety.

What I am longing for, always, in creating community, is to be joined in the awareness that safety is ultimately an illusion, and that our preoccupation with it limits our freedom and our ability to grow, to learn, to transform ourselves, and to be able to collaborate deeply with others in pursuit of a livable future. More than this, I am aching to have the company of others who are willing to experience the fear and walk forward anyway; to experience pain and loss and speak of it in order to restore the sense of togetherness; to open up to the unknown recognizing that we cannot control what will happen once we speak; and to choose to speak nonetheless. I want a community of people who won’t let the illusion of safety stop them.

What can we do to support ourselves and others in taking the steps forward in those moments of acute pain that feels impossible to handle? How can we maintain the longing for openness and truth alongside the commitment to attend to everyone’s needs, including the person who feels afraid? This is no simple task. In the context of a group, the expression of lack of safety has an effect on others, too. As a facilitator in those challenging moments, I know that my response also has an effect on everyone. I have learned, in my years of facilitating groups, that if someone says they are not safe, trying to get them to continue, no matter how much empathy I use, does not communicate care. I also know that backing off leaves a hole of unease within the group. What I am learning to communicate in those moments, whether in words or simply in my presence, is that I am committed to having love and tenderness toward the person who is unwilling to speak as well as toward everyone else. As much as I want to be joined on the path of courage and vulnerability, I also want release any residual attachment to this desire. I know that the fear people speak of is completely real, and often feels like a threat to their survival. I want to ensure that no one says anything out of a sense of pressure. Togetherness, in those moments, arises from the capacity of the group as whole to hold the moment, ourselves, and the person who is struggling with love. I hold some hope that as we learn to do this, we can gradually increase everyone’s capacity to walk those moments with grace and to recover the capacity to engage in conflict. Perhaps then we can come to accept conflict as an integral part of life and welcome it as an opportunity to get to a deeper level of knowing how to make things work for everyone.

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

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stepping into Power while Maintaining Connection

by Miki Kashtan

“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love....What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have read and re-read these lines countless times. Each time anew I feel a little shock as I reconnect with the immense task of transforming the deeply embedded notions of power and leadership that limit our collective ability to create a world that truly works. When a reader wrote to me “And you are wanting to contribute and make a differences by ‘I continually strive to increase my own power and leadership.’ ??” I was quite confident that he had in mind precisely the “power without love” notion that Martin Luther King talked about. That concept of power still lives in so many of us, even when we work to transform it. And I am no exception.

I have a deep and visceral aversion to coercion of any kind, to imposing anything on anyone. I have known for some time now that this has blocked me from unleashing my full capacity to contribute what I have to the world. This knowledge hasn’t translated into actual changes despite my great wish. What more do I need to learn?

Since time immemorial, people have been going to the desert to receive inspiration and create transformation. In December, I went camping in the desert for 9 days with my nephew. The days were bright and warm, and the nights were long and cold. Night after night I lay inside my sleeping bag and simply thought. A lot.

I learned that while I have immense ease in accessing a clear vision about the world I see as possible, I have not had a goal. Thinking so starkly in the long nights, it became evident to me that I haven’t had enough faith in the possibility of a transition to the clear vision I have, and certainly not in the possibility that I might contribute something of significance to that transition. As a result, I have been giving my attention to everything that comes my way, because everything can conceivably contribute to the vision I have. I came back knowing I want to develop clear and strong goals for my work, and then make my choices much more strategic.

One of the clear obstacles on my way to having the necessary faith has everything to do with deep-seated fears I have about power and connection. Whether I am the one “in power” or someone else is, when there is a clear difference between what I want and what others want or do at any given moment, I am sometimes challenged to the core for fear of losing connection. I am deeply afraid of people being upset with me, and can completely lose my inner sense of choice and effectiveness when challenged in specific ways. This happened to me recently, in September, when I led a 7-day training of trainers which was overall one of the most challenging teaching experiences I’ve had in my 15 years of sharing NVC with the world. One morning, while setting up an intricate activity, one guy, who was particularly unhappy with what I was doing and made this known repeatedly in the preceding days, raised his voice and expressed immense frustration. I literally couldn’t see any useful way of responding, because I didn’t see the possibility of connection. As a result, all I could see was to go along with what he wanted and I couldn’t imagine “fighting” with him or in any way imposing my will on him. I chose to go along, and felt traumatized for days afterwards. It was only recently that I woke up to what I could have said to him, what could have been a response imbued with both power and connection: “I want to make this work for you, and I also want to make it work for me and everyone else. I would really like your support in reaching that goal. Would you take a moment in silence to think of what might work for all of us while I do the same?” Some version of this, to me, is an example of responding powerfully without imposing or giving up. Would it have worked? Depends on what we mean by “work.” It most emphatically would have worked inside of me to maintain my wholeness and integrity. I have no way of knowing whether or not it would have reached his heart and re-established connection. I hope the next time I am challenged I will have this wisdom available to me.

Perhaps I was able to see this more clearly because I had the occasion to experience a similar situation from the other end. This past month, I was part of a training team consisting of 12 people. Two women were leading our pre-training meetings, and I really didn’t like how they were doing it, exactly the position that guy in the UK was in. I suffered immensely, because I so very much wanted the training, which involved 120 people from all over India, to be a real contribution to them, and I was, once again, paralyzed about how to bring about a change without losing connection. This one is even more deeply rooted in me. All my life I’ve connected being powerful and effective with being separate, alone, and unliked. Even in this moment as I am writing these words, this belief is still lodged in me, and is only very slowly dissolving. This fear contracts my heart and limits my options. Again, a truly collaborative option didn’t emerge until later. I covered up my fear with lame jokes about myself; I chose to let go of many things that later turned out to have been potentially significant turning points in our time together, which others also noticed and wanted something different; and when I did express myself, I wasn’t creative about how to convey the care and deep desire to make things work for all of us. We came into the first day of training without having made some critical decisions, and thus less than fully cohesive as a group.

Our team continued to meet every evening after the daily activities of the 5 days of training. The very first evening, when I was eager to have us complete the decisions we still needed to make and learn from what didn’t work that day, the facilitators proposed an activity I simply couldn’t imagine would bring us closer to that goal. I expressed that concern and sat, tight and distressed, waiting to see what would happen. I felt alone, separate, discouraged. Then, to my utter amazement, one of the other people on the team suggested that I facilitate our meetings. What a complex reaction I had! I was mortified and embarrassed, once again predicting separation and pain. I was touched beyond words to have at least one person recognize what I had to offer. Alongside, I also experienced care for the person who made the suggestion, imagining that she was suffering in comparing herself to me. Mostly, I was in awe, especially when everyone agreed.

The true healing for me happened over the rest of the week. Instead of upset and conflict, everyone appreciated my leadership. Instead of loneliness and separation, I didn’t lose connection with anyone. This was the kind of experience that can start to dismantle the thick layer of my ancient beliefs. I saw, in action, that I could act powerfully and remain in connection with people. Seeing this possibility allowed me to come back to the earlier experience and find words I could use to assert my power and remain in open-hearted connection. I have also begun to see ways that I could assert my power when I am not the designated leader, and still maintain connection with those who are leading.

Power with love is the heart of collaboration. Power differences, from either end, make it harder for us to hold on with clarity to the deep knowledge that everyone matters and a solution that works for all is always possible. Having had these experiences and working out my internal reactions to a place of beginning integration, I now see more and more that that collaboration remains a possibility even in moments of great challenge.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Freedom of Committing to a Path

by Miki Kashtan
In June, 1996, I had an epiphany. In a motel room in Indiana, the night before returning home from a solo camping trip in Michigan and Canada, I discovered how much I had lost in my life because of so fiercely protecting myself. Up until that day, bringing forth my vulnerable self was to be avoided at all costs, which kept me numb much of the time, disconnected from myself and from much of life. Alone in my room, I cried, I talked out loud, and I finally exclaimed to myself that I wanted to reclaim every last bit of my vulnerability, just like I had it as a child.

I have had other dramatic moments in my life, before and since; rare and precious experiences of life opening up, my heart expanding, my spirit soaring, defenses falling away. Things suddenly felt possible where previously I was stuck, clarity replaced muddled thinking, hope came in as despair was leaving. I’ve also had such moments since. Only very few of those peak experiences turned into actual life-changing events. This particular one was the beginning of a clear path, the centerpiece of my practice of living the principles of Nonviolent Communication. At the time, I didn’t know this. Today, more than 15 years later, it’s easier to see how things have unfolded and what has helped me turn this from singular moment to a path I’ve been following all these years.

When I teach or even when I write, people sometimes tell me they experience that kind of expansive inspiration. For them, just like for me, many of these moments remain just that. Because I believe that the times are calling on all of us to respond differently to life, I want to offer some support to those who want to sustain these extraordinary experiences and make them part of their daily living practice. Here are some tips:

Clear Vision: I wasn’t just frustrated with my numbness and disconnection. I actually saw and sensed what the alternative was. I felt in my entire body and soul the pull towards the life I wanted. A path has to go somewhere, not primarily away from somewhere. To this day, the beauty of the vision is compelling, and helps me, more often than not, to find the energy to melt the protection and expose my soft self when the old habit still grips me.
Small Steps: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said Lao Tsu in China in the 6th century BCE. I found this wisdom equally true of the spiritual life. At first, I was usually flooded and overwhelmed with the idea of becoming fully vulnerable again. I was so far from it, that imagining it to happen all at once was daunting and discouraging. For quite some time I didn’t make any progress, and then I stumbled on an insight that made it all possible. I realized that I cannot jump start vulnerability all in one step. I, for one, didn’t know what it would even look like. Instead, I discovered that many micro-choices take me closer to or further from openness. When someone asks me how I am, and assuming I trust the question to be genuine (sadly, that’s rarely the case in our culture at large), I get to choose how to respond. Which word I choose to express my inner state can be ever so slightly more or less vulnerable. If I keep making all the micro-choices in the direction of more vulnerability, then, with each iteration, I approximate my goal. I almost always have the strength to peel off one thin layer, even when I feel distressed and frightened. Conversely, although I have made huge strides in my quest, and I often reveal myself with ease in moments when others imagine it taking great courage, there are still times when jumping all at once is beyond me. With small steps, I also can feel and celebrate the micro-successes and build on that energy to continue.

Gentleness and Self-Acceptance: No path is going to have only success. In my experience, the long-term sustainability of a path depends on the level of gentleness we can bring to our “failures.” Being on a path requires enormous amounts of energy to walk directly into discomfort, to shift away from habit. Fighting with ourselves drains energy. Gentleness, on the other hand, creates internal harmony and allows inner energy to flow and be regenerated. Although by now I have very few instances when I am unable to release inner protection and reveal the soft self underneath, in earlier years this happened often. I don’t know what made it possible for me to accept myself to the degree that I did on those occasions. I do know that this acceptance has left my inner landscape truly gentle, a place for me to have a soft landing along the way.
The Freedom to be “Called-Back”: At some point along the way, I lost my interest in protecting myself. Whether by grace, effort, self-acceptance, or the power of vision, I came to full ownership of the path, completely free of any notion of “should” or “have to” about the vision. The most gratifying aspect of this inner alignment is my capacity to come back to the path when I fall off of it. Remaining at the level of vulnerability I now crave requires consciousness. Habit still remains. When I am not conscious, especially when my resilience is low and I feel helpless, I still stiffen up, protect, contract, and lose connection with myself or others. Even in those moments, my deep commitment means I can be called back to my path by anything that wakes me up and invites me to consciousness, even if it’s unpleasant. For example, I was once in a tough conversation with someone who then said: “You’re arguing with me, how about offering me empathy instead?” - and that statement was enough to bring me back and choose to respond empathically. I didn’t need to defend myself from the imaginary attack I could have read into that statement.
The ultimate goal, for me, of being on a path, any path, is to achieve inner freedom - to be able to live according to what my own values, needs, and goals are. I experience this freedom to choose from within, even in the face of a perceived “demand,” as an incredible aspect of what it means for me to be human, and a key reason I continue to be on a path.