There is a lot that has unfolded in the last few months. Each of us has faced different levels of uncertainty — whether it is with health, jobs, education, finances, or running our businesses or social programs. Any clarity that we have seems to be short-lived. All of us have had our own struggles in charting our way forward.
While there is plenty of good analysis and opinion available about the pandemic, it has rarely helped me move beyond intellectual understanding. What has helped me the most is participating in safe spaces that allow me to surface my thoughts or feelings while listening to the thoughts or feelings of others. Let us call these spaces ‘circles’ for ease of reference.
I was a part of multiple such circles in the form of:
- The Wellbeing Movement, where we have discussed our individual journeys through the pandemic as much as our work in supporting the wellbeing of others.
- The Sabha, which has helped me experience authentic connection with diverse people I wouldn’t otherwise meet in the lockdown and recognize that there are ideas still worth exploring
- GAIA Journey and the Solidarity Circles by the Presencing Institute, where I have listened to people from across the world share about their personal experiences, realizing I am far from alone.
- The Open Field, which has helped me see the pandemic’s impact and response from the lens of different groups in India — businesses, technology, the rural sector, nonprofits, government officials, politicians, etc — and see how people are seeing what the panelists are sharing.
The two components of circles have been their:
- Participant-led nature, where the learning is many to many instead of few to many (thus, they are often called a ‘circle’)
- Ability to create a safe space for everyone, where you can share and feel heard without judgment or evaluation.
Unlike traditional webinars where individuals share based on expertise or stature, I have found it to be much easier to connect with people in these circles who often share my context and speak from the space of a lived experience. As a result, the learnings from circles seem more actionable to me. I discover others like me, who are facing the same predicament. Sometimes, I learn from them, and at other times, they learn from me. Ultimately, circles make me feel that I am not alone.
As I have engaged with multiple circles as a participant or organizer, I have discovered why they are so powerful. They have opened my mind, making me more curious about not just what is being shared but who is sharing. They have opened my heart, helping me step into the shoes of others and see the situation through their lens, eventually finding common ground. They have opened my will, pushing me to act on my intention, many a time without having a clearly-drawn path.
To illustrate, I will share with you all an example from my own life. I attended a Sabha where we discussed the idea of conserving water. As a result of the space, I not only discovered many small ways to reduce and reuse water, but I also discovered how one person’s action of saving water could inspire many others. This led to a paradigm shift for me that systemic problems don’t always need systemic solutions. They require inspired individuals to take action in their context and share their learning with others. This, in turn, not only led me to take everyday action to save water, but also act on other issues which I had given up on like wellbeing at the workplace or extreme consumerism. Not just that, I was able to influence a few other individuals to rethink their ways on these themes and make them a part of my community. This is just one of the many stories of change I have witnessed in my own life, thanks to the circles.
Zooming out and refocusing on the present moment, we know that the pandemic has exposed the fragility of our existing social and economic systems. The inequity due to wealth, race, religion, region and caste has become more visible than ever before. We have two options as people talk about the new ‘normal’. One option to recover from the lockdown is by doubling down on our old ways while taking added precautions against contagion— an approach that we know will come at the cost of a vast section of the society and our planet. The other option is to act with curiosity (an open mind), empathy (an open heart), and courage (an open will) to imagine a ‘new normal’.
#Whatif everyone — students and teachers, parents and children, organizational leaders and employees, politicians, bureaucrat, and citizens — had access to such participant-led, safe-spaces which foster such openness? I wonder if then, the new normal could be a better normal, that considers the wellbeing of all living beings and our planet.
This post was inspired by the article written by Vishal Talreja and Suchetha Bhat of Dream a Dream on Kindness is the New Normal. While the #WhatIf challenge was started in the domain of education, it pushed me to rethink what a wider societal shift, which would both enable and welcome such education, look like.