We spent the last 4 days of WIL-India at Swaraj University, the global centre for unlearning. This is a rural centre, where “students” live communally in dorms and keep up the maintenance of the centre. The land is farmed and there is livestock. It’s a beautiful and peaceful area, perfect for deep exploration and learning.
What is unlearning ? I’m not sure that I’m the best person to explain it, despite my time at the centres. It’s such a big topic. I think it’s faith that the answers are within us and not within institutions. Manisg, who founded Swaraj, describes going to Harvard and noting that his village grandmother knew more about sustainability than his Harvard professors. There are many theories that are touted, but take those professors out for a drink or two, and they will admit they know nothing!
Unlearning is also about removing our connections to objects. It’s not about seeing scarcity – which leads to greed – but seeing abundance – which leads to sharing and gift giving. I don’t know what else unlearning is – my brief glimpse just inspired me to learn more, and to start by removing my attachment to things.
This is practised by living simply – which was a challenge to participants as many of us were quite used to comforts. A solar hot water heater provided warm bucket bath (no shower) water to some folks on chilly mornings, toilet paper could only go in the composting toilet, not the flush toilet, beds consisted of wooden platforms with a thin mat on top. Everything was outside and evenings were quite cool. Rules included: absolutely no garbage allowed, carry out any garbage you produce, clean your own dishes, no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking.
A sister site, without sleeping facilities, exists in the city of Udaipur, Shikshantar. Udaipur, in addition to its title as “city of lakes” is also a city of social justice activists. Anyone can partake in activities at Shikshantar. It has a community library and kitchen and beautiful spaces for meetings.
We deepened our group work and facilitation practices at Swaraj. We did a round of open space, we worked in teams on projects, and we presented our projects to our friends at WIL-India. We conducted one community visit and used the circle spaces to go into deep discussions on how to do community engagement and what made us uncomfortable about our visits. Our group really bonded here.
One beautiful exercise that Manish facilitated for us was called “appreciation shower”. A portion of participants sit on chairs in a circle, blind folded. The rest of the participants wander around and whisper praise and compliments in their ears. There were a few rules which really made this work : hands must always be on the blind folded person’s shoulders, only nice things about them (not you!) can be said, and it must be whispered. This did a fantastic job of removing all of my insecurities about receiving compliments – mainly by comparing myself to others who may be receiving more or less praise. I didn’t know what was happening to anyone else, I only knew about me and all the nice things being said to me. I cried. And I loved sharing beautiful things in other people’s ears too. Rarely do we give ourselves enough opportunities to appreciate others, but when forced to think about it, all you come out with is love and gratitude. Showering appreciation makes everyone feel better. I love this practice and need to bring it elsewhere.