Friday, February 6, 2009

Lessons Learned by a Suburban Housewife on the Power of Unity: The Auroville and Sarvodaya Shramadana Experience

This is a re-post of something I wrote 9 years ago that never found a home. I dug it out after reading the NY Times yesterday about the partisan squabbling over the bailout bill. The behavior of our elected officials depresses me, particularly now in this time of crisis.

I think we need some unity at this juncture of our history in the United States. But, frankly, who is here to teach us? And more importantly, who would follow? I was hoping that Obama could work his magic on the lot of them, but it doesn't appear that that is going to be the case. At least not yet.....

The lotus flower: A Symbol of Wisdom

I confess. I am a suburban housewife.

Me drinking from a coconut on the road to enlightenment

This is an embarrassing admission to make to the group of people that I traveled with to Southern India and Sri Lanka. Many of them do poverty work and fight for social justice. Some of them live on intentional, sustainable communities. Many of them have given up money to work for a cause close to their hearts. They certainly do not live like I do, driving a mini-van and raising kids in a neighborhood of upper-middle-class homes, with green lawns, on cul-de-sacs, near and next to people much like us, down the main road from a large University which is my husband’s employer.

I live in a neighborhood like many others in this country. But is it a community? Considering the lack of time I spend in connection with my neighbors, I think not. And if it isn’t a community, what does it take to create one? Do community members have to spend a certain minimum amount of time together? Do communities have to be made up of people who are all alike? Do they need to be composed of people who are motivated to cooperate, grow and change? Do the inhabitants have to possess a certain minimum amount of resources? Or are resources an impediment to social cohesion and solidarity? And where does the idea of sustainability fit in? Is there a prescription that can be followed as to how “community” can be created? And if so, can I apply it to my white-bread neighborhood, where many of us do not even know each other’s names?

These are some of the questions I sought to answer as I participated in a Kellogg Foundation grant to study “community, spirituality, and sustainability” at the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a development organization in Sri Lanka, and in Auroville, an intentional, international community in India.

Upon close inspection, Sarvodaya and Auroville appear radically different. Sarvodaya is an organization and a movement; Auroville is a group of settlements. Sarvodaya develops community with participants that have little choice as to where they live; Auroville creates communities with people who can choose to move to a land far away. Auroville has created a community where many of its inhabitants have accumulated a measure of wealth; Sarvodaya advocates a society without affluence. Sarvodaya is based in tradition; Auroville prides itself on creating a new culture. Sarvodaya is based in a traditional religion; Auroville flourishes in the midst of a new brand of religious (SPIRITUAL?) anarchy.

But for all their differences, both Sarvodaya and Auroville start from the same transcendent vision. Either through Gandhian philosophy and Buddhism or through the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, they seek to realize the dream of human unity for all. Think about this for a minute. Both groups either attract or actually develop people who come to understand that we are all “one.” This has deep and permanent consequences. Simply put, people change from being "I" centered to "other" centered. This revolutionary germ of a concept spreads miraculously among those who are introduced to it, transforming them into advocates for harmony within the human, animal and natural environment in which we all live. Through this one simple but powerful idea, I have seen equality; empowerment and awakening take root. The result is an attempt to create a world that is heaven on earth, based in community, spirituality and sustainability.

Did I learn this in church as I was growing up through the teachings of Jesus? I surely could have, but I didn’t.

It took this trip for me to actually see the power of what I can only call “oneness.” When this concept takes root, you can no longer ignore an ailing neighbor, nor can you walk by a person on the street who doesn’t have food or shelter. And you can no longer harm the environment for temporary gains that will destroy the land’s ability to support your children and grandchildren. You become a servant for the human community. Some folks might even become saints or revolutionaries.

Now, does this mean that Auroville or the Sarvodayan villages are perfect manifestations of this ideal of oneness? I can unequivocally say “no” to that. In fact, in many ways, the problems of all of these communities mirror those of the society that we come from. The difference is, they are trying to strive for human unity. I don't see much of that where I come from, and I find that good and inspiring for my soul to see.

If I truly want to live a life in pursuit of community, sustainability and spirituality, what does this mean for my life in suburbia? Is it hopeless for me to look for like-minded people in my neighborhood? Do I have to move to Sri Lanka or to Auroville to find people striving for the good of someone other themselves? Does that mean that a Dr. Ariyaratne, a Mahatma Gandhi or a Sri Aurobindo need settle in my neighborhood so that it can be transformed as I’ve seen communities transformed in India and Sri Lanka?

After a lot of thinking about these questions, I can unequivocally say, “no.” What I think is essential is the simple power of the concept of unity. The concept is so powerful, so transcendent, and has transformed these spiritual teachers so completely that they don’t need to be physically present to teach us the good news. I think that any of us can light the spark that starts the revolution toward a community of unity or oneness in our neighborhoods. Even a suburban housewife. The spark will spread.

We only need begin.

I posted this on my blog at Open Salon, a place that has been very nurturing to me of late in my writing efforts. Thanks to one member (Critical Mess) and the People that Read Open Salon articles for making this one of the People's Picks (No Pans) 2/7/09. Even at OS, which I think of as a very legitimate platform for thinking writers, it is an effort to get noticed if you aren't writing about the popular culture or about something that can be sensationalized. I think that the focus on disharmony and/or controversy is one of the things that keeps energy from flowing to the right and righteous, and maybe has something to do with the mess in which we find ourselves.

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