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  • I had always wanted to make a difference to the world around in whatever way I could. I remember at school I was part of a group that supported environmental awareness and we even worked within the school to create a butterfly garden in an unused derelict patch of land. We were the green gang, we would do litter picking in the neigbourhood and clean up the pond nearby. We had fun, we even got green Blue Peter badges!

    It was natural for me to go into International Development work, I wanted to work for something meaningful and I always knew the City jobs weren’t for me. I got a temporary job in London and saved up and traveled back to India to do a volunteer assignment, I was working in the slums, doing research on micro-finance, teaching children and generally having a wonderful time meeting and interacting with many people from all walks of life. I saw the intense hardships of people but also how this made them always enjoy whatever is right in front of them, they lived largely in the present because the future was not really something they could even imagine at times. (Or did I romanticize it all, I wonder now!) I look back on those days of youthful Idealism and sometimes wish for that sense of passion to return. Even when regained, it’s not quite the same, the innocence of it once lost to the winds of experiences and a slow creeping cynicism.

    And that is what happened, as I moved higher and higher in the instructional structures, from ground research to NGOs and national level work to international level donor and funding jobs. Each day presented huge questions on whether anything I did made any ounce of difference at all. I mean in some small way I know it did, but so much was lost on the way, I couldn’t see the trickle down really and the more I came across large scale development projects the more I began to question the very basis of development work. I was losing the big picture; I was caught in the project details, the numbers, the management and monitoring through systems. And development started looking like a form of destruction. Who says that the old ways of organizing agriculture were necessarily bad, who says that integration of certain indigenous peoples so that they can be “empowered” is really good for them? We say, we the developed, the educated, but aren’t we tainted with arrogance and a sense of superiority? Do we live their lives? Can we really ever understand their world? And here we were in air conditioned offices in a metropolis making decisions that would affect changes in some way or the other on them. We had a great responsibility, and yet we could not determine the ebb and flow of the Development tide. We still can’t really.

    I am not saying that people shouldn’t have clean drinking water, nutrition, healthcare and education but this always brings along more with it than just that, especially when it’s not through the local efforts from people but from all us outside well wishers (with all the best intentions in their hearts) . So it turns from looking like a wonderful plan on paper to when it’s implemented it unfolds as a complex alien organism that starts eating away at itself and inside us. Of course, there are many inspiring thinkers and practitioners in the area who try and address these issues with full awareness but surprisingly they are still in a minority. As long as procedures and systems start taking over and become more important than the people we are meant to help, it all starts to resemble like a factory, no matter what is done and it’s amazing how entrenched this is. So many times I saw the structures were persistent and everyone, however dynamic they seem to be as individuals, seem to succumb to it. And I met many like me, who felt dis-empowered and yet lost in coma by the sense of security of a job, of systems and procedures that could be controlled and accountability checked, and of complacency within a comfort zone they knew and understood. I wept many a times in pristine five star hotel bathrooms between breaks while conducting workshops, it all seemed so pointless and I felt like a coward for not being able to move forward. The daily confrontation of the binary was getting to me but I didn’t understand the deep ache inside.

    It took a toll on me, on my health both physical and mental-all this self doubt and all this guilt of seeing daily the stark realities of poverty on the streets. The never-ending line of beggars, the children picking rags and sniffing glue, so many women in the slums being beaten by their dis-empowered alcoholic husbands feeling enslaved by a system of feudal ties, barricaded within an emergent capitalist society people killing each other over a $1 and the daily news was just more of the same stuff. When I came across something positive it made my whole week, or even a month, a little bit of hope restored for a while, but it always died away. I felt a huge burden because I was working in the area that’s supposed to help but I really wondered if it did and at what cost. Even when something is fixed, other problems seem to arise. I took it all very personally and back then if people used to tell me to lighten up, I would get quite upset! There were so many times I wanted to quit and run back to Britain, get a regular job, Friday nights at the pub with friends and forget about this world of suffering. But to be honest, it was sheer pride that kept me at it, quitting meant a sense of failure to me although I thought of myself a coward for not joining some revolutionary wing. I had to search for another way, I read many books but I couldn’t really understand or relate such amorphous ideas to the practice of daily life.

    I saw suffering and I was suffering, I did not realize at that time, that because I was focused on the suffering and trying to help out by simply doing (action) externally, all I was doing was leading to a more sense of suffering. That awareness came only later after I was hobbling around in intense pain in my knees and soreness in my throat that lasted for months and yet the doctors couldn’t explain it, each time I swallowed it felt like shrapnel all the way down my throat burning me. Food was just so much hard work. And yet nothing was wrong with me, no bones broken, no terminal disease but the pain I felt was intense. I know now it was my body trying to guide me to heal my inner being and now when I look back it makes perfect sense.
    At the time, I was about to travel to Cambodia for work, with all this excruciating pain, taking some drugs for temporary relief. Before the journey a friend of mine gave me a book. It was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I’d tried to read this book before during university and couldn’t make sense of it at all. But something made me take it and I started to read it on my journey. If anything it was to distract myself. And I enjoyed reading this book so much; it was like each word was a reflection of my feeling. It was like Hesse was putting a balm of understanding on me through this story. After a while on the flight, I fell asleep (remarkable because I never manage to sleep on flights) and I had the most lucid dream, I was observing myself as I was going about my business of packing, of hobbling around at the airport, of thinking; so I was seeing this girl as she had lived her life just a couple of hours before, but from a totally different level of being. This awareness felt no pain, no doubt, no judgment, no resistance, it just observed, it just watched and while it knew everything about this girl, it was at complete peace! When I woke up to the announcement for landing, I was confused for a minute or so as to where I am because the dream was so intense, I was supposed to be still at the airport but I was already landing. But as the awareness slowly returned I realized the clarity of what I was shown was meant to help me. I no longer had a sense of suffering from all the physical pain, it did not disappear but it was put in perspective. And this was just the beginning of a slow turn towards focusing inside, to transfigure the energy of inner pain to healing from the inside. And always to keep one eye on my inner being while living out my outer drama. To be in pure acceptance, to reach a place of peace inside, to “be” the peace inside before “doing” anything. I’m happy at least I am now on the path, although it is all very new and learning everyday, new insights, new way of being. It’s a world of wonder. I’ve traveled physically to many places but nothing is quite like the self-discovery channel as many of you will agree!

    And I think about Herman Hesse and feel completely indebted to him. His story acted like a gateway. I guess each book is meant to be understood at a given time for the reader when experience completes the circle of knowledge and for each one of us it is a unique circle. But this is the power of writing; this is why writers need to be writers, simply because they can change universes that go beyond space and time dimensions!
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