Last night, Geetika and her husband, Harsh, invited me to “the club.” Shveta, Amol, and the girls escorted me to dine with several of my new RGNUL colleagues. We had a lovely supper outside on the garden lawn and celebrated our new friendships. I was intending to blog about that delicious dinner and terrific conversation with friends, but events of this morning pre-empt that post.
This morning I sat with Professors Subhradipta Sarkar and Archana Sarma of ITM University, outside of Delhi. They were here for the two day human rights conference this weekend. At one point during breakfast, they asked me how I was finding things in India. I started with the usual, “wonderful,” “busy,” “great colleagues” but then noted that I had felt “shocked” by the disparate treatment of women, and particularly the assistant professors and female students. Perhaps, the wonderful evening last night and my concern for my women friends made me more directly honest about my impressions. Subhradipta and Archana were understandably concerned and we had a very good conversation about India’s evolution as an independent nation. They patiently explained that while the U.S. has had almost 240 years to adapt to and evolve with its constitution, India has had only about 65 years. Change, the realization of equity and equality, takes time. They told me about the progress for women and girls, new educational and employment opportunities, the influence of technology, and of the media. I came away with a greater appreciation for the changes that have occurred in India. I was reminded that I have a tendency to want and expect change overnight.
I returned to my room and logged on to start this blog and to thank Geetika and Harsh – all of them. However, I was distracted by a Facebook post by my dancer friend, Patte, regarding “holding space” for people. See Heather Plett, What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well, http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/
While Plett’s wonderful essay begins with a discuss of palliative care for people transitioning from this life to the next, her discussion is applicable in a variety of contexts. For example, it applies to an American academic visiting India. When you hold space, you “walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others.” (Plett, 2015) When I read these words this morning, I realized that I have been holding space (at moments more purely and effectively than at others) and that my new friends here have been holding space for me. Subhradipta and Archana held space for me.
I came to India to teach women’s right, sexual harassment law, and LGBTI rights, among other subjects. I wanted to offer a different perspective to students and academic colleagues. I did not come to “change” India or make it “better.” What hubris that would have shown! I realized this morning that I came to hold space while India transitions from a more historically traditional life to a new, more global, egalitarian one. Transitions, whether they are life and death transitions or cultural and political ones (yes, a multidisciplinary perspective is critical!), can be difficult. I have several times, however, failed to hold space effectively for India, for my students, and even for my new colleagues.
Plett wrote about 8 traits that facilitate holding space:
- Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
- Give people only as much information as they can handle.
- Don’t take their power away.
- Keep your own ego out of it.
- Make them feel safe enough to fail.
- Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
- Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
- Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
This morning I revealed my judgment and frustration. My ego was all over the breakfast table. I would make decisions for India (through educational and legal reforms). Fortunately, my friends, and particularly Shveta, have held space for me. They have made me feel safe enough to fail.
I don’t write this blog to heap ashes on myself –or others. I write it as a celebration of learning– my own and India’s. Plett also wrote, “Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.”
I take heart that I am evolving individually, as India is evolving (at its own pace and in its own way) as a nation. I am so grateful to Shveta and Geetika, Jasleen and Gurmanpreet– my office mates– who have held space for me to be here.
As I contemplate leaving Patiala in two days, I understand how dramatically this visit has changed me. I wish the same joy of discovery and growth for my friends here who are, no doubt, evolving too.
Fittingly, my first full day in India, I had all the guidance that I needed to be a good space holder. At the Gandhi Smriti, a small plaque on the wall read, “My life is my message.”