In Search Of A Good Society
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there — Rumi
“How do you see your plate of food?”
The question cut through the air of a breezy Sunday afternoon in Bangalore. It was followed by a long pause, punctuated by the shrill cry of circling kites and the soothing rustle of palm trees filtering in through the open window. 13 of us were seated in a jagged circle around the living room table, perched on chairs, stools, and couches of varying shapes and sizes. A couple of us were seated on the floor with our backs resting against the wall. We had just read Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s introduction to Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men. It shone the spotlight on India’s complicated relationship with the cow, revealing a long and checkered past fraught with tension and conflict. On the surface, food is a deeply personal choice, seemingly neutral in nature. But scratch the surface and it can be anything but.
“I see it as a plate of trade-offs.”
“Food is just food for me, nothing more.”
“The ecosystem in our gut is a reflection of the ecosystem outside.”
“How we eat vegetables is political in my family.”
“It’s about honouring my relationships with my grandparents.”
As the individuals in the circle turned their cameras inward to examine their own relationship with food, the skin of the metaphorical onion started to come undone — unraveling layers of history, politics, sociology, and economics that are bound into the seamless whole we call life.
This wasn’t a scene from a university classroom or a program in the social sciences. Instead, it was one that came alive every other Sunday in the living room of our home in Bangalore during the 6-month period between January and June 2020 (*at the end of March, when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, the intimacy of our living room was replaced by the more impersonal feel of a Zoom conference room). To understand the origins of this space, we have to go back a few years — to the second half of 2017, when my wife Adhishree and I decided to first open up the doors to our home in Pune.
Titled The Good Society Circle, this initiative started off as a recurring space for dialogue to explore pressing issues in the company of friends. The initiative had 2 key sources of inspiration — the first was the ‘Good Society Readings’ — a cornerstone of the Acumen Fellows Program and the second was the ‘Learning Circle’ — a key building block of the Teach For India Fellowship. Both these spaces had their own streams of influence — the Acumen Readings were based on the leadership work of the Aspen Institute while the Teach For India Circles were inspired by the work of ‘Manav Sadhna’ and the ‘Awakin Circles’ of the Service Space community. The latter, in turn, was anchored in a long tradition of ‘holding space’ with roots going back to Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram community. Therefore, in some sense, the Good Society Circle represented a confluence of 2 historical traditions of achieving insight — that of rigorous ‘academic’ discussion that had taken shape in the West and an equally rigorous ‘spiritual’ conversation that is often associated with the East.
When we moved from Pune to Bangalore in July 2019, these Circles weren’t a part of the luggage that we intended to carry with us to our new home. However, the pace of change and disruption in the second half of 2019 —the revoking of the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir, the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, global movements related to gender, race, and climate change, left us dizzy and gasping for air (and this was before we had even heard of Covid-19!). Wherever we looked in the world, we saw fragmentation arising from a range of different fault-lines, so much so that it was hard to keep a track of the different issues, let alone understand them in any depth. Furthermore, these problems in the world ‘out there’ felt distant and impersonal, rapidly shifting images on digital screens that seemed far removed from our daily lives in the context of work, family, and community.
Thus, an intention was born in us to give new life to the original Good Society Circles and adapt their basic structure to meet our current needs. In particular, there were 3 key objectives that framed our intention for version 2 of these Circles:
- To See With Fresh Eyes — To learn how to suspend habitual patterns of seeing and create space for different points of view. This objective was rooted in a belief that there are always multiple vantage points on any given issue and the process of dialogue is a vehicle to bridge divides in ‘seeing’ and ‘thinking’ (which might then impact ‘doing’ as well).
- To See Wholes — To discover the link between issues in the world ‘out there’ (on the 9 pm news for example) and those ‘in here’ (in our interactions with family or colleagues at work for instance). This objective was rooted in a belief of our interconnectedness and the fact that the system and the self are related in ways that are invisible to the untrained eye.
- To See Together — To undertake this exploration with a community of people who are themselves interested in and grappling with these questions. This objective was rooted in a belief that each individual is unique and brings in a richness of everyday wisdom that has the potential to expand the overall spectrum of thought and perspective.
Armed with this intention, we set forth but no sooner had we left shore than we faced a first dilemma — who should we invite to be a part of these circles? Given that Bangalore was a new city for us, we decided to start small — with a close circle of friends whom we were comfortable with and who we knew would be interested. This choice allowed us to move quickly; there was no need for any mass promotion, just a simple WhatsApp message sharing ‘our why’ and inviting people to join.
Once we moved past this first step, a second choice-point emerged — what themes or topics should the circles focus on? Since we didn’t have a pulse of the issues that people wanted to explore, we decided to connect with our own needs. We asked ourselves — what is alive for us right now? What do we see in the world that feels important and urgent? This became the starting point or the seed from which every conversation unfolded.
The first circle took place on 5th January 2020 and involved an intimate group of 6 friends centered on the theme — ‘Taking a Stand’. It felt good to be hosting a circle again — like it does when you come back home after a long time away. Certain things worked, others didn’t. We observed, we took notes, we debriefed, and we made tweaks to the next iteration.
Over the next 5 months, this became our weekly Sunday practice arena to learn and to experiment. We moved from ‘Taking a Stand’ to ‘Understanding the Other’, from exploring our ‘Beef with B**f’ to the ‘Fault-lines in Family’.
As we built our own comfort and rhythm with these circles, our minds became more attuned to the smaller details — the role of the invitation message, the effect of the physical space of our living room, our mental headspace before the circle, the tone of our framing at the start. This allowed us to refine the format each time and soon it started to flow well and feel natural. Since it was like a workout every other Sunday, we decided to approach it as one — every circle started with a ‘Warm-up’ where we stretched our listening muscles, it then moved into the ‘Main Exercise’ where we engaged in dialogue on a given issue, and it ended with a ‘Cool-down’ where we paused and crystallized key takeaways.
The internal rhythm we were building as Circle Hosts started to be mirrored externally as well as people began to find value in the space:
I love the good society circle! such a relief to have a safe space! you’ve no idea what it feels like to be in a discussion where people are not competing to sound intelligent and cerebral! plus the added benefit of not too many people with personal connections. sunday society therapy it felt like :D”
In the last week of March, when India went into lockdown, our minds were buzzing with so many different questions that we didn’t think a single 2-hour circle could do justice. This triggered the genesis of a recurring theme — ‘The New Normal’, and a series of 4 circles spread over 2 months rooted in this theme.
I’ve been out of sorts with the lack of clarity about where we stand in my city and how it’s slowly starting to affect me and my fears for my child more than earlier… Tonight, listening to words of hope post pandemic from a few of them reminded me of my own optimism till last week. It was a reality check I needed because I realized while listening that I’m getting pulled towards information and content that is further from hope and that is reflecting in my words, physically too. Hearing a few different perspectives has made me feel a bit more grounded than when I joined the call.
Over the course of the 6-month period, we ended up hosting 10 circles that saw 107 participants join, comprising a community of 61 unique individuals, 27 of whom attended 2 or more circles (the maximum being 7). We ended our journey together by hosting a 3-day cool-down dialogue on WhatsApp that allowed us to open up our thought process, listen deeply to one another, and crystallize a set of takeaways that could inform future versions of the circle.
Thank you for hosting these circles consistently and opening up this space for all of us. It has been a great comfort for me to be a part of this space. It’s surreal to think of the topics we have covered and I am excited to see what’s coming up and ahead.
As 2020 draws to a close and the curtains come down on what will surely go down in history as a tumultuous year, we can’t help but look back and try to make sense of it all. And it is here that the circles prove valuable in understanding a critical truth — that the process of stepping into the new requires letting go of the old. In particular, there are 3 dimensions to ‘letting go’ that have become clearer through the Good Society experience:
- Letting Go Of The Need To Talk — A pressure to fill the contours of every empty space (be it digital or in-person) with endless chatter is a symptom of our age. What the circles enabled for people was a shift from speaking to listening, so much so that there were entire 2–2.5 hour periods where individuals spoke just once but left feeling whole and complete. Furthermore, this shift in the quality of listening was felt in 2 distinct ways in the group — through a palpable comfort with silence and a curiosity to hear one another’s stories without the need to sound smart and to win.
- Letting Go of The Need To Take a Stand — The pressure to talk gives rise to the pressure to take a stand — to have a quick point of view and a ready opinion on everything. In such a world, sitting ‘on the fence’ is a sure sign of weakness. However, the fact is that truth has many faces, and uncovering them requires deep commitment and patience. Not to mention an acceptance that we may never fully know for sure. Consequently, the metaphor that we consider more appropriate for this new paradigm is ‘walking a tight-rope’ — where one wrong step could lead to a fatal drop into the abyss of black and white, into a camp that stands in opposition to some other camp, based on simplistic distinctions between ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’.
- Letting Go Of The Need To Fix — Taking a stand leads to a natural third step—to fix the problem. Not just my problem but his problem, her problem, their problem, and other such problems ‘out there’. This pattern of fixing and problem-solving at a micro-level shows up at a macro-level in the actions of organizations and nation-states. However, what this process of problem-solving fails to account for is the solver's own contribution to the problem and their stake in it. Because as much as I would like to believe that the ‘traffic’ out there on Bangalore roads is the problem and people are getting in my way, the truth is that I am part of that same traffic. In fact, I am the traffic! Therefore, to make real progress on our pressing issues, their source needs to be investigated, starting with the seemingly neutral choices that we make every day in our lives at home, at work, and with our local neighbourhood communities.
In the universal arena of Human Life, this experiment in dialogue and community will likely be inconsequential, barely a drop. However, in the intimate arena of our daily lives, it could be much more, helping us build the muscle to navigate the tidal waves that throw us off balance. What tidal waves does 2021 have in store for us? Only time will tell. Irrespective of what may come next year, the Good Society Circles will be around to help us see these new challenges afresh, in a new light, and in the company of one another.
See you in 2021!
- This journey would not have been possible without my partner-in-crime, Adhishree. Thank you for being a wonderful Co-Host and for the endless conversations over filter coffee that allowed GSC to thrive :)
- For those of you who are fellow students of the art and practice of facilitation and would like to learn more about principles and techniques, please message me to get access to our Good Society Toolkit.