Sonya Shah: Witnessing Suffering and Transcendence in the Most Extreme Places
Couldn't load media player!
Sep 10, 2016
Awakin call with Sonya Shah on 9/10/16 Host: Preeta Bansal Moderator: Sujatha Baliga
Preeta: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening, I guess, for some parts of the world. Welcome and thank you for joining us.
Today our special guest speaker is none other than the incomparable Sonya Shah. Some one who really has walked today's theme- " Witnessing Suffering and Transcendence in the most Extreme Places"
Thanks for joining today's call.
This weeks theme, as I shared earlier is- " Witnessing Suffering and Transcendence in the most Extreme Places"
One experience I found is often in the most parts of our lives, in the most extreme places and in the most extreme suffering we actually have the opportunity for transcendence. Our guest this week worked in culturally difficult area around sexual harm. She works with survivors and people who have committed it. She often feels by doing this work, is like walking through the eye of a needle. Because it requires practices and processes that produces trusting space that is needed for people to express, as she says, " the worst thing that ever happened to me", The worst thing that I ever did to another and the thing that I never told anyone. And they seek to do this for the benefit of their own healing, wellness and liberation. The theme asks each of us to consider- In my experiences what conditions and designs foster that kind of deep trust and spaces that enable deep excavations of the soul and open sharing.
So we have the pleasure of such an amazing moderator, Sujatha Baliga today. I thought we would start by asking her to kick off our circle. To give you some context, Sujatha herself is an amazingly renowned and accomplished practitioner in the field of restorative justice. She has also done a lot of deep internal work and was a guest in an Awakin call about 15 months ago.
So Sujatha thank you so much for joining us. I thought we will kick it off by just asking you, given that you yourself have been so involved in the restorative justice practices and in creating safe spaces for individuals to unveil their deepest fears and behaviors that might be associated with things that are considered shameful in their mind. And so many conditions are necessary for creating safe spaces for such people that are going through the experiences. Based on your experience, can you highlight one or two of the most important practices that are essential for building trust that will allow people to get in touch with and unearth their deepest parts of their soul?
Sujatha: Thanks Preeta. What comes to mind first is, without making it about me, when I am in conversation with someone who I am hoping will feel safe enough to share something that may be they have never shared before, that is associated with shame and things around the types of harm that we are talking about today, I think it is important to share something of myself. I think you can't expect other people to be vulnerable without being vulnerable yourself. And there's a way to gently open the door by opening it for yourself first and to show that there is safety and there is trust in opening a little bit about things about yourself. And sometimes that goes deeper. Sometimes that goes to the point where I am sure some of the worst things that I've done and the worst things that have been done to me in order for it to make safe for other people. I think they see reflected in that, they are not judging me at that moment that I am sharing. That opens the possibility through empathy that I might not judge them.
The other thing that is really important is to bring more of a curious heart than a curious mind. So if I say, "Tell me about that", as if I've put you in a petridish, you are likely to open up. But if I bring a curious heart, if my heart just genuinely know your heart and your story, that feels like a really good place to start.
Preeta: That's beautiful. Thank you so much! Really looking forward to this conversation.
With that Sujatha, I'd like to invite you to introduce Sonya and dialogue with her.
Sujatha: It is really my joy to introduce and interview my life long friend Sonya Shah. I'll tell you a little bit about her and then when I go into the dialogue with her, I want to leave lots of time and space for Sonya to share her wisdom and the beauty of the work that she does and the beauty she brings to it.
Sonya is a gifted facilitator of Restorative justice practices, which she does in her home, in her community, in schools and in prison settings. She has been teaching social justice education for 20 years. For the past decade she has been seeding Restorative justice and trauma healing modalities, locally and across the nation. She brings her experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse to her work and that's really critical to her analysis and her approach in her work.
Something you will hear her talk about today is that she is currently facilitating circles for survivors of sexual harm and the people who have committed sexual harm. And that's the work she is doing for an organization that she has founded and aptly named- Project Ahimsa, which offers non-punitive approaches to addressing and healing harm, through workshops, training, and circles, writing. Project Ahimsa's work is grounded in restorative justice, trauma healing and transformative justice and critical pedagogy. Prior to founding Project Ahimsa, Sonya was the Replication, Training and Curriculum Director at Insight Prison Project and responsible for oversight of the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) program in prisons that she did across the state of California and nationally. She is Involved in Crime survivors for safety and justice, where she is a founding member of that entity. And she also served on the advisory board of restorative justice for Oakland youth and as a board of trustees for the California Institute for Integral studies, where she is an associate professor.
So her credentials are numerous and I don't want to take too much time with things like her BA from Brown and her Masters from Art institute of Chicago, her Fulbright fellowship and Jacob Javitz fellowship. I think more important is for you to have a snap shot of who I've known Sonya to be since she was sixteen. I think more than anything that I can say about her Character is that she is a true friend, not just to her friends, but also to her colleagues to students, to books, to concepts, to institutions and to the idea of liberation. She brings an ethic of deep relationship to everyone and to everything she engages in. Another thing that is also always been true of her is genuine curiosity. She is inquisitive without inquisition. And what I find beautiful is that, despite her legacy list of credentials, she has lately been describing herself as a student of life, of spirituality and of many things. She assumes student role with humility and joyful curiosity. This is illustrated, I think, by the five questions for Sonya that you could find online. At the when she was asked by Servicespace for one line message for the world, she responded with a question- What kind of world could we co-create if we lead with love compassion and non- judgment? The fact that her one line message is question, not a rhetorical one, but a genuine one, a hopeful one about the nature of inter-connectedness, I think says all about who she is and what she brings to the world.
So I am so thrilled to be asking her some questions today.
I'll start with a first one Sonya.
There are all these amazing beautiful things you do in the world with survivors, As a professor at CIIS, in prisons, in your work to understand the causes and conditions that give rise to sexual harm. And you support lifting up of other peoples work, particularly formally incarcerated people and then of course there are things like your amazing parenting of your two little ones, getting less little everyday. So I wish we had enough time to learn from you about each of these things. But I would love for you to start with your work with your prison system. If you could talk a little bit about what you are doing that would be great.
Sonya: Thank you Sujatha and thank you Preeta. First of all I just want to say it's a ridiculous pressure to be interviewed by my best and closest friend of 25 years.
I will start with talking a little bit about my work in the prison system, which I think is most appropriate for this subject matter. To add a little bit of a context, I spent the last eight years working in many different prisons. A lot of time at San Quentin. I have been up to the tip of California to Pelican bay, down to bottom of California to Chuckwalla state prison by the Arizona border and have done some significant work, seeding, really trauma healing and restorative justice practice groups inside those prisons. By seeding what I mean is, merely and simply creating the conditions for people to experience their own agency that leads to more internal liberation and probably lots of other things.
One could ask a question- why do you need somebody from outside to come in and do that?
To understand the nuances and the intersections of the prison system is that- people on the inside can't actually meet without someone from the outside. They can't convene without someone from the outside, to sort of hold and start those containers that then start to run themselves. But there is a role of bringing in really simple tools of deeper processing, of thinking about shame, of thinking about forgiveness, of accountability of trauma, of resiliency, of grief and loss, that kind of help those processes along.
So Sujatha did a beautiful list of all the things I do. One of the things that I thought a lot about is my own through line in all of this work; the prison work, working with survivors, working with students at CIIS. I think what I found in any of those situations- it's really about shedding a light. Offering a lit bit of light into the space that is probably least visible. It's not about speaking for anybody; it's not about speaking in anybody else's voice except to say that there are places in the world that are less visible to the rest of us.
Sujatha often has said- I have heard her say this once and I’ve used it quite a bit is that- Gandhiji said, " we should be making policy for the last girl in the last village." When we are doing that we are actually working towards equity and justice. If we translate that into this country, sometimes that last girl is a small child who is sexually abused sitting at home in her house. Sometimes that's a family who has just crossed the border into the US from Mexico and sometimes that is a person sitting in a prison cell. In this criminal justice reform world, people who have committed sexual harm are pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole. They are the least visible, they are considered to be most inhuman. The notion of, even in all of the work that's been done that is progressive, when you start to talk about the fact that you are working with sexual offenses people, people kind of look at you cross-eyed, "you are a little bit insane". And division that comes up is some unknown ominous serial child abductor, which we know in the world of sexual harm is not who usually commit sexual harm. It's somebody who is close to home. And so to just spend time in places that are really... to demystify who different people are and getting a sense of how we can cross these lines and see each others shared humanity, because there is so much condemning, so much woundedness, so much defensiveness.
Two weeks from now we are starting a project to work with 20 correctional officers in Massachusetts. We are stepping off of the line because, to learn how to do peer support trauma and healing and resiliency groups for themselves and for each other. This is again one of the most invisible places. Think about the humanity of the correctional officer, when usually we, even on the liberal progressive side say, " They do that and they do those and they are terrible people." So-called torturer was not born a torturer, right? A person who has committed a very serious offense was not born to do that. So how do we actually sit there with our hearts and kind of create that humanity?
So that's another work that I am doing.
Sujatha: Thank you so much Sonya! It's so beautiful. I love your description of the "us and theming" I think of you as someone, from the beginning of knowing you were always reticent to do that. Never us and them. Sort of not willing to draw that line through your own heart.
So it ties into the next question, which is a reprise of Preeta's question to me at the beginning of the call. I think of you, and it's not unrelated to your inability to do " Us and them ", I think of you as beautifully gifted at getting people to explore and unveil their deepest fears and behaviors that are often associated with shame for the things that they have done and for the things that they have experienced. So in your work, people tell you both worst things that happened to them and the worst things they've done. And it's often a person telling both of those things, because as we have discussed this many times, we are rarely all just one, if ever. So in your experience what are the things that you do? How do you draw on things to build trust; that allows for people to get in touch with them and break silence about these very painful things?
Sonya: Thanks Sujatha. I would start out echoing a lot of what you have said, which is showing up with your heart and coming with vulnerability and really building relationships. I would say that there are five or six things that are really important.
One of the most critical is being committed to building of those relationships. And relationships take time. Any kind of deep processing or deep work with each other where people feel comfortable saying worst thing that ever happened and the worst thing that they have done- sometimes it happens right away, but it also does take time.
The second thing for me is really coming with what we call power with approach not a power over or power under approach. The sense is that, I don't walk into a room assuming that I now more than anybody else in that room. I also have to be utterly conscious and aware that I actually have more power over everybody else by the nature of the fact that I am an outsider walking in. I am free person, I am a teacher, and I am a facilitator. It would take one thing right, for me to abuse my power and to make someone feel small, to get them in trouble. So the sense of being utterly conscious and aware and actually naming that right away to demonstrate to the group of people that this is a place that you can question me and question all of us who are coming in and holding space.
The third thing is related to the question that I put up on your Awakin call is this sense of being grounded in love and compassion and non-judgment and unshaming So a person has to believe you that you are willing to hear the craziest, the worst, the most insane thing that they think, right, that they have ever done. It reminds me of this one man that met years ago inside San Quentin. By the way, as I tell these stories, I have permission to tell them, so there is no breaking of confidentiality. So when he first came- this group lasted 80 weeks. We met once a week for 2 hours. When he first came he used to say," I am an evil person. I am just straight up evil. I am the worst person you've ever met." He had done some pretty serious stuff. He had a history of pretty severe gang violence; he was a well-known pimp. On the one hand he would say," I am evil, I am a terrible person." On the other hand, in his disposition, he was the gentlest creature that I had ever met. On the third hand he would say things all the time like, " you know sometimes you got to just kidnap a woman, taper her up and throw in your trunk." In those moments, if I were to wave my big fat finger and say," How dare you say that and don't you know." That kind of anger would produce in him a reaction like, " I am just going to shut up now. I am not going to say anything. This is not safe for me. This too scary and may be I am actually that evil person." There is a way in showing up with genuine sense of love for even" worst thing", right? So weeks and weeks went by and there is this narrative that keeps unraveling itself in many different ways. Around the 40th week, he was starting to break open more into his life and different things that had happened. It turns out that his mother was a call girl and he grew up just with his mother. When he was five years old, his father tried to take his life and his mother took a bullet for him. And he had this incredible sense of protection that he was supposed to have for his mother, his entire childhood into adulthood. And I remember asking him this question on that 40th week which was, " Do you remember a time in your life that you didn't think you were evil." And he told a story when he was 7 years old and sitting on the couch with his mother in the rain, eating grilled cheese sand witches and watching television and it was the time he thought that he was not a bad person. And he told this story about how he made this very conscious decision a moment after to never have anyone hurt him or his mother or anybody in his family. He was going to be the “baddest” mother f.....r you have ever met and that's what he became.
It was in that moment that he was able to pull apart the difference between who he actually was, his true nature and the actions that he started to commit. The sort of actions that were harmful. And gives us a really good highlight of this whole process. It's not just me but a group of people sitting together and really holding the space for someone like this man to be able to come to the place to realize these things about himself.
So couple of things that happen when people are able to see the worst thing that they ever did or experienced, that breaking of the silence.
I was in a prison two months ago where a man who was a sexual abuse survivor, who never told anybody in his life that he was survivor of the child sexual abuse, this was the second day of the 2 day workshop, he told 24 people and myself that he was a survivor. He never even told his best friend. When I asked him how he felt afterwards, he said, he felt elated, he felt joy, and he felt relieved. And that's a common experience. Through everything that I am saying, are patterns of how other people have said. So that sense of really being with the silence, of the shame, the stigma that produces a kind of healing or the beginning of producing a kind of healing that can relate self forgiveness, that can relate to forgiveness of others and often relates to them being accountable. Because once you feel that sense of healing of oneself and sense of self, it's easier to step into the role and saying, " Ok. Now I did that to you. “And again it's about separating that person, and that self from the action, right?
The other thing that is probably interesting to this community would be- is something that I have heard many, many people talk about is the healing that produces a kind of selflessness, right? So as folks are going through different experiences and really coming in to themselves and are going, " wow! I kind of feel better. I am addressing shame and these things are happening." There is this sense of not wanting to be greedy about it. "If I'm experiencing this, damn! I really want other people to experience this too. I want to be a part of that." There is a lot of rhetoric that is inside- " I want to give back. I want to give back!" Translated to this community is selfless action, right? So that's another thing.
The other two things is just a sense of being witnessed, being heard. There have been many times where I have been sitting in groups where people have said, " I wasn't going to share anything about myself. I didn't trust any of you. But this sister next to me shared and this brother next to me just shared, I feel like I owe it to the group. It is my respect of the group that I have to share something that's really important." What happens when your sangha or community is propping you up and building you up is, you feel enough self-confident to share something.
When we are doing this work together and we are sitting in circle and we are listening to each other and we are all just talking to each other, it rebuilds radical sense of trust and the belief in humanity is kind of restored in a lot of relationships that are broken, right? So there is a subset of things that happen in group experiences which is really, a circle is kind of microcosm of all the things that happen in out lives. And in a circle of 80 weeks, I am going to sit there and in the group people are going to love you, they are going to hate you. You are the good sister, bad mother, and really good girl friend. It's all happening, right? There is this wonderful unconscious process that seems to be going on where when we are consistent, compassionate and care about each other, we have this opportunity to rebuild relationships that weren't working.
One other thing that I want to mention, which I think is at the root of all of this understanding the nature of harm. So there is no one way that harm occurs. There is a multitude of reasons, personal reasons structural reasons, historical reasons, economic reasons, reasons from oppression of childhood trauma that are in a complicated way interrelating in somebody's life to produce and create the conditions where somebody chooses going down a path that is harmful. This whole process is really about unwinding into- where did things go haywire? What is the cause of the cause of the cause of why I committed a crime? In our little world there are cute little sayings but they are helpful. One of them is this notion that, "Hurt people hurt people." Because I've experienced hurt in my life, because I've experienced "trauma", I probably didn't have as a young person the opportunity to explore to process, it might not have been safe, may be there weren't caregivers in my life, there is a lot of structural inequity around, that can produce hurt in other people.
And so, this is in our world and whole theory of trauma and violence. This is like a well-established relationship. So you can think about a really simple example in lay terms. Say for example for me, I'm in a relationship at work with somebody who reminds me of my brother. My brother who, this isn't true, my brother was wonderful, my brother who I couldn't speak to, felt invisible around, I felt like he is dominating. And this person at work reminds me of my brother. And because I've never addressed the issues with my brother, I'm like, " This person at work is nagging me and acting certain ways around me. I can't seem to tell them it's not okay." So it's like a pressure cooker. I'm like a pressure cooker. It starts to build up and build up and build up until one day I explode. But I probably don't explode on to my boss, the person at work. I probably explode onto to Sujatha. Because she is my friend and I can or I explode on to somebody I don't know. So it's that same sense of how when we don't deal with what's going on with us. What our old patterns and old relationships that we are holding on to that can produce some kind of violent piece.
And the last thing I want to say, which I think I'm just becoming more interested in as time moves on and kind of more spiritual framework is, I have been really interested in thinking about, what is the role of all this stuff around trauma. Because right now we are taking about it with a lens of sociology and psychology, restorative justice and stuff like that. But where is the place and what is the role of trauma in sort the Karma/ Dharma cycle. In relationship to one's own spiritual path and how does it relate to spiritual foundation and for me that’s a personal enquiry, definitely coming from a very, very personal place of trying to understand that within myself. And I wrote this on the piece of the call that I've known men who have been in 20 years in solitary who suffered great abuses but whose light was so bright that it's impossible not to see the and I know men and women who have everything shrink into depression and suicidal thoughts. I really wonder, what causes one to choose the light or come into the light and another not to. And I don’t think I can answer that question. I don't think there is like one reason for anything.
But I came across this passage that I really loved.
"When even a momentary flash of Bodhichitta is born, In that instant we become a child of the Buddha’s and worthy of Universal respect. Bodhichitta is not some elite theory for sophisticated or well-educated people. It's for everyone. "
So hearts awaken in solitary confinement and heart close on Wall Street. And hearts close in solitary confinement and hearts awaken on Wall Street, right?
I really wonder in terms of this community stuff, what is it about the community and the Sangha that actually can support the sustaining and awakening of the heart, in the same way that these Awakin calls do or an Awakin circle does.
That was a long answer
Sujatha: There is so much! There are so many amazing experiences that you have! A few of the things that I've pulled from what you said; some of the words that jumped out at me, were this idea of contagion of vulnerability. I mean contagion in the best sense. And the feeling of generosity amongst incarcerated prisoners who were sharing, about the sexual harm that they caused or experienced and there is almost the sense of generosity, like I should share my story now. We know that prison folks don't tend to talk about what they did. Its kind of number one thing that volunteers are told, " Don't ask people what they did." It's an amazing thing- this contagion of vulnerability that you are fostering among people. I think one of the other thing that I pulled from what you just said that was so deep was this notion of- the cause of the cause of the cause of the why. And the time it takes to get there. You said, "On the 40th week he was able to say. " We usually go for our 1 week therapeutic healing or 5 days of this and that. But these really are longer journeys, right?
To unpeel the onion and the amount of time you invest is really evident from what you are sharing.
I wanted to ask a little bit about you and what it is that brings you to want to be in a prison for some 40 weeks plus? What is that brings you to want to be at CIIS and any project that you do? A little bit about what draws you to the work that you do?
Sonya: Thanks. Just before that question Sujatha, I would add... I mean you and I do this work, right? And sometimes it is the 40th week and sometimes it's on the first day and sometimes it's n the second day. I think there is this desperation that people have to heal and to talk. And so even an inkling or a glimmer of safety and compassion and sort of open heart and open space, people will share.
Sujatha and I were in a conference where there were number of survivors and it was like a bombshell. It was one after the other after the other. And this was a conference! This was 90-minute session! I was like how are we here? How are people saying things that they haven't really said out loud? So why? Why? This is the question; it's going to be the life long question, right?
I think I can probably poke at the truth for myself and may be in this round of questions, answer it from more like a life experience place. I wrote to Somik on the page.
My parents are immigrants. They grew up in New York. And they were the only people in our family to leave India. They didn't have savviness necessarily to hard core Manhattan culture. It was really hard transition for my family to move and be really isolated, even though the city is really a great place to live.
When I was young, I had experience of child sexual abuse and it was one of my first memories actually was being quite terrified. Terrified so much so that I describe it as an experience of- really first 18 years of myself was locking myself in the bathroom being with world and being in the world was way too scary.
That was a combination of product of early sexual abuse experience with parents that were beautiful and wonderful that did not know how to navigate the environment around them. And they were struggling to also navigate themselves. I was inclined then, that when I leave home I would probably be able to start figuring out who I was. And that was pretty much true. When I left to go to college, at 18, my own self-exploration and that journey kind of began. I feel like I have a lot of experience sitting in the darkness. Literally, I would lock myself up in the bathroom of our two-bedroom apartment because; it was the only place where I felt I could be that was safe. Since I had those experiences, it feels like, it gives me some capacity to sit in some spaces that are pretty dark. Also I think I have a more of an inclination to wonder why we are all not shedding the light on folks that have less light on them. So why are we ... the other day for example, I was at a faculty meeting at my school and there is a proposal on the table to give some relief time for assistant and associate professors and not for professors, right, because they really need it. And in the faculty meeting, the full professors are getting up and saying, " I really need it too and I'm in the height of my creativity. " I was like wow! . The ones that really need it are the assistant professors, the folks that are juggling five jobs and really have no time to write and so I raised my little hand and said, " I think I'd like to make a proposal in the opposite direction, which is that we forego any kind of leave 3 credits for the adjuncts and assistant professors." Really take ownership. Can we all just be called to really think about who needs it the most and I want to hold myself to that and I'm hoping that we can become a culture in this school where we hold each other to it? So how to even do things with each other in a way that isn’t like blaming and shaming but just saying, "can we end this model of scarcity? Can we hold to our best self, right? Can we become our best selves?
I think I have lots of questions about humanity and human nature and about our capacity to heal and be full about how harm happens, about justice and those are the things brought me to do this work.
Sujatha: That takes courage at your meeting to raise your hand and push back, even when it's against your own self-interest, when you would have benefited form the policy the people were suggesting in the opposite direction. Regardless of whether or not speaking up for oneself or speaking up for other, that push back takes courage. You have always struck m as someone with very strong moral compass. And it has taken various permutations over your lifetime. What I know is that you have a very longstanding yoga practice. And couple years ago, I know because I was with you, you went to Ladakh and spent large part of your summer there receiving teachings from His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The kala chakra teachings there and there were so many other ways in which you engage spirituality. I'd love to know what it is that you characterize as your relationship with spirit and spirituality to your work and vice versa.
Thinking about what it is on the spirit and spirituality side that grounds you to be able to do these really hard things, you know? It’s not at all an exaggeration to think of some of the prisons that you go into and some of the meeting with high-level official that you go into, as may be hell realms as we call in Buddhism. You clearly draw on some very deep things in order to do that and I'd love to know a little bit about that piece.
Sonya: Yeah! Yes, the high level meetings are definitely one of those realms for sure! Just to say that out loud!
This is probably the question that I am most excited about and also the one that I probably will fumble through because it's the newest for me, which is may the most exciting in some ways.
I think to answer this question, I have to fast forward and rewind a little bit. And it has a little Servicespace story in it as well. So I am fast-forwarding to July, this July a month and a half ago, where by some serendipitous chance I end up at this 90th Birthday celebration for beautiful Brother David and was invited to be there by Nipun. And I was sitting there at this really gorgeous celebration, which was like seven or eight hours long. And I was really struggling and asking this question about the relationship of trauma and this whole cycle of Dharma and my own Karma. I am very clear that my own karma, I have to work through the trauma, work through my own fears and my terror and all that stuff. It's kind of flip but not flip at all. And so we are standing in line to get a hug with Guri and Nipun with Brother David which never got to the end of the line, Nipun asked me this question, "How did you know to come on this path?" I think I gave him some answer that I was actually unhappy with. And I spent a lot of time thinking about that answer, fumbling through, may be it was here or may be it was there. I was pretty uncertain. And afterwards I thought a lot about it. I thought a lot about it since about the sense I feel like I’ve always been on a spiritual path or have been a seeker. But it was very, very difficult for me due to my own early childhood experiences to differentiate my true nature, my true calling from how I operated out of the deep terror of childhood trauma in those early years. Sitting with that, with that kind of moment and starting to realize that there was actually a pulling apart. It was like I sound like to coat hangers. With that I could start separating my many different experiences in my last 43 years and out them on different racks. And in a way I was doing what a lot of the men inside and women inside do, which is separating myself from the actions that I have committed or done. Some of those are really positive and some not so great.
My first memory in preschool, one of them was around being really afraid around the child sexual abuse and the terror that it produced. The other memory was standing at line in preschool, looking out into the world and wondering why everybody looked so lonely, why there was so much greed and why the world was oriented in the way it was, like a fast pace sense about it. And so I have started to look through my life and separate on to these coat racks the difference between these moments where I was really I think in an expression of justice, which I think is an expression of spirituality for me. It was at an early age and it still is. And when I say justice, it also translates to selfless action or selfless service.
When I was in high school I started a young socialist club, I don't you even know this Sujatha. I used to sneak out to meetings to go to the City University of New York. I snuck out to DC to out on protests. And that was sort of my little expression of things aren't right. I mean, I could go on and on, but those are some examples> and at the same time that, that was happening, I was hiding from the world. I was abusing my body. I was drinking. I was doing drugs and I was shoplifting. So when you take both of those experiences, and say which one was really the truth of awakened self and which one was the one that kind of fell asleep and was harming myself and staring to harm others. And so as my life progressed, I had interesting experiences in college and in Graduate school that sort of shoved anything spiritual under the rug. I went to Brown at the height of post modernism. So anything spiritual was anti-intellectual, every thought, word, action was make believe, and it was all de-constructible. The world was empty and nihilistic. I brought in to it, because it was a framework that was all around me.
When I went to Art school, it was more of the same. Aesthetics were naive, beauty was anti intellectual, and this whole notion of conceptual art followed this sense of post modernism, in which high art making only was acceptable and spirituality was definitely bad word. At the same time, I bought into this and I am working and am still in education, I am actually working with women in prison. I was doing a lot of work in community. So it was really confusing lifestyle to kind of have both.
In my 20's I had more experiences that were more harmful unfortunately, that led me to go into the fall asleep place a little bit more hard-core. I kind of shut down the other parts of myself for a while. I decided i am going to live a normative life. I am going to get married and have kids and try to do that thing that people do and I did it for a while. To be honest, I think what happens is we can't really hide who we really are, right? So as much as I wanted to stay asleep, it was kind of killing me from the inside and was still doing this educational work in justice. I got to the point where I just couldn't hide any longer. I couldn't hide under the covers. I couldn't stay there. And all of this work has if anything, its not really about me giving anything to anybody. What is given to me is, it held a big fat mirror up to my face and has said- it's time for you to really, really wake up.
So I'm happy to report that I am much more awake- like being awake has won over being asleep, or at least until now.
So fast-forward to the Kala Chakra moment with you Sujatha. Even in that moment few years ago, I knew that I knew that I had more of an inclination towards Buddhist path, even though I would describe myself like a very inter-faith items of the way I look at the world. I found this personally in this lifetime that particular set of ideas and thinking definitely resonates with me quite a bit. And I remember sitting there, really confused about whether we take refuge or not, try to read as much as possible, listening to all of you talk and scratching my head. I actually remember you saying something to me Sujatha. You said, "It's not like you have to know all the answers right now. You are just choosing a path."
I was like, " Ooh! Right!'
So I did. I got down on my one knee, with 10,000 people in Ladakh in the heat and took refuge. And I remember you actually turned to me and laughed and said, " Do you feel any different now?" I laughed back and said, “No."
So I knew that it was right and I think what has happened more and more as things kind of become more alive for me is that-- like recently I have been re reading some books and some Buddhist texts that I tried to read two or three years ago. And they are kind of coming alive for me in a way that they never have before. So my experience of them is much more deep and it's experiential. I am weeping now, when I read a passage because, I feel like I get it for the first time.
I think where I am right now is in this very beautiful deep composting alive period, where I love to do, if I had my way, is to spend two years of life just being a student and learning and being really quiet. Just sort of cracking open these new frame works for myself. I think they are the deeper frameworks that I have been longing to really hold and sustain me and hold and sustain this work and actually to perpetuate in a much greater way.
The last thing I'll say about this is- I had a really interesting experience understanding my relationship to meditation recently. I never felt that meditation was accessible to me. I laughed, and I used to laugh out loud. I am like, " Yeah right! Like I am going to meditate!" My aversion to meditation was that, my reaction to child sexual abuse has been extreme disassociation, right? And my dissociating, even my body, living in fantasy world, living somewhere else, a lot of my time even when it looks like when I am present. Meditation calls us to the present moment, right? The moment my fingers are hitting the key board, presence to my feet and my sandals, the presence to the sounds passing, presence to the breath, all of it, the idea of that really evoked the extreme terror that I felt, right? The discomfort that I felt in my twenty year wit my own body and people and with everything. Reason I knew I could never have a desk job was because I would be getting every ten minutes and walking around. It was very hard for me to concentrate. But I notice now, that there is a really beautiful tender piece that's happening. I will be present for 10 - 20 minutes with my kids, or when I am doing something. I don't even notice that I haven't been disassociating, which is a really wonderful experience. I am being cheeky and funny about it is because, it's actually lot more than 20 minutes these days. It's a lot longer periods of time and I feel like this is where I am at with the accumulation of work that I have done on myself.
Preetha: Sonya this is so amazing. Thank you for your wisdom, your sharing of your personal stories, the amazing experiences that you had are so rich.
Sujatha: Sonya, I just want to really, really thank you for your transparency. You are one of the rare people on the planet that I know who is willing to not be seen as a good Indian girl. And the things you shared!
Sonya: That I am definitely not.
Sujatha: Oh but you are! This is the thing. It's time to really redefine what it means to be a good Indian girl. This literally brings tears to my eyes, that people who are willing to go to India and to engage in service there for years, for people who are willing to into the prisons and sit with people who have done sexual harm, there couldn't be something that I can think of more definitionally good than that. I don't mean good in some sort of simple way. Deeply, deeply good! So, Something that came from the last thing you said was about- being asleep to ourselves, the harmful things that we do to others, and ourselves really it is just beautiful to see in your own life, how clear that it is path born of trauma. Your personal transparency in coming out of that and being unafraid to share your journey so that those of us who walk with shame about the things we have experienced and done can feel also a little safer. So you walk what I have said in the beginning of this call, the capacity for people to share because we ourselves are willing to say, "This happened to me or I did this or these are some ways that I have been asleep and I want to wake up." So I just wanted to really thank you for that.
And I love that you are saying you really can't hide who you really are any more. I mean- it always snuck out sideways, who you really are and it's beautiful to really see it in its full manifestation now.
In closing, I want to ask you, one thing that keeps you up at night and sort of what gives you hope about it today?
Sonya: Thank you! I think what keeps me up is how we are so deeply disconnected in a culture of individualism and capitalism and all that stuff. I don’t really think it is who we are and what we are born to be. That's what keep me up. And what gives me hope are things like this. Awakin Circles give me hope. Everything that I am saying is going to Awakin circle. A bunch of people sitting around together, loving each other non-judgmentally, right? And small acts of change that interrupt and break the chain of individualism, the isolation give me hope. Small gardens give me hope. Restorative justice practices give me hope. Berkeley community acupuncture gives me hope. Small things that people do to keep us in connection and be grounded in love.
Preeta: You talk beautifully about your own personal journey and kind of what you bring to your work. The trials that you have faced as a child at some level, I think you described yourself as someone who locked herself in the bathroom. Can you describe a little bit of your feelings for me? How did you come out of the period of downward spiral? Were there moments or what were the small steps or the big Aha moments that might have helped you come out of that?
Sonya: Thanks Preeta! There was a pretty significant moment. Leaving New York and being 18 and going to college was that moment. I went to college that was extremely nurturing and I was around people who were very nurturing, were curious about the world and engaged big fat nerds like me. I think there was something about being out of my environment and just feeling really safe and just really held and where I was able to .... I don't actually know any of this until I was 18. I didn't remember anything. I think it was actually my third day at Brown that I started to have those flash memories. And it wasn't surprising right? I was away from the environment. I felt safe. I am like all those folks that are on the 40th week. I think it was really those conditions that produced the ability for me to start the journey to go into some of the harder things.
Preeta: That's great! We have a question that came in from the live stream.
He says, "Sonya, thank you for your wisdom. I've learnt so much from you. So much of this resonates deeply. Can you share a bit about how you personally deal with secondary trauma or compassion fatigue. What does a facilitator do with a trauma that you sit and listen to on a regular basis?
Sonya: Oh! That's such a great question! The reality is that, for me over the last 8 years, particularly around the work in prison, I had two really huge moments where I experience that compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma so much so that I ended up taking three months of a break from doing a lot of the work.
What I noticed about it is that I was getting to the point where I was so deeply, deeply invested that I was losing myself, that I was unable to think about anything else but the work that I was doing. I felt like I was living inside. And at some point I recognized it and I knew that I needed to take a break. We have had conversations with friends many times about the rhetoric about self-care. It's important but I think with extreme work it's beyond self-care. It's like what do I need that is beyond the daily self-care? I don't mean rhetoric in a bad way. I can do these daily practices and I do very often that sustains me. At the same time, I know that there is a bigger sustaining. And I think that's where I got to this summer. I took a big break this summer and really realized that the bigger than grounding framework that's going to sustain me is a deeply spiritual framework. That is going to take a little time to cultivate. As I rush back into the world, September is for me a month of being inside a prison or inside school or inside something for 10 full days out of 30, which is a lot for a teacher, as I rush back into it, I am like," oh my God! How do I make sure that at the same time I am doing this in the output, I would be really cultivating internal and much deeper frame works." I hoping eventually that I am putting out into the Universe, I am pretty full this year, but next year I am starting to create a lot more spaciousness to be able to do that.
So I think to this callers question, Sometimes it feels like we just have to crack into the outside of the daily practices, those really, really deeper spaces that we are going to need in our lives to hold us together and to sustain us.
Preeta: I am curious, just following up on that, when you talk about your daily practices, can you kind of describe roughly what your daily practices are now? Do you have circles with people you participate with?
Sonya: Yeah! Many things. I do a little bit of meditation everyday. I have a lot of people in my life tat I can call. When somethings happen, I reach out to them much more than I ever did before. But I think the most significant and probably different thing is that I used to struggle a lot with transitions. I'd be like, "Go, go, go! Yeah, yeah, Yeah!" Three days on. I don't need to drink water and then I will get on the plane and move on to the next thing. That was my mode. The working intensely mode. And then my body five days, seven days, falls apart, right? I am like, " Oh my God! I am Sick. I don't know why, but that's okay. This is just a cycle of what happens." I am kind of even justifying that. So now, I am forcing myself to build in transition time. Forcing myself to come back on a plane a day early. I am forcing myself to eat. The person I co-facilitate with at this one prison, I really rely on her. She brings lunch for us, she brings food and she brings water. And She said, "One of my jobs is to remind you to drink water and to eat." The first time we went in, I didn't do either. So there is a combination of relying on others and really, really having this sense of critical self-introspection. Just constantly asking myself, What do I need to be doing differently? What should I be doing better? Both in my work and also for myself and how do I start to actually implement those things?
Alissa: Hello. My name is Alissa and I am in Seattle. I just wanted to thank you so much for being so open in sharing. Something you just said made me think, " Oh my Gosh!" One of my beacons that I have had this year is nourishment and when I think of what you just said, as far as giving yourself time and space, I thought, "The work you do id nourishing this openness and this light, but there is all starts of ways of nourishing ourselves and drinking and nourishing our body and nourishing our spirit and giving ourselves space, when we are in an intensive moment, standing back and getting perspective is part of the balance. It's something that just popped into my head when you said that.
Sonya: Thank you for your refection.
Saachi: Hi Sonya. Thank you so much for being so amazing. I am Saachi from Mumbai. Your talk came at just the right time. I have been doing circles with juveniles, with young boys who have been involved with sexual violence for the past two months in Mumbai. I am just starting out and don't know much. But I have realized that doing circles, we are creating a safe space. The moment I walk out of the room, I see an entire system that is violent, that will treat the children like they were the worst existing creatures on the planet. How do you deal with the people in the system? I read somewhere that you want to spend more time in India. Can you please come and train us in India? Our criminal systems and juvenile systems need processes like these and really need to bring circle work and restorative justice to India.
Sonya: What a beautiful question and yes! And I think may be Sujatha and I will come together. I just want to say thank you to the person for doing the amazing work that they are doing. One of the things I think people think about in terms of restorative justice are kind of circle work or any kind of circle work. It's not a panacea. It's not going to solve all the world's problems. And because we have such a dearth of all of these beautiful healing community modalities that are doing things, we look to them to solve all our problems. We want them to be everything, but they are not. The reality is that, we walk out of the circle and we are faced with what's happening right in front of us on the street and especially these young kids, if they are not held and we are not taking a much more deeper systemic approach, especially holding such young people who are at incredible amounts of risk and harms way, while a circle can be solace and may be "save" and help to set on the right path and create enough support for those young people to go in a different direction, the reality of resources and violence won't allow it.
This is one part of the work that I do. The other part of work that I do is constantly talking about it from a systems perspective, right? By systems I mean, in the world. Like how do we actually change the way we are and operate with each other all the time, including resources. Like the little piece in my faculty meeting- how are we constantly involved with diverting resources? How are we constantly involved with questioning the systemic violence around these young people, around all of us, but really around young people? And nothing is going to change unless we do something with that.
I feel like sometimes what happens is- we are trying to create a tiny glimmer of hope, a tiny glimmer of love, a tiny glimmer of compassion in a gargantuan cyclical world that feels really hopeless and not compassionate right now. All I can think of this sense of the ripple effect. If more and more of us are doing it then.... and some, And I am not one of those. My dearest friends and colleagues who work in the policy world are some of those who go for big huge systems changes, right? They are going for big law changes. The California institute for justice are one of the people that I work closely with, in the little realm that I can, that really do the big system changing work.
How do we put all this in context? Also know that part of what we have to do is some of the bigger systems changing work.
Preeta: Awesome! Thanks so much.
Online questioner: Can you speak about your thoughts about non-profit industrial complex? (Undecipherable)
Sonya: Oh! This person is singing my language actually! More and more I feel....
There are so many very close people that I work with, that have to rely on the non-profit world for their day-to-day bread. I have so much love and respect and it's not really about the people doing the work in the non-profit industrial complex. It's non-profit industrial complex itself, right? It feels like, what it has done is speaking exactly the corporate model and just replicated it. But instead of selling a product we are selling ourselves. Do I become the person that invented the best program? Then I have to jockey with everybody else to get funding. And it becomes a war. There is a lot of internal tearing each other down. For what? For a product, right? That often time is kind of incremental shift and incremental change. It's funder driven. It's naively based on one year with ridiculous amount of deliverables, 3 years or 5 years. It feels like, as much as possible I feel like we need to be really questioning that model and opting out as much as we can.
I have been thinking a lot about - what is the hybrid approach for folks that need it? What’s the opting out approach? I might have more capacity to opt out because I have a professorship job, which has it's own realms of being a private institution. But It might allow me to opt out of the non-profit industrial complexes. In fact, I can be much clearer about what I am doing, for whom and what the relationship is to money because I am being fed in a different kind of way.
So I feels like, for us, for folks on this call, this is a really, really huge question. And one that I am really interested in exploring a lot more for myself, and working with my colleagues and my friends to explore other models for themselves.
Preeta: This is just so fascinating because... It's something I have been exploring a lot with too. How do you mix models? It doesn't make sense to do work from the heart, when it is job or there is something else that you are in relationship for it. Or should we, as you have suggested, separate from each other. The material needs are met elsewhere and the work we do from the heart is purely from the heart without any other relationship. It is kind of a personal problem.
Sonya: I feel like may be we are in this cutting edge 2016 place where we have to dialogue enough till we start creating some alternatives. I feel like all the work I do from the heart is from the heart. All my CIIS work is from the heart. Some of it I'm pain for and some of it, I do and I'm not paid for it. And I am noticing the difference. What produces what inside of me? And then when I actually do need to be remunerated because I have children... and ... because I have children really, more than anything else and also because I'm living in Bay area. I haven't reached that level of being able to renounce as much as I'd like to, the stuff that I have. I'm getting there and in slow ways and it takes time to do so. I wonder how when you do all your work from your heart, how you separate out what you just get pain and what doesn't? And how it's grounded in ethics. I'm starting to feel more and more in my life that any work that is related to prison in my life, eventually I don't want to do with any kind of remuneration attached to it. It's not realistic yet but I'm working towards getting there.
Sujatha: Sonya I am really mindful of the fact that you are very generous. You often talk about your CIIS job as this amazing way to keep your geek side alive and pedagogy side alive and you are such a wonderful professor and you are so loved in that space. That has been a way that you have been able, to some degree, hold down some of our financial needs to support your children etc..
And life in the Bay Area!
You do keep a toe in the non-profit world and yet there is some way in which you are able to do it with generosity. You don't do that with - I am carving out territory. I am going to patent my version of these circles. And this is something we even see it in the restorative justice field, right? I refuse share my training manuals with you. I am afraid either you are going to mess with the model in a way that does feel good to me or you are going to make money on the thing I created. And I a wondering what it is that you do to keep yourself from the kind of pettiness in a sense, right? Even when we are all competing for the same grants. How does camaraderie, friendship, to exist even when we keep a toe in the non-profit industrial complex?
Sonya: Yeah! I think you are saying so much that is so important. I feel like- it is separating out the big system from the people that are in it, the camaraderie and friendships in it. When these things start to get intense- we are talking about livelihood, we are talking about scarcity, it's coming back to -- I think that there is this really deep acknowledgement that we live in an environment of scarcity, scarcity in the non- profit land and folks are really doing the best that they can.
So that's one with my toe in the non- profit world. And it's not like I don't feel constantly seduced to apply for that grant or to do this or that. I feel it constantly. And there is this other piece of me that I noted- More and more I opt out or just kind of give it away, and we talked about this many times, Sujatha, where I am pushing things across the table and saying," If you want you can have it. Take it. You can have this, you can have my brush, you can have my chair and you can have the book and you can have all of it." Just even saying it, creates this sense of being able to breath inside. And something about that reminds me of the whole point of why we are doing this work to begin with. Which is really about the spirit of abundance and has the spirit of generosity in it. So the work that you do Sujatha, the work that you do Preetha, has that spirit of abundance and generosity built inside of it. How we extricate ourselves from the systems? I feel like we need to be working in much more community response ways. And thing Servicespace is an incredible model and awesome model. And there are so many more models that we should be thinking of like that.
Chris: This is Chris form Chicago. I am sitting in lot of reflections and I feel gratitude for this call. I just wanted to put in a brief word that I am starting an internship at Chicago public School. And I am very interested in bringing in restorative practices. I am kind of standing in the threshold of where do I start? One question I wanted to ask you Sonya, if you have experienced stepping into systems of which you are a part but then sort of have total freedom to set things up and you give what you have to offer and accept what is picked and what is not. How you found to be patient with yourself and just accepting the constraints of the circumstances? I hope that makes sense.
Sonya: Oh definitely! I really appreciate your call. I feel more and more that even though the work is very, very hard and very hard to set up, I find myself more and more in the situation where I can set it up. I think getting you to saying no, and not seeing that, as a way to deter you from what you know is to be something that you can eventually do. If it is something new for you, building the trust that you building in your school, the trust that you are building in your system. Finally in Chicago, there are some amazing restorative justice practitioners there that we can connect you with.
Connect yourself with the community. In Chicago restorative justice community and asking, "what do you guys do in school? How do we build this momentum? How can I get the school on board?" May be you get trained and you get teacher to come and train with you. May be you getting science teachers to come in. May be you bringing in something to the school for the kids. So I think just being really, really patient with how slow it is going to be and getting hooked into the community and taking it one day at a time.
Preeta: Thank you Sonya. Sujatha, I am wondering if we can just ask you to finish your story as well.
Sujatha: I was just thinking about story Sonya told me about herself and her childhood. I am actually very excited about the previous callers question. I am happy to connect you to folks in Chicago who are doing work as well.
The story about your childhood, Sonya, there is a story that you tee- Going back to the previous question, about that generosity of spirit.
When you went to a candy truck, if you don't mind telling your story. A little bit about your epiphany about generosity, that is still remaining in the person that did what you did in that story and what it takes to do that?
Sonya: Thanks! I grew up in New York in Manhattan Island. I went to public school for 10 years. My first seven years of public school is pretty hard-core school on the 92nd street. We had this white truck that would sit right outside the schoolyard. We weren't allowed but we all did anyway, we all went to the white truck. We got ourselves some candy. I was six or seven years old, second grade, I don't remember exactly, but I had these four friends. Every day we would take turns going to the white truck together and one of us would pay for candy for everybody. What I noticed is that when it was my turn, I would .. Lets say I had 25 cents and I would buy everyone a 5-cent candy. And when it was the other girls’ turns, they would buy themselves 15-cent candy and buy the rest of us a 2-cent candy. I was completely perplexed by this idea. It made no sense to me at all. I remember I used to sit there and think, " my 5 cent candy tastes like twenty cent candy because every body has a 5 cent candy." And so I don't understand why somebody would be buying themselves 15 or twenty-cent candy and the rest of us 2-cent candies. Honestly it was first most important lesson in capitalism and greed. The sense of mine. What I give to you out of generosity instead of charity model. Like the all for one and one for all. I laugh about it but it was a very painful lesson because I kept living it over and over again throughout my high school. When it came to borrowing clothes and lending clothes and just give things way, when it came other way around it was very calculated you know and it was always very confusing for me, living in that kind of environment.
Sujatha: I just appreciate that. The suffering of the calculation and the wish for everyone to be able to have 5 cents candy and understand that it takes like million dollar candy. I see living your life that way Sonya. It’s just beautiful to see.
Sonya: Thank you.
Preeta: What a great story! Sonya one final question. I am wondering how we as a community the larger Servicespace community globally, can support your work?
Sonya: Oh dear! I am not one half for anything! But I am going to try and be bold and just say..
One is that everybody needs to continue doing the beautiful work that they are doing. And it’s been such a meaningful thing to become more involved in these Awakin circles and stuff like.
I don't really have anything to ask for. I think what I am doing and said it in my little blurb is- what I am putting out into the universe is actually moving out of the US and out of the prison world as my life affords it to try to spend more time in India and hope that my life and my work and my personal experiences can take me there. Whoever is on the call, you know, who is in India, I would love to explore those conversations further.
Sujatha: It sounds like Sonya and Saachi need to connect about the work in prisons in Mumbai. That clearly is the first step, I am thinking, may be collectively as a community, how to make that happen.
Preetha: Sonya, thank you so much. What an amazing opportunity to have you and Sujatha, two heroes in this movement in dialogue. It was incredible for all of us to be witnesses to that.
So much of what you said resonated deeply. I loved the way you talked about the cause of the cause of the cause of the harm. How do we begin unwinding all of that when they are suffering? And just the deep work that you are engaged in. Thank you for your work and thank you for your sharing.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly conference call that anyone from around the world can dial into. It is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Each call features a unique theme and an inspiring guest speaker. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.