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Ashima Goyal: Bloom Where You Are Planted
Nuggets From Ashima Goyal's Call
Saturday, I had the joy and privilege of hosting the Awakin Call with Ashima Goyal with Christ Johnnidis moderating and Pavi Mehta livestreaming.
Ashima Goyal is an "ordinary" heroine who channels her talents and wide-ranging training to serve extra-ordinarily in small and large ways. A writer, an editor, a socio-emotional learning educator, an artist, a community-builder (and visionary behind Romania's first Karma Kitchen), a cook, food blogger, and a spirited volunteer, her service has spanned from online space-holding, to hands-on direct disaster aid in grassroots villages after serious floods. As an engineer, and later as a social policy graduate, Ashima had the idea to change the world. "Luckily," she says, "I came in contact with people who helped me see that all I can do is change myself." For the past 7 years, all her work has been towards transforming her environment by first transforming herself through small acts of service. The conversation was a small sampling of the extra"ordinary" love she brings to each place she visits and lives and her learnings from blooming wherever she is planted.
We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets that stood out from the call:
Like a poem she read (Heartprints by Anonymous), Ashima wants to leave heartprints everywhere: “Heartprints of compassion, of understanding and love. Heartprints of kindness and genuine concern.” Our conversation today proves there is no doubt that she is leaving heartprints all over the world. Born and raised in India, Ashima has lived in places as varied as Angola, Romania, and the United States, most recently in Houston, Texas. When asked what qualities allow her to find flourishing, opportunities to connect, to build community, and cultivate growth, Ashima explains that moving so much requires that she be able to connect, to approach others and talk. She grew up in a growing family (16 humans and 4 dogs). “This teaches you about trusting each other. The inner circle is about compassion and sharing. Everything is a shared resource.” Seeing aunts and uncles open to strangers was a foundation for her being able to do the same. Her family never locked the gate of the house. It was always open for strangers to fill up their water bottle or use the restroom. Seeing that everyone is open to strangers built the trust she needed in order to be able to approach people. She qualifies that by explaining that being open and approaching somebody with love, they connect back with you. “That's the biggest grounding in trust.”
For the first 16 years of her life, she was in one place so that gave her a stable anchor. In her heart, she's as good as there even if she can't actually go back to the physical place. In her early life path, she didn’t put much thought into choosing a career or what she would graduate in. In her country and family, the thought was if you can do engineering or be a doctor, then you do one of those. Her father suggested engineering and she got in, so she did engineering. Her mother and father encouraged her to volunteer “on the side.” Her parents were part of a pharmaceutical company and always did medical camps when she was growing up. She was also part of Each One-Teach One as an early experience. She insists she doesn't have a “coming of age” story when it comes to service. However, she was working in Bangalore in the slums and every opportunity she was drawn to was working with children. At one point, she was volunteering on weekends while working in engineering during the day and her boss commented on her being more excited about her volunteer activities than her work. Volunteering wasn't a term her family used when they put out water for people walking by. It was just there. It was the joy she discovered in working with children that led her to choose working with non-profits instead of returning to engineering after a 6-month hiatus.
She was in the United Kingdom and earning her Master's with big dreams of working in India when she came in contact with the Servicespace ecosystem where people were living a life of service. She saw them and couldn't pinpoint what was attracting her, but she wanted “that.” In that environment, she felt as if she were being figurately hugged warmly. She was also being literally hugged. Today, she can still feel that warmth. More than that, she says everyone was serene. She was certain they had their challenges, but they knew how to handle it. She kept coming back asking, “What is this? How do I experience this? How do I experience this calmness? How do I smile on everybody?” She pictures herself entering those doors today and says, “It’s still beautiful.”
Initially she felt that nobody had any problems. “How is it possible?” she wondered. Nobody had any problems, but she came to understand that actually, they had more problems. She never questioned anything before that. "They helped me move into a place of understanding. Nimo says in his song, 'Graduation Day,' “Be Wary of the Impact you wanna make, instead, make sure YOU are impacted each day.” Ashima explains, “That’s what I'm learning. I reach out to somebody every day.”
From Bombay she moved to Baruda. That's when she started practicing silence. She couldn't sit for 10 minutes. She would open her eyes and look around, noticing the people around here, “O.K.” she’d compare herself to others, “She's sitting like Buddha.” Finally, her mind became still.
There was also the question of what is enough? For Ashima, working meant creating an impact, but there was a check that came at the end of the month. To let go of that was a huge step. To commit to herself, “I am going to try this way of life,” was huge. To her family, it didn’t make sense. Not to work when you can, was difficult for her family to understand. “But I can feel the joy and peace when I work with the kids,” she says. As an example she tells of working with disabled kids. She had never worked with blind kids, but she went on-line and found out about tactile crafts. When she saw the art they made, she said, “This is what I want to do. I was amazed. Everyone was amazed” at what the children created.
The calmness and peace inside are what keeps her going. She took it to heart. She admits she’s driven, but she committed to this way of life. One of her commitments was an experiment in trust. “I went ahead with a lot of experiments to trust everybody. As a child people seemed safe, but when I grew up and left the joint family security, people would warn you. So, you become distrustful. To remove those layers of wariness, the security that comes through isolation, takes a lot of practice.” These “experiments” brought meaning to everything she was doing. Initially, it was doing things in an outwardly manner. For example, asking “How is the art being received?” But, now coming into contact with inner change and the joy creating art brings to her is enough. “Every piece of art is beautiful, every creation is beautiful,” she explains.
One of her first trust experiments was to always ask for a lift. She did it for 6 months. She explains that most people in India have their own means of transport or take taxis. She decided, “If I'm going to trust the stranger, I need to put myself out there. I will walk or ask for a lift. Never did it happen that nobody stopped. I was hesitant to ask and I was fearful. Even when taking a lift, I didn't take one from a 4-wheeler, but only a 2-wheeler. Once there was a guy on a motorbike and he asked me where I was going. He said he was going in that direction. He said I was the first person to ask him for a lift. Nobody asks people for trust. We've forgotten the art of going to our neighbor and asking for something. We don't know our neighbors today. Once you reach out, you realize how much everybody wants this connection. We are so conditioned to not trust a stranger. We stay away from it.”
She learned to rejoice in anonymity. She left bookmarks everywhere. She describes one time early on, “I left it on a chair and stood behind a pillar to see (what happened). There was lady who picked it up, read it and handed it to her daughter. It said, "This is a gift for you. It was meant for you." They were smiling and talking about it. That felt happy. So, I kept on doing it.” In knowing who receives the gift and how they react, she says, “Sometimes a story will come back to you, but not always. It's beautiful.”
She also learned about rejection. “Sometimes doing a random act, not everybody will accept it and I wanted to know why. You just have to go ahead with it. The person receiving it is also doing an act for you.” Ashima grew up in a very trusting society, but there was the conditioning of being wary of strangers and it took a while to unlearn that and then to take the rejection and go with it. In a park in Romania, she and some friends had a board with acts of kindness on it and asked people to pick one. “We were doing free hugs and people were skeptical. They always thought there was some organization behind it. They wanted to know what they were to do next. We said, ‘nothing.’”
She was more scared of approaching people in Angola than India because of her conditioning, but “I approached people with a smile. Sometimes I knew the language. Sometimes I didn't. In Angola we were told not to even walk on the streets, to go with somebody and for one year, I nourished that fear in me. I was a captive of my own fear and then one day I decided to go a small distance and come back. I went and initially I walked with my headphones on. Slowly I started smiling to people. One day, there was a guy sweeping the pavement and he said good morning and we started talking. He gave me the brightest smile I've seen. I started increasing my distance on my walk. Everybody started to know me.
If you are projecting fear, then you will feel fear. I was still careful of the areas I went into, but it's what we project. The moment I let go of my fear, my uncertainty, my lack of confidence, asked what is the most that can happen, then O.K. So often we don't even have conversations with co-passengers on a flight. I've had so many beautiful conversations with co-passengers.”
Ashima says, “There's no cultural difference. It's what you project. It's easier in India and the U.S. because I know the languages. It was more difficult in Romania and Angola because I didn't know the languages. For a month I was just walking and smiling and then I was part of them. In the morning, (in Angola) the coast is full of fisherman, and there was a girl that walked or ran. You become part of the busy landscape. It's a beautiful feeling to be part of that.”
When asked about being part of going to the flood scene in Uttarakhand, she says, “I saw it on the news and knew I had to be there. Everybody in my family was against it. The violence. I put the intention out that I want to go there. A friend reached out and we both went. We didn't have a clue how we would serve. There are big organizations and ashrams taking care of things. We went as individuals. Joseph has been walking the Himalayas for 14 years and he took us around. We would walk the mountain. There were no roads because they were out. We would go into a village and serve in any way. There would be a family who just wanted to be heard so we would sit and listen. There would be things to distribute and we would distribute them. There was a village that needed education so we did that. You just go and do. You don't go as this person who graduated from this university. You go. We did have money with us, but we didn't use it for 3 months. We were hosted by strangers. I fell sick and was given all the natural medicines. It was amazing how people opened up to us. We didn't come with any conventions. We were just there. It was a beautiful thing. I only had 2 changes of clothes. That was enough. I learned what was enough. Living in the city makes us think things are essential. That experience changed me. In one hostel, there was one toilet for 14 people and I was the only girl. Those 3 months changed me and changed my definition of what was enough. We were not part of any organization. We were two people who have just come. My parents were getting anxious about my being gone after 2 1/2 - 3 months and the roads were being built. Most of the relief part of the work was done and my Dad said he was coming. He came. It took 3 days of driving and then a day on a 4-wheeler. He stayed with us for 3 days and I went back with him.” Ashima’s father is still connected with the school where she stayed and goes there every year. She jokes that it is possible her entire role in that was to connect him with that school. She also knows that the resistance from her family came out of love, fear for her security.
On her bucket list was learning how to swim. As a small child she almost drowned, but all her family vacations are around water and everyone can swim. So, on her bucket list, she wanted to learn how to swim. As she was getting ready to leave Romania, she met someone who taught her in 10 lessons. She had 10 days remaining there. She was afraid. She had a float and knew she wouldn’t drown, but she couldn't let go. On the fifth day, the reading of her “Laddership Circle” was the advice, “Don't focus on the goal.” On the 9th day she swam for 10 minutes and on the 10th day, for an hour. She proudly admits that learning as an adult has its advantages. “I learned biking last year as a ripple of an Awakin Circle. I remember the day I learned,” she laughs. “We can learn everything. We just need to let go of our fears.
If I'd been able to take a moment with my emotions, it would have been so much better.”
Children are Ashima’s passion and she describes her work with them using mindfulness techniques. “There are two kids in school, one had said something harsh, but instead of responding, she said, ‘I don't like what you said to me. I want to know why.’ I was stunned by it.” The ripples of her teaching extend even more. “There was another kid and they do a check in and every day changes. The kid realized that every day he felt a different emotion. That's difficult to learn even as an adult. I enjoy working with kids because they don't question so much. They just practice. Adults question. There’s skepticism. More conditioning. With kids, it's just games. That's what brings me alive and keeps me a child.”
If there was one strong thread in the conversation, it would be trust. Ashima is leaving her heartprints clearly and definitely wherever she is as a kind and compassionate, understanding and loving heart serving in trust.
Thank you Ashima, Chris, and Pavi and lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!
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