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October 2003
Discoveries from a Tamil workshop on self-development
- by Priya Sundaravalli

Group discussionA three and a half day workshop was offered recently in Auroville targeting a unique audience of 25 development workers from the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), an organization that runs social development programmes in over 30 villages in the bioregion, and 10 teachers from from Isaiambalam, an Auroville outreach school. Ambitious in its scope, it was titled 'The Mother's Auroville Dream and its Relevance to the Individual and Social Development of People in the Auroville Area'. Subash, an Aurovilian who manages Isaiambalam and who offered the workshop, explains that this is the first time that he has introduced the ideals of Auroville and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother to a group of adults unfamiliar with them, solely in Tamil. When asked why and how such a topic was picked, Subash answers, "The scope of AVAG's work has started increasing both quantitatively and qualitatively. Its Women's Clubs are gradually achieving women's empowerment through both economic and educational activities. The field staff is in need of taking initiatives to involve the entire village community in the development work. If they can view people with understanding and empathy it will enable them to work effectively with them. I felt that their awareness of the broader Auroville context can produce this understanding." The collaboration between AVAG and Isai Ambalam came about from a desire expressed by Greta Jenssen, the coordinator of projects funded by the European Community, 'to see more interaction between Auroville and its neighbours'.

The workshop model
The workshop was based on the concept of the evolutionary growth of the individual and society with its four stages of development, physical, vital, mental and spiritual, as put forth by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Aware that Sri Aurobindo's philosophy is not easy to comprehend, Subash prepared relatively simple concepts utilizing a self-analysis format. This was built around four questions 'Shall we dream?', 'Shall we know how we grow?', 'Shall we draw a plan for self-development?', and 'Is it possible to accelerate one's self-development?' Each idea was explored through worksheets, questionnaires, and the sharing of personal life experiences.
At the end of the workshop, the participants were invited to set a personal goal for self-improvement and design a plan to achieve it within the next 30 days applying the tools provided in the workshop. Sixteen development workers accepted the invitation .

Workshop follow-up
The overall response to the workshop was on the whole positive.Subash notes that the self-analysis exercises were much appreciated. Ayyappan, a development worker, shares how this workshop has affected his life. "My work is intense and I work a lot in the open - under the hot sun, exposed to people and their raw emotions. This workshop helped me see that I have control over my state of response and this gave me a sense of empowerment over my personal atmosphere." After a moment's hesitation, he adds, "I realized that I love myself. Many times I was angry at myself for being a certain way, and it was a burden." Parimala concurs that she too feels more compassionate towards herself now. "There is a greater harmony inside me than before. It seems as if people are cooperating more with me, and I have no logical explanation for this!"
Lakshmi, another participant, says, "Now, after the workshop, when anything negative happens to me, I have started asking the question 'Why?' What is it in me that has led to this disharmony? Before I never worked for myself, on myself. Now I hear a little voice in me that insists that I do something for me. It takes an effort, but life seems strangely smoother." There appears to be a similarity in the experiences among many participants, and they all express incredulousness about the changes they have observed in themselves. They also reveal that following the workshop, their curiosity about Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, and Auroville has increased. They have many questions which they seek answers to: Why are there so few Muslims in Auroville? Why are Sri Aurobindo's teachings inaccessible to the illiterate? Does this mean that Sri Aurobindo's philosophy targets the upper caste and the educated who are in larger numbers at the Ashram? Why did not more people cooperate or follow Sri Aurobindo?

Spirituality versus religion
However, a few of them have also been raising concerns. Some have perceived the workshop to be slightly religious in nature due to the frequent allusions to Hindu mythology, and have been debating the issue since. "This approach was very novel for them," says Anbu who manages AVAG. "Our regular workshops are secular

, Subashwith no references to spirituality or religion. Though most of our workers come from Hindu backgrounds, almost all of are sensitized to caste issues and its consequence, the class system. In this workshop, for example, the stages of development as described by Sri Aurobindo were illustrated using the analogy of the ten Avatars. A few of the staff could not accept that, and actually dissociated themselves from the workshop."
Subash acknowledges that he was aware of this potential problem. "At the very outset, we requested everyone to 'unhinge' their minds and set them aside. Of course it was easier said than done." Gopi, a participant from AVAG shares his views candidly. "Even though I tried to detach my mind, the examples used made my mind switch on again! For example, when a video of Sri Aurobindo's life story was presented, the final scene ended with a shot of an eagle circling the sky. To me, it automatically signified Garuda, Lord Vishnu's vehicle. But this did not bother me as I approached the workshop pragmatically, staying focussed on the tools I could use in my daily life." Studying the materials
Others like Valli from AVAG observed that the AVAG staff seemed somehow different from the teachers of Isaiambalam. She found it interesting that most of the teachers seemed to project a feeling of bhakti (devotion) to the Mother, which she and her colleagues did not share. "But we seemed to share something else: a certain search for Truth," she adds.

The gender debate
Rajendran and Dhananchezhiyan, who belong to the few that refused to participate in the 30-day goal setting exercise, were troubled by the absence of any female references in the lectures. "All the examples were using male figures," complains Dhananchezhiyan. "Every time the word 'Man' was used, I cringed. I wanted to hear 'woman' instead." Anbu attributes this to their sensitivity to social injustices which particularly affect women. "There is much gender and class awareness amongst them. This is also what makes them effective in the field, to be able to motivate the women they interact with, counsel those in the throes of crisis, and facilitate initiatives which empower them." On asked about this, Subash says, "It is difficult to include both the genders while writing and speaking in Tamil without considerably affecting the flow of reading or understanding. In fact, such a feeling in some of them did not at all hinder the participants' thinking and understanding about the process and ideas of self-development nor their sharing."

Lessons learnt
The workshop certainly raised unexpected questions and Subash takes this in his stride. He feels that this is a healthy sign and a first step to breaking down barriers. He says that he has learnt a lot from the responses of this audience. "The next workshop will incorporate many changes based on this feedback. I have already started to refine and develop it." He plans to offer the subsequent Tamil workshop to the teachers of other outreach schools in Auroville and to the Tamil Aurovilians who have completed at least high school education. "This time the focus will be on the educational philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and its relevance to the Auroville context. We hope that in the process they will get a deeper and intimate contact with Auroville," he says optimistically.

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