The many shades of love

Ecoversities

by Abhishek Thakore and Dan Rudolph

 

Love…oh love! The spice that comes in a million flavours. The joie de vivre. The feeling that makes life worth living. The only emotion that can increase intelligence. The subject of more than half the songs humanity has ever written. The essence of the Sufi’s path. And yet, our entire formal education system basically ignores what is probably the most important subject of Life. 

My interest in understanding love more deeply started a decade ago. I had been through three unsuccessful relationships. Three breakups. Each painful in its own way. As I was picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I realised that I needed to learn. Life was trying to teach me lessons of love and I had to be a diligent student. The more I got into it, the more I realized that understanding love is essentially an exploration of our larger expansive Self. It is a challenge to the narratives of separation, competition and isolation that modernity has fed us.

Since then, my journey has been an exploration of different shades of relationships, ways of relating and creating communities where love can flourish. I have found that while this conversation is of high interest to youth (actually, to people of all ages), it generally remains a taboo topic in the modern Indian context (1). There is a lot of judgement and shame around it. To explore it, requires lots of sensitivity, care and some lightness. This short essay will start by exploring some powerful experiments on love that are taking place around the Ecoversities Alliance ecosystem. I will then share one of my most recent experiments with creating learning spaces about love in India. Finally, I will conclude with some thoughts and suggestions for Ecoversities who would like to experiment more with love.

Tamera, Portugal

Tamera Peace Research and Education Center – commonly known as the Love School – as a community has been experimenting with healing since 1978.  A guiding belief behind practices at Tamera is that the repression of love, intimacy and sexuality leads to outward expressions of violence. To break down this barrier, Tamera has created a learning ecosystem where people can sexually express themselves with radical transparency, exploring amorous relationships with multiple partners at any given time, with the understanding that partnership and open sexuality are complementary, not conflicting. 

This openness is created by the strong community structure that has been developed in Tamera, which is based on shared decision making, honesty and trust. In the love school, strong emotions such as jealousy and control, seen as the opposite of love, are surfaced and gradually dissolved through self-awareness and group sessions. 

The community doesn’t only stop here. Rather, it goes into exploring deeper structures that actually bring forth feelings like possessiveness. Questioning the idea of private property itself is a part of the ethos of the community, seeing that as an interconnected aspect of treating love as possessing another (as if they were a property). This depth sustains the inquiry and roots its work into an interdisciplinary context rather than being about relationships alone.

Re-creating the Tamera experiment is a tempting possibility for me. The domain of sexuality has its own energy and exploring it perhaps would ripple into creativity and vitality in all areas of life. This has long been understood in India by Tantric practitioners.  Yet, given the local cultural contexts we live in, a lot of this is left to the esoteric, personal space rather than a community or collective space.

To be able to birth something like Tamera in other contexts will require a huge leap of paradigms and essentially a field of trust that can hold the radical energy and challenges that come from such experiments. Alongside, one has to be prepared to deal with the social consequences of treading these untrodden paths.

Am I ready for it yet? I’d say no – I have my own conditioning to come to terms with. Equally, finding a niche in my own culture for an experiment like this will also require a community grounded deeply in its practices and connections. So, best to give this some time!

 

Black Daddies Club, Toronto, Canada

Love is hard when society continuously tells you that you are not worthy, which is a common narrative for Black people (and many other marginal communities) in Canada. Brandon Hay started the Black Daddies Club (BDC), in 2008, to dispel this narrative, and flip the script of the ‘absent black father’. Feeling the anxiety and stress of becoming a father himself, Brandon decided to start a community where black men could collectively come together, share their vulnerability and support with each other through loving relationships, down to Earth kindness and respect. Many of these powerful learning conversations about self-love have taken place in barbershops. This feeling of self-love re-generated in black fathers, spreads out into families, communities and into the broader collective consciousness.

The BDC regularly hosts conversations, where people from the black community come together to discuss important topics, such as How to Discuss Racism with Your Children, Re-imagining Black Masculinity and Homophobia in the Black Community. Beyond conversations, there are many events that the BDC organizes that give families healthy, lively, public spaces to come together and celebrate Black-Love. Events include: the Black Liberation Ball, BBQ’s, sporting events and live concerts. Through creating this public ecosystem of critical, compassionate, conversations and healthy gatherings, the BDC has enabled the virus of self-love to spread and start to heal trauma from centuries of racism and create a new narrative for black men in Canada.

Personally, Black Daddies touches on a relatively difficult aspect for me – my relationship with my father. We feel like an orphaned generation where instead of working alongside our fathers in fields, we were left in schools while our fathers went to work and earn. Hence, a lot of this is about learning to be men all over again. For me, my own masculinity has been an exploration with other men. These explorations have been rich and meaningful, and yet we haven’t had the time, space or inclination to connect as dads.

Even those who are not biological dads are fathering different things – initiatives, spaces or even an article. I wonder if we can take the process of parenting and expand its meaning, including various forms of parenting, and then engage with the bittersweet joys of the process.

Aloha, Hawaii

Through the Pedagogy of Aloha (Love) Aunty Ku has been spreading the love of nature, culture and ancestors with children in Hawaii. Discouraged with the public schools’ emphasis on non-contextual, non-inclusive, anti-hands knowledge Aunty Ku started her own school, Kanu O Ka ‘Aina, the first charter school in Hawaii. The school is centered around the idea, “everyone is ohana” (everyone works together as in a family). 

In addition to exploring interpersonal and self-love, students learn to love the more-than-human world. At Kanu O Ka ‘Aina kids spend ½ of their days outside, exploring in nature. They learn to love nature and care for it by being in it. Learners are also given a chance to remember their culture and traditions, which many of the younger generation have forgotten. They learn traditional chanting and dances, how to cook traditional foods, how to fish, how to be in ceremonies, etc. Through re-visiting these practices kids begin to appreciate their elders and ancestors more, and generate a sense of love for their traditional culture and wisdom, which are much more ecologically-rooted. 

Aloha is able to tap into the wisdom of nature and ancestors, in a way that grounds the present generation into the timeless values of ancient culture. Aunty Ku’s presence as an elder who holds the space makes a huge difference to the ‘spirit’ of the space.

Aunty Ku’s invocation of ancestors and belongingness is not alien to indigeneous cultures. In India, the tradition of Shrad involves a fortnight of ritual for ancestors. This includes feeding birds and animals as well as people on days when the ancestors passed away. Alongside, there is prayer and seeking of blessings from the ancestral energies.

If we are able to invoke ancestral energies for our work, we might be able to open up new forms of awareness and power. Getting rooted to our lands and forests where the spirits of our ancestors dwell could strengthen our own grounding and practice.

As someone living in Mumbai though, I often wonder about roots and ancestors. The city has essentially people who have migrated from the hinterland, and my roots lie further away. One wonders then, if love requires belonging or can one make ‘home where the heart is’.

 

Maitri Space, Ahmedabad, India 

There is a beautiful community of people in Ahmedabad that hold a Maitri Space (a space of noble friendship) which is built on the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, and his spiritual advisor, Vinobe Bhave. They have been gathering with the purpose of connecting to love through service. The term seva, means the sacred thread which connects all life to the oneness inherent in the world. 

During the past ten years they have hosted between 50-100 short retreats. Madhusudhan, a member of this community, shared that at the retreats the first question that is asked is not “How are you doing?”, but rather “How is your Heart doing?”, giving people a chance to connect with themselves on a deeper, more reflective, level. He explained these retreats as being “a very healing place for everyone” where “the sense of me dissolves” and “the collective energy enables strangers to become brothers and sisters.” Alongside this, love for a collective whole also evolves. There is always a smiling picture at the end of every retreat that captures the spirit of oneness that gets created.

“Our Experiments With Love” are service-oriented experiments that the community explores. Two current experiments that are happening are Tyag Nu Bhojan and Acts of Kindness. ‘Sarvodya’ was developed from Gandhi’s idea that everybody will rise only if the lowest of lowest will rise. Tyag Nu Bhojan (food of sacrifice) is based on the idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good. People are encouraged to skip one meal per week, and give money for one meal to someone from their community that is in need.

Some of these experiments are simply random acts of kindness, like the 21 days kindness challenges and the practice of tagging each other with Smile Cards. A smile card is tagged each time you receive an act of kindness, inviting you to pass it on, creating a ripple. 

The ‘Maitri Space’ is attempting to heal the wounds that have developed in contemporary society and reweave a delicate fabric of trust and care. 

I have been a critic of the Maitri space for ignoring its shadows. Yet, I am a blessed beneficiary of the pedagogy of love that this space has brewed. The unconditional spirit of giving that comes from this ecosystem leaves one flooded with the spirit of generosity, care and connectedness. One is left with no choice but to ‘pay it forward’.

At some stage I have also learnt to accept that the very DNA of this ecosystem is rooted in positivity and goodness, and any attempts to steer it away from that will not work. Perhaps, there are other spaces, more intimate where shadows and challenges are explored in such an ethos. And often, in treading the fine line between ideological depth and flexibility, these collectives tend towards the inflexibility of their ideologies.

The Maitri space feels like an extended joint family, with its elders, its members and their relationships as well as collective rituals. To birth such a space requires, more than anything else, elders who are grounded deeply in the work.

For Maitri Space, Jayeshbhai is one such elder who holds the space for us all. His presence evokes love for most who encounter him. His sharing, while simple and lucid comes from a profound lived experience and touches deeply. It is a privilege to have him in the community.

UnSchool of Love, India

Inspired by these and other stories, it was Paralkhelmundi, deep in Odisha at the Learning Societies Unconference  in 2019, that I initiated my first collective experiment with the unSchool of Love with about 100 adults from ages 25 to 55, most of whom were involved in various alternative education projects around India. The initial idea was to offer a very simple game for people to start reflecting and sharing on their current needs in relation to love. Participants were invited to display one of the four card suits on their right thumb, depending on what they wanted to ‘play’ or ‘unlearn’:

  • Hearts: for romantic relationships of any configuration or duration;
  • Diamonds: for playful flirting and harmless fun;
  • Clubs: for exploring same gender touch, connection and conversation;
  • Spades: for exploring physical intimacy.

Every day, the newly formed groups or tribes would get tasks to execute, leading into a collective gathering in the middle of the conference. As a facilitator, I started with an orientation session and initiation ritual for interested participants. 

The intent was to reduce the barriers to communicate about love and to bring an attitude of experimentation out of the shadows and into a more shared public space. I wanted to create a safe space where there could be free expression and playing around with the ‘eros’. An energy that brings a smile on every face. The hope was that this experiment would enable conversations that often are in the ‘could-have-happened-but-did-not’ category. And they did!

All this reached a crescendo with the announcement of the “Dark Party”. The auditorium, when fully dark and with lounge music playing transformed into a wholly different space. It was only for couples over 25 years of age and we were discreetly sharing entry passes. But before we knew it, the party went viral. The party was beautiful for many. We had to end it much earlier than we planned to, because the energy of love was already building up beyond what the local hosts felt comfortable with.

The next 2 days we hosted circles for processing and healing an event that had clearly touched some energy centres! What came out were stories of joy, of a man being asked out for the first time in the 45 years of their life, of a single mom remembering what it is to be held again and on and on. There were edges around consent though, reminding us that as a community, we have a long way to go in understanding safety, limits and balancing courageous approaching with mindful retreating.

While we shared pointers on consent and attempted to make it a safe space, it was not enough. The newness of the experiment meant that there were some rough edges, some hurt around inappropriate advances and exclusion. The exclusion part came because we unconsciously added constraints like entry only for hetrosexual couples aged over 25. In doing this we enacted out our own internalized structures, which are now visible in hindsight but which we were blind to at that time.

We learned that many adults as well as youth are wanting to explore notions of love and the Unschool of Love was a way to reduce that threshold and invite them into it. Going ahead, we see the possibility of several variants blooming. The Dark Party has a small room variant where it can be done with a group of 8-10 people, with a boundary at HTC (Hug Touch Cuddle). Findhorn Community, another intentional community, is famous for its ‘cuddle-puddles’ which explore the power of touch and cuddling together. Hopefully, this will also spawn many more games and activities that young people can participate in safely.  

Compared to the other experiments in Ecoversities mentioned in this article, the Unschool sessions was a relatively lower risk experiment. Being a pop-up experiment, it allowed a temporary experience of different energies of love. One wonders how appropriate is this – does it give enough time for people to ripen and be ready for such an experiment? Is there enough space and time after the experiment to process what happened? Are there enough elders and facilitators to ease this journey?

Over time I hope to resolve some of these issues as I continue to experiment with how to open up these conversations in my communities.

The challenges of love for Ecoversities

It is critical that universities and other, alternative  spaces of learning create spaces to deepen their explorations with love in all of its manifestations. Beyond love and sexuality, we also have domains of self love, love for community service, love for nature and animals, for the future unborn generations and for ancestors, for transcendental energies and more! All these forms of love are interconnected. How do we explore these more deeply through our experiments and what are ways to make these visible?

We have learned that any experiments to do with love have to be culturally sensitive. In India for example, different socio-economic classes have different norms around love and relationships. The same can be said for differences between urban, semi-urban, rural and tribal areas. One should discuss sensitivities and boundaries with the local host when designing the learning experiment.

Experiments with love can be challenging and energetically intense. It is important to consider the location and cultural local context of the experiment holder. What is the inner work and cultivation that needs to be done? And of all the different edges of love (types of relationships and forms of expression), which edges are worth exploring? What are the boundaries and mechanisms for safety that can be put in place for anyone facilitating these types of experiments? 

As I close this article, I am also mindful of my own limited lens of viewing this issue. There are so many dimensions including queer love for example, which I have not been able to open up because of my limited experience. Similarly the idea of love for learning is yet to be explored. My hope is that all of these will be pathways that readers will take up and explore on their own energy driven by the law of love.

Mahatma Gandhi once said,

“The law of love will work, just as the law of gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not…. A man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders…. The more I work with this law, the more I feel the delight in life, the delight in the scheme of the universe. It gives me a peace and a meaning of the mysteries of nature that I have no power to decide.” (from My faith in Non Violence by MK Gandhi)

The energy of the “Law of Love” is available for us all to tap into. In today’s times when we are up against forces that feed off disconnection, this is the delicate territory we need to tread on. However, this is a space that requires very high levels of personal integrity and is filled with ‘traps’ of attachments and aversions. The real question is, how do we get ready?

Abhishek Thakore

Bio

Abhishek Thakore has been working with young people for over 2 decades now. Starting out as a young person interested in ecology and social change, he went on to initiate the Blue Ribbon Movement that builds leadership in young people through community work. He is a facilitator and social entrepreneur who now participates in several collectives, networks and supports organizations with learning journeys.

Notes: 

  1.  While there appears to have been a lot of openness to this topic in ancient India in stories like Mahabharat and texts like Kama Sutra and even temples such as Khajarao, modem India became quite puritanical with its notions of love and sexuality, particularly after colonial rule. Further complicating this in the public sphere were controversial experiments by Gandhi and Osho.

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