Spending 4 days in Auroville with a bunch of children, helped me see how they experienced this community. I was apprehensive in the first couple of hours of the program - especially when I saw many children unable to finish half of their organic lunch comprising of red rice and local greens, grumbling under their breaths about not getting proper food. I started wondering if we had done the right thing and whether these urban children would enjoy this visit to Auroville or learn anything at all from the experience. But it took hardly 4-5 hours for the energy to change and for the students to get fully immersed into the energy and spirit of Auroville. I am now fully convinced that every child must experience Auroville, for the following reasons-
Learning happens in the body, not just in the mind.
At some level, we know this and parents and schools do try and get their children to the playground. Yet how many children play and move around as much as they need to, leave alone building something with their hands or doing simple chores using tools? It was an eye-opener to see children deeply engrossed in building their own musical instrument at Svaram, using tools they had never used before. I was struck by children patiently filing the mouthpiece of a flute for 20 minutes to get just the right curve and smoothness (and not accepting help even when offered!). It was also interesting to see a group of children chopping vegetables for a salad- having to make choices between different kinds of knives and peelers, figuring out the shapes to chop the veggies into and the quantities needed for 30 people they were catering to, based on a recipe to serve 4. They were an epitome of both focus and collaboration.
Every morning, we had 'Awareness Through the Body' (ATB) sessions facilitated by experts, drawing upon practices that have been built over 30 years of working with children. Though many students said that they did not like the 'slow and quiet' parts of ATB and only the games, it was clear from observing them, that even a few hours of these exercises were improving their capacity for attention and awareness. I will never forget the case of one child who simply could not bring himself to throw a bean bag ‘underhand’ to others in a group-juggling activity due to the excitement, becoming calm enough to do so after a few rounds (the realization that the underhand throw results in a more successful outcome overpowered his impulse to throw around the bag in excitement).
Reverence for the environment starts with a personal connection to nature
Large parts of the STEM curriculum have a utilitarian focus - how electricity can be used to drive motors, or ores can be mined to produce something, etc. Even the environmental science curriculum is technical in nature (and this is important). Yet when all this is learned 'intellectually', it does not provide a sense that we are an inextricable part of what we call 'nature' - the reality of the 'giving' and 'receiving' and interdependence is not internalized.
Auroville is full of bugs and insects - not something many of the urban children were comfortable with (some were carrying bug sprays). One day when we were sitting on the floor and having a meal in Sadhana forest, children started complaining about ants getting on to them. When one of us suggested that they could move and sit somewhere else, several children piped up saying 'these ants are not biting us, Auroville ants are friendly'. It was heartwarming to see them willing to share space with critters they were uncomfortable with just a couple of days earlier.
One of the high points of the trip was time spent in a mud pool. Though the entry into the pool started tentatively with some children saying they would not get in, in a few minutes everybody was IN and having great fun! It was really difficult to get them out of the pool and get on with our schedule. What was it about this mud pool that the children loved so much; after all they have access to swimming pools back home with clear water? We need to ask them, but I guess it had something to do with being in the middle of a forest, and the coolness of the mud on the soles of their feet.... which might at some other time have been thought of as 'icky'!
There is great joy in volunteering and contribution
Though we are social creatures and thrive on helping each other, at times we get caught up too much in economics and calculations of giving and receiving. As adults get caught up in these things, children too get sucked up into this way of life. But we saw none of this on a day where children did 'seva'/ service by raking leaves for mulch or breaking firewood into bits. We thought they might get bored and tired in 45 minutes, but they carried on with physical work they are probably unaccustomed to, for nearly 3 hours.
Attitudes are probably infectious - perhaps being in this environment where people from around the world are volunteering towards a cause, doing hard hands-on work without any notable remuneration, inspired them by example. Or perhaps this was a chance for them to express themselves in a way they had never got the opportunity for before.
Commitment to a vision and persistence are extremely powerful
Aurovilians are extremely committed people who have persisted over years, pursuing something that is important to them. Thus, one community may focus on building musical instruments of different types, one on foresting a patch of barren land and another on waste water management (some of their practices are now used in mainstream urban environments e.g. in lake restoration). Often, these individuals were doing very well in the outside world and have chosen to commit to such work in Auroville with a spirit of excellence and contribution. It was easy for children to see that the purpose of each community was much stronger than any personal agenda an individual might have. I cannot say how children might have 'spotted' this - but instinctively, children seemed to feel both safe and inspired in their interactions with the Aurovilians.
A beautiful moment in Sadhana forest, signifying the communion of community, was when we were waiting to have lunch. One by one, food was served to all the people in the community and the new guests (that's us). But everybody started eating, only after each new guest was welcomed by name, by everybody else.The same children who had wasted half their simple, organic lunch just a couple of days earlier, now took 2 huge helpings! It looked like the sense of community and the 'seva' they had done earlier, had put them in a different relationship to their environment and food.
While our observations above resonated with what we heard from children in their own simple language, GenWise will now focus on how we could help students sustain these