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What is mine to do.

With the outbreak of Coronavirus, our world has seen a disruption of unprecedented kind at every level. Here in India, over a billion people found themselves in a sudden, unexpected, poorly planned and rather harshly imposed lockdown period of almost 10 weeks. While there is some easing around the lockdown in parts of the country now, the number of cases continue to rise by almost 10,000 per day!

The hardest hit are millions of daily wage earners, migrant workers and the marginalized communities whose livelihoods got evaporated overnight. They are left hungry, often without any social or financial support and stranded in different parts of the country without any means to travel to their respective states. At the same time, a mass of urban middle-class citizens found themselves completely locked in their apartment homes. Many are living by themselves in complete isolation due to social-distancing. Work-from-home has become the expected norm and is posing adjustment issues for many. With the economy taking a downturn, many have been facing job insecurity. As the schools and colleges shut, children and youth are having to take charge of their own learning, often tethered to screens for long hours. The number of domestic violence and sexual crimes against women have seen an increase during this lockdown. A parallel mental crisis is said to be underway. At a personal level, as the Coronavirus hit shores in India, I was very disappointed, having had to cancel my travel plans between March and August: a Compassionate Leadership Summit with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, a farm-based, curriculum-design project in Southern India and a 3 month Yoga teaching stint in France.

However, with the onset of the pandemic, I began to see and sense the collective fear, anxiety and human suffering across not just India but all around the world. My personal disappointments began to feel petty in comparison to the issues of mass hunger and suffering. My privilege became a compelling force for me to introspect and act. Initially, the enormity of the crisis brought in a sense of deep sadness. I felt overwhelmed and helpless. As a mindfulness trainer, counselor and a mental health practitioner, I asked myself, “how would a heart of service respond? What role am I being called to play? What is my tiny contribution in easing the pain of our human family?” Interestingly, there is a similar sounding word to 'Corona' in Sanskrit - 'Karuna', which means Compassion. It dawned upon me that all of us are being presented with the challenge and the opportunity to face Corona with Karuna (Compassion). How do I practice Compassion amidst so much uncertainty and suffering?

With this sincere intention, I felt inspired to freely offer one-on-one and group listening spaces to friends around the world. I put out such an offer on social media on March 15th. Since then, it has been a busy 3 months of many opportunities for seva (service) presenting itself. It has been an incredible time of self-discovery and purpose. People have reached out from from across India and countries as far as Brazil, the US, France, Spain, Israel, Portugal, the UK, Nigeria and Italy. It has been a sobering process to be able to connect with and hold space for fellow human beings from around the world; many of whom I have never even met. I listened to senior citizens who are finding themselves particularly vulnerable in this pandemic, youth from a sex-worker's community distressed by loss of earnings, a tribal activist facing an uncertain future, a single mother feeling the burden of added responsibilities on her shoulder, a young man who lost his job due to the economic downturn, a foreign national stranded in India not being able to go home with the restrictions on international travel, college youth finding itself in an uncertain transition, young adults stressed by the demands of 'work-from home' culture and many more. I also proactively reached out to many of my friends just to check on how they might be coping during these unusual times. Just listening to people across geographies, ages and cultures has brought me closer in touch with the underlying unity of human struggles, hopes, joys and aspirations.

In collaboration with some of my friends who are community organizers, involved with Covid-19 relief efforts and mental health practitioners, we have been offering weekly 'Listening Circles' which are open for all. These are spaces for people to share whatever is present for them during this time and to listen to each other. We are amazed to see how a safe, nonjudgemental listening space, although virtual, can bring about a sense of community and support to so many people during these difficult times. We have also been facilitating Mindfulness based listening and practice circles along with another group of friends at Just Being Center. These circles are an invitation to 'Come Home to Ourselves' every week, stepping into our shared connection and exploration through Silence, Journaling, Sharing-Listening, Art, Music, Stories, Poetry, Movement etc. A participant shared after one of these circles this gratitude note: "A special thank you Vipul for today's 'Communion with Nature'. I just felt this huge burst of love for myself…" Another one wrote - "I felt some sort of energy and love after our call and it was so healing. So much of gratitude for holding this space together. This is magic truly for me. And I am peace right now in my head and heart..." There have also been unforeseeable joyful moments during this pandemic. One of which was facilitating online art workshops for a group of kids from across India. Another, a series of mindfulness workshop on 'stress management' for a group of government education officers. A particularly impactful program was 'taking care of ourself' which was a workshop for a group of teachers working with hearing impaired children and so on. I have also just signed-up to volunteer for a virtual children's peace camp through Servas International and facilitate a session on global citizenship with a group of Afghan youth.

After hearing stories of mass-hunger and reverse migration, my brother Anuj and I felt moved to donate towards various Covid-19 relief efforts, amounting to 3 months of income from our respective professional practices. As a family, we also chose to pay full salaries to our household help, office staff and farm workers during this time. All this while, I have been mindful of taking care of myself in the best way I can with the daily practice of Vipassana, Yoga, swimming, cycling and gardening to the extent I have been able to practice self-compassion. It has naturally flowed through and spread its ripples in various different ways within the family, local community and the larger world. For example, my relationship with my mother started to feel much more empathetic and improved my involvement with household work.

These 3 months have brought to light a greater sense of global interconnectedness and a sense of personal responsibility for me. It has been very humbling recognition that whatever I do can have a far-reaching impact. It may only be a tiny drop in the ocean - and yet it is important for me to do it. It has also re-affirmed the importance of nurturing a small, local, land-based, self-reliant and resilient community. My greatest inspiration comes from so many ordinary unsung heroes, whom give themselves selflessly on the ground to alleviate suffering and whom continue to make this world kinder and more beautiful everyday. May we all be healthy, happy, peaceful! May we all be filled with love and joy!


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