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The Power of Self-Awareness

Author: Maren Moss

Lessons from the Manavodaya Institute

Maren was one of the many students from the West who have benefited from attending the Manavodaya Institute's international training courses in facilitation. Here Maren describes what she learned from India and what she will take back to her work in Norway.

The philosophy of Manavodaya is that change must come from within, from within every individual and from within every group of people. In the quest for sustainable social change, fundamental importance lies in evolving human consciousness and relationships. This differs from the conventional paradigm of development, where experts implement strategies from the top-down, without taking into consideration the vast variety of complex underlying influences and powers within a community.

The methods Manavodaya apply in developmental processes recognise that every human system has a context: tangible elements such as the pressures, policies, and power dynamics that governs people’s behaviour. It also includes intangible forces such as perceptions: what people believe or assume to be true about the system they are a part of. To facilitate change and development one needs to understand this context, and to connect people through dialogue to try and gain knowledge about their difficulties and challenges in life.

Many development programs, however well-intended, has failed due to lack of understanding of people’s needs in their own context.

As Varun Vidyarthi, founder of Manavodaya, points out:

One needs to remember that a village is not a community, it’s a place where different people live together.

Development needs to evolve in its own cultural context. And, in the context of rural India, I believe it is important to remember that development doesn’t have to mean modernity, a western way of living - this should not in any way be a goal or something to aim for. For one, it will contribute to society´s drift towards further unsustainability, by supporting the prevailing consumption-driven economic model. Secondly, we need interdependence, rather than hyper-individualism, to promote for universal social safety.

In many villages in Uttar Pradesh, the caste system is the main barrier for social mobility, which keeps people segregated, and is tightly linked to corruption. To bring about change one needs to empower people to challenge this hierarchy, and this is the main purpose of the self-help-groups (SHGs). Another important purpose is of course the economic model, but as Dr. Amla Vidyarthi put it:

Strength is much more important than money.

And for the village women, when I asked them what the most significant change in their life has been since joining self help groups (SHGs), they have all said it was the social aspect:

To come together as a group and to end being isolated in their homes.

This has made me think a lot about how, in the West, the individual identity is emphasized at the expense of the communal. Our individualistic culture, I think, makes us lose our sense of a citizenship, of community. I fear that the extension of this is that we lose trust in other people, the trust which we need to bring about collective change. And although the powers of hierarchy are more hidden in Norway, they still create the same barriers to social mobility.

Through this program we have been given a set of tools to evolve mechanisms that enable people to empower themselves, and by that, overcome injustice, suppression and others' power play. This has made me realize that, for any complex problem to be solved, everyone needs to recognize how we, often unwittingly, are a part of the problem. Once each one of us recognize our own responsibility for the present, we can begin by changing the part of the system over which we have the greatest control: ourselves. Development work through individual development enables each contributor to see their part in relation to the whole. It honours their individual efforts, and therefore motivates and enables people to work together to redesign the whole.

During our course, Varun Vidyarthyi asked us:

How do we connect to other people for social change?

We discussed how we, in a global as well as a local perspective, need a shared set of values and a common goal. I think that attaining a good life is one of the universal desires of human beings, something everyone connects to. This entails ensuring the basic needs for all people: food, shelter, clean water, health care and education, in a way that is ecologically sustainable for the planet earth. And I truly believe this is achievable if we collectively strive for it. But for people to work together we need changes in attitude and behaviour. We need to make room for discussing values. And I will allow myself the positive belief that human beings still value our shared humanity more than economic growth.

Varun also challenged us on what I like to call “the great questions in life”, like:

How to bring about change in oneself?

Why do you want to help people?

For me, questions like these connect to why I wanted to join this course in the first place. My perception is that every living being is interconnected, and that I have a responsibility towards others. Because helping others is a way of helping myself as a part of the greater whole. I try to keep this in mind whenever I feel like a small and insignificant part of a very large system. It has been very encouraging for me to see the result of the tremendous work done at Manavodaya: that a few persons through lots of hard work and determination, can bring about change with so many people. I have come to realize that increasing self-awareness is an intervention in and of itself, and the precursor to making any other changes. It is like one of my favourite sayings:

Be the change you want to see in the world.

It will develop a new way of being, not just doing, because an altered mind-set also affect people emotionally, spiritually and behaviourally, not just cognitively.

I'm humble and grateful for having had the possibility to meet Amla and Varun Vidyarthi, the villagers, the students, the facilitators and the professors, all of whom have shared their wisdom and knowledge with us. And I hope we will stay connected through our common values, in sharing of knowledge, and relentlessly work for a better future for all.

Find out more about the Manavodaya Institute and the Carl Poll Scholarship here.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

The Power of Self-Awareness © Maren Moss 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.