Posts Tagged ‘learning’


At the train station; in addition to the packed lower class cars, young men climb up top.

Throughout my work in education and inter-religious dialogue, I refer to Piaget’s idea of “disequilbrium.” The uncertain, nerve-wracking, unpleasant feeling that happens when we encounter something new in the world.

I think my knowledge is intact, I encounter something previously unknown, and things shift for me…eventually, I am able to incorporate my new understanding, and then I have learned it. We cannot learn without disequilibrium.

India is a place par excellence for experiencing disequilibrium. And yet, I also experience so many moment so grace, or delight, or unexpected pleasure. Some examples:

Moments of disequilibrium:

  • Eating the same brown chipati and cooked vegetables at every meal
  • Wanting to stick to a time schedule, but things running too long, later, or not happening at all
  • Sitting on my bed and watching a woman clean my floor by hand, crouched constantly, wiping every bit of the surface
  • Being stared at, hearing “hello, hello,” by vendors and touts who want to get my attention, being photographed with or without my permission
  • Haggling: the weary, constant pressure of not knowing if I’m paying too much, compounded by the guilt that I could probably may more than they ask
  • Having access to places poor Indians or other women are not allowed, given my status as a white, Western woman
  • Not having any control over where or when or what I eat
  • Attending very long lectures with no discussion, not the educational style that is common for me
  • Communicating with the few Hindi words I’ve used, and few English words a driver or cook (for example) know, and feeling exhausted, unsure, and frustrated all at once
  • Riding in a bicycle rickshaw: feeling too heavy, guilty as we go up hills, a deep and panicked guilt that another human is sweating and straining to carry my weight—and yet, he eagerly sought out my business, and is happy to receive my fare
  • When I buy a votive from a little boy on the ghats, and a little girl of age seven, also selling votives, says to me accusingly (and correctly), “Oh buying from the boy but not the girl! That is not right!”
  • Hearing of progressive campaigns in the north that work to educate families that “Two girls equal one boy”
  • Feeling guilty when I throw trash on the street at the train station, but I don’t feel guilty when I throw larger amounts of garbage away in the US because I don’t see it
  • Begging: being told that we shouldn’t give money to child beggars, but they touch my hand and follow me when I avoid looking at them
  • Hearing that the woman who cleans my room has had to remove her daughter from school because she can no longer afford tuition; yearly tuition is $200 US
  • The washerman won’t wash my underwear; he will wash men’s underwear only
  • I am restricted from visiting temples if I’m on my period
  • Sour yogurt drink: I don’t like it, but people seem happy and eager to give it to me, so I drink it
  • The bird hospital: I don’t see the point of keeping dying and injured birds (mostly pigeons) alive and feeding them
  • Educational style: I feel torn between wanting to give advice on how things could be “corrected” (ie, made more Western) and learning to get along in a new style
  • I don’t like taking off my shoes to go into the dining room and eat. I hate the feeling of food and dirt on my feet as I stand in line to get food.
  • Non-Western toilets, especially on the train


The Jaipur chef preparing golgappa for us. I was definitely unsure about eating these, especially after he dips them by hand into spicy water…but they are delicious and I can eat ten at a time.

Moments of delight:

  • Finding food I like, complimenting the cook, and he remembers that I like it and makes it again
  • Coming across a wedding procession
  • Talking to children about their school, showing them pictures of my family and home, sharing songs
  • Fresh mangoes that have been chilled all afternoon
  • Clean sheets on the train, falling asleep and sleeping soundly on an overnight train
  • Strangers anticipating my question or need for directions, and helping me
  • The reverence for books: the highly cared-for libraries, with old texts behind lock and key, the solemnity with which the librarians let me take out individual books
  • Being welcomed into worship at the temple every time I go, getting to anoint the statues, placing fruit, singing, clapping, and praying
  • Looking at children’s work and art in schools
  • Feeling grateful for my healthy body
  • Feeling grateful for my education and opportunities
  • Feeling inspired to teach and learn
  • Having a shop-keeper move heaven and earth to find me a container of peanut butter
  • Experiencing Bollywood movies
  • Following Gandhi’s footsteps at the place of his martyrdom
  • Meeting teachers in their 70s and 80s who still have a deep passion for teaching peace and justice
  • Singing old gospel songs along with table and saringi

When I look at this list, the moments of discomfort seem small, individually, but being so long in a strange place—they all add up. They all work together to remind me, constantly, that I am [not yet?] at home here. I can encounter something completely unexpected at any given moment, and so must maintain a posture of possibility.

And, it’s this openness to possibility, paradoxically, that leads to many of the things that delight me. A willingness to try to keep talking, or to sing, or to dance, or to sit down and talk to children. To try yet another new food. To get on the train, the boat, the rickshaw, without knowing where it goes next.

One of my professors wrote a book about social activism; she posits that those who spend a great deal of time outside of their own country become fundamentally changed. This change informs the way they work for justice. I pray that I will not lose my willingness to try new things; basically, I hope that each day, I am conscious enough of delight to live through the disequilibrium.


Pilgrim feet?


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On one of our last days in Jaipur, we visited a textiles factory. All of the dyes are plant based, and the printing is from hand-carved wooden blocks. I was in love with the wooden blocks and took all kinds of close-up photos of the carving.

For this pattern, the workers went over the cloth–several feet long, all down a long table–twice.

Close up of an elephant block.

Upstairs, four schoolboys were embroidering a wedding sari. I could not believe how quickly they could thread the tiny seed beads onto the needle, one-handed. Some of the blankets and fabric sold (while the factory is mostly wholesale, we did purchase some things) go to a scholarship fund for the students who work there. I bought an amazing embroidered bedspread–full of color and images from India; 70 percent of the price will go to the scholarship fund.

The boys at work. It’s kind of incredible to think about the “problems” we Western teachers have in getting and keeping student attention and focus. These four middle-school aged boys work most of the day, sitting or squatting, on incredibly focused and time-consuming work. They don’t make mistakes. They are earning money for their families and at some point make time for school, to learn reading, writing, and skills to continue to move them ahead economically.


Last night, we boarded a train to leave for Varanasi. We were in an AC “sleeper” car, with three tier bunks. Thank goodness for the AC. I slept on the bottom bunk and actually slept quite well. I woke up around 4AM to see the sky lightening from a deep indigo into a lighter blue. People were already walking in the fields, herding small flocks of sheep or goats, or carrying water pails along the side of the tracks to fetch water.

Me on the train with my “snack pack.” The Jains always pack us food when we travel by bus or train. Yesterday we had potato-stuffed naan-like bread with a relish, and a bag of tiny fried, spicy chips.

We arrived at Mughal Sarai Junction at 6:30AM. Someone from the program picked us up, and we drove into our campus. It’s the largest residential university in India, and is full of trees and lush greenery. Mangoes are abundant and we can pick and eat them from the trees if we like. It is very, very humid here– the most humid place I’ve every been. It has a beautiful kind of falling-down tropical feel…like a place that was once palace grounds and has been mostly abandoned for years.

Tonight we’re going to go down to the Ganges for the first time.


On a solemn note, I’ve also been thinking about the name Manju Singh a lot since the weekend. Manju, a twenty year old woman living near Jaipur, was beheaded by her father last Sunday in a so-called “honor killing” He felt that she was being promiscuous, and was found afterwards walking around the village with her head and a bloody sword. When the story came up on my Yahoo! India newsfeed, it was followed with at least three similar stories, including of a female infant. I cannot imagine; I cannot wrap my mind around living, parenting, and teaching in a community where just being a girl child puts one at risk.

We had a lecture on Jain law last week, and saw some of the features of the Indian Constitution, which tries to deal with the problem of “female foeticide.” Reading the articles about it is hard, and makes me really doubt humanity. In the linked article, in addition to describing the horrors of the practice of female foeticide, the writer describes the challenges and discrimination girl children and women face throughout their lives here in India.

I am not sure I have anything coherent to say on the topic at this moment, but it weighs on my heart.

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Digambara means “sky clad,” that is, digambara monks wear the air. They go naked.  They have no possessions at all—their very bodies are expressions of non-attachment to this material world. We made pilgrimage to two digambara monks at a place called KundrakundraBhakti.

In one discussion of “self” in a lecture, we were challenged to consider the following, “Describe yourself without using your name, references to your appearance, age, profession, education, family background, material possessions, geography or ethnic heritage…”

What would be left? What words or phrases would still indicate my “selfness” (in this thought exercise I can’t even say “Stephanie-ness”)?

One lesson from this consideration is that I am a soul. We are souls, embodied souls, yes (and what fascination we have with these bodies), but the soul is our essential nature. As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not have a soul. I am a soul; I have a body.”

I think it would be an interesting and fruitful Advent or Lenten practice to be mindful of all the time and thought I spend on the material world—I love magazines like Real Simple, Cooking Light, Oprah Magazine, and catalogues, and window displays…but all of these things, recipes, home décor ideas, crafting inspiration, clothing and jewelry and food…they are all related to my material body in this life, not at all related to my soul. It would be fruitful to take time to notice and cultivate the things that actually feed, nourish, and cultivate my soul. Music? Meditation and prayer?Acts of generosity and altruism? Taking care with my food and water use?

How can we help one another attend to our souls?

The older, bald man in the photograph is Kundakundacharya, a well knownDigambara monk. We were allowed to hear him speak, and ask him questions. I asked him, “Do you look forward to death, or are you afraid of death, or do you not think of death at all?” He answered, emphatically, “No, no—I do not think of death until the moment it comes. I am like a wick in an oil lamp; the wick does not know, and does not care, how much oil is left until the last moment, and the light is extinguished.”

Me, trying to stand like the Jain goddess of knowledge. She is always shown with a book in her hand, and her legs make a triangle. The triangle is related to logic within the Jain cosmology, with the points helping illustrate how we make inferences about our observations.

Dr. Jain in front of a huge statue of Mahavira, the last (most recent) thirtankara. This open air temple is called Ahimsa Stahl. Mahavira is on a hill overlooking Delhi.

Me and Nelda, a classmate from CST/CLU.


A little girl at Ahimsa Stahl.

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