What women can teach us about compassion and happiness
In a press conference in Australia, the Dalai Lama made a controversial claim about compassion and gender: “In that respect, biologically, females have more potential…Females have more sensitivity about others’ wellbeing.” A recent interview with activist Gitanjal Babbar weighed heavily on the side of His Holiness’s statement. Not only the subject matter, but also the dialogue, the participants, and the tone of the call exemplified the depths of women’s empathy, compassion, and wisdom.
Gitanjali Babbar was lead to the brothels in the GB district of Delhi when she worked for a health organization that sent her to interview the sex workers about contraceptives and other health topics. Because Gitanjali felt restricted in the forced and mechanical nature of these conversations, she started visiting the brothels after work, befriending the women. These friendships motivated her to quit her job and create Kat Katha, a refuge and resource for the women and children caught in the sex trade.
A talk with Gitanjali about her commitment, service, and dedication to these often forgotten women and children would inspire anyone to be more compassionate, but this call was like a meeting of the Compassionate All-Star Team. The moderator was none other than Tracy Cochran who found love and light while getting mugged in a dark alley of New York City. And the whole call was anchored by ServiceSpace superstar, Audrey Lin. Audrey recently shared that she often asks herself, “What can I do or say now to best be of service to this person/group?” I would argue that Gitanjali, Tracy, and Audrey were contemplating this question with every exchange of this conversation.
Here are some highlights of what compassionate action looks, sounds, and feels like:
Ignite the Hearts of Others
From the very start of this conversation, one could feel the love and admiration that all of these women had for each other. Audrey Lin started the trend by giving a heartfelt introduction for the moderator, Tracy Cochran, that included a snippet from Tracy’s Awakin Call. Tracy was getting mugged in New York City when she had a profound awakening: “My ability to extract myself in the situation was hopeless. So I gave up in a way. I surrendered. And I remember looking up at the side of my attacker’s face, and he had a big scar. And I remember feeling this upwelling of compassion for him. I became aware that this light that had been in me was also part of the world around me.”
Tracy’s response to Audrey’s introduction reflected her humility: “Thank you so much for embarrassing me with your kind and generous words”
Then Tracy followed suit with a loving introduction of Gitanjali Babbar that included a powerful testimonial: “I think that this woman, more that anyone that I have ever been able to meet, has shown me that our freedom consists not in our separation, but in recognizing our interconnection.”
Gitanjali’s first words were perfumed with gratitude and modesty: “Thank you so much, Tracy. I think you’ve shared everything about Gitanjali, even what I never knew about myself.”
It could be easy to miss, but just in the introductions one could see how all these women were bowing to the light within each other with humility and grace. They were embodying a joy and a freedom that can only be found in interconnectedness. It comes as no surprise that Tracy could have compassion for her muggers or that Gitanjali walked into brothels on GB road and saw the humanity in not only the sex workers, but also the police and the brothel owners.
Later in the call, Tracy acknowledged Gitanjali’s loving attention to the women on GB road and how this attention ignited the hearts of those sex workers: “It’s a matter of daring to sit down and open to where you are and who you’re with…these women, no doubt about it, have had very difficult lives. Lives scarred by violence– of abduction and kidnapping. Yet they and their children still have capacity to give. To give love. To give attention. That’s just extraordinary.”
I’ve always thought that the best way to change the world was to let the light inside me shine in order to light the way for others, but these women offered a more compassionate strategy: Ignite the hearts of others through loving attention and humble service and let them shine a new path for themselves and all those around them. Audrey summed up this strategy in a recent conversation: “I would view our time together as an opportunity to nurture each person’s journey in some small way, and to practice tapping into the elements of service and generosity within myself.”
Gandhi is famous for saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Perhaps if Gandhi was a woman, he might have said, “Serve the change you want to see in the world.”
Not surprisingly, by serving to nurture the light in others, these women get love back tenfold. Gitanjali reflected how even women who had been prostituted their whole adult lives were able to give tremendous love when given the opportunity: “They really cannot show the love [as a sex worker]. The only thing they have to show is the body. … the moment they feel that there is somebody who I can show my love– they just don’t miss that opportunity.”
For example, when Gitanjali’s father went into the hospital, she was flooded with love, prayers, and compassion from not only the women on GB road, but also their children. Gitanjali seemed surprised at this upwelling of love: “I am receiving a lot [more] than I am giving. Even now, every day, I’m getting one of the voice calls from my children, ‘Mom, we are praying. Don’t worry. Papa will be fine.” Of course, when she says “my children” she isn’t talking about her biological children, but the children on GB road, yet it makes complete sense that Gitanjali would refer to them as hers and they would call her “Mom.” Everyone is interconnected; everyone is family and deserves to be treated like family.
Although all of these women do a lot of service in their lives, they also know the power of simply holding space for others. Like someone who treads water next to you while you are learning to swim, Audrey, Gitanjali, and Tracy are exerting a tremendous amount of energy invisibly under the water, yet they maintain a calm, tranquil disposition to make you feel safe. Gitanjali first connected to the sex workers on GB road by simply sitting with them with no agenda: “There was no plan. We just got together and talked.”
These women prove that when we hold space for others without judgment or ulterior motives, we create an environment where love can flow. Gitanjali shares, “It’s just a flow, I don’t know whether I’m giving…I think somewhere there’s a space that has a lot of love. That space knows the flow of giving and receiving love. You just have to surrender yourself.
One thing that became obvious about holding space was that it has to be done in community. In America we have often equated freedom with individuality, but these women offer a new kind of freedom that can only be found with others. Tracy credits Gitanjali for this realization: “Now I have met a woman who has shown me that being among others is a greater achievement [than being independent], and opening ourselves to our interconnection is our way to be free and to be part of our greater world.“
Gitanjali actually sees individual space as an illusion: ”Everybody needs love, we just need to come out of individual space. It’s a myth. We are all family members.”
Another aspect of holding space that these women illustrate is that it is an open invitation. We don’t need special training, wisdom, age, or training to hold space. Anyone can do it right here, right now. In response to a story Gitanjali told about a “mad woman” who used what very little money she had to buy tea and biscuits for a street beggar, Tracy quoted one of her mentors, Jayeshbhai, “Just make heaven where you are.” Tracy continued, “We can just be saints for a moment, for a single moment, when we give up worrying about what other people are thinking about us, or our own separate cares and worries, like this woman, making a tea party, this very magical moment, for this other person who was suffering. What I learned slowly, including from you [Gitanjali], is that we always think that we have to be strong for other people, but sometimes what we have to share is our own vulnerability, which is another word for love, our own softness, our own imperfection, like this woman. She didn’t wait until she was perfect, strong, well-dressed to give. She just gave. I learned from you that I don’t even have to wait to roam around the city, I can start where I am.”
This powerful dialogue opened a space for all who were listening. One listener later emailed a heartfelt thank you: “She said something that hit my heart so deeply: ‘Be with them, in your own imperfection. There is no need to wait’…Suddenly all my fear seemed ludicrous, and all my paper tigers seemed to burst into flames.”
The ripples of holding space for others doesn’t just affect the one with whom we are sitting; it spreads like a birdsong to nurture the whole forest. And anyone can serve in this manner, no matter our imperfections or fears.
As the conversation progressed it became obvious how humble all these women are. Tracy Cochrane is the senior editor of Parabola magazine and has had articles published by The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, and Psychology Today. Similarly, as young as they are, both Gitanjali and Audrey have already given TedTalks. In addition, Tracy and Audrey had been honored guests on previous Awakin Calls. Yet if you follow the conversation closely, you will notice that no one talked much about themselves.
Gitanjali will be the first to tell you that she is just an instrument in the hands of a higher power: “How it all happened? I am sorry. I really don’t have an answer to that. But it is happening on its own.” Later, she reflects, “Whatever projects we are coming up with, whatever dreams, whatever plans we have, the only thing is that we have faith. We have faith in the universe. It’s gonna happen. That’s what I’ve learned. I learned to surrender. I learned to just be there. Just be the witness to whatever is happening. I have this trust that everything is gonna be perfect.”
Part of “being the witness” has to do with not trying to be something else. One can sense that Gitanjali, Audrey, and Tracy are not trying to build a reputation or strengthen their resumes; instead, they are trying to invisibly lift up the people around them through service. Although Gitanjali is a world renowned human rights activist, she still calls the women on GB road “Didi” which means elder sister: “You call them sex workers, but for us, they are like elder sisters, in every situation, just holding hands, telling us to be the love, and everything is going to be fine.”
In the Q&A, Audrey reflected about the first time she heard Gitanjali share her experiences on GB road, “You said exactly that you don’t feel you are doing it. You feel the prayers, the Didis, these women, the sisters…are making everything happen.” Gitanjali shared an example of this humility and egolessness when she talked about the school at Kat Katha. When one of the women asked Gitanjali to teach her how to read and write, Gitanjali said, “You can teach me something and I can teach you something.” Out of this conversation a school was born which Gitanjali credits to the women, not herself.
Perhaps not taking credit opens the space for larger things to happen like Kat Katha, faith, or an inspiring conversation.
Lost in Translation; Found in Compassion
One of the most telling parts of the conversation occurred when there was a misunderstanding. Tracy asked Gitanjali what she did for fun apart from her work, and Gitanjali started talking about funds, as in fundraising for the women on GB road: “Last time I met this donor, and he told me that what if you don’t get funds, how much your project is sustainable. How are you going to sustain yourself? I told him even if you don’t give me fund, it hardly matter. Just keep sending us prayers that is enough for us… Our objective is in the next ten years, make GB road the most beautiful place on the earth, and we are going to do that. If we don’t get money, that’s OK.”
Tracy then asked Gitanjali what made her happy, and Gitanjali again went right back to the women on GB road: “I have 4,000 reasons to be happy, because every woman gives me a different reason to smile every day. It’s beautiful. [The] Universe has already given me a reason to smile.”
The message couldn’t be more obvious—happiness, fun, and sustainability come from compassion, service, and love. Or as Gitanjali puts it, “Love is the only answer.” Tracy offered a definition of compassion as responsiveness—“to be responsive to what you see right in the moment, not down the road.” It was amazing to watch how all these women’s responses both during the dialogue and in “real life” were steeped in compassion.
As this powerful conversation drew to a close, I had a burning question to ask the whole panel. Not surprisingly, other listeners felt the same way—the caller queue was full, as was the online question board. Only after writing this blog post did I realize that my question had already been answered.
My question was “how can I, as a man, support the work of you three amazing women?” The answer: Ignite the hearts of others, hold space, stay humble, and find compassion.
Photos: flickr.com/Minette Layne