Exploration of the ‘self’

By Jarlath Downey

Before I embarked upon the Pravah ICS journey, I had not been asked to describe myself too often (except perhaps on dating sites, in which case I’d have described myself as a catch). So one thing that I have got used to throughout my Pravah ICS journey is the number of times I have been asked to do just that, albeit not in the way I would have done so before. Whereas a previous invitation to ‘describe myself’ would most likely have been looking for a sound-bite justification for being present in a given context or, as in the dating site example, an advert for self – here the same invitation has asked me to look deeper, to think about who I am not just in narrow contextual isolation but as the manifestation of my inner conscience as it relates to my lived experience. I am being asked to think about my experience of life and the world and how that influences how I act and/or react towards any number of people, events or circumstances and then to cast a critical eye over those actions and reactions to gain a deeper and more conscious understanding of their causes and effects.

Pravah ICS has contributed to this by giving me space away from ‘real life’ – or as Pravah might say, giving me access to the 5th Space – in which I have been able to expose myself to new surroundings, cultures, people and situations and most importantly, to reflect on myself within and in relation to them.

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This break from the quotidian and the support and guidance of Pravah, my host organisation, personified in my Programme Supervisor, Anjali, as well as my two counterpart Team Leaders have been vital in order to make the progression from viewing self as something which simply is and can be easily described to being able to view it as something which is a product of myriad personal histories, realities and experiences and which is fluid and difficult to pin down. My experience has been that the more opportunity I have had to reflect on what makes me ‘me’, the more elusive any description of myself has become. It’s a strange inversion to have greater uncertainty linked to greater understanding but when it comes to deciphering myself each revelation has contained its own conundrum, a footnote to look further and discover more.

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The beauty of the Pravah ICS programme is that the above process could well have been purely self-indulgent and isolationist but that has not been the case. I have not been lost in an arcane introspection but rather I have been exploring who I am through my interactions with the team and the society in which I am immersed. The unique insights I have gained through the mentoring conversations I have held with my mentees have allowed me to frame my own thoughts in a much broader context as well as helping other volunteers to think about how they might describe themselves. The time I have spent getting to know the local community and helping them devise interventions to improve their quality of life has illuminated the importance of this heightened self-awareness (or rather the deleterious effects of its absence); only by being conscious of what is holding you back can you begin to dismantle it and move forward.

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My future plans before my Pravah ICS experience were vague and illusory and they remain so to an extent. However, Pravah ICS has given me an opportunity which I would not otherwise have had – to live in a rural Indian community and engage with the people here on a huge number of issues affecting their lives. These interactions have necessarily resulted in comparisons between life here and in the UK and what has struck me most is how many similarities I have come to see.

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In our globalised world each one of us is closer to one another than ever before and we are all subject to the same global forces of capital, exploitation and the alienation from ourselves and our communities necessary to allow age-old systems of power and control to remain in force. As a result, I do feel that I have a much clearer vision of the world I would like to live in and I will try to turn my professional career in a direction which will allow me to have a net positive effect towards creating just such a world. I am also looking into the possibility of volunteering to help refugees in Greece when I return to the UK as well as returning to my role volunteering in a London homeless shelter, both of which I now see as even more urgent and valuable than before.

The old cliché of finding yourself in India may be as trite as they come and may not be entirely true for me, but I’ve definitely shone a light down the right path – and the beautiful thing is that I have seen that on that path I am not alone. I am surrounded by people with the vision, patience and understanding to make the world a better place – all that it will take is for each of us to illuminate and walk the path together.

(Jarlath Downey was a Team Leader with Pravah ICS for two batches, July – October 2016 and October 2016 – January 2017, and was placed with partner organisation Manthan in district Ajmer.)

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