Radical Experiments in Unlearning

Radical Experiments in Unlearning

Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space

Radical Experiments in Unlearning

Manish Jain is deeply committed to regenerating our diverse local knowledge systems, cultural imaginations and inter-cultural dialogue. He is one of the leading planetary voices for deschooling our lives and reimagining education and development. For the past 25 years he has been the chief ecosystems builder of Shikshantar: The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development based in Udaipur, India, and is co-founder of some of the most innovative educational experiments in the world – the Swaraj University, the Jail University, Complexity University, Tribal Farmversity, the Creativity Adda, the Learning Societies Unconference, the Walkouts-Walk-on network, Udaipur as a Learning City, the Families Learning Together network and Berkana Exchange. He co-launched the global Ecoversities Alliance with 500+ members in 50 countries. Prior to this, Manish worked as one of the principal team members of the UNESCO Learning Without Frontiers global initiative in Paris Headquarters. He worked as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley. He has been trying to unlearn his Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University and a B.A. in Economics, International Development and Political Philosophy from Brown University. He and his wife Vidhi have been unschooling themselves with their 21 year old daughter, Kanku, in Udaipur, Rajasthan.

3rd Space: Welcome Manish.

At 3rd Space we have had a long love affair with India. Partly because India has a very different civilisational ‘operating system’ to that of the West. As you know, Western modernity’s worldview is rationalistic, mechanistic, and extractive, whereas in India the ways of being and doing are radically different.

You began your career in the West working for years in the corporate sector as well as different agencies, including UNESCO. But then you returned to India and went through a deep process of ‘unlearning’. Could you elaborate on what emerged from that; what you discovered, or rediscovered, and how that has influenced your work and your life?

Manish: Thank you, Mary & Steve. It’s wonderful to be with you.

When I moved back to India 25 years ago, I was in a deep state of disillusionment. I could see there was a profound philosophical crisis happening around who we are and how we relate to the rest of nature. A worldview crisis. Having spent 20 plus years in the USA and France, this was the worldview I was trained in. I could see that it wasn’t going to solve the huge problems we have. In fact, it was making things worse, the deeper we went down that path. I was lost in terms of where I should go, and what should I do.

Having been involved with all the so-called centres of power, I felt they were powerless to shift the game. So, I came back here to India to look after my grandparents. My grandmother was illiterate. A religious woman. Little did I realise that she would become my ‘unlearning’ guru. No lectures, no books. It was all from lived experience. She helped my wife and I to question much of how we had been trained to see, and be, in the world.  There are so many stories about the cycles of life that she taught me.

One simple example is the use of cow dung. There is an entire cycle of its use in rural India from fuel to replenishing the soil, construction to medicinal purposes. We even have cow dung toothpowder! Seeing how cow dung was so integrated into our lives, and yet how we’d been trained to see it as something dirty, was eye-opening to me. If there’s one symbol of the new ancient stories, I would say it’s how cow dung composts, how it heals, how it regenerates life. It’s one of the most powerful symbols.

Abundance Versus Scarcity

My mother was an allopathic doctor, and I was sceptical of alternative healing. But because of my grandmother, I started to venture into different kinds of local medicinal practices, meeting local healers, and exploring their work. And from this, I started to understand the nature of ‘gift culture’ because all the healing traditions are in the spirit of gift culture. They’re not a copyrighted knowledge system, where you pay to learn, and you pay to get healed. These healers offer everything they have in the spirit of the gift.

Initially I thought, ‘Oh, you can make money from this’, as in social entrepreneurship.But it was made clear to me that if you sell this knowledge, it loses its power. It’s not for sale. It’s in service of life, of humanity. This really shook me.

3rd Space: Could you say a bit more about the meaning of gift culture?  

Manish: It starts with an understanding of the sacred connection we have to life. When we receive gifts, we have a sacred obligation to keep the circle moving. The word ‘seva,’ meaning sacred service, is in that spirit, that in receiving we keep sharing. Basically, everything one does is in that spirit. If you’re in business, it’s to serve. And that serving keeps enhancing life, beauty, joy, connection and meaning. It fosters trust and a sense of abundance.

 A lot of our work is trying to restore our sense of abundance, rather than the sense of scarcity that modernity has fed us. The children’s game musical chairs is a perfect metaphor for this. It’s one of the most insidious games you can teach children, that there’s only one chair, and you have to fight for it. That’s how the whole global system is oriented.

We make decisions from that space of scarcity all the time. But what I’ve seen with tribal people and villagers is that they are operating from a deep space of abundance. I’ve been to people’s houses in villages where it doesn’t look like they even have tomorrow’s food, and yet they feed you with such openness, warmth, and hospitality it shakes you to the core. I’ve also been with billionaires and seen how afraid they are all the time.

Another important manifestation of this is the distinction between copyright and what we call the ‘copyleft’. Knowledge is taught in the spirit of being shared. It’s not a commodity that you keep to yourself and then charge for. I use the term gift culture rather than gift economy because it’s a cultural perspective that drives economic behaviour, rather than anxiety and assumption. And this perspective includes so much other richness. For example, the concept of zero waste. Zero waste is grounded in the understanding that nothing is wasted, and that abundance will be generated if we plug into these ancient cycles. Another aspect is forgiveness. And it’s a big one!


3rd Space: How would you describe forgiveness in the context of gift culture?

Manish:  The spirit of both asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness is to restore a sense of balance, care, and harmony. And there are thousands of traditions and sects that are functioning in this spirit. It’s a very important practice. When you extend forgiveness, you’re healing the other as well as healing yourself. I’m very inspired by the experiments of Mandela and Bishop Tutu in this regard. They may not have completely succeeded in the end, but it’s so inspiring that we can do this on that kind of scale. It can have huge ripples.

In fact, I don’t see any other way out of all the trauma we’re carrying. Any other way to heal, except through forgiveness.

3rd Space:  You are describing a sensibility to the harmony of the whole within certain cultures. And when this gets disrupted through an act of violence or whatever, the priority is re-establishing that harmony rather than inflicting punishment. Is that right?

Manish: Yes, punishment is a different tradition. Definitely.

3rd Space: What comes to mind here is British colonialism in India. I’ve talked to many Indians about this, and the most common response is one of acceptance and forgiveness. This blew my mind. I couldn’t really understand it, given our history.

Manish: Yes, it’s shocking. ‘Like, these guys took $4 trillion from us, and we’re not bothered about it!’ With all the violence that happened at that time, there’s a huge sense of forgiveness and letting go. But I think, similar to unlearning, there’s a process involved. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. And that’s an important distinction. It’s not about forgetting, but about letting go. When you hold trauma too tightly, it starts to eat you from within. Right?

3rd Space: Yes. But isn’t this a two-way process? You’re describing the Indian perspective of letting go. It can be liberating when you let go the desire for retribution. But I do think that on the British side of things, there is a role that we need to play here, which is to face and acknowledge the violence of our history. It’s stunning to me that the British government still has not said anything about the two hundred plus years of colonialism and all the violence, the extraction of this time. As a British person, I experience the big-hearted perspective here. It’s very rare. But I can’t see how this can ever really heal without us doing our part.

Manish: Yes. this is one of the amazing aspects of this culture. And I agree, I don’t think this lets us off the hook at all because you can’t really restore balance without reciprocity. Look at what’s happening in Palestine and Israel right now. Violence is in the air, in the energy that people carry. And it will keep coming back, unless you actually face it at some point.

I was reading something yesterday about the Bengal famines – three to four million people died during those famines [under Winston Churchill’s watch], yet the general view is ‘Look how great Churchill was!’ I guess the question is, do we keep reproducing that cycle of violence? Or do we try to see how we can get to some new place together? I think this is what the experiment is. I don’t know how to do it. But we know what’s not working, so it’s worth trying something different. 

Knowledge Through Doing

3rd Space: There are many change makers and progressive thinkers who have brilliant thought systems, innovative models etc. But in your work, the emphasis is very different. Can you talk about what that difference is, and what has manifested as a result?

Manish: Yes. I’ll come back to my grandmother. She helped me understand Gandhi better. When Gandhi returned to India, he spent a year travelling through villages. And you have to imagine that he spent a lot of time with grandmothers!  He started to understand the connection between the head, the heart, the hands, and the home. Elders embody this all over India. Having read some of his work, studied civil disobedience, Satyagraha, and the idea of Swaraj, I think these became more meaningful for me when I started interacting with my grandmother. Gandhi’s understanding [like hers] came from lived experience. It was not just a theoretical or political statement. It was something that could be lived. We can redesign our lives and our systems with this in mind.

The understanding of the role of the body, the heart, is critical. Swaraj, Ubuntu, the Zapatistas, even Degrowth, are not just coming from the intellectual mind. Understanding the body, the hands, the places, and context we’re living in, matter. Our ideas, utopian dreams, have to be connected, informed by these. Otherwise, we will reproduce the same thing we have done over the last 200 years.

My grandmother helped me understand, however, that working with your hands is not non-intellectual. Knowledge is informed by the body. But our modern schooling keeps reinforcing a separation. Working with the hands is seen as extracurricular, but in the Indian traditions this is part of our intellectual traditions, which are also spiritual traditions.

Shikshantar’s ‘Millets of Mewar’ organic restaurant in Udaipur

The separation of spirituality from your creative process, from how you use your body, and how you open your heart (bhakti), this fragmentation is something we are now suffering in modern urban India. The recovery of this integration is important. Not only for personal issues but for intellectual projects. Unless we bring the terrains, the territories, the bodies, the ancestors, into our work and into our understanding of life, it becomes anaemic, even dangerous. When I decided to leave UNESCO, it was with this in mind.  

Growing food, making clothes are not just skills, they inform us spiritually, intellectually, and philosophically. The poet Kabir, one of the most profound Indian philosophers of the last 300 or 400 years, was a weaver. Weaving helped him to understand life, its patterns, and relationships. Our work, our hands, and our bodies, they’re part of how we shape our minds, our understanding of things. This is what I’ve tried to recover and apply to whatever we’re trying to generate going forward.

Playful Improvisation

The whole idea of ‘think global, act local’, is fundamentally problematic because global has ended up meaning de-facto white American. ‘Global’ carries an arrogant assumption that you can understand the whole planet and its diversity, which is beyond our comprehension.

A simple example is rice. Most of us know five or six varieties of rice. There are 114,000 documented varieties, and probably 250,000 undocumented varieties in this country. The monoculture mind tells us that there are only a few varieties. But each of the varieties in India are specifically connected to bio regions and cultural systems. So, whatever we generate in terms of ways out of the mess we’re stuck in, has to come out of the knowledge of place, out of the learning of local languages, out of the wisdom of our bodies and intuition. All that we have lost in the name of a certain kind of intellectual tradition needs to inform our direction. Our work is to try to challenge that notion of a single intellectual tradition.

Swaraj University ‘khojis’

I’m quite sceptical of utopian plans because they’re usually based on centralised planning. Somebody sitting down and drawing it all up on paper. What if we playfully improvise the next systems that we need in the world? And what if this came out of our actual lives, our embodied experiences? That’s the kind of experiment we are involved in here. I respect friends who sit and write books and give theories, but I don’t think it’s going to get us very far out of the mess we’re in.

I grew up thinking my grandmother was uneducated, right? But maybe she’s more educated than my Harvard professors. Maybe she’s more intelligent because she knows so much more about the ‘good life’, and how to practically live it than people who are writing about it. That’s what I’ve been trying to reclaim in my own life, these different kinds of traditions. And in our work, we explore how we can support people in this process with their projects.

We are Spiritual Materialists

3rd Space: In the West, many are looking to countries like India, Africa, and South America for a different way of thinking, being, and doing. But the fundamental challenge is that we don’t have access to the depth of embodied traditional knowledge that is connected to the sacred and stretches back generations. We are so deeply secular that even when we try to adopt practices such as you’re describing, they often feel ‘extracurricular’. They don’t have that organic connection to the sacred, or the effect on consciousness that traditions here have. 

Manish: Yes, Western consciousness is basically defined by Microsoft products. At a Degrowth conference in Mexico, I once said we cannot build a Degrowth movement based on Excel spreadsheets. The problem is that at a core level people don’t want to let that system go, they’re afraid to let it go, or they have a vested interest in preserving it. 

I’ve also been to gatherings where there’s a lot of sensitivity around different spiritual traditions. But, as you’re saying, these are extracurricular and at the end of the day, you have to get back to the ‘real’ work and make those ‘strategic’ plans to save the world.

 You can have a whole gathering where nobody knows where their food is coming from, or where their waste is going. What the buildings are made of. We have forgotten that these are spiritual mundane questions that matter. They represent integration. If you want to bond people, why have them play some conference room game? Why not cook together? It’s much more profound reconnecting spiritual and material needs. This is something we’ve forgotten.

They say the West is materialist and the East is spiritual. To me, we are spiritual materialists. Spirit is present in all matter, and in all the things we do. Let’s redefine the gathering, the conference, even how we understand the outputs or the processes, in order to integrate something much more holistic.

Manish: What we’re trying to do here is to create an embodied experience for people, because the problem is the limited rational mind. They have to feel a different space, a different energy, be working with their hands, be with people again. Once you start doing that, you understand that this makes sense in ‘real’ life. There’s only so much you can share through words. Bringing people into these embodied spaces for a week or ten days, creates a possibility of restoring some of what has been destroyed.

‘Going to the root of the problem’ – study at Swaraj University

Cultural Immersion versus Appropriation

Manish: One of the things we’ve been promoting is the idea of a gap year. We have found it to have tremendous disruptive capacities. Just having that year to be with yourself, to explore, to build different kinds of relationships which are not governed by the logic of schooling.

3rd Space: Yes. Part of what we’ve wanted to do with 3rd Space is to give people in the West a chance to immerse themselves in a totally different culture. We created a programme called Immersive Journeys, because without some kind of immersion, it’s easy to adopt ideas that resonate with us, but about which our understanding may be quite superficial. 

Manish: There’s a lot of debate around cultural appropriation. But there’s a problem in this, which is the assumption that there are ‘owners’ of knowledge. If I say to you, you’re appropriating my tradition, that assumes I’m the owner. And I’m not the owner. It’s a whole philosophical tradition. For thousands of years, people have been sharing things, taking them from one place to another. There is an ethics that you can talk about but there needs to be the space for experimentation.

3rd Space: I understand the need to relax rigidity. But there is often a quickness to assume that we can absorb something in its depth and subtlety. It superficializes it. So, I appreciate why people get upset when they see others adorn the artefacts of their culture, rather than taking the time to absorb it.

Manish: I agree. I think the people who are sharing these traditions, and I consider myself one of them, have to keep emphasising that these traditions embody years and years of deep meaning. The problem is that people sell weekend workshops. And people buy them, and think they’ve got ‘it’, until the next thing. The integrity and depth required is missing on both sides.

3rd Space: Yes. We haven’t really considered the scale of change that needs to happen in the world. How far we’ve moved away from the kinds of understandings we used to have; and how much time we need to create a shift in the way we relate to the world.

Community as a Spiritual Process

Manish: Yes. Gift culture, where certain things are not for sale has been forgotten. Traditional healers refused to charge money. Also, we are trained to think as individuals. A lot of spiritual work is individual. Self-help has gone here. But if we focus more on building healthy communities, healthy teams, a lot could be solved in very different ways, such as the trauma and limitation we experience as individuals. If people come together and work as teams, a lot can shift not only in terms of resistance to the system, but even more in terms of regeneration. I’m trying to promote that we get better at community-building as a spiritual process again, rather than individual spirituality.

I grew up with a mental model of my family basically consisting of my sister and my parents. But if you asked my grandmother who her family is, she’d name 200 people plus the cows, plus the goats, plus the river, plus the ancestors. This is a very simple, but fundamental shift.

Children tying the rakhi thread around trees

We have a festival called Raksha Bandhan, a festival of mutual care and protection for each other. My sister would tie a rakhi thread on my wrist as a symbol that we’ll protect each other. Then I saw my grandmother tying a rakhi thread on a tree, tying a rakhi thread on a cow. For her, all these beings are in the mutual care of each other. In India, there’s the idea that the whole world is our family, if I tie this thread on you Steve, you are my brother. You are not like my brother, you are my brother. There are no strangers, only people whose stories we haven’t heard yet. So, if we say the whole world is our family, this simple practice, can start to expand our worldview again of who we are, and how we’re related.

I think the fundamental challenge from an education perspective, involves two things. We have to dissolve our hyper individualism, this ego, and simultaneously expand our sense of self, our interconnectedness. This is a core task of what’s needed right now, how to both dissolve and expand our sense of self.

3rd Space: That’s a powerful way for us to end, Manish. Thank you so much. 

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Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space