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Satyagraha Institute: reflections from Lisa Wagner-Carollo


ber 3, 2017

This photo was taken after a performance of Haunted by God that Lisa performed at St. Isaac Jogues Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, on the tail end of her participation in the Satyagraha Institute’s summer session in the Black Hills.

In a week that has offered us yet another horrifying example of the violence in our world, let us balance the scales with a reflection on some of the people on our planet who are devoted to cultivating peace and understanding. (If you are reading this article, you are probably one of them. Thank you.)

The mission of the Satyagraha Institute is to “promote the understanding and practice of satyagraha as a method for social change and way of life”. Mohandas Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, proposing that satya (truth) combined with agraha (firmness) creates a social power that does not rely on violence. One way that Gandhi translated it is “truth-force.” Satyagraha is a way of directly engaging with others to solve problems without resorting to coercion or harming others. Satyagraha occurs when our actions stem from kindness, respect, patience, generosity, and service.

From August 4 through August 13, 2017 Still Point Founder and Artistic Director Lisa Wagner-Carollo attended the Satyagraha Institute’s summer program in Rapid City, South Dakota. This annual program was designed to train community leaders in nonviolence. Participants are provided an opportunity to deepen their understanding, skills and commitment to nonviolence.

Dorothy Day was one of several historical figures in nonviolent protest whose work was studied at this year’s program. Lisa presented Haunted by God: The Life of Dorothy Day as part of the institute’s course of study. For this blog, I asked Lisa about her experience with the Satyagraha Institute.

Anita: Can you briefly explain when/how you were invited to participate in the Institute’s summer session in the Black Hills?

Lisa: Andrea Novotney, one of the organizers of the Institute, saw a performance of Haunted by God on January 17, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin. A month later, she contacted me to see if I would perform at the Institute, but she also asked if I would stay for the entire nine days to be a full participant in the program. I was overjoyed to be invited to participate, because I had I been deeply struggling with issues of violence. Needless to say, we hear endless accounts of violence each day and my heart has been broken. I had been struggling –wondering how I could personally respond. I feel that our work with Still Point also fights against these forces – but I when I received the email from Andrea, I knew that I being offered a rich opportunity to not only respond in a very personal way, but that I could also learn more from those who had “gone before” – notably King and Gandhi.

Anita: Could you describe a typical day for participants in the event?

Lisa: We began each day with breakfast – which I very much enjoyed! Not only because the food was delicious, but because I love sharing meals in community. The participants were from all over the world, and I loved meeting them and talking with them at mealtimes. After breakfast, we met outside in a circle during a period that was called INNER LIFE. I think that this time was my favorite time of the day. Not only was the natural beauty of the Black Hills all around us, invigorating and uplifting us, but we would spend time in our circle of twenty-some people and read reflections around nonviolence and spirituality from Gandhi, King, and others, including Dorothy Day. Then, we would break into small groups and discuss the main topic for the morning. We had a reflection book that we would follow. For example, one day we focused on “Developing Ease.” The book read:

“One obstacle in the work of nonviolent social change is our agitated mind. Our attention is often scattered. Our heart is often not at ease.[…] Part of the work of satyagraha is restoring our equilibrium and presence, for the benefit of others.”

After this spiritual reflection, we would have two morning sessions that were focused on learning about principles of non-violence. This would be followed by lunch, and then two afternoon sessions. We would end our day with an evening session. During these teaching times, I was deeply enriched and uplifted by the teachings about Gandhi. We had an excellent teacher from India, named M.P. Mathai. He is a Professor at Gujarat Vidyapith, the university founded by Gandhi in Ahmedabad, India. I found his talks mesmerizing. What stood out to me most from the teachings about Gandhi were the principles of self-purification. I “translated” this to mean – if you want peace, begin with your own inner life.

Anita: What are a few of the memorable moments that you will continue to carry with you in the weeks and years ahead?

Lisa: An amazing woman spoke to us at the gathering. Her name is Lyla June Johnston. She is a young Native American woman who led a Forgiveness Walk at Standing Rock. She is wise, insightful, and to me truly embodies holiness. She is also a poet and she shared some of her poetry with us. Because Still Point does outreach to women at Cook County Jail, Lake County Jail, and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, I spoke to Lyla about bringing her to Chicago for a speaking tour of these institutions in the Spring of 2018. I am certain that the women will be impacted in a positive and fruitful way by Lyla’s words.

Anita: How did this experience inform or deepen your own perceptions and/or perspectives around nonviolence?

Lisa: Again, I discovered how important it is to grow my own inner life – and to open up spaces for others to grow in this way.

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