I'm a clown traveling in a spiral

Veena Vasista  Image by D. Anaya

Veena Vasista

Image by D. Anaya

This year, I turn 47.

The 40s have been an adventurous decade for me. I quit my career in human rights and public policy; embarked on a quest for love; moved from London, England, (my home of nearly 20 years) to Santa Fe, New Mexico; and I joined a circus ... well, sort of — I have taken up theatrical clowning and performed in amateur circus shows. And now, influenced by circus experiences and the love quest, I am circling my way back to public policy, coming at it from angles I was not imagining when I left it.

At 40, I was a freelancer working to embed human rights principles into social policymaking. Prior to being a freelancer, I worked as a campaigner, a human rights network coordinator and educator, a researcher in think tanks and a senior policy officer in the British Government. I had organized delegations of civil rights activists from the U.K. and the U.S. to present at the United Nations.

I left this work because I was worn down from oppressive workplace cultures and the sense we were running around in circles with our ideas and approaches. I walked away believing the design and delivery of social justice and equity requires radical — of the roots — culture shift.

We need to be and do differently.

Influenced by work I had started as a community mediator and in giving trainings on ethical decision-making with the Institute for Global Ethics, I became particularly curious about how we communicate with one another (as opposed to communicating missions, goals, principles) and the role of empathy and compassion in social activism. Learning about the Theater of the Oppressed, I became interested in working with street theater to engage people with social issues. While my political friends talked about winning hearts and minds, I wanted to know how we open up and connect them. Experience in improvisational theater got me thinking about how people can collaborate to bring out the best in one another and expand the possibilities of our collective creativity.

While all this was percolating, I began a quest for love with a basic premise: I’m not very good at love. I was particularly concerned with being in more loving relationships with myself and my family. How might I be a better daughter and sister? How could I do better at cultivating meaningful connection, empathy, kindness, and joy?

By love, I mean an unconditional practice of compassion and accountability, often captured by the Greek term agape. I remember sitting next to a friend on the L (the rapid transit system) in Chicago and declaring, “I want to be able to love everyone on the bus!” and wondering what such love would entail in practice.

With hindsight, this noble aspiration for loving strangers was ironic. I started my 40s frustrated by still being in ongoing battles with anxiety and depression. I was living a life fueled by fear, sadness, and anger. I was unaware of how absence of love creates a space that can be filled with hate and loathing. I was unaware of how I was relating to myself in ways that were not only low on the love scale, but were actively unloving — mean, abusive, and hateful. If you filmed me going through my days, you would have documented large amounts of doubt, self-judgment, and criticism. In particularly unguarded moments, e.g., a therapeutic retreat, you would have witnessed self-loathing and rage.

I needed to be and do differently. I needed radical culture shift within myself.

So it is, I set off on two culture shift paths — learning about arts-rooted social justice movements and working with my mind, body, heart, and spirit to transform my relationships with self and life.  

I started the decade looking for a silver bullet — a one-size-fits-all experience to transform me into a lighthearted, fearless, super-loving, playful, and joyous human being. Within a space of a year and half, I participated in two intensive therapeutic retreats and a 10-day silent meditation retreat.

In the following year, I crumbled.   

After six months staying with family in the suburbs of Chicago and then six months living in Chiapas, Mexico, I landed back in London. I was fearful to the point of anxiety, sleeplessness, and night sweats. I wrapped myself in a self-image of being a woman who kept messing up her life and would never be able to get it right. And I still sought a quick-fix-it experience. Well, I did until friends and family metaphorically whacked me upside the head and pointed out this: Therapeutic retreats and intensives are nothing if the tools acquired aren’t picked up and worked with day in/day out. Daily practice, and ongoing support for it, are essential.

Hanging dearly onto one tool from an intensive workshop I had just done with the School of Movement Medicine, I left London to return to family in the U.S. The tool I clutched onto was the experience I had of literally dancing into my spirited Self. This Self transcended the craziness of life and a self often paralyzed and misled by an agitated mind and distraught heart. This Self was/is fully enlivened and moved with clarity, compassion, fearlessness, imagination, respect, and boundaries. I created a daily ritual of connecting with this Self, even if only for a few minutes.

I carried another tool. In the Art of Loving, a book gifted to me in Mexico, the German Philosopher Erich Fromm writes: “[love] requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.” I adopted this philosophy as my own — love is a daily practice, requiring discipline and active responsibility in all my relationships.

A few months after arriving in the U.S., I landed in Santa Fe. The personal and collective culture shift paths collided here. I stumbled into the social justice-oriented and artist-led communities of Wise Fool New Mexico and the Peñasco Theater Collective. With them, I began studying circus and performing arts. In the last three years, I’ve been an ongoing theatrical clowning student, participated in a six-week circus intensive for women, and co-created and performed in an amateur show. 

We need to be and do differently.

The more I was exposed to these artists' ways, the more I became intrigued. I saw big contrasts between what I experienced in the public policymaking/advocacy arena and the artists’ ways of being and doing. I was particularly struck by their tendencies toward being comfortable with uncertainty, basing the creative process in trust and faith, holding expansive perceptions of what’s possible, having high levels of adaptability and fluidity, and working toward something bigger than the individuals involved. 

I began wondering: “What if public policymaking and social activism generally were rooted in these ways — in faith, imagination and infinite possibility? How might such a re-rooting grow more nourishing fruits from our labors?”

At the same time, these spaces were playgrounds for the practice of love.

I had arrived in Santa Fe with a spirited Self who was awaiting opportunities to get some airspace alongside a fearful, agitated, sad and doubtful self. My physical body was tired and out of shape. During my second year here, I got hit with chronic backache and nerve pain in both my legs. In physical and emotional pain, I continued the quest for love. I committed to regular work with a range of practitioners to unleash my mind, heart, and body from stored trauma and emotional wounds, old physical injuries, crippling emotional and physical habits, and a lack of self-care.

Meanwhile, in the circus classes and performance spaces, I was invited to explore concepts key to understanding the complex terrains of love: compassion, self-image, power, trust, vulnerability, boundary setting, stillness, pause, and balance. Theater of the Oppressed-based workshops, in particular, illuminated imaginative and playful ways in which to cultivate our skills in empathy and deep listening.

Teachers/performance directors endeavored to co-create environments where everyone had equal voice and felt free to express ourselves, be curious and live into our fullest potential. This message was repeatedly made clear: How we show up as individuals matters because it influences the collective. In our day-to-day interactions with each other, we had many opportunities to reflect on and question our beliefs, attitudes, and habits. How loving or unloving were we being in relation to ourselves and others? Were we contributing to the co-creating of a nourishing community or a toxic one?

In essence, we were being invited to practice co-creating "Beloved Community," in which the skills of love are recognized as essential to the delivery of social justice. As with our shows and our classes, living life, building community, and public policymaking are all collective creative processes. I’m no longer walking down two paths. I’m walking down one, guided by the question, “How can we root our collective creativity in love, faith, imagination, and a sense of infinite possibility?”  In the year ahead, I plan to live into this question in different ways. One is by designing experiential collaborative art-making workshops geared towards public officials. I will be doing this work as a resident artist with the Santa Fe Art Institute. Another is by studying clowning, caring and systems change at the Gesundheit Institute’s School for Designing a Society.

Preparing to enter my 50s, I am committed to and excited by my newly recognized vocation: better equipping myself and others to cultivate Beloved Community. I presently feel physically and emotionally opened-up. I know I have a greater capacity for practicing love. But I’m not fooled. My work is far from complete. The process of moving along a spiral continues. Evolution is not about a linear journey. I am reminded of this by one of the symbols of the Zapatista Movement in Mexico, the spiral-shelled snail. The work, individual and collective, is slow, steady, and on going. We are constantly moving around the same points, but from different levels and angles. Each moment is an opportunity to be in different perspective and learn anew.

And to put love, compassion, and accountability into practice.

Originally from Chicago, Veena moved to Santa Fe in 2013 after 20 years of living in England. Primarily based in London during that time, she focused her work on embedding human rights into social policymaking. Since 2010, she has been working as a freelance writer, facilitator and mediator. Veena self-identifies as a Wake-Up Artist and Movement Maker, with a vocation to cultivate Beloved Community. In recent years, she has become particularly passionate about exploring the relationships between soul work, art-making and systems change. Veena also likes to spend time hiking, cooking family recipes, dancing, speaking Spanish, and being a theatrical clown. She is currently training to become a Feldenkrais Method teacher.

Articles by Veena:

Wise Fools for Love

The People's State of the Union

The Vagina Monologues of Climate Change

Words: Veena Vasista