Friday, March 10, 2017
Life Matters Workshop 2017: Three Challenges, Three Choices

The Life Matters workshop takes place annually in Melbourne over the long weekend of Australia Day. This time around, Sudarshan Suresh discovers more about the philosophy and practice of ‘Life Matters,’ while Luda Kedova interviews three of the 20 participants in the January 2017 workshop.

The Life Matters workshop 2017

Participants of the 'Life Matters Workshop 2017'

Rob and Cheryl Wood, full-time volunteers with IofC Australia, have been organizing the ‘Life Matters’ courses in various formats since the 1980s. Since 2014, groups of 20 to 25 young people at a time have taken part in the four-day residential course at Armagh.

Sudarshan Suresh reflects on a pre-workshop conversation in Rob and Cheryl’s living room:

I was there to hear what ‘Life Matters’ is all about. Cheryl was elated by the Turkish lamp they had just positioned, admiring how the light split into a burst of colours as it flooded through the stained glass. Poppy, their Jack Russell terrier, lay on its back by my leg, asking me to rub her belly.

Rob leaned forward to me, his blue eyes unwavering in their gaze. ‘Every person faces three challenges and is presented with three choices at some point of time in their life,’ he said. ‘Will he follow the crowd or the calling of his heart?’ ‘Will he walk away from his relationship difficulties or find a way to deal with them… and will he choose to live only for himself or will he open his heart to the world?’

I silently wondered which stage of the journey I was in.

He continued, ‘The program is essentially experiential by nature. We encourage the participants to reflect on their lives and relationships through panel presentations, story sharing, team games, thought-provoking films and an exploration of the dynamic of silence.'

‘Life Matters isn’t about exploring new concepts but rather about looking at certain fundamental questions, like “Who am I?” and “What am I doing with my life?” in a small, non-judgmental group as participants journey together to go “deeper within.” I think the most interesting part comes when we have someone who has had a remarkable, significant life experience, coming forward to share that with the group.  That allows others the freedom to share their own stories.’

I had attended a few workshops of a similar nature in India, and I remembered how once, a Tibetan boy had walked up to the stage in front of about 300 people and shared his story of separation from his family when he was two years old. He had never seen them since. The whole audience was in tears. Spontaneously, about 20 people ran up to the stage and gave him a tight hug, saying, ‘We’re your family now.’

Rob interrupted my reverie, adding that, ‘There are people who have made breakthroughs in their change-making journey…from a place of despair to saying ‘ I don’t mind that I’m only one person. I’m going to do what I can. When these people share their stories, it inspires everyone to seek their own source of inner wisdom and be a force of positive change in the world.’

Steps on a ‘road to peace’

Luda Kedova saw this dynamic at work, as she spoke with three course participants after the workshop: Gatluak Puok Puoch, a South Sudanese community leader in the Melbourne suburb of Dandenong; Gwendoline Raban, an environmental scientist also based in Melbourne, and Ayman Qwaider a Palestinian academic and activist, who joined the program from Perth.

On their reasons for joining the course, Gwendoline said that she had wanted to learn how to become a change-maker, and how to transform inner reflections into concrete actions. For Gatluak it was ‘to start a journey into finding my place in life, understanding in what areas I am gifted, to seek wisdom, to learn how change can brought unto oneself’. Ayman was keen for ‘the opportunity to connect with other people, to look into myself seeing my strong sides and limitations, and learning how to proceed with change-making decisions.’

Over the four days of the workshop, the group of 20 participants learned some tools of transformation: inner reflection, honesty, purity, unselfishness, love, and putting others first. In a supportive atmosphere, they were invited to share their stories.

Gatluak said he had reflected over the weekend on what he had done wrongly in the past, and had learned how to start to reconstruct his relationships with those with whom he differed. This, he observed, is the road to peace.

For Ayman, an important realization was that without active listening, no meaningful dialogue can begin. He noted that, ‘Active listening presupposes full concentration on what is being said and involves listening with all senses; it also teaches us patience and invokes a conscious decision to understand the message of the speaker. This is where mutual comprehension is reached.’

Gwendoline’s personal discovery was learning of ways that her dreams of change can be transformed into a concrete vision, and what tools can be used to bring this vision to life. She observed how close and connected the group had become, while Gatluak noted how much they had learned from each other. Ayman commented on, ‘how strongly I was reminded that we all, irrespective of money, religion, skin colour and ethnicity, belong to one community of just people.’

The workshop has enabled participants to make a plan of future action, and highlighted first steps to take.

Gatluak is meeting with people from his community to share his experience and continue the dialogue on building peace in South Sudan. For Ayman, whose research and work supports traumatised children in Gaza, the first practical step will be deep reflection on the possibility of change in Palestine and the belief that he is able to contribute strongly to this change. Gwendoline intends to expand IofC methods and dialogues to her area of environmental sustainability, placing particular emphasis on educating young people.

In a personal reflection written after the workshop, Natalia Teguhputri, an accountant and another Life Matters participant, noted that, “As we began opening up, we knew that we would receive full support and zero judgement…We learned that you don’t have to do the extraordinary. Do what you can, when you can. There will be no time to do it, if we do not make the time.’

For more information about the Life Matters course, contact Rob Wood,