Two chevruta sit on a bench outside under an awning, the sun shining on their faces. They are smiling and high-fiving.

This fall, SVARA welcomed Devin Samuels as our Scholar-in-Residence, who taught “Svara Off the Page: A Toolkit for Refining Our Guts.” The class utilized Devin’s expertise as a writer and creative to explore the concept of svara and encouraged participants to develop their own practices grounded in their moral intuition. Laynie and Devin caught up recently to reflect on all the magic that was uncovered and we’re thrilled to share their insights with you. (This conversation has been edited for clarity.)

Laynie: Over the fall zman you facilitated “Svara Off the Page: A Toolkit for Refining Our Guts.” I’d love to hear how you’re defining svara and why you think it’s important, both itself and the refinement of it. 

Devin: Our second class was all about svara, trying to define it and reading texts about it. And at the end of the day, there was no clean definition that we came to as a unit. I think folks conceptualize ‘intuition,’ in many many different ways and so these definitions tend to be personal. For me, I was treating svara as the lens through which we reconcile stimuli in the world. So when I am making a judgment on whether someone was right or wrong, whether a situation was good or bad, whether something I did was deserving of praise or deserving of remorse, that lens I’m using is svara. It’s this union of intellectual knowledge of right and wrong, of study and Torah, and then this gut—this personal, this experiential, this emotional reaction. And where those two (the intellectual and the personal gut knowledge) meet is where a judgment call is made. 

When we say, “Oh, that’s good,” it’s both something that we can back up intellectually with a list of reasons and rationales for why it’s good, but it also feels good. And if examined, there’s also a list of reasons why it feels good to me, that might have to do with association, that might have to do with my beliefs about my theory of change for liberation in the world, or it might have to do with any number of things that I hold emotionally close.

I think, in many ways, our education system in America and a lot of cultural tenets, try to train us to devalue that emotional part or make the invisible world truly invisible, act like it doesn’t exist, and then somehow have the judgments of right and wrong or good and bad be objective. But there is no checking your baggage at the door and then being able to operate in an objective way—all of those things are just being pushed to the unconscious, and where unconscious lives is where bias lives, it’s where prejudice lives, it’s where trauma lives. And if those things are going unnamed, then that doesn’t stop them from acting. They’re still acting, and we’re moving through the world saying “This (unconscious reality) has nothing to do with my past history,” when that past history has literally informed how our brains are shaped. It has very literally informed what feels good to you or doesn’t feel good to you. And so, I think it’s in that understanding and articulation that my definition of svara lives.

I love what you’re saying about why this work is so important, and the power of visibilizing or acknowledging what seem like invisible forces that have acted upon us. We can take as a given that we’ve been shaped by oppressive forces, bias, these emotional traumas that form how our brain is shaped and how we understand the world and what you’re saying is, when we bring more attention to those invisible worlds that have shaped us we can retrain our guts to recover new ways of feeling good. Does that sound right to you?

Yeah, I think that the first step is bringing attention to it. Helping people leave this class truly believing that they can look at their emotional body, that it is not invisible, and there is nothing truly invisible about it. And I love the idea of calling it an invisible world, because I think that shows where our language has trained us. When someone is angry, or someone is reactive, when someone is like activated, it is often seen.

Right, it’s not invisible.

Right. Making it invisible is a trick of the training.

So really uncovering this attention, I think, is the first step. And then the second premise is recognizing that these are not static. They are dynamic changing things, and like anything else, you can influence that state. And just like a body, you can work them out. You can change what your body even enjoys or likes to do. I think you can do that for your emotional body as well. This work of refining our svara is really about understanding that these things we were taught are invisible and are just character traits, these static pieces of us that are unchanging and are just the way we are, that they are actually dynamic. 

I’ve heard you share about creative process as a location of practice for developing our svara. Could you talk a bit about that?

Word. I think creative practice as a location for working on svara deals deeply with reflection and with creative problem-solving. When you are asked to create a piece of art that is testimonial in some way, or reflective in some way, or even just has emotional depth in some way, it is the act of articulating this unseen or this invisible world.

It is the creative process, and really the act of taking, say, a moment in my life, and trying to craft it in a way that someone can understand, that type of act—repeating that type of act—is a practice of understanding your lens, understanding the lens through which you approach the outside world. And that is svara to me, it’s the lens through which you’re passing good/bad, right/wrong judgment. And if you can see the lens, you can change it, as well. Right? So, step one: create art! Be more reflective, learn tools of being reflective. But step two is noticing, “Oh, this piece of my life is traumatic. If I create art around that it shows other types of association from that experience—even if it’s just the association of that art being positive—all of the sudden, you are complicating your relationship with a past experience that used to be singular. And that’s where I think the most interesting work for me gets done.

[When someone creates art about a particular moment], they then have all these different associations to these different aspects, they’re able to humanize other characters, and then they’re able to humanize themselves in moments of failure. They’re able to see a broader picture because they are working the emotional truth of that moment when they are not activated by it, all of the sudden they’re moving with multiple ways of engaging with that experience. And that broadens you. That makes you better at dealing with similar things in the future, that makes you better at reconciling the harm that happened in the past.

I believe the same things that it takes to make a really good poem are the same things it takes to be a happy well-adjusted person. You need the same tools. And so you’re exercising those same tools through creative processes.

This frame on “refinement” is so juicy. The more refined our svara is—the more refined our guts are, the more refined our relationship to our emotional interior is—it’s not distilled into a small narrow univocal thing. It is more multivocal, it’s more complex, more dynamic, it’s broader, it can hold more. 

The word that comes to my mind is clarity, right, like thinking of moving from a pixelated screen to HD; in the same amount of space, I can see intensely more detail. And in the emotional space, that’s nuance. That’s the ability to hold the experience of someone who is harming you as human, even in the moment that you are holding yourself as harmed and human. It’s the ability to truly be present enough in the truth of what’s going on to see humanity in everything that’s going on around you.

And for me, that’s the goal. It’s like, how can I both advocate for and protect myself without needing to dull my understanding of the world to do it?

Because the more we can refine and understand our emotional bodies, our svara, the more we can, in real time, hold the complexities of people, of our experience, and the world around us.  And I think that’s for me, that’s the path to liberation.

Devin, thank you. This is so good. I feel very grateful for this conversation, and I’ve got a couple of quick questions to close us out inspired by Brené Brown.

What’s a song you’re loving?

Oh, let me look it up on my Spotify. Montero and Industry Baby, fuckin’ love Lil Nas X, of course. But really recently, an artist in Providence named Muggs Fogarty just dropped an album, they hit the charts as my #1 most listened to song. I love the song called Patience and Eventual Party. Also Quicksand by Morray is a song that is definitely in the mix.

I love it. What is one of your go-to ways to give yourself some love and care these days?

Food, food, I love to cook. The way my brain works, I can’t just relax by doing nothing. So, if I have a set of like, timed ordered tasks that are all low on the intellectual scale but I’m specifically doing something paying attention of time, it occupies one part of my brain so that the “thinking about genocide” can rest and chill for a bit. And then at the end, I can eat good food. 

What’s the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?

There’s a book series called Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer. The first book was called Too Like the Lightning, and it was suggested to me from a homie who is a big sci-fi buff nerd and a poet out from the west coast, and I’m now on book four. I’ve been listening to it on tape incessantly. Definitely got in the way of the first month of a new job—I was hooked, just chewing through it. It has world-building, it has philosophical implications, it has historical references, it has deep characters. Deep future on earth, gender is obsolete in this future world, but then the writing of the book is in renaissance era vernacular, because the content of what will transpire later on in the series is very gendered and related to that. It’s this really wild futuristic sci-fi, gender, philosophy, theories of change, space—I’ve been hooked on, honestly after this I might listen.   

I’m sold. Totally.  Devin. What a gift this conversation has been! Thank you!

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