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Three Memorable Conversations Of 2021

Among the various conversations, I loved these three conversations with three unique mystics with gigantic hearts of service:

Posted Nov 18, 2021 | permalink

Between Accepting And Fighting

Some reflections from our Awakin Circle today on Marc Lesser's post on the juggle between accepting circumstances and fighting for change:

In response to Ifeoma's request for articulation, here are some words to the flowchart above ...

I love the Serenity prayer that invites us to find the "serenity to accept things I can't change, courage to change what I can, and wisdom to know the difference." In practice, though, we can ignore the service we are called to and start fighting for things that aren't ours to change. It's hard to find that "wisdom" in each moment.

When we accept circumstances, we might just be acting lazy and escaping. Or we might just lose all ground and become a punching bag for others to grow in negativity. In between those, how might we find the sweet spot of responding with equanimity and poise? Strong back, but a soft heart.

Similarly, when we are fighting for change, it can be a reaction to our internal frustration, anger and impatience. Still, in anger, there is a meaningful element of dissatifaction; if we can see that everyone is continually on a pathway of that dissatisfaction, it can lead to compassion. If it isn't in a wholesome proportion, though, it can lead to self righteousness and a downward spiral of hating the other person or world view. In between those, how might we find the sweet spot of responding to dissatisfaction but with compassion? Strong back, but a soft heart.

When acceptance with equanimity comes together with a heart of compassion, an act of service naturally blossoms.

Given our imperfect perception, though, even our acts of service can be easily hijacked by the devious manipulations of the ego. We can start to think that we are special, right, and gifted; we get greedy for change to happen on our timeline; we want to get credit for what we do. As insurance around this tendency, it helps to remember that we are not serving to help or fix others, but rather to transform ourselves through the process of performing that small act of kindness. Then, we are effortlessly grateful that we *get* to give, and we trust in grace to deliver the outcomes as conditions ripen.

Such service at the intersection of equanimity and compassion yields a quiet kind of inner transformation that dismantles the tools of our ego. Less of me and more of we.

That field of "we" profoundly expands our capcity to serve. Because we are no longer burdening our ego with the responsibility of fixing the world, we are free to serve more. Because we are no longer sneakily transactional, our shallow bonds with others mushroom into noble friendship and afford us the resiliency to bounce back from setbacks. Because we want nothing in return, the winds of nature flow through our hollow flute to play a glorious song we never get to hear -- because we are It.

By finding the equanimity embedded in acceptance, and the compassion embedded in transformation, love is made visible. We then serve for our inner transformation, or through our very existence.

Posted Oct 11, 2021 | permalink

Devil's Advocate Or Angel's Advocate

[I recently hosted a couple interviews. Following one, a friend wrote to me about how one of the guests might be two-faced.]

While that has not my experience with this particular person, I do know ample people who I judge similarly -- whether they get seduced by greater power or money or fame.

Over the years, though, I've asked myself if projecting my beliefs of perfection onto others is commensurate with holding my own self up to those standards. What I've seen within me is that I judge others by their actions, but I judge myself by my intentions. I wonder how things might change if I find some parity in that judgement gap?

If I judge myself by my actions, I realize that I'm also quite imperfect -- and then would I expect that from others? If I was leading thousands of people in an organization, is it ever possible to do something that everyone judges to be a win-win? That's hard to do even within two people sometimes. :) Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, if I judge others by their intentions, that also dramatically softens my gaze. Even if I strongly oppose the action, prioritizing the other person's intention increases my capacity for offering benefit of doubt.

You mentioned the show titled "Devil's Advocate" -- that pinning people down, intellectually, about their contradictions could be a good way to open them. Personally, I wonder about the efficacy of that route, given my experience with myself. My sense is that Angel's Advocate might be much more potent, for both the receiver and giver. :)

Many years ago, I met a leader (who then went on to become one of the most powerful heads of state in the world). In our 30 minute chat, I asked him questions like what he does to hear voices outside of yes-men around him. At one point, he abruptly walked out of our conversation. He wanted to influence me, and I wanted to influence him -- and the net result was neither happened.

Sure, if one wants to build a following of cheap followers, holding strong positions and becoming a convincing lawyer for those positions is very adept. But what does that solve? Would anyone even want such a friend? I wouldn't. Surely, I like the idea of critical thought through candid dialogue, but if there isn't a larger field of friendship and trust, it just breeds hostility and polarity -- as is obvious around the world today. If we are to counteract those divides with bridge-building, "Angel's Advocates" feels lot more skilful. In the previous generation, where content was a premium, we marveled at people who were smart, brought up intellectual counter-points, and offered thought leadership. But in today's world of information overload, it's just noise.

More subtly, one of my activist friends asked a monk once, "I have all these good ideas, but no one listens to me." And the monk said, "That's because you're taking a short-cut. You first need to make them your brother/sister, by giving." That's a tricky response, :) because as we walk the path of fraternity, our connection to "good ideas" ends up being radically transformed.

That monk's path is hard and slow, but that's what Gandhi stood for. Ambedkar would frame Gandhi's approach as "tyranny of incrementalism" -- that if you wait for inner transformation in the other person (or a group), they'll keep on doing damage and paving the "road to hell with good intentions".

But that begs many questions. For instance ...

  • what is our relationship to time? I recently read physicist Carlo Rovelli's book on time (see this video, and this article for a synopsis) who essentially says that there's no objective truth to time; it doesn't exist in nature.
  • what is our relationship to scale? We are ingrained with the notion that 10 people suffering is 10x worse than 1 person suffering -- and its converse, that bigger the project, greater the good. Yet, could that just a covert way for our ego to stay relevant?
  • what is our relationship to thought itself? During the pandemic, Guri and I often read the Gita, with our morning chai :) -- and, like so many other sacred texts, it is so explicitly stated that we are not our thoughts and in fact, beware of your thoughts since they are prone to being by hijacked our sensory stimulus.
So, to build on Gandhi's example -- how was he experiencing time, and the spectrum of emergency to emergence? How was he holding the opportunity cost analysis for scale (see a thoughtful analysis of Trusteeship)? And even more broadly, was thought even the primary intelligence (given that he could shut off all thought) that guided his actions? It's a question I often ask myself: what do I know to be true that I haven't thought of?

How do we hold all those evolving metrics in drafting up our momentary theories of change? And then, how do we design solutions on that wisdom? If we want the winds of nature to behind our back, should we bias towards Angel's Advocates or Devil's Advocates? From my experiences thus far, I'm sensing the long arc of the universe bends towards angels. :)

Posted Oct 11, 2021 | permalink

Should I Pray For Others?

[An email response to a question from a community member in India, exploring the role of prayer.]

Namaste Nipun-bhai, I attended Sunday's prayer circle. It was so nourishing to listen and experience prayers from different religions and countries.

But I have been holding a question about prayer for a very long time, and I wanted to ask your thoughts about it. When we are unwell, aren't we reaping the fruits of actions of this or past life? (I am sorry to say this out loud, because I know it sounds insensitive.) In that case, how do my praying for an unwell person, help them. Isn't their illness/health issue predestined? Can my prayers change someone's fate?

My mother aged 72 yrs was Covid positive on April 3 [...] Through all her health issues I, my immediate family, cousins, aunts, friends, neighbors were praying for her. I understand when I pray it brings me lots of peace. It felt very soothing when everyone was praying for my mother, but does that peace and wellness reach the ill person?

I have had this query for a very long time. It has strongly popped now and I wondered how do you think about this?
Thanks for your note and your thoughtful reflections. I'm sorry to hear of your mother, but I'm glad that she's doing better.

Like you, I also appreciate the framework of karma -- that past causes create conditions for current effects. However, every effect usually has innumerable causes, and we multiply suffering when we draw simplified lines of causation -- "this happened because of that." If we smoke, we might get lung cancer -- but how much of that cancer is due to smoking? That's hard to say. We tend to do glossy approximations, but actually, we don't know precisely why things manifest the way they do. In fact, Buddha made it quite clear that even enlightened people can't know (let alone control) all the causes for a particular effect.

Our view of prayer often mirrors our awareness of karma. If we feel that we are sole creators of our reality, we will pray to solve problems for others or seek prayers to rid our lives of suffering. On the other hand, if we feel that we are just instruments of a larger set of forces, there is no doer left to pray, receive prayers, or direct the prayers. Of course, that choice isn't binary. There are countless spots on the spectrum of ego and selflessness, and it changes moment by moment, based on the kind of mind we awaken. For example, in this moment, if I am in a state of 10% ego and 90% heart, I will pray in alignment with that; or if I'm 80% ego and 20% heart, I'll have a different experience of prayer. If there is a "solid" Nipun praying, I will find a similarly "solid" Nipun to pray for, with an assumption about cause and effect; if there is a more "fluid" Nipun praying, the prayers will flow by a different organizing principle.

Few years ago, my brother was diagnosed with a kind of cancer -- and he still hasn't recovered. Is that his karma? Sure. Does that mean I know the cause of it? No. Do I want him to suffer? No. Can I control the direction of his karma? No. Does his reality intersect with mine? Yes. How much of his current experience subtly intersects with mine? I don't know, but it certainly does because otherwise he wouldn't be my brother. When I'm in a heart of prayer, does it affect him? Yes. Conversely, if I am callous towards his pain and ignore it, does that affect him? Yes. Should I pray for him to get better? It depends on how much ego or selflessness I'm holding in that moment. If I pray for him specifically, I'm likely rooted in my ego -- and that's also okay, except that the prayer will help me more than it helps him. :) If I don't pray for him, but instead just enter a heart of prayer, who will it help? I would trust in the universe to direct it -- that if my goodwill needs to reach my neighbor's brother before my brother, then so it is. Does that mean that selfless people would never direct their prayers? They might, but it wouldn't be a product of a self-centered worry, thought or concern.

In my experience, I can say that I've never felt deeply moved to pray for my brother (and he's very close to my heart) or his physical well-being. It'll definitely be very rough for me if he passes before me, but that will be the same whether it is at the age of 37 or 73 -- so having a personal desire to extend his life doesn't solve much for me. Having said that, I have found myself praying for specific people -- because their pain somehow hits home for me. Sometimes, I'll do that even for a homeless person on the streets. Many times, it's almost effortless. When I do this kind of prayer, I'm mindful that my feeling may not be purely compassionate -- it might be partly empathy and sympathy, or even based on unknown karmic ties in the past. In that awareness, I still pray but I also smile in knowing that I'm receiving as much from the prayer as I think the other person might be. With a humble state of not-knowing, my heart typically gets filled with grace and my inquiries feel insignificant.

All in all, I would say that we should always pray. If in a particular moment, it helps us to have a specific, "solid" recipient, then flow with that. If not, then flow with the fluidity of impermanence. In that sense, prayer is less about what is happening but more about who we are becoming. As we cultivate this, we naturally arrive at a deep faith, a faith that a Zen teacher describes as "withholding conclusion so we allow what-is to arise." Then, we don't know who is praying, or what we are praying for, or even what is a preferred destination. All that remains is prayer. Then, our faith transcends an outcome, a person, or a belief; it simply -- and firmly -- abides in reality as it is. The elegance of that position is that it, then, doesn't matter whether you believe in karma or not.

A revered Benedictine monk once wrote me a postcard that still sits on my desk, and it reads, "Whatever happens, whatever what-is is, is what I want. Nothing else, but this." I sense that is the most expansive heart of prayer we are capable of.

Posted May 12, 2021 | permalink

Questions Post Pandemic

[Gross National Happiness group in Bhutan arranged a recent conversation, and when they asked about some questions I've been holding, I shared few of these points below.]

  • Is this pandemic a war story or a love story? How do we respond to emergencies without losing track of emergence? Is uncertainty a liability or an asset? From back in March: The Questions We Asked
  • In a volatile "VUCA" world, systems powered by extrinsic motivators (money, power, status) aren't agile enough to respond skilfully. How do we build sustainable, regenerative systems that are powered by intrinsic motivations? Dozens Questions Around Volunteerism
  • Silicon Valley experts tell us that pandemic has accelerated technology adoption by at least 10 years. Is that good news or bad news? If technology automates status-quo, are our modern innovations helping us build barriers or bridges? Watch Algorithms and Love
  • Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Peace isn't the absence of tension." In a cancel culture mindset, service can be framed as a denial of self-care, meditation as an escape from reality, generosity as a tool for the privileged, kindness as a pacifier of status-quo, and so on. What inner qualities do we need to unlock the wisdom of the Middle Way in times of extreme polarity? Watch a recent talk at City of Ten Thousand Buddhas: Power of Maybe
  • Who do we have to be to ignite a field of emergence where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? What does it mean to create value (a la Gandhi) outside the box of 3 M's -- military, money and media? What will helps us shift from broadcasting to "deepcasting", from mechanistic leadership to wholistic "laddership", from money as sole currency to multiple forms of wealth? Watch Goi Peace Address: Designing For Flow

Posted Feb 24, 2021 | permalink


[On a podcast today, I was asked about purpose. Below was my response.]

If I had to define my purpose, I would say it is to serve life's emergence. By serving what lies in front of us -- not because it increases or reduces the suffering of the world, but simply because it is ours to do -- life itself becomes a moral gymnasium in which we untangle and transform a completely unique set of energies -- internal and external, as unique as a fingerprint.

Inside the kitchen of a local monastery, a sign reads: "Life is an endless series of dishes. I vow to do them all." As we do those dishes, our flute becomes hollow once again and the winds of nature effortlessly play its symphony through us.

Growing up, I used to think that I was initiating projects and creating change. Bit by bit, I started seeing that I was never actually in the driver's seat, that my effort was a small sliver of a larger rainbow of grace, that perhaps I was in the passenger's seat. And now, I'm unclear if I'm even in the car -- yet, just seeing the flow of movement is enough to overflow my cup of gratitude and leave me with great joy.

Posted Oct 27, 2020 | permalink

Virus And Virtue

Coronavirus gives us an experiential insight into "many-to-many" networks.

Consider the lily pond riddle. If lilies in a pond double every day, and the pond takes 30-days to fill up, how many days does it take to be half full? 29 days. On 28th day, it's a quarter full. Day 20 the pond was just 0.1% full. If the full pond is 10,000 lilies, Day 20 is only 9 lilies! That's why countries are shutting down even when everything looks "normal" -- it's Day 20 normal.

What's really interesting is that virtue is also contagious in the same way. Only thing is that the opportunity-cost is not as clearly seen. If we saw it clearly, we'd cultivate as if our hair is on fire. :)

With virus pandemics, we respond to preserve our Self. With virtue pandemic, we respond to dissolve our Self.

Therein lies the challenge -- not having examined the Self.

Nisargadatta says, "Our indifference to our neighbor's sorrow brings suffering to our door." Once we see that, we would take virtue as seriously as a virus.

Posted Feb 12, 2020 | permalink

Keep Playing The Violin

In London, Dagmar Turner plays violin during brain surgery to remove a tumor. Surgeons encouraged Turner, a classically trained violinist, to perform during the operation to ensure that the areas of the brain that control her ability to play violin would not be compromised. Operation was a success after that once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Made me think -- compassion works the same way. No matter what the circumstances or how serious the operation, let's keep playing that violin. :)

Posted Feb 10, 2020 | permalink

The Fourth Day

In the early 90s, NASA sent a spider into space to explore how zero gravity affected web-building. Without her body weight as a guide, the spider wove misshapen webs for the first three days. But on the fourth day ... she returned to form with a near-perfect web!

In meditation, without the gravity of our flickering minds and sensual entertainment, those three days can feel like lifetimes. :) Yet, the fourth day is on the horizon.

Before a recent talk at SAP Engineering Academy, Ferose introduced me with his usual big heart. But he also shared a rejoinder of how we first met ...

I was speaking at Davos, and in the hotel shuttle one morning, four of us were sitting next to each other, knee to knee. The guy next to me was Adam Grant, and before we got off he sent off an email to connect. Years later, last month, I met Adam again -- and thanked him for the most important introduction of my life. With a big smile on his face, he goes on to ask me, "Do you think Nipun is a saint or a human?" I was taken aback and didn't know what to say. :) Then I replied, "I think he's human heading towards sainthood."

Apart from being flattering, :) I realized that is everyone's intro -- heading towards sainthood, Day 4.

Posted Feb 9, 2020 | permalink

Buddha On Emergence

Buddha said, "What people expect to happen is always different from what actually happens. From this comes great disappointment. This is the way the world works."

We invest heavily in our plans when we are disconnected. Being disconnected, our reduced experience of life makes us think that events happen linearly and our personal effort has an oversized control over the outcome. We use confirmation bias to assert that operating principle, which only further compounds our disconnection. Actually each effect is an integral of so many causes, including our tiny bit. The tinier our bit gets, the more connected we are.

One of the teachings from the Gita that I always grew up with was: release the outcomes. At first, it requires faith; then it sounds so simple; but with practice, it poetically sums up so much of the path.

Interestingly, I read this Buddha quote in a book by Shaila Catherine. I saw her speak at an event, where loads of monks and particularly nuns, were excited to see her -- for a rare public appearance. We were part of the hosting committee, so I was way in the back and couldn't get a good look at her. Post event, also, I didn't see her. Then, at dinner, she ended up coming to my table and saying, "Is this seat taken?" We had a nice group chat, and we departed together and I felt moved to make a humble offering of a 3-minute cab ride to her next destination. At that time, I had no idea of the extent of her experiences -- as she describes in her book, after a lifetime of very serious cultivation, she experiences material life as "kalapas" -- the tiniest molecular matter that arises and passes millions of times per second. That's just the tip of the iceberg. No wonder all the monastics were excited to hear her!

What grace that we got to connect, and even more so, that I got to make a small offering to her. Completely unplanned, unexpected, unpredictable, non-linear -- and hence connected. :)

Posted Feb 8, 2020 | permalink

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

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