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What Are Your Personal Practices?

[A very sincere young man recently asked me what practices I cultivate. I had written it several months ago, since he found my response helpful, I'm sharing it below as well.]

At this point in my balding life, :) most of actions probably fall in a certain form of practice. It becomes a mindset. Without it, I think I would be totally lost. If I had to share some, let's see ... 

--Some practices are earmarked with a timeline, like spending 30 days every year in silent retreat (mostly Vipassana).  I've done this for most of the last decade and it has been an unparalleled anchor for me.

--Many practices are part of my routine, like the infamous example of me making tea for Guri at 5:30AM (just now!) -- although she tells me the recent travel gap, I've lost my touch with the adrak-phoodina combo. :)  Or that whenever I leave my home for a meeting, I'll try to take something I like from the house and offer it to them.

--Some practices are more contextual, like saying yes to anything that someone asks me at an Awakin Circle (this has led to many funny anecdotes, but sometimes it's good too -- like a woman asked me to be back-up speaker and that ended up being a popular TedX talk). It's a rookie version :) of Karan's morning walk (in Mahabharata), where he would fulfill any request (within his capacity) that the universe brought his way.

--Some practices are conflicting -- like not attending gatherings where there's alcohol or not accepting invitation where people use my participation for fundraising. I don't have an easy answer for this, but I enjoy the struggle.

--Various practices I fail in (like doing 2 hours of meditation everyday). Some practices (even failures!) build over time (last year, while spending time with Brother David I felt a strong intuition that time has come for me to start shifting from 30 days/year to 90 days/year of silence).

--Some are simple practices -- like feeling a sense of metta before responding to emails, even if it's the hundredth time I'm saying the same thing. Or the practice of adding links to emails, to seed a ripple effect, even when I know that the chance of a reader clicking on it are quite low.

--Some practices are short termed. On Ishwar-Kaka's first death anniversary, I gave up sweets for the next year. One day walking down the streets, I felt very stingy not giving to a homeless man -- so I decided to give something every time I saw a homeless person (and there's a lot of them in Berkeley) for a while.

--Some practices have no term, ie. "no exit strategy". Like cooking for the monastery every week (that we've serendipitously been doing since the first week or our marriage, 13 years ago), or taking Wednesday (today!) off for simple service of cooking for Awakin Circle (it takes a full day of work). When we went on a pilgrimage, we intentionally booked a 1-way ticket and no destination. It lasted for 1000 kilometers, but it was a very different experience but we couldn't just look forward to it ending. You then really learn to lean into your pain or pleasure, and find a different kind of light at the end of that tunnel.

--Some practices are subtle. Like talking about death in 99% of the conversations I have with my parents. Or not putting a price tag on my labor (for me, this emerged organically -- but then I met the likes of Nirmala Didi and many other Gandhian like Arun Dada and Meera Ba, who have done this for their whole life.)

--Another practice is to go to the edge of my circle. So many times I want to retreat to my comfort zone; two years ago, during my India trip, I had ingested some element that my body was allergic to and I had intense rashes all over my body. I was burning up, constantly. Great Vipassana practice. :) Subsequently, I couldn't generate as much love as I typically can -- but I bowed down and humbly worked at the pace of my conditions. That capacity to be fluid means that you engage in many diverse spaces and diverse mindsets -- which ultimately leads to growth in skillfulness.

--One very fundamental practice is to build an untiring mind. I used to be quite lazy but at some point (during my tennis days, I think), I learned to snap out of it. Then, I used to work hard to achieve things -- and fortunately, I snapped out of that. At one point, in high-school, I got into stock market and really started making a lot of money; it was a bit addictive, but by some grace, I left that. Same thing happened with women, in my second year of college -- but fortunately, it lasted for a very short period of time. Finally, I landed in the field of service, and learned that hard work leads to untiring mind only when we cultivate detachment to outcomes. So that's a constant practice -- even in this moment. :)

--Lot of practices are centered around patience. A zen teacher beautifully said that when his monastery burned down he noticed that some seeds sprout only under that extreme heat. Similarly, many of our latent capacities are unleashed only when we can "sit like a mountain and let the river flow through" (like Hanuman, who didn't know his capacities until he really needed to). Practically speaking, Guri tells me that I never give up on people -- which just means that I am surrounded by many relationships where things are messy. That offers me a great field to practice equanimity and detachment, while cultivating relationships of deep care.

--Another fundamental practice is to lead with noble friendship. Guri and I started coming to India, solely to support our noble friend, Jayesh-bhai. Moved by Love emerged from that. Who knows, maybe a whole lot more will come out it before we're done. But when we started, it made no sense to the casual eye why I would do so much when I had so many more opportunities to have much more impact elsewhere. My practice was to support noble friendship. I would say that 99% of the major decisions in life are led by this practice, even when it goes against the grain of all logic. :)

--At some deep level, another practice I'm trying to build is to not wish for anything. If you had the Midas touch, would you care for gold? Since my childhood, I've noticed some wishes unexpectedly manifesting and even though they were for others, I realized I'm not sure I had the wisdom to know if those are actually helpful. Many years ago, for instance, I went to help a friend move -- and he was sharing how his racists neighbors have been troubling his parents for decades and if we could pray together (for the neighbors!). We did. Next week, the neighbors decided to sell their house. Just like that! Few years even before that, a friend was going to terrible personal crisis and I prayed that he find a significant other -- soon after, at the only Awakin Circle he ever attended, he meets someone who had the same birth date and year as me and they're now very happily married with two kids. Those sound like good things, but it can be scary as well. Over time, I have learned that I don't want to wish for anything -- instead of twisting life to bend to my will, I want to dissolve my will to surrender to life's flow. Of course, I'm not perfect in that practice, but it's a strong practice. For instance, last year, when my brother was close to death, I didn't pray that he get better. Initially, it was tough but then I grew subtler wings by knowing that equanimity is so much stronger than the Midas touch. :)

I can go on -- but all that may not be particularly helpful for your life context. :) If you're thinking of what you maybe able to do in your life, for me, it all falls in two broad categories of service and stillness:

Give what you want for yourself -- if you want money, give money; if you want happiness, make others happy; if you want to be connected, learn how to be invisible (ie. give away your connections).

Deepen awareness -- meditate, quiet the mind, find an intelligence beyond the mind.

Practices in both of those spheres creates the foundation for cultivating noble friendship, that affords us the resilience to either wake up entirely -- or fulfill great vows of compassion we might've undertaken. Of course, it does take time to "change entirely" as Rev. Heng Sure's song reminds us. After almost 3 years of bowing, he went to his teacher and said that he still doesn't know how to bow -- and asked if he could practice for another 3 years! Fortunately, there is no rush, so slow stories are just as good as any other story. 

Posted May 20, 2017 | permalink

Bonjour From France!

Last couple days, I participated in a TED-style event in France -- L'echappee Volee. In a gorgeous setting in Chantily, the event brought together entrepreneurs, innovators and investors for an idea-filled, 3-day event. This year's theme was Exponential Happiness. Most of it was in French, but there were various English speakers as well. It turned out that Emmanuel Macron was also invited, but he texted saying he was a bit busy, considering that he had to deliver the President's inaugural address. :)

The speakers had a very Singularity-esque flavor of technology solutions for society's progress. One speaker spoke about curing humanity of "disease of aging", another gave a live demonstration of "AI replica" to communicate with someone as if they hadn't passed away, another spoke on hacking someone's memory to make them forget past experiences, another on colonizing Mars. Most of them had companies dedicated to the cause. Although all their narratives invariably led with a humanitarian intent, I couldn't help but ponder the alarming ethical dilemmas. Instead of contemplating theories of change, though, I suspected that most of these entrepreneurs enjoyed solving problems. Still, I dreamed about a future dialogue on: "Yes, we can. But should we?" :)

I was the closing speaker of the conference. In the Kurzweil-Fukuoka spectrum, ServiceSpace is working on the Fukuoka end of things while this audience anchored itself on the other end.  And that offered a fantastic opportunity to skillfully build bridges. The essence of my remarks focused on how we can use generosity to reconnect, at the personal, inter-personal and trans-personal level. It was quite illuminating for many who hardly had any exposure to non-market innovations that can uplift humanity.

Skillfulness also keyed various 1-on-1 interactions, where I frequently used questions to evoke deeper nuance without necessarily imposing a world view. A very-sweet young man who is mobilizing 30 thousand volunteers in France came up and said, "I've never been able to explain what I'm doing. Today, for the first time, I get it." As we probed deeper, I asked him if scale can be thought of as an externality and not a destination. With another young entrepreneur (who has built a really cool app that does live transcriptions of audio on your mobile so deaf people can be part of conversations) I posed the question of "big data" versus "deep data" (data that is deeply contextual, and hence perhaps partly subjective and unmeasurable) -- which he hadn't considered before. At lunch, I sat with a gentleman who is the founder of a 30-year-old company (publicly traded company on Nasdaq) that does "gene editing". Back of his sweat shirt read: "Editing Life". He introduced me to his wife and raved about the talk as the "best I've heard". Given our philosophical differences, I was a bit surprised and asked him what resonated with him and he pointed to themes of simple living and abundant giving, which he also tries to practice. "Less stuff, more happiness." Building on that, we then pondered renouncing mental accumulations like our ideas and beliefs.  It opened up a beautiful conversation.

Generosity generates tons of heart warming ripples too. One woman came up to me, with her husband, and said, "My husband is a giver. But I'm more of a matcher. Today, I've decided that I want to start becoming a giver." I suggested that they may like to do a 21-day kindness challenge and share stories at dinner everyday. They got so excited about it that they are even going to email me the story everyday! So sweet. The organizers also gave all attendees a Smile Card, so I'm sure the ripples will continue on.

Underneath all this, as always, there were ample waves of serendipity. Like, after dinner one night, I was attempting to beeline straight to my room but ran into one of the performers, Valencia, near the exit.  We said our hellos. Amidst live background music and hundreds of people talking to each other, our conversation unexpectedly turned deep. At one point, she opened up about this sacred experience she had in her teens: "I was dancing, and all of a sudden I lost myself. I felt like all my movements were led by a gentle wind as I swayed with a tender lightness. I've never experienced that since then, but I can't forget that, because in a very real way, I felt like I was being guided by my roots." You can imagine where our conversation went after that. Forty minutes later, we said goodbye and she added, "You know I had a cab waiting outside. I was just heading out as we met. But some things are meant to be." Indeed. To top of it, she happens to be moving next month and will be my neighbor. What are the odds!

Then again, what are the odds that I would've gone to this conference. It happened because many moons ago, two college-going kids attended the Awakin Circle; they were studying "collective intelligence" and we had a short, agenda-less chat. One of those young women was now the curator for this conference, and she remembered that evening.  Eight months ago, when she invited me and referenced our Awakin Circle hug, I knew I didn't have to think twice. :)  

Posted May 17, 2017 | permalink

Live A Life Of Grace

Recently, someone had asked me what advice I would give to my younger self ... here is what I had written:

You are taught to work hard, to drive your destiny, to make something of your precious life. That's true, but remind yourself that underneath the waves of your effort lie the undefinable laws of the ocean. Listen carefully because these laws won't be as loud as the commercials on TV; they will instead whisper with the poetry of serendipity. All our lives start with an act of serendipity that we can't explain -- our parents. It defines so much of what we are able to do in life, and yet we had no control over it. As we grow older, we tend to identify ourselves with the wave and forget about the ocean. Resist that temptation. Don't ignore that five dollar bill you find on the streets, simply because you haven't earned it. If you hold acts of serendipity with reverence, you will mature into grace. Grace isn't deserved or undeserved, understandable or mysterious, pain or pleasure. It is simply grace -- and it is aligned with the laws of the ocean. Live a life of grace. 

Posted Apr 18, 2017 | permalink

The Love Bomb In Dubai :)

I'm not quite sure how Natasha and I originally connected, but two years ago, she came to the Gandhi Ashram for one our Startup Service gatherings. Her parents, Viresh and Faye, joined too. They were quite deeply "moved by love" and were keen to help in whatever ways emerged. Originally from Oman, and now in Dubai, they are students of Dayananda Saraswati (Value of Values is one of his great books) -- and Gandhi. :)

They lovingly hosted me in their home and in the evening, they held a lavish event with musicians, multi course meals and much more. Originally, we intended a small circle -- but apparently, word spread and they had stop at about 100 folks, as everyone puzzled over what exactly could be drawing people. Mama Faye felt it was Natasha's to-the-point Whatsapp invite, which linked to Can You Create Social Change Without Money? "In Dubai, it's all about money so no one can believe this." :)

Everything about the evening was very thoughtful. As you entered, your nametag said: "Name" and "Love is ...". I wrote "Love is a crack in the ego that can contain the whole universe." Then people sipped on coconut water or pomegranate juice while informally chatting with others. Soon after, you were invited to enter into a silent sanctuary and write an intention on a heart-shaped piece of paper that you will hang up on a tree. Natasha introduced me, I spoke, did some Q&A, and we broke out into small groups, before concluding with some closing reflections and a giant group hug with Nimo's Grateful playing in the background.

It felt like a love bomb had exploded. One young woman looked at the menu and jumped with joy. "Oh my god!" It was a Singaporean soup that she was craving just earlier in the day, and isn't available anywhere in Dubai. Another random fellow overheard that and said, "Hey, I commute to Singapore. I'm going to bring you one package of this soup every month!" Everyone was just in that space.

Many people noted, "Most of us have never experienced a circle like this in Dubai. This doesn't happen here." The room featured many entrepreneurs, celebrities, and global personalities -- most of whom were dancing to the beat of compassion. About 10 volunteers took over the waiters role, and served with *unstoppable* enthusiasm. By the end of the night, everyone was hugging everyone. "Fierce generosity is what I want to practice," two people separately told Natasha. Several people invited me to their events, many people spoke about starting their own circles, many brainstormed local ideas with each other. Few people have already started planing for a Dubai retreat later in the year.

Another highlight for me was reconnecting with my cousin, Aditya, after 12 years! It felt like we hadn't skipped a beat. He was also swept up by the energy of the space and signed up to join the Awakin Circle next week and other kindness events. Long live love! :)


Posted Apr 9, 2017 | permalink

The Goodwill Tribe Of Dubai

Chandni and Sonia have started The Goodwill Tribe in Dubai, that hosts all kinds of local events to "inspire human connection and kindness". Both of them very sweetly share with everyone, "There would be no Goodwill Tribe without ServiceSpace. They made us." It made me reflect on the joy of decentralization.

Today, they hosted a "kindness retreat" with about 20 change-makers. After a circle of sharing, we held a question around vulnerable generosity -- how can you push your bounds of kindness? After splitting into smaller groups, we came back to hold another question -- what can we do together that we can't do alone?

All of us in the circle felt stronger for having been with each other. It was lovely to share space with such a diverse group -- and enjoy 'gulab jamuns' after dinner. :)


Posted Apr 8, 2017 | permalink

Ken's Pen

Every moment can be a moment of connection. My cab driver for the event was a fellow named Masood. Earlier in the day, a big Sheikh had come to this conference via a helicopter and Masood was supposed to escort him; so I was teasing him how he was then downgraded to take care of me. :) We had a good time together.

The next time I was in his car, he even treated me to coffee!  It was great to learn about his life, his understanding of Dubai, and the edges life forces him to traverse.  At one point, my pen drive (with my presentation) slipped out of my pocket and he remembered it was mine and brought it back to me.

As I was departing the conference, we gave our final hugs and I wanted to offer him something -- so I quickly looked through my bag, and what did I find? A pen that Ken Honda had given me. I told him how this was a from a big-hearted author in Japan who has written 120 books. He sent along his love, with this smile below ...


Posted Apr 8, 2017 | permalink

Meeting Faisal From Uganda

I spoke at a big ICAI event today, of chartered accountants in Dubai. The King's Uncle helicoptered in for the opening remarks. Many inspired speakers, like Major D. P. Singh, took the stage over the span of two days.

Many were curious how a message of generosity would resonate with this money-oriented crowd, but it ended up being the only standing ovation. Lots of small stories of micro transformations, like one inspired fellow who decided to carry water in his car so he can offer it to thirsty strangers everyday!

I was particularly touched by my interaction with a young man named Faisal.

Faisal was the security guard at the event. When I first walked in, he stopped me and asked me for my badge; I didn't have one, so he wouldn't let me in. :) After my talk, I had stepped out and when I went back in, he stopped me again. "Hey, remember me from before?" "No, no, Sir. I actually wanted to ask if I could get a link to your YouTube channel?" I looked at him a bit perplexed. So he explained, "I had to be outside so I couldn't hear everything, but I was really touched by what I heard. I also want to grow in service."

He gave me his email, and I promised to write him that night.

But the thing is that he actually followed up. "I'm from Uganda, and I find a lot of commonness in the work of ServiceSpace and Paul Freire (of whom I'm a student). For a year now, I am working here in Dubai as a security guard but I can do more than this. With my bachelors degree in education, my passion lies in working with communities to bring about change."

He's now signed up to do other local volunteering, and even applied for the upcoming Laddership Circle!  One just never knows what emergence has in store for us, so we have to assume value everywhere.

Posted Apr 8, 2017 | permalink

My First Day In Dubai -- At An Awakin Circle! :)

Today was my first day in Dubai. Ever. It is a land of superlatives -- biggest mall, tallest building, largest library. Home to Formula One races, Masters PGA events, and Corporate conventions. Just 500 thousand residents, and rest of the 4.5 million are on a kind of work visa. If you opened up the Uber app, you'd have an option for "Uber Chopper".

In this context, lots of inspired people as well. It is home to various Awakin Circles, most recently at Sunita's home. Loads of local kindness events. Many Karma Kitchens.

Tonight, Sunita and her family hosted an Awakin Circle. After a reading, we all shared and I closed it out with some stories. Post-dinner, the story session continued. What struck me about the circle was how many "slow stories" it took to create that circle. Three sets of parents (Neha, Prahladd, Nandita) who were brought into the fold by their kids in different parts of the world. Bunch of youngsters, who were inspired by local events. Sunita and her husband were originally moved by Sheetal and Khushmita's love in India. When a circle has such deep roots, the vibe can go even deeper. That's exactly what happened, particularly in the informal time after dinner.  

Here's more from Sunita.

At the end, I passed out Kit Kats from Japan. :)  After Maki's circle, where I had shared the trashed pencil story, a gentleman came up to me with some Kit Kats and shared a beautiful letter in his broken English that said, "It's a small gift, but wrapped in a lot of gratitude. Please pay it forward."  And now, the inner-net connected him to brothers and sisters in Dubai.  The slow-but-strong stories ripple on.   

Posted Apr 7, 2017 | permalink

Meeting Shin Again

Almost twenty five years ago, our family of four met a Japanese mystic on a plane. We called him Shin. It ended up being a formative 8 hours together in my and Viral's teenage lives. Decades later, I would remarkably run into him again (on my last trip to Japan). And today, life brought us together for breakfast.

A glorious space emerged at our table of 3, at a random coffee shop in downtown Tokyo. I learned that he knew Fukuoka, who he said had a very pure mind.  His assistant, Ikumi, was in tears at various points and called it a "Miracle Meeting". Japanese culture is not known for its hugs, but we couldn't help ourselves:

Last night, two nuns had offered me some bread. Another woman had offered me a small envelope with some money, with a beautiful inscription in Japanese. I paid that forward to Shin. He read that inscription: "An Offering From the Heart." Perfect.  

Posted Apr 6, 2017 | permalink

Maki's Latest: 7 Million Prayers

Maki is one of the gentlest innovators one might encounter.  With a keen intellect, she's a doctor by trade; with a unbelievably sensitive heart, her favorite activity is praying for others; and with a happy spirit, she's always found smiling and in service.  You notice in the little things, like this story at the Subway Station.

Her latest innovation has been doing "7 Million Prayers" circle. I asked her, "Why 7 million?  You mean 7 billion?"  With a big smile, she says, "I wanted to think small." :)

People come together for a little bit of silence and a brief circle of sharing. Then there's a talk by someone from another part of the world to share a bit of their country, with the idea that the country's spirit comes alive with that personal relationship to the speaker. To conclude the circle, everyone shares a sentence of where they'd like to channel their prayers, and the whole group recites that sentence again. After all the prayers of goodwill, there's some silence to soak it all in.

I spoke about India today. With so many prayers in the room, a sense of sacred was clearly palpable. My translator, Skip, shared a beautiful sentiment after the talk: "I felt like I had to create space in my head to actually hold some of the ideas you were talking about. I feel bigger right now."

Lots of small ripples like this young woman who said she's going to start doing gift-economy massage at her beauty salon once a week (and that I have to visit her next time, LOL):


Posted Apr 6, 2017 | 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."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."