Dancing from China to Surat

December 2012

Dear Ones,

Couple days ago, I returned from a short trip to China, Mumbai, and Surat.  At one of the airports, this other fellow and I had some complications, so we co-miserated jokingly and took the airport shuttle together.  We didn't chat about service per se, but when he hands me his business card at the end, I tell him I don't have a business card -- but I did find an old Smile Card to offer.  He looked at it and immediately says, "Oh yeah, I totally get this.  In my small town, we have this joint where I always see two army vets.  Willis and Jahan.  I've told the bar to always put their bill on my tab.  Every month, I pay and its totally anonymous.  Willis and Jahan think its the generosity of the restaurant, and I walk away feeling elated. :)"

Inspired that such goodness is always all around us, I decided to play my part and traded my "VIP" airplane seat with an elderly, somewhat obese woman and enjoyed her middle, non-reclining seat in the last row of the plane. :)

As I have been engaging with many very diverse people in extremely diverse settings, I often reflect on my relationship to all that is happening.  Whenever people encounter the work of ServiceSpace, the most common response is: “Something is happening with me.  I don’t know what it is, and what that’ll lead to, but I can feel that something is happening.”   I like that, because that implies that our work evokes a feeling of some core values and it catalyzes its own unique response in each person.  As those seeds get planted, they bloom unexpectedly in surprising ways.  After a conversation on a Wednesday night at Meghna’s home, a woman running a computer center decided to engage few of her students on a gift basis.  During a  'Moved by Love' retreat, one couple decides that they’ll start an Awakin Wednesday in their Bombay home.  Being on the receiving end of small tags, a very successful businessman decides to take on a 365-day kindness challenge (and he has truly done some remarkable acts already!).  After watching 'Designing for Generosity', a food-education center that used to charge for a particular workshop decided to give everyone a Smile Card with the “faith that you will pay forward”.  In Baroda, a school (with 8000 students) is starting an Honesty Shop and city is putting on Kindathon.  One person starts a Seva Café (Indian version of Karma Kitchen) in Bangalore, another works on online university around transformation drive design ('Giversity'), a third organizes a 50-person-3-day ‘Awakin to Giftivism’ retreat next week in Pune, a fourth person hosts TedXMasala in Bombay with a kindness-act as a prerequisite for entrance.  Ripples in all directions.

In China, I spoke to an audience of 500 CEOs and executives of a $20B company (Mahindra and Mahindra).  In a very-corporate setting with 4 giant screens, mics for every listener, cameras covering every square inch of the room, high security (which almost didn't let me in!) and a minute-by-minute scripted agenda, I was given a lavish 60 minutes (the guy before got 5 minutes to speak about his 2000 crore company).  For the first third of my time, I spoke about insights from our ServiceSpace journey; second third was about how those lessons can intersect with their context; and last third was Q&A.  If Q&A is any indication, :) the talk deeply challenged lots of prevailing views.  Their questions were intelligent and provocative – ranging from why-not-teach-a-man-to-fish to no-one-knows-vinoba-while-steve-jobs-won-by-greed to how-do-you-interact-with-homeless.  By the end of the hour, perhaps 20 hands were still up with questions, as the energy continued into many heartwarming conversations in the dinner hours.  Funny thing is that organizers of such high-budget events tend to be *extremely* nervous before my talk; there is a sense that these ServiceSpace values won't resonate in a business context.  And almost always, they end up coming up afterwards and saying, “The conference is buzzing with talk about giving and taking!”  Anand Mahindra wrote me a nice note saying, “Thank you for your insightful presentation. It has generated a great deal of discussion, and will influence the way we look at developing and nurturing our people.  By agreeing to join us, you were the giver and we were the takers.  We are truly grateful and we will ensure we pay it forward somewhere, someplace.”

In place of many subtle ripples, we may see a tidal wave or two emerge from this interaction ... since everyone here thinks big, even about small things. :)  To give you a rough idea, this China gathering has been the only time when I referenced Smile Cards in my talk and yet no one, not a single person, asked me for them!  Many more fun stories, which I'll save for a rainy day. :) 

From that setting, I went to Bombay for InspirEd event with 500 educators from around India.  Along the way, though, I held couple of circles with the vintage Wednesday mindset – heart of stillness, circle of listening, offerings of food.  It’s truly amazing how many times that circle technology has worked its elegant and effortless charm.  A new intelligence seems to awaken when everyone is holding space in a cocoon of wholesome vibrations; the trust amongst strangers skyrockets, people immediately feel like friends, and new possibilities emerge.  Whenever it happens, everyone feels it and yet no one can pin point its transient essence.  A young woman, who works for peace on the border of India and Pakistan, wrote a long note of gratitude to the circle, that ended with: “Thank you, I feel I've become a better person today, in a small yet significant way.”

I was quite sleep deprived for my opening keynote at InspirEd but I rolled with it, while starting with a question from China’s corporate audience. :)   I spoke about how Gandhi’s law of love trumps our dominant paradigm’s law of stuff.   Later, few of us also hosted a more in-depth session, that organically felt enveloped in a deep vibe.  In a touching note I’ve received afterwards, one young fellow wrote: “I used to believe in the ideas you spoke about.  Then I went to Harvard, and friends would ridicule my point of view repeatedly, and I lost my faith and confidence – and perhaps even I became a skeptic. Today, as you shared your stories, I teared up involuntarily as I heard each one of them. It was as if you opened the doors of my heart that I had shut, fearing ridicule and criticism. In those moments of shedding happy tears, I found the part of myself I was searching so strongly for. I am grateful to you for giving me back my hope and inspiration in the most powerful way possible.  Please keep doing what you do. I am part of your ripple effect."  Another young woman came up to me after our afternoon session and couldn’t get the words “thank-you” out of her mouth; with tears in her eyes, she mumbled that she’s been following the work of ServiceSpace for a long time and she came to my session just to say thank-you in person.  I felt her blessing.  We hugged.  She asked me to write a quote in her blank notebook. If others weren’t around me, I myself would’ve been in tears.

My last stop was Surat, in South Gujarat.  It was a foreign city for me.  A friend told me that his friend was very keen to organize something, and so I went.  They said that they were going to having one private function and one public function.  Sounds good to me.  Except that private function was a room full of accomplished entrepreneurs, and the public function was in a massive auditorium, with greeting signs twice my height that read: “Gift-Economy: Sustainable Social Change, A Talk by Nipun Mehta”.  Whoa!  They had six folks just as mic runners.  Both gatherings were immaculately organized, and created lots of possibilities.  I was particularly touched by the last comment by a kid in the crowd: “We are all consumeristic because it gives us something in return.  Shouldn’t we be smart and take that something and figure out how give that when people do small acts of service?  Then, no one would be consumeristic.” :)  Over a thousand Smile Cards were gone in seconds, and before I got to the train station, they had SMS’d requesting more.  The things I share are so simple and fundamental, that sometimes I worry when hosts (silently) put a lot of effort into organizing; fortunately, in this case, the hosts had "aha moments of the year" and were quite jubilant.  Locals are now keen to start a Seva Café, and various other ideas are in motion too – including holding such gatherings in two nearby cities.  This time, I’ll be ready to diffuse the attention by bringing couple other speakers with me. :)

Along the way, what happens in between the cracks is just as beautiful.  Couple of us had dinner one night at a home, with a family who had uncommon spiritual powers and for whom it was a “dream come true” to connect in person.   I personally don’t have any spiritual powers :) but I’m also not interested, and that somehow grounds everything in a very different place.  Before I reached home that night, the wife has already sent me an email: “Where were you for so long, my friend, my brother. I searched everywhere, for purity, for truth within and outside. I felt disillusioned many times. I experience it now. I experienced my smallness and bigness in our circle today. And I feel good about all of that. :-)”  Another night, we had a riveting conversation with leadership of Teach for India (like TFA in the US) around impact and transformation; everyone agreed that inner transformation can lead to impact, but what happens when you drop that strategic process and adopt transformation just for the sake of transformation?  Impact, then, would arrive as a by-product – like it did for the likes of Gandhi, MLK and Mother Teresa.  Yet another night, I had spontaneous car ride conversation with a younger organizer about the difference between a leader and a ladder.  “A ladder doesn’t accumulate merit, even as a strategy for helping others.  A lot comes into her left hand, and lot goes out of her right hand, but nothing stays for too long.  She is very important to the matrix, and yet when you meet her, there’s nothing one can grab.  It’s a lot like Awakin Wednesdays.  By the end of the event, you’ll be touched but yet, you still can’t go back home and describe that one amazing thing.  So, things flow in various ways at various times, and a ladder simply stays rooted in being an instrument.”

On couple occasions, I’ve used the “give, receive, dance” trilogy.  I feel like I’m dancing.  I’m getting a lot, I’m attempting to pay-forward all that I receive, and fortunately, I’m unable to keep track of the ledger.

Just got a very touching note that I'm pasting below as well.  It's a good life. 

In the spirit of dancing, :)


P.S.  A touching note that I just received ... 

Dear Nipun Bhai,

I want to thank you for the wonderful talk at InspirED!  Those two hours have caused  a shift in me in more ways than I could explain.  I am completely touched by your generosity and it is not often that I have experienced a situation like this!

When I came to tell you how I felt, tears of joy had replaced my words and I asked you to write me a note in my notebook!  But now, I want to try and explain how I felt with the deepest gratitude and inspiration..

Starting from the video that opened your session till the end,  I experienced goosebumps, silent smiles, tearful eyes and a completely moved soul!  The session brought me back to the belief that love overpowers every negative entity!  Some personal experiences had shaken my belief in the power of love and I had kind of shut myself off to loving and trusting, which was a difficult thing to do given the amount of love I felt I had within me, which I wanted to offer freely!

But two hours of the session on Gift of Giving and most importantly "you" brought me back to my childlike self that knew only love and goodness along with selflessness.  In those moments, I had shifted from being consciously closed to the gift of love to letting the love flow through me to others! I learnt the lesson of selfless love and generosity. Your acts make me believe once again in the positive energy, the power of love and the power of giving!

Seeing you LIVING every bit of this idea is the greatest inspiration I have ever felt than that which I would have felt by reading about or hearing someone preach!  Just by being that change, you have inspired me to embrace the good once again! I can not thank you enough!

Ending this note with deepest gratitude and a wish that may you truly achieve the enlightenment as it means to you. :)

Yours Little Sister in awe,



Projects I'm Involved With

"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."