Holding Space: Last Week in India

November 2013

At a recent 3-day retreat, Shaheen saw a slide on our “Gandhi 3.0”  idea.  “I am still having visions about it,” she semi-jokingly told me.  Two days later, I happened to be in Bombay and she convened all city directors of “Teach for India” to learn about this distributed and decentralized style of designing.  Running an expansive operation like TFI, this challenges the traditional models of organizing.  Still, by night, they all attended an overflowing Awakin Circle at Sachi’s home in Ville Parle.  It was a first for all of them.

Awakin Circles start with an hour of silent meditation, followed by a circle of sharing, and a meal offering by the hosts.  There is no economic transaction, and yet value is created.  Four such circles are hosted every week in Bombay; another four in Pune.  What started as an experiment by a Mom-and-Dad in California, has organically spread to 70 cities around the globe.  Gandhi 3.0 in action.

It was Shaheen’s first Awakin Circle, but next day, she attended  another one in another part of town.  Circles have a kind of intelligence of their own.  People feel held.  Its subtle but real.  One 21-year-old lost his brother in accident, after an argument he had with him; then, his mother passed away from her grief and subsequently father passed away.  Another woman spoke about her journey of battling high-stakes corruption -- and winning.  Yet another talked about lack of ethics in the workplace.  Another 23-year-old, formerly in the army, told me his conflict with his parents -- “Both my kidneys have failed, there are no matches in my family, and my parents want me to buy a kidney.  Its illegal do so, and for good reason.  I’d rather die early than compromise my values, but I also care about my aprents.”  Wow.  I bowed to him for holding the paradox so delicately.

When circles are held with a connection to our inner ecologies, a lot gets exchanged without any pre-meditated transactions.  Its hard to differentiate between the healer and the healed, but its clear that healing takes place.

Of course, holding space isn’t just about circles.  It happens everywhere -- when we’re with ourselves, with a friend or two, in a circle, or even in a giant auditorium while giving a talk.  Each context is practice for the same kind of art -- the art of dynamically calibrating a space towards its natural equilibrium.  Then, unexpected magic emerges. :)

Over the last week, I had lots of opportunities to experience that magic.

Rameshbhai, for instance, is 70+ years young and loves supporting those with “an inner spark”.  In a private conversation, he was telling me a story about a doctor in Calcutta, whose 35-year-old father died due to medical negligence.  Four siblings grew up with the savings of a vegetable vendor and the love of an illiterate mother.  But they went far, become educated, and now run Humanity Hospital to give back to society what their father didn’t have.  Speaking about this inspiring story, we wondered out loud -- “What if we can host a gathering in Bombay and invite such folks to tell their stories?”  Another person overheard our conversation, and she is now going to host the event on Feb 9th. :)

It’s not always so elegant, of course.  Many times, holding space is messy and complicated.  Like when we went to address some people from a 700-person tech company last week.  The CFO had attended one of our retreats and really wanted his coworkers to be exposed to it, so he heartily invited us.  In the informal opening handshakes, one of the company leaders jokes: “Its very easy for me to feel generous.  Just one glass of Scotch.”   Not quite the track we were hoping to propose. :)  Four of us had decided to share stories together -- but sensing that most of the crowd wasn’t sensitized for it, we spontaneously changed course. :)   We met the audience where they were, and then slowly amped it up.  By the end, we were all singing to the tune of Being Kind, hugging with reckless abandon, and watching Smile Cards and Decks find many hands.  The CEO of the company, who missed the session, later wrote that he heard about the session and was keen to co-create some more good in the world.

At other times, holding space takes on a collective flavor.  Like when bunch of us decided to spend the weekend at Deven’s “Startup Weekend” in Navi Mumbai.  More than dozen of us descended on scene with 65 budding entrepreneurs, who had a weekend to launch a product and get potential support for it.  Some of us gave the opening keynote, some were mentors, some were judges, some were participants, some were volunteers.   But when a whole bunch of love warriors are unleashed on one college campus, things start happening. :)  The college Dean of Innovation was himself becoming increasingly moved with every encounter with the posse.  People were finding chocolates with notes of appreciation, registration desk had loads of fruits alongside Smile Cards, some people fasted one meal and gifted their meal to the security guards at the gate.

By the last day, the Dean summoned the entire student council leadership, had us give a spontaneous talk and by the end, everyone took a Smile Deck card and promised to do the act and share stories (particularly that fellow who drew the card for paying for the entire bus!).   All of them are now starting a series of local service activities, that deepens their focus on inner change.  In the college newsletter, they now have a dedicated spot for our stories of kindness.  They want our help to design a business incubator on campus that “leads with inner transformation”.  The list goes on.  As we were leaving, we ran into a professor and his students who were out sharing flowers and Smile Cards with strangers on the street.  By the time we returned home, the Dean sent us a note saying he was missing our energy already and hoping that we return soon. :)

This kind of thing never stops.  At lunch the next day, about 7-8 people had spontaneously gathered.  A diamond merchant, an author-activist for 30 years, head of a massive investment fund, a budding filmmaker, a grandma and few from our ragtag bunch who like small acts of kindness. :)  If you were to look at it on paper, these people don’t have much in common but in practice, we all felt like we belonged and a couple folks were even moved to tears at one point.  In fact, Rajni (our host) was so touched by the context that she called up her best friend to “just come for five minutes” -- and she did, while leaving her dental patient waiting on the chair! :)  It happened to the birthday of an artist amongst us, and she later commented it was the best birthday of her life.

The subtle nuance is love.  That is unifying force.  

The challenge with love, though, is that the external feedback isn’t always immediate.  All these stories were after interacting with couple thousand people.  Majority of those interactions didn’t generate a story to tell -- and that’s just fine.  The transformative tipping point may or may not happen on our watch, but the real point is to stay connected with all that is in front of us.

For the 1-day retreat in Pune, our group was invited to a Catholic nunnery.  This group of nuns have been holding an Awakin Circle every Monday (at 6AM) for the last year, and this was the first time they offered their holy chapel (of 50 years!) to an outside group.  Lot of the nuns even attended the retreat.  At one point, a 70+ year old nun shared her story of working in a village.  “Here, women weren’t allowed to walk outside their front porch, after marriage.  For the whole life.  So I once decided to help them break the rule.  The men revolted, but I fielded their questions.  Ultimately, 30 women came with me for a 1-day trip outside.”  And she shared beautiful stories of the women’s responses to an aquarium, a planetarium, and urban life. :)  “I only did this once and had to leave the village.  But I returned 12 years later, and I saw that all the women were roaming everywhere.”

The way she told the story, it was very powerful.  At lunch, I asked her: “How did you convince the men?  I know you addressed their insecurities about their wives being sold, kidnapped, corrupted and such.  But that can’t be enough for them to embrace such a radical idea.”  She smiled.  “Yes, I worked for 5 years in that community.  I wasn’t there to convert anyone.  I was just giving love.  And it was because of that love that they could listen to my reasoning.”

Reasoning is necessary, but not sufficient.  Love is context.  And more often than not, it takes time.  Five years for this nun.  Sometimes more.

In Vadodara, after a beautiful 1-day retreat by the ever-smiling Pandya Sisters, the city’s Innovation Council invited me for a public talk.  There was a press conference, hundreds of people came, from Mayor and Collector to university Chancellors, and excitement was in the air.  My uncle, a legendary entrepreneur in India’s telecom sector, was the retired founder of the organization.  After I gave the address on innovation, the audience stood up to applause, and there was an energizing Q&A with many heartfelt moments.  Then my Uncle took the mic to conclude, “In many ways, I am the anti-thesis of Nipun.  This morning, I looked up the presentation I had given to him in 2000, a year after he started ServiceSpace.  I tried to convince him *out* of his path.  Today, I want to take this public opportunity to say that I’m not one to tear up, but today ... today I had tears in my eyes.”  I went up to hug him. :)  

That tipping point, though, came after 13 years. :)  We can just sow seeds, and its upto to nature to decide when the shrubs sprout and flowers bloom.

The good news, though, is that we can be farming all the time. :)  On route to Pune, I held a circle with ICICI fellows who spent majority of their last 15 months in rural India.  At another point, I listened to  inspired teenage leaders who have taken KarmaTube and Smile Deck inspiration to newer and newer heights, by organizing hundreds of local kindness acts.   On one night, Siddharth and I spoke together, where Sid shared his powerful personal story.  And it was the first time both his parents were in the audience. :)  At Awakin Nigdi, Neeti totally rocked everyone by doing even the smallest things with utmost love.

The beauty of nature is that while we’re building the road, the road builds us.  Seeds that we are intending to plant in others, get planted in us.  And those being planted in us sprout in others around us.

In Pune, I ended up getting sick.  I had a choice to take my scheduled flight to the next city or accept an invite to speak briefly to 1200 people at an event by Dada Vaswani -- and travel through the night by bus to make a 10AM engagement the next morning.  I left the decision to my hosts, and after healthy rounds of debate, they decided the latter.  So I went.  In one way, I was making a sacrifice.  My body would definitely suffer and I’d likely have even more fever.  But it actually ended up being a favor to myself. :)  

At this big event, few of us were seated in the front row as “chief guests.”  As the 93-year-old Dada Vaswani walks in, a devotional joy  grips the room.  Someone informed him about today’s program, and pointed to me as the function’s guest.  He immediately motions organizers to bring another chair and have me sit next to him, and as I head towards him, he gets up from his chair (which is quite an ordeal since it requires the support of multiple people to lift him up) and gently whispers in my ear, “I’m so grateful to have met you.”  I was so blown away by his humility.  I mean, Dalai Lama and Aamir Khan rolled out to be with him couple couple months back. :)  One got the sense that he would feel honored to meet any life form, and in this moment, that happened to be me.  When he went up on stage to give his address, he spoke the first few minutes about ServiceSpace.  “I just met Mr. Nipun Mehta couple minutes ago, and their work is what the world needs today.  May it continue to grow further and further.”  Even as we left, he blessed me like a loving grandfather.

Who knows how all this works.  Fortunately, we don’t really need to know to appreciate its workings.  I was grateful.

At Urban Ashram in Pune, Shaheen came to her third Awakin Circle in one week. :)  Her parents and brother also came.  Her brother, who is a very celebrated photographer (and a master chess player!), was profoundly touched by the evening and wrote a gracious note that ended with: “I really can't find the words to express my gratitude.”  Gratitude is really the only worthy response when spaces are held so elegantly that one finds it impossible to pinpoint a single cause for any particular effect.

Speaking of gratitude, over eleven thousand people from 118 countries just finshed their 21-day gratitude challenge this week.  Few friends came together and created this spectacular video.  0 budget, 6 days, lots of love.  The ServiceSpace wheels started rolling, and in 24 hours the video was already shared more than 15 thousand times on social media.  Tens of thousands have seen it already.

Shaheen was one of them.  She sent a Thanksgiving note to all their teachers, staff and board members: “The song warmed my heart and made me think of all that I am grateful for and I wanted each one of you to know that so much of who I am is because of what you do and who you are. I am so grateful for each one of you.  Nothing would make me happier than to see all our 23,000 children see (and maybe learn) this song.”

The ripples go on.  Thousands of tiny seeds were planted in the last week.  Within me, without me, and everywhere in between.  One conversation led to another, one Awakin Circle led to another, one ripple merges into another, and somehow 23 thousand children are singing the tune of gratitude.

Such things just can’t be planned.  We just need to hold space and watch the magic.


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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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