Be Selfish, Be Generous

Taiwan, Gaya Foundation Nunnery (June 29, 2014)

What a treat to be speaking after Ven. Bodhi. He has set the vibration of our field in such a beautiful way. My name is Nipun and today, I want to share a little bit about my journey, the journey of ServiceSpace, which has been a series of experiments, and couple key lessons we have learned long the way.

This billboard was up in the Silicon Valley for just a couple hours until they realized that it actually had a logo and you can’t really commercialize Dalai Lama. Nonetheless, it lays out a very beautiful paradox: “Be selfish. Be generous.” If our idea of generosity is purely external then it seems like contradiction, but if that idea of generosity includes the outside and the inside then, all of a sudden, it starts to make sense. It turns out that it is in our own best interest to give to others, to be connected in return and to feel a kind of regeneration through that process.

To give you a bit context, I’d like to start with a little bit about my journey. One of my friends was a teaching an Ethics class and he asked everyone, “How did you learn to be good?” Everyone had different answers. One person raises his hand and says, “I learned how about goodness from my five year old.” All of a sudden, everyone is curious and he tells his story: “It was Christmas, we were in Mexico, and I had just given my son gifts on few hours ago on Christmas Eve. When a kid from the neighboring slum walks by, I asked him, ‘Son, why don’t you give him one of your toys?’ Initially, he didn’t like the idea, so I insisted. He, of course, start to throw a tantrum but ultimately picks up one of the toys – his least favorite toys. Like all kids would. To make this a learning moment, though, I told him, ‘No, son, not that one. Give him your favorite toy.’ Now he cries, and does everything to revolt. I compassionately but sternly held my ground. My son eventually and begrudgingly went. As he’s returning, I was scheming ways to reward his good behavior – appreciate him, buy him a similar toy and so on. Yet, much to my surprise, my son returns with a great smile on his face. And he says, ‘Dad, that was amazing. Can I do it again?’

In a way, that kid’s journey is emblematic of mine. Initially, he feels like he’s letting go of something and he is going to lose out. But in the very process of giving, he actually feels a lot more at home. He feels like doing it again and again. That was my story.

As I started to do more and more acts of service, it opened up a pathway of compassion within me. That opened up a spirit of compassion but led me to the second stage -- which was about receiving. Receiving is like a hug. I love to give hugs, and you can’t give one without receiving one in return. While giving was about compassion, and serving other people, receiving triggered a incredible feeling of gratitude. If I didn’t receive so much from so many people, I wouldn’t even be able to give. With more practice, I realized that there yet another stage -- dancing. So many times, we keep track of generosity – “This is how much I gave, this is how much I received, and it was worth it or not.” Even if it’s karmic, we start tracking karma points. But dancing is letting go of that, and allowing our natural rhythms to take over. In addition to giver’s compassion and receiver’s gratitude, this was about equanimity. It was about saying that whatever comes, comes. Whatever goes, goes.

This is the photo of my wife and I in 2005, six months after our marriage. We tried an experiment. In the peak of ServiceSpace, we felt moved to go deeper in our spiritual journeys. So we sold everything we had, took a one-way trip to Gandhi Ashram in India and went on a walking pilgrimage. We had practically nothing and we said we will eat whatever food is offered, and we will sleep wherever place is offered, and we will walk and just serve people in very small ways. It was incredibly powerful, and taught us – especially me – about equanimity. On the pilgrimage, even if I am kind today, I may go hungry tomorrow. Maybe I get a feast tomorrow, maybe I don’t. It’s not for you to track, you just have to dance. So for me, learning how to dance has been very central to my personal journey.

When I look at all my heroes -- Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Dalai Lama, Cesar Chavez, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and many others like that -- they were all dancing. They were not strategizing; they were not looking for specific kind of outcome. They want to be instruments of a higher force, what I think of as dancing.

So, then, a natural question is: how do we amplify dancing in the world? If Gandhi were to look down at today’s world, and as Ven. Bodhi just informed us, we have an awful lot of problems in society today. Two billion people are in extreme poverty. Rich-poor divide is highest ever. Nature is being pillaged. We are losing our village cultures and wisdom. Economic growth is unsustainable. Science is used for mass destruction. There are so many unresolved issues.

Oscar Wilde, back in the 1800s, nails our core problem when says, “We know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” How do we value things that don’t have a price tag? Sounds like a very simple thing. I cannot put price tag on my mother’s love. I cannot put a price tag on a beautiful piece of art. I cannot put a price tag on a hug. And yet, today’s societal systems don’t help us cultivate this sensitivity. As a result, we have forgotten the joy of a hug, of not being sold anything. Everything is logo. An American sees five thousand ads a day, without even realizing it.

So what have we created? This is a very interesting graphic. This is the number of stock trades, at any particular time. It starts in 2007 and you can see how rapidly it climbs up. What was ethical commerce has now turned into a casino. In Native American cultures, they designed with this “seventh generation” principle – before any decision, you consider how it will affect people 7 generations down the road. And here we are, with billions of trades in every nano second, playing with the futures of companies. Forget seven generations, the EU had to actually pass a law that required you to hold onto your stock for a minimum of … not 7 generations, not 70 years, or 7 years, or even 7 months. Not even 7 minutes, or 7 seconds. It required you to hold a stock for a minimum of half a second. When the government has tell us, “Please hang on to your stock for half a second, something is a little off.”

So if we look our system of exchange, experts tells us we’ve historically seen four basic categories. There’s the Casino model, which is what we have today, the Commerce model (where we used to have a lot of ethical commerce), the Barter model of even exchange, and then there was thing called Gift which was rooted in pure generosity. As we go from Gift to Casino, what we notice is lesser and lesser connection to our inner world. It’s all about external, it’s all about physical.

That, then, is the challenge of our era – and opportunity, for all of us. How do we swing back the pendulum, towards Gift, so we have a more balanced spectrum and society? We can do that through inner transformation.

Typically, when we try to solve a problem, people usually ask: “What impact will this have in the world?” To create XYZ change in the world, we create projects, hire people who can implement that project, and then the inner transformation of those people may or may not happen. For creating impact in the world, this “IT” (far more powerful than “Information Technology”) is an after-thought.

But what happens if we lead with inner transformation? I start by “being the change”, which is naturally going to create affinities with like-hearted people. From the interconnections among the people, projects will inevitably emerge and those projects will create an impact. It’s very different way of looking at social change. It’s the inside out approach.

The question, then, is: What designs can emerge if we lead with inner transformation? Two hundred years ago, we made food on the farm. Hundred years ago, we started making stuff in the factory. Now, we make ideas. And in this information space, leaders create spaces to incubate those ideas. You see this everywhere, from our billboards turning into Adwords and CDs turning into iTunes songs. In today’s era, leaders are the platform builders who are holding space for incubating ideas.

For us, in ServiceSpace, the question was more pointed: “How do we do this for values like generosity, compassion and kindness?” That is what prompted the start of ServiceSpace, back in 1999. Four of us went to a homeless shelter: “We want to help, but we don’t know how.” We were all young twenty-somethings. I even had hair back then. We started with that simple intent, without any agendas, or any intent to even change the world. We just wanted to do our little bit, shine our little of the world, and transform ourselves along the way. Initially, we held space online. We started making the website for good causes -- no fees, no transaction, just for your love of it. We made thousands of websites for amazing nonprofit causes around the globe. And lots of people joined on.

Then we realized that we had built up institutional capacity, so we said, “Well, we have this capacity, so we should solve problems.” What kind of problems? What about problems that money can’t solve?

If we try to think of problems that money can’t solve, it’s very hard to think of it. Because we are so conditioned with this idea that money can solve all our problems. It turns out that it can’t. For instance, we don’t have CNN for good news. Why? Because bad news is very easy to monetize. Like that, there’s no platform for kindness. Why? Because kindness is hard to monetize. So we started created platforms. DailyGood for good news. If there was YouTube, we created KarmaTube. Every year, we send out 60 million emails. All of them are non-commercial, purely to spread the good in the world. It would then go out to social media and reach even more people.

This was the idea of holding this space online in non commercial way. And then that rippled into offline world too.

Let me tell you about this Smile Card. The idea behind the Smile Card is that you do a small act of kindness for somebody and leave a smile card behind. It tells a person that you can’t do something back to say thank you but you can pay it forward. It’s a reminder. So many times in life we receive something and the buck stops there. But what if we kept the ripple going? Imagine a world where everyone is paying forward for the person is after them. That was the Smile Card idea.

However, since we were leading with inner transformation, we designed the project in a very different way. Consider this map of all the people over a 6 months period that ordered smile cards -- just in the United States. In the traditional Federal Express model, when you make an order, a central agency receives it, and you are shipped the cards. For us, as a volunteer-run ecosystem, that model wasn’t going to scale effectively. What we did was establish a network of many people shipping to many people. Imagine that you are tagged with a Smile Card. If you are moved, maybe one of the folks who says, “Hey, you know what, I would love to give this experience to others. I’d like to help ship ten order a week.” They feel happy, the recipient is happy, the network is strengthened, and kindness spread. It’s a very different way to organize, the anti-thesis of the traditional organizational pyramid.
While some projects were only online and some, like Smile Cards, were online and offline, we also started seeing the emergence of purely offline projects.

Every Wednesday, this is what the shoe rack outside of our house looks like. My parents open up their home, move the furniture out to the side, and hold space for everyone to sit in silence for an hour. No specific teacher or technique or agenda -- just a make-shift space for stillness. In the second hour, there is a circle of sharing where everyone shares their aha-moment of the week. And in the third hour, the hosts offer dinner in silence. My parents have hosted this every week for the last 17 years, having fed more than 40,000 people.

Many change-makers will ask my parents, “Wow, this is amazing. You can do so much. What’s your plan for this?” And my parents will humbly respond: “Well, we just want to confuse you with gratitude. If your cup of gratitude overflows, it’s going to flow somewhere, and wherever that somewhere is, that is our home too. We don’t need to keep track of it.” It turns out that more than seventy cities around the world have hosted such circle. And yet, whether it was 174 or just one, it doesn’t really matter to them. You allow nature to handle the scale and the ripples.

Here is another example of Karma Kitchen. When you walk into this restaurant, your check reads zero. It's zero because someone before you has paid for you and you get to pay forward for people after you. Most people think, “No way, that can’t work! People are selfish, so they’ll never pay forward if you don’t force them to.” That's what we are taught. But it turns out that if you create a strong context, people can actually be inspired to pay forward. So now in more than a dozen places around the world, it has worked. We've done it for thousands of meals in Berkeley itself, it’s worked in Washington DC for a long time, then it went to Chicago and now in so many places around the world from Japan to India.

There are so many stories of profound inner transformation, at Karma Kitchen. One time, a guest walks in with a group and is quite confused by the idea. As he orders the food, he befriends the waiter and later tells him: “That’s a great lookin’ t-shirt. Where can I buy one?” Well, it was a Karma Kitchen t-shirt, and in synch with the restaurant concept, there was no place to buy it. So he responds, “Oh, sorry, this is gifted to volunteers, and isn’t for sale anywhere.” The guest smiles and returns to his conversation. The waiter, however, goes in the back and swaps his t-shirt with another one and returns back to the table: “Sir, since you wanted the shirt, I didn't know how to get it but I think you can keep mine." He literally gifts him the shirt off his back! (And he puts a little note, he attaches a fun little note: “Please laundry before using.”) Imagine the guest. He’s already struggling to figure out the concept, and now this! As he processes the spirit, few minutes later, he calls his waiter and says, “Hey, look, I work at eBay and here’s two 50 dollar gift cards for Karma Kitchen. Thank you for what you’re doing.”

The story, however, doesn’t stop there. The server speaks with the organizers, and return back to the table. “Sir, we’re all very moved by your generosity. Thank you. You said this was for Karma Kitchen, and we everyone here is part of it, so we thought that perhaps you could just gift it to a random stranger. It would completely blow them away.” Now, the guest is completely red, pink and purple. Since he wasn’t comfortable approaching random table, the server did it on his behalf. He approached another first-time table, of a mother-son combo, where the mother had brought her young son with his piggy bank so he could learn the idea of paying it forward. “M’aam, I have a special gift for you. A gentleman back there, well, his cup of gratitude overflowed and he just wanted to wanted to offer this gift – a fifty dollar gift card.” Now, imagine this woman’s bewildered response! “What do you mean? You’re just going to give me money? What is this, some kind of heaven?” Same thing happened on another table with the other card. And the original guest who donated it could feel the love and transformation.

In today’s society, we don’t have too many spaces where such gratitude can be experienced, cultivated, and shared. Young kids come up to me and say, “I am pumped-up to do an act of kindness”, only to return and say, “I gave away my favorite cake, but he didn’t take it because he didn’t trust me.” In an ideal world, everywhere would be a safe for kindness, but unfortunately, this isn’t so today – and we create more such offline space to flex our muscles.

Collectively, all these online, offline and hybrid spaces, became a thriving ecosystem with lots of projects and activities. This is significant, not for its outcomes as much as its organizing principles. We had three core organizing principles, that have sustained this ecology for the last fifteen years.

Usually, when we want to implement a vision, we speak hiring staff. Particularly in the Silicon Valley, it’s very fashionable to have a big vision, big staff, big fundraising. Big money usually reads as big chance for making a huge impact in the world. Our thinking was that if we want to achieve something revolutionary, we have to think different – complete opposite, in fact. So instead of big staff, we decided to have no staff. All volunteers. Instead of big budget, we decided to not fundraise. Only offerings of gratitude. We work with whatever resources are offered, and if nothing comes, then we take it as a challenge to test our creativity. And instead of big change-the-world actions, we decided to focus on small acts.

Lot of people saw that and laughed it off. It’s impossible, they said, to create sustainable change with such principles – volunteer-run, no fundraising, doing small acts.

But this was 1999, and was emerging. Because we were volunteer-run, we had 40 volunteers contributing 5 hours a week, instead of 5 staff working 40 hours a week. It adds up to the same amount of capacity, but it’s distributed. At that time, we didn’t realize that Wikipedia would one day become the de-facto encyclopedia with micro contributions of 100 million volunteer hours. We also under-estimate the amount of untapped capacity people have -- every week, for instance, we spent 3 billion human hours just playing video games. What if we engage that in the work of compassion, and while organizing in this internet-way?

This led us to what we call “Gandhi 3.0” organizing – which is basically a shift from the traditional many-to-one broadcast model, to the one-to-one model of telephone model, to the many-to-many group-forming networks that the Internet created. Network theorists had a name for these network: Sarnoff’s Law, Metacalf’s Law, and Reed’s law. In essence, the capacity of a many-to-many is exponentially greater than the other two. And being volunteer-run allowed us to tap into this power.

Our second principle was to not fundraise. Monks and nuns know this all too well – you receive whatever is offered. With creativity born of gratitude, you explore what’s the best you can do with it. That heart awakens abundance. But not abundance in same way we think of it. Usually we equate abundance with money, but value can come in diverse forms of capital. For us, we had a ton of social capital with thousands of thousands of thousands of people, and while there was no monetary transaction, you can do so much with the untapped capacities of those people. Similarly, when we do the work of love, there is a lot more capacity to synergize. There is also a quietness of the mind that allows you work in a different way. Like that, with all these different kinds of capital, you can create institutional capacity that can deliver unique value in the world.

Consider Karma Kitchen. To feed people in a restaurant, you can use the traditional transaction model – you give money, and the restaurant gives you the food. Then there’s the subsidy model, where an external agency like a government covers your expenses, so you can cover your costs and give the food for free. But then, there is this peer to peer model, where each person helps the person next to them. So what happens? If I take care of the person next to me, and that person takes care of the person after them and we go around. It would create a different kind of economy, a gift-economy. And that’s what Karma Kitchen is. There is a guy who runs his rickshaw in this way – no specific charge, you just pay it forward. Most people can’t believe it would work, but he is able to make it work. Another one of our projects is a magazine. No dollar signs on it, only offering of gratitude. They’re counting on gratitude. Not just counting on it, but doubling down on it. Ultimately, this is what not-fundraising gets you.

And the last thing is thinking small. When you think small on the outside, you started to be more connected to your inside. If you are thinking big, you are biased towards the outside. But that get smaller and smaller, you started to pay more attention to the internal side of the equation.

This is a Smile Deck, which is now available in Mandarin as well. Each card of the deck is four suits, each with a unique theme. And each card, from 2 to Ace, has unique kindness ideas. You shuffle the deck, pick a card and go out to do that small act. When you do that small act of kindness, what happens? Well, it changes the world in some way, but more importantly, it changes you. What is the significance of that inner transformation? This is where the small really matters. I can tell you story after story of how people initially thought of these cards as a “nice, cute act” but when they actually did it, it created powerful transformations.

Seeing the power of that inner transformation led to this idea of Giftivism -- radical acts of generosity that change the world. Where activism pits me versus the other, giftvisim requires a radical form of generosity in holding all parties as fundamentally connected.

Julio Diaz is probably the best example of this. One day, a teenager brings out a knife and says, “Give me all your money.” So he does. As the robber is leaving, he yells out: “Hey, it’s a bit cold. Do you want my jacket too?” A bit confused, the kid comes back to grab the jacket. Now, the energy between them is completely different and Julio says, “I’m about to go have dinner. Do you want to join?” He takes him out to dinner and the end he says, “I would love to treat you, but you have my wallet.” So the kid actually gives him his wallet back and Julio replies, “Oh, you kno.ow what? Actually can I have one more thing? Can I have your knife too?” And he gives it to him.

An NGO worker can sometimes say, “I am going to fix this because this person is broken. And then, let’s use this type of model and scale it up.” That’s not quite what Julio did. His entire exchange, of getting that knife back, held a very different kind of energy. As a result of the inner space that Julio held, it created very different outcomes. And that’s the kind of possibility that focusing on small ultimately leads

In summary, being volunteer-run let us tap into this “many to many” network. Not fundraising let us tap into gift economy. And thinking small let us tap into the power of inner transformation.

So here we have a network. But that’s not a new idea. We’ve seen it used for profit – billions and billions have been made by companies who embraced the Internet’s many-to-many capacity. We have also seen it used for protest. What we haven’t seen it is for love. And the reason why love is significant is that it steps up the quality of connections – not just the quantity. That’s something that even the biggest networks don’t, and can’t, talk about. When a platform is used for profit, the quality of connections are typically weak. With protest, they’re stronger. But it is only with love that we have the potential to arrive at noble ties.

And if we listen to the Buddha, he verified the importance of noble ties – in a monumental way. Here’s a dialogue between Buddha and his attendant, Ananda, who had heard all his public lectures. Ananda says, “You talk a lot about company of noble friends. It seems like half of the path is just that.” Buddha responds, “No, Ananda, it’s not half the path. It’s the full path.” Now, Buddha didn’t approximate it. He is not saying 99 percent, it’s almost there. No, he is saying that quality of our connection IS the path.

So how do we walk on that path? I think it starts with all of us being the change we wish to see in the world. When we do that, we create a field for the deep affinities, from where projects emerge. To encourage this, one of my friends went to everyday folks and asked, “What is the one small thing you do to be the change?” Everyone had something they were doing, and something they can do. “I travel by cycling, yes I am the change.” “I sit with an elderly person accompany them every night to listen to their stories, Yes I am the change.” These two guys are meditating in the face of riot tensions at Occupy Oakland (and when they got arrested their sentence read ‘disturbing peace’). A little kid says, “I brought happy tears onto a homeless man’s face simply by smiling, yes I am the change.”

In conclusion, when you get to a crossroad, I hope you just keep choosing love. Then, we’ll be like this oak tree. During Hurricane Katrina, when everything was demolished, these oak trees survived. They have for centuries. Why? Because they have deep roots, roots that are interconnected with other trees – sometimes spanning over a hundred miles! When one is in need, another helps out naturally, because their very existence is intertwined with each other. All the man-made stuff, like houses and cars, get uprooted but these trees are resilient. So I hope that we can all do acts of love, activate these web of deep connections, and let the ripples spread out in the world. Thank you.

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."