Seven Emergent Questions From My India Trip

Mar 8, 2014

At the end of October, I was invited to keynote a conference and they had kindly covered my travel expense.  I didn't have any commitments beyond that, but one thing led to another and I traveled a crazy bunch, from Delhi to Hyderabad to Udaipur to Surat to Bangalore Bombay to Ahmedabad and beyond.  Multiple events practically everyday, across diverse communities -- sharing stories in fronts of many thousands, sitting in dozens of Awakin Circles in living rooms of kindred friends, cultivating many-to-many networks in 10+ retreats across India, and nurturing umpteen transformation-driven projects.  None of it was planned.  When Guri joined at the end of two months, I remember telling her: "I think I've just spent couple of dollars on this whole trip."  Everywhere, people were covering all the bases, new value generated was far greater than those costs -- and people kept inviting and contributing, as a mini gratitude economy kept spinning its wheels throughout the four-month trip.

Below are some of the recurring themes that came up over those travels.

Where do we find Gandhi today?

"What rises up like a fountain, will return in the form of many distributed drops," Vinoba used to say.  That's what we're seeing today.  We call it "Gandhi 3.0", where Gandhi stands for the age-old principle of leading with inner transformation and 3.0 represents the many-to-many networks that are popularized by the modern-day Internet.  It's a bridge from the Internet to the Inner-Net.​

On Gandhi's death anniversary, we held a gathering of sixty inspired "ladders" who responded to the call: "You will not find these heroes on TV. They don't seek glory, nor do they wear any uniforms. Sometimes they do normal jobs but they are often doing the real work in subtle and invisible ways. They refuse any kind of payment for that priceless labor of love. These volunteers arrive in a thousand different shapes and sizes. Most work silently.  Slowly they are building a new world, leading with the heart, but also engaging hands and head. They move to a different beat, with the common understanding that being the change, changes the being. This is the transformative force that can move worlds. The work is slow and meticulous, like the formation of mountains. That's a good thing, because while we build the road, the road builds us."

The retreat was profoundly moving.  In one of the circles, Prasad shared: "I came in here and one of the volunteers said, ‘Welcome Home.’  I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a nice thought.’  Except I didn’t bring my towel and someone found out and a towel appeared on my bed with a Smile Card.  I had Western shoes that were inconvenient to take off outside each hall (as it is the local culture here), and someone left me flip-flops in my room.  I don’t eat onion or garlic and at every meal, volunteers would offer me a special meal.”  With tears in his eyes, he concluded: “I’m not sure I’d be treated like this even at my own home.  Few days ago, I came here as an expert, and I’m leaving here feeling like a beginner."

Harsh gave away his shawl, with a letter that made many of us tear up.  An anonymous person from Texas was so moved by the caliber of the guests, that he unloaded his bank balance as a "no strings attached" donation to the circle -- without ever having met any of the participants, volunteers or organizers.  Lots of insights.  As we closed with 3-steps-and-a-bow, Ellie rocked us with a surprise video of various moments from our few days together.  Since the event, already hundreds of ripples have emerged, as grassroots groups and corporations and education institutions and even some government groups have started to innovate around the "Gandhi 3.0" idea.

How do we build a social network of “noble friendships”?

"Noble friendships isn't half of the path, it is the entire path," Buddha said.  Living in a fast-paced world where "defriend" is a dictionary word, there's a growing need for deeper ties.  Our FaceBook friends are loose ties, our movie buddies are deep ties, but it is our service kin who can be noble friends.  Without sensitivity towards our inner resources, technology is blindly pushing us towards external, loose ties but many are now working to shift the center of gravity along that spectrum.

In the last four months, we hosted many small retreats with about 500 diverse people.  Some were one-day and some three-days, some domestic and some international.  Most were in English and one in Hindi.  One Women's retreat, another with village youth.  Themes like "Hands, Head, and Heart", "Gandhi 3.0", "Startup Service'.  No agenda, except to build deep ties.  Everything was offered as a gift, run by volunteers.  Its much easier to do one big event with 500 people, but our idea was to build a slow network with deep ties.

In mid December, Shaily's mom attended her first retreat in Ahmedabad.  At the end of the three days, she headed straight to her sister-in-law's home.  "I just want to hug you," she said at the door, in a silent invitation to forget their bitter quarrels of the past two and a half years.  They hugged, and cried.  An hour later, Shaily wrote an email titled  "Thank you, thank you, thank you", to "everyone I could remember in the ecosystem".  Being amongst kindred spirits at the retreat, her mom was deeply "moved by love" and used its power to bridge a severed bond.  Two months later, the entire families reunited at the sister-in-law's daughter's wedding.

We got to hear such stories everyday.  It's not just stories, its a field of gratitude and connection.  It's a foundation on which we can build.  Post Hurricane Katrina, all man-made structures were annihilated but centuries old oak trees survived -- because of their intricate network of inter-connected roots, sometimes for a hundred miles.  That takes time and its slow.  But it endures.​

What does it mean to "lead with inner transformation"?

"Isn't is selfish to cultivate inner transformation when the world is burning?" Wendy Kopp gently asked me at an Awakin Circle in Bombay.  It can be, but it doesn't have to be.  Conversely, we can also be gravely arrogant to think we can serve the world when we ourselves are burning on the inside.  For me, my personal practices (like meditation) have made me keenly aware of my own shortcomings, so I can't possibly presume that I can help others.  I try to help, but in the process, I end up purifying my own self and feel grateful for the chance to serve.

Leading with that kind of inner transformation seems like a submissive position.  It can be hard to imagine effecting change with that kind of humility.  Yet, this is where Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and others parked themselves.  And this is why Gandhi told us to, "be the change you wish to see," and not "create the change" or "market the change". :)  The less they did, the emptier they became, the deeper instruments they became of Nature.  Ironically, that created world-changing impact.

The crux of the matter is how sensitized we are to the connection between our internal transformation and external impact.  That becomes clear through practices.​

Things like 21-day kindness challenge, or keeping a gratitude journal, not complaining for a month, or doing experiments with Smile Cards and Decks, or meditating every day.  After an Awakin Circle, Bhumi decided that she won’t kill mosquitoes.  In the US, Colleen cooked food every week for monks at a local monastery.  Nimo has a long list of things he has tried out – not looking in the mirror for 3 months, being blind-folded and spending the day at a blind school, not wasting any food on his plate.  Madhu photographed many people around their practices, whether it was about donating blood or listen to stories of elders or not using plastic.  For her Dad’s birthday, 17-year old Sanskruti decided to give up eating desserts for the whole year – which wasn’t about sweets, as it was about offering a gift of inner transformation.  Much harder than buying a gift at a mall. :)

Those practices often become a way of life.  At Vinoba's nunnery in Maharastra, we met a nun who spent 12 years on a pilgrimage across India to uplift local communities -- without any resources.  Twelve years straight. While helping Gautam-Dada make “chapatis” (bread), I learned how Vinoba told him once: "Instead of learning a foreign language, first learn how to make local chapatis."  Fifty years since, he has been making bread for everyone at the ashram.  Fifty years.

The intersection of personal and collective practices is also an open exploration.  Doing a prayer circle to start off a retreat or doing a group hug to close a circle is a collective practice.  In January, for instance, almost two dozen of us went together for a 10-day meditation retreat.  For many, even for those who had sat such courses before, the practice was significantly deeper because there was a sense of implicit encouragement from kin.  Similarly, volunteering together seems to have a multiplier effect on one’s inner transformation too.

Conscious practices, in their thousand different varieties, help deepen one’s awareness and  sensitize us to the profound connection between our inner and outer change.​

What does transformation-led impact look like?

In Surat, Shehnaz hung a board for her husband: “Please be kind to me …” followed by a list of chores around the house. After hearing some kindness stories from Trupti, Audrey and our local gang, she went home and changed it to: “I’m grateful for …” Subsequently, her husband (Vivian) started doing the chores voluntarily.

Such impact is emergent, not predictive.  What happened for Shehnaz won't necessarily happen for all.  It depends on the context.  And Shehnaz herself won't know exactly what will happen next.  The point, though, is to not to grasp the outcome but to trust in the values embedded in the process.  That subtle shift changes everything.

Our India ecosystem, Moved By Love, has an online space for sharing stories.  Then there were offline spaces like weekly Awakin Circles (21 around India now) -- and kindness drives (mostly led by youth!).  Monthly retreats created the opportunity for deeper dives.  Hundreds of talks by many anchors tilled the soil further.  Collectively, all this created a rich field of emergence around our core values like generosity and kindness, that sprouted lots of plants.​

After seven years, Jignasha started drawing to help someone at a retreat and is now working on Gandhi Doodles.  Just as Karan and Rekha translate weekly inspirational readings to Hindi, Sheetal is launching Awakin Tunes to offer a weekly song from inspired artists.  Meghna and Purvi are spearheading a physical "Wisdom Crafts" store in Ahmedabad, where artful products  are held without a price.  At his diamond company, Siddharth is gifting a Gujarati Smile Deck to each of his 1500 employees.  At Mastek, a publicly traded tech company, half a dozen Awakin Circles are now a weekly staple of leadership meetings.  Shaheen is quickly spreading “Gandhi 3.0” across her educational ecosystems, as Sachi brought together various micro communities into one remarkable Awakin Talks event.  Shaily started a Wisdom Photography Commons.  A band of 85 youngsters are doing monthly kindness drives in various parts of Bombay.  What started as a "wild idea" email thread turned into a 250-person Karma Kitchen at Fountainhead School.  Nimo is coming out with a CD of songs (offered as gift) and embarking on a kindness tour across the US, as Sheetal-ben is doing six-month ‘Bhaav Yatra’ drive across India, Lahar is brainstorming an Art with Heart tour, Pratyush is walking for 45 days in the Himalayas, and Suresh is steering his incredible rural programs towards "inner sanitation."

All of this is emergent.  Once we get past the mild discomfort in not knowing the outcome, we arrive at the immense comfort in knowing that something is definitely emerging.  Hermann Hesse wrote, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”  Wholesome values are generative.  And like the seed, so the fruit.​

Deven, Anar-ben, Sid, Neerad and Birju saw all this action and pondered if we can apply business acumen to brainstorm an “incubator” for budding entrepreneurs.  To pilot, we held a "Startup Service" retreat with about 35 folks -- and innovated an entirely new process that led with inner transformation.  Twenty three year-old Smriti came in thinking about scaling up her five-person staff of "designs with the deaf", and left in tears, wanting to hold weekly Awakin Circles with the deaf community, engage them in local acts of kindness, and explore models that hold their creations in a gift ecology.  Ritu came in brainstorming how to steer 4000 sex workers in her Delhi community towards more vocational training and ended up with a plan to create a “pyaar ka muhullaa” (space of love).  An IIT-graduate, Goli made a presentation on building online trust networks around nonprofit listings, while Vaishali stepped up her narrative of educating slum children after 7 years in the field.  Eight beautiful projects in total.  People pitched their ideas, eight teams self-organized and working (day and night!), they made their presentations to an expert panel on the third day.  We did away with the competition, and left an empty pot for every project, as people offered many diverse forms of capital.  It was beautiful, and a life changing experience for many entrepreneurs.

Leading with transformation, particularly in a “Gandhi 3.0” era, requires many shifts from leadership to laddership, from center to edges, from big to decentralized.  And from fast to slow, from shallow to deep, from efficiency to resiliency.  It’s a significantly different path, but you still arrive at impact.​

What does it take for everyone to be a change-maker?

Each of our five fingers are different, but together they create an incredibly useful hand.  Many dream of a world where we can engage everyone's diverse strengths and treat each as a change-maker.  Alas, holding such a vision within the construct of hierarchical organizing is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.  It requires an ecosystem, which takes time.

Raghu, a “love warrior” on a tricycle, tragically died in a highway accident at the age of 29.  He'd lost his legs to polio and grew up in extreme poverty, and yet he touched so many lives.

Many years ago, he was on the receiving end of a Smile Card intent, and it changed the course of his life.  At one point, he helped my grand aunt's journey of service -- by helping her raise Tulsi plants and gifting them to her neighbors.  Then, he thought, “Why don't I do this kind of gifting with struggling elders in the slums where I live?”  He did -- with 900 of them.  

On my birthday, a couple years ago, he called me over "for a few minutes".  It was a prayer, with a couple other volunteers he had gathered (including a blind girl).  "I used to pray to God that if I ever get stable in life, I want to serve food to the elderly widows.  So I'm starting 'Tyaag nu Tiffin' (Food with Sacrifice) today.  I will feed 11 widows before I eat a meal."  It became his daily practice, till he passed away.  Once, when he even ran out of money, he decided to fast and use that extra meal money to feed others.  Other friends joined in the fast, and tides quickly turned.

Raghu elegantly taught everyone that service doesn't start when you have something to give, but rather when you have nothing left to take.   When he shared a stage with the President of India, Abdul Kalaam dreamed aloud of a world filled with people like Raghu.  And Raghu's journey couldn't exist in this way without an ecosystem -- in this case without a "ladder" like Jayeshbhai.  While traditional hierarchies are biased to externalize costs, ecosystems require ladders who externalize benefit.  Then, we have a field that can host everyone as a change-maker.

What is the shift from sympathy to empathy?

For many people, it’s unsettling to know Karma Kitchen isn’t set up to feed the hungry.   We know that, as humanity, produce enough food to ensure that no one goes hungry – but thousands still go hungry.  Governments still dump grain in the ocean to protect the prices of their farmers.  The problem isn’t the food.  It’s that we’ve become numb to the pain of others.  That ever widening gap between us and the others is the core of the issue.  Sympathy is a noble feeling, but hasn't been enough to solve the problems of our world.  Where sympathy says, “I see your pain,” empathy says, “Your pain is my pain.”  It is a much deeper response, and we need spaces to cultivate that empathy.

This is why we don’t fundraise.  As soon as you ask for money, you often evoke a response of sympathy.  That certainly has its merits, but the relationships can be much richer.  For us, "not fundraising" is actually about holding out a hand for deeper friendship.

Sameer Somaiya’s schools enroll 30 thousand students; as we left our meeting, I pulled out a Smile Deck (the Indian version) and asked him to do the act of kindness listed on the card he pulled.  He went home and told his 14-year-old, who got super excited and joined KindSpring; seeing this, he decided to start a Kindness Day in his schools.  In that same Smile Deck circle was a 79-year-old philanthropist named Pradeep.  He also drew a card: “Share a meal and conversation with a homeless person.”  The next day, he came up to me with grateful eyes: “I did my homework!  I’ve never sat with a homeless person like this.  To be honest, I was afraid, but I did it!”  He then narrated an incredible story of friendship that continues to this day. "I have written many checks for many good causes but I never realized this joy," he later wrote.  For his daughter’s memorial, he holds an annual lecture – and this year, he invited me to share stories, which ultimately was his way to invite 300 of his closest friends into a field of empathy.

My last talk in India was to a bunch of highly leveraged finance guys.  The crux of my opening was: “We cannot afford to create a world where financial incentives are our primary motivation.”  This goes for rich guys, poor guys and everyone in between.  Boxing the rich as funders can handicap their capacity as givers and limit other ripples from blooming.

One guy in the front row seat ran the largest fund in India, at 500 billion rupees, and has (remarkably) outperformed the market for the last couple decades.  Prashant had come just for my talk, at the hearty recommendation of a friend, and left with three Smile Decks – one for each of his two kids and one for himself. The next day, while meeting fund managers who were visiting India for investments, he asks them to forget about economy and retells insights and stories of generosity from the day before.  :)  Another woman, the top "Mid Cap" investor in the country this year, shared this: "While I was returning home from the event, I met with a lady who sells fruits at the corner of the street where I stay. I asked her, ‘How come you are here so late?  Shouldn't you be home?’  She was just packing off for the day.  Then, it so occurred to me that I can help her carry her stock of fruits to a nearby place where she stored it for the night.  I've never done this before, but it just happened naturally that day after hearing all the ServiceSpace stories. The lady was so excited -- and laughed out loudly since she could not believe that I would just pick up and help carry her fruits. That joy on her face made my evening.  Thank you so much for influencing me. I think am motivated to do these kind of thing more often. I enjoyed so much to see her smiling face."

Empathy is not just about sharing pain.  We also get to benefit from the merits of others, just as we share our smiles, joy, and compassion.

What is today's "Charkha"?

Gandhi had the spinning wheel, the charkha, which symbolized so much of his thinking.  In a distributed and decentralized "Gandhi 3.0" model, is there a spinning wheel?  Those are the kind of questions that Jayeshbhai and I ponder, in those rare moments of quiet that life grants us. :)  "I think today's charkha is maitri.  What do you think?" he asked while sitting under a banyan tree once.  I agreed.  Maitri (or metta in Pali) is an internal vibration of love, that creates a field of deep connections, which then builds a matrix of inter connections where everyone's offerings can flourish in a many-to-many gift ecology.  It is the plumbing for Gandhi 3.0. :)

People often have two kind of responses to such a movement.  One is to trivialize it, and another is to be mystified by it, but both extremes are off -- it is far from trivial, and at the same time, rather simple in its workings.

As we genuinely do small acts of selflessness, it begets "maitri".  People express gratitude, and offer their blessings.  Hundreds of times, people must have come to me in the last four months and thanked me for how "something ServiceSpace" served them in a meaningful way.  When an offering is made without any strings attached, it begets blessings, which then allows you to pay it forward with even greater vigor.  It creates a virtuous cycle.

After an informal circle of sharing with some sex workers in Delhi, one of them tells me: “You know, I was just thinking that I should pray half an hour every day.”  Although we hadn’t spoken about prayer, there was her way to bless us.  One radiant-yet-frail grandmother came up to me after another talk and said, “Son, knowing that you all exist in this world, I can now die a peaceful death.  Please keep faith in the good.”  A youngster in a tough situation came up and said: “From today, I will do an act of kindness everyday – as my thank you to all who have changed my life for the better.”  The founder of a remarkable NGO came to hug a few of us at the Nagpur airport, “Today, all that I am is because of ServiceSpace.  Thank you."  One man came up to me and said, "From today, I've decided to never put a price to my labor."  A renowned monk, 93-year-old Dada Vaswani, blessed me for a minute or so, and went up on stage to give his address to thousands who had gathered for his birthday.  He spoke the first few minutes about ServiceSpace. "Although I just met Nipun a  couple minutes ago, their work is what the world needs today.  May it continue to grow further and further."  All those little, and not so little, thank-you's and many other silent ones which are only felt by the heart, is ultimately what sustains the movement.

Sometimes those blessings come even from those who have known you for your whole life.  In Vadodara, the city’s Innovation Council invited me for a widely publicized talk, with many distinguished attendees from the Mayor and Collector to university Chancellors. After an address on innovation, the audience stood up to applaud, and there was an energizing Q&A with many heartfelt moments.  Then my Uncle, retired founder of the organization, 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 so glad that he didn’t listen.  I’m not one to tear up, but today ... today I had tears in my eyes.”  We hugged on stage. :)

That "maitri" creates the foundation for noble friendships.  Falling into that field of security, detachment comes naturally.  We then trust emergence.  It’s that simple.  Dr. V called it "village intelligence".

As I was preparing to depart, I got my last haircut in Ahmedabad.  My barber works from a life-sized tin box, without any electricity.  Over the months, we’ve naturally cultivated a friendship.  He charges couple of dimes (Rs. 20) for every haircut, so I gave that to him this time as well.  Then, I added: "Mahesh, this is for your kids," while handing him three square pieces of chocolate.  He was touched, and then I took out a hundred rupee note and said, "And this for you … to pay forward and do something nice for others."  Almost without flinching, he said: "Great, I know exactly what I’m going to do with it."  Startled by his immediate clarity, I had to ask: "What?" "I'm going to feed the cows."  Wow.  Few minutes later, as I waved my final goodbye from a distance, I yelled out at him: "Don't forget about that kind act, Mahesh!"  Again he responds with startling clarity: "No way.  That’s how we’ll stay connected.  In good deeds."

Noble friendships connected in good deeds: that was the essence of the whole trip. 

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