Reflection on a Walking Pilgrimage

Jul 1, 2014

This morning, I got an email from Shirin about an issue they hosted on walking.  It happened to be a great day to reminded of our walking pilgrimage. :) 

Shirin – Hi Nipun, thank you so much for talking with Courageous Creativity!  Your wife Guri and you did a walking pilgrimage in India where you lived on a dollar a day. Can you talk about the surrender and faith that goes with that?

Nipun – Six months into our marriage, my wife and I dropped all our plans, went to the Gandhi Ashram in India and decided to embark on a walk. We had no plans and no end date. Humanity poorest billion live on dollar a day, so we decided that’s what we’d have between us. We would serve wherever an opportunity showed up -- from pushing stalled cars on the highways to helping old farmers carry loads to cleaning community places to sharing stories of everyday heroes. We ate whatever food was offered, and slept wherever placed was provided. Sometimes things didn't work, and that gave us an opportunity to grow in renunciation; sometimes things worked out miraculously, and that gave us a chance to cultivate gratitude. After about 1000 kilometers, we ended up at a monastery and flipped a coin to see if the pilgrimage would continue internally or externally -- we ended up staying, and doing meditation retreats over the next three months. "Just jump and the net will appear," they say. That was our experience. It’s scary to jump and trust like that, but when we did, we happily discovered a net of compassion and interconnection that we were previously blinded to.

Shirin – From this walking pilgrimage, you had some valuable insights that you encompassed into an acronym W-A-L-K. What do those four letters stand for?

Nipun – ‘W’ stands for witnessing, which starts with nature outside of us. Then, the ‘A’ stands for accepting things as they are, without trying to change it. That calms the mind and lends insights into nature inside of us. ‘L’ stands for loving, which starts to emerge naturally. And finally, ‘K’ stands for knowing thyself – a blossoming of a dynamic relationship between nature within and without.

Shirin -- Your 2012 convocation speech at the University of Pennsylvania started with you urging the fresh graduates ‘not to fly…but to walk’. Can you tell us more about that?

Nipun – As young students, we are groomed with the narrative that faster is better. So I offered walking as a metaphor to operate a human pace, at a natural pace, without an internal sense of greed. When we go at the speed of two feet, everything is slow, intentional and deliberate. Todo-lists turn into undo-lists. Lighter your load, wider the smile. Arrogance of security loosens its grip and slowly gives birth to humility of the unknown. Instead of pressing on the accelerator, we yield to the animals and admire their grace; instead of being absent minded consumers, we greet passerbys as fellow pilgrims of life; instead of being desensitized to suffering around us, we start to connect with its source within us. Life then becomes an uninterrupted, commercial-free dance, that we’d miss if we were in a rush to get somewhere. As the quote from ‘Waking Life’ goes: "The trick is to be in a state of constant departure while always arriving. It saves on introductions and goodbyes."

Shirin – Does walking play a role in your simple self-stated mission - “to bring smiles to the world and stillness to my heart’?

Nipun – For me, walking is metaphor for slowing down to deepen our awareness. It allows us to see that we are not separate from our aching feet or the celestial hues of sunlight that cross the fields at sunrise. We learn how nature works with abundance, without any need for accumulation; how the crows skip with two feet, the camels bob around without moving their heads, the monkeys stare as if it's a new show each time. Need, not greed. It lends insight into the simplicity of cause and effect. When we serve others, we get served ourselves. In that sense, the deepening of awareness is what brings me back to the mission statement of my life.

Shirin – What are smile cards?

Nipun – I love Smile Cards! It's the simplest thing -- do a kind act for someone and leave a Smile Card behind that instructs them to pay it forward. It could be anything from a conversation with a homeless person to paying for the person behind you in line to trading your first-class seat in an airplane with a stranger in economy-class to thanking the local janitor to even just listening to a friend or calling up your parents. In search of the big ideas that will change the world, we often forget the invisible acts that are the backbone of humanity. Anyone can order these cards at at no charge. They can use them to do an act of kindness and attach the Smile Card to tell the recipient to pay it forward. And then, you can share stories online, see what other people are doing, or engage in all kinds of other activities. We started by printing 100 cards, without the foggiest idea of how we'd sustain ourselves and today, there are more than a million Smile Cards in distribution and the site is full of ideas, inspiration and stories. It never fails to reinvigorate me.

Shirin – I found this quote from you - “When I was 17, I wanted to head out to the Himalayas -- until I found the Himalayas right in my backyard- in my own heart.” Tell us more.

Nipun – Ever since I was a kid, I would always ask the big questions of life. What's the purpose of this whole charade? What happens after you die? What is the motive for action? Often, I didn't find the answers I was looking for, so I would start investigating. Seventeen was a turning point of sorts in my life, when my spiritual search came into the foreground. I was playing a lot of tennis (secretly hoping to turn pro), I took a lot of advanced classes and was already a junior in college, and I was en route to start studying Computer Science at UC Berkeley. But my prime focus had shifted, somehow, to dealing with my unanswered existential questions. The journey still continues to this day, but where previously I was looking for answers, I now look to dissolve the questions. It’s a long path. :)

Shirin – ‘Tireless’ is a word that has been used by many to describe you. And your long list of amazing accomplishments attests to that. How do you balance the doing with the being?

Nipun – When we walk, one foot rests while the other moves forward. Being and doing are both necessary, like the in-breath and the out-breath. For me, I can say that without a daily meditation practice, I’d be rudderless and all my doing would be reduced to busy work. On the flip side, ‘being’ alone can also be an indulgent escape. When both being and doing occur in unison, I’ve noticed that they elegantly modulate each other and life feels like a joyous dance. :)

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