Meditating Minister of Ecuador: Freddy Ehlers

Jun 12, 2015

"We have great schools, but not enough great teachers. We have good hospitals, but not enough doctors. We have great roads, but not enough good drivers," Freddy Ehlers told me, with a compassionate smile on his face and an Ecuadorian hat on this head.

For decades, Freddy traveled the world, created more than 2000 documentaries that were the staple of prime-time TV in Ecuador. He became one of the most famous faces in the country. Twenty years ago, he ran twice for president. Since then, he has held many high government positions, run various ministries, and most recently, started 'Buen Vivre' (Ministry of Good Life) to create a different story. Carla Portalanza, working with US embassy for Ecuador, noted, "People really just love Freddy. When the top politicians come out for a rally, he always get the loudest cheers. Always."

"Eighteen years ago, I started meditating," he said while sharing a humorous story of a Jewish woman and Jesuit priest taught him about Zen Buddhism. He meditates twice everyday, and everything has changed since then. At his home, he has constructed a monastery where three meditators can stay anytime. In his ministry, there's a meditation room and from 12:00PM to 12:30PM, all staff members meditate. Analia Beler, woman in charge of his communications team, spoke about how frazzled she often becomes. "I always tell him we've got ten things to do. Boom, boom, boom. And he calmly just reminds us -- it's 12PM, let's meditate first. I really have no time for meditation but then, I sit quietly for 30 minutes with everybody, and everything feels so different."

When Freddy and I met for lunch, with a crew of people that included a cameraman filming our conversation, we had a great conversation around the work of ServiceSpace -- which he really appreciates. Very candidly, he asked me at one point: "So what resources does ServiceSpace have?" And equally candidly, I replied, "Nothing. Just love." He smiled big, and after learning about our guiding principles, he enthusiastically drew a parallel, "Just like Saint Benedict." And our conversations veered into two of his heroes: Gandhi and St. Francis of Assisi. :)

You can imagine what happened next -- he cancelled his dinner plans next day, and came over to our apartment for dinner. I invited Richard, Audrey and Pancho to join too. Lynne Twist also joined for a bit, as did another friend of Freddy. So many rich stories, thoughtful reflections (Ecuador, for instance, was the first country to give legal rights to nature!) -- and even videos (we played Being Kind, while reflecting on how it was all done in a week without any budget). Profoundly inspiring. “It just makes you want to be a better person,” Audrey later wrote.

Freddy had the most amazing stories, which he shared in his gentle and soft-spoken voice, whether it was a touching meeting with Stephen Hawking, or inviting a few minutes of silence when President Correa invited him to give a spontaneous talk on national stage. Before our meal, he shared a blessing in Spanish -- and shared another story. In a dinner with Vice President of China's Communist Party, he ambivalently requested to share a blessing. Everyone around him started to panic, and he wasn't quite sure if he had overstepped his bounds; but it turned out that the translator didn't know the Mandarin equivalent of blessing. By the end, everyone was excitedly using "benedic-si-yon". :)

Even at our first meeting, his reflective, spontaneous and kind nature was clearly evident. As we fought for who pays for our lunch tab, we got jazzed about paying for the person after us. Right before leaving, we all picked up a Smile Deck card to express gratitude for our connection. Freddy's card read: Hug 5 people you don't know. "Oh, I will do this right now," he says while walking straight to a random table, disarming them with a smile and giving hugs. "I hugged 7 people, I think," he declares, before giving me another hug -- and gifting me a hat (so, like him, I can also cover my balding head :)).

Of all the titles one can put on Freddy, politician isn’t the first that come to mind. "I've never been able to hate anybody," he flatly admits, right in front of his staff. They all nodded. "My staff will come and tell me about something mean that someone said, or a nasty article, but it doesn't bother me. I actually collect these negative cartoons about me and put it up on my wall," he jokes. "Were you really able to run for president, with that mindset?" I ask him. He starts laughing and explains, "No, that was twenty years ago. I started meditating eighteen years ago." :)

Freddy wants to bring many ServiceSpace projects, like Karma Kitchen, to Ecuador. Generosity is core to his being, and he immediately gets the idea of giving, receiving and dancing. :)

"For me, the tipping point in my personal journey came when I first visited India, many decades ago. I got out of my cab to film a beautiful village family that was tending to their ox, on a farm. While I was doing this, I noticed that my cab driver went to the farm and started taking all the produce and putting it in his trunk. He was taking a lot of produce but he wasn't paying anything, and I was very puzzled by this. 'Why are you taking this?' 'Oh, it's for my family.' 'Aren't you going to pay him?' 'Why would I do that?'

Just then, right as we were driving off, the child of the family runs towards to the car with a lot of radish. He was giving even more! And again no charge. Still perplexed, I pressed the cab driver about why he didn't pay them. He quizzically explained, what he felt to be very obvious: 'It was a good summer, Nature gave him a great crop, so he is very happy that he has an opportunity to feed my family.' For him and the farmers, generosity was an opportunity for the giver. That changed me forever."

For Freddy, it's all comes down to inner transformation. (You can imagine our resonant smiles. :)) "Isn’t it arrogant to think we can change the world? After all, what is the world? The past and future are just in our minds. As Chuang Tzu beautifully asked, 'Did I dream of the butterfly, or am I the butterfly dreaming of Chuang Tzu?' All we can do is change ourselves, and then from person to person, it will change the world. Like I once heard, all we have to do is put an 'a' in front of 'tension' and we will know all the solutions we require: attention."

By the end of the night, as we hugged and put heart pins on each other, we all felt grateful. As Richard summed it up by email, “What an unforgettable evening. Abrazos a todos y muchas gracias.”  

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