On Relationships: Dialogue With Nipun Mehta
Apr 12, 2018
Relationships have been a great spiritual practice for me. It has a great potential to be a mirror for us. Its spectrum ranges from forgiveness to compassion. Forgiveness is about holding space for relationships that haven’t ended in love, and while on the other end of the spectrum, compassion is about generating love for relationships that we don’t personally benefit from.
Taken sincerely, it’s a rigorous practice. And it requires a solid commitment to one’s own inner transformation.
One of our friends, Madhu, was living in an apartment complex on the third floor, and they had a parking lot below in the common area. One day when he came home, he saw someone had smashed his car window. A stone was still lying there. Just a few minutes before this happened, Madhu – who was in a hurry – had parked his car a little outside his usual designated space thinking that he would park it properly a little later. Maybe that’s the time that someone came in to park, got frustrated about not having a space, and took a stone to smash his window. Immediately, Madhu knew who did this. And he also saw where this neighbor’s car was parked. The same stone was still there, too. So he took the stone in his hands, and marched towards his neighbor’s car with the blistering intention of retaliation. On the way, though, he somehow remembered all his conversations with friends and mentors about forgiveness and love. It was a giant tug of war within him, but he reconsidered, took a few deep breaths and slowly dropped the stone. Still boiling with the anger that one feels when one is violated, he is boiling. He goes upstairs to his home, wondering about how exactly he should respond.
Then he had a radical thought: “Yes, I didn’t retaliate with the stone. But if I truly want to transform this anger, I have to respond with love. Am I capable of doing an act of kindness for my neighbor?” Instinctively, he felt like yelling no. Not now. But then, serendipity has its ways. It so happened to be Diwali (Indian festival) and there was a box of sweets on his dining table, right in front of him. Madhu thought to himself, “Maybe I can turn my anger around and gift him this box of sweets, as my act of forgiveness?” Again, he didn’t feel like doing it, but somehow he found the strength to experiment. This gentleman lived on the fourth floor, just one floor up. The way Madhu describes the story, he said it took him an hour to climb that simple flight of stairs. He did it, even though many parts of him didn’t really want to.
Knock, knock. The gentleman wasn’t home, but his wife opened. Madhu recalls, “I actually should’ve talked to them, but I just her the box of sweets and ran down.”
Later, Madhu got his windshield glass repaired.
After a few months, it so turns out that that apartment security guard came up to Madhu. “Sir, someone anonymous left this for you.” He opened it, and inside was the exact amount of money it took to fix his car. He figured it was from his neighbor.
Now, from a material view, there isn’t all that much that happened -- you break a window, get it repaired, and get reimbursed. Yet, the inner churn is profound. Before the happy ending, of course, there’s the unending litany of questions of whether forgiveness is too soft, and should he have resisted more strongly? If you forgive all the time, won’t people just take advantage of you? In what circumstances, is it appropriate to resist? Whether he should have done this? For months, all these thoughts are there. It takes a lot of churning.
Ultimately, we land at the question, “Who is a relationship between?” Most of the time, we tend to think it’s between two people. Me, and the person in front of me. If I just sort it out with this person, then I’m set.
And I think that’s the biggest illusion. A relationship is never one-to-one. Even at a superficial level, we can gather that there are peripheral characters who influence the person in front of you. That’s not it, though. Even without those characters, the relationship still isn’t one-to-one. Person in front of us has many parts, and we ourselves have many parts. Certain parts of us are in certain parts in the other person, and each part is influenced by many others part of many other people in the past and present. And all of that is changing dynamically in every moment. Any encounter, whether momentary or for a lifetime, is this giant dance of complex conditions coming together in that instant.
In any given instant, Madhu might be hurt and angry, and yet a part of him is also capable of transcending that hurt. Similarly, in any given instant, his neighbor might’ve behaved in an oppressive way, but all not parts of him are like that.
What seems like a relationship between two is actually a whole lot more fluid and intertwined with many other coexisting dimensions. Constant awareness of this is the foundation of seeing relationship as a practice.
One of our friends has done a lot of work in prison. At one point, he was in a circle with many other prisoners, all of whom had committed at least one murder and were in jail for life. He asked everyone, “How long have you been behind bars?” 10 years, 32 years, 7 years. On a whiteboard, he wrote it down in a column and added it up. Then the next question: “How long was your moment of anger, rage?” Having taken a human life is certainly a moment of extreme rage, and yet it isn’t permanent. 9 minutes, 42 minutes, 2 minutes. He added it up and concluded, “For just a couple hours of rage, we have collectively spent hundreds years in jail.”
Suddenly, the conversation got pretty deep.
One of the participants, then, shares some profound: Hurt people, hurt people. We all can understand that if someone hurt me, we tend to pay forward that pain. A bit later in the circle, though, another participant shared a corollary: healed people heal people.
That is, how do we heal ourselves in a way that brings us to this understanding that if somebody is hurting us, first of all, it’s not one person. It’s a mind state, which is a confluence of many conditions, lot of which are changing rapidly. Behind each one of those hurtful acts is an entire lineage of conditions. So, how do I learn to hold that whole lineage, with patience, and then respond back to it, with love?
That’s the farthest thing from easy. But that is the job -- and a tough practice.
All the pain that I’m might be experiencing, no matter which side of “right” I’m on, is a web of conditions. I have to hold it with such strong equanimity that I can zoom out and see more and more of the moving parts of the dynamic; and I have to hold it with such a big heart that I can help tilt that entire momentum towards greater love and connection. That’s precisely what the likes Gandhi and Mandela did. Gandhi even verbally blessed his own assassin!
Now, extreme examples of love and forgiveness are one thing, but if we are looking at it as practice, it actually happens in small, benign, everyday moments. That’s what I’d like to focus on today.
For me, the greatest everyday practice is my relationship with my wife.
I just got news that Siddhant is getting married soon! You know, in the honeymoon days, we are always thinking, “Oh my God, this person is the best thing since sliced bread.” But after a while, LOL … maybe they’re both thinking, “We should step out of the room now.” :) After a while, we realize that this person is never going to be a replica of me. Sure, we saw some good in the other, but after a while, you see so many other parts too. If we attempt to make those parts be just the way we want it, it’ll be the start of violence and conflict. No more honeymoon phase. And all the lucky ones get there. I say “lucky” because if relationships are really our practice, we will get to that part and learn to turn the shift it towards love.
Interesting stuff happens when we are no longer infatuated. During the honeymoon phase, you have an image in your mind that says, “My wife is the most beautiful person, inside and out -- everything is fantastic. She is great at this and that.” Then, you realize, “Wait a second, there are so many parts to her that I’m just barely starting to see.” It’s not just marital relationship. Any relationship, you name it. At some point, we notice personality traits in others that we may not have even noticed earlier, or we may not even know how to engage with. Maybe some of it troubles us, or irks us, or confuses us.
With every relationship, we eventually hit the reconciliation process; reconciliation between our wishful thinking and the actual reality.
The real question, then, is -- how deeply are we committed to that reconciliation?
A shallow reconciliation is a convenient agreement: “I have some holes, you have some holes. You have some strengths, I have some strengths. So if your strengths can hide my holes and my strengths can hide your gaps, then that’s a recipe for great relationship.” Or so we think. We can live in the illusion that we love each other because we’re so much happier together. But actually, we have just covered it up, stuffed it all under the rug. Like a good businessman, we have created sophisticated layers of abstraction to gloss things over. Sooner or later, the hidden disconnects unravel themselves. There’s no depth there, because we were just playing a constant game of escaping those gaps.
So, after accepting this other person is not a replica of me, and never will be and never can be, how can we go deeper into that reconciliation process? It takes a lot of courage to even hold that question authentically.
Six months into our marriage, my wife (Guri) and I went on this walking pilgrimage. Now, on such a walk, you are routinely at your weakest link. Someone has insulted you, you are hungry, it’s so hot, you are worried about tomorrow. The list of pain points is endless, and by design, there’s no relief in sight. So, instead of being at your peak and saying, “This is best of what I have to offer,” Guri and I decided to experiment by handing each other our weakest parts. You know, do not try at home. :) My Uncle always jokes, “If your Aunt and I did this, we’d be divorced in three days.” :) In that weakest part of our consciousness, though, if both people have an attitude of inner transformation and a big heart of unconditional love, some truly beautiful things can emerge.
I remember we had once arrived at a temple on the highway. Nothing else was even remotely around, and it was later in the day, but we ran into a pilgrim rest house. “Our lucky day,” we thought. Attendant at the desk asks, “Are you this faith?” I honestly replied, “No.” They only host people of a particular faith. I tried to explain our intent, but this attendant was just following instructions that we passed down. As we walked about quietly and a bit disheartened, something moved in his heart. “Hey, look, I can’t give you a formal place, but I can make an exception, and have you sleep outside the toilet out there.” It was a somewhat humiliating offer, but we accepted since we knew that the attendant was actually practicing generosity in his heart.
It had been a very hard day for me internally till that point. And this just added more salt to the wounds. I remember that night, we were sleeping and there was a wall between us. One side of the wall was Guri, outside women’s toilet, and I was on the other side, outside men’s toilet.
That night, I remembered this very beautiful story of how we can genuinely help each other in relationships. Two people were wanting to climb to the top of the hill. They both started on different sides but when one would get tired, a little bird would fly up and chirp, “Look, your friend on the other side is continuing on, so keep going. Don't stop here.” And whenever the other person would get tired, the bird would go and offer the same words of encouragement to that person.
While sleeping on either side of the wall, outside the toilets, something was churning deep inside me. Clearly, at my weakest link, I found myself thinking, “I cannot stop now. Somebody on the other side waiting to meet you at the top.”
If you imagine a pyramid, two people can walk along the base to come closer together. Or one person can walk up to the top, in their own way, and another person can do the same, and they can both meet at the top. That’s the difference between a low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth relationship. At the base of pyramid, two people can sit in front of each other talking about greatness of each other; nothing wrong with that, but when those conditions change (as they always do), and you haven’t learned how to adapt to that change, it’ll lead to a lot of turmoil. On the flip side, the other path, invites you, not only to connect in much subtler and deeper way but also to build your own wings along the way.
I’ve known my wife since my teenage years, and been married for 13 years. One of my practices with her is to make her tea everyday. (When I give this example to younger couples, they always tell me, “Please don’t say this in front of my wife.” :)) It’s easy to say, “I love you.” Or Happy Birthday. Or Valentine’s Day. All those affirmations are fantastic, of course, but I’m always moved to step it up. Guri, being Sikh, loves her chai -- and has one cup in the morning and one in the late afternoon. Probably, initially, I might’ve done it in the honeymoon fervor, but honestly it has hardly ever felt like a chore. It makes me so happy to do it. In fact, I try to do so many of the chores around the house, too. Believe it or not, I actually *want* to do it. If someone has to do it, why not me? Just before I left for this trip, she said, “Nipun, you have to take a flight at Noon. Don’t clean before you go. The house better be a mess when I return home!” LOL It’s like the opposite kind of fight. She says, “No, don’t do that much. Tomorrow, I leave home at 5 am so you better not wake up to make me tea.” I’ll still get up and she’ll scold me to get back to bed, and then I’ll sheepishly say, “Well, if you yell at me, that’s only going to wake me up more.” :) It’s an inverse problem in the sense that both of us are wanting the other person to benefit more. It creates a virtuous cycle. And love multiplies.
If we attempt to walk our own path and not use the other person to fill our gaps, then we get to this point where we want to do 120% for the other. Of course, one has to be careful that this isn’t happening out of attachment. And in my case also, I very wary of that trap. I do have an exceptional wife, so it’s easy to wish for that union to last “forever” -- but that would be like walking along the base again. So, for instance, I typically spend 4 months of the year traveling. And when we travel, we hardly ever talk on the phone or Skype or anything. Like on the mountain, you hold the other person in your heart and trust that the other is walking their path.
To be detached and to love is, in fact, a foundation of great strength. Because then, the inspiration shifts from object of love to the source of love. There is virtuous cycle, not just between Guri and I, but within myself alone. I know what love feels like it, and I start seeing everything through that lens. Why shouldn’t I care the same way for Guri’s mom, or Guri’s co-worker, or for that matter, anyone else? It changes your whole life.
To get there, though, we have to learn to be vulnerable. Walking to the edge of our consciousness is a vulnerable act and we only survive if we have deep trust. I remember a friend of mine went up to a stranger once and said, “Nice t-shirt.” It ended up being the only prized possession of that stranger, but he took it off and gave it to him. Stunned, my friend wants to match his vulnerability, generosity and trust, so he handed him a check. It was a blank check. 18 months later, when I heard the story, the check still wasn’t cashed. He had no name, address, nothing, and yet was in a inexplicable relationship with an anonymous stranger.
Vulnerability teaches us to trust. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that there has to be at least person I completely trust. That is, one person with whom you lose every fight. We are taught how to win, but we are not taught the importance of losing. Unconditional losing. Ego doesn’t like it, but if the goal is to transcend the ego, then how will be expose ourselves to our blind spots? We have to take a counter-ego stance, in some way. Losing is often seen as a sign of weakness, but in this sense of diluting the ego, I have found it to be a source of great inspiration. My wife is one of the people I always want to lose to. I have no zero interest in winning with her. On anything. Now, of course, we’ll have different opinions in a mundane sense, but my ego doesn’t try to notch a score. She knows this too, although she likes to joke that I’m no pushover. :)
We can only have a tug of war if the other person is pulling. What happens when the opponent just lets go? It’s a very unique state of mind, for both sides -- and we owe it to ourselves to get familiar with that terrain as well. It could your sibling, parent, grandparent, stranger, teacher, anybody. But this not only unravel the ego’s blind spots, but actually it gives us experiential wisdom on what deep trust looks like. It’s like we jump off a cliff, only to discover a safety net of our innate inter-connection. As we are familiar with that, we feel naturally inclined to expand that circle of trust farther and farther out.
In conclusion, there is a beautiful quote that summarizes this for me: “It takes two to know one.” We are related, whether in wholesome ways or unwholesome ways, whether loosely or deeply, whether for a momentarily or for a long time. And the advantage of practicing through relationships is that it engages all of our being. If we engage just intellectually, it’s a very limited engagement. More than 95% of life happens in our subconscious -- logic, language, time, none of it works in that part of our being. Yet, we hypnotize ourselves into thinking that the 5% is the full story. Fortunately, relationships invite us to hold a whole lot more. It’s not always easy and clean; but as we cross the chasm of forgiveness and healing, vulnerability and trust, we are invited into a higher bandwidth awareness and a blossoming of deep love for all life.
Question: How can a relationship grow in love?
Nipun: Just to look at each other doesn’t build love. Giving away love is how we grow in love. It’s counter-intuitive, because we’re so surrounded by material resources, which lessen when you given them away. If I give you 10 bucks, I have 10 less. But that’s not how love works. The more I give love, the more love I have to give. It grows, it regenerates. So the best way to deepen love in a relationship is to serve others together.
I’ve seen three kinds of relationships: beggarly, friendly and kingly. Beggarly relationships are very loose, cheap, shallow. They are filled with expectations. “You will do this for me. I will do this for you. You will tell me this and I will tell you that.” Very transactional. A deeper relationship is friendly. It’s doesn’t have expectations, but is filled with attachments. This is where we usually cover each other's gaps. And then there’s kingly relationships. When you go to a king’s house, he is not going to see whether you are rich or poor. You get treated like royalty because you're at the king's palace. Such relationships are the ones that are rooted in service.
When a relationship is rooted in mutual convenience, it’s doesn’t have potential to go deeper. Clearly, business relationship fall into this category, but so do many inter-personal ones: “I know everything about you and you know everything about me. We hang out all the time and know each other's problems and such.” It feels secure but it’s bound together by strands of selfishness. That thread can snap very easily.
Parental relationships are also great mirrors. Parents usually have a lot of attachment with their kids, and when those attachments are too tight, it turns into expectations.
However, with all the combinations of such relationships, it is always possible to loosen the stranglehold of expectations and attachments, so we can start serving other together and head in the kingly direction.
I’ve always tried to do this with my parents. We’ve had a long journey together. :) Way back in my early twenties, when I asked my mom if I could quit my job to volunteer full-time, she really thought it was a bad idea. Yet, over time, she came around, and that too, in a huge way!
For me, the principle was this -- if I want a relationship to be kingly, practice serving others together.
That’s what we’ve done. For one, we started Awakin Circles together, that my Mom and Dad have now been hosting every week for the 19 years and counting. Having seen thousands of people come together in their own living room, it changes things. Nineteen years is a long time. People used to come as bachelors, now have kids in high-school who join us sometimes!
It’s just not just the activity itself. It ripples in subtle ways too. Every mother, for example, would get happy when people praise her kids. And my Mom is no exception. :) It has gotten us into messy situations sometimes, particularly when people try to influence me through her. As a response, I often ask my mom, “Mom, who are you proud of? This body? My head? My left ear? My right hand? Obviously not. You are proud of the values we are practicing. Best way to express that is by living it. If someone appreciates our work, we want to amplify their resonance with these values.” After all these years of shared practice, she totally gets that now. Even she’ll often tell people, “I don’t enjoy cooking per se. But I love cooking for Awakin, because I’m serving people who meditate. What I really find meaningful is serving people who are working on inner transformation.”
Over time, the conversations and internal aspirations start to change. For instance, I always talk to them about death. :) When I say always, I mean practically 100% of the time. They would often joke, “Ok, Nipun, have you finish your death quota for the day?” :) It just comes up, because impermanence, meditation, service, they all kind of go together -- and that has become the organizing principle of our relationship. It’s so beautiful, and feel so kingly. But it took a lot of work to get here, and it’s an ongoing practice to stay there.
To move from beggarly to friendly to kingly relationships, to move from expectations to attachments to service, takes time. It doesn’t just happen overnight. All this I’m talking about is a practice for many decades. You have to keep serving, and wait for the time to ripen and for your skifulness to become fine tuned. It takes time. If we get greedy in this process, we start “climbing on conditions” and rushing things, then, it all falls apart. So one has to work with an untiring mind, without an exit strategy, but with the understanding that kingly relationships are a fruit of serving other together.
Question: It is a common experience that we get fatigued when we engage in relationship. Why does that happen and what does “having an untiring mind” mean in this situation? What about boundaries?
Nipun: If we want to cultivate our wisdom through our relationships, then, an untiring mind is a prerequisite. When we get fatigued with a relationship, it’s not the person or group -- it’s that we run out of tolerance and equanimity. Tolerance and equanimity are like the fuel for our untiring mind. Relationships also take a huge amount of patience and compassion, because transformation isn’t going to happen when we want it to -- it happens when the time ripens. So we have to cultivate all these virtues.
We have to make sure that we’re also not just blindly trying to preserve status-quo of our relationships. Sometimes people think, “Oh, we’re all so spiritual, so we should only have rosy relationships.” Or they’ll think, “Oh, we should be friends forever.” It doesn’t quite work like that.
All relationships are constantly ending, and beginning. We can’t be attached to how it will unfold. From a spiritual lens, we can’t be attached even to wholesome relationships nor project them into the future. If things are rosy in a relationship, great; if they’re troublesome, great; if they were rosy and then become unrosy, great. It is what it is. Say you tried for 10 years but there is still no change. Well, you continue onto the 11th year. Untiring mind without detachment, though, is obsession, so we have to careful to avoid that trap. Maybe that relationship will never end up the way we want, but we’re not acting for the outcome -- we’re acting to cultivate an untiring mind, without attachment.
Yet, on the flip side, boundaries can also be very skilful and humbling. Just as we get greedy with money and material things, we sometimes get greedy with relationships too -- we want every single person to like us. Boundaries, then, invite us to be humble and accept that we’re not almighty :), that we might be biting off more than we can chew, or taking on a situation that is not really ours to embrace. If we operate without boundaries, we are likely in some confused fantasy or an echo chamber (or a Bodhisattva :)).
Boundaries, though, have two important traits. One is that it’s dynamic. My boundary maybe different than yours, but even my own boundaries may vary from moment to moment. Second is that boundaries aren’t drawn from a space of exclusion but rather the humility of “not now.” It isn’t an invitation to disconnect but rather, “Not right now. I’ll come back as the time ripens.” This attitude changes everything.
I remember, many years ago, when I was on a walk with my friend getting divorced amicably, I had blurted out something that has stayed with me: “That which doesn’t end in love will continue to repeat itself until it ends in love.” That is to say, in place of hating the other person, can we look at ourselves and say, “I don't have enough tolerance, patience, compassion, kindness to engage in this right now but I will come back to it in whatever way, shape or form it returns back again. I will come back in some future expression, with more fuel in my tank, so I can rebound it with love. I’m willing to do that.” Then, relationships aren’t just on and off -- there is a third pause button, which is very helpful at times, as we refuel.
So yes, on one side, we have to cultivate an untiring mind. And on the other hand, we have to humbly draw boundaries to make sure we don’t bite off more than we can chew. How to decide if which virtue to practice in which moment? That’s the art of living. Only you can know, and while we may make mistakes, we grow in wisdom over time. That’s why it’s a practice. :)
Question: what about conflict? Is conflict just an indication of anger, or could it be constructive?
Nipun: Conflict is ever present. Nature, for example, is filled with predators and hierarchies and unfair taking. But instead of conflict, I prefer the word tension. Tension is always between opposing forces. A guitar string pulled too tight snaps into two, and pulled too loose produces no sound. There is a way to hold the perfect tension that actually adds to the harmony of the moment -- and that’s the practice.
Gandhi is actually an incredible role model for holding tension. One would imagine that millions of people just hated him when he was alive, and yet he was able to live a life of great compassion. I think his trick was this -- “I oppose your action, but I still love you.” The person’s worth is a whole greater than their immediate action. Can we resist the immediate action, while at the same time hold great love for the personna which is far more than the action? That’s what Gandhi practiced. In concept, we can all understand this easily, but in practice, what kind of inner resources does one need to be able to meet life like this? Not a trivial task.
Question: How do we turn a sour relationship into a giving, kingly one?
Nipun: When we are around compassionate people, a more compassionate part of us arises. Similarly, if we are strongly rooted in kingly values, it helps others around us be in the same state. It’s not that people are beggarly, friendly, or kingly. Rather, it’s that they have all of those mindsets. The question is, can you be strong enough that it activates a kingly mindset in those around you? That is, fundamentally, an empowering stance, because it puts the onus on you.
I’ll give you an example. I remember I went out to pick up some food, and I was looking for a parking spot. Now, living in Berkeley, parking spots are very hard to find. After some roaming around, I found one. “Ah, perfect!” I thought. Just then, another car forcefully pulled in. It was pretty clear that it was my spot and I was try to reverse park, but this driver just unfairly took it. Now, what should be my response? Should I be generous and let it go? Or should I fight? Or something else? Very uncharacteristically, that day, I got out of my car and confronted the car. Knocked on his car window. It turned out to be a college kid. :) “Do you think this parking spot was yours to take?” Sometimes these situations are grey areas, but this wasn’t one of those. Both he and I knew that he had made a mistake. He didn’t say anything, and couldn’t even make eye contact with me. He started to drive out, almost, when I said: “Alright, I’ll tell you what. You keep this spot, I’ll go look for another. But don’t do that again. You know, it could be your mother in my shoes.”
I’m not always that strong, but in that moment, I felt anchored in generosity such that I could resist out of love and still respond in a way activated the other person’s kingly heart. Of course, in that situation, there was an immediate feedback. Sometimes, the result is gonna take a whole lot longer. :)
Ultimately, holding that mindset might the greatest gift we can offer to any moment. To be in that state, which is free of expectations and attachment, is like offering the way rose gives its scent -- effortless and unconditional.
Question: How do good relationships benefit us?
Nipun: Buddha's attendant, Ananda, once asked him, "On this very long path, it seems like noble friends are half of the path." Buddha replied: "No, Ananda, it is not half the path. It is the full path." Not 60 percent, not three quarters, not 90 percent. One hundred percent.
If we do it right, the benefit of relationship is resiliency. Every kingly relationship creates an affinity, and web of these affinities creates a trampoline for us to fall on.
We think of a saint as someone who never falls down. But that is just our projection. Saint is someone who falls down 99 times but gets up 100 times. To get up every single time if you fall on a very hard surface is very tough. But if you have built the trampoline with deep ties, you may still fall but you will bounce back even higher. Then, the fear of falling goes away, and that unlocks entirely new dimensions of living!
So how does one create noble friendships? First, we have to recognize noble, and secondly, we have serve that noble-ness. Fortunately, we need not go looking for noble. All life, at its core, is built on the foundation of noble-ness, or the "brahma-viharas" as Buddha called it. Sometimes that nobility may be covered up by clouds, but it's always there. To create a friendship with that noble-ness in front of us, all we have to do is serve it. In that act of service, we build an affinity -- and that affinity, according to Buddha, is what it takes to the achieve the highest good.
Question: Earlier you said that relationships are multi-dimensional? What did you mean?
Nipun: What I mean by saying that relationships are multi-dimensional is that -- when I meet with you, some unspoken engagement happens between the two of us. I see your glasses, you see I have a bald head, you hear me speak English, and so on. There are millions of things going on between you and I in any interaction. We may not even be aware of all these conscious, subconscious interactions between us, but in reality, your whole being is interacting with my whole being. It’s full blown, high-bandwidth engagement. Question is -- how much am I aware of?
When I look at the level of our bodies, I can say that my body ends here and Mihir’s body starts here and ends here. This is at the physical level but at the level of mind, who can say what the boundary is? And who knows what is actually happening? One can say that I am speaking the words that I am speaking right now. But before I think of the word, it has to originate in the mind. And where is the boundary of the mind? Maybe this is actually Mihir speaking. There is lots of research on how choir singers heartbeats start to synchronize as they start to sing. All of us sitting together, without any physical contact, if we are in resonance, our heartbeats start to synchronize as well. So who's speaking? Who's listening? It's a multi-dimensional many-to-many engagement in every scenario.
I know people who can feel the sensations of everyone else in the circle. For instance, Masami-san from Japan, who is a woman in her 80s. She says, “Nipun, I would love to come to an Awakin Circle. But I don't usually go to intimate circles because I can feel the pain of every single person.” And the thing is -- we all can. We might be numb to it but we all can. We are actually all holding each other in that very deep way. Now to even attempt to limit this rich thing in a transactional way is just very naive. It’s like cheating our own selves! What could potentially happen between two people is a gorgeous dance in the space of oneness. To reduce this to gaining points over another for the transactional stuff we do for each other -- it is a tremendous cheapening of the moment.
As a culture, we have shifted from multi-dimensional, many-to-many engagement to just uni-dimensional singular transactions. To reverse that trend, we have to realize that there is no such thing as a relationship between two people. And that this idea of one static person itself is a confused idea.
Whose words are these that come out of my mouth? Whose mind are they coming from - maybe from outside this room? It is hard to know. But do we even need to know? If I'm going to transactionalize it, if I have to get credit, then I have to know it. But otherwise, who cares? I don't care, you don't care, and the case is closed. Then you just live in it.
To live in it, though, you have to have a kingly attitude. Because you have to receive everyone's pain and everyone's joy. That can be difficult when you come from the space of ego. You may say why should I suffer your pain? Why I should pay the price for something I didn’t purchase? Ego can think like that, but a big hearted person sees that if one person is suffering, everyone is suffering. What we do to someone else, we are doing to ourselves. Because we’re all interconnected and inter-related.
In African tribes, they have these beautiful rituals. If someone hurts someone else, everyone comes together and they all start praying for both sides. They think that if you hurt this other person, that means you'll hurt the whole community. And not just that you have hurt this other person but in truth, both sides are hurting and that is why this event happened between them. And we are all responsible for it! So, that is a very deep level of relationship. Historically, all our indigenous cultures have operated from this wisdom. Not only have we forgotten it, but we have also diluted our inner capacities of tolerance, equanimity and compassion. Let alone retaining kingly or even friendly relationship, we are losing out on even beggarly relationships and stripping it all down to transactions. So, there’s a lot of work to be done, in regaining a deeper experience of life.
Question: I feel that while I may have enough externally, there is a kind of inner poverty that prevents me from being kingly. I never feel kingly in my relationships. Could you give some pointers? What stops the kingly relationship from thriving, from emerging?
Nipun: If two poor people – not financially but spiritually -- are engaging, it is very hard to create kingly relationships. So the question is how do you arise out of that poverty?
Consider poverty in the material world. If you want to address it, we typically send experts to figure out what’s wrong and then spend money to fix it. Take Africa, for instance. We’ve spent billions of dollars, for decades, and still it’s worse off on so many metrics than ever before. But there is another approach. John Mcknight, in his book Abundant Communities, calls it ABCD - Asset Based Community Development. Our conventional thinking is deficit based – what’s the problem and how do you fix it? This ABCD approach asks another question: what’s working and how do you do more of it? You are invited to search for the strengths and amplify it.
Similarly, Vinobaji also used to say that there are four kinds of people: Those who see only the bad; those who see the good and the bad; those who see only the good; and finally, those who see the good and amplify it. He says you should always be in the fourth category.
When two poor people come together, first of all, it’s never really two poor people. It’s two people, and all their lineages, in whom poor states have temporarily arisen. When such a thing happens, conflict and violence are inevitable, right? So what’s the solution?
If I inform the other person of their poverty, and try to repair their situation, it’s not really going to work. We do this all the time, and it only multiplies the problem. Instead, if we have the capacity to accept the conflict that exists in the present moment -- by conflict, I mean the knowledge that “I am in poverty state and you are in poverty state, in this fleeting moment” – only with the acceptance of conflict is one able to turn around and search for the assets and strength of that situation. And then, we can work on amplifying that good.
To turn it around like that, though, is very difficult. In the wake of beggarly mindset, searching for the good and skilfully amplify it is a tall task. It takes a lot of inner resources, and it takes a fair amount of spiritual maturity before one can succeed. But one keeps trying. Trying, but not in the direction of fixing the other person or situation, but in terms of accepting things as they are, so new intelligence can arise.
As an example, one of my friends used to live in one of the most violent communities in America. It was at the border of three local gangs, where locals often refer to the police as the fourth gang. For years, many well-meaning people had all kinds of plans to transform the community, but it didn’t exactly work. My friend, being a committed meditator, approached it from a different lens entirely -- from the lens of inner assets, which can organically trigger an unending ripple effect.
One time, two drunk teenage boys smashed glass, alcohol bottles on the street, just for fun. So he and his roommate went outside and started picking up the shards of glass strewn around the street. The two boys, from a distance, saw this. They both kept looking and wondering what are these guys doing -- “They are not fighting or shooing us away. They seem to be different. Humble and kind.” Suddenly, they started walking back towards the glass. Now, my friend and his roomate could've launched into a speech about the ills of alcohol or merits of not throwing glass bottles. But they didn't. Instead they kindly said, "We have a little girl next door in this neighbourhood who sometimes comes out running without foot wear. We thought she may hurt herself." Humbly, they continued picking up the shards. And guess what? The two boys very quietly bent their backs and started helping picking up the glass pieces too!
Like that, with inner resources of humility and kindness and untiring mind, it's possible to transform a community. One heart at a time, very patiently.
Such love-warriors don't seek outside resources. That invites them to find assets in their local community, and turn it into a cycle of generosity. In this case, the street there were on was called “Fruitvale” -- because it grew a lot of fruits. So bunch of local volunteers came together and would ask neighbors if they could pick the fruit (plums, apple) that grew in their backyard. Everyone would agree. And then once a week, on that street, they would put on a little farmers’ market with all the produce from that week. ‘Fruta Gift,’ they called it. When passers-by asks, "How much do we pay for this?", the response was always: "This is for free but hey, it's actually a gift from Mister So-and-so’s compound.” And naturally, it's much harder to pull a gun on your neighbor, if you have eaten strawberries from their backyard!
Every situation has its own assets. The question really is -- do we have the eyes to see it? That’s the practice that Vinoba asked us to do: search for the good and amplify it, within ourselves and outside of ourselves.
Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by our own poverty, beggarly or friendly mindset, that we are not able to see the kingly potential. Yet it exists, waiting to be uncovered.
Question: What some of the practices you have adopted in your day-to-day life?
Nipun: There are lots of practices that have helped me grow.
The biggest practice -- or I would say habit, by now -- is something that fell into my lap. Because ServiceSpace is all volunteer-run and doesn’t fundraise, I have just gotten used to see the same intrinsic value in everyone. Whether it’s a person coming to clean our carpet or a cashier at the store or a stranger on the street or a billionaire in a meeting, I treat them all in the same way. It’s not just me, but everyone around me. My Dad, literally, met a fellow who came to clean our carpets, then became great friends, and even ended up going to 10 days of meditation together. If you look at the world with that lens, it’s really amazing, because you feel like you’re home everywhere.
Given my role in society, I receive many emails everyday from all kinds of people. To identify the positive in it and respond to it, and continue doing it for over 20 years for thousands of emails, is a great practice of untiring mind. Typically, I will sign off with something like, “Think of me as your brother in service and feel free to email me.” I am aware that I am inviting a lot more work for myself, but I still say it -- because I mean it. It’s a practice of great care and untiring mind.
In every email, I have a practice of inserting adding a few hyperlinks knowing fully well that the receiver may not be clicking on all them. Yet, even if there’s a chance that the reader will click on one, that’s good enough for me. Planting seeds and letting go of outcomes is that practice. To help you find the good untiringly, through continuous effort even in the virtual space, is a practice.
At one level, you might not think of emails as a field of practice, but when you are receiving unending stream of emails routinely, you might as well turn into a practice. :)
Similarly, in the offline world. In the last six weeks alone, on this trip to India, I would have met thousands of people. It can be overwhelming and exhausting for some, but for me, it’s a practice -- to hold people’s journeys with care.
For instance, there are times when people keep on talking and one needs to develop patience. We have this one volunteer who has a solid practice of listening Once, there was a boy who requested some time for a conversation with him. Over coffee, that boy spoke to him for 3 hours - he did not even realize that he was speaking for 3 hours! When he went home, he realized that this guy was listening to me continuously and suddenly it struck him, “Oh! maybe I can listen that way too.” So at his college, he emailed all his friends that, “Guys, I realized that I haven't had a deep conversation with all of you. So if any of you wants to have a conversation with me, please email me.” To his surprise, hundreds of people wrote back. So he thought, “Wow! Everybody's hungry for deep conversations.” When he graduated from college, he started a project to help everyone listen to each other. All these ripples happened because of this one person saying, “I am willing to listen.” So listening is a great practice.
Skillfulness is another practice. Just because you are wanting to give love, doesn’t mean it’s going to received like that. If I’m speaking Chinese, and you understand Hindi, we just won’t be able to communicate. Vinoba used to say it very nicely -- if you want try to enter a house through the wall, it’ll be hard; through the window, it’ll still be tough; but if you find the front door, it’s easy. So the question really is, how do you find this door in any interaction? Well, the door is always the human heart. But to get the keys to that door, we need a lot of skillfulness.
One time, after a talk on compassion, everyone was on a high and I was doling out hugs. Then, a well-dressed guy in a suit asked me for a private conversation. I said sure, and he, with a energy of rage, tells me, “The whole time you were talking, I wanted to strangle your throat and kill you.” Wow. My immediate reaction was shock. Now, how do I find a door to his heart, in this moment? I started to look at the assets -- well, he had the courage to come and speak his mind. When I asked, “Can I give you a hug?” he flatly refused. So, I went after another door. Empathy and listening. I wondered what he was actually thinking, so I asked him and he gladly explained, “Well, generosity makes us weak. People become lazy when you give them things. We won’t have any innovation. We’ll be back in the stone ages.” Okay, well, I thought, I can see how that would make sense from a certain point of view. Because I understood, he felt heard. Now, instead of the hug, I told him that I could see a smile cracking on his face. He couldn’t help it. In another five minutes, he offered to give me a ride to my next venue. :)
Of course, it’s not always going to work out with a happy ending like that -- but it’s worth trying. And that effort helps us grow in skillfulness.
And these are just baby steps, when you consider compared to legends of non-violence. So many times people would come to hurt Gandhi, for instance, and then they would even tell him, “I was supposed to kill you. I have the weapon and I am ready, but something doesn’t feel right.” That just means that, in the massive field of many-to-many connections of that moment, Gandhi found a skillful way to reach that person's heart.
Question: It’s something more than just reaching the other person's heart, I feel. I have read a bit of Gandhiji’s work and one of his quotes is “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if the work you contemplate is going to be any use to him.” Now, that thing just hit straight to my heart. When such a love becomes alive for you, that you are willing to take anybody along with you, then you are on your (spiritual) journey all the time. You don't address individuals on the way -- it is the whole being that you are an instrument of. It is the wholeness which moves around. So I was just wondering, what is the role of community building in individual relationship?
Nipun: I don’t think individual relationships are possible, so it’s always many-to-many and communal. But I would add that community isn’t just made of carbon-based human beings -- it’s a fluid boundary, that encompasses everything. In that sense, a seemingly personal relationship is bound by our innate, and profound, inter-connection.
When Dr. Ariyaratne came to our Awakin Circle, he told a really powerful story of how someone had hired a suicide bomber to blow himself up at a school, where he was slated to be the next day. The night before, Dr. Ari found out, went looking for the bomber, and offered himself, “Please finish me here. Tomorrow, all these innocent children will die.” The bomber was completely transformed, and refused to go forward with it. Now, if you ask Dr. Ari about the technology behind that kind of an interaction, he’ll just say, “I think I have angels protecting me." These are his words. Now, who are these angels, what is this protection? I don’t know that what becomes clear is that even the tiniest decision we make is a communal decision.
Similarly, one my friends asked the Dalai Lama that he takes the toughest of decisions. An he essentially crowd-sources it, in Internet terminology. He said he would ask everyone -- cabinet advisors, janitors, beings in other planes, anyone who has karmically placed himself before him in that moment.
In that sense, relationships are always communal in nature. If we try to resolve any relationship issues, with an individual’s hat on, then we may intellectually sort out the problem in the short term – like in conflict resolution workshops or therapy sessions -- but we may miss out on the longer-term, many to many solution. That kind of skillfulness has a very high potential.
Buddhism speaks about the remarkable skillfulness of Bodhisattvas, these beings of great compassion. Some of the monks that I know tell me the story of a Chinese meditation teacher named Master Hua. For instance, one guy had come in for the first time to a monastery. He was talking it all in, and on his way out, Master Hua just casually mentions to him, “Hey, maybe you should stop eating meat." Just that one sentence, and that fellow became a monk, for the rest of his life! Because this guy's dad was a butcher and that was bothering him all his life and that was the reason that had drawn him to the monastery that day.
So how did Master Hua know? There is a lot of data floating around, and when we become detached we can tune into more of it. Like in art, if you have three colors, you can do some art. But with 30 colors, you can do can do a lot more intricate work. Similarly, inner transformation gives you greater capacity to hold much of the spectrum that an individual brings -- and respond with far greater skillfulness.
Reflection: It is my realization that if I am not seeking an outcome that gives me more resilience. Because if I am seeking something, then I will get exhausted if I do not get it.
Nipun: Yes, that’s been my experience too. I learnt that most when my 37-year old brother Viral contracted a rare auto-immune condition last year. For about a month, we felt that he really could pass away. When this happened, a lot of friends from around the world said, “Let’s do a prayer relay” i.e. at any given point in time, someone or the other at some corner of the world would be praying for him. To me, however, it felt a little selfish. So I chatted with Viral about it, and his perspective was profound. He said, “If you pray for my well-being, it means that you want me to go from here to there. I am not interested in going there. I am interested in going wherever nature takes me. If it is death, I am happy to die. If it means survival, I am happy to live. So, why waste your prayer capital in wishing me well. Just wish well for the world and I am part of the world.”
This is a true story – a 37 year old person whom I have known since he was born. And, *that* is not seeking an outcome. Such people are unlikely to get fatigued. :)
The way we get there, though, is via our small practices. I have been around dying people and it’s very rare to find somebody who thinks like this. Whatever values we want to have on our deathbed, we have to cultivate in little ways through our daily life. So, we are actually doing ourselves a big favor, in a very significant way, when we take the small opportunities.
This is also where the collective comes in. For example, if I go to Awakin Circles, I am reminding myself every week about the importance of meditation -- and pretty soon, that will show up in greater and greater ways in my life. I may still forget and fall, but if I’ve invested in supported you in building those inner capacities, I have implicitly strengthened my own affinities that are rooted around those values, and that’ll give me more resilience.
So yes, chasing outcomes is exhausting and being in the moment is regenerative. What we have to remind ourselves is to keep practicing in everyday moments, and help others in doing the same. As we help others, it builds our own resilience.
Reflection: I have a reflection to share. It has been 28 years of our marriage. Four days ago, my husband coming fresh out of a retreat shared that, “I have not enjoyed or laughed as much in my life as I did recently in Ahmedabad.” As soon as he said this, I instantly felt something inside me. Usually when he says something like that I respond with “Oh! Don’t you enjoy with me?" But, this is the first time that I saw within and was eager to learn what is it that happens to me, why is it happening like this and I want to observe what is happening inside. I held onto that and kept observing it and for the first time I did not react to it. Otherwise even if I don't express it, internally I am constantly reacting. I even told him, “It looks like you have never enjoyed with me in all these years.” So, he laughed saying that he has enjoyed. Then I discussed all this with my son and he said, “Yes, it is natural to feel that when somebody like Dad expresses his joy superlatively.” Then I again started seeing within - now that I was feeling good that my son is supporting me. Again, I felt something different. It was like a realization that a relationship is something to be observed within. The moment you focus on the outside, you get disconnected and cause chaos externally. If you only observe it inside, all automatically gets sorted. So, Thank you!
Question: Should I give up my authenticity to meet other people's expectations?
Nipun: Initially, we want to satisfy our loved ones by meeting their expectations, but what we really end up doing is trading expectations with one another. “Okay, I will live upto your expectations but then you have to live upto mine.” This could even work for a while, but it’s destined for messy complications. Sooner or later, we will have mismatched expectations.
When we have mismatched expectations, sometimes it’s wise to let go and sometimes to hold on. It depends on the context. There is no recipe for it. We have to cultivate the wisdom to know what to do, and that’ll depend on our awareness -- of how much of the context we are able to see. If we have a predisposition or bias towards one way, that bias will blind us. To the degree that we have a vested bias is the degree to which we will be blinded. And to the degree that we are blinded is the degree to which our skillfulness will be limited.
When we don’t know whether to let go or to hold on, the important thing is to avoid getting attached to a particular outcome. That’s very hard, but it affords us the ability to see clearly. “This person really irritates me. I don't want really feel like letting go.” Or “I don’t really care, so why should I bother?” Instead of those reactions, if we just hold the person and the situation, a new avenue usually opens up.
As we mature in that way, we start to hold on or let go for the benefit of the other person -- neither is for our personal benefit. For instance, if my parents tell me to keep my job but my wisdom tells me that I want to quit, we are bound to disagree. If I’m holding onto my position, because I want the freedom to do what I want or I’m trying to assert my authority, that won’t get me too far. Or let’s say that a rickshaw driver is ripping me off, am I opposing because I am frustrated that he took an extra ten rupees from me, or am I doing it to help him contain his greed? If I’m thinking like his grandfather and saying, “Oh, if he’s taking advantage of people, he’ll never have kingly relationship. Let me do my bit to help him not take rip people off.” That has a very different energy. The issue is no longer about the 10 rupees.
The metric for not having a vested agenda -- let go or hold on -- is quite simple: are both the scenarios are in service to the other person? If so, then there is no inner conflict. Then we can see a lot more clearly and then we’ll know the right thing in the right situation. Sometimes you fail, but you learn from that failure.
Question: how do relationships factor into to social policy and societal change?
Nipun: We can most certainly extend this to our world. Today’s world is entrenched in the opposite of relationships i.e. transactions. A few years ago, on Valentine’s day, the media ran a story about a couple that wanted to quantify everything in their relationship – if you are doing these dishes, you get X point; if you are changing diapers, Y points. The goal is to get even. And there was this Valentine's Day story on how someone had turned the relationship into a whole bunch of transactions. That is the world we live in. What we lose in transaction is the multi-dimensionality of relationships. I may have dropped kids off to school, but I also talked to another parent and was able to listen to her. It create a lot of unexpected value along the way, that doesn’t fit into a neat ledger.
As a culture, we desperately need to figure out a migration path from transactions to multi-dimensional relationships -- otherwise, everything will become shallower and shallower, just like Facebook friendships! :) Only kingly connections can restore this balance. If we reduce everything to transactions, everything becomes a deal and a negotiation. Even right now, you can say, “I came here for 2 hours – what are my takeaways?” And similarly, I can ask, “What am I getting from this?”
Instead if we all arrive at this moment with selflessness, you can say, “I am going to love you, no matter what you say, whether I agree or not, whether you are boring or interesting. It doesn't matter. I am with you.” And I would do the same thing with you: “These are my brothers and sisters. Maybe something comes out of this, maybe nothing. It doesn’t matter, I’m with you.” Then, all of a sudden, a whole new possibility opens up, in our collective realm of relationships.
That potential is open to us in every single situation. And this is what the world needs today. We are not just trying to solve our problems for our happiness, but through its very process, we are co-creating a new set of kingly relationships that we are offering to the commons of the world. Then, listening can be an act of great love; speaking can be an act of great love; and every relationship can be expression of our deepest connection.