Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reflections from a 6 week journey

From Mumbai to Boston to New York to Washington DC to Seattle to Bellingham to the Bay Area to Boston to London and finally back to Mumbai. It's been an interesting time to say the least - with communities tucked away in the corner of the American continent to posh London hotels to Shudh Desi gatherings which were so 'Indian' they gave even me a culture shock.

The trip started with my parents’ simple intention to celebrate my niece’s 2nd birthday. In the past I would've been reluctant to honour family gatherings since they were too worldly for me, but a little voice inside begged me to go ahead. What started as a 10 day trip snowballed into a 6 week adventure across cities and continents. With almost no pre-planned schedule, things emerged through informal gatherings, circles with communities and touching one-on-one conversations over great coffee.

All through the journey, I've been held in a field of love - by people I've met at a retreat just once, or those I've gotten to know deeply over the last couple years, and even old friends that I've known since kindergarten. At every step along the way, there was an invitation to drop my guard and take that leap in to being who I truly was. Through all the insightful conversations, there was an opportunity for me to gain a deeper insight into the foundations of what Western cultures have been built on, and what's brewing today.

I remember heading into Washington DC, a bit nervous since my introduction had generated a lot of interest for the circle that Arathi had orchestrated. Apparently, the city had come alive with speakers like Charles Eisenstein who had passed through just a few weeks prior to my visit. Everyone was buzzing with energy, jazzed about words like 'Gift' and 'Community'. Folks were holding these terms as the latest technology that would bring everyone home and redeem a failing society. They had even formed a society that would focus entirely on Gift Culture! I guess that's just how they do things in DC :)

As we sat for an hour of silence before the talk, my mind was racing and coming up with some impressive frameworks – the 4 R’s of Gift Culture, the 5 different types of economies and what not. But something about the love with which Arathi and Joel hosted everyone made me rethink what I wanted to share. I was called to share simple stories of what the Gift meant to us. How it was rooted in values of love and one-ness. How it really meant caring for one another or holding each other in the field of Maitri. And that we had access to these values even while being rooted in our 9 to 5 jobs. 

Something interesting transpired as I shared these thoughts. It felt like everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief and people started sharing beautiful stories. At the end of the circle, one of the guys came over and told us how he left his workplace at 6pm that day, resolving to quit the next morning. After this circle, he decided he needed to work on himself a bit more before getting there. A few years ago, I might have celebrated a radical move, but I feel like I now have the wisdom to see the true transformational capabilities of small changes.

It reminded me of a conversation with an old friend in New York. We hadn't met since business school 9 years ago. He had been on Wall Street ever since, working the ideal job and living in the ideal Manhattan apartment. A few months ago though, he felt like he had woken up from a dream - and spent a few days walking around the streets of New York wondering what he was doing and where he was headed with his life. As we spoke, he expressed his desire to hit the eject button, but he still had mortgage to pay and ageing parents in India to support. We spent a good hour discussing how my transition probably wasn't the best path for him and that he needed to take things slow.

At the London gathering I ended up speaking to a group primarily consisting of development workers, volunteers and bankers - well suited and in their twenties. At the end of the talk, a young banker, who was initially accompanying his friend, was visibly moved and came up to me and spoke about how he had to 'eject' as well! The Connect India team was sensitive to this, and as they spoke to him, he decided to take things slowly by joining their Learning Journey to India later this year. A couple days later I received a similar email from another person in the audience who recently bought his first Porsche at 24. I'm not sure what it is - maybe I tend to attract these conversations because of my journey and the media labels of that ‘Somebody who sold a Ferrari’, but I've come to see  how radical moves are detrimental to our journey and often place too much pressure on us to prove ourselves. At times, I've found it's also prevented me from embracing my truth in a more compassionate way.

Over in Bellingham, Michelle hosted a lovely gathering at her home. The town had been the source of several local economy experiments, and inspired the early days of BALLE which is now an alliance of 40,000 local businesses. As we walked around town, I couldn't spot a single Starbucks, or a Pizza hut - all local businesses, including the Bank! Even the grocery store was a co-op run by the residents of the town. I'd come into Bellingham thinking I'd be addressing a group of white folks who had no exposure to some of our concepts and we ended up having one of the most progressive conversations I've had in the recent past. As we went around the circle, there was this constant question arising about how they could bring more values into their lives. I shared what I'd been sharing in circles all along, but this time, genius flowed through an unassuming man who had been sitting quietly in the circle holding a few sheets of paper. Ben ran a popular ice cream store in town that used fresh and local ingredients. As he spoke, he placed some of these papers in the centre of the circle - each one of them bearing words to poems that were dear to him.

He shared his process of interviewing people for his ice-cream store. “I look upon my staff as my community who also serve my other community - the customers. When I interview my staff, I ask them what they ‘feel’ about these poems. Invariably, I receive a strange look - the interviewee wonders what this has to do with scooping ice cream! For me, it is an integral process of evaluating how the employee looks at his role in his community. Each week, we put aside one hour for self-reflection and another hour for collective sharing.”

Here we were, in the corner of the continent, in small town America - and a man who sold ice cream spoke about this way in which he was bringing value to his community. It wasn't just me, but all of a sudden our paradoxes melted away as he put things across simply. It was as though Kumarappa'sEconomy of Service was emerging right before our eyes. Many more reflections followed, including one from a venture capitalist who's been questioning his investments in Social Impact in India, but that's for later conversations.

Through all these inspiring circles and conversations, I was carried away with my progressive image of America. My romantic vision of the country lasted until one of our first talks in SFO at the JP Morgan office. As Birju and I got out of our car and walked towards our destination I realized I had actually visited that very building more than 5 years ago in my banker avatar :) I had come full circle :) My overflowing heart met some resistance though, when the evening for Asian Americans began. The hosts were speaking about how the Asian American community was bound to succeed in America since they were the fastest growing smartphone buyers and automobile purchasers in the country! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Here we were, well into the 21st century, in one of the most progressive cities in the world and people were still excited about this one-dimensional form of growth. I could feel my levels of resistance rising - wondering what I was doing in this place. We couldn't even leave since our talks were scheduled right at the end. I could sense the restlessness in Birju as well, but eventually, I closed my eyes waiting for that moment when I could finally start flowing with what was transpiring. I've noticed that point when we let go of our resistance and surrender takes a while, but it invariably arrives. We have to be patient though, and extremely aware since it's not always wrapped attractively. :) In this case - it was a piece of cake. Literally! :) One of the co-ordinators who was very concerned since they hadn't thought of providing vegetarian food was flustered and took it upon himself to ensure we had cake. As he hurried towards us he tripped, and seconds later I found a large American-sized cake with icing all over my shirt! Fortunately it was white icing on a white shirt, and it didn't cause any damage, but it was at that point that I had no option but to stop resisting and roll into laughter :) The evening was all downhill from there. We ended up sharing a few cute stories around kindness, which was all we thought this crowd could take :) I guess it was one of those days when you learn a lesson in rolling with whatever comes your way. Make lemonade with lemons thrown your way and all that! Lol!

As we drove home, I realized this was a reminder of where America, or even this world is still rooted. Signs of this were visible all over the streets of San Francisco. On a bright Sunday afternoon, Sima and Rish took us to visit the Mission Street in the city - which was known for murals painted by talented local artists. As we walked around gazing at the renditions - you couldn’t help notice the angst that was brewing. There was a strong polarization between some of the native, progressive thinkers of the city and the more modern Facebook/Google/Dropbox techies in the valley. While the progressive thinkers were striving for drastic change, the yuppies saw solutions for the world in the form of social start-ups. Some of this was apparent at my visit to the New Economy Group at MIT a few weeks prior. The speaker before me was the founder of ZipCar, which is along the lines of initiatives like Uber, Lyft etc that hope to reduce the ecological burden through collaborative sharing. No doubt, these are good measures, but it's hard to imagine them having lasting impact in saving our planet. It was great to share some Gandhian thoughts with them, our experiments through Moved By Love - and to bring out the need for transformation in our way of life.

It's not always easy to articulate this in talks, but the polarization we see among change-makers is startling. I find that when I operate from that space of gratitude it allows me to see everything on the outside with a lens of love. More than the external, I see how this polarization is really on the inside. And the lens of love allows me to embrace each part of our selves with complete and utter acceptance.

Often, the lack of acceptance pushes us to operate out of a sense of fear. In DC I was meeting a woman who was ready to take 'the leap into Gift culture' and was planning a whole bunch of activities in her local community. She had mapped out a 2 year plan for Gift Culture to arrive. My mind was all set to launch into a lecture on how it's probably not a sustainable way of looking at things, but something about the kind look in her eyes and her words moved me. I don't know what it was, but I ended up speaking about my insecurities with money and how I don't have anything sorted out. Magical things happen when we lead with our vulnerabilities. Right there in this loud crowded coffee shop with about 5 other folks on the table, she broke down and spoke about how her husband had accused her of being a non-contributor to society during their separation and the insecurity was driving all of these plans. All of a sudden we shed our walls and held each other in the one-ness that emerged. I don't know if I'll even see her again, but it was a moment I'll carry forward in my life for many years. The spirit of Gift manifested effortlessly when we connected at the level of the heart.

At the couple retreats I attended, we had time carved out for a beautiful kindness activity on the streets. I was concerned about trying this in cities like Berkeley and London since people aren't as open to embracing a stranger as in India. But of course, we had a magical time, with lots of smiles and hugs as we offered people heart pins, flowers, smile cards and other gifts. However, I noticed a slight sense of pride at having accomplished something like this in supposedly 'tougher' communities.

Deep down inside, there was this tendency to validate my progress based on how unpleasant or tough the journey was. I found myself more accepting of myself when I could transform that scowling stranger or based on how many heart pins I could give out. In reality, these practices were meant to be a simple expression of our cup running over. A manifestation of the unity in my heart for the other. But when I noticed the tendency within me to ‘challenge’ myself through these practices, I could see just how hard-wired our neurons have gotten in the modern paradigm. There's this tendency to 'Go out and Do this' or 'Make it happen' which is really just thinking borne out of conditioning in the Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps, for this emergence into newer paradigms, we will need to stop working from this space of coercion and more from the space of offering. I don't know when we'll get there, but I've begun to trust the beauty in doing simple things with a great love. In that space, I might find myself serving at a Retreat, writing a reflection, sharing a few thoughts or even doing the more worldly things like baby-sitting my two year old niece or cooking a meal with a long lost friend. It is a space where the labels in my mind start dropping away because every moment becomes a Gift in itself – an opportunity to create magic by pouring my heart into ordinary situations. And with each passing day I come to realize that it is in the mundane that the profound divinity manifests J

May we all keep walking as that wise man Nimo Patel suggested- 'One small step at a time' :)  
Jai Jagat   
PS: Ofcourse, no reflection is complete without Pictures. Click here for the gallery!

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