Sunday, June 29, 2014

Leadership through Shared Vulnerability

Just last evening, I was called to share a few thoughts for a panel on 'Leadership'. There's enough people, discussions, papers, research thesis's out there on the topic, but this was special. It was organized by the a group of 15 kids from the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts who are visiting India as part of a program called Niswarth. I've been closely connected with the dean Rajesh and the program through my days in Ahmedabad, as well on my recent visit to the USA so I was delighted to join. It was such a beautiful evening - with about 30 people cozying up in a room for an interesting conversation. 

To give you an idea of what transpired, Vandana Goyal, the CEO of Akanksha leaned over and whispered - I can't believe these kids are only 16 years old. And she was right - I can't quite imagine what I was up to when I was their age - definitely not re-imagining what Leadership can mean. 

I try not to head into such gatherings with pre-decided concepts. It's easy to fall into the trap of coming up with points and structures on the topic, but that doesn't allow for an emergence in the discussion. In this case, I realized the kids were way more progressive than their age let on, and it allowed me to step things up a bit, and explore a facet of Leadership that we don't normally talk about. In fact, I was a bit surprised when I took the mic, and I ended up saying I wanted to speak about Leadership through shared vulnerability and open-ness to transforming ourselves in the process.

Initially, I spoke about my journey - when I had decided to spark some change in myself as well as the community around me. I remember the early days when I had decided to move to the Gandhi Ashram. Armed with my business school insights and experience in capital markets, I had begun work by communicating with non-profits about developing skills and understanding money flows and processes. 

A few weeks into my stay ath the Gandhi Ashram, I happened to meet Vinay Mahajan - a senior of mine from IIM, who had been doing some interesting work with communities in and around Gujarat for several decades. At one point, he was conducting some research during the construction of a cement factory in rural Gujarat. As you would imagine, the factory was resulting in a fair amount of displacement of farmers and their land, and his project entailed a study of this. All the farmers had received adequate compensation for their land, and were asked to move to their newly allotted homes. It seemed like a fair deal, but Vinay came across one such farmer, who he fondly referred to as Kaka, who seemed very upset.

'Kaka! I don't see why you're upset. It's a pretty good situation for you. You don't have to be dependent on your farm, you have a nice new home. Why the grim face?'

'I know why you're here son. I know you're creating a report on displacement. I know what you're going to be entering in your report. 3 acres of land cleared and compensated appropriately. It all seems fine on paper, but I think your report won't capture the entire truth of the situation. Of the three acres that I farmed on, I grew my grains and vegetables on one acre. Now, I'm going to have to go to the market to buy vegetables, but that won't be accounted for in your report. On the other 2 acres, I would grow grains - which also won't feature in your report. 

It's not only what we humans use. In my fields, there would be cows and buffaloes who would pass by during their grazing route. Every day, I would greet them and they would feed on the grass around my fields. I don't know where they will go now. 

Not just the animals, but the birds too. Every morning I would be visited by peacocks and mynahs who would visit my farms to feed on the grain. I wonder where they will fly to now. And the same goes for the monkeys who swing on the trees and the squirrels who work all day. 

Look down in the soil. Do you see the little caterpillars, and bugs, the spiders and the frogs? Where will they go? What about the millions of bacteria and microbes who are churning the very soil that we stand on? What will they feed on? What will they take shelter in? Does your report capture all of that?"

At the end of the monologue, Vinay was taken aback. All these years, he had prided himself on his education and his understanding of the modern world. But here was a kaka, with one foot in the grave who was speaking about a world view that most would not even fathom. Most people spoke about 'Vasudeva Kutumbakam' or 'The World as a family', but here was this gentleman who was living it. Who could see the interconnections between him and the world as delicate silken threads that held the fabric of sentient beings. More than anything, he understood the causality that governed their inter-being.

Instantly, I was reminded of an interesting insight by Vinoba Bhave. He said, in Sanskrit, the root of the word 'Education' and 'Humility' were the same - and that they were inter-related. Perhaps, it was important for me to re-think how I was going about this journey in service.

I began looking around me at all the decades of work that had gone into building the Environmental Sanitation Institute. All those millions of toilets built and communities transformed. All of it had come through the leadership of Ishwarkaka - who was revered as the Toilet Man of India. As I came to understand his approach a bit more, I realized he never went into communities with an all-knowing attitude. In fact, each community and village came up with designs for their own sanitation. All he did was facilitate their process. Towards the end of his life, he had a 'Toilet Garden' constructed within the premises with several different designs for toilets. 'Most people cultivate rose gardens, but for me, it's always been Toilets!', he would say. And as you walk around, you come across stories of the tiniest of design details which were offered by the communities that he worked with.

Perhaps I had to lead into the journey with a slightly different approach. Perhaps I had to lead with one that said 'I don't know enough to actually tell you what to do. But I trust that the space that we co-create will allow for that path to emerge. And for this, I needed to lead with not only humility to hold the unknown but also trust that something beautiful will blossom. 

I've written a fair amount about my experience at Seva Cafe. The constant theme running through that transformation has always been letting go of my projections of how a person entering the space can be of value. Instead, I learned to operatefrom the space of assuming value everywhere. Each guest had now become an opportunity to serve as opposed to a source of revenue, and each volunteer was a journey unfolding instead of low cost labour. Each situation had become a gift that was begging to be unwrapped. Instead of planning where our resources would come from and executing based on these projections, I had learnt to receive with grace and unlock magic in places I never expected.

More than anything else, I found a very interesting process beginning. I was beginning to unlock capacities within myself that I did not know existed. In a way, being the change, was changing the being. 

When we speak about Leadership, how often can we think about it as a process of undergoing change ourselves as opposed to changing our communities? Gandhi of course was at the forefront of this process of change. There are tonnes of research reports, books, films, documentaries made about some of his more visible forms of leadership. But staying at the Gandhi Ashram, I came across stories that you would hear only through word of mouth - and as I think back, have ended up transforming the way I look at life.

Once, Gandhi was on board a train passing through the villages of India and he chose to stand by the foot-board to watch the scenes whiz by. As he stood in the doorway, he accidentally lost one of his sandals (or chappals). As it fell down on to the tracks, there was a gasp from those around him. A few heads looked out to see if there was any way we could get it back. Not Gandhi. Without a thought, it is said, he kicked off his other chappal down onto the tracks as well. And why? Just so that a passer by could make use of the pair.

You could sit back and analyse Gandhi's life. Some credit (or discredit) him with the independence struggle, others with building the nation, some have even criticized him a fair bit and a few claim he has inspired leaders like Mandela and MLK across the globe! But when you put all those headlines and discussions aside and you look at his life, you see it was built through beautiful micro-moments. You understand that leadership wasn't so much about how he thought or what he was doing, but more about the space he was operating out of. And I believe, that space had been created because of the way he had allowed the process to change him. 

What would it look like in today's world, if we looked at Leadership from this perspective? We've been so used to paradigms that have been handed down from the colonial times that we cannot bring ourselves to think beyond the conventional 'Pyramidical Structure' that has a leader sitting at the top, directing those below him. What models would emerge if we allowed the process of Leading to change us? Personally, I'm excited to find out, but to close, I'd like to share one of the last passages that Vinoba wrote as a message for the 21st century.

"When we will all see our role in society as servants, we will all light up the sky together like countless stars on a dark night. Don’t think of society as the sky on a full moon night. The moon's harsh light blinds us to the true and humble work of the stars. But on a moonless night, the true servants shine forth, as though they are connected invisibly in this vast and infinite cosmos."


Monday, June 16, 2014

A Trek through the Kugti Pass

I've just returned from my first ever trek in the Himalayas - and I'm left with a transformational experience that is going to be tough to articulate in words. As I type, I have a tingling sensation running through my body, not only because of the feelings it evokes within me, but also because of my still-recovering frost-bitten fingers :)

Just a couple weeks ago over dinner with a dear friend Kruti, I was listening to her plans to go trekking to the Himalayas. These trips, she explained were planned by Gaurav, an inspiring soul who had been following his joy in 'Connecting with the Himalayas' and was taking people on journeys across the region.

This particular journey was a trail that followed the 'Gaddi' shepherds during their migration across the Pir Panjal range - from the district of Chamba into Lahaul-Spiti. Every summer, thousands of sheep led by their shepherds make the perilous journey at 16000 feet across the Kugti Pass, into the greener pastures on the other side. Every year, they wait for the snow to clear until the gods open the passageways so that they may cross.

As soon as Kruti mentioned the trek, a little voice inside urged me to join. I felt my mind questioning it - 'Wasn't a trek a bit too indulgent?' I came home, pondering whether I should go on the trip. The dates were perfectly lining up with my schedule. I had also had a fair amount of community-time in recent months, and this would be a good time to go a bit inward since I'm normally always engaged with those around me. Also, Nature can be a great teacher, and this radically different context would be perfect for my self-exploration. Of course, I was only rationalizing, my heart had already consented, and so I agreed :)

From Dalhousie in the lower Himalayas, to Bharmour, the last motor-able town, to Kugti, the last village on the trail, to a campsite just before snow, to a marathon 16 hour trek up to the pass in ice, to a camp on the other side. Back down to Keylong and the quaint town of Naggar, the trek was filled with incredible sights and experiences - most of which are either indescribable through a blog, or perhaps best captured through photographs.

For these 10 days we found ourselves embarking on walks in the most gorgeous meadows, crossing ice cold streams on broken planks of wood, scaling heights on loose gravel and even sliding down snow-clad slopes at 50 kmh for hundreds of metres! In the past, I've been on pilgrimages, and visited communities in various parts of the country, but nothing brought me so up close with Nature - literally asking of me to nestle in her lap and to embrace her loving offerings. At various points, we were also confronted with her unpleasant side, which forced us to our limits - and truly questioned our faith in the friendliness of the Himalayas. At each point, it allowed for an interesting dynamic within the group of 15 of us who made the trek together.

The last four years have seen me grow as part of communities at the Gandhi Ashram as well as others. Through experiments in generosity like the Seva Cafe, and initiatives like Moved By Love, I've had the opportunity to be part of spaces with various folks have met in their highest virtue - in Trust and Contribution. But something interesting happened on this trip. For the 10 days, 15 of us were constantly being thrown into situations that tested the boundaries of our human existence. While team work was critical, it was also important for us to understand the needs of our bodies, minds and egos. We held each others hands through loose gravel that was giving way, and even formed human walls so that we could defecate without embarrassment. At times, I found myself playing the role of the good samaritan and pointing out loose rocks on the path, but also hoarding that last piece of peanut Chikki because I knew I needed the energy on the sharp incline up ahead. At each point we were asked to put our lives and humility in each other's hands :) Often, we would find ourselves at our worst - not sharing resources and not offering a hand because we were too tired, or even holding back the last sip of water for our own dehydrated bodies. Often, we would see bursts of anger when that tent-mate began snoring when we had just a few hours to sleep. 

It sounded like a recipe for disaster, with ingredients just right for a circle to disintegrate. Instead, I had the opportunity to witness the exact opposite. I had the gift of seeing how we could hold one another through our ugliest. and I'm not talking just about our physical appearance (which wasn't impressive after 5 days of not bathing :) ) but the ugliest facets of our psyche. Interestingly, our circle held it all. Each evening was a sight to be seen - with people opening up and sharing parts of their life that they hadn't dared to offer to any others in their regular lives. Conversations about personal relationships, how we view our lives, our limitations, our joyous moments were all held with a lightness. All of it flowed without inhibition, perhaps because it seemed insignificant after getting lost in a snow-storm with no water and trudging through loose snow in feet numbed by the ice looking for our campsite.

For the last 4 years, I had been part of communities that were putting their best foot forward. That were meeting each other in virtue. But in this case, we were meeting each other in our vulnerabilities and in our needs. And yet, we found ourselves holding each other. I had set out on this trip to learn in isolation, but in these 10 days, I was offered deep insights into our most basic inter-connection. 

It was in that inter-connection, that I saw my clearly demarcated walls melt away like a snow clad slope in spring. Since my move away from conventional living, I've spent a great deal of time seeking joy and abundance in whatever little I had. A simple room, no problem, 2 pairs of clothes, great! Simple meal - what more can I want? That had been my mantra. But there was a moment, on the day of the pass, on the steep uphill climb when I was struggling on the final 60 degree incline. There wasn't much to go to the top of the pass, but the snow was melting rapidly in the sunshine and the high altitude was finally getting to me. I couldn't bring myself to walk more than four steps at a time. I looked down - we had climbed up almost 3000 feet that day, and there wasn't any turning back. I wanted to just lay where I was for a while, but I kept loosing my footing in the loose ice. There wasn't any option - I couldn't  keep walking since I couldn't find my breath any more.

All through the climb up, I had hit my boundaries on several occasions, but I kept turning upwards from the despair. Somehow, I had transcended beyond that hopelessness and kept going. But this time, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. In that moment, I looked up - wondering if this was it?I began hoping for something to come my way and support me. With one foot deep in the melting snow, and the other knee bent for support, I let out a deep plea - almost as if I was asking Nature to let me pass through her slopes. And just then - blocking out the sun in my eyes came one of the porters -  leaning down towards me, extending his arm my way. 'Come he said. It's just a few metres way away.'

For all these years, I had prided myself in living within my means - in being happy with what I possessed. In that moment. As I looked up at the porter, I could feel something dissolving. It was as through the boundaries within us didn't exist any more. As I gave him my hand, I was filled with yet another dose of energy. But this time, my entire body was infused with a sense of gratitude. Where did he come from. And why? How did he have the energy to come back down on the slopes for me. And was I even worthy? All of these questions were dissolved with that sense of gratitude that was coursing through my body. What a gift, I thought. to have received this. 

As I made my way up to the pass - a narrow ledge looking down at slopes of 16000 feet, I began reflecting on the shepherds who had made their way up with the other sheep. About 4 days ago, they had all stopped at the Kartik temple at Kelang - with the intention of seeking permission for the pass. I didn't entirely appreciate the custom then, but now, it made so much sense. For the last 100 years, man has been attempting to conquer Nature - through treks up the slopes of Mount Everest, through ventures into space and beyond. But this was different. Every spring, the Gaddi shepherds through their customs, 'asked' of mother Nature to open her doors with kindness and allow them to pass through to greener pastures. The shepherds requested her to hold back her harsh weather so that they could move through. And until she consented, they didn't move. That day was the first one in the year where she had consented.

You could look at this externally as a sign of weakness. In today's world, you didn't really need to ask. you could just march on through the pass with the appropriate technology. but this gesture was a reminder, of the larger role that Nature has to play in our lives, and that we are mere instruments in the larger scheme of things. And to build that connection with her, to cultivate that humility in receiving, we asked. And in that asking, we received with gratitude.

It made me think about my life - in all these last four years, I had developed a great deal of pride in 'not asking'. But that day, when I stretched my hand out, it helped me surrender to the vast expanse of Nature. Of coming down on my knees to acknowledge just how limited my capacity was - but when I asked, and Nature consented, it allowed me to become that instrument in the larger scheme of things. It allowed me to receive with gratitude. I had found joy in asking, with grace.

On the last day of our little adventure, we gathered together for a little farewell circle. As Delna (one of the participants from Dubai) spoke, it brought tears to all our eyes as we all realized just what we'd been through. Each one of us shared what these 10 days meant to us, and as we ended the circle in a big, warm group hug, I couldn't help but think I was in yet another Moved By Love Retreat. We were all just grateful to have received so many gifts. We had all received so much from Nature - in that cradle of beauty we had been walking in paths created thousands of years ago by people who would never be known. All of this offered to us as a gift with no strings attached, just so that we could pay it forward in our own lives. I looked at Gaurav and his wife Rujuta who had made this experience possible, and couldn't help but think that this was their little offering to the world - a gift that made it possible for us to Connect with the Himalayas, and in a way, Connect with our selves. 


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Unlocking Subtler Forms of Capital

This is an excerpt from the Connect India talk in London. It represents a few thoughts I shared for 15 minutes, before opening it out for an interactive QnA.

I've had some interesting experiences over the last four years of my journey. From someone on a trading floor, to a bearded ascetic, I've spent the first 29 years of my life chasing money, and the next three years avoiding it. The last few months though, have seen me trying to embrace it in more loving ways. 

No doubt, my experiments with money are allowing me to come into contact with it with a radically different perspective. A large part of this perspective is due to the often counter-intuitive approach I saw towards the outer world at the Gandhi Ashram. Of course, most of us are familiar with the non-violent approach adopted by Gandhi towards the freedom struggle, and most people across the world see the wisdom in it today, but it must have been such a radical approach to float back then. I saw the same thread of thought in the Bhoodan Movement that Vinoba Bhave floated in the 50's. It was during that time, that inflation had also become a concern in India. Even back then, prices of fruits and vegetables had begun to rise (I can't even imagine what they would have thought of today's hyperinflation) and there was talk all around about addressing this issue. As I read about this crisis, my mind raced towards more conventional approaches that I had come across while in business school . Maybe the Central bank should change rates, perhaps the government could have held a less expansive fiscal policy?

But not Vinoba - he believed in a more intrinsic truth. 'The root cause of inflation', he said, 'was an addiction to money'. With this in mind, he launched a movement that he termed 'Kanchan Mukti' or 'Freedom from Gold'.

Again, for my upbringing this seemed extremely counter-intuitive, but when you expand your definitions of what it meant to be human, you realize that it was extremely aligned with nature.

Amongst several transformational moments within the Gandhi Ashram eco-system was my tryst with the Seva Cafe. I've spoken and written at length about my experience there, but there's no doubt that this was my laboratory for testing these experiments in human nature. To me, it was the complete anti-thesis to the trading floor and hence saw me engaged for more than a year, every evening. 

With each passing week, it allowed me to examine my world view, and take radical steps in throwing them up in the air to see if they were still valid. More importantly, the space allowed me to take those counter-intuitive leaps in my journey. Initially, it was constantly letting go of my tendancy to strategize and speak to each guest based on what I thought they could bring to Seva Cafe - in terms of their ability to offer money, or volunteer at a later date. But very soon, due to numerous instances like this one, I was humbled to see the power of surrendering to a deeper intelligence at play. What if I could actually surrender to the tag line of Seva Cafe, which was to honour the divinity within each guest - so see each Guest as God! 

Within weeks, I began to see the true power of that sort of thinking, and inspired by some of these results, we found ourselves moved to take larger leaps. One of them including 'not asking for volunteers' on a daily basis. Since Seva Cafe runs 6 days a week, there's often a scramble for volunteers at the last minute when a few back out, and we end up reaching out to some of our usual anchors who live a few blocks away. 
What if we chose to simply work with whatever we had? What if we worked in the true spirit of an experiment, in that we accepted whatever Ahmedabad city had to offer? Sounded a bit crazy, but the counter-intuitiveness of it all.

The first couple days of the experiment went well, but just a couple days later, things went a bit awry and we found ourselves in a tricky situation. IT was a weekday evening and only 2 other volunteers had showed up. We looked at each other, acknowledging that sinking feeling that sets in when you regret experiments that you try.We questioned if we we should shut down the cafe that evening, but decided to continue. In any case, we initiated our customary circle of sharing, and resolved to take things in our stride. We tried an experiment, and this is what the result was - this is what the city of Ahmedabad sent our way. MAybe if we shared this with the guests they would be more empathetic towards the service we offered. But just then, genius flowed through the circle. 

One of the volunteers suggested that it was Thanksgiving in the US that day, and perhaps we could celebrate it with a night of Gratitude at Seva Cafe. Another volunteer added that we could do it in silence, to further create the ambiance for Gratitude to be cultivated. And so it was - the kitchen decided to cook and wash dishes in silence, us waiters on the floor as well. All around, we lit candles and dimmed the lights to offer that space for calmness. As guests entered, we explained the concept to them - and that if they would like to speak, they could do so in soft tones. Interestingly, all guests decided to honour the silence in the space and cherished their meals in silence. Even more interestingly, we found that just the two of us could do a great job of serving people on the floor. Since we weren't busy talking with the volunteer next to us, we ended up being more tuned into each others energies. From one end of the table, the other volunteer could notice that my table needed more water, or the cheque at the end of the meal. Just a slight nod and acknowledgement was enough. 

It was an interesting turning point for us. All along, we were convinced that we needed 8 to 10 volunteers a night to pull things off. After that evening, the minimum bar came crashing down to 2! All we had to do was a silent night! It was almost as if we'd discovered this hidden capacity within ourselves to serve with lesser resources! And all of this because of a few creative constraints we had placed on ourselves. It was as if we had unlocked this very subtle form of capital that we didn't even know existed. 

On that very night, I recall we had a newly married couple walk into the restaurant. They had no clue what the space was about, and were looking for a quiet place to eat on the otherwise bustling CG road. As they walked in, they were delighted to hear about the concept of Seva Cafe, and even more pleased to hear that it would be in silence. Anyone who's familiar with Indian weddings probably knows that it's not easy to get a moment of silence through the whole process :) 

The couple were served their meal and even offered their cheque pretty soon. And after paying the money, the walked over to me, and whispered, asking if they could help in the kitchen in any way. It seemed like the dinner in silence had allowed them to be more observant of the space and they probably realized we were running short that night. Something about the spirit in which they asked opened my heart, and I consented. For the next two hours, they took over the 'Chaat' counter in the kitchen - manning it like they had been doing it for years. After we wound up, they even stayed on and served the volunteers. At around 10:30pm, as we said our good-byes, I had this insight. The couple walked into Seva Cafe thinking it was just another restaurant, probably paid the same amount as any other restaurant - but also ended up working for a good 2.5 hours, and probably left feeling happier and more connected than they would have on an ordinary weekday outing. Conventional economics just didn't explain it. In fact, I could also argue that we had unlocked this beautiful relationship just because of the way in which they had been served. 

That brought me to a question I had been asked by a lady who was driving with me to the Cafe about 6 months ago. 'So I get the whole concept - the Gift Economy and all of that. But how is it different from a regular restaurant? At the end of the day, there is food being served and money received.' 

At first, when I heard this question I was a bit offended. Of course they were different, and intuitively we all understand the difference, but it seemed like it was important to articulate this. That night, I went home to my laptop, opened the excel files with the account statements and stared at them for a while. On the left - Income received, on the right, Costs, variable and fixed. They seemed to more or less balance out every month, just like every other restaurant. 

In regular restaurants, we pay the bill, but we leave feeling entitled. Almost as if the 500 rupees for the meal earned us the right to receive the food that we did. There is a status-quo of sorts. However, when the food at Seva Cafe was offered in an unconditional way - the fact that there were volunteers taking someone's orders or washing dishes when they could easily have been at the movies, or updating their Facebook statuses at home created a shift within people. Sometimes, it resulted in guests like that couple coming over and helping in the kitchen, on other occasions there were other ways. Whichever way you look at it, it resulted in a shift in equilibrium of sorts. And I believe it is that shift in equilibrium which changed the way people looked at the space around them. This shift often manifested as gratitude when folks went home, and the churning that resulted would manifest as transformation in their lives - either in their homes, or workplaces or back at Seva Cafe.

This transformation, would go about doing its magic, unlocking forms of capital that we did not even know existed - sometimes within us, other times within our communities. In general, it taught me to begin looking at capital in radically new ways. As a financial analyst, I had always been taught to honour very material forms of capital - eg: Financial (money in the bank) or Material Capital or Infrastructure (eg: Homes, buildings, offices, cars, machines). But what about the subtler forms of capital? A slightly less tangible form of capital could be 'Intellectual' capital - but what beyond that? Perhaps we could start honouring experiential capital, rooted in wisdom, or natural capital and more. In the case of Seva Cafe through the two stories I shared, it felt like we had fostered Social Capital and an Inner Capital (our ability to operate out of abundance with less).

I thought this was beautifully articulated through the work of Lewis Hyde in a book titled 'The Gift'. Very briefly speaking, he talks about his time with the Kula Tribes based on a bunch of tiny islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between the American and Asian continents. Interestingly, each tribe occupied a tiny island in the ocean and the islands formed a ring-shaped formation, popularly known as the Kula Ring. Interestingly, the tribes had never gone to war with one another for thousands of years, which is not too common in the history of humanity. 

Lewis Hyde's curiosity got him to pay a visit an study how this was being effected. He found that the islands would regularly trade with one another through a system of barter. For example, if someone had excess coconut, they would exchange it with a neighbour who had harvested excess fish, and so on. Seems pretty commonplace. But they also had an alternate currency going - one that was rooted in the Gift. 

As a practice, the women of each island, would go to the beach and pick up seashells - found in abundance as you'd imagine. The women would then hand-carve these seashells, paint them, thread them on a string and create intricate bracelets and necklaces out of them. The chief of the islands would then take these gifts, and travel over to the next island in an 'anti-clockwise' manner (yes there was a system to this) and offer these gifts to their chief as an offering from the women of his island. Of course, there was no expectation in return, but if the chief who received these gifts was moved, he was invited to 'Pay forward' these gifts to the next island in an anti-clockwise manner. Interestingly, the necklaces and bracelets would circle around, and sometimes after 2-3 years, the chief who originally floated these gifts ended up receiving them. Just the fact that he received the gifts though, were a signal that there was a deep kinship between the tribes. By themselves, the necklaces were worth close to nothing in material terms. They were available in abundance on the beaches of all islands. But the spirit in which they were crafted, and the manner in which they were gifted allowed for a very different form of capital to be unlocked - a much subtler kind. And there in lied the power of the Gift. 

As a practice, I once decided to sit down and analyse all the different forms of wealth in my life. Back in 2010, when I had just quit the mainstream corporate life, I found I was pretty wealthy in the more tangible categories. As I was working on this graph for the year 2014, I initially thought it would be a pretty grim picture, since I hadn't been 'working' in the traditional sense for close to 4 years. However, I found that my wealth in some of the more subtler forms had shot up. In fact, even my material capital was now abundant owing to the gifts I had been receiving from my community. 

It made me take a step back and think - about how much I was truly receiving. It was as though the process of giving and offering myself in the last 4 years had regenerated me, as opposed to the conventional thought that 'giving depletes us' and is not sustainable. 

As I looked at my own personal wealth - a very interesting question dawned on me. While I was very adept at building material forms of wealth? How was I going to go about building the subtler forms of capital in my life? No doubt, the currencies used for building that form of capital are not much materially, in fact their worth is close to nil since they are rooted in abundance. But what about currencies that facilitate our subtle capital?  

I hope to hold these questions and collectively experiment with them in the years to come :)

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!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Operating in the Spirit of Gift

Of late, I have been receiving a few emails and questions in person regarding my relationship to money - whether I'm against it or for it. Also, the age old question of sustainability, and if giving without strings attached makes sense in today's world.

I thought it might be helpful to put up some of my conversations (particularly the emails) online. Here are excerpts from a recent one I've been engaging in.

Question from a dear friend - 'D': 
"I am at a juncture where I am barely making my expenses with the money I make from my healing sessions. Last month has been the best because at the beginning itself I decided to work on flexible payment system. Sometimes people quoted very low for what they felt they could pay for healing sessions, and these were not people who couldn't pay. I was not sure what to do. Though I love receiving as per each person's willingness and ability, in these cases, I felt I was being cheated. Since you have far more experience in the service space, can you let me know how to approach this situation?  What would be a broader perspective that I can apply?
Thanks for taking the time out to read and respond :)"

Excerpts from my Response: 
"It's really lovely to see your email. Lately I have been thinking about my relationship with money in deeper ways. The first 29 years of my life were spent chasing it, the next three rejecting it. I feel like the last six months have seen me attempting to embrace it without thinking of it as good or bad and more as a flow.

The article that you read is the result of a bunch of experiments to help me understand my relationship with money. For starters, me and a few other people have begun to classify capital in different ways - not only tangible forms like money and material wealth, but also subtler forms like social capital.

I think the point you raised is extremely critical and is something a lot of us are struggling with currently. In fact, I'm getting more and more convinced that our collective liberation might actually lie in understanding and transforming these mundane, material questions :)

I have been thinking a great deal on this topic, and I'd love to share a few blogs that I'll be posting in the coming weeks. For now though, a couple points come to mind - I've listed them below:

- Questioning why we're looking to operate in the spirit of Gift culture. For me, I look at the Gift offering as a means to unlock a very different kind of capital between giver and receiver. Through my experience at Seva Cafe and Moved By Love, I've seen that offering something in this spirit works a great deal when we seek to create Transformation in nature (beyond just impact). Someone once asked me what the difference was between Seva Cafe and a regular restaurant - at the end of the day, there was an income and an expenditure that balanced each other out. Food was given, money was received. Of course, in our minds there is a difference, but it's important to articulate it. I believe that this spirit of offering is very geared towards unlocking subtler forms of capital within us and externally. Seva Cafe is oriented in solving the problem of empathy in the world, not so much the problem of hunger. I think it is critical to use this form of giving in a judicious manner - there might be some situations when transactional giving is more appropriate. 

- If we do chose to operate in the spirit of Gift, then I believe our work is rooted entirely in creating the right conditions for the gift to manifest. The actual transfer of money is simply the tip of the iceberg. I remember in the Mumbai Seva Cafe, two 25 year olds came up to me after lunch. One was a banker, and another a consultant and they were both intrigued when they saw the email invitation for Seva Cafe. They had never heard about anything like this, and given the context that they were operating out of, they thought it was a bit fishy. They came almost to 'prove' that something like this couldn't work, but the moment they entered, they saw a volunteer greet them with a hug, another decorating the space with a rangoli, a little girl offered them an inspiring quotation on a bookmark. They were even more moved when they saw that the waiter was someone just like them who could otherwise have been at the movies, but chose to serve them that day. In all of this, they suddenly had this realization that 'trusting one-another' was the most natural state of being, and when the bill came, were more than happy to offer out of this spirit. 

This is no groundbreaking story, but it made me step back and think of what our true work really is. Perhaps, it was to simply create the right environment in which the spirit of gift becomes effortless. 

Once I began working with this condition, I've been super careful to not operate in Gift when there is a sense of 'effort' from either side - giver and receiver. 

[...] Over 2014, I hope to experiment a great deal in this regard - trying to understand subtler forms of capital in my life, using currencies rooted in abundance and even breathing more loving into money. In fact, I've even re-named my folder of bills and accounts on my PC to 'Joy' :) 

Friday, February 21, 2014

One Last Lesson in Faith from Raghubhai

It's just been a couple of hours since I heard the news. One of my dearest friends, and inspirations, whom some people called a 'Love Warrior' passed away last night in a road accident on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Raghu Makwana, or Raghu Bhai (bhai meaning brother) as he was fondly known in his communities was riding his three-wheeled motorcycle to a relatives home before he came to his untimely death at the age of 29. 

When Raghu was only a year old, he developed polio in both his legs and was limited to a life of walking with the help of both his hands along the ground. It didn't help that he belong to a family of landless labourers in a village.

It's hard to imagine one's mental state in such a situation. You'd expect resentment, negativity and a state of resignation. Or perhaps that's what we are conditioned to expect. Most courses in social behaviour I had come across in my prestigious business school education taught me about Maslow's theory of heirarchy - where an individual didn't have the 'luxury' of seeking self-actualization and contribution to society unless his basic needs were taken care of.

Not Raghu. Raghu was an anomaly. A flag that stood in the harsh winds of Maslows theories and conversations that said you need 'atleast this much' to be in a 'giving' frame of mind. Raghu was an anomaly was because he ran on something that none of these theories seemed to factor in - an un-extinguishable, un-definable and at times irrational value called Faith.

Tired of being a burden on his parents who were struggling for daily sustenance, Raghu left his home in the village at the age of 20. Armed with merely 300 rupees and several pocketfuls of faith, he hopped onto a bus that took him to the city of Ahmedabad, without knowing a soul there. After a few nights of befriending local tea-stall vendors, he found himself at the gates of a large temple on the outskirts of the city. At the gates, he came across similarly disabled people. 'The food is good, and the money we receive through alms is more than enough' they said. But it wasn't the reason why Raghu left home. He went on to take on responsibilities on the temple premises. For several months, he arranged devotees footwear outside the altar, before a volunteer from the Gandhi Ashram was deeply moved by Raghu's smile in a short encounter. Through various serendipitous events, Raghu found himself serving the slum community just across the Gandhi Ashram eco-system.

As he did the rounds of the slums with various development workers, he came across several homes that were weighed down by their lack of material resources. Often, he would enter their homes with a Tulsi plant as a gift for their home. In an Indian context, the Tulsi plant is considered sacred by most communities, and it often inspired the homes to honour it's presence by maintaining sanitation in their surroundings. Stepping into someone's home in this way was something only Raghu could pull off with his unassuming presence and radiant smile. Through the years, he ended up gifting close to a thousand such plants to homes. As for the money? 'It just came', he would say. As he passed by homes, he would come across aged women that were fending for themselves in the harsh environment of the slums. With no family or support to speak of, Raghu adopted them as his mothers, and soon began the Tyaag Nu Tiffin project (Food of Sacrifice) serving them food day and night, each day for four years. Across the world, people were so moved by stories from his work, that they would skip a meal every week and contribute the money saved, just so that they could stay connected to his spirit.

Stories of his journey and acts of generosity are endless. But some of my most transformational moments with him came through the smallest conversations.

Three and a half years ago, I had taken a giant leap of faith myself, to let go of what I had thought of as success - the glamour as the head of a trading floor in Indian capital markets, complete with TV appearances and a sense of power. In this journey to align myself with values I honoured, I would often go through times when I'd be feeling scarce.  After conversations with friends and family I'd wonder how I'll look after myself. Inevitably I would come across Raghu bhai and sit down with him for a conversation. It's hard to explain what transpires in such interactions. Here I am with my bank balance, intellectual capital, skills, a family structure that supports me, and right next to me was a man with limited physical capability, a bank balance that would last me a few days and almost no family support to speak of. Yet, his radiant eyes and shining teeth would send forth the most beautiful intentions you could imagine - 'Siddharth bhai, how can we serve our friends more?'

Through the last three years that I've known him, we've had several adventures in faith together. Some of my closest friends have spent hours driving through the slums to get a glimpse of the fuel that moves him. Leaders of organizations, academics, injured dogs lying in the gutters of a slum, or kids that would be bubbling with enthusiasm on his backseat - everyone has been on one of his incredible rides. He would embrace it all as he zipped through the narrow mud roads of the 'Tekra' or the slum. Smiles and waves would cheer him on as his motorbike clattered with the food for the elderly women he served. 

Sometimes, we would head out for what I called Mini-pilgrimages - walks with no money or telephones. Raghu would be on his tricycle with a musical instrument in hand, and me on my feet. Through walks like those you could see his secret sauce to life. Squatting on the floor he was always at a vantage point. It was almost as if he was forced to approach each situation and person with humility, and that allowed him to see the divinity in everyone. From those who offered financial support to his projects. to kids that he served on Sundays, everyone was a manifestation of the Divinity, or 'One above', or 'Upar Wala' as he called it.

Once, while returning from one of our numerous talks - we were both hungry. It was past lunchtime, and we hadn't figured out where we would be eating that day. I found the car parked outside the McDonalds on Ashram Road. Immediately, I cringed - this Golden Arch represented every value I did not approve of. But not with Raghu, he looks at it and says innocently - 'I've heard about this Mc Donalds place a lot - lets just eat here'. I walk in, with Raghu behind me walking on his two hands. Clearly, this was not what the McDonalds staff and guests are used to - we were a unique combination, Raghu and I. It was a weekday afternoon, and we go through the queue and get our food really quick. As we sat on our table, my eyes were darting around the room to see everyone's attention come our way. Raghu, was used to it though - glances from people, often with pity, wondering how he lived his life. But he held them with grace, almost to say 'I can see why you're suffering when you look at me, but honestly, I'm pretty happy :)'

Gradually, one of the guests mustered the courage to come over. As I saw him walk over, I tried to make it a bit more comfortable for him. Immediately, I introduced him to Raghu and told him a bit about his work. As people saw us talking, more guests joined in. Slowly, even the janitor, and attendants at McDonalds came into our circle. Stories were shared about Raghu in the slums, the women he served and the homes he offered Tulsi plants to. How he lived in the spirit of Service, and how his 'upar wala' always took care of him. 

I took a step back and was amazed - here we were, in a McDonalds! Raghu's presence had transformed it into a temple of sorts. All around, you could see people inspired by the way he lived his life. That was the true work of Raghubhai. It wasn't limited to the meals he offered to the aged women in the community, or the hundreds of Tulsi plants he offered to homes in the slum - it extended out to the thousands of people who had been touched by his spirit. As the emails and Facebook posts pour in form across the world, you start to get a glimpse of what his true impact really was. 

As I write this, I'm still struggling to come to terms with his passing. I notice my mind can't help but drift to the most obvious question - 'Why do Bad things happen to Good people?' or 'Why would a soul that dedicated so much of his life to alleviate the suffering of others go like this?' or 'Why did he have to ride his bike on the highway on that particular day?'

I see myself taken over by a whirlwind of confusion as I start to imagine a hostile world that's out to get us. Immediately, I hear Raghu's voice from within - his eyes shining bright as he says with a smile. 'You can't have all the answers Siddharth bhai. We just have to have faith that the 'Upar Wala' has something beautiful in store for us. We just have to keep playing our part on this beautiful stage called Life'

~ May All Beings Be Happy ~