Nipun Mehta shares:
At a meeting in 1930s, Gandhi convened India’s independence movement leaders for a pivotal meeting. It wasn’t a productive meeting. Polarities widened and rifts deepened as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (widely known as “Iron Man of India”) threatened to quit. No resolution emerged, but Gandhi left the meeting and quietly gave up salt from his diet. A month later, the same people found a common ground for cooperation. Its hard to say how Gandhi’s sacrifice of salt affected the outcome of that meeting, but Gandhi’s life offers repeated examples of how he believed his practices of inner transformation could create external impact.
That’s a foreign technology for our modern world — change yourself to change the world. Yet, its prevalent in almost all the social change giants of our time from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Dalai Lama to Cesar Chavez. Instead of activism, we call it giftivism. Giftivism is the practice of radically generous acts that change the world. Radical in its audacity to believe that inner and the outer are deeply inter-connected, and generous in its vision of uplifting 100%, the oppressor and the oppressed.
Last week, about 55 community organizers from around India met to deepen their understanding of Giftivism. I was one among them. The 3-day gathering anchored around 3 P’s — practices for inner transformation, projects for external impact, and platforms for social change. And yet, there was no real agenda except to come together as “noble friends”.
We started with an hour of silence followed by a few short stories. Siddharth opened. After getting his MBA, Siddharth used to give stock tips on CNBC every two weeks; after a shoot one day, the cameraman tells him, “Sir, what’s wrong?” “What do you mean?” he replies. “Sir, today, you were smiling.” It marked a turning point in his life as he quit his job and has now dedicated his life to service. “Today is my birthday,” he opened at our Giftivism retreat. Like every year, his mom asks him what he wants as his gift and like every year he was set to respond with “Nothing”. Yet, he noticed that his mom wasn’t feeling so good, so he said, “Mom, I want you to write me a list of 10 things you’re grateful for.” After some joyously awkward moments, he had his list. His mom was feeling so great, she made her staff at the hospital do it. Soon, everyone in the family did it. It went on FaceBook and friends offered 10 things they were grateful for. Siddharth’s wife decided that she’ll write her 10-grateful-things for the next 40 days. His Dad, his aunt, his sister in the US, and many others, joined in.
It’s a gift of inner transformation. A gift that keeps on giving, as backed by neuroscience.
Madhu went after him and shared how his neighbor got upset with his parking and smashed his entire windshield one day. He was furious and wanted to take a stone and smash his neighbor’s windshield too, but he held back, went home and tried to calm himself down. Aware of the spirit of Giftivism, he knew this was his time to practice. “I found a box of sweets and decided to take it to his house. To be honest, every cell of my body was saying no, but I knew I wanted to do it. It took me 15 minutes to walk those two flights of stairs,” Madhu said. The man of the house wasn’t home but his wife received the gift. Madhu didn’t say anything about the windshield. “If we suppress negativity, it hurts us; if we express negativity, it hurts others. There’s really only one solution – we must transform negativity.” About six weeks later, he received an envelope from that household with exact amount of money it takes to replace the windshield glass. No words were exchanged, although a lot more was transmitted.
Few more stories were shared. Nisha shared a beautiful story of how she learned humility by observing a crow’s nest on her farm. All these stories are deeply inspiring, not because they’re extra-ordinary acts like Michael Jordan’s dunks or Pavarotti’s singing but rather because they’re abundantly accessible to each of us through resources within us.
Another speaker from Wall Street shared a story of how his boss (one of the wealthiest folks in the world) called him for his annual review and asked, “What do you want?” A blank check of sorts. And he responded, “I would like to request a minute of silence before every meeting.” “Huh?” “Yes.” “Sorry, that’s not possible.” In a context where people bill every three minutes, asking for sixty seconds of collective silence can seem like a tall order. Next day, however, the boss changes his mind and soon the office starts doing 2 minutes and then 3 minutes, and now they’re up to 30 minutes of meditation before each meeting.
If all this happens in just an hour, imagine what three whole days together would be.
After dinner that night, a twenty-year old named Suvid leads a team of four volunteers to deliver “food + love = prasad” left overs to the hungry. It is a regular Wednesday practice for them, as they line up and build community with those in the underprivileged communities. As they are hopping on their scooter to leave, a fight unfolds at a bus station in a distance. One man is badly beating another, as blood is gushing down the face. Suvid, rather fearlessly, walks into the middle of the fight and just silently stares at the oppressor. Birju was observing from a distance: “Suvid just squarely looked at the man in his eyes, as if to say, ‘This is not in your highest calling.’ It wasn’t judgemental, there’s wasn’t even a physical intervention and yet it was a strong stance. Such spontaneous skillfulness from a 20 year old!”
On the second day of the retreat, there was a presentation on the ServiceSpace vision of a “Gandhi 3.0” movement. While Gandhi was one to many, Gandhi 2.0 was Vinoba Bhave’s one to one movement, we are now in a Gandhi 3.0 era with a many-to-many movement. Both Gandhi and Vinoba spoke about a future when this would be feasible. And the Internet now makes a very real possibility. Each of us can stay loosely connected to each other, while still creating our own local, decentralized groups. We have seen many such movements succeed against certain ideas, but this would be *for* certain ideas. In particular, love.
Such a movement requires abundance of heroes, all connected as a family. And Urban Ashram community in Pune, who hosted this event, was a shining example of this. Outside the halls would flower ‘rangoli’, on the walls would be hand-calligraphed quotes, in front of our cushions and chairs would be hand-made diaries from one-sided paper. Lots of art. Someone even made a personalized air-freshener for our hall! Labor of love, powered by a community of everyday heroes.
Every night of our gathering featured “Spirited Talks”, about people’s personal journeys. First up was Dipika, who spoke about her lessons from a farm life. “I started by trying to dominate nature, but now I practice becoming an instrument of nature,” the precocious 25-year-old said. Rather quietly, in just one sentence, she bowled everyone over: “People didn’t understand what I was trying to do, until I got an international award once.” Why did she get an award? She had planted a million trees. Yes, million. Not only did others understand, but her own father was inspired (over time) to sell his hospital and become a full-time farmer and an advocate of natural healing.
Dipika incidentally had never given a public talk before. This was the first time she got an opportunity to share her story. The problem isn’t that we don’t have forums for everyday (or young) heroes, but rather that we have eroded the social bonds and trust networks that help us discover these heroes. Whenever we do find them, we strip them of their everyday-ness and centralize their heroic-ness and turn them into celebrities. Such thinking goes against the Gandhi 3.0 vision and all the folks at this retreat were certainly attuned into that trap.
“Wherever we go, we go together,” said one of the quotes on the back of a painting that I found outside my doorstep one morning. (As amazing as it might sound, it was just sort of run-of-the-mill for people to get unexpected anonymous gifts every hour! Four ‘secret santas’ had even been pre-identified to facilitate everyone’s anonymous gift giving.)
Personal practices anchored lot of the dialogue. Nimo was a rap star amongst the South Asian diaspora, when he started questioning the deeper purpose of life; he went on a renunciation binge that included not eating sweets for a year, giving away all his 2000 CD’s, and not looking in the mirror for 3 months. “We have to empty ourselves before we can receive life’s abundance,” a 20-year-old Neha said while describing her process of getting rid of the clothes in her closet. Priti used to run a very successful business for 20 years, when she became a fan of Kabir songs; one day, while looking in the mirror to put on fancy make-up, she found herself joyously singing:
Stunned by irony of that moment, she embarked on a process of transformation that led to her cutting down her hair, dropping use of makeup, quitting her job and starting a Kabir Festival in Bombay. “The only way to understand Kabir song is to sing them!” So she now sings them, as she did on various occasions in the retreat. Dipti also seems to have followed that advice. For the last seven years, Dipti had quit music altogether – despite being professionally trained since she was 4 years old. Until this retreat. She was spontaneously moved to sing amongst us, in a deeply enchanting voice that felt like it was coming from another dimension of life.
At 78, the oldest amongst us was Ramesh Uncle. His grandpa was in jail with Gandhi once, and he himself was actively engaged in politics before becoming a professor at IIT in his later years. Despite having lot more real-life experiences than most of us in the circle, he was remarkably open. When asked about his transformative moments of life, he said the retreat itself was one of them! Prior to the gathering, everyone was asked to share a smiling photo of themselves. “I realized that I don’t have a single photo of me smiling. My whole life, I’ve been very serious. Today, I’m making a vow, that from now on, however few years I might have left to live, I will smile for all photos.”
Even when our sessions were not in motion, the ripples ensued. In fact, it wasn’t even limited to just the people we knew. On the very campus where we were hosted, people started having tagging others with acts of kindness. “Who are you guys?” “We are just a group of friends who are ‘moved by love’.” “So what do you do?” “We practice generosity.” “You mean you just give things?” Rather serendipitously, another participant just comes over and hands him a small hand-made gift. “We try to create circles where everyone pays forward. Like a restaurant, where your check reads zero because someone before you has paid for you and you have a chance to pay for the person after you.” Incidentally, one of the gentleman was so moved by the ensuing stories that he is now keen to open a Seva Café in Indore. That spirit of love was catching hold of the entire campus, so much so that a resident, world-renowned flutist also came in to share a beautiful track and spend a whole hour listening to us.
In the field of love that was created, there were also lots of bubbling questions. “How do we apply Giftivism to social challenges?” (Some shared stories of Gandhigiri, while others pointed out how Giftivism can go even deeper than that.) “What is our relationship to life’s basic privileges, particularly in a country with 700 million people living below the poverty line?’ (One amongst us has taken cold water showers for decades, in the spirit of solidarity.) “How do we determine who is deserving? Fine, I’m a rich woman but I also need help many times. Aren’t there many kinds of poverty?” “How do we bring the spirit of generosity in our home? I’m doing all these good things on the outside but I still don’t have a good relationship with my parents.” (One person had done an experiment of writing regular letters of appreciation for her parents; another had formed a pool of cousins where they would send anonymous cards to each other’s friends.) “How do we sustain gift economy projects?” (Uma spoke about her remarkable effort with 5 million Tsunamika dolls that were simply too valuable to be sold but also shared how she failed to apply that model to Small Steps bag project.) “How do you trust whom to give? How do you become spontaneous in giving? How do you find the courage to give? How do I keep regenerating love?”
Our knee-jerk reactions to questions is to provide answers. But actually, in such matters where we are already predisposed to an innate understanding, the skillful process is simply to hold space until the questions dissolve. Generosity is easier done than said.
That’s why such retreats always holds a strong focus on doing, on “being the change you wish to see in the world.” For instance, Yash went for a 6:30AM hike on a nearby trail and sat in silence for 20 minutes while watching the sun rise. As he posted on his FaceBook wall:
When we start deepening our insight into being-the-change, it starts to inspire us to action, unannounced. We saw this repeatedly at the retreat itself.
A nineteen year old girl called up her Dad after the first day. “Dad, you know that business conflict we’ve been having with our extended family? I think it’s time for us to let it go. Let’s just gift the whole business away and take the higher road.” Initially, her father might’ve been wondering what has gotten into her daughter, but then he explained how that doesn’t make any practical sense. She pleaded passionately but to no avail. Next morning, somehow, her father thought about it and made a phone call – and gave away his entire company! The young girl, while describing this to the whole circle, was in tears … as were most others. It was one of those moments. Everyone came together to create a goody-bag with a few small gifts and a collective poem for the family, letting them to know that all 55 of us were part of their decision and we bow to courage in their hearts.
Yogeshbhai, who runs a Naturopathic Center, heard about Yuka’s work in Japan and immediately felt called to make a public commitment to do 7:00-7:30PM prayer at his center, every single day! ?Rakesh, who took a day off from work just to fill out the retreat form and reflect on his responses to our questions, wants to host Awakin gatherings in his basement. Neeti is thinking of not working part-time so she can give love with “no strings attached”. Abha is visiting a nearby coffee shop to start a “Coffee on the Wall” experiment. Uma wants to create a platform for all gift-economy projects in the country. Some are doing a 30-day kindness challenge while others are doing 30-day gratitude challenge. As Jagruti thought to step up her Wisdom Scroll art, Sheetal is working on creating a entire line of hand-made Wisdom Crafts. Jhanvi is looking to do a second version of Seva Cafe in Calcutta. Prem is thinking of doing ‘Meals on Wheels’ in Pune, while Srikanth is setting up a store for vegan food in Bangalore. Vaibhav wants to design Ek Titli to run on the three principles of ServiceSpace. So many adopted small practices of inner transformation, like meditation and daily acts of kindness, to bring this spirit into their daily lives.
Another college student, Bhumi, had also called up her family before the first day was over. She was at the retreat because a Smile Card had changed her life. After some struggle, she paid the tab for a random couple at a coffee shop in Bombay, only to realize that they sat on the table right behind her. “I just did a small things, but for the next 20 minutes, I could hear their entire conversation about that Smile Cards, their ideas for paying it forward, and their renewed sense of hope,” she said. So she calls her Dad, Govind-bhai, after the first day and says, “Dad, I don’t know how to explain it, but you have to come here.” Her father, who happens to be a major industrialist, explained how he can’t just drive five hours while dropping all his pre-planned meetings. The next day she calls again and insists that he should come. Somehow, Govind-bhai made it. He had no context for what had unfolded, and was only there for the last half of the day. Yet he was profoundly shaken.
The closing of the retreat started with a story of two monks, who embarked on a 3-step-and-a-bow peace pilgrimage for 900 miles across California. So we thought we’d do the same, at least for an hour, as an expression of our gratitude. It was optional, but everyone (including two elders in their 70s) participated. Outside our meeting hall was a wonderful circle, so we bowed around it, barefoot. The retreat center staff was probably in shock. As we closed, one of the participants (Neerad) takes a water hose and cleans our feet, as his gesture of appreciation. Another volunteer (Sheetal) joins in. Until, Govind-bhai and Bhumi come to pass the line. Govind-bhai puts his hands on Sheetal and says, “Son, please allow me to do this.” As Sheetal remembers it, “I wasn’t going to let anyone take away that opportunity but he said it so profoundly, yet gently, that I almost involuntarily gave it to him.” His daughter, Bhumi, took Neerad’s role and they humbly washed the feet of the approaching pilgrims.
To describe what happened to people during that episode would be an insult to the experience. Practically everyone was in tears. A woman in her seventies hadn’t cried in 40 years, even when her husband passed away, but she came up to me with unstoppable tears rolling down her cheeks. “About half way through, I went down for a bow and came up and saw that the mountains, the skies, the people, we are all one. I’ve never had that experience before. I have spent my whole life reading spiritual knowledge, but now I see how that’s so limited in comparison to the actual experience. From today, I’m going to start meditating two hours a day.”
Ripples were set in motion. Maybe tidal waves too. All of us felt like a giant family that was moved by love. One participant sincerely remarked, “I learned more about myself in these 3 days than I did through my entire education at Harvard.”
Prior to the gathering, a friend in the US heard about the kind of people that were assembling in the spirit of service, and felt moved to make a contribution to the collective. Instead of a few people figuring out what to do with the offering, the money was distributed evenly to everyone at the retreat. So, at the very end, we all got an envelope titled “Small is Beautiful”, with the idea of spreading this love in our local communities.
In one of those hallway conversations, someone casually commented, “Mayans believed that Dec 21st was the date when love of power will be replaced by power of love. Maybe its happening.”
One of the attendees took a long-train ride to get to the retreat. On the way back, he didn’t have a train reservation so he planned to go in an unreserved third class compartment for 25 hours. He might have to stand the whole time. Right as he is leaving, though, he gets an SMS message: “Smile, you’ve just been tagged!” Below it were the details of a flight ticket for him. In a moment of complete bewilderment, the young man fell silent for a rather long time. He then graciously received the anonymous gift and remarked, “I will pay-it-forward by dedicating the 20 saved hours by doing acts of kindness.”
The spirit of giftivism ripples on.
Khushmita Sanghvi, one of the conveners of the events, shared this comment: “There comes a time when a space of love, so powerful is created, that every heart melts and the floodgates of deep inner emotions flows like a magical stream within a sacred circle of noble friends. My heart is filled with gratitude for all the noble friends who held that space in ‘Giftivism’ retreat for the last 3 days. Love, laughter, silence, compassion and tears of gratitude flowed effortlessly within this circle and created a stream of ripples touching so many hearts. In eternal gratitude for this gift.”