Rahul Brown: A Seeker's Journey From Me To We
Posted by Audrey Lin on Sep 20, 2013
In this Awakin Call conversation moderated by Amit, our own Rahul Brown shares a spectrum stories from his experiences as a young start-up success story turned discerning filmmaker, paradigm-shifting thinker, playful father, and generous friend.
Amit Dungarani: There was a documentary you starred in recently called Money and Life, and you talked about how you caught the "greed bug" in the dot-com boom, when you were with a start-up company just out of college. Can you tell us about that experience?
Rahul Brown: Sure. It was a little bit of the serendipity of the times in the late nineties when I was in college that young kids like me could basically start these internet companies. The internet was so new, and there seemed to be a lot of money available for this kind of activity, because it was growing. So a good friend of mine who was a roommate for a number of years, a very talented programmer, hit upon an idea, and started a company.
The only way to describe it is that it’s thrilling. When you think about a thrill, what is that? That’s excitement, but it’s also fear. And it’s also happening so fast that there are so many other things—so many nuances that are coming out at the same time—that you don’t have time to process it.
My experience was very short-lived. The company got bought within six months of starting. What I quickly saw is that the things that were coming out of me were, really, fear and greed. And fear and greed ended up damaging my relationship with my friend, but it also surprised me. Because I didn’t know that these things were inside of me. Or when I did acknowledge that they were inside of me, I thought that they were at least under control. But when this opportunity arose, I really saw them get out of control.
At the core, I saw that this was just fundamentally destructive. And I had no tools. I didn’t know what to do about it, or how to get out of it. Another part of the realization was that, in that short experience, I lived a microcosm of what society tells us we’re supposed to do, and what will lead us to be happy. And I came out of the experience really miserable, just really broken.
So the real thing that emerged was the idea that maybe what society’s telling us to do is a lie. Maybe all this stuff we’ve been programmed around—this achievement and acquisition, money and recognition as a way to be happy—is just a big lie. So it really opened up the new question: How do I find an authentic space of happiness? How do I find an authentic way to engage and to live in this world?
The answer didn’t come quickly, but I think that’s what the experience opened up for me.
AD: So what answers have come then?
RB: It actually didn’t really materialize until many, many years later when I went to India and was fortunate to make a few films around some pretty inspiring causes. But the first reaction was to go deeper into what I had known that had provided some happiness. Along the way, I started encountering the ServiceSpace community and inspirations like Dr. V and Manav Sadhna. I’ve learned so much from so many people in these communities.
AD: You’ve spent long stretches of time volunteering in India. And especially in a lot of the slums and villages, where there is a wide set of physical and mental challenges in addition to the socioeconomic challenges. What would you say is one of the most life-altering experiences you had in India?
RB: There’s so many. I think the thing that really got me to commit to exploring service in that space was this guy I had met in the slums who was just brilliant. I think he’s a genius. And you tend to have these ideas about where smart people come from, where they would be, and what one could do with that kind of smarts. You also have a sense of the economy between brain and character, but this guy had brains and character and energy and looks and he was just—he was really like an incredible person. He was living in the slums. And at that time, he was making about 50-55 bucks a month. I was just floored by the disparity between his capacity to earn and my capacity to earn, given that he was clearly superior to me in every way.
That experience made me commit to India, but it also put me in a place of stewardship. I felt that whatever I owned couldn’t be mine. If the world had somehow arranged that I got all these advantages without doing really anything to earn them, the whole point of that was to give back.
AD: You also met your wife, Asha, who was volunteering in India during your time there. What insights have you’ve gained growing together with her?
RB: Those are two really deep questions that both are long answers in and of themselves. But I would say that with Asha, what I’ve really learned (and continue to learn) is that love is the thing that really helps you grow and transform.
It’s a huge lesson for me because I come from a head-space. I spend most of my life (and most of my time) in a head-space. And I’m working towards getting towards the heart. Asha comes from a heart space. It’s like we speak different languages sometimes, and I’m realizing how important her language is—how that language actually sits beneath all of our languages.
I find that whenever we run into those situations of conflict, coming back to a space of love really is what gets us both back to where we started and where we’re going. And that principle carries over into all of life. All these conflicts around balancing our time and our space between our various commitments have a common substrate of love. If we can find a way to get back to love, then things become clearer.
AD: This idea of having love be in every aspect of your life, how do you do that in the workplace? Especially when you’re faced with conflicts?
RB: When I joined my company, the honeymoon period ended maybe five months in. I’ve had a few situations with coworkers where I’d been yelled at, which isn’t fun. And the question is— What do I do with that?
I tried first observing what it feels like. You feel heat, and you feel these waves of sensation moving through your body, and you feel sweaty a little bit, and just sort of a knot in your throat sometimes. I felt like that wasn’t getting me anywhere, and so what I tried to experiment with is the moment I felt that sort of thing coming on, could I just try and wish that person well? Could I just flip the habit in my mind and just say, “Let me just wish them well in that moment”?
I’ve found that that’s really powerful. It seems to not only change the way that I’m feeling completely, but it almost has a magical effect in that I’ve seen people stop mid-sentence. They just can’t continue with the negativity that’s coming out of them. When I haven’t said a word— all that’s happened is that I’ve just consciously shifted internally. And it seems to have just disarmed the steam with which this sort of negativity was arising.
I suspect that this principle in microcosm can be rippled up through all the challenges we really face in the workplace. And it’s not easy. It’s really hard. I find that I succeed in situations where I might be being yelled at—and in fact that doesn’t even happen anymore.
AD: Why aren’t you getting yelled at anymore? [laughs]
RB: [laughs] I don’t know, good question. You know, I think what’s happened is that maybe people just realized that I truly am there to help them. I am there to serve and I’m not trying to blame or judge anyone, I’m really trying to move us all towards a better way of working and a better collective reality. And I think when people sincerely trust that about you, and see that it’s coming from you, and that you yourself never are exhibiting that kind of angry or negative behavior, it’s really hard for them to behave that way with you.
AD: In the workplace, your boss allows you to take 10 extra days off each year to sit a meditation retreat. You also did a values-based workshop with your coworkers. How did that even come about? How did you get an employer to understand the value in that for you?
RB: I actually have 20 days a year to take off for meditation. But the way that initially arose was just my clarity and firmness around the fact that this was just a deal killer. When I interviewed with this company and they had expressed interest, as we were moving further along, I said, “Going to meditate for ten days is something that I do every year, and it’s not a vacation. I promise it’s not a vacation. And I promise that what I’m doing there is harder work that what anybody will be doing in the office. I promise that what I’m doing is making me better at what I will do here. And this is non-negotiable. If this isn’t something that you’re okay with, I’m sorry, I can’t work here.”
That was my condition, and it was really hard to actually say that, but I was also clear on it.
When I said that, I heard silence. And what came back on the other end was—I think I said, “Hello?”
He said, “Yeah, I’m just listening. I’m just trying to figure out how I can do that myself. Because I would really like to experience that.”
Then it was, of course, done. It was a given. And when I got a promotion, I just took ten more days out of that.
So, there is this underlying foundation. There is this hunger at the workplace that the seeds have been planted in some ways before I got there and they just haven’t been actualized. The soil hasn’t been prepared. The soil isn’t right for these seeds to blossom. And so some of the work at the subtle level is really about, “How do I build the soil?” Because we love this metaphor of planting seeds, but the seeds go nowhere if the soil is destroyed.
I look at some of what I do at work as just generating the soil so that the seeds can blossom. And that’s what that values workshop was really about.
Bela: When you were in India, you came across a man who was very ill. Something inside of you told you to care for this man, this complete stranger. Sometimes, having an inspiring community with us can facilitate the flow of service. But when you are alone, to just pick up a complete stranger from the streets and devote yourself to helping that person—what inspired you?
RB: For context, Manav Sadhna was leaving on vacation, and along the journey to the train station, I was with Jayeshbhai, who is one of the founders and pillars of Manav Sadhna—an inspiring man who is like walking love. On the way to the train station, we saw a man in the gutter who was a skeleton. Just like a human skeleton. The inspiration to serve came from him—because Jayeshbhai was telling me about the power of small. And the power of committing to small things. How nothing great in the world starts great. It’s all a culmination of many small things. So, given that he was telling me this and in that context we saw that man, that sort of made me commit to helping that man.
The thing that really got me was that there was no one for him. There were no relatives. Despite thousands of people who literally passed by him every hour while he was in this busy thoroughfare near the train station, no one was helping him. And Manav Sadhna wasn’t around—there was no support community. So it was me or nobody. And what I signed up for everyday was: “Can you serve this man with your full heart, and still accept that at any moment, he could die? Can you be okay? Can you pour out your heart any moment, if it’s the last moment?”
He really was my teacher in that. Because it was such a difficult circumstance, and I’m so grateful for what I learned through that experience.
AD: Rahul, you’ve been a father for 6 months or so now. What has being a father taught you?
RB: If you really dive into what feels like is happening in the process of raising a kid, the illusion of separation falls away. Because, here’s this little being that is you—she is genetically you and your wife. The baby’s body is your wife’s body. The baby’s food is your wife’s food. You’re so intertwined and interconnected. You spend the rest of your life trying to manage this separation—where you don’t want to hold them too close and you don’t want them to go too far.
What’s really happening when Baby Uma smiles at you? Why is she smiling? She smiles so much. I don’t think it’s because she likes my hair or goatee. She’s not responding to anything that’s about what she sees. I think what she’s appreciating is love. To have that love, there has to be this little bit of separation. If she wasn’t there as an apparently separate thing, then I couldn’t love her. And she couldn’t love me. It feels like that whole process is playing out through everything we see in the world.
The aspiration of love is to love. And the same way that Uma and Asha and I are all connected—are pretty much one—if you regress that connection of genetics backwards, we’re all connected. We’re all really the same. That’s what being a parent has really showed me.
Shwetha: I’ve heard Asha say many times that Uma is her own person. We don’t own her. How do you think these values of money, service, and stillness are going to shape how Uma is exposed to the world?
RB: The way I would like to parent, and the way I see my role as her father is really to do whatever I can for her to be more of who she is. I do think she’s her own person, and she’s come in with her own set of conditions and her own set of needs. And seeds of aspirations that will sprout. I think my job is to very carefully watch which way she wants to go, and to share the insight that I have from my own experiments that may touch and relate to that. Guiding her towards what I think might be helpful, while she still wants and needs that guidance, but fully recognizing that she may not want or need it, and there will be a day when she will definitely be completely in her own direction.
Prakash: Is there a moment from your early life with your parents that brought a deeper of clarity on the question of who you are?
RB: One thing I learned later on about my mom is that on her parents’ birthdays, every year for her entire adult life, she’s always donated a lot of food to the local house of worship that serves the needy. Enough to feed probably a hundred or more people. And it was so undercover that I never knew about it until I was in my twenties. She not only does that on her parents’ birthdays every year, but also for her own kids and for her birthday, too. She’s a person who very deeply feels and cares for and those who are needy. And despite her never hammering that into me, or even explicitly sharing that with me, somehow it transferred over. Somehow, I’m really grateful for that from her.
My father is also very much a man who likes to get at the truth of things. His approach is much more head-oriented. He too has a heart of service, and I’m very grateful for both of them.
Sarika: What role does money play in our lives? Do you think it’s a constraint? A by-product? Is it a source of energy that can be used for something else?
RB: My thinking on money has obviously evolved over time. From where I’m standing right now, I’d say that the way it’s currently designed isn’t conducive towards us actualizing our deepest self. And there are some elements about our monetary system that are very, very counter-productive and even destructive.
I think all the things we do with building community in service and kindness are really the Trojan horse for emergence— a personal emergence that happens around our own clarity for purpose and what money means to us in our own lives. And also an emergence of a better system, either a better monetary system or a transcendent system, to allow what is our natural gift to go out and to circulate in the world in a way that makes us all individually and collectively richer.
That word “rich” is so loaded because we have this context of what that means in the dominant paradigm of money. But you don’t need to look very far to see people who are rich in the true sense of the word. People that the IRS may classify them as something other than rich, but there is abundance in and around them. That’s accessible to all of us, if we go down that personal journey thoughtfully.
Somik: I remember a couple years back, you were trying to find the answer to the question: “Can our basic nature be changed?” Have you resolved the question?
RB: My concept of what our basic nature is has changed. I find the floor falling out beneath my feet every time I try and dig deeper. I think, when you take out all the clutter and confusion, there is something that we’re here to do that’s unique and special for each person. It’s intrinsically tied to our own journeys and connected to moving humanity forward. We’re here to be who we are fully. To revel and to marvel and to live and love in the beauty of who we are—and it takes work to really find out who you are.
I would say maybe another way to phrase it is a basic gift. Your basic gift may not change. It will grow and will have nuances that will allow it to emerge in new and fascinating ways. That may not change. That may just deepen and transform.
Audrey: How can we serve you?
RB: That question is like the heart asking the pinky toe how it can serve. The heart is already serving the pinky toe. The question even assumes a separation that doesn’t exist. I feel so blessed to be a part of—to be connected to— all of you. So I just want to express gratitude for who all of you are, and for all the wonderful questions that have made me express probably what I needed to hear more than what anybody else on the call needed to hear. Thank you so much.
Rahul Brown lives, works, and serves in the San Francisco Bay Area. More of his spirit is captured through his blog and writings and this high school commencement address.