The Middle Is The Path

Posted by Ragunath Padmanabhan on Dec 11, 2013
129637 reads  
Several years ago, the ServiceSpace eco-system embraced three creative constraints:

1) Be Volunteer Run
2) Do Not Fundraise
3) Focus on Small Things

In countless presentations, conversations, blogs and emails, many ServiceSpace volunteers have mentioned these rules with a bit of description never exceeding a few seconds. Most of the time spent by the volunteers has been towards being an example of these rules and sharing those stories. This has resulted in a lot of bits of wisdom which I felt could be integrated into one theme and hence this article.

Be Volunteer Run: Don't Hire, Don't Fire. Create Choiceful Relationships.

It is true that being volunteer run eliminates all the difficulties associated with having paid employees of which the most visible benefit is the lack of pay. Most people get this. The same people also worry about loss of control, quality and efficiency in being volunteer run, which indicates that they don’t get many other benefits of being volunteer run – the same ones that amply address their worries. To understand all the benefits other than lack of pay, one needs to look into the seed-benefit of being volunteer run: Everything is a choice.

In ServiceSpace, everything a volunteer does, including the first act of signing up as a volunteer is a choice. When work builds up, no one is expected to put in more hours. When resources run low, no one is expected to act fast and refill. When points of view differ, no one is expected to cooperate. In tough-choice situations, no one is expected to compromise. Yet, routinely ServiceSpace volunteers do the unexpected. By choice. Choice implies inspiration, clarity, mindfulness and a willingness to take ownership of one’s actions and accept any result. Not that the moment a person signs up to volunteer, he or she understands choice this way. But by and by, observing other volunteers over a period, the newer people absorb the different characteristics of choice.

Hiring a person is transactional. The deal is money for time.  Both money and time being limited resources, the range and depth of choices available for both the organization and its employees are limited. And whenever the limit is reached, it leads to loss of control, quality and efficiency – the very benefits that organizations seek through transactional relationship. Firing an employee (or resignation by the employee) is the logical conclusion of a transactional relationship.

Inspiring people to choose to belong to a community is the art of being volunteer run. It is transformational relationship. Such inspiration comes from unconditional giving in the moment, not planned in the past to create a specific future or done as a reaction to what happened in the past. Hiring a person is an act of planning for the future and firing a person is a reaction to the past. What happens in an organization without hiring and firing, right in the middle, is volunteering. In this mode, everyone who chooses to volunteer is welcome; everyone is assumed to possess some capacity and value and is unconditionally supported in small ways. Embracing simplicity as one’s lifestyle and service as one’s primary joy, whatever a volunteer needs to sustain himself or herself comes just in time, in the right quantity. As someone said, “Fraction demands, universe supplies”.

So, that is our first rule: Be volunteer run. Don’t Hire, Don’t Fire. Create Choiceful Relationships.

Do Not Fundraise: Don't Ask, Don't Starve. Dance in the Now.

The flower does not seek out the bees and the butterflies though it needs them for its survival. Instead, it generates honey in the centre, puts on an art show on its petals and spreads its fragrance around. And they all come, the bees, the butterflies, the dragonflies, the lady bugs... they have their fill of honey, pick up the pollens on their legs and hop on to another flower ensuring mutual survival. Thus the flowers and their customers nurture each other, patiently and elegantly, with no regards for Mr. Abe Maslow and his hierarchy.

Survival is an art; not a worried, hurried, fearful and aggressive bane of existence. It becomes so when we separate satisfaction from survival; elegance from existence. Once separated from the spirit of life, survival becomes a fight for life. Any fight for life is also a fight with life. Hence, the need to ask for resources or demand help or yell for support or fight for life and if need be kill for it... all stem from the same source: a split view of life and the spirit that infuses it.

In ServiceSpace, volunteers try to create value with what is already available, trusting the spirit of life itself as the initial capital. What we do not have becomes our creative constraint. It challenges us to pay utmost attention to details, to the function and the form, to discard the inessential and gently walk the tight rope. It helps us be open to unexpected innovations on the outside and be vulnerable to the necessary transformation on the inside. Not asking and not starving, we dance in the now.

Focus On Small Things: Don't Project, Don't Protect. Enjoy Small Actions.

For most people, small may be beautiful, cute, playful, innocent but it is also inadequate and insignificant. The confusion arises due to people mixing up the nature of actions with their interpretations of the results. Our third rule does not say, "Think small" or "Feel small". It says, "Do small". The rule recognizes that, in the present, in the here and now, all actions are inevitably small. If all actions are anyway small, why bother emphasizing on doing only small things as if there are also big things available to do? The necessity arises due to the mind's habit of categorizing actions as insignificant and significant, silly and great, naive and profound etc. By extension, small becomes weak and big becomes powerful. These are narrow opinions formed with the limited information associated with a given context. At the time of an action, degrees of significance cannot be categorized for it unfolds over time. Practically speaking, all actions are small and bigness and all its variants are contextual interpretations (opinions) about the small actions.

At ServiceSpace, there is a deliberate suspension of interpreting the significance of any action. Acknowledging the practical smallness of any action gives us the freedom to channel the energy and wisdom of big thoughts and feelings into our small actions. So our small actions become infused with universal brotherhood (big thought) and universal love (big feeling). Acknowledging smallness keeps our feet on the ground, eyes on the next step and action at hand's length. It is a way to tie the wandering mind to the present reality. It helps functional planning but avoids projection of results, logical or speculative. It helps scaffolding processes but avoids protection of assets. It helps organizing people, tasks and resources but avoids creating and managing a fictional entity called an organization (which is necessary to project results and growth and protect them). Projection (greed) and protection (fear) takes attention away from the present and makes small actions appear unnecessarily big and difficult. Hence we live by, don't project, don't protect. Enjoy small actions.

Operating between hiring and firing; between asking and starving; between projection and protection, the middle becomes the path.  

Posted by Ragunath Padmanabhan | | permalink

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Comments (3)

  • Rahul Brown wrote ...

    Birju recently commented on how he's paid quite well by ServiceSpace, and I couldn't help but agree that the same is true for me. While we're all volunteers and there is no financial exchange, the subtle capital we gain from the ecosystem is priceless. The beauty is that this payment comes from both within and from the outside and starts to reveal the truth of our nature.

  • Trishna Shah wrote ...

    Nicely articulated Raghu, thanks for sharing!

  • Afreen Malim wrote ...

    Very interesting Ragu! :-)