When The Posse Convenes In LA!
Posted by Audrey Lin on Aug 9, 2016
In 2012, Bonnie invited Nipun to speak at her church in Ventura, CA. He’d simultaneously gotten an invitation from another member of their church, and spontaneously accepted the invite. In the years that followed, the friendships deepened, Nipun returned couple times, Bonnie started volunteering with ServiceSpace, and the local community consistently brewed up a real storm of ripples – from engaging congregation-wide 21-day kindness challenges to weekly Awakin Circles to loads of Smile Cards campaigns and many small acts in many directions, and most recently, Bonnie’s labor-of-love work in our Laddership Circles!
This year, when Bonnie sent Nipun an invitation, in a many-to-many kind of way, he piled in a carload of us to share in the ripples. We were all honored and touched by the opportunity to join. And, since we'd be in the neighborhood, we couldn’t help but pile on various circles at various homes along the way. :)
Friday: Prison Circles, Homeless Dollars, Gandhi and Pish-kesh!
On Friday morning, Pancho, Sam, Sonya, Nipun, and I pile into the car, and embark on the 5-6 hour journey to Southern California. Along the way, we dive headlong into stories that span the gamut – from our summer interns to thoughts on an Amit-inspired question (“If you were Gandhi and alive today, what would be your commencement address?” :)) to Pancho’s cosmic insights on astrobiology, inspiration from Sam’s journey with ecological art, and a grand finale of heart-stilling tales from Sonya’s restorative work in prisons.
That evening, about 15 friends circle up in Pranidhi’s beautiful West LA home, where we sit in stillness followed personal stories of radical generosity. Among them, high-schooler Vinit reflects on the deliberate effort required to be in a state of “flow”. He had recently witnessed this at a café, when his friend took the “deliberate effort” of paying for the order of the person in line behind him, which they watched organically “flow” into a pay-it-forward chain for the next 5 people in line! Angie shares a moment of generosity in receiving her teenage daughter’s decision to open up to her about some difficult topics, as Kayoko remarks on the generosity of giving time. We soak in ripples of Fran’s peace studies students, department, and conferences and find ourselves smiling wide as elementary school teacher Peter recounts a conversation that brought him and another teacher to re-discover the “common core” of our humanity, far beyond US curriculum standards. :)
In addition, Marc stuns us all with a powerful recollection of a homeless man who gifted him a dollar for his birthday 21 years ago! Upon overhearing someone wish Marc a happy birthday, a homeless man nearby said, “It’s your birthday?” He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. “Here, this is for you! Happy Birthday,” he offered, to which Marc immediately thought: There’s no way I can take money from a homeless person!
To that end, Marc expressed gratitude for the offering and graciously refused it. But the homeless man insisted. He pressed the dollar further forward he said, “No, please take it.”
“No, no. I really can’t. Please, you keep it,” Marc answered.
Then the man on the street explained with resounding conviction, “God has been good to me. Every night I have a place to stay. Every moment, I am blessed. I have more than I need. Please take this dollar.”
Stunned, the voice in Marc’s head turned into a startled command: Take the dollar!
Humbled and at a loss of words, he did.
Story after story around the circle, we find ourselves buoyed by the collective presence. After couple minutes of silent gratitude, Pranidhi concludes our circle with a beautiful devotional song, and we flow into a gourmet home-cooked dinner (complete with a 5-item dessert buffet!) that Pranidhi had spent 2-3 days preparing!
As dinner trickles to an end, Vinit, Fran, and Nipun immediately bolt over to the kitchen sink, energetically swapping stories over cleaning dishes as many others (whose elbows weren’t sharp enough to get into the dishes :)) put away leftovers and wipe down counters. Those who remain stumble into late-night tales of Gandhians – from Dwarko Sundrani to Vinoba Bhave to remarkable nuns in Paunar to Satish Kumar’s walking pilgrimage from the grave of Gandhi to the grave of John F. Kennedy. As Fran and her husband Reza ready to leave, Fran compliments Pancho on his t-shirt, to which Pancho’s eyes widen with extra sparks of joy. Without skipping a beat, he whisks it off and offers it to Fran as a gift, with the disclaimer, “Just wash before wearing.” :) The swift and heartfelt act bulldozes us all into smiles, as we recount how Fran had done a parallel “pish-kesh” last year while visiting Pancho at Casa de Paz! She is visibly elated by Pancho's tag and it's perfect punctuation for the whole evening, as she later wrote: "Such a beautiful evening. It was ammmmazing! I felt we immersed ourselves in this ocean of love, acceptance, generosity and friendships." That's how we all felt.
After everyone says goodbye and we ready ourselves to turn in for the night, Sonya casually asks Pancho his age, to which Pancho immediately exclaims, “13.7 billion years!” :) In the last 16 hours of those 13.7 billion years of the universe’s existence, we can’t help but feel ourselves swept up in the ever-expanding presence of a full heart. :)
Saturday: From Yoga Shala West to Oh Happy Day Café to Awakin Pasadena!
Saturday morning, Pranidhi spoils us with an overflowing breakfast, after which we pile into the car to visit to her yoga shala. Last Spring, Pranidhi had designed plans to launch her own yoga studio while simultaneously holding many questions around the paradoxical business of teaching yoga. Seeing yoga as a sacred practice and way of life, she wondered if and how she could create a yoga studio that imbibed her deeper values of service, generosity, and community. As construction went underway for her studio, she designed a contribution-based pricing structure that supports a “community of practice” rather than simply paying for a class. "In this way, we are moving from transaction to trust," the website explains. One year since opening the doors of her yoga studio, she’s overflowing with stories from the beautiful community that has emerged around it – from a student who insisted on cleaning the studio walls to an open-source library (take-a-book leave-a-book, with books like Infinite Vision! :)) to a front desk that is constantly filled with fruit from people’s trees (to the point where another student gifted the studio a beautiful basket to hold all the fruit offerings) and so much more! In her usual grateful way, she repeatedly tells us we're all co-founders of the Shala since it was incubated during her Laddership Circle.
This morning, the studio happens to be hosting a unique workshop, and we sit in on the class, absorbing the warm embrace of the friendly atmosphere. At every turn, the studio is brimming with touches of care, such as the spotless bathroom and various desserts offered to anyone on the front desk, or community offerings like one student’s display of hand-woven scarves and this class instructor’s collection of soulful instruments.
Post-class, we say our goodbyes and head northwest to Pasadena, where we’re slated for an Awakin Circle that evening. Along the way, Sam receives a note from Peter Kalmus, who spontaneously invites him and Pancho to lunch for the same time my cell phone GPS tells us we’ll arrive at a local taqueria for lunch. We reroute towards him, and find ourselves at his favorite local natural food spot, Oh Happy Days Café. Over a tasty organic lunch, we learn about Peter’s transition from Cal Tech physicist to hacking his fossil fuel usage – by 90%, including by converting his car to run on biofuels! – and his collaboration with Pancho and Sam on a “Being the Change” book. Peter tells us heartwarming stories about the cafe owner’s spirit – like how he encouraged Peter’s musical inclinations years back by allowing him to come and play the mandolin for guests and then afterwards would always treat him to a meal on the house. Not wasting a moment, Pancho decides to tag the owner with an earth flag, which he happily receives along with our words gratitude, and we all end up in a group hug. :)
We depart and head over to Popat Uncle and Kalpana Aunty’s home in Pasadena, where the fun-loving couple regale us in tales that span many decades of their life experience. Kalpana Aunty shares insights from delivering 30 babies a day at a hospital in Mumbai and how she learned generosity through the gift of a cantaloupe from a rural child with barely any food or belongings. Popat Uncle smilingly talks about various journeys in faith (like how he spontaneously takes visitors to Yogananda’s home) and also relationship wisdom from Osho, such as how a healthy marriage is like two palm trees that don’t cast shadows over each other. It was non-stop laughter with them, but with a distinct spiritual flavor. Every so often, Popat Uncle will say, "Okay, I've got a spiritual joke for you."
"Mulla Nusruddin is walking down the street with his son on his shoulders. Everyone is admiring how happy his son is. One shopkeeper looks at him and say, 'Mulla, you've got such a beautiful son.' And Mulla responds, 'Oh, this is nothing. You should see the photo I have at home.'" Popat Uncle gives us a dramatic pause before concluding, "Aren't we all like that? Living with images, instead of reality of what is?"
That evening, 40 of us (some driving long distances across LA traffic!) convene for an Awakin Circle. After an hour of stillness, Sonya, Sam, and Vinit open the circle of sharing with heartwarming stories of experiencing kindness from strangers. Around the circle, the living room swells with stories of extra-“ordinary” moments with strangers.
One man recalls how, growing up in India, it was common to share food with strangers on the train. When he moved to the US, he easily assumed that kind of sharing doesn’t happen in such an individualistic culture. Yet, one day, while rushing to catch a flight, he didn’t have time to eat lunch. Tired and in the middle seat, he nodded off on the plane and missed the refreshment cart when it went down the aisle. Upon waking, the man next to him was chomping away on a bag of trail mix. As he felt a pang of envy for the snack, the man looked at him and held out the trail mix, asking, “Would you like some?” He gladly accepted and, passing the trail mix back and forth, the two began a conversation in which they found resonance on various levels and that soon flowed over to the third person in their 3-seat row.
Towards the end of the circle, a young woman named Olivia recollects a time when she had fallen into a state of feeling lost and found while volunteering with refugees in the Middle East. She had excused herself from her project, and sat down on a bench, crying. When she opened her eyes, a small hand was gently sitting over hers, and her eyes fell on two shining eyes and smile from a 10-year old refugee girl beaming up at her. The two sat next to each other. In the span of two hours of wordless silence, she drew strength from the young child’s lightness of spirit, and a stillness washed over her heart, giving her the steadiness to return to her group and project.
With each share around the circle, each person opens us up to a new nuance and depth of the human spirit. As we finish, it's as if each person in the circle has become a glowing candle in a ring of humanity. Sharon graciously sings dona nobis pacem and Rekha (who has been translating weekly Awakin reading into Hindi for years!) offers another closing prayer. She had last sang that song at her father's funeral and first heard it as favorite song of a remarkable Gandhian.
Overflowing with such offerings, we spill into a rich homemade dinner offered in heartfelt abundance by Kalpana Aunty, and conversations trickle into the wee hours of evening, as we learn about Supun’s various service experiments (like serving on Skid Row and Walk for Hope), Brandon gives us a demo on hapkido self-defense, Sonya enraptures us with stories from her healing circles in prison, and Kalpana Aunty schemes up a group visit to Manuri’s yoga studio and Diwali gathering for Reshama’s dancing. :) More than half a dozen people offer their homes for the next Awakin Circle -- and local volunteers are already scheming an October date.
Sunday: The Posse Convenes in Ventura!
On Sunday morning, we head out early for the 74-mile drive to Bonnie’s interfaith church in Ventura. At 9AM, we reach and are welcomed with open arms and wide smiles from Annette, Mia and Bonnie. Sam and Pancho artfully set up a Kindness Table in the lobby and we meet other members of the church staff, choir, and volunteers in their prayer circle meeting a half hour before the 10AM service.
At 10AM, we filter into the church hall to the music of the band and choir, and get front row seats. Bonnie welcomes everyone, Hugh reads a stunning prayer by Shantideva, and Gino Walker belts her heart out in a soulful song, “Make Me Stronger”. The collective presence expands the air.
Then, Bonnie comes back on and takes on, in her own words, “the impossible task of introducing someone who defies words.” :) She welcomes Nipun onto the stage and the several hundred person crowd, many of whom were aware of ServiceSpace's work in the world, give a rousing standing ovation -- before we even begin.
Nipun introduces our theme of "Manifesting Mindfulness as Kindfulness” by describing moments of “pause” that connect us. "In the car on the way over, we were talking about something that happened this weekend 71 years ago: the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” In our car ride conversation, Sam had mentioned that the bombings happened on the 6th and the 9th, and in the two days between, there was a pause. “It got me thinking that sometimes we have these momentums, even for the most atrocious acts in the world,” Nipun points out, “And if we don’t have that pause in a deep enough way – in a way that interconnects us – it’s very hard to shift that momentum once the ball gets rolling.” And he goes on to recount a humorous story of anonymous kindness from a year back that had evoked that kind of “pause” in himself and the folks around him. Everyone is tuned in.
I take the stage next and begin by recollecting the feeling of welcome we received upon walking into the building that morning. We had been greeted by the enormous, warm smiles of two staff members – an image that made me wonder: “Where do smiles come from? What’s the lineage of a smile?” This traces me back to a time, almost two years ago, when a retroactive gift from my father (over a year after his passing) had prompted me pause and reflect on the invisible shoulders upon which we stand – the unseen lineage of generosity that each of our lives simultaneously receive and flow forward into the dynamic evolution of a greater whole.
Next, Pancho takes the mic and brings us into the potential of the present moment. He opens with the classic Pancho greeting: “My family calls me Pancho, and if this is the last time I see you, I want you to know that I love you all.” His gaze sweeps the entire audience, making eye contact with each individual present in the auditorium. The stillness of the hall transcends to a whole new level, and takes our breath away. A palpable pang of unconditional love wrinkles Pancho’s forehead as tears seep into his eyes. Talk about a moment of “pause”! :) The air hangs in sacred silence. After a few timeless seconds, he opens his mouth to speak, and out flows a series of stories – of icebergs and gunshots, carrots and cosmos, all of which become an opportunity to step into everyday “kindfulness”.
Third up is Sonya, who offers a story on a topic that the four of us are not qualified to speak on, (: motherhood. She describes the 16-hour labor that ended in the birth of her daughter and from which arose a pivotal moment: a life-changing gaze of unconditional trust from her just-barely-born daughter. And everyday for the last 10 years (and counting), she receives and is transformed by her daughter’s gaze of trust. “There’s something about children that is so close to the source,” she observed. “There’s something about them that remembers who they are, and that has taught me how to remember who I am.” And in remembering, we pause. And in pausing, we drop into our interconnections.
Nipun closes our talk with a couple more power-packed stories, and Bonnie concludes the service with a heartfelt closing prayer, followed by another blast of a musical rendition by Gino, with lines like, “Did you know that true love asks for nothing? Her acceptance is the way we pay.” In the spirit of kindfulness, we also learn that the four large vases of vibrant flowers on stage are a gift for all us. On our way out Sam, Sonya, and two volunteers from the congregation gift each person a flower and smile card to anonymously gift-forward in whatever way we wish. "All of Ventura is going to be lit up with love today," several people say.
After the service, folks congregate in another hall for refreshments. So many tears of joy. So many spirited hugs. The air is alive with an open-hearted resonance, and we meet so many amazing walks of life. One family brought their deaf daughter, because someone wanted her to enjoy this service and "tagged" the entire assembly with a signer. I learn about Judy’s inspiration to become a minister. We receive in-person hugs from Jennifer (who was in our October Laddership Circle), and connect the dots between her and Zilong’s chance encounters with Meiyi (a young woman who embarked on a bike pilgrimage from San Diego to San Francisco few months back). We are buoyed by the kinship of Colleen, Sara, and Marisol’s presence. Strangers come up and tell us profound stories of kindness, their personal transformations, and their overflowing gratitude. A proud father with tears in his eyes tells me about the generosity of his teenage daughter. One woman shares, "Four years ago, I took a Smile Deck home and it has changed our family." The spirited musician, Gino -- who was frequently in tears throughout the service -- tells us that she thought this was just another gig, but "Boy, was I wrong about that!" A 4th grade teacher shares the story of how he learned about world peace from his students -- and gifts us an incredible story book. On the surface, all the gratitude may seem flattering-- but if one digs deeper, it's apparent that it's not about any one person, but rather, the deeper values that underscore and give rise to such a gathering.
As we flow in and out of a Q&A session, we continue to be disarmed by micro-moments of love and small touches of care at every corner. One couple gives all of us huge hugs, and we learn they had postponed their 30th wedding anniversary travel plans just to attend today’s service: "We want to start our celebration with this service." We field questions ranging from "What is life, in 9 words or less?" to "How do you respond when a kind act is refused?" Bonnie and the church staff generously treat 15 of us to a delicious lunch – complete with homemade banana bread specially made vegan with Pancho and Sam in mind!
With full bellies and hearts, we pack up, clean up, and wave our energetic goodbyes-for-now while holding our abundant goodie bags. The trusty vehicle that had transported us into the love-infused weekend now steers us north, delivering us back to the Bay by sunset.
As I turn the key and step through my front door, I wonder what it is that makes the whirlwind of the last three days feel so familiar. Like walking into a time capsule of an ancient rhythm – one that carries us home to the eternal oceans of our shared existence.