CharityFocus Retreat: 2 Deer, 7 Hawks, 16 Coordinators

Posted by Nipun Mehta on May 17, 2009
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The CharityFocus weekend retreat in Napa had just ended.  Two deer sat right outside the house during the morning meditation, many teared up after George's 'Om Mani Padme Hum' rendition, and there was a deep sense of gratitude and connection amongst the 25 or so people in the room.  CFers from around the world had assembled to share their stories, their work, their questions, and their presence.

After many rounds of hugs, everyone parted ways as a few of us were doing the final rounds of clean up.  Guri walked down to the creek to nestle her final moment of gratitude and silence in nature.  As we looked up at the sky, almost out of nowhere, seven hawks flew in a circle above us!  We all stood in utter awe.

The timing, the magic, the beauty, and the blessing all felt like a perfect ode to the spirit of service that brought us together.

Trishna and Guri had orchestrated this retreat as a way for coordinators to get to know more about each other.  We did put out a fancy agenda, but the overarching purpose was to support each other's journeys of service.  Unlike our tiger-team meetings, the invite was limited to 16 coordinators and a few guests on the final day.  We had rented a home in Napa, without ever seeing it, and given the rent we were paying, we were all expecting to tent. :)   Of course, a bunch of folks did crash on the floor, some of us tented outside, and we had sign-up sheets to optimize the use of 3 bathrooms, but it ended up being a beautiful home with all the right amenities (including no internet or cellphone reception!).  Modesto, whose home this was, built it from ground up so that "good people could enjoy it."  His labor-of-love home, his kind demeanor, and his trusting personality quickly made him Trishna's hero of the month. :) 

On the first night, we opened with sharing stories from the heart as each of us placed an artifact in the center of the circle, that reminded us of the spirit of service.  Birju brought in a receipt of a midnight cab ride that taught him about giving; Jenny offered some beads gifted by an 81-year-old Tibetan nun; Neil wore a hat that held the story of his work in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina; Richard shared a meditation bell that his friend had made; I showed the cover of a Daisy sour-cream container. :)  Without having to say it explicitly, it was obvious that we were in a circle of kindness warriors!

And everyone was turning up their generosity, right then and there. It felt like we had an entire grocery store in the house -- and enough expert chefs to whip up amazing meals!  George played songs on the guitar.  Binal offered massages to everyone.  An anonymous fairy tagged everyone with personalized notes in a red envelope.  Arathi held yoga classes.  Kanchan and Yoo-mi took meeting minutes.  Paul took photos.  We did have sign up sheets for clean-up, but everyone was so eager to "step it up" that we never could follow the assigned roles. :)

It was easy to feel lucky to be in the company of such noble friends.  And it was easy to feel gratitude for Guri and Trishna for the umpteen hours of hard work they put in, so the elegant poetry could manifest organically.

On the second day, we had a full line-up of presentations.  I framed the context by saying that service without spirit is mechanical and spirit without service isn't grounded.  This wasn't just a gathering for inspiration.  We were here to put in the sacrifice, cultivate deeper and serve selflessly.  From 10AM-7PM, everyone presented their projects starting with a personal story of transformation , focusing on data that could inform innovations, zooming out to the lessons of working in a gift-economy context, and finally sharing some unresolved challenges for the collective to chew on.  The stories were abundant,  from a lady who sent in a tea-bag as donation to works & conversations to Birju's favorite KarmaTube video to Yoo-mi reading out ProPoor emails out loud for a phoenetic interpretration!  Data was wow-worthy, as we saw our collective membership swell to 256 thousand members, exponential growth in Smile Card activity, and noted that we have 18 million lines of code that is not only inter-dependent but also operates on a base cost of $47.31 per month!  Each coordinator also shared the direction in which their project is headed, and the unique challenges that they face by being gift-economy: how do we communicate the 'pay it forward' idea to Karma Clinic patients, how we distribute $5 Smile Decks to people who're used to getting 10 cent Smile Cards, how do we hold the burgeoning interest in Karma Kitchen?  We had great discusssions and insights, interspersed with food breaks, yoga poses that only Arathi and Pavi could hold, :) and many moments of conscious silence.  As Neil pointed out, "Everything felt like it was moving at a sacred pace."

That night, we set up a special movie screening under the stars.  As we entered the outdoor deck in silence, Native American chants were humming from the laptop, the moonlight sky framed an unbeatable backdrop, and a candle in the center of our semi-cricle gently brought us into the now.  It was magical -- and cold. :)  Enraptured by Silas's stories of working with Native Americans in South Dakoto, we watched the first fifteen minutes of his powerful upcoming film Dakota 38!  Such a film could only be made as a gift.  As we ended, Paul and Richard tagged Silas with a humble contribution from the CharityFocus collective -- although the money came from an anonymous source not present amongst us.

As we walked in to end the day with a circle of gratitude, I noticed Arathi's how-did-you-do-that-in-two-days(!) "Timeline" that hung along the fireplace mantle.  Most of our major milestones were there.  What I saw, though, was the frictionless way in which we arrived at those milestones.  We've never pitched a story, and our first time on TV was a half hour interview on CNN; we never asked for donations, and we were gifted an entire organization in ProPoor; we never did any outreach for Wednesdays and 20 thousand people showed up over a dozen years; Karma Kitchen started on a couple week notice without any expertise or resources, and it spurred a local revolution; Smile Cards started with a humble 100 card run, and we've now printed more than a million cards (not to mention Matt Damon tweeting about it!); DailyGood was a simple email to a few friends and today it reaches more than a hundred thousand people.  Every single milestone has a story like that.  We put in the sacrifice and do the due diligence, but we ultimately let it do its organic thing.   As a result, CharityFocus blossoms far beyond a show put on by its coordinators or leaders!  With or without us, perhaps this show would've gone on but we're grateful to have played a part in this emergence.

In our closing circle, Yoo-mi recapped what many of us were thinking: "What continues to inspire me is the level of quality in everything CharityFocus.  From the smallest things in this very retreat to the amazing projects that have continued for over a decade, everyone just continues to step up the quality of service.  It all just keeps gettin' better and better!"  Yoo-mi, a compulsive straight shooter, :) has been around CharityFocus from the first year.

On the last morning, we invited several like-hearted friends from various other organizations -- we weren't sure how many would actually be able to find this place, but we were happily surprised. :)  Tapan Parikh, a UC Berkeley professor and MIT's humanitarian of the year in 2007, shared humorous "habu" insights about the gift-economy; Rev. Heng Sure, a Buddhist monk who's supported CharityFocus from the start, delighted us with heartfelt songs and clarity on the "boddhisattva" style of giving; Jayesh Parekh drove four hours to spend an hour amongst us; Barbara Cushing shared her gratitude for the purity of service that she had experienced; Marianna talked about Bread for the Journey exploring gift-economy and gifted everyone a copy of Sabbath; CF Mom and Dad were elated to see a little experiment in their living room mushroom into this thing called CharityFocus.  We shared, we sang, we cried, we laughed, we smiled.  It was a beautiful morning and a fitting end to our time together.

As Trishna left, we all piled onto her for a group hug.  She has always been an anchor for all things CharityFocus, and this retreat was no exception.

I've said my thousand words without a photo, but Pauls' photos tell the rest of the story:

Two deer, seven hawks, sixteen coordinators.  Life is good.  We are blessed.

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Comments (16)

  • Neil wrote ...

    what an AMAZING weekend :)

  • Yoo-mi wrote ...

    LOVED it! And thank you to the red envelope fairy!

  • Guri wrote ...

    I'm still feeling the energy from yesterday and already miss everyone.

  • Trishna wrote ...

    What a beautiful photo of an incredible group of noble friends, as Guri said. Sending my love from across the pond! :)

  • Viral wrote ...

    On the topic of missing everyone, wanted to add that, as I glanced at some photos at about 11pm last night, it already felt like it had been a while since we had had the retreat!

  • Jenny wrote ...

    My plane has just taken off, and as the city of Oakland becomes more and more remote beneath me, I want to let you know that my cup is truly overflowing for having been together this weekend.

    The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast (one of my favorites) says that the most radical thing we can do in our lives is bless everything that happens to us. I bless each of you.

  • Birju wrote ...

    You are all amazing teachers for me and I'm blessed to be able to learn from you. [more]

  • Paul wrote ...

    In a word, thanks...

    Viral for your humor
    Binal for your smile
    Guri for your always-helping hands
    Trishna for your tears
    Neil for your aliveness
    Yoo-mi for your patience
    Silas for your groundedness
    Pavi for your gentleness
    Kanchan for your diligence
    Birju for your 'I wonder...'
    Arathi for your embrace
    George for your soul music (and coffee!)
    Jenny for your strength
    Richard for your works
    Nipun for your spirit (and some of the numbers :))
    and Modesto for the healing space


  • paviral wrote ...

    And ... Thank you Paul, for your grace!

  • Richard wrote ...

    Back home but not in the same place exactly. Quite amazing! I'm so grateful to have been part of this. Things like this make one feel the reality of how one's life really is a journey.

  • Binal wrote ...

    An amazing weekend indeed! WOW. I miss everyone and I love Modesto's pics! It doesn't surprise me that we make yet another awesome friend along the way :)

  • George wrote ...

    I am honored to have had the opportunity to be a part of this weekend. The ripples will continue to radiate in our lives on every level, even if we are not aware of them. And, I am already missing everyone. I am glad I will be able to see some of you on Wednesdays.

  • arathi wrote ...

    i gotta whole lotta love for you all for hookin a sista up big time. deepest gratitude and respect for each and every one of you. thanks for creating such a beautiful memory.

    much love and many blessings,

  • Pavi wrote ...

    A poem from Rumi -- who has something dazzling to say about everything that means anything ...

    'When you go to buy a pomegranate,
    pick the one that's laughing,
    that has its rind cleft,
    so that through its broken-open-ness
    you get some information
    about the seeds.
    Listen for the laughter
    that shows the inside,
    that cracks the casket-shell
    and lets you see the pearl.
    (...)Pomegranate-laughter is blessed,
    like the companionship of good people.
    Even if you're a common rock,
    when you join them,
    you'll become a precious stone.
    Keep the love of holy laughing in you.'

    With gratitude for the alchemy and holy laughter of this weekend...

  • Pancho wrote ...

    only one (loud) word:

    BAAM!  :-)

  • karthik wrote ...

    arre wah ... sahi hai ...

    thanks for the quite magic you created ... it is still alive nearly a month later ... elsewhere ... in my heart and my world

    the hawks sounded cool .. though didn't really see a  pic