At the end of January, 65 love warriors from around the globe convened at the Gandhi Sabarmati Ashram for a 5-day gathering culminating on Gandhi’s death anniversary.
With little knowledge of how the days would unfold, or who all would be in attendance, or what value we’d walk away with – each of us struck our own chord with the simple idea held by the invitation:
If diverse people can all hold space with a focus on inner transformation, something may shift in the matrix of our inter-connection and create a field for radically innovative solutions for today's challenges.
The welcome letter elaborated:
Our world today faces unprecedented challenges, rooted in multiple forms of disconnection. By losing connection to nature, we have created an ecological divide; by diluting connection with each other, we have manifested a social divide; and by ignoring connection with ourselves, we have deepened our spiritual divide. As these chasms widen at an alarming rate, many are rising up to forge bridges that reconnect us. In place of one centralized movement, we are seeing an era of distributed and decentralized Gandhis … We call it Gandhi 3.0, where Gandhi stands for the age-old principle of leading with inner transformation and 3.0 represents the many-to-many networks that are popularized by the modern-day Internet.
With that, everyone arrived. Our inaugural dinner concluded onto a lawn filled with a swirling sea of glowing candles. It was as if we were enveloped by stars in the sky above and at our feet below. Rahul led us through a humble sequence of prayers from Himalayan monk Josephji, heart-of-gold community-builder Giang, ServiceSpace Mom and Dad, and ever-inspiring Buddhist monk, Rev Heng Sure formally opened our time together, and each of us poured a small packed of soil into a Tulsi plant and we silently filed around the campus into our main meeting space, the Maitri
In the opening circle, the power of such an agenda-less convergence of values was palpable. A prolific author and thought leader from Malaysia eloquently remarked, “I’m a public speaker by profession, yet in this circle, I have no words. I don’t know why I’m here, but I know deeply why I am here.” A Gandhian scholar from Mumbai questioned how to live and embody the values of the ‘other’ more deeply in daily life. One volunteer noted his own shift from seeking answers to finding stillness in holding questions. Katzi from Austria, recounted his own journey in taking flight to support others’ dreams. He quoted Rumi, “You are not meant for crawling, so don't. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.”
As the circle rounded to a close, a growing sentiment of kinship filled the space. Popat from Los Angeles enthusiastically invited everyone to come stay in his home. Joserra, likewise, welcomed all of us to Spain. Later on, we’d learn that Ferose (with his wife's blessing) flew around the world to be with us on his wedding anniversary! Sraddhalu, a monk from Auroville, came straight from another event in Costa Rica, sat in circle right off his 40-hour airplane journey, and in his first few minutes, remarked on the heart, warmth and affection of the space that already made him feel at home. Shamash laughingly noted how in his excitement upon arriving, he'd forgotten his laptop bag at the Ahmedabad airport, and how instantly people stepped in to help retrieve it. Aunt Harshida (aka “ServiceSpace Mom” :)) noted the quality of grace to the spirit in which we all arrived, “I’m here because life is a gift. Being here is a gift.”
There was a visceral awe – a shared sense of reverence – at the phenomena of simply being in each others’ presence. From celebratory pick-ups at airport, train stations, and bus stops at all hours of day and night, to personalized welcome gifts greeting us at our bedside, to volunteers who greeted you by name before you’d even met them. Sam (who's chaired programs for 8 US presidents and attended his fair share of gatherings) pointed out the subtle care with which we were each welcomed as we entered the hall: "Usually at conferences, name badges are laid out for you to pick up on your own. But here, the volunteers personally give it to you. They know you without ever having met. Never once have I experienced that."
As we retired to our rooms for the night, I wondered about the organizing principles of such a space, where in a handful of hours together, a configuration of just-met-strangers – who’ve collectively poured decades constructing programs with both government officials and unnamed beggars alike, who've managed million-dollar funds and lived entirely on the kindness of strangers, led thousand-person corporate teams and wandered penniless across the Himalayas – could show up as simply themselves; not what they’ve done or set out to do, but as human beings with an open inquiry into how to lessen suffering in the world, within and without.
EDGE: Where Have You Experimented In The Current Paradigm and Hit A Wall?
We are all interconnected, Nipun noted on our first full day, yet in this day and age, we live across striking divides. Just this year, Oxfam reported that 8 men
own the same amount of wealth as half the world. Last year, that number was 62 people
. In South Africa, over 20 years after the end of the apartheid, stark disparities
in housing still impact quality of life by skin color. MIT Professor Otto Scharmer elaborates
that our systems are ecologically, socially, spiritually at odds. Network scientists are uncovering the phenomenon of majority illusions
, where our social networks can create misleading perceptions of reality.
Amid all these divides, how do we reconnect?
When you look at Gandhi’s response, the answer seems counter-intuitive, and even backwards against the backdrop of our high-paced, information-rich times. In an era of unprecedented innovation—where we create more knowledge in 1 year than was produced in the first 300 years of the scientific revolution—to what end should we be motivated by speed and efficiency? If a car from 1971 improved at the same rate as computer chips, by 2015, it’d break top speeds of 420 million
miles per hour – roughly two-thirds the speed of light. By end of 2017, it'd be double even that.
Much like how only 10 percent of an iceberg is visible above water, a small fraction of constructive social change is apparent at any given time. The remaining 90 percent lies below the surface, in the inner transformations along the way. In the movement for India’s independence, Gandhi focused tirelessly on that invisible 90 percent. To him, progress was ‘measured’ by the quality of each person’s inner growth. “So far as I am concerned,” he wrote
, “my intention is to start the movement only through the inmates of the Ashram and those who have submitted to its discipline and assimilated the spirit of its methods.”
To that end, 78 freedom fighters prepared for 15 years.
That’s a decade and a half without reaping any fruits of their work. If the movement were a baby, it’d be in high school by the time they created any visible impact. Gandhi’s successor, Vinoba Bhave
, applied his transformation-powered work to five sectors
of society, which he likened to the fingers of a hand. When all five elements work as a united whole, our collective actions – our unified hand – can move mountains.
What does that look like today?
In business, Neil offered insights from his Awaaz.de venture, and wondered how to shift the quintessential startup goal of creating a unicorn (i.e. making a billion dollar company) to prioritizing one’s time to embody a culture of deeper values. In education, Parag took us amongst the 1600+ students at his IB school
, and envisioned a system where students enjoy learning to the point where if they had to stay home from school one day it would be a punishment. “How do we truly understand the meaning of good education?” he invited. Immersed in government, Anarben observed that the mind of society determines its leader. “How do we shift mindsets in every sector?" "Does change happen through politics or society?" "What is development, really?” On social work, Sachi brought us along her striking 5-year journey
serving a children’s home where 400 boys are “locked up in one room, which stank of urine.” She posed questions of impact and scale: “When is it enough? … [should I] focus on this one home and these 300-400 kids, or should I add another 100, or another 100? Is that seeking? Is that greed? I don't know.” Finally, on community, Sheetal shared
inspiration from 9 years of transforming
his house into a community space rooted in stillness and service. On the flip side, he wondered about the boundaries of one’s capacity to give. How can we create the conditions to be a true instrument
From a systems lens, Preeta quoted Reinhold Niebuhr: “Power without love is brutality, but love without consideration of power is sentimentality.” What is the balance between volunteering without an exit strategy vs. implementing state power to drive change? When do small acts hold more weight than systems, and when are systems instrumental to the coexistence of individuals? Laws have the power to desegregate a society, yet a small group of extraordinary individuals sway the law. How does inner affect outer, and outer influence inner? Can we cultivate like a mobius strip
, which falls both inside and out? Among many insights, she noted that our exponential tech developments increasingly outpace the linear progression of government. How will we fill that gap?
With so many thoughtful questions around room, that afternoon, everyone divvied up into small groups to discuss the edges of their own work, communities, and journeys. The air was a-buzz with a wealth of dialogue, as we flowed to dinner and a "Maitri Talks" evening of stories and song – woven together by the man behind Maitri Tunes
DIVE: Spanning The Field Of The Collective
“A point or a line or an edge is a mathematical construct. There are no real edges in reality; nature is always curved if we look close enough. If we know where to look and what to look for, then we will see only curves, waves, wiggles and vibrations,” Ragu pointed out in an afternoon breakout. “Instead of the value of pi, let us calculate the value of ties,” he quipped
. "And instead of mathematics, we’d shift towards metta
-matics :) -- countless acts of loving kindness.”
On the morning of the third day, much was brimming to the surface. High school teacher and social worker, Christine, honestly observed a shift in her own intent to speak: “Yesterday I wanted to speak so you would know who I am. But today, I want to just share in the space with you all.” Ari wondered, “How do I get within myself to allow me to do what you do? Not to copy or mimic, but to tap into this spirit
With the Parable of the Fifth Monk
, Meghna eloquently presenced the spectrum from inner transformation to external impact, and opened the floor for explorations into the varied entry points at which we work. We dove into dialogues spanning the realms of Leadership, Social Change and Education. Rajeev spoke on
the role of mind, values, and purpose in leadership -- noting how 80 billion dollars are spent each year on leadership development, yet people on average can think of 0-2 good leaders in their lives. I offered a few stories from experiments in Laddership
. After thoughtful reflections around the circle, we flowed into Nisha and Sam, who shared insights from their social change journeys -- Sam in his work as a public servant with an array US presidents, and Nisha in her journey from startups in Silicon Valley to rural farming in the South of India. “Change happens. Then social happens. Then maybe social change happens,” Nisha humorously yet poignantly remarked. On education, Sraddhalu described how, growing up in Auroville
, he never once took an exam. Rev Heng Sure outlined the Confucian intent of education: (1) lighting up inner virtue, (2) being in kinship with people, and (3) holding to highest goodness.
That evening, after a passionate talk from Rajni about Gandhi’s way of embracing the other, we traveled to Ahmedabad's Gandhi Ashram, where we arrived at the Sanitation Institute welcomed by two lines of young children from the Ashramshala
schools. With glowing eyes and palms pressed in greeting, they joyously bowed their heads and squealed, “Welcome!” Hermann from Austria later expressed the power of such embodied values in education -- how his daughter would be 20 this year, and in all her years in school, he’d never seen so many happy children as on this evening. In the sacred stillness of the ashram grounds, we soaked in the spaces where Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, Vinoba, and so many other pilgrims practiced aligning with the law of nature – the law of love. Many others joined us for a community night, and we were invited to a breathtaking meal served by the community’s radiant volunteers.
Post-dinner, we walked crossed the street to another line of greeters – this time a glowing stream of young teachers in training welcomed us to their school and hostel, which was the historic building where Gandhi’s freedom fighters lived and trained. Simply walking into the space was enough to move one’s heart. The decorations, the spirit of welcome, the effortless flow, the hand-printed gifts -- it was apparent that hundreds of invisible hands had brought this evening into being. With devotional prayers from Narendra Shastri, to a heartwarming student chorus, to fun-loving reflections from Sam, Min, and Ferose, to Sister Lucy’s ground-breaking grassroots journey
with battered women and children, Sraddhalu’s reflections on spiritual path, and Rev. Heng Sure’s heart-stilling encounter with grace on a highway coast along his bowing pilgrimage
– so much was shared not only in words, but in all the unspoken notes in between.
SWIM: What Is A Fearless Experiment Emerging Within You?
On the morning of our fourth day together, Ketan contrasted the unconditionally of the shared space with the conditionality of the mind. Ashik wondered, “How long can we hold a question? When does it become an excuse to not act?" Popat, in his humorous and solemn way, described a man attempting to empty the ocean with a bucket – and then noted that to truly empty the ocean, we must jump in and open our hearts. "I felt teary-eyed all day yesterday," David P described. Another voice chimed in, "My whole body is in pain; it's only happened twice before in my life, prior to dramatic mind-body metamorphosis."
With so much to process, and so much percolating over the last few days, we journaled on the prompt: “What is a fearless experiment that is emerging within you?” And broke out into thematic groups to dive deeper into the possibilities. From internal development to practices that engage the ‘other’ to brainstorming an engagement spectrum to innovating organizations – many personal stories streamed through, ideas birthed into fruition, and friendships carved in the spirit of service.
Later that afternoon, the campus burgeoned into bustling nodes of activity, with lively conversations amid preparations for another evening in community. The rooftop terrace transformed into a vibrant banquet hall as volunteers lined each table with a delicate flower petal design. The amphitheater took on a sound system and projector screen, as floating candles and fragrant flower petals glided through its water-lined aisles. Community guests arrived and floated up to dinner, where a stream of smiling retreat participants beamed behind the buffet line! As they served, the looks on the faces spilled over in delight, as they lovingly plated up authentic Gujarati dishes on the grateful line of plates that streamed by.
Post-dinner, we filed down to the amphitheater, where we unfolded into a grand “Ode to Women” evening of stories and songs around the nurturing qualities of compassion, receptivity, and community. The Pandya sisters inaugurated the evening with a stilling prayer. Then, like a flower blooms, Rika opened the evening lineup in pure-hearted gratitude, for the ladders who made the evening possible, and for her family’s intent
to pray for peace. Our emcees, Sheetal and Guri!, energetically invited Preeta, Ari, Trishna, David, and Ferose to the stage – each of whom spoke poignantly on moments of nurturing, motherhood, family, receiving open-hearted hospitality from strangers in foreign places, and gratitude for female counterparts and role models in their lives. Preeti illuminated the poetry of the weaver-poet, Kabir. Veronica surprised her husband (whom she lovingly allowed to be with us on his birthday!) with a touching story of dedicating acts of kindness to him on his birthday.
All through the evening, the tech team’s playful images of Nemo (the cartoon fish :)) flashed on screen between speakers, and we eagerly anticipated a finale of the first cut of Nimo's Ode To Woman
music video! As Guri attempted to introduce him in all his glory
, Nimo, in his dynamite, pure-hearted way, spontaneously entered the stage as low to the floor as possible, knelt on his knees and bowed his head to the ground, in gratitude to everyone. From that stillness, we were witness to his and filmmaking friend Ellie
’s stunning first video cut of the bilingual rap -- after which everyone couldn’t help but request him to sing live. :) As the stars beamed brighter and the hours grew later, the evening spilled forward into an effervescent stream of extended farewell conversations across the lawn. As if to comment on the evening, the painted white phrase, “Joy of Togetherness,” glistened out from one of the amphitheaters’ now empty rows. The trees, too, wordlessly watched the unfolding from above, as their roots firmly held together the soil on which we stood.
FLOW: Surrendering With A Heart of Gratitude
On the morning of our final day together – the morning of Gandhi’s death anniversary – Trupti and Rahul sang a stirring bhajan
in his spirit, and we opened our eyes to find miniature wooden peace poles inscribed with the warmly familiar, “May Peace Prevail on Earth
” quietly sitting in front of each of us.
Jayeshbhai, our sturdy, invisible ladder and one of the humble, vital pieces that enabled this whole gathering to unfold, shared of his presence and words. His offering carried an unabiding quality of faith in the law of love, as he described today’s inherent lack of trust and how what’s most needed is to shift from the need to have the upper hand or the lower hand to focusing on the inner hand. He remembered a story of an erudite economist who had two photos on his office wall. One was of his teacher, Mahatma Gandhi, and above that, was an image of the common people. When asked about the portrait of Gandhi, the economist answered, “Oh, that’s my teacher.” And to the second frame, he replied, “That’s my teacher’s teacher.”
In the way that reverence for all things find remarkable value in the most ordinary, Nimo and Rev Heng Sure proceed to surprised us with a stilling, just-written-that-morning song -- inspired by the sound a broom makes when it sweeps the ground. Rev Heng Sure spoke on the practice of bowing, and we silently following Josephji to the Peace Pole, concluding with three-steps-and-a-bow
around the campus. As each person finished, Khushmita offered an outstretched hand with a glass of juice, and we collectively held each person as they arrived. Overcome with gratitude, when Sam finished, he spontaneously bowed to each person who followed, and kept his forehead to the ground until the last person stood up from his final bow. We then filed back into the hall for our closing circle, opening our eyes to another series of sacred gifts, both literal and immaterial, in the space between all us.
At some point, all the small touches of love can’t help but sink into you. Devesh hand-painted stunning rocks that adorned each dining room table. Bhumika offered a soulful song (despite her hoarse throat!), followed by a surprise gift to everybody of her hand-drawn kindness journal. Sheetal-ben energetically masterminded everyone’s arrival and departure rides. Shaalini awed everyone with a stunning
photo slideshow, complete with thoughtfully crafted captions! Jaideep quietly orchestrated seamless tech support as other elves were even on standby to switch the lights as needed during sessions! The tireless kitchen team sat in stillness together at dawn, before springing to action to serve up meal after meal of pure love. At various lunches, Katzi wholeheartedly stood by the stack of plates, handing one to each person before he took his own lunch. I was amazed to see Andrew mindfully washing dishes with delicate care and one-pointed attention, even amid the hubbub of everyone eagerly elbowing one another to do each others’ dishes!
Abhishek remarked at the power of such attention to small acts. When Rika stumbled on a step, rather than be absorbed by pain, she immediately reached down to tend to the flower on which she fell. In the bustle of one of the community nights, Ashik carried a tiny insect wandering lost among the dining room tables to the sanctuary of the bushes. We discovered Smita-ben has a knack for unleashing blessings. And Joserra’s playful spirit of celebration (not to mention his Gujarati puns). Gokul lightened the room with his boisterous smile. There was Deven’s ready-for-anything steadiness. Preeti’s infectious open-heartedness. David G’s fiery, visionary ideas. David P’s receptive sincerity. Drishti’s ever-readiness to be of service. Shamash's ability to make anyone laugh. Sanchi's wholehearted way of offering. Shaalini and Deven’s daughter was at the retreat for a short while, but on their way home, she sang the chorus of one of Rev Heng Sure’s songs
, “I have enough I am grateful, share the blessings, hallelujah” for 10 nonstop minutes. With training as a psychotherapist, Valerie joked that her services were not needed amongst such company.
In the hours, days, and weeks since, the waves of after-ripples continue to overflow one's cup many times over. Ragu and Nimo plan to create a mobile app for personal practices. An crew of folks shared enthused
presence at Sister Lucy’s 20th anniversary celebration of her remarkable social work. In Pune, diverse follow-up circles organically converged at Khushmita and Sheetal's home, while in Baroda, Joserra and David G. shared space at the Pandya's Awakin Circle. A stream of transcripts, stories, and music
continue to be unleashed. Rajeev tweeted
and wrote, "For years to come, I will thank my stars for having made the decision to attend this retreat. The gifts I received from so many of you in our 1:1 and group conversations will remain with me for life." Preeta reflected
, "The experience for me added a field beyond the question of simply love and power -- and toward consideration of how one can continue to cultivate oneself so intensively that the invisible and vast (even "systemic") power emanating from love is the strongest and most regenerative and sustaining of all, and so that there truly is no exit from the resulting energy fields and ripples/waves of positive inner and outer (social) transformation. I can see nothing more important."
Gratitude spills over into the realm of personal practices. Vinit decided, “As my offering to the space, I’m cancelling all of my vacations of this year, and using each of my vacation days for volunteering.” Nisha emailed, "The practice I am taking home is to be more aware of the "otherness" that comes up - as thoughts and forms. And this could come up for me only because the volunteers served without that sense of otherness and the participants created a spontaneous, trusted space in their hearts. Gracias." After Giang had shared a humorously heartwarming story about being
the youngest of many sisters and noticing the touches of care embedded in her childhood hand-me-downs, one person vowed, “I don't know what’s going to happen to the excess clothes in my wardrobe, but … I’m moved by her story and want to pay attention at my consumption in coming year and half. I came to a conclusion that I will live the next 18 months (at least) only by what I already have.” Rika wrote
, "I will express my gratitude and respect to all of you through my transformation. I know that will be a lot of work and it will take my entire life, but surely that is what I want to do and that is how I want to live my life." And inspired
by her, a few folks created a webpage
where anyone can request a prayer!
Ketan returned to his office that week and to encounter and respond
to a robbery with forgiveness, and a hug. “I really don’t know whether what I did was right or wrong,” he wrote, “but I allowed my head to be overpowered by the heart. What I failed to understand that despite losing the money, why there were tears of compassion and kindness in my eyes?”
It’s hard to pinpoint what causes what, but in our 5 days together, there was an undeniable tapping into inextricable interconnections -- from which a palpable grace flows through, aligning us to the law of love.
As Gandhi wrote:
“Whether mankind will consciously follow the Law of Love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The Law will work, just as the Law of Gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the Laws of Nature, even so a man who applies the Law of Love with scientific precision can work greater wonders. For, the force of nonviolence is infinitely more wonderful and subtle than the forces of Nature, like, for instance, electricity.”
May we all flow forward with that love.
As an offering in that spirit, Sachi and Divyang surprised us with this (almost-real-time! :)) video on the last day, and our master photographer, Shaalini, compiled a stunning album of photos.