Sunday, August 6, 2017

Human Blossom

Sunday Grocery Gang members. Suryakanta Ba in the middle
For the past several years, I have been taking Ba and some of her friends for grocery shopping trips on Sundays. This Sunday we had the car packed with Ba, Hansoiya Ba, Kanta Ba, and first timer 91-year Suryaakanta Ba. Suryakanta Ba is the oldest of all, and she may be the sweetest. She is very cheerful,  always upbeat, sensitive, regularly wears a warm and friendly smile, and is always happy to give blessings.

We were in the grocery store and as she was picking vegetables she accidentally swiped Ba’s face with her hand, knocking off her glasses. I didn’t see it, but when I came over to them Suryakanta Ba was very gently stroking Ba and asking her repeatedly if she was alright and cursing herself for being so careless. I asked what happened, and she explained she accidentally hit her and it was a very wrong thing to do. Then, in the sweetest way, with tears welling up in her eyes and throat, in English she said “sorry” to Ba. It was the gentlest, sweetest thing I had every witnessed an old person do. It felt monumental for such an old person to so humbly apologize for anything. Even the stranger next to us, who also was startled by the sweetness, looked over and smiled at the exchange.


When you witness a beautiful flower in bloom, it can feel like all the beauty of the world has been funneled in and poured into that single moment. Or into a sunset or starry night. To me this moment felt like a human blossom. For a moment I forgot everything else and was reminded how beautiful the world can be.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sleep

I was talking with Pavi last month and she was sharing about an Ayurvedic master named Shunyaji who runs a world-renowned Institute in the Bay Area. In one of the courses where she trains students to teach Ayurveda, she started the first class by saying: You are going to learn a lot of things in this course and cover topics in great depth. You may not remember most and practice even less. But if you forget everything else I say, remember these two things and practice them for a lifetime of good health:
  1. Get enough sleep and sleep on time
  2. Avoid snacking
I found it fascinating that a teacher steeped so deeply in this ancient science began her course and essentialized the teachings into these two points.

Pavi and I talked more about the impact of good sleep and it inspired me to commit to sleeping on time and in greater quantity. Ayurveda says that the body gets peak rest during 11am-3am, so sleeping by 10:30pm is important. I was normally sleeping between 11-12am, and it would be a significant shift to get to bed by 10:30. But I told Pavi my goal would be to at least get to bed before 11pm regularly.

I have been putting it into practice for about a month and, though I'm still not there yet consistently, am finding it really beneficial. I'm not sure if it's directly caused by sleeping early, but I feel more at ease, less anxious in my day-to-day. I have been dealing with anxiety in the mornings and stress throughout the day for a couple years now so this has been a welcome change.

Earlier sleep means a bigger change in my routine, most notably it means I have to exercise in the mornings rather than evenings. Since I was sleeping earlier, I have been waking up earlier so this became a possibility. Morning workouts has been a happy side effect of the sleep shift and I've been really loving it. It's forced me to go to the gym less, so less heavy weight workouts but I've anyway been trying to move more towards flexibility and mobility through yoga and gymnastics-style training (after listening to an incredible interview with the former US Gymnastics coach Chris Sommer). Shifting away from the gym has brought in more variety in exercise as well, I rotate between 7-minute workout (from Nimo), 8-minute abs (from Hash), the Bear (a routine with dumbbell I learned from Denny, a 70+ year-old personal trainer I met in Florida that's built like a tank), pushups, kettlebell, etc. I do wind sprints on the riverfront instead of on the treadmill, which is better for the knees and probably for the body.

The sleep change causing ripple effects on the rest of life reminds me of an interview Naval Ravikant gave where he said the simple decision to work out every morning changed his whole life, because it meant he had to go to sleep early, which meant he couldn't stay out late, which meant he stopped drinking because he stopped going out with friends at night to bars. Stopping drinking in turn had many other positive mental and physical benefits. It's all connected and one discipline you bring in can have a positive ripple effect across many aspects of life. 

I started keeping a sleep log to track my sleep and motivate the behavior change, so far so good!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What Am I?

What am I?

I am not my anxiety;
it does not define me

I am not my TODO list,
or the tasks I accomplish each week

I am not defined by what I do or feel!

I am not my fears or failures
I am not my dreams, my growth, my pleasure, nor my pain

I learn, I grow, I rise, I fall
I'm something else
Something more?

What am I?
Everything?
Nothing?
Instrument?
Insignificant?

I am a collection of particles
My feet on the Earth, 
my particles mingle with all other particles
I am connected
No "I", no "me", no "my"

Observe and learn to accept; 
don't get too involved
My doing is only for myself, no one or nothing else.

Breath calmly, try to make peace

What am I?
That is the question.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Jesús

Editor’s note: This post is over a year overdue! Writing it even now, the story remains fresh and near to my heart and I’m excited to share it. It is about my friend Jesús and the work he is doing in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

UPDATE: If your moved by Jesús and his story and want to do something to support, please vote for the school project here.

Jesús and I met in Ahmedabad in 2010 when he arrived as a volunteer with Architects Without Frontiers to build Anganwadi schools with Manav Sadhna. Among several projects, he was involved in building Patangyu. In his spare time he and I held a regular football practice with some of the MS children. That later grew into the MS Sports Program that continues on today. 

After leaving India in 2012 and traveling to Peru in 2013 to build another school in a slum area there, in January 2015 Jesús moved to Nairobi, Kenya to work with an NGO doing educational work in Kibera. At the time he made the decision to move, details about this NGO and the project he would be doing were vague. But it was Jesús’ experiment to bravely jump in and, in his own words, “lose myself in service of others.” In fact Jesús nature is to serve however and wherever he is called.

As it turned out, the NGO he had originally come to Kibera for didn’t pan out. At that point most of us would have patted ourselves on the back for the effort, tuck-tailed and run back home. But not Jesús. He kept digging and came to know about another organization, KDI, also doing education and community-related work in Kibera. Despite no formal introduction or partnership in place, Jesús decided to stay on and work with KDI on their various projects building bridges, public toilet facilities, community gathering spaces, shops, playgrounds, and more within Kibera. Essentially, creating open spaces by and for the community. Jesús had no funding or clear project, just a desire to serve. After some time a vision for a school, KDI’s biggest project yet, took shape and Jesús was appointed to lead it. Along with support from a German Architecture NGO, Jesús began the journey of building a multi-story school in the middle of dense Kibera.

If you've been to Kibera, you would say the notion of building a pukka school in the belly of this dusty dense and dubious place is impossible. There is an endless list of challenges. At the first level there is securing the will of the community, the resources, and the know-how. Jesús had to convince the community of the design (including details like whether to build the toilet facing the main road with a public entrance or inside only for the children or for pay), the materials to be used (in the middle of construction, the local Nubian community demanded that the concrete structure be replaced by mud), and the timeline (the children were re-located temporarily to a church during construction, but its distance and lack of facilities caused attendance to drop). After that there are an enormous number of logistical hurdles. Here’s one story Jesús told, in one of his regular emails to friends since construction began in 2016, on transporting materials from the main road down to the site by hand:

The poor accessibility to the site, means that materials (sand, gravel, stone...) have to be carried all the way from the main road to the site (around 300meters) by foot with sacks or wheelbarrows.  Kibera is full of "porters", who are young people waiting on the side of the road to carry materials in exchange for a bunch of shillings. What happened was, some porters got "distracted" and ended up with the sacks of cement in their houses instead of on the site. So, to make sure all the materials reach safe and sound, the teachers are doing this: every time materials reach the road, the teachers leave their classes, and stand along the path (from road to site) 50 meters apart monitoring the materials entire trip...So far, none of the porters have been distracted again. ;)
Even once the materials are at the site, they have to prevent them from theft by keeping security 24 hours a day. At one point, the security guard had to be fired because he was himself stealing bags of cement! In another episode, Jesús had to demolish and shift a pillar by 30cms so a neighbor could squeeze a couch through the narrow common road. During construction a pit latrine was discovered under the building site which caused the another part of the school to be demolished and rebuilt as it was to risky to build on top of the latrine. Most recently, in order to connect the schools toilets to the main sewage line they had to open up 200 meters of roads in the slum.
Classes have commenced without teachers and a completed building!
The school is not complete yet, but Jesús can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Still, the parents of the children have decided they do not want to wait to get out of the tunnel and launched a rebellion to allow the children to start coming to the half-completed school! Classes have commenced and Jesús had to roll with another unexpected turn in the journey. Humbly, he writes how this was a reminder that this project was not about the finished product but the journey, with the community. And what a journey it is!

I am continuously inspired by Jesús and his humble work all around the world. He works deeply embedded in the most challenging contexts and is able to observe and delight in both the ugliness and and beauty of life around him. I am always thrilled to get his every-few-months email photo diary entries where he shares about small and beautiful things about life and culture in Kenya with such rich vivid detail. The way he lives and works is truly humble, powerful, impactful, and exceptional and gives me tremendous hope for humanity to build connections and serve with a truly open heart.

Thank you, hermano, for who you are and the work you do continue to do in quiet corners of the world that touches and inspires so many all around the world.


Last year, I was able to visit Jesús and Lily in Nairobi and see Jesús’ work first hand. Here is a short photo diary of that visit (photos with captions).




Saturday, October 10, 2015

Floss Test

In recent years I have made efforts to take my meditation practice "off the cushion." I realized the real goal of the practice is to be constantly aware, continually present, moment to moment. Otherwise you just sit on the cushion 1-2 times a day and its an oasis of presence at best, a ritual at worst. The practice becomes alive and really starts to benefit you if you are able to apply it during the other 22 hours.

Continual awareness in day-to-day life is a big challenge. For a couple years, I've found pockets of mundane life where robust awareness and precense has made headway: when I drive, before I sleep, while I prepare food, while I walk around, while I sit and wait, etc. But these are just small punctures into the vast thick canvas of consciousness that covers life.

One test of awareness and mindfulness I've been playing with is the Floss Test. Every morning, I floss my teeth. Usually, I wake up and brush or floss and its so mechanical I forget that I've even done it 30 min later. I stood in front of the mirror and picked at my teeth for several minutes, but I don't even have the prescense of mind to remember what I did or sometimes that I was even there.

So I've made a habit of trying to be fully aware while flossing my teeth. More times than I'd like to admit, I start flossing with mindfulness, but by the time I'm at the end of the line my mind has wandered and I wasn't there for the experience of cleaning the last few teeth or throwing away my floss. It's crazy how many times I've promised myself I will end that two minutes with the same presence as when I started, for the sake of this game, but was still not able to maintain. But over time it's slowly gotten better.

This bootstrapped approach seems inelegant. Once I'm able to master flossing, I'll move on to showering, then eating, then exercising? Seems quite brittle.

Is there a better way than "fake it till you make it?"

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Winning Is A Drug



Our U-12 team recently competed in a league, hosted by Kahaani. They played about six matches, one every Sunday morning, over two months. Heading into their last match, they had lost 3 matches and drew in two. In the final match, they got their first win.

The children played brilliantly. They passed, they ran hard, they stayed in position, and they played together. Though they dominated the entire game, they were down 1-0 at half. They scored two hustle-style goals in the second. After they took the lead, they frantically protected for the next five minutes. The stakes were very high. When the final whistle blew, they were over the moon. Flying around whooping and hugging. It was difficult to calm them down enough to shake hands with the other team.

Afterwards Manishaben hosted a very cute ceremony for all the league teams with parents and coaches all around, and medals were handed out. I forgot how exciting it is to receive a medal. The children continued to occupy cloud nine.

On the car ride home, the mood was night and day different than after the other matches. They were chatting non-stop with each other, singing songs, yelling, asking for the radio to get turned up, planning how to tell Rahulbhai the big news ("Neilsir, Neilsir! Don't tell Rahulsir we won, we want to surprise him!"). The spirit was highly elevated. All because they knocked a ball into a net one time more than another group of kids over a forty minute span. When we got back to MS, they flew out of the van straight over to Rahulbhai and the other kids to bask in the glory. The medals were shown off proudly and placed around each others' necks. It was tremendous joy.

Winning is a drug. It totally changes your mood and outlook on life. Everything in your lens is tinted with a special shine. This experience made me think about why I was never attracted to drugs or alcohol growing up. They never appealed to me, seemed irrelevant to my life and lifestyle.

It was because I was already getting high all the time on the football pitch.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Purpose Of Life

Over the years, my personal declaration of life purpose (or "life goal") has evolved:

"Be rich and famous" (childhood)
"Be a leader, serve the world" (teenage)
"Reach my full potential as a human being" (20s)
"Purify myself, develop spiritually" (30s)

Most recently, it has essentialized to:

"Take high quality breaths"

I'm really happy with this, it gets at the crux of the matter. This latest evolution was greatly influenced by a piece shared by Rushabh earlier this year on the occasion of Nipun's birthday. I found the piece profound and I have had it in my mind and heart since I read it 8 months ago. I've gone back to it several times. I hope you enjoy.

Life And Mind. A Conversation.

Mind: I wonder what the purpose of Life is.
Life: Hmm
Mind: I hear so many things: To realise your dreams. To improve yourself every day. To achieve wealth. To serve others. To make the world a better place etc..
Life: That's a whole lot of stuff to do!
Mind: Tell me about it! Now, they all do seem to be related to each other, but you know I can't achieve all of them...
Life: So who asks you to?
Mind: Er, you ask of me to, don't you?
Life: No.
Mind: Wait a minute! There are religions founded on it, self-help books doing raging business about it - they all say deep, important  sounding things about Life's purpose! And you are saying you don't ask any of those things?
Life: Nope. All those things seem to achieve the purpose of your, the mind's, life.
Mind: But you are my life. So my purpose is your purpose too, is it not?
Life: No. Your life, the Mind's life, is a story filled with events and feelings that you experienced or imagined. It extends on a timeline from the Past to the Future. It believes that all the events and feelings add up to some cumulative meaning. That is not like me at all.
Mind: Then what are you like?
Life: No story. No past, no future. Just alive. Right Now.
Mind: Right, and how exactly do you intend to stay truly alive without excitement, feelings, goals, and meaning?
Life: By breathing, of course.
Mind: That is it?
Life: That is it. Everything else is your story. And others people's mind-stories that get published for you to read. My purpose is to breathe. Deeply, slowly, in relaxation.
Mind: Then we can all just sit around doing nothing but breathe?
Life: Be my guest. But what happens if people do that?
Mind: The body wont survive if it does not hunt for food, or work for food.
Life: So you must work so you can eat, stay alive, so that Breathing, my purpose, can continue.
Mind: What about working for riches, creating jobs, or changing the world? To become brave, fair, kind, compassionate?
Life: Those pursuits and ends are of no interest to me.
Mind: If those ends don't matter then why would people dance, sing, plough land, serve, create, do scientific  experiments, read, write, meditate, exercise? If they began to believe that their purpose was only to eat and breathe, why would anyone do  anything?
Life: Ah, now these things you just said are important to do. Because you and the body have been so designed that it is in the process of focused activity that Breathing happens best.  Regardless of what action it is, when the mind is still or on focus then the body breathes the deepest. In this state, what psychologists call 'Flow', my purpose gets gloriously fulfilled. The same is the objective of Yoga asanas and Meditation.
Mind: So the desire for activity and ambition are just meant to develop focus and stillness in me?
Life: Right. To me it doesn't matter whether you dance or sing or read, or are a sportsperson or a traveler or an  accountant, whether you are rich or not, so long as you do what you do with a relaxed focus and breathing deeply.
Mind: What about the outcome of activity and ambition? That matters too!
Life: Why?
Mind: Here is why: Taking your point further, I have noticed that when  I accomplish a task, or get appreciation from others then the body feels happy, and takes in a deep breaths of satisfaction. That is a fulfillment of your purpose. Therefore to accomplish or get appreciation must also be important to achieve your purpose.
Life: Interesting point. First tell me, what do you feel in the moments after when you accomplish something?
Mind: I feel satisfied, contented, maybe happy.
Life: What does that mean? Peel one more layer further.
Mind: It means that in that moment, I feel I have what I wanted for that moment. That I don't want anything more.
Life: So after you got what you wanted, could it be said there is a  state of 'momentary desire-less-ness' in you?
Mind: Er, yes.
Life: It is not the achievement of your desires that makes the body and mind happy, it is the momentary state of desire-less-ness that does it.
Mind: But unless I achieve or get appreciated how will I feel that momentary state of desire-less-ness?
Life: But you dont accomplish great things in most events in your life.  Why wait for the state of desire-less-ness only in moments  after accomplishment and appreciation? Why not all the time, if you could?
Mind: How?
Life: By not expecting victory or appreciation at the end of your activity. To not really care what the ultimate outcome of your activity or ambition is. That way you also have more fun doing whatever you are doing.
Mind: Hold on, one sec, quick revision: There are two things I hear you saying - a relaxed,  focused activity in step with the body, and a state of desire-less-ness.  So in combination it means To Act, but with a state of Desire-less-ness. So is that the prescription for fulfilling Life's purpose?
Life: Sounds about right. There is a term for it too: Nishkaam Karma, coined by Lord Krishna in the Gita.
Mind: Ah! And I am also stiller when I focus only on my intention, instead of focusing on the outcome. So that works out well for both of us in the long run, ain't it?
Life: Karma is not a delayed payment system. It is instantaneous. The moment you act without focusing on the outcome, the mind, the body and the activity immediately align with each other and your breathing becomes calmer and deeper. That feeling is no different from what you would  feel in moments after a favorable outcome.
Mind: ...And if I already have that feeling during the activity, then I could treat victory or defeat after the activity just the same, right?
Life: That is correct. Now, does that remind you of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If', or what Gautam Buddha wrote in the Lotus Sutra?
Mind: Hmm..so the psychology of Flow, the practice of Yoga and meditation, teachings of Krishna, the poem 'If', and the insight of Buddha..they are all  connected?
Life: Indeed..They converge to the same truth inside you - to keep the body moving and the mind still - to cause relaxed, deep breaths moment by moment. That is my only purpose.