Friday, January 7, 2011

Give, Receive, Dance

Today Nipun gave an informal talk at ESI on service, generosity, and how 'being the change changes the being'. He spoke about his own service journey, framing it in three stages: giving, receiving, and dancing. The first stage represents inner transformation, the second humility, and the third is joy.

He started by defining wisdom; it is being able to connect the branch of the tree with its root. Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, "seeing the cloud in the piece of paper". He drew a parallel to service: the story of the boy who started off wanting to change the world, was unsuccessful, then tried to change his country. Unsuccessful again, he tried to change his state, then community, then just his own family. All unsuccessful. Now an old man, he realized that he could successfully change himself, and automatically change rippled out around him. The root connected to the tree branch.

One theme Nipun touched upon is the blurred line between giving and receiving. When you give, you really get back in return. He gave the example of Harshida Aunty who after a few years of serving meals on Wednesdays, went from saying "you're welcome" to a heartfelt "no no, thank you" when a stranger accepted a meal from her. Why? Because she came to realize the person was giving her an opportunity to be of service, to grow in generosity and selflessness. Or even take for example the talk Nipun was giving. At one level he is speaking and you the audience member is the receiver. But you are giving him your attention, which is itself a gift. And maybe just providing the occasion for Nipun to share serves him; he said it's possible that the person most needing to hear his words could be himself. So giving and receiving is blurry, and with that realization comes the third stage: dance. Keep the transactional scorekeeping calculations to the side and dive into the web of cosmic exchange headlong, with reckless abandon.

Another theme he talked about was the importance of Kalyan Mitra, "noble friends". The Buddha said it is one's most important asset while walking the million lifetimes path. Made me think about a conversation we were having just a few days ago at Jayeshbhai's, where my Dad and Nipun were talking about influences on my life. There are no accidents with who you cross paths with and stay close to, the souls you attract and attract you. It's possible that those certain soul friends in your life have been with you for many lifetimes, just in different configurations. In one life it's your friend, the next it's your brother, and the next it's your mother. But you are walking the path together, like attracts like.

The final theme I took away from the talk was about having depth to one's work. This has also come up in the wake of Ishwarsada's passing. At one level, Ishwardada worked on sanitation issues, keeping one's body and environment clean for one's health. At a deeper level, it's practicing discipline and cleanliness as an ethic in everyday life. At a deeper level still, it's cleanliness of the mind and thus purity of thoughts. Dada's work was outwardly practical, but there was a depth which connected it to spiritual development. Similarly, Gandhiji's work was ostensibly the Independence movement, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. Nipun tells the story about how Gandhi's disciples used to fight over who would get to sleep in his room at night, whereas Vinoba said it was all foolhardy because Gandhiji wasn't even in his body. He was spirit and as such Vinoba was with him even if he was in a different city. Swami Vivekananda could have done anything he wanted, including building hospitals and institutions galore. But an organization lasts only a hundred years if it's lucky, and buildings can be wiped out in one natural calamity. It's the deeper spiritual work that lasts lifetimes. Nipun maintains depth to his work by focusing on small acts. Like the man who stopped and gave him half a lemon when he was sick on the side of the road, then left without uttering a word.

I've heard Nipun speak enough times that at this point I typically listen from a meta level. Observe his body language, his pace and flow, how he uses eye contact, how I can serve him in the moment in invisible ways. I noticed today how effortlessly he transitions from story to story (today he talked exclusively in stories). It's almost like a Jedi mind trick the way he can take you from Karma Kitchen in Berkeley to a temple along the Narmada to an upscale restaurant in New York and then back to Gandhi's ashram during the Independence movement. All seamless, and executed like a delicate ballet dance. He delivers a story, gives a punchline, and then symmetrically uses that same punchline to launch into the next story. It's something a like a double entendre in a rap lyric.

At the end of the talk everyone in the audience was gifted two apples, which were themselves gifted to Jayeshbhai by a well-wisher in remembrance of Dada who loved apples. We were instructed to keep one for ourselves, and give the other to someone else as a half-lemon offering. And maybe in the process smudge the ideas of giver and receiver, and find some space to just dance.


  1. Thank you for writing this post :)
    enjoyed reading it :)

  2. Thanks for sharing it... Well said..!!

  3. Inspiring, as always. The kind of post that moves the soul. Thank you for sharing, and for giving us the opportunity to share this.

  4. Thanks for reporting on the happenings in A'bad, Neil.


  5. Neil, thanks for this wonderful write-up. You've become quite the eloquent blogger! Provides a little fire for lazy folks like me to carry on practicing this form of creating value :)

  6. Dear Neil,
    Feels great to have chanced upon this blog... thanks for sharing!