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This next adventure is just like being in an actual, real-life ‘foreign film’, where the story is simple and sweet and that is enough. I mean it’s uncannily like living in such a film.

mithhouseWhen we moved in, we observed the view from Rish’s family’s apartment – a lot with two abandoned buildings on a property filled with litter. Mark and I both liked the design of one of the buildings and fantasized about fixing it up and living in it. The other building is nice also. With its many rooms in a row all sharing a common exterior porch, it’s somehow reminiscent of an ashram.

We asked some neighbors about the building once and we were told that the owners live in America and that the building has a ghost living in it.

I guess this spooky story didn’t deter us much, as the next day we decided to jump the fence and start picking up the litter on the property. It’s hard to imagine the kind of immediate uproar this created as we started cleaning up.

First of all, most of the people in our building are always home, or at least it sure seems that way. Secondly, the families are generally pretty large, with cousins and friends and all kinds of people often hanging out. Half of the building shares our view of this property, and like us, they look out through a large window covered in bars.

Picking up trash from ‘the other side,’ we got a glimpse into our own building, and in the process of causing a scene, this view became quite spectacular. Imagine a big cage that might be filled with monkeys or something, now filled with 7 or 8 human beings –men, women, and children – all standing up in full view, looking out at you while holding onto the bars. Now imagine a building with a grid of about 15 of these such cages, all filled with people holding the bars and all looking out at you.

mithwindowNow imagine every one of them all yelling at you simultaneously. I wished I had a camera at that moment.

They pleaded for us to stop cleaning. They told us that they would continue to throw trash out the windows and that there was no point. Sometimes we answered their protests by saying that we wanted to improve our view and the views for everyone else, and that even if it became littered tomorrow, at least it would be nice for today.

But most of the time, we just ignored their mad protests and kept picking up trash.

The second day was more or less the same. On this day, however, a man came by after we had jumped the fence. We were standing in and he was standing out. The door was locked and he informed us that he was the owner. He said that he was bothered how everyone from our building threw their trash onto his property and told us that they needed to be “brainwashed.” In slightly different terms, we comforted him by saying that through our selfless act of cleaning it, people would necessarily have a different relationship to this property than before.

He asked us to join him and others in a neighborhood cleanliness/awareness program, and encouraged us to keep cleaning up his property. We asked if he could lend us a rake and he went away. It was a very odd exchange, but nevertheless, we were able to continue cleaning on.

By the third day, people started to get used to the idea that we are unusual and this is what we do. Just like on previous days, we were offered caps and bags and other things to help out, but on this day, people started making requests. Could I move this pile of broken concrete to the street, with other broken concrete? Could we clean the elevator shaft?

They weren’t exactly joining us, but at least their focus on the possibilities began to develop.

The fourth day – or was it the fifth? – was the breakthrough day. After playing with the kids, Mark told them that he was going to clean the back property again. The kids (there are a ton of kids in this building), weighed their choices and decided that cleaning happened to be the most entertaining of their options. They all jumped the fence and for the first time, all the kids started helping move stones, sweep dirt, and joining in the movement. This project was no longer a nonsensical play to watch starring us two bizarre foreigners. It had now become a collective project.

We don’t exactly know where we are going with this, but it’s just crazy enough to keep going and it seems to be shifting mindsets and opening unexpected doors. I suppose for now we’ll just keep clocking in a little time here and there and enjoy this most amusing story as it progresses. One thing that is perfectly clear to me is that far greater than the greatest of cinema is to observe and relish your own living story for the beauty that it is.

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apple_logoMark and I have come up with perhaps one of the greatest ad campaigns ever in the history of the world. What we need is a personal connection to someone in marketing at Apple/iPod. I can’t imagine that more than about 6 people ever read this blog, but I can imagine that out of these few, amongst your friends and your friends’ friends, someone has the connection we need.

I wouldn’t be putting this out there if I didn’t really think that it was worth it. Such an ad campaign would likely fetch a big chunk of change. If this goes through, Mark and I will donate every rupee of it to something very, very, very cool.  Promise.

So please help if you can!!! Thanks. :)

There were 130 kids and volunteers set to go to Shanku’s Water World this morning. Two rented tour buses were waiting as the children arrived at the Gandhi Ashram. Manav Sadhna had taken kids from the Tekra (nearby slum) to the water park before and it was all the kids talked about for the following year. As children from the Tekra poured in the Ashram this summer day, one thing became clear – the number of kids present far exceeded the number of kids who signed up.

Two extra cars were taken, the buses were crammed, and 230 of us headed off to a summer celebration not soon to be forgotten.

sugarcane11The kids played in the water under the hot sun for hours until afternoon. They all sat down, completely dehydrated, while a deal was worked out to serve everyone in our group sugar cane juice for half price.

sugarcane2_1Imagine a long line of a hundred thirsty girls followed by a line of a hundred thirsty boys all being served sugar cane juice as fast as it could be made.

In response to my posting, Join the Experiment!, a particular individual from over there sent some money to effect change over here. I won’t name names, but $26 of the money you contributed went to bring sweet relief to a parched 216 kids from the slums as well as some volunteers.

Compared to the extraordinary gift from Manav Sadhna, this was a very small contribution, but it definitely sweetened the day.

Thanks for being part of the experiment! A much bigger one is on the way.

If you’d like to play along, click here!


garba3Yesterday, our friend, Raju, from Manav Sadhna invited everyone to a Garba (traditional Gujarati dance) celebration in his village. From the Gandhi Ashram, 30 full-sized people all crammed into 2 jeeps (literally) and drove for an hour and a half to the village.

After we arrived, we shook off the cramps, and sat down on the manjas, or wood-framed beds woven together with thick string, that help to define an Indian village. As I was sitting there, something unexpected happened to me. I began to

relax.

Being in the city surrounded by so many people and traffic and noises creates a lot of tension that we are not usually aware of. Here, the village quiet quickly infiltrated my being and I began to

breathe.

We walked to the farm and watched the beautiful sunset. The evening air was warm, with a luscious breeze, as the wheat crops magically danced along. The soil was soft and the cosmos were aligned and I could feel myself beginning to

heal.

With only 10 minutes until dinner, everyone started walking back, but a few of us stayed in place on the farm to meditate and drink in this rare moment. I savored all of the 10 minutes, and when it was time to go, I didn’t.

moon3_1Behind me, rose a perfectly round, perfectly golden moonrise. The sky flickered with unexplained sparkles of lightening. What could possibly compare to the simplicity and perfection of this healing place? And how can we collectively find our way back here?

The occasion for the garba, it turned out, was to celebrate this auspicious full moon evening. For the rest of the night, there was dinner, and dancing, and conversation, and joy, and though it was all very special, the silver rays of the moonlight were all that I longed for. I craved the way the moonbeams entered straight into my being, healing all, and I did all that I could to steal away and indulge.

The dancing lasted late into the night, but eventually I got my break, settling on a quiet rooftop, drifting off into a bathing sleep under this heavenly sky now brought ablaze by the silvery moon.


>>Here is a poem on a related experience: Download tug_of_war.pdf

After our journey through the villages, we came back to Ahmedabad. I had a pretty clear idea of what we could embark upon, but didn’t really have a plan as to exactly when and where.

nipungrrrOur friends, Nipun and Guri, decided not to waste a moment and to start walking immediately to “find the good” in people, particularly in inspirational people. Their plan was to walk and travel lightly and to chart their course as they progressed, based on information they would gather. As they met with inspirational figures, they would document their stories and offer a helping hand wherever possible.

Even though this plan involved a lot of walking and some unknowns and some helping, for me, personally, it felt almost too pleasant and unchallenging. Knowing that the world around was filled with pain and problems and knowing that there was relief and solutions on hand, I felt compelled to at least try to throw myself into the drama of life and offer what I could.

Based on their spontaneous decision to leave, I was left with the feeling that they were engaging in a plan of action and I was left in a space of planning or dreaming. I didn’t like this feeling and decided that, for my own sense of comfort, action had to come quickly.

A few insights immediately shot up to the surface. For one, why not start in Ahmedabad? We were here. Why go anywhere else? One could argue, why go to India at all, but many factors –mostly intuitive ones – brought us all to India. For whatever reasons, here we were, and to engage in all-out cleaning and kindness campaign in the middle of a city would no doubt send immediate shock waves.

I also decided that we should go without money, to greatly reduce any barriers of separation that would inevitably result through possessing and guarding ‘what is mine’. We knew we would be taken care of. The one concern, of course, is that the water we would be offered would make us sick. I told Mark to start drinking the local water immediately in hopes of adjusting as quickly as possible. I would too (coincidentally, this is about where the month of sickness began.) :)

So the plan was to hit the streets for a couple weeks, and stir up all the love and dust we could, push a cart filled beyond capacity with collected plastic and garbage, sleep out on the streets, and then eventually deliver the cart somewhere, to at least symbolically raise the issue about plastic.

Our group was about 7 people at the time and there was a long period of uncertainty and one difficult night when it seemed like I was on my own. At the time when the US was nearing an attack on Iraq, I had engaged in a campaign that stretched me to my limits and so I was very aware that the limits existed. I’m a shy guy. I think in bold ways and I often step into my fears because I care to effect bold change (plus, I like a life of color), but ever since childhood, I’ve been terrified of being the center of attention.

Without Mark by my side on this, I felt my limits would consume me. I figured that this may very well be the end to a trip that carried just so much promise. I offered myself to the universe, and whatever was meant to be would happen. The following day, Mark made the decision to join me. This journey would continue.

The US had been hit hard on 9/11. Like never before in history, the world immediately came together as one. America had its many problems, but all in all, America was a beloved presence throughout the world. It had taken a stand for freedom, for liberty, for human rights, for dreams. A beacon of light, it offered so much hope to so many.

A great deal of its strength, prosperity, and glory were the direct byproducts of incredibly noble efforts (though American history is of course also deeply scarred).

America had an extraordinary opportunity to respond to the situation in a way that would capitalize on the collective good will and redefine its idealism and excellence, but instead was opting for a path of exclusion, power, and self-interest.

nudepeaceYou may or may not agree with this perspective, but many of the world’s citizens did, as peace rallies flared up across the globe like never before. The majority of the people on this planet felt they knew better than the small group of leaders in control, and we were trying everything we could to get them to change course… there was still time.

My friends and I went to the demonstrations in San Francisco. They were largely fun and celebratory, but also sometimes angry. Everyone cried out
for peace and it made me reflect on “peace” and what it really means.

There were times in my life where I – or the egoless self – had experienced a genuine sense of peace. The severity of this situation felt like it couldn’t be ignored or watched from the sidelines. I felt that perhaps the greatest gift that I could possibly give was to “Be the change” – to offer genuine peace to this situation and to America. Real peace was not something I could pull out of my pocket at will. It was something that would have to be delicately discovered.

At the time I was doing website design for the Circle of Life Foundation. Its founder, Julia Butterfly Hill, was putting together an event called We The Planet, that would take place in about 6 weeks. The event would be a great demonstration of a better world to come – a completely eco-friendly festival celebrating the coming together of all. In these dark days where the riot-armed police guarded the San Francisco streets, this event seemed like a beacon of hope in the storm. The symbolism of the event was striking. It was taking place on Earth Day, which also happened to fall on the Spring equinox, symbolic of renewal, and also on Easter Sunday, symbolic of resurrection. And butterflies, naturally, are also symbols of transformation.

civic07Throughout the world, the peace movement was ablaze. The strongest fire was in the US itself. Within the US, the energy was greatest in the Bay Area, and within the Bay Area, the focal point of it all was in the Civic Center Plaza, where most of the peace marches terminated and demonstrations were held. If ever there was a tantric center to this situation, this seemed to be it.

I decided that I would start a meditation circle at the Civic Center Plaza – one genuinely aimed at finding and offering real peace.  It would start on April 1st 2003 and end at the We The Planet Festival on April 20th. I understood that this could potentially catch fire. If it were to grow strong in San Francisco, it would be likely be replicated throughout the world, and a genuine feeling of peace would make its mark during this troubled time.

Since I couldn’t pursue any deep inner peace and work effectively to promote the event, I decided simply to go within and let it unfold as it would.

Friends came together to support the effort. It was something genuine and something that we all felt like we wanted or needed to be a part of. Still, I had walked away from my job at Woodshanti to do this. Everyone else was busy and could only commit what they were able. Though I had extraordinary support, it was a long stretch and the real weight of the effort was almost entirely on me.

Though in my mind, the potential of this effort was extraordinary, as soon as the US attacked Iraq on March 20th, it deflated the collective energy and hope that had been building and building. My efforts and intentions were still as appropriate as ever in a time of madness and destruction, but the public support that could have emerged simply wouldn’t.

Now, I faced a horribly difficult situation. In my soul, I knew that I had only one choice. This path for me was life itself. To engage in this was to engage in everything I believed was important and to step away from it was to fall asleep, to give up on being awake, vital, and alive. I had to keep walking forward. I felt a vitality in my veins as I had only several times before. I knew with certainty that where I was in the universe is exactly where I needed to be. I stood on the very cutting edge of change – one so subtle that very few could see it. Knowing this might have been plenty, but I was way too human and way too delicate.

As a shy person, I had put myself up front and center. Though I was now engaged in an action that was true and needed, it was one that would not catch on, thus all reason made it feel like I was engaged in something off the mark. I felt embarrassed and humiliated on a daily basis, but I sat in this space and continued on, knowing it was alive. During this time, I wrote daily journal entries, which expressed both the hope and difficulties I experienced.

firstcircle1There came times when my self-doubts began to overpower my resolve, but with the encouragement of many extraordinary friends such as Scott, Gavi, and Karmeshwar, and particularly through the support of Loveleen, ShantiDeva, and Bhuvanesh, I made it through.

Probably what this taught me above all else was the power of my fear of social rejection.  Having gone through this experience, I am now so much more aware of my capacity to handle being up front and center.

Though the event may have not made much of an impact on the world, it was something that made a difference to those of us who participated in it – a very special and bright gathering of friends during a very ugly time in history.

This is a story I’ve told a few times, but I’ve never really put it in writing. Hopefully someone somewhere might get something from it. The lessons here have helped me beyond measure.

I had gone out with my girlfriend, Angie, for 2 ½ years, and she was now ready to go solo. Being a pretty passionate guy, my understanding of love was that it was something eternal – something you didn’t just turn on and off like a light switch. To me, the strength with which I tried to hold our love together was no different than the degree of faith I had in love itself – which was infinite. So I held on. For dear life, I held on, making it very difficult for her to follow her chosen way.

Eventually, the walls of my world literally started crumbling in from all directions. Not only was I losing her, but I was being kicked out of college, brought into court, turned against by most everyone – people who had never met me and others who should have known better. It was as if the whole world had turned against me. For years, I had been working to understand myself in deeper and deeper ways and had finally reached a point of pure innocence where I was at my most vulnerable. I was literally like a child and the world around me was filled with venom. In this process I had become wounded. I could trust no one. Every moment was sheer agony.

At a certain point, it came down to survival. I was either going to get through this or I wasn’t.

When I was just about at my lowest, I spoke with my mother on the phone. She told me that when she did things to help others, it made her feel better. That sounded like the worst advice I could imagine hearing. I was barely able to breathe my life was so miserable and she was suggesting I help others? How could there possibly be worse timing?

In an attempt to understand my situation, I started doing a series of drawings with my left hand (I’m right handed), which looked very much like a child’s drawings. I drew Angie and all the love that radiated from her to me. As the series continued, eventually, I saw that the source of this light was behind her and that I was actually dying from the lack of light getting to me because of her position. I saw that the real problem was that I didn’t love myself and depended on her as my source of love.

Before meeting Angie, I had known love in the deepest of ways, but through Angie I had first truly learned what it meant to be loved back. This kind of love was nourishing and good. It was life itself and my fear in her leaving was that my source of love itself was going away.

As I understood that what I really wanted was love and not so much Angie, it gave me the perspective to try something different.

On the walls of my apartment, I created a large sign that said, “I Love Myself!” I didn’t mean it, but I wrote it anyway. I repeated the phrase “I Love Myself, I Love Myself, I Love Myself, …” over and over again. Hundreds of times. Thousands of times. Tens of thousands of times. Still, I didn’t really mean it, but I wanted to mean it, and so I kept saying it. It took a while, but eventually I started to believe it.

blueskies_2Taking my mother’s suggestion to heart, I formed something I called “The Love Club.” I told no one about it and invited no one to join. It was a group with one member only, and my purpose was to go out into the world and do one act of love completely anonymously each day. So I started. One day, I would take a plastic bag, walk down the street and fill it with trash. The next day, I might write a letter to my grandfather, or leave a little money for someone to find. Every day, I would pick something.

As I continued to repeat “I Love Myself” and perform daily acts of anonymous kindness, something within began to radically shift. I was quickly transformed from a depressed, wounded soul, to a radiant, energetic being at the top of his game. The world around me turned golden, and my karma just seemed to shoot through the roof.

Anyway, as with all stories, they continue on and on as life is an endless thread. This recipe is still there and it still works. Anytime I start feeling bad, I just remind myself that I indeed love myself. And now I really mean it. After all, at the core we are all as sacred as anything that ever was. As soon as you learn to understand that this sacredness indeed is who you are, you have no choice but to love yourself. You are the purity of the Heavens. You are the Light itself. You are the Infinite.

And do those anonymous acts of kindness! Perhaps there is no better, quicker way to grow in spirit.

Wishing you blue skies…

Just when everyone thought they had me pegged as “Mr. Plastic,” I had resolved the plastic issue in my mind and it quickly began to shrink into one element of a much broader, all-encompassing vision.

Why not do all kinds of crazy acts of kindness and service along the way and just use picking up trash as our default plan of action? We could still gather the plastic up and deliver it to The Man if that seemed like the best strategy.

During this time, Mark and I were serving food every meal to all the people staying at Nareshwar. There were quite a few colorful characters staying there. One man stood out in particular. He was a small, elderly man with a crooked back. His appetite for food was extraordinary. We fed him and fed him and fed him more and
he consumed and consumed and consumed. Time went by and he kept eating, and wanted more even as the hall was closing down. His appetite just seemed unearthly.

gollum_1Mark and I both felt intuitively as if he were placed there in the dream as a character for us to process. We had no idea what this really meant or what, if anything, would come of it, but we both just had suspicions.

Sure enough, the following day, we were outside the ashram and ran into him. He came up to us and asked us for money to get back to his home. We found out that it wasn’t too far and offered to give him a ride. He wasn’t at all interested. All he wanted was money.

One concept I had been working with since before we left on this trip was the simple one that there is just so much people-power in India and so
many people looking for work. Likewise, there is just so much work to do. The cost of labor is also extremely cheap. It would simply be foolish to not just create jobs and fix up the country.

For us, this was always an option.  We could simply create jobs at will and pay people to do them. If someone asked us for money, we could say “If you clean the street from this tree to this one, we will pay you 10 rupees.” They get money; they get esteem; the world is beautified; everyone is happy.

So we wondered how to deal with this man and decided to offer him a job cleaning the bus stand where we were sitting. It was pretty gross, so we volunteered to help him (as we usually did anyway). Coincidentally, we found some brooms and a basket, but he wasn’t willing to do any work. He just wanted money. We figured that we had played the dream well and could do no more, so we were content leaving.

Finally, he agreed, but let us know that our idealistic notions were useless and that he just wanted money. So we all started cleaning. After a short while, he insisted on a tea break. I bought him a cup of tea and some biscuits. I shared the rest of the pack with everyone else sitting around. He sat down and indulged in his tea and biscuits and television as we waited… and waited… and waited… until we eventually realized that he was going to keep us waiting indefinitely. He got far more than he put out and was on the winning side of the equation.

manavsadhna1We decided to clean it up ourselves. If he didn’t come back, the job would be gone. Some kids brought us some better brooms and even started to help us. We did a pretty thorough job and eventually the crew from Manav Sadhna came out to get drinks or something and saw us stirring up all kinds of dust in the middle of the street. True to their natural style of service, they quickly joined in and we not only cleaned up that bus stand, but the one next to it and the whole side of the street. Mark and I looked like heroes, but it was totally orchestrated by this dream figure.

Meanwhile, he sat unaware, or pretending to be, of the whole drama unfolding behind him.

On this day, I was given such an extraordinary lesson about the ability to just start sweeping and cleaning on the streets in the middle of the day. Clearly, this could be part of our walk. To this, I owed this ‘Gollum’ everything. Just as it seemed that we had been taken advantage of, I realized what an amazing gift he had given to me personally and I went over and paid him for the job. Everyone was shocked that I actually paid him, but I walked away happier than anyone, knowing that he was worth every rupee. He got his money which, like he said, was all that was ever really required of him.

Afterwards, I was left with the strong feeling like I had met this creepy man before – like perhaps he was the same angel in disguise that allowed Loveleen and I to meet.

It was on September 26, 1993 (she doesn’t remember the date, but I do – and yes, that means I’m older than you thought). I rode my motorcycle to the Berkeley Marina for the fun of exploring a new area. I believe it was the first time I had ever been there.

I parked my bike and walked with helmet in hand and ripped clothing. I passed a girl sitting down with her head in her arms, and kept going. I walked to the very end of the pier, turned around, and started walking back. Again, I saw the same girl.

This time, she was standing up against the railing and an old man was talking to her. She looked really uncomfortable like he was kind of creepy or something and I wondered if I should do anything to help out. I figured I’d probably just be adding to her problems, so should probably just keep going. But what if she was actually being bothered? I looked at her and she gave me a friendly look, telling me in a glance that the guy indeed was unwanted. Without thought, I simply went and stood next to her, making it seem as if I had been away and had just come back. The old man picked this up and soon walked away.

She thanked me and not wanting to have my motivations be misunderstood, I quickly walked on.

Soon I realized that this too might be a little foolish, so I slowed down a little, and a little more. Her two friends who I had seen at the end of the pier had now caught up to her and they all caught up to me. She again thanked me and introduced me to her friends. We started talking and eventually the subject of my motorcycle came up. I asked her if she wanted to see it. It was a pretty new bike for me, so I was proud showing it off.

We got to the bike (Goldy – a 1976 Honda CB360T, painted yellow – long story here as well) and I asked her if she wanted to honk the horn. She declined. We talked a little longer and I asked her if I could get her number.

johnslove_1We didn’t have any pens, so we scratched each other’s numbers on some torn paper with a key. She went to write her name: L.o.v.e… I wondered what the heck she was writing, then she finished it off with l.e.e.n. What a cool name, I thought. We said goodbye and I told her I would call her.

After leaving the pier, I went to the Berkeley flea market and walked around. I was so happy that I had met her and just wanted to look at the piece of paper as a dream ‘reality check.’ I searched my pockets and couldn’t find it anywhere. My jeans had tears all over and I had actually lost it.

In my life, I had already experienced tremendous loss on several occasions – the kind of loss one might feel upon losing a child, or a parent, or someone adored completely. After having met Loveleen for such a short period, I already felt that the loss of her number fit into this category. But there was nothing I could do about it. I had to accept it as yet another great life tragedy.

She had my number also, but she was a nice Indian girl and I figured there was no chance she would ever call me. I remember going to work the next day and telling my carpenter friends about my great loss.

A couple weeks later, I checked the phone messages and there was a message from Loveleen. I picked up the phone and dialed her back in a nanosecond. Apparently, a good friend of hers liked this guy and Loveleen had mentioned me and they dared one another to call. I was so happy and still am.

If it were not for that ‘chance’ encounter, our lives would be so totally different. To me it never felt like chance at all. Even to this day, I feel that the old man on the pier wasn’t just a creepy old man like he appeared, but was actually an angel, playing a role in beautiful disguise.

If you’re interested in seeing how you can contribute and actually make a direct impact on the opposite side of the world (without losing any money in administrative costs or overhead), then let’s play!

Just click the button below.  I’ll tell you exactly how every rupee is spent.  If you have any specific requests, let me know that too!

:)

A few years back, I was having an email exchange with a friend in Boston about the powers of technology. We reflected about how incredible it was that we were communicating with each other in silence over a 3000 mile distance. In some weird way, this proved that some form of telepathy seemed like it was happening – even though it had a clear, causal explanation.

Ever since I was a kid, I thought about the power of picking up a phone and dialing someone’s number and how it would get them to get out of their chair and say “hello.” I could even call a house in China and bring real physical change on the other side of the world – with such ease!

To me, this has always been extraordinary.

watermelonI thought about how cool it would be to type a few strokes on my computer, and ask my friend to go to the store and buy a tomato or a watermelon or something silly and give it to a random stranger – just to create a bizarre moment on the other side of the country.

In that same spirit, when my friend Mark Jacobs was in India a couple years back, I decide it was time to engage in this experiment. I sat in my back shed and looked at the computer monitor and looked at the keyboard. I was very far from India. Just as I am typing now, I tapped a little message asking him to participate in this experiment I had always wanted to try. I told him that I would give him $20 to do something helpful for someone else on the other side of the world. I told him that I just wanted to experience for certain that my little tapping and small donation indeed could bring change on the other side of the world.

In his characteristic joie de vivre, Mark J. (who was ALMOST chosen as the next Bachelor) jumped on the challenge and had an extraordinary experience which you can read about here.

The following year, Loveleen and I conducted the same $20 experiment with 11 fellows from Indicorps and we got a long personalized response from each fellow with their unique and carefully chosen methods of making a difference with $20. After seeing that long list, it’s hard to imagine a better investment of $220.

If you are interested in seeing what kind of effect you can have, I’ll be happy to act as your tenticles on the other side of the globe. To play along, click here.

Just today, we were able to buy a gas stove, grains and basic food for six months, and stainless steel containers for a small family living in the slum. The woman had acid thrown over her face by her (now ex-)husband, permanently melting her face and burning out her eyes. Her young sister, Bumika, who is really only a child, takes care of everything and is an amazingly bright spirit. The whole cost was only about $50, but will make a world of difference to them.

There are many such examples.

The morning after we arrived at Kabirwad, Jayesh-bhai suggested that we all go to the beachfront to pick up trash along the Holy Narmada river. Being fully attuned to the trash scene, I saw no real distinction between the side of the river and the land leading up to it, so I continued picking up trash everywhere. To me, all the Earth is holy. There is no place that is not.

Collectively, we all gathered quite a bit and now the question of what to do with it arose. Everyone gathered it in a big pile on the beach to burn it. I was aghast. I was no expert on the subject, but had learned as a child that burning plastic is a no-no. What else could be done with it? After all, we were out in a remote part of the world where there is no trash collection. We had to deal with it ourselves. The other option was to bury it. This too seemed like a blight on our beloved Earth – just knowing that there was a big pile of offensive plastic taking space in some location underground seemed impure.

Those were our options though and burying it seemed somewhat less toxic to the atmosphere. It was difficult digging a hole big enough, but we did it and then buried it. It’s not something I felt very good about.

village_1After Kabirwad, we walked to a nearby village to meet the people there and to offer ourselves in service. We were offered a place to stay and quickly went to work landscaping, cleaning, picking up trash, playing with kids, etc. We quickly earned the villagers trust.

Again, what to do with the trash we were gathering immediately came up. We decided to dig a pit in the village and found an acceptable location. It took hours of strenuous labor to dig a large pit, but we hoped it would hold our trash and could be used by the villagers for a longer period of time – perhaps offering them an alternative to burning it, which was the norm.

We had gathered a large pile of plastic which we were going to move into our new pit, but someone had lit it on fire and I was amazed to see the very people from our group who had been helping dig the pit throwing more plastic on top of this burning pile.

johnaxefamOur stay in the village was extraordinary. We met with so many special kids and people. We met with so many beautiful water buffalos, goats, cows, and other animals. I stayed with the outcasts of the village who were there to chop down trees (another silly story of non-sustainability). I helped the axe-man arrange all the wood that he had cut and did whatever I could to help in the spirit of connection. Mark joined in as well and we brought food and ate with the family. I suggested to Mark that it would be cool to create a swing for the kids. Not only would it be fun, but it would attract other kids from the village and help integrate this family more. Mark loved the idea and suggested we make it a tire swing.

We hunted down a rope and a used tire and created an awesome tire swing. Leaving that behind was one of the highlights of the whole experience because we knew that it would be a living part of their lives for some time to come.

Lesson Learned – it is invaluable simply to connect with and inspire people. These memories ripple out and have positive repercussions for some time. When structural changes like playgrounds, new schools, wells, etc. are introduced, these offer an additional kind of value that cannot be underestimated.

After several days in the village, many from our group left and were replaced by a new crew. Formerly, most of the people from our group would just walk and not bother to pick up any trash with us. To me, this was just silly because it was so easy to do and if we all did it together, we could make a great difference wherever we went. But this is the habit that had formed.

When we hit the beach, I began to pick up trash as I was now addicted. The new group had come and was psyched up to join us in this experiment in service. They were looking for direction and when they saw me picking up trash, they immediately joined in as they assumed this must be one of the ways in which we were helping.

Lesson Learned – it is good to always have a new flow of people coming in because they are fresh, eager, and open, and haven’t yet settled in patterns of apathy. It would be wise to incorporate this ever-fresh flow into the model itself.

Our group began our walk to the next location, Nareshwar, the ashram started by Shri Ranga Avadhoot Guru Maharaj.

Along the way, the trash collection vision began to evolve into a more political one. Before I was thinking it would be great to create a movement thoroughly gathering trash, leaving behind a trail of purity. This new vision remained the same, however, this time all the gathered trash would eventually be delivered to the government or whoever had the power to legislate the use of plastic.

First, we would have to research the environmental impacts of trash, and explore any bio-friendly alternatives. If we came up with any recommended solutions, we could then make a suggestion to the government regarding what changes could be made. It’s likely that they would ignore these suggestions, at which point, the campaign would begin as a way to gather public awareness and support for the recommended changes.

Call me crazy and naïve, but it just feels like these kinds of changes seem possible in India much more so than in the U.S.

When we reached Nareshwar, we again got to work landscaping, painting, picking up trash, etc. Here again, we dug another trash pit, but when we gathered trash along the holy Narmada, this time, people from our group just burned the piles without much thought. It’s just thousands of times easier to burn it than to bury it.

Afterwards, everyone was feeling self-satisfied having cleaned up the beach. We sat down in a prayer circle as we did often, now amidst the thick fumes of burning plastic.  I covered my face both to shelter myself from the toxic fumes and also to protest a solution that was just not acceptable.

We did, with a little challenge, end up putting a permanent painted barrel on the beach for trash collection, and as a group, we did inspire all the local merchants to dedicate themselves to keeping their areas picked up.

Still, my enthusiasm for picking up trash was quickly vanishing. The end result of our efforts was always disheartening. The only way for me to continue on this path would be to expand the vision until it became complete and holistic.

Photos courtesy of Guri!

sickPain and sickness are two things that are really hard to fully understand unless you are experiencing them. This morning I woke up sick. For the majority of the last month, I’ve been sick. The sickness seems to morph from form to form – from diarrhea to vomiting to colds and flues, not to mention injuries and infection – the symptoms seem to constantly be changing form, but the raw sickness seems to be ever-present.

Back home, I rarely ever get sick. I can often feel it close by, but can generally hold it at bay. Here, it doesn’t bother knocking on the door. Just like its Indian hosts, it prances right in and makes itself at home.

Being sick is also bad because as much as that time could be used productively – to read or to write – too often the motivation to do anything beyond just survive dries up. I am writing this now, but just barely. Up until now, I have just been surviving.

It is during these times that I realize how critical it is that we avoid sickness during our trek. As ideal as it sounds – waking up sick, brushing it off and getting to work on the brutal summer days cleaning public toilets from the pit of Hell – it’s just not going to happen. Sickness has an agenda of its own. To ignore the call of the frail body to stop and mend is to set oneself up for serious degradation and even death.

Mark and I want to be purists. We’d like to drink the water we are given, eat the food we are offered – to be one with the people. But if we don’t stay well during this, we are going to be in deep trouble or it is going to come to a stop. Staying well, will likely require creating some kind of safe bubble from which to eat and drink. As much as I don’t want any bubbles, after a constant month of lessons, it is foolish not to acknowledge and respect my limitations.

I’m certain that its true beginning occurred as we consciously began playing within the dream, but for me, there was a definitive moment where a different type of clarity began to emerge. Our group headed out on a two-week “yatra,” or walking journey through rural Gujarati villages. Our intention was to enter these villages and do whatever we could to connect with the people and offer ourselves in service. This mission, though limited to two weeks, was clearly an introduction to a set of possibilities that could lie ahead for us.

jayeshbhaitextWe were being led by Jayesh-bhai and Viren-bhai (bhai means brother) – two of the founders of Manav Sadhna, who have extensive experience working with villages and forming priceless connections. These were probably two of the greatest guides in the world, and we were going primarily to learn what they had to teach us.

Throughout the journey, our group had shifting members, but was generally about a dozen or more at any one time. Before going, I was determined to give it all that I had. The first day I spent in silence. On that day, we departed from the Gandhi Ashram and took a bus to our starting point – a 15 km walk to Kabirwad. This location was selected for the symbolic way in which the Banyan virenbhaitext_1tree’s branches fall to the ground and enter it, actually becoming tree trunks themselves, later forming branches of their own, which fall to the ground, becoming trees, until a forest of unknown beginnings soon emerges. Kabirwad’s legend is that the first branch started growing after a blessed visited by the mystic and poet Kabir.

This symbolic location was chosen by Jayesh-bhai – perhaps efforts like ours could be replicated and begin spreading on their own, much like the banyan.

On the way there, our bus stopped at a restaurant. I got out of the bus, saw trash all around, saw a broken box, and realized that this was a good time to enter the dream. I looked around and saw Jayesh-bhai, Viren-bhai, Mark, and Nipun. I was afraid of looking like a fool, but I had no choice. I was here to step it up – even if I was to be embarrassed in the process. I folded the bottom of the box together and began to pick up trash. Mark saw me and quickly joined in. Soon Jayesh-bhai, Viren-bhai and others joined in as well. It wasn’t long before a large group of us were picking up trash all over the parking lot. It was a grand success. For me it defined what our group was about – we were here to serve – not just upon arrival at Kabirwad., but in life… here… now… wherever… whenever…

After this exercise, I noticed even more astutely all the litter strewn across the Indian countryside. After our bus arrived at its destination, we all entered a small restaurant for lunch. It was here that the idea first emerged in all its simplicity. We were planning on walking long distances, so we would be walking rapidly. Clearly, we could pick up trash as we went, but it wouldn’t be very thorough. What if we were to slow it way down and pick it all up as we walked, leaving a trail of purity behind us.  This was the kind of process that resonated most closely with me. Rather than just walking from point to point, ignoring all the in-betweens, why not make every step an act of service and purification. If others were to join in, it would become quicker and easier and who knows where it could lead. Since I was silent, I wrote the idea down on a piece of paper and showed it to Mark, who was also silent. He asked how we would collect the trash, and I suggested that we could use small plastic bags that we found along the way.

metrash_1We left the restaurant, hit the road, and began the experiment. We quickly discovered the laws that govern guerilla roadside trash collection. Indeed, there were enough small bags to be found to be used as containers. These bags, though unappreciated by most, were golden, because in order to keep going, one really depended on these bags. Most of our group walked rapidly without joining us, which forced Mark and I to operate at double speed – keeping up with the group, while freeing the roadsides of debris.

We quickly learned that the greatest offender was plastic. Hands down. There were chip bags, an occasional water bottle, some plastic bags, but by far the King Offender of them all was the little shiny chewing tobacco pouches that were everywhere.

tobaccoFor years, India has been an extraordinary model in natural recycling. Street snacks were served in used newspapers, tea and juices were served out of glasses that were quickly washed and reused, meals were served on leaves, sodas were consumed and the glass bottles left immediately behind for recycling. Sure, for long it has been a culture where garbage was tossed aside, but this presented little problems as it was all bio-degradable and combed through for value by cows and dogs and goats and people…

Only recently has plastic been introduced and it is quickly taking over. Its negative attributes are many. Here are just a few to start:

  1. When scattered as litter, it looks ugly
  2. Because it is non-biodegradable, this ugliness remains
  3. Most of it is not really recyclable
  4. Cows and other animals eat it, clogging up their intestines

What’s clear to me is that plastic is just now starting to take over in India.  America lost its way a long time ago. There is still hope for India though. Is it possible to stop this contagion before it’s too late?

We continued our efforts on the streets, observing the effects as we went. People everywhere would watch us and wonder why; others would thank us. We were able to flag down trucks and throw the garbage in the backs. Inspired, others even joined in with us. Still, one question remained… what to do with it all once it was collected?

For now, we put it at the ends of driveways in hopes that home owners would better be able to do something with it. Afterall, we had to leave it somewhere in order to keep gathering.

What to do with all the trash?

I’ve been fortunate to travel to many places in my life. I’ve been to many areas where it seems likely I was the first white person ever to be seen. Although India is now very familiar with us white folk, in general, we are still a rarity around here and still a main attraction. Whenever we are seen, it is the norm for someone to call out and say hi, ask us our names, where we are from, and want to shake our hands.

India is also a land where generosity to guests is extraordinary. “The guest is God” is a saying that is not just a concept but is deeply woven into the very fabric of the culture. Because we are so clearly different, we are perceived as guests everywhere, and hearts and hands are extended wherever we go. It would be simple for us to walk around the country without carrying any money. We would be fed and housed generously wherever we went, with people quarreling over who gets to extend their hospitality. The Indian people are simply overflowing with love and abundance for their guests.

Over the years, from this I have learned so much, and have so far still to travel to arrive at such a place of giving.

Being white, we are also very well-received wherever we go. There is a certain cultural hierarchy that views the white person with great respect. I understand that these prejudices that are favorable to me are the same prejudices that cause deep suffering for others who fall on the less fortunate side of the equation.

Though it’s clearly not fair, things are as they are. We are here. We are white. We are well-respected. We are treated with tremendous generosity. We are in the spotlight. In essence, we have it super-duper easy. To play with the dream under these conditions couldn’t be much simpler.

Not only can we get away with so much that might be inexcusable to someone other than us, but we also have doors open to us that would likely not be opened for others.

beatles_1We acknowledge that our circumstances are favorable and ripe, and wish to use these conditions to help inspire others and work to make the world a more beautiful place to live. George Harrison once said, “If we knew we were going to be ‘THE BEATLES’, we would have tried harder.” The key for us might be to stay aware of our blessings and to work hard to make the most of them.

So as I mentioned in the Pre-Rickshaw story, I told Mark that I was off go get a rickshaw donated for 43 days. Ahmedabad is the most polluted city in India, which is hardly a record to be proud of. Naturally, or should I say unnaturally, one of the primary causes of this pollution comes from vehicular exhaust. I remember my last trip to Delhi in 2000, I caught instant bronchitis from the wretched pollution. Since then all rickshaws and buses in Delhi have been converted to CNG (compressed natural gas) and supposedly the air pollution has gone down dramatically.

As part of our walk, Mark and I have decided to spend the nights sleeping on the streets in the various wards. In order to bathe and rest and blog and eat healthier, etc, we have decided we will come home in the afternoons. Did I mention that our 43 day ‘Tour d’Ahmedabad’ takes place in the absolute hottest part of the year in India (Ouch!)

iitrickshawparkedsm_21So the question came up – how are we planning on getting home? We could bike – this is natural and healthy (if you can ignore the pollution factor) – something we would like to endorse, but the distances we would have to ride there and back to our home are very long and would take place in the hottest hours. It would take away from our street efforts and we would arrive back on the streets bathed in sweat. We didn’t really want to rickshaw or motorbike just because we didn’t want to be part of the pollution problem. We figured that a CNG rickshaw would be ideal because it was an endorsement of a needed solution.

Since they are rare, it would have to be pre-arranged. We thought the most fun solution would be if we had our own rickshaw that we could paint the colors of the Indian flag, and could embellish in many other kinds of ways.

In Ahmedabad, there is a Western-style grocery store chain called Adani’s. Adani’s also has a couple CNG stations popping up. Since a rickshaw is a rather expensive item for us to purchase, we thought about how we might possibly get one donated to our cause. Since we didn’t really know where to start asking and since we knew that as a business, Adani’s had the capital and could gain not only invaluable public exposure for supporting an effort like ours, but also increased business as we helped create a strong push toward CNG, they were a logical place to start.

So I headed out the door on a mission to get a rickshaw donated to us – ideally one that could be painted the colors of the Indian flag, and ideally with a driver included.

I had no phone, so I simply walked down the street into a large Adani’s store, several blocks away. One might think this is a foolish way to proceed, but this is India. That’s how things work around here – at least in my experience.

For instance, just the day before, I had walked into the Crossword bookstore (a large, emerging Western style bookstore chain), and asked to see if they might be interested in selling the Gujarati version of Here Come the Tickle bugs! Within five minutes, I had quickly passed further and further up the chain of command, until I had the owner of the store on the phone, who quickly agreed to sell the book. Simple as that.

Now, I walked into a general Adani’s store, seemingly quite unrelated to the Adani’s CNG division. Within three minutes, I talked to the first store employee I saw, who connected me to the manager who sent me to the building two doors down. A couple minutes later, I was on the ninth floor, next to the CEO of Adani’s office (just found out the following day, our neighbor who I burned to write this blog entry happens to be his cousin).

Apparently, Adani’s is an enormous corporation. From the pictures on the wall, it’s clear they are involved in so many areas of big industry – from piping gases, CNG, shipping, storage, moving equipment, etc., etc. They are major league players (stock tip).

So there I was, getting off the elevator, surrounded by well-dressed, Indian executives, with my backpack, t-shirt, and dirty jeans, and I simply went in and asked to talk to someone about CNG gas. What’s amazing is that they took me seriously.

I met with one man, and I showed him an article about Mark and I in the Times of India from the previous day. He took the time to read the whole article, and then I told him about our plans. He was delighted, but informed me that he was the wrong person to talk to. He gave me the names of the Vice-President and the head of marketing in the next building over and I was on my way. Within just a short period, I was in the office of the Vice President.

I made my pitch to him and then to the marketing director and they said that they would cover the expenses of renting a rickshaw for the full time, hire a driver, and paint it as desired. Phenomenal.

With this vehicle, our potential to raise awareness and support for CNG as well as to do all kinds of crazy, cool stuff is there for the taking. The limit to our imagination is really our only limit, it seems).

So from there, I walked over to the Indicorps office to tell Anand that his dream was about to partially come true (to understand this, you’ll have to wait for the history of this trip). For the first time, I saw Anand with a great big smile.

I was told that there was a major meeting happening in 10 minutes, at a location 10 minutes away, that I had to go to. It was with P.U. Asnani, the head of waste management in Ahmedabad and a world authority on the subject, working in 27 separate countries. He was delighted to know about our plans and felt strongly that our efforts could be extraordinarily useful in helping to shape public opinion about household garbage and recycling efforts throughout Ahmedabad.

Oh yeah, this is another one of those areas of substance we are pushing for.

The universe again demonstrated an uncanny ability to make extraordinary events unfold effortlessly. If it was a film or TV show, it would hardly seem believable. But in the dream world – especially for us here in India, life just sometimes seems to work like this.

The amount of extraordinary stories I have failed to capture in writing are in the hundreds. Since they appear to keep flowing whether I am caught up or not, I may as well just catch them as I can. Good luck trying to make sense out the randomness. :)

I told Mark I was heading out to go get us a rickshaw for the full 43 days.

43 days? You mean I’m telling you the rickshaw story now and I haven’t even introduced the idea? How will I ever catch up?

Just to sum it up, Mark and I are planning to soon hit the streets of Ahmedabad to give everything that we can for 43 days. The reason for 43 is that Ahmedabad is divided into 43 wards, or sections. By spending one day in each ward, we are able to give of ourselves to the city as a whole – to the rich to the poor, to all – to convey the message that our efforts are aimed at everyone in Ahmedabad. There are no exceptions. If you are in A’bad, this is about YOU.

mainhoonna_4And what are we planning to do? We’re planning to give in every way we can. Since trash is pretty much everywhere, picking up trash will be our default activity. We can also sweep the streets indefinitely. From there, we would like to branch out, cleaning public toilets, teaching and playing with kids, clipping finger nails, carrying bricks, shelling peas, you name it. Our message is simple: “Main Hoon Na,” which translates into a comforting “I am here, no?” Its meaning is twofold. First, it conveys a care and comfort. Secondly, it conveys the idea that we are all here right now. Each of us can take action in the present moment. Plus, it was the name of a popular film, so the phrase is widely recognized.

Through this journey, we intend to exercise our own ability to give selflessly and will hopefully be able to encourage others to also join us in this experiment.

Because we have experienced the effects we have on people as Westerners in a largely tourist-free area, we know that our actions will be magnified beyond any reasonable proportion. We will likely get a lot of press attention and therefore will have a voice. We can easily be just a passing phenomenon – a sensational news story (perhaps even one that does some good) that comes and goes, but we also have the opportunity to strive to offer something of greater substance. We have developed several such ideas for how we can do this, and this rickshaw story is the basis of one of them.

Before I continue though, I have to interject with another story that just happened in real-time as I was writing this. We have recently moved into a new apartment – owned by the family of Rish, a former fellow of Indicorps. We have been here only a week. In taking the time to write this entry, I have had four people come to the door and walk right in. The first was a man who has been very helpful to us in exploring our internet possibilities. The next two were kids who wanted me to come play. And finally a young man, who just wanted to talk. They all just wanted to spend some time. The reason I haven’t kept up with my blog entries is precisely because of this. In order to keep writing, I had to let them all know that I was busy. In saying this, a door was closed. In better greeting their welcomes, I would have been more generous with my presence. At this moment, it feels like I am choosing the closed, self-contained lifestyle that I and so many Westerners have developed as the norm. But it’s tough. If you are getting anything out of reading this, then that too has real value.

And that is the decision I’ve faced at nearly every moment of this trip – to withdraw from the present to capture the stories, or to live and let them go. For the benefit of sharing these stories with others, I am trying to write more, but there is a clear and definite price.

Anyway, you’re waiting for the rickshaw story. Aw, forget it. This has been too long. You’ll never read the rickshaw story now. Let me start again, then you’ll read it…

On February 8th, we left on our journey to India.

The history of how this trip came to be, and the changes it has taken, is interesting and complex. At some point, I may attempt to describe this evolution.

Our first stop was in Singapore, where we were hosted by the good folks running Annalakshmi. My friend Lalitha arranged everything and our stay was extraordinary.

After that, we came to Bombay, and then up to Ahmedabad. In Bombay, we were hosted by Kokila, Shilpa, and Balakrishna – relatives of my friend Nipun’s. After that we came up to Ahmedabad where we have been hosted by our friends at Manav Sadhana and Indicorps.

Within the above lines are hundreds of stories yet to be told. It is likely, I will try to capture some, but for now, a sampling of the stories can be found on friends’ blogs: Nipun’s, Guri’s, and Mark’s.

Throughout this adventure, two dominant concepts have emerged for me:

  1. This is a dream. My travel partner, Mark, and I began to realize this early on. There are many reasons that this has become so apparent. For one, in traveling to less familiar cultures, things naturally appear unfamiliar and dreamlike. When painted animals walk in the streets and bizarre elements can be found almost everywhere, it is easy to believe that everything is a fantasy.  The second reason this can be seen so clearly is because our circumstances have been so extraordinarily ideal. We have met with such impossible kindness and have been in the company of such legendary figures. From our plane ride forward, we have been carried along effortlessly from one extraordinary moment to the next and it is almost difficult not to see it as a dream.

But this realization does not depend simply on advantageous circumstances. The more we have studied it, the more we are convinced that life actually is just a dream. The possibilities that life offers at every moment are abundant and endless. It is our own capped mindsets that have “learned” that life is a known and limited phenomenon. When we learn to see the limitless choices we are always surrounded with, we are then given the ability to play with the dream – to live our lives as experiments and as adventures.

And throughout this trip, we have been playing with this dream, exercising our capacities to enter it and own it.

  1. Building a Tool Kit. The second concept that I have been playing with is that we can equip ourselves with “tool kits” which provide us with ways of dealing with various situations. In India, for instance, there are many children begging for rupees on the streets. From what I’ve heard, oftentimes the money they collect goes to a local “don” who basically uses these kids like prostitutes, and when we give them money, it almost encourages the perpetuation of this limited life-pattern. As we walked on the streets with Jayesh-bhai from Manav Sadhna, we were able to see how he reaches out to each of these kids, telling them that begging is a dead-end. He cuts their fingernails, combs their hair, and gives them a candy. Afterwards, they are left with the feeling that someone has reached out to them with love, which is purely soul-satisfying – something that spare change could never give them.

From observing Jayesh-bhai, we now know several techniques for how to handle a situation when a child asks us for a rupee. We can add this to our toolkit. Before this, we had no tools for handling these circumstances. In accumulating more and more tools, we are able to master more and more situations with love and benevolence. Although it would be nice if good intention was enough, like in speaking a language, there are just many inherent limitations that come when the words are not there to express complex ideas.

Though our toolboxes are still fairly sparse, we have accumulated several ideas so far along the way and will hopefully keep increasing them as we go.

For me, the other main element to this trip has been the unfolding of a vision itself…

I brought along only a handful of copies of Here Come the Tickle Bugs! to India to give away.  When we met Jayesh-bhai and the incredible work that was being done for kids at Manav Sadhana, I knew immediately that I had to give him one of the copies.  There were only 3 left, but I was convinced that I would find no better place to leave them than with Jayesh-bhai, so I gave him all 4.  I had none left.

covergujarati_1That could have been the end of the story, but Jayesh-bhai is a miracle man extraordinaire and quickly crafted the idea of publishing Here Come the Tickle Bugs! in Gujarati.  He called up his publisher friend and we met.  Hammesh Modi from Rannade Prakashan agreed to publish 2000 books at a cost of Rs. 1 crore (over $2300 US).  This is A LOT of money in India and he made the decision to do it without question – simply out of his faith in Jayesh-bhai.  I offered to give all royalties from the book to fund free books for underprivileged kids.

I hustled to turn the book Gujarati, complete with a topi, or Islamic cap, for Bobo, and bindis, or ‘third-eye’ dots, for Summer and Classy… and Rannade hustled to print the books in time for our walk through the villages.  The book is out now — and it looks terrific!

Can’t wait to hear all the local kids giggling in Gujarati!!! :)

An article I wrote on Annalakshmi, recently published in SF Weekly:

annalakshmiImagine walking into an upscale Indian restaurant and peering at its menu with delectable choices like “Malabar Avocado and Coconut Soup” made with plain yogurt, cumin, and lemon juice and served with fresh cilantro chutney and whole wheat chapattis, or eyeing drinks like the “Saffron Sandalwood Fizz,” made with lime juice and pure water, and cooled overnight by the light of the moon. Now imagine sitting down with some friends at this elegant restaurant and enjoying a delicious, Ayurvedic vegetarian meal, served with a smile. Going a little deeper into this fantasy, now imagine you have just finished your meal, feeling fully satisfied, and signal for the bill, but there is none! You see, this, my friends, is not merely a fantasy. At Annalakshmi, it is in your hands to decide what you would like to order and how much you would like to pay.

Annalakshmi is a evolutionary business model based on a service or gift economy. Inspired by Swami Shantanand, a Hindu monk from Rishikesh, India who came to South East Asia in the early 1970s, Annalakshmi operates with an uncommon trust in humanity – trust that people will pay what is fair because we are inherently good and it is in all of our own best karmic interest to give. Although this concept may sound way too idealistic to stand a chance, Annalakshmi has been in business now for 19 years and has thriving restaurants built on this model in Singapore,Malaysia, Australia, and India.

Possibly the coolest thing of all is that we in San Francisco are about to be graced with our very own. Along Mason Street by West Crissy Field in the Presidio stands a string of buildings once used by the military. What’s striking about this location is its exceptional views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts and for the natural, scenic strolls along the shorefront. When The Presidio Trust recently decided to open these dilapidated buildings up for commercial use, they were flooded with proposals. When Annalakshmi, who have been looking for the perfect home in San Francisco, heard about this space, they quickly put together a proposal of their own. The Presidio Trust is currently reviewing the proposals and is expected to make a decision within a few months. In the meanwhile, Annalakshmi continues to look for other suitable locations in the city.

Behind the scenes is a 35-year old woman named Lalitha Vaidyanathan,
who quit her job to pursue this full time. “I always felt like Annalakshmi has so much to offer people beyond just food. It really provides a whole new way of seeing the world and its possibilities. I felt that San Francisco would be a perfect place to open one. Why not? I figure if it’s meant to happen it will.  I have complete trust in whatever’s meant to be.”

Whether it’s because of this uncommon trust, because of some unseen grace, or simply due to the power of selflessness, things just seemed to click as Lalitha began moving forward. She was introduced to Aaron Porter of the design firm Studio GS in Berkeley, who was quick to recognize the enormous value such a restaurant would bring to San Francisco. “As soon as I heard about it, I was hooked. I instantly felt compelled to get involved. It just seemed so bold and revolutionary in all the right ways. It’s something I really wanted to see happen in the Bay Area.”

Mr. Porter wasn’t the only person to lend his skills. Designers Ed Soos and Sunny Grewal of Studio GS jumped in as well, enthusiastically putting countless hours into developing Annalakshmi’s vision for the space on Mason Street.

Soon after came Bill Cain, a consulting engineer of W. J. Cain Consulting as well as Dennis and Connie McCullah, Berkeley contractors and prinicples of Odin’s Hammer, a business dedicated to green building. Both were enthusiastic to get involved in such an unusual project. “I was really fascinated by the whole notion of an upscale restaurant built on trust. It just seemed so improbable, but yet it seemed to be working,” said Dennis. “It sounded like the perfect kind of mind shift to complement green building.”

“Everything just seemed to be coming together,” says Lalitha. “We all want to be part of something pure, something that makes the world a little better. I think the reason that so many people are interested and willing to help make Annalakshmi possible is because they recognize its purity.”

In fact, one of the reasons Annalakshmi has succeeded in various locations is because it is run mostly by volunteers in the spirit of service. Here, the volunteers are also called Annalakshmis, the name for the Hindu concept of abundance. “People naturally want to volunteer because it allows them to tap into something Divine within themselves,” says Lalitha. “The human heart and its inherent generosity is the secret force behind Annalakshmi,” says Lalitha. “There is nothing wrong with making money, but it’s also nice to give in a way that does not seek returns. Volunteers for Annalakshmi understand this and our customers understand this. When we receive our food as a gift and pay what makes us feel content inside, we participate in a system that is in true accordance with our hearts and with our greater selves.”

Annalakshmi is actually part of a larger organization called the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) International, and one of its main sources of revenue. TFA was also inspired by Swami Shantanand and also exists to provide a variety of services, all meant to better humanity. TFA offers programs such as dance and music that will not turn away a student for lack of financial means, medical clinics offering free services to the community, and art galleries and handicrafts, where proceeds go directly to the artisans, bypassing any middlemen. TFA’s most recent event was an Indian cultural performance at Lincoln Center, in New York City, put on without admission tickets, as their philosophy is that art should be available to all.

So how do they do it? Seriously. One might think this overemphasis on giving would be impossible to sustain. Wouldn’t there be too many people taking advantage of such a trust?  On a recent trip through Singapore with a friend, we decided to stop by and see for ourselves.

The restaurant in Singapore is ornate and beautiful, surrounded by exquisite handicrafts. Nearby is their gallery, medical clinic, and performing arts center. The Singapore Annalakshmi also has several smaller “to-go” outlets as well as a thriving catering business delivering lunches to businesses.

Meeting with Ganesh Krishnan , I tried to get the low-down. Ganesh said that “In any business, the goal is to have satisfied customers. That is our goal as well. When you have satisfied customers, they will return. That is the reason Annalakshmi is always full. Some people will pay less and some will pay more. The important thing is that they pay what they feel is right for them. In the end, it all balances out.”

When asked what happens if people take advantage of the system, Ganesh seemed to imply that it’s just not much of an issue. One customer, he said, came in and paid only a dime to test the system. The next night he came in and paid only a dime again. The third night, just the same. When he realized that there was no gimmick, he became a regular customer and increased his payments. For Ganesh, personal growth is part of the whole equation. This is not a system built on money, but one built on humanity, and it just works out.

According to Sri Vathsan of the Singapore Annalakshmi, “Everyone involved is at a different place developmentally and each person is involved for different reasons, but ultimately everyone knows that there is something special about the place and that it brings an invaluable contentment to be involved with an effort such as this.”

Catching a regular customer, Padmeeni, as she sits down to eat at a “to-go” location, we ask her why she chose to eat there instead of somewhere else. “I like to eat at Annalakshmi because the food is excellent and I feel good about where my money is going, through the various causes they support.” When asked how much she pays, she says that she pays the going rate if not a little more, as it gives her a clear conscience.

The visit to Singapore showed that the heart, generosity, and trust that goes into their restaurant runs deep. Behind Annalakshmi is a tight community of families and individuals drawn together in a genuine commitment to serving others. As we volunteered in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, it quickly became apparent that running a restaurant is no easy endeavor and to do it full time in an ongoing way is an enormous undertaking for a largely volunteer enterprise.

In exploring the phenomenon of Annalakshmi, it’s clear that we are in for a treat. Indeed, something wicked this way comes – wickedly wonderful, that is. Beyond just another great Indian restaurant, the arrival of Annalakshmi to the Bay Area is the arrival of the seed of a paradigm shift to perhaps a better way of living altogether.  What may stem from it, nobody knows, but I for one will be in the kitchen from time to time supporting a worldview built on abundance.

Annalakshmi currently operates in the following international locations:

  1. Australia – Jetty #4, Barracks Square, Perth
  2. Singapore – Excelsior Hotel, 5 Coleman Street
  3. Malaysia – Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lampur
  4. India – 804 Mount Rd., Chennai  and 106 Race Course Rd., Coimbature

Following are links to other TFA activities:

  1. ShivaShanta free medical clinics
  2. ShivaShakthi economic development program for women
  3. TFA’s inaugural show at the Lincoln Center
  4. Templeof Fine Arts School of Dance and Music in Singapore

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."   -Lao Tzu

I have been given an amazing life to live – so many deep and extraordinary twists and turns.  In many ways, I feel that "I" no longer exists and felt its dissolution many years back.  Ever since I was 17 or so, I stopped capitalizing the word "I", as it was too loaded with severe, habituated limitations.  It’s probably the same reason I stopped calling my parents "mom" and "dad" – these powerful words kept me locked in emotional ignorance that would never allow me to see them as who they really are.  In a similar way, only rarely will I use the full name of John Silliphant, and instead generally use only a "j" or a "js."  And very seldom take credit for things.  Using the full name here is a rare exception.

The reason is that I don’t believe in John Silliphant.  Like the I of the past, it is just too loaded with mediocre assumptions – of a known personality and its structure – a type of a prison built of limited identity.  I am a brilliant rising sun, a dark cry of anguish, a subtle bliss within the universe.  Somehow it’s very difficult to capture that in a Western name.

One thing I have now felt for a long time is that I would like to share my story before I let it go.  I’m sure this interest comes largely from an ego desire to be credited with something I feel is special.  But  much more than that, there is a genuine sense of tragedy in failing to share my life story.  In a final act of ego, at some point I may indulge this.   Possibly then I will be more ready to let go of the limited container.  This may take place here, or may not.  I don’t know.

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