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Posts Tagged ‘India

Paths Are Made By Walking

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[Offbeat Graduation Speech Gets Standing Ovation: 2012’s Baccalaureate speaker at the University of Pennsylvania was an unconventional choice for an Ivy League school. To address their newly-minted graduates, aspiring to dazzling careers, they picked a man who has never in his adult life, applied for a job. A man who hasn’t worked for pay in nearly a decade, and whose self-stated mission is simply “to bring smiles to the world and stillness to my heart”. This off-the-radar speaker launched his address with a startling piece of advice. Following up with four key insights gleaned from a radical 1000 km walking pilgrimage through the villages of India. As he closed his one-of-a-kind Graduation Day speech, the sea of cap and gowned students rose to their feet for a standing ovation. What follows is the full transcript of the talk by Nipun Mehta. –DailyGood Editors]

Thank you to my distinguished friends, President Amy Gutmann, Provost Vincent Price and Rev. Charles Howard for inviting me to share a few reflections on this joyous occasion.  It is an honor and privilege to congratulate you — UPenn’s class of 2012.

Right now each one of you is sitting on the runway of life primed for takeoff. You are some of the world’s most gifted, elite, and driven college graduates – and you are undeniably ready to fly.  So what I’m about to say next may sound a bit crazy.  I want to urge you, not to fly, but to – walk.  Four years ago, you walked into this marvelous laboratory of higher learning. Today, heads held high, you walk to receive your diplomas.  Tomorrow, you will walk into a world of infinite possibilities.

But walking, in our high-speed world, has unfortunately fallen out of favor.  The word “pedestrian” itself is used to describe something ordinary and commonplace.  Yet, walking with intention has deep roots.  Australia’s aboriginal youth go on walkabouts as a rite of passage; Native American tribes conduct vision quests in the wilderness; in Europe, for centuries, people have walked the Camino de Santiago, which spans the breadth of Spain.  Such pilgrims place one foot firmly in front of the other, to fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts.

Back in 2005, six months into our marriage, my wife and I decided to “step it up” ourselves and go on a walking pilgrimage.  At the peak of our efforts with ServiceSpace, we wondered if we had the capacity to put aside our worldly success and seek higher truths.  Have you ever  thought of something and then just known that it had to happen? It was one of those things.  So we sold all our major belongings, and bought a one-way ticket to India.  Our plan was to head to Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, since he had always been an inspiration to us, and then walk South.  Between the two of us, we budgeted a dollar a day, mostly for incidentals — which meant that for our survival we had to depend utterly on the kindness of strangers.  We ate whatever food was offered and slept wherever place was offered.

Now, I do have to say, such ideas come with a warning: do not try this at home, because your partner might not exactly welcome this kind of honeymoon. 🙂

For us, this walk was a pilgrimage — and our goal was simply to be in a space larger than our egos, and to allow that compassion to guide us in unscripted acts of service along the way.  Stripped entirely of our comfort zone and accustomed identities, could we still “keep it real”?  That was our challenge.

We ended up walking 1000 kilometers over three months. In that period, we encountered the very best and the very worst of human nature — not just in others, but also within ourselves.

Soon after we ended the pilgrimage, my uncle casually popped the million dollar question at the dinner table: “So, Nipun, what did you learn from this walk?”  I didn’t know where to begin.  But quite spontaneously, an acronym —W-A-L-K — came to mind, which encompassed the key lessons we had learned, and continue to relearn, even to this day.  As you start the next phase of your journey, I want to share those nuggets with the hope that it might illuminate your path in some small way too.

The W in WALK stands for Witness.  When you walk, you quite literally see more.  Your field of vision is nearly 180 degrees, compared to 40 degrees when you’re traveling at 62 mph.  Higher speeds smudge our peripheral vision, whereas walking actually broadens your canvas and dramatically shifts the objects of your attention.  For instance, on our pilgrimage, we would notice the sunrise everyday, and how, at sunset, the birds would congregate for a little party of their own.  Instead of adding Facebook friends online, we were actually making friends in person, often over a cup of hot “chai”.   Life around us came alive in a new way.

A walking pace is the speed of community.  Where high speeds facilitate separation, a slower pace gifts us an opportunity to commune.

As we traversed rural India at the speed of a couple of miles per hour, it became clear how much we could learn simply by bearing witness to the villagers’ way of life. Their entire mental model is different — the multiplication of wants is replaced by the basic fulfillment of human needs. When you are no longer preoccupied with asking for more and more stuff; then you just take what is given and give what is taken.  Life is simple again.  A farmer explained it to us this way: “You cannot make the clouds rain more, you cannot make the sun shine less.  They are just nature’s gifts — take it or leave it.”

When the things around you are seen as gifts, they are no longer a means to an end; they are the means and the end.  And thus, a cow-herder will tend to his animals with the compassion of a father, a village woman will wait 3 hours for a delayed bus without a trace of anger, a child will spend countless hours fascinated by stars in the galaxy, and finding his place in the vast cosmos.

So with today’s modernized tools at your ready disposal,  don’t let yourself zoom obliviously from point A to point B on the highways of life; try walking the backroads of the world, where you will witness a profoundly inextricable connection with all living things.

The A in WALK stands for Accept.   When walking in this way, you place yourself in the palm of the universe, and face its realities head on. We walked at the peak of summer, in merciless temperatures hovering above 120 degrees.  Sometimes we were hungry, exhausted and even frustrated. Our bodies ached for just that extra drink of water, a few more moments in the shade, or just that little spark of human kindness. Many times we received that extra bit, and our hearts would overflow with gratitude.  But sometimes we were abruptly refused, and we had to cultivate the capacity to accept the gifts hidden in even the most challenging of moments.

I remember one such day, when we approached a rest house along a barren highway.  As heavy trucks whizzed past, we saw a sign, announcing that guests were hosted at no charge. “Ah, our lucky day,” we thought in delight.  I stepped inside eagerly.  The man behind the desk looked up and asked sharply, “Are you here to see the temple?” A simple yes from my lips would have instantly granted us a full meal and a room for the night.  But it wouldn’t have been the truth. So instead, I said, “Well, technically, no sir. We’re on a walking pilgrimage to become better people. But we would be glad to visit the temple.”  Rather abruptly, he retorted: “Um, sorry, we can’t host you.”  Something about his curt arrogance triggered a slew of negative emotions. I wanted to make a snide remark in return and slam the door on my way out.  Instead, I held my raging ego in check.  In that state of physical and mental exhaustion, it felt like a Herculean task– but through the inner turmoil a voice surfaced within, telling me to accept the reality of this moment.

There was a quiet metamorphosis in me.  I humbly let go of my defenses, accepted my fate that day, and turned to leave without a murmur.  Perhaps the man behind the counter sensed this shift in me, because he yelled out just then, “So what exactly are you doing again?”  After my brief explanation he said, “Look, I can’t feed you or host you, because rules are rules.  But there are restrooms out in the back.  You could sleep outside the male restroom and your wife can sleep outside the female restroom.”  Though he was being kind, his offer felt like salt in my wounds.  We had no choice but to accept.

That day we fasted and that night, we slept by the bathrooms.  A small lie could’ve bought us an upgrade, but that would’ve been no pilgrimage.  As I went to sleep with a wall separating me from my wife, I had this beautiful, unbidden vision of a couple climbing to the top of a mountain from two different sides.  Midway through this difficult ascent, as the man contemplated giving up, a small sparrow flew by with this counsel, “Don’t quit now, friend.  Your wife is eager to see you at the top.”  He kept climbing. A few days later, when the wife found herself on the brink of quitting, the little sparrow showed up with the same message.  Step by step, their love sustained their journey all the way to the mountaintop. Visited by the timely grace of this vision, I shed a few grateful tears — and this story became a touchstone not only in our relationship, but many other noble friendships as well.

So I encourage you to cultivate equanimity and accept whatever life tosses into your laps — when you do that, you will be blessed with the insight of an inner transformation that is yours to keep for all of time.

The L in WALK stands for Love.  The more we learned from nature, and built a kind of inner resilience to external circumstances, the more we fell into our natural state — which was to be loving.  In our dominant paradigm, Hollywood has insidiously co-opted the word, but the love I’m talking about here is the kind of love that only knows one thing — to give with no strings attached.  Purely.  Selflessly.

Most of us believe that to give, we first need to have something to give.  The trouble with that is, that when we are taking stock of what we have, we almost always make accounting errors.  Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Now-a-days, people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”  We have forgotten how to value things without a price tag.  Hence, when we get to our most abundant gifts — like attention, insight, compassion — we confuse their worth because they’re, well, priceless.

On our walking pilgrimage, we noticed that those who had the least were most readily equipped to honor the priceless.  In urban cities, the people we encountered began with an unspoken wariness: “Why are you doing this?  What do you want from me?”   In the countryside, on the other hand, villagers almost always met us with an open-hearted curiosity launching straight in with: “Hey buddy, you don’t look local.  What’s your story?”

In the villages, your worth wasn’t assessed by your business card, professional network or your salary. That innate simplicity allowed them to love life and cherish all its connections.

Extremely poor villagers, who couldn’t even afford their own meals, would often borrow food from their neighbors to feed us.  When we tried to refuse, they would simply explain: “To us, the guest is God.  This is our offering to the divine in you that connects us to each other.”  Now, how could one refuse that?

Street vendors often gifted us vegetables; in a very touching moment, an armless fruit-seller once insisted on giving us a slice of watermelon.  Everyone, no matter how old, would be overjoyed to give us directions, even when they weren’t fully sure of them. 🙂  And I still remember the woman who generously  gave us water when we were extremely thirsty — only to later discover that she had to walk 10 kilometers at 4AM to get that one bucket of water. These people knew how to give, not because they had a lot, but because they knew how to love life.  They didn’t need any credit or assurance that you would ever return to pay them back.  Rather, they just trusted in the pay-it-forward circle of giving.

When you come alive in this way, you’ll realize that true generosity doesn’t start when you have some thing to give, but rather when there’s nothing in you that’s trying to take.  So I hope that you will make all your precious moments an expression of loving life.

And lastly, the K in WALK stands for Know Thyself. 

Sages have long informed us that when we serve others unconditionally, we shift from the me-to-the-we and connect more deeply with the other.  That matrix of inter-connections allows for a profound quality of mental quietude.  Like a still lake undisturbed by waves or ripples, we are then able to see clearly into who we are and how we can live in deep harmony with the environment around us.

When one foot walks, the other rests.  Doing and being have to be in balance.

Our rational mind wants to rightfully ensure progress, but our intuitive mind also needs space for the emergent, unknown and unplanned to arise.   Doing is certainly important, but when we aren’t aware of our internal ecosystem, we get so vested in our plans and actions, that we don’t notice the buildup of mental residue.  Over time, that unconscious internal noise starts polluting our motivations, our ethics and our spirit.  And so, it is critical to still the mind. A melody, after all, can only be created with the silence in between the notes.

As we walked — witnessed, accepted, loved — our vision of the world indeed grew clearer.  That clarity, paradoxically enough, blurred our previous distinctions between me versus we, inner transformation versus external impact, and selfishness versus selflessness. They were inextricably connected. When a poor farmer gave me a tomato as a parting gift, with tears rolling down his eyes, was I receiving or giving?  When sat for hours in silent meditation, was the benefit solely mine or would it ripple out into the world?  When I lifted the haystack off an old man’s head and carried it for a kilometer, was I serving him or serving myself?

Which is to say, don’t just go through life — grow through life. It will be easy and tempting for you to arrive at reflexive answers — but make it a point, instead, to acknowledge mystery and welcome rich questions … questions that nudge you towards a greater understanding of this world and your place in it.

That’s W-A-L-K.  And today, at this momentous milestone of your life, you came in walking and you will go out walking.   As you walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought, I hope you will each remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness. I hope that you will take time to witness our magnificent interconnections. That you will accept the beautiful gifts of life even when they aren’t pretty, that you will practice loving selflessly and strive to know your deepest nature.

I want to close with a story about my great grandfather.  He was a man of little wealth who still managed to give every single day of his life.  Each morning, he had a ritual of going on a walk — and as he walked, he diligently fed the ant hills along his path with small pinches of wheat flour.  Now that is an act of micro generosity so small that it might seem utterly negligible, in the grand scheme of the universe.  How does it matter?  It matters in that it changed him inside.  And my great grandfather’s goodness shaped the worldview of my grandparents who in turn influenced that of their children — my parents.   Today those ants and the ant hills are gone, but my great grandpa’s spirit is very much embedded in all my actions and their future ripples. It is precisely these small, often invisible, acts of inner transformation that mold the stuff of our being, and bend the arc of our shared destiny.

On your walk, today and always, I wish you the eyes to see the anthills and the heart to feed them with joy.

May you be blessed. Change yourself — change the world.

~ Nipun Mehta, May 14, 2012

This is a transcript of the Baccalaureate address to UPenn’s graduating class of 2012, delivered by Nipun Mehta. Nipun is the founder of ServiceSpace.org, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of gift-economy, technology and volunteerism. His popular TED talk Designing for Generosity provides an overview of their work and guiding principles.

Written by MattAndJojang

May 21, 2012 at 6:47 pm

The Spiritual Side of Steve Jobs

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It’s well known that the secret to Apple’s meteoric success in the world of consumer technology was the vision, leadership and creativity of Steve Jobs, the company’s celebrity founder.

“Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that — it is in our DNA,” Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor, wrote in a staff memo after Jobs resigned from his post as Apple’s CEO in August.

What’s less talked about is what drove Jobs, who died Wednesday at 56.

As with anyone, Jobs’ values were shaped by his upbringing and life experiences. He was born in 1955 in San Francisco and grew up amid the rise of hippie counterculture. Bob Dylan and the Beatles were his two favorite musical acts, and he shared their political leanings, antiestablishment views and, reportedly, youthful experimentation with psychedelic drug usage.

The name of Jobs’ company is said to be inspired by the Beatles’ Apple Corps, which repeatedly sued the electronics maker for trademark infringement until signing an exclusive digital distribution deal with iTunes. Like the Beatles, Jobs took a spiritual retreat to India and regularly walked around his neighborhood and the office barefoot.

Traversing India sparked Jobs’ conversion to Buddhism. Kobun Chino, a monk, presided over his wedding to Laurene Powell, a Stanford University MBA.

‘Life is an intelligent thing’

Rebirth is a precept of Buddhism, and Apple experienced rebirth of sorts when Jobs returned, after he was fired, to remake a company that had fallen the verge of bankruptcy.

“I believe life is an intelligent thing, that things aren’t random,” Jobs said in a 1997 interview with Time, providing a glimpse into his complicated belief system that extends well beyond the Buddhist teachings.

Karma is another principle of the religion, but it didn’t appear to be a system Jobs lived by. If he feared karma coming back to bite him, the sentiment wasn’t evident in his public statements about competitors and former colleagues, calling them “bozos” lacking taste. Those who worked for Jobs described him as a tyrant they feared meeting in an elevator.

“You’d be surprised how hard people work around here,” Jobs said in a 2004 interview with Businessweek. “They work nights and weekends, sometimes not seeing their families for a while. Sometimes people work through Christmas to make sure the tooling is just right at some factory in some corner of the world so our product comes out the best it can be.”

Some engineers who worked tirelessly on the original Mac emerged from the project estranged from their spouses and children. Jobs’ relentless work ethic may have been shaped by some of his dysfunctional family affairs as well.

‘I’ve done things I’m not proud of’

Jobs was adopted by Clara and Paul Jobs, who promised his birth mother, Joanne Simpson (whom Jobs later tracked down with the help of a private investigator), that they would send him to a university. He dropped out of Reed College after one semester, and he reportedly never was willing to talk to his birth father.

Jobs had a daughter, Lisa, out of wedlock with Chrisann Brennan. He denied paternity for many years, swearing in a court document that he was sterile. Later, he had three more kids with Laurene Powell.

“I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was 23 and the way I handled that,” Jobs said in a statement in 2011 to promote his authorized biography.

That youthful indiscretion came before Jobs turned to Buddhism and karma.

‘The core values are the same’

The Buddhist scriptures, according to tradition, were transmitted in secret, as were many of Apple’s business dealings and Jobs’ personal struggles. Like the paranoid secrecy that surrounded product development at Apple, Jobs spurned most reporters’ interview requests, misled them in statements he did give, refused to disclose details of his cancer to investors until undergoing an operation and became shrouded in a scandal involving backdating stock options.

By all accounts, he played by his own rules.

Those who disclosed his secrets or whispered about his company were punished or threatened. Apple sued, and eventually settled with, the anonymous young blogger behind Think Secret, which accurately reported on Apple rumors in the early 2000s.

And then there’s the story of a lost iPhone 4 prototype, which was purchased and publicized by the blog Gizmodo.

“When this whole thing with Gizmodo happened, I got a lot of advice from people that said, ‘You’ve got to just let it slide,’ ” Jobs said onstage at a technology convention in 2010. “I thought deeply about this, and I ended up concluding that the worst thing that could possibly happen as we get big and we get a little more influence in the world is if we change our core values and start letting it slide. I can’t do that. I’d rather quit.”

That stance was repeated this year, with Jobs still as CEO though on medical leave, when another employee left a prototype iPhone 5 in a bar. Apple enlisted the help of San Francisco police to investigate.

“We have the same values now as we had then,” Jobs said at the AllThingsD conference. “We’re a little more experienced, certainly beat-up, but the core values are the same.”

‘We’re here to put a dent in the universe’

Perhaps the most salient of those values is, simply, to make an outsize impact on society. Or, as Jobs put it, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” However, Apple and Jobs didn’t make much of a dent with philanthropy.

“We do things where we feel we can make a significant contribution,” Jobs told Businessweek in 2004. “And our primary goal here is … not to be the biggest or the richest.”

To achieve that goal, Jobs was an obsessive micromanager. Part of the reason Jobs’ DNA is so ingrained in Apple is because he forced his hand onto so many parts of it. He personally fielded some customer-service requests sent to him via e-mail; he was active in product design, co-authoring more than 300 patents; and he had a hand in the marketing efforts, including the famous Think Different and Mac vs. PC campaigns.

“What is Apple, after all?” Jobs mused to Time. “Apple is about people who think ‘outside the box,’ people who want to use computers to help them change the world, to help them create things that make a difference, and not just to get a job done.”

‘Focus and simplicity’

Jobs famously lured John Sculley, the PepsiCo president, to run Apple by saying: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” (They had a permanent falling out when Jobs was booted from Apple.)

“What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do, but the things you decide not to do,” Sculley said in a 2010 interview with Businessweek. “He’s a minimalist. I remember going into Steve’s house, and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around, but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.”

Restraint, at least in gadget design and interior decorating, was a primary principle for Jobs. Shortly after his return to Apple, he shuttered several divisions and turned his attention to a few key initiatives. Even today, Apple’s product lines and revenue are zeroed in on just a few industries in which the company can dominate.

“That’s been one of my mantras: focus and simplicity,” Jobs told Businessweek in 1998. “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

He elaborated in the interview with the publication six years later: “It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

‘Stay hungry. Stay foolish.’

Apple’s management team members have each adopted parts of this code.

Jonathan Ive, the industrial-design executive, echoes Jobs’ simplicity ethic.

Scott Forstall, the mobile software lead, has apparently inherited some of Jobs’ enthusiasm and showmanship.

And Cook, the former operations chief and, by some accounts, current workaholic micromanager, runs the company like he manages his private life: shrouded in secrecy.

However, Cook comes out of his shell in order to impart the ethical standards onto new recruits. He, along with other execs, teaches at Apple University.

Apple University ensures that employees are thoroughly educated on the company’s principles and that Jobs’ ideals live on. Jobs believed people never stop learning and should voraciously open their minds to new ideas.

Put another way, like in his closing statement to Stanford’s graduating class in 2005, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

~ Mark Milan, CNN