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Posts Tagged ‘Nipun Mehta

Bill Gates vs. Mother Teresa

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Bill Gates and Mother Teresa

Two days ago, I was in China, speaking to a bunch of influential business leaders. One of them posed a challenge: “You speak about Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual heir of Gandhi, and how he walked 80K kilometers across India and inspired people to donate 5 million acres to their neighbors. Yes, it might’ve been an unprecedented feat in the history of mankind, but really, how many people remember Vinoba today? Instead, think of how many people remember Steve Jobs and the legacy he left behind.” From a short-term impact point of view, it’s a thoughtful dilemma.

In fact, Forbes magazine did a piece which reflected similarly, asking the question: “Who has changed the world more: Bill Gates or Mother Teresa?” And they concluded Bill Gates. My response to this industrialist, though, was a true story that happened a few weeks ago at a school near Pune. I asked the same question to them: who do you want to be when you grow up — Bill Gates or Mother Teresa? Usually about 60-80% of them will vote for Bill Gates, but here, a majority of them said Mother Teresa. So I probed further. Why? As people started raising their hands, a shy young girl — maybe 11 years old — raised her hand, hesitated, and then put it down. Seeing that, I encouraged her to speak, and her response completely floored me.

“Sir, Bill Gates used the power of money to change the world, and Mother Teresa used the power of love to change the world. And I think love is more powerful than money.”

End of story. It was simple, clear, elegant and spot-on that it required no further responses from the class.**

The end of that story is the beginning of an audacious possibility. In keeping with the theme of our gathering, my Impossible Dream, and one that I’m sure we all share, is a world where we elevate this spirit of love from the mere emotional ranks of Bollywood to the infinitely stronger spiritual ranks of our hearts. As humanity, we have understood intellectual quotient (IQ), and even emotional quotient (EQ) but what the world needs now is CQ – Compassion Quotient. It is an intelligence of the heart. More than a decade ago, neuroscientists discovered that, physically speaking, there are actually neurons not just in our brain but also in our heart. As Kabir and many sages tell us so clearly: Open your heart and it can contain the whole universe!

Our greatest hope for awakening our collective compassion quotient comes from – children! Children like that 11 year old who just intuitively knew that if you are moved by love, you can move mountains. In conversations with Dr. Maria Montessori, Gandhi said it very clearly, “In the early part of my life, I discovered that if I was to realize Truth, I must obey, even at the cost of my life, the law of love. And having been blessed with children, I discovered that the law of love could be best learned through little children.”

The thing about this law of love is that it has a half-life that is far, far greater than the law of stuff. Its impact lasts for many generations. Inspiration from our gadgets devolves into mere information, sometimes within a matter of minutes. But when that same inspiration is delivered to us through someone who walks that talk, it activates the information in a context of vibrational aliveness. It resonates deep within our consciousness. And this is why, in the long term, the law of stuff stands no chance against the law of love. Work that is moved by love, no matter how small and humble, has an unending after-life.

A few years ago, my wife and I went on a walking pilgrimage. We started at the Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat and walked south; we ate whatever food was offered and slept wherever place was offered. It was an experiment that radically changed our lives. Along the way one thing we repeatedly encountered were the ripples of the law of love, particularly from Gandhi and Vinoba who had often walked those same paths. During a visit to a small village in the area, Gandhi realized it was 6PM – which was his prayer time. He was taking a walk on the farm, with some elders, but he immediately sat down right there for prayer. A bit thrown off, the elders gathered a couple folks who happened to be nearby.

Govardhan Patel was one of them. He was in fifth grade at the time, his mom had passed away when he was 2, and his father had polio; he wasn’t all that interested in Gandhi. As serendipity would have it, though, he sat there in silence during Gandhi’s prayer. And something shifted. He sat in on Gandhi’s evening talk, and that very same day he decided to dedicate his whole life to service. When we met him he was a ripe 82-years-young and was still going strong, having transformed not only his village but dozens of others.

There are many stories like his, for instance that of Nagardas Shrimali. At a train station, while Gandhi is just passing by, amidst the throngs of people, he yells out: “Bapu, what should I do with my life?” Bapu says, “You go and teach your values to other children like you.” Shrimali was 16 at the time, from that day forth to his last breath, Nagardas – who was “untouchable” — dedicated his life to educating children.

Authentic inspiration has a long after-life, indeed.  And my friends, we need to rekindle this law of love within us, and within our greatest hope — our children, the next generation.

I want to end with a true story.

Many years ago, my dear friend Jacob Needleman was teaching a class at San Francisco State University, and he asked a question to his class of thirty students. “How can we be good?” One student raised his hand and said, “I learned goodness from my 5-year-old son.” He goes on to explain: “My son and I were enjoying Christmas in Mexico, as he was excitedly playing with the toys he had received just the night before. A kid from the neighboring slum comes by, and I told my son to give him one of his toys. After some pleas and tears, he finally agrees and picks up a toy. His least favorite toy!” In a vintage Mufasa-Simba moment from Lion King, the father looks his 5-year-old in the eyes and says, “No, son, not that toy. Give him your favorite toy.”

At this point, the son instinctively protests, but then looking at his father’s stern-yet-compassionate look, he begrudgingly goes to the door to give away his favorite toy. Naturally, the father figured he will have to console his son when he returns; lo and behold, much to his surprise, the son returns back with a hop in his step. With an innocence befitting to a 5-year-old, he looks his Father in the eyes and says, “Dad, that was amazing. Can I do it again?”

This is the law of love, and may we all keep doing it again and again and again.

~ Nipun Mehta

Written by MattAndJojang

January 8, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Paths Are Made By Walking

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Photo: Marji Lang/flickr

[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

If You Want To Be a Rebel, Be Kind

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Pancho Ramos Stierle Meditating At The Occupy Oakland Raid Site

The police had declared Monday, November 14th of 2011 as the day of the raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment.  It was the first Occupy site to call for a general strike that shut down the fifth largest port in the country; it was also the first Occupy gathering to report a shooting and a murder, as police violence also reached new heights.  With tensions mounting amidst political chaos, police escalated their violent crackdowns and the narrative of fear.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in preparation for the raid, police from around the state were called in, and uncertainty filled the air.

The night before, Pancho Ramos Stierle heard about growing tensions in the community and thought, “If police are stepping up their violence, we need to go and step up our nonviolence.”  So on that Monday morning at 3:30AM, Pancho and his housemate Adelaja went to the site of the Occupy Oakland raid.  With an upright back and half-lotus posture, they started meditating.  Many factions of protesters were around but the presence of strong meditators changed the vibe entirely.  Around 6:30AM, the police showed up in full force.  Full-out riot gear, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas.  All media was present, expecting a headline story around this incredibly tense scene.  Instead, they found 32 people, all peaceful, with Pancho and Adeleja meditating with their eyes closed in the middle of the Plaza.  As the police followed their orders of arresting them, people took photos — particularly of two smiling meditators surrounded by police looking like they’re ready to go to war.  Within a day, that photo would spread to millions around the world, as Occupy Oakland raid ended without any reported violence.

One such experience can be enough for a lifetime.  For Pancho, though, this is just run of the mill.  In small ways and big, he is always looking to step up his compassion in the most unexpected places.

Raised in Mexico, Pancho was fascinated by the stars, planets, and galaxies.  He would always look up in outer space and admire the border-less cosmos that we inhabit; and he’d imagine looking down at Planet Earth from outer space — and not seeing any lines across countries.  He envisioned a world of oneness and unity, and when he got a full scholarship to study the cosmos at University of California at Berkeley, his vision got a huge boost.  He moved to Berkeley to pursue his PhD in Astrophysics.

On campus one day, he serendipitously engages in a profound hallway conversation with a janitor.  It opens his eyes to the janitor’s incredibly difficult life.  Something awakens in him, as he actively starts looking for solutions.  “I saw that instead of PhD’s, what the world needs more are PhDo’s,” Pancho recalls.

As time went on, Pancho realizes that his research supports an institution that actively proliferates nuclear weapons.  That tips him over the edge.  Not only did he stop cooperating with the university system, he starts raising a dissenting voice.

When his complains fall on deaf ears, he partakes in a nine-day fast with other students and professors across California to request an open dialogue with the UC Regents — the governing body of the University of California.  The fast cultimates at a public hearing of the Regents.  When the student request is denied, they lock arms in nonviolent protest and sit peacefully. To disengage them, the police are ordered to make an example of one of them.  They lift up this man, slam him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, twist his arms behind his back and handcuff him ruthlessly.  Supporters start shouting at the overt show of inhumane behavior towards a fragile student who hadn’t eaten a single morsel of food for nine days.  That man was none other than Pancho.

The story would end there, except that Pancho’s strength resided beyond his body.  “It was excruciating pain,” Pancho recalls.  Perhaps the police officer picked on Pancho because of his small and skinny frame, but the outer force is no match for Pancho’s inner might.  The injustice is obvious, but Pancho knew that the officer is not to blame.  In a completely unrehearsed move of raw compassion, Pancho, with all the love in his heart, looks directly into the police officer’s eyes, and says, “Brother, I forgive you.  I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you.  I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.”  The overflowing love coming from the heart of this man on a nine-day fast is unmistakable.  This is not the kind of encounter that police are trained in.  Seeing his confusion, Pancho steps up his empathy and changes the topic.  Looking at the last name on his badge, he asks for the officer’s first name.  And addressing him as a family member, he says, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.”  [Awkward pause.] “Yes.”  “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?”

The police officer is completely flabbergasted, his humanity irrevocably invoked. He accepts the invitation!  Dropping eye contact gently, he then walks around Pancho and voluntarily loosens his handcuffs.  In silence.  By now, all of Pancho’s comrades — twelve of them — are also in handcuffs, so the officer then goes around to loosen everyone else’s handcuffs too.

There are those who use anger, sarcasm and parody to confront unjust action.  Pancho does it with just the simple — and radical — power of love.   If he had a superpower, that would be it.  He is a fearless soldier of compassion, unconditionally willing to hold up a fierce mirror of love.

For Pancho, the whole World, every moment, is his field of practice.  When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness.  Meditation deepens his awareness while small acts of kindness deepens his inter-connectedness.  Or as Pancho would sum it up, “Meditation is the DNA of the kindness revolution.”   Ever since he first went to a meditation retreat, he has continued to meditate everyday.  “Pancho 2.0” is what he calls himself since then.  It was as if he discovered a new technology to battle our burning world.

Spirituality often sees activism as unnecessarily binding, while activism often sees spirituality as a navel-gazing escape.  For Pancho, though, the two paths merge into one.  Meditation is internal service, while service is external meditation.

In Arizona, when Pancho is arrested for protesting immigration laws that President Obama called unconstitutional, he smiles peacefully for his mug shot. The Sheriff yells out an order: “Stop smiling.”  Immediately, it mirrors the ridiculousness of the request.  Several years ago, some of Pancho’s friends lived in a tree to ignite a conversation around “chopping down 300 year old trees in 30 minutes”.  When the authorities put a barricade around the tree to starve the tree-sitters, Pancho shows up to meditate and spread “metta” (loving kindness) to all those around him.  While sitting peacefully under the tree, he is arrested.  His offense quite literally read: “Disturbing the peace.”

Ultimately, it was in Gandhi that Pancho found his greatest role model for social change.  Perhaps for the first time, history had seen someone manifest seismic systemic shifts in the world solely through the power of inner transformation.  Gandhi opposed unjust action, not just without violence but with radical love for everyone including the person doing the harm; and for every act of resistance, he advocated nine more actions for constructive social change.

“Nonviolence isn’t just a philosophy of resistance.  It is a way of life.  Nonviolence is the thoughts we have, the words that we use, the clothes that we wear, the things that we say.  It is not just an absence of violence, not even just the absence of wanting to cause harm.  Nonviolence is a state when your heart is so full of love, compassion, kindness, generosity and forgiveness that you simply don’t have any room for anger, frustration or violence,” Pancho describes.

When Pancho stopped cooperating with the University of California system, he lost his student visa.  In light of his courage, more than a dozen people offered to help reinstate his status.  He appreciated the gesture but chose to stay undocumented.  More than being in one geographical location or another, he was more interested in blooming wherever he was planted.  Now, all of a sudden, being “undocumented”, he got an experiential insight into what that meant for 11 million people living in the United States; he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a bank account or a credit card, he couldn’t own anything and he’d have to work low-wage labor jobs, without any insurance, just to survive.

Here is someone capable of being a rocket scientist, whose father is an Economics scholar and author in Mexico, who chooses to live without any financial currency — just so he can be of service to his struggling brethren.  He is sustained purely by social capital.  His tendency to constantly seek to be helpful earns him many friends, who would host him one day of the week.  And on days that he didn’t have a host, he’d just live out in the woods (“Redwood Cathedral” as he calls it).  Such details don’t matter much for Pancho.  All his possessions fit into one bag pack, as his life organizes around doing acts of service.

When Pancho learned about the troubled situation in his neighboring East Oakland, he was quite moved.  Rife with gang warfare, it is an area that most people have written off.  Every week, residents hear the sounds of gun shots being fired — and that’s no exaggeration.  It’s a community with 53 liquor stores and no grocery stores.  The tensions between the police and the community have continued to escalate, while traditional civic programs haven’t made much of a dent.

So Pancho decides to do something about it, with an altogether different framework.  Instead of helping from the outside, he wanted to become one of them; instead of just receiving external aid, he wondered if the community could not only discover undiscovered gifts but then share them freely with others.

With a few like-hearted friends, Pancho rents a house right on the border of two gangs.  They call their home “Casa de Paz” — house of peace.  The shared values of the house include 2 hours of daily meditation, no drinking, and a vegan diet.  And no locks on the doors — anyone can come in any time.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, they meditate and do yoga at the local Cesar Chavez park (which has been home to several shootings in recent months).  People have all kinds of reactions to their public meditations.  One time, a mildly drunk man with bloodshot eyes is roaming the park with his girlfriend.  Initially, they smirk and make snide remarks but then as they approach Pancho and his two housemates sitting in crossed legged meditation, Pancho opens his eyes with a loving embrace.  As Pancho reaches to grab something from his bag, the man instinctively reached for something (possibly a gun) in his pocket.  “Brother, here’s a fresh, local, organic strawberry for you,” Pancho said while holding up the edible, red-colored gift from Nature.

On another occasion, their neighbor’s teenage daughter attempts to commit suicide, on a Friday afternoon.  The sounds of sirens create a mild panic in the community but for Pancho and his housemates, it is another opportunity to spread love.  They show up to comfort their neighbors, with a kettle of hot tea, as the family shares their troubles.  Over the next month, that same teenage girl becomes a friend and gets interested in the farming projects at Casa de Paz.

Almost everyday, they facilitate these transformations.  Another time, a few young boys boisterously smash empty alcohol bottles on the streets, just as a prank.  Instead of cringing in fear, Pancho runs outside, barefoot.  The boys could see him and vice-versa, and instead of anger, Pancho humbly bends down and starts picking up the pieces of broken glass.  Something about that act took the kids by surprise, as they slowly returned back.  “Brother, you see that house over there?  They have a young one, and when he walks out on the street, we don’t want them to get hurt,” Pancho explains to them in fluent Spanish.  One thing after another, the kids themselves start helping pick up the broken pieces — and make role models of these love warriors on their street.

In isolation, these are small stories.  Yet, collectively, its impact adds up.  It binds the community, it creates new connections, it fills the gaps.  Its like the silence in between the notes that allows the music to be heard.

“A lot of people talk their talk, but very few can walk their walk.  Living in that community is hard, but living at Casa de Paz is even harder.  They simply refuse to compromise their values, even in small ways, when no one else is looking.  One time, I told them that perhaps their precepts were a bit too tough, and Pancho opened up a book and showed me 11 observances that Gandhi upheld at his ashram.  I couldn’t say anything to that,” remembers Kanchan Gokhale, a long-time friend.

One of those observances is Silent Mondays.  In the tradition of Gandhi, Pancho is silent every Monday.  Even on that November 14th, the day of the Occupy Oakland raid which happened to be a Monday, Pancho stays silent on principle.  As the riot police arrest him, he writes a comment on a piece of paper: “On Mondays, I practice silence.  But I’d like you to hear that I love you.”  The officer smiles.  How could you not?

“On the face of it, Pancho doesn’t own anything.  Yet, he is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met,” says another friend, Joanna Holsten.

How can you give, when you don’t have anything?  That paradox is what makes Pancho shine.  When a friend asked him about service, he took her to a local Farmers Market with two chairs.  She sat on one chair, and put a sign on the other chair: “Free listening.”  When Pancho and his friends saw unused fruit in their neighbor’s backyards, they requested to “glean” the fruit and then gift it to strangers: “This is a gift from East Oakland.”  On a recent Sunday, they gave away 250 pounds of fresh, organic oranges that way.

That creative generosity, a kind of “giftivism”, takes all kinds of forms for Pancho.

Of the 32 people arrested at Occupy Oakland, 31 were sent home on the same day, with a misdemeanor charge.  Pancho, however, is held for deportation.  Very quickly, he becomes an iconic symbol for all that is wrong with the dominant paradigm.  Within two days, twenty thousand people sign a petition to free Pancho.  At his court arraignment, a large group of people show up to meditate — which has never happened in that courthouse, and again confuses all the police in riot-gear who are themselves drawn to the circle.  People from around the world call the sheriffs and congress representatives.  Media everywhere reports the story. Vigils are held by many around the globe.  By the end of the four days, Alameda County D.A. drops all criminal charges and ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) releases Pancho from jail, without any bail.  No one can really explain the unprecedented move by the authorities.  “It was truly a miracle that he was let go,” Marianne Manilove posted on her FaceBook wall.

Francisco Ugarte, Pancho’s pro-bono laywer, happily reported, “They really didn’t know what to do with him.”  He would relay Pancho’s notes from various jails that he was being shuttled to.  “Tell them that I love them all.  (It’s a) great place to meditate!” was his first note to friends and supporters.  Francisco’s second note conveyed this message: “Pancho wanted me to convey to folks that he was, for some reason, identified as a particularly dangerous inmate, wearing a red clothes in jail, and shackled so that the movement of his arms was restrained. The shackles were metal, and surrounded his waist. Apparently, this treatment is reserved only for the most “dangerous” inmates. It is unclear why Alameda County have done this.  But after a short conversation, we agreed that, without a doubt, Pancho was the most dangerous person in Santa Rita Jail — dangerous to the whole system.  As Pancho said, “The most effective weapon against a system based on greed and violence is kindness.”

Kindness is indeed Pancho’s go-to weapon.   When in doubt, be kind.  Even otherwise, be kind.

As Pancho is shackled up in solitary confinement, he creates a makeshift cushion with his shoes and starts meditating.  The guards themselves start taking photos to post on their Facebook walls!  Moved by his equipoise under conditions of extreme stress, some guards even inquire about the specifics of meditation.  One of them befriends him and gifts him an extra “package” — a toothbrush, a toothpaste, a piece of paper and a pen.  Pancho then cleans up his cell of all the litter, toilet paper and other waste; on the piece of paper he writes, “Smile.  You’ve just been tagged with an anonymous act of kindness!”, and leaves that extra toothpaste and toothbrush next to it.  “I wanted to beautify the cell for the next person after me,” he would later say.  Jails didn’t have any vegetarian food, so he smilingly fasted — having two oranges in four days.  He gifts away his ham sandwiches to other inmates, and connects with them in the spirit of generosity too.  In transit, when he has more contact with other prisoners, he educates them about their rights.  With the ICE agent who shackles him, he smilingly says, “Sister, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this kind of work.”  To which she smiled back and responded, “Thank you.”

Really, there’s not much else one can respond with.

When he is released from jail, lots of media houses are frantically looking for him.  Pancho, utterly uninterested in the games of fame, is unreachable.  The man doesn’t even have a phone.  That weekend, like every weekend, the best way to find him was to meditate at Casa de Paz, or volunteer at Karma Kitchen, or farm at the Free Farm Stand.  “Let’s replicate constructive programs,” he would say, while retelling stories of Gandhi.

From anarchists to administrators, people love Pancho — not just because he fiercely stands up for his values but because he is genuinely and constantly moved by love.  Whenever you meet him, he pre-emptively warns, “Hello, my family calls me Pancho.  I’m from the part of the planet we call Mexico and in Mexico, we like to give hugs,” before enveloping you in his trademark embrace.

Former US Marine Jason Kal recalls, “When we first met, I just casually told Pancho that I liked his t-shirt that said ‘ahimsa’ (meaning nonviolence) on it.   The next thing you know, he just takes off his t-shirt and gives it to me.  I was totally speechless.  I’ve never seen anyone do that.”  Today, Jason is Pancho’s housemate at Casa de Paz and a dear friend.

As Pancho often signs off his emails, “If you want to be a rebel, be kind.”

~ Nipun Mehta