Panchshakti: Igniting The Murmuration!

Rohit Rajgarhia, Feb 6, 2023 in Panchshakti

Bruno Barnhart, a Benedictine monk once said “We humans prefer a manageable complexity to an unmanageable simplicity.” If we look at our world today, the manageable complexity approach isn’t taking us far. The world is becoming increasingly more volatile and complex, and the key systems that drive our society - education, business, NGOs, government, media and community - are increasingly ill-equipped in dealing with the new emerging catastrophes. 

In that backdrop, what would it take for us to let go of our clinging to manageable complexity, and show up differently to tune into a field of “elegant simplicity” in which radically innovative possibilities may emerge? 

Late December, sixty-four leaders and everyday heroes from diverse sectors gathered together on the outskirts of Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, in response to join this curious invitation. We called it the “Panchshakti Retreat”, inspired by Vinoba Bhave’s vision of “Panchshakti”. Just as five fingers work together to form a palm, what would it take for society’s diverse sectors to weave together and ignite a multiplier effect?  

At the start of our retreat, we all gathered in a circle, and after a minute of silence, took a walk around the sacred ESI campus, with a prayerful awareness “May peace prevail on Earth”.   In a way, the retreat was an experiment in building bridges across differences.  

For most of us in the room, we would never been part of a group so diverse - across sectors, age groups and geographies. Can strangers with very diverse backgrounds, thought processes and ideologies come together, find common ground and co-create a whole greater than sum of parts?  

What transpired over the next four days was truly a sight to behold! A globally-renowned theoretical physicist with 25 patents was raptly listening to stories of a young girl from the village. The founder of a premier K-12 school was speaking to a mother who is unschooling her children. Leader of an NGO established by Gandhi (with branches in 26 states) brainstorming with young economics grads. CEO of a pharma company from Oman shaking legs with a dance movement therapist. A professional money manager was at a loss of words sitting next to someone who doesn’t have a bank account. Chief Happiness Officer of a marketing company is listening to stories of a social worker in the field of disabilities. We represented a diverse spectrum yet could weave as one, sharing our oneness with one another. 

As a testament to that unfolding, Suresh, the pharma CEO poignantly remarked at the end of the retreat “For 63 years of my life, I haven’t been part of a group like this. What I have learned here in 4 days, is greater than what I’ve learned in 44 years of my corporate life. Why can’t I live like this forever from now on?” 

After the opening peace walk, we moved into small groups, to know each other with some fun and deep questions. When we meet a stranger, we typically ask “What do you do? Here instead, with genuine curiosity, we listened to deeper stories from each others’ lives – “What is an act of kindness you’ll never forget? What was an unexpected event that changed the direction of your life? A moment when your inner voice guided you in making a difficult decision? The opening circle itself led to some powerful moments of introspection and kinship.  

We started Day 2 with a visit to the Gandhi Ashram. We were welcomed at “Raastriya Shaala”, a hostel that was built by Gandhi in 1920 as a retreat and reflective space for changemakers across business, politics, education, etc. during India’s freedom struggle. Today, our focus was on asking the hard questions from a systemic lens. 

Most of our society is organized around implementing solutions. We amplify quick solutions, and tend to bury the unresolved questions. Manageable complexity! Einstein’s recommendation was quite contrary. He said “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask.” Because problems can’t be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it, he would say. 

In that spirit, we spent the morning identifying some fundamental deep-rooted problems within each sector that we were collectively struggling to find answers to . Problems that can’t be solved at the same level of consciousness. To illustrate, Parag shared a simple example of the problem of food wastage in his factory that they struggled to solve by various strategies. 

A Harvard lawyer turned educator, now serving as special adviser to Ahmedabad University for transforming university culture, spoke about gentleness and patience needed in building a more wholesome narrative of success among students. An NGO leader serving people with disabilities shared that with funding, it is easy to hire for IQ but the hardest thing funding can’t buy is people with a high CQ (Compassion Quotient). The founder of an organization to groom principled political leaders shared stories from the grassroots reflecting that honest politics today is akin to “swimming upstream in a waterfall.” A sustainable business pioneer reflected on the current business mindset as arising from a “lack of peace.” Lack of peace within, peace between people and peace between companies. More consumption and competition would not solve this problem. After a few seed reflections, we then dove into sector-wise breakouts to reflect on the challenges in each sector.  

After reflecting on the limitations of the current paradigm, we asked how can we re-orient our actions to build a field for higher consciousness. Nipun seeded a few questions citing examples from Gandhi’s movement and design principles of saints - How do we cultivate an intelligence which is greater than our senses and our mind? How do we ignite the fifth monk? How do we shift our systems from amplifying vices and managing vices to amplifying virtues? How do we shift from awareness and impact, to design for transformation? 

Through our multiple brainstorming circles, the process of holding difficult questions refined our awareness. Each question led to newer nuanced questions. It was no longer about finding the right answers, it was about expanding our minds and vision to hold the microscopic as well as the telescopic lens.  

Throughout our time, we also did many embodiment exercises. We ran, we walked. We laughed (a lot!). We hugged. We sang. We held hands. We arranged our footwear in elegant patterns. We sat together in silence. Everyone danced like a child, and felt connected like a baby. We lay down in the grass (a first for some of us!). We were mesmerized by the songs of the birds and the whispers of the trees. We swept the floor, we chopped the vegetables. With our eyes closed, when a gentle hand touched our heads, someone said they felt mother earth’s embrace. “It was a pure experience” where “the joy got compounded”. 

However, what we were birthing together - was not merely an expansion of the intellect, or an expression through our hands, but igniting a much deeper force - the intelligence of the heart.  

Gandhi said that if we could connect and lead with our heart’s intelligence, and align our head and hands with that intelligence, we would ignite the "law of love" - a force infinitely more wonderful and subtle than all other forces of nature. Our time together was a collective experiment in igniting that law of love. After the retreat, Harsh, a young enterepreneur whose life was recently transformed by meditation, reflected - 

Dear friends,

Thank you all very much for giving me very a special gift during the Panchshakti Retreat. I am not so sure about the Panchshakti, but this extraordinary experience has been so empowering for me! Not only did I receive copious amounts of Metta, Maitri, Gratitude, Love, etc., but more importantly, I received at least some understanding of what this Metta is. What can be a greater gift than this? Through my experience with you all, I could internalise that any meditation without Metta in some form is incomplete. Perhaps it is this camp that is a real turning point in my life!

As I reflect upon our magical circles and interactions, I realise that as our individual egos melted in values of love and gratitude, our personal consciousness could rejoin the collective consciousness – something greater, of which we are smaller parts. As we are all filled with love and gratitude for each other, these values are what we receive in reflection from the higher consciousness along with thought-provoking insights and clarity.

Today, most of the world is designed with a transactional mindset – “What’s in it for me?” Then social media came and even our friendships became shallow. But life evolves on the principles of synergy. The forces of attraction that bring together individual parts determine the strength of its bonds, and subsequently the quality and durability of its emergence. 

In the retreat, that force ran quite deep. A group of volunteers spent thousands of hours in putting it together, purely as a labour of love. Everything from the welcome hugs, the hand-made name tags, beautiful new rangolis everyday, the surprise gifts anonymously left behind in the rooms, the silent dinner - everything came from that same vibration of deep care. “It was the most mindful meal I ever had,” Harsh said.  “Load mat le” - became a favourite meme to symbolize trust & surrender (thanks Barkha and Minaz!). Dhara felt as if the color saturation of the TV had suddenly jumped up. Every moment felt much brighter and vivid.

In that space of deep interconnection, with the intelligence of love, we naturally started flowing like murmurations and unlocking new collective patterns. The collective synergy in the space skyrocketed. Genius starts flowing from anywhere and everywhere. Every word that is spoken and every small act of kindness, would ignite a domino of goodness and uplift the whole group. 

In an evening of stories on day 3, we invited a shy college student to share with the entire group. She says that last time she was invited to speak in a circle 5 years ago, out of nervousness she started crying. Today, she felt like the same. But she thought - if not now, then when? If not here, then where? She spoke for five mins. And this time, the rest of us cried.   

Another young IIM graduate, who left her high-flying corporate career to work with underprivileged children, shared her story of being molested on the street when she was 10. But before her story, she adds a disclaimer that shook everyone to the core - “This is the last time ever I am sharing this story. Ever. I have been working on my healing and now I feel ready to liberate from this identity.” 

A physicist with 25 patents walks up and shares a poem with another curious disclaimer - “Whatever I am sharing is not mine. I believe in the fifth monk because of you all. It is all of yours.” And goes on to share a poem that he spontaneously created from everyone else’s words in the retreat – “Connections like grains of life. Feeding the soul. Filling the heart…”  

One of the participants joined us all the way from Germany and it was the first time in her life away from her husband during Christmas. A volunteer overheard that and lo and behold, they find a way to connect with her husband. We invited him on a zoom call, and surprised them with a song “Make me a channel of your peace.” Totally unscripted. To close our spirited evening, Sangeeta’s mesmerizing performance on Prabhuji daya karo felt like a perfect expression of the field of grace we all found ourselves swimming in. 

Seeing this Shyam got deeply inspired, and despite 18 hours of volunteering duties that day, he wakes up early the next day, manages to find a santa suit and hat, and is merrily walking up room by room singing “Ho, Ho, Ho”, with pillows tucked to pop up the belly, offering little chocolates to everyone along the way.  

Bit by bit, in a small span of four days, what we had collectively unleashed was a domino of love. With every small act, it kept on compounding. Arundhati, a lifelong teacher would later remark - 

“In my 65 years, I grew up as a socialistic. I have always believed that everyone is equal. I thought I was always working from the heart. But here I see, I can do so much more. At points, I felt I was in heaven. It brings in humility, it strips you from all kinds of falsehood.”

Everyone was giving. But our individual balances of giving and receiving became insignificant in comparison to the grace that flowed. Everyone felt that they were receiving much more. It was regenerative. Everyone felt in flow with a greater whole and danced in their own unique expressions of bowing down to that. In those four days, we witnessed Law of Love leapfrog us from “manageable complexity” to an “elegant simplicity”. 

As the time to depart came, we all bowed down to the ground in gratitude for our sacred murmuration, and went our different directions with a deep wish to cultivate and carry forward this spirit with us, wherever we go.   



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