Preeta: 78 People for 15 Years

Rahul Mehta, Feb 8, 2023 in Gandhi 3.0, 2023

[Below are the insightful reflections Preeta shared during our Community Night at the Gandhi Ashram.]

One of my favorite stories -- or, one of the stories about Gandhi that amuses me the most -- is the fact that he confessed to others that he had an early vanity in the way that he chose to dress. This is someone who, at the end of his life, when his funeral march was going on -- the American journalist Edward R. Murrow described as "this little brown man in a loincloth who led his country to freedom." And yet, when he was a young person who was studying for the bar in London, he had an incredible affinity for fancy western dress. So he spent his really meager resources on an expensive top hat, an evening suit, and even a double watch chain.

The reason I mention this is that it's just so ironic -- as we're here in Ahmedabad, a place where he learned to spin his own yarn. This was how he began -- vain like the rest of us. In fact, it was in Ahmedabad that he learned to let go of all of the western accoutrements -- the outer layers, the outer coverings, of empire. And he also began to dismantle the power structures within his mind that upheld all of those.

We've talked this week a lot about the fact that, if you watch the 1982 movie, Gandhi, we hear about his incredible efforts in South Africa, and then he comes to India, is given a hero's welcome, and he goes off on the Salt March and leads his country to freedom.

What's forgotten in so many of those statements of Gandhi's life -- of the celebrations of all that he accomplished -- is the fact that he spent 15 years here (in Ahmedabad) with 78 people just sitting and doing the work of self-purification. This is a man who put behind his South African story of the world-changing shaking of empire and, just every single day, learned to spin yarn. It's kind of amazing to me.

World leaders, people who were so excited for what he might do upon his return to India, would come up to him and say, "You know, Gandhi-ji, what are you doing? What are you doing here spinning yarn?" His own countrymen and the westerners would say, "Mr. Gandhi, what are you doing?"

And he just spun.

He had that deep faith that he would find, through that work of purification, the throughline between the clarity of what was happening inside of him and what needed to happen on the outside.

I say all this because it's one thing to do this for 10 days, a month, or even a year. It's another thing to do it for 15 years with that deep patience.

This is something that has really inspired me and given me a lot of strength in my own journey. Just the example that that kind of dedication to inner work is not only possible, but potentially could actually amount to something, as opposed to just throwing it all away.

So, as many of you heard, my background is as a lawyer and I've been in government and corporations. I worked on the constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I've done a lot of things in terms of that outer work that, in the western world, we're taught is the important stuff of social change.

There was a moment, I remember when I had been involved in a piece of legislation that took up 2200 pages. When it was passed, I was thinking: How can we possibly know what is the cause and effect of this kind of legislation? How can we possibly know what will happen? We can have all of the best intentions in the world, but in this world of complexity, and in this world of strategy-making, plan-making, there's no chance that we will know the effects of this. Every change that we create creates a counter-effect, which may or may not do good. It may do harm.

I've worked in companies that had operations in 83 countries. I worked on constitutions that affected hundreds and millions of people. In all of this, I came to this realization, at least for me, what felt right for me, was this feeling that, at best, what we were doing potentially was just changing deck chairs on the Titanic. Because while we can do things that affect hundreds of millions of people or a billion people overnight, there's no way we can be in a relationship with a hundred million people or a billion people. There's no way we can ask, "How did that turn out for you, anyway?" It started feeling to me like the best case scenario is we're just changing deck chairs on the Titanic. And there's a distinct possibility that we're actually leading the ship into the iceberg.

I started feeling like maybe I just need to take the Hippocratic oath to just first do no harm. For me, that meant stepping away from major systems focusing on the outer work at large scale, and really going deep inside. There's an old Vedic saying that says that your outer work should never exceed the quality of your inner practice. That really started sticking with me -- this notion that rather than focusing on plans and strategies and big impact and big change, which can make us feel important -- it can even be very well motivated -- but instead of focusing on that, what if I just go really, really, really micro and focus on the really, really tiny? And, in that, to try and unlock, and potentially unleash, whatever's meant to be. Because if our outer work will always be at the level of our inner practice, then as our inner practice expands, our outer work will expand as well.

So I pursued this path of going deeper and deeper inward, as some of you have heard, that was inspired not only by the feeling of hitting the wall in the external world's trying to map cause and effect. It's interesting because, of course, Gandhi was spinning this thread, and it's exactly that kind of thread that it became for the mind -- impossible to map: where does it end, and where does it go? And what are the causes and effects? As I was doing that, the experience and the example of Gandhi was just very, very inspiring to me. It gave me the strength to make the outer changes in my life that needed to happen.

In the past week, I thought I'd done a lot of this inner work. I thought I'd worked through a lot of the blockages. I thought I'd dropped a lot of these stories and was ready to just really focus on the micro. It's a view of social change that I describe as quantum social change. And it's something obviously that physicists know. Everything's a web of relationships, and so often in this industrial era, we think of cause and effect as this grand thing that happens 'out there'. But, you know, Gurdjieff has this great line where he says that we're each meant to unlock a specific set of energies, internal and external, as tiny and as unique as a fingerprint. So imagine if each of us just does that work, and we create a web of relationships that creates a chain reaction so that that kind of unleashing can actually unlock the energy of the world.

I'll just end with this. We're facing this unbelievable meta crisis. We know all this. Democracies collapsing, climate change, all of these things. In this age, it's so easy to kind of fall back on what I would call the Western tools -- the Western accoutrements that, in some ways, Gandhi took on, early on, in his life. We can do impact assessments. We can do all kinds of strategic plans. They're just like the top hat and they're like the evening suit that Gandhi took on. But just to trust in that throughline -- to drop that work and just focus on the present. And focus on the tiny. And trust that there is no past, there is no future. There is no large, and there is no small.

That's what Gandhi teaches us. He talked about the third way, the force of ahimsa, that we're talking about, which is really just creative love. And it's something I really experienced this week, just walking around with some of our incredible hosts here locally. It really pointed to me the power of presence. I asked Jayesh-bhai at one point, kind of in a bit of a cheeky way, "You know, it's nice to sit here and touch every child as we walk along the streets, but what do you think of the 'fierce urgency of now' as we're facing climate collapse?"

He just kind of smiled and he said, "You know, the future is the future. It's always full of worry. The past is full of regret. But in the present -- if we stay present -- that's the field of love." And that's where we unlock unbelievable possibilities and new dimensions that we can't even begin to fathom.

That's what I take away from this week -- this opportunity to just be here right now in the present, drop all the plans, drop all the strategies, drop all the stories which I thought I'd already dropped, but to continue to drop them and really live in that very present moment and hopefully open ourselves up to the creative love and the incredible possibilities that arise from the now.

Thank you.

If you'd like to join a similar circle, please explore upcoming pods.