40 Strangers, 1 Circle, 1 heart

Rohit Rajgarhia, Sep 2, 2023 in Intelligence of the Heart (July'23)

As one of our retreat ladders over last two decades Jayesh bhai often says – “In our thoughts and beliefs, we may be all different. But in our hearts, we are always one.” 

In a world caught in the paradigm of urgency and visible impact, we were amazed by the diversity of interest in this gathering, "Intelligence of the Heart" in July 2023 at Ahmedabad. Austrian Poet Rilke might have classified the purpose of this gathering as a group of 40 stranger bees coming together to "wildly gather the honey of the visible" and to deposit it in "the great golden hive of the invisible". To use our heads and hands -- the visible, to ignite the heart -- the invisible golden thread of compassion.   

Deep unheard stories from everyone’s lives had started to flow abundantly right in the application stage itself. Wrote a young changemaker -- 

“I was the in-charge of the oils gas platform project and was managing 700-1000 workers. In 2012 I removed (technically fired) three workers in the factory for safety rules violations. The decision was appreciated by the management. However it deeply affected me as my decision had deprived the livelihood of those three workers and now their families were at mercy of faith. I could relate with this because my father was a factory worker and he had lost his job in 2003 because extensive automation in the factory. The very experience helped me in discovering my search for meaning of life! And that's how I entered into the worker well-being space.”

Also joined by a couple from rural Maharashtra working on the issue of farmer suicides, an acupuncturist and a homeschooler to 130 children, an administrative service officer, young businessmen, a 75-year-old yoga teacher, a 60-year-old homemaker, a senior leader from a tech company, a famed classical-singer turned tribal-singer, and the list goes on! 

We were humbled (and to be honest, a bit overwhelmed!) at the diversity and overflow of goodness in the room. So much so, that in a country where an IIM degree is seen as a high pinnacle of achievement, an IIM Graduate in the circle said “Looking at you all, I don’t feel I have anything to say. My life has been so linear.”

And yet, the gathering wasn't our achievements or accolades; NGOs or businesses; or knowledge or wisdom. The unifying thread was a simple intention to connect in the spirit of kindness and deep listening.     

[Morning welcomes be like!]

What humbles us in such gatherings each time is to witness how the quality of listening affects the quality of speaking. In daily life, we go to Ted talks by leaders for inspiration, but in a deeply connected field - spiri-Ted words start flowing through every person in the room. Or as the kind of what became a retreat meme, how we all help each other harness “the sound of the genuine” within each of us.   

Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in my spirit and come up in your spirit. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me. Then the wall that separates and divides will disappear, and we will become one -- because the sound of the genuine makes the same music. - Howard Thurman

In that deep context, even the usual content of our lives can come alive in a much more powerful way. During a visit to Ashramshala, some kids sang the popular hindi prayer “Itni Shakti Hame De Na Daata”. The next morning, Ritika, with tears in her eyes recounts how the lines “Mann ka vishwas kamzor ho na” (May the faith in our hearts never waver) is all she needs to remember, to remain anchored at this stage in her life. Same prayer, same words, but very different effect. It in not the content, but the context that matters.  

Our 3.5 days together were filled with sitting in circles and listening to stories from each other’s life, looking at deeper patterns of problems at the intersection of personal-relational-systemic levels and asking a slew of uncommon, challenging questions for deeper change. Visiting Gandhi Ashram and meeting local unconventional changemakers, and lots of sweeping, chopping vegetables and doing dishes. :)

You may ask what’s the big deal about washing dishes – but then consider this – Vinoba Bhave was the man who went on create the Bhoodan movement. The first time when he came to know about Gandhiji’s approach to spiritual activism (better known as non-violence), he left his studies and came to meet him. Gandhi's first offer –- Come chop vegetables with me. In chopping those vegetables, Vinoba said he found “Himalaya ki Shaanti, aur Bengal ki Kraanti”. (The peace of the Himalayas, and the activism of Bengal.) 

[Chopping Vegetables at 7AM]

Talking about doing dishes and chopping vegetables, a word must be expressed about the volunteers who make such sacred gatherings possible. Behind the three days that every participant spends in the retreat, 2500+ hours of volunteering effort are donated. Right from drafting the application form, reviewing and talking to each applicant, to the fresh rangoli in the hall each day, to the heart-pins, to the countless rounds of invisible doing dishes, and the list goes on! You may never come to know that someone carrying your luggage to your room left his 600-employees stock broking business (without claiming an exit price!) just to humbly serve this movement. Or a young college girl doing dishes might have never done as many dishes in her life, as she did just that night while rest of us were singing and dancing. Or another volunteer’s mom was just operated for breast cancer, but she told her daughter that you must go and serve. Or the many volunteers whom we couldn’t accomodate in person, but they still offered many days of prayerful labour from their homes, to make small hand-made gifts for 40 strangers.    

Or the guy adjusting the projector and sound, was co-founder of a large tech company, but none of us knew anything about that over his last three visits, till we pushed him on the other side of the mic. What flowed had many of us in deep tears of resonance. 

And it's a powerful reminder to all of us that doing dishes is not small. After all, is it our ego that gets to decide what is big or what is small? Every act of kindness has a deep potential for transformation. And the end of the retreat, it’s hard to explain the smiles and the laughters (and the tears!) that all volunteers leave with. Every single time.   

Vicky, Founder of Museum of Happiness, who came all the way from London fell in love with the space instantly. “I feel like I have just died, and arrived in heaven” she said. And as soon as she comes out of the room: there is a rockcarving outside her room: "Gratitude to Heaven, Gratitude to Earth, Gratitude to Water, Gratitude to Air, Gratitude to Fire, Gratitude to Humans. " 

[When outer cleanliness meets inner purification, we create heaven on earth.]

[No one wants to miss the cleaning party! And yeah, at our retreat venue ESI, you can surely discover 1000 ways to kneel and sweep the ground.] 

A senior leader from SAP was disturbed as she received news of her brother being suddenly hospitalised. She requested to be allowed to leave the retreat after finishing day 2. We agreed. Day 2 ended. Day 3 ended. Lo and behold, she ended up staying till the end. She and her family decided that to be in this gathering of kindness is the best way for her to generate blessings for her brother. At the end of the retreat, she says “You know there was a lot that was going. On top of that, I am STRICTLY a morning coffee person. Here, there was no coffee. People now go on work-cation, stay-cation and all similar sorts, but when I go back, I will tell my friends that this was my first experience of soul-cation”.   

Two months after the retreat, as I started to pen down a paragraph about the retreat, all these memories suddenly came gushing through. And if any of us were to refer to our notes, we could fill a whole book of moments that brought us so close, in touch with the “intelligence of the heart.” 

What we collectively experience in a retreat is hard to put in words. But we did manage to catch hold of a few unsuspecting participants and asked them to say a few words under the banyan tree

What Jayesh Bhai says rings increasingly true, in our hearts, we were and are always one. It just takes some acts of kindness and deep listening to remember that. :)       

[The closing group photo -- One Heart.]

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