Point Reyes Dialogues, originates at KWMR in Point Reyes Station, California. Host Jacob Needleman explores the great questions of life and our current condition with eminent friends from the arts, science and spirituality, politics and public service.
Jacob Needleman is an internationally renowned author and philosopher whose many distinguished books include A Sense of the Cosmos, The Heart of Philosophy, The American Soul and Money and the Meaning of Life.
One of the central aims of these dialogues is to reawaken the art of conversation as a practice of non-egoistic listening and thinking together. Our premise is that new territories of collaboration and creativity open with the inner work of listening and thinking together leading to ethical action in the world. Sylvia Timbers, Series Producer: Point Reyes Dialogues explores the great questions of life and our current condition in the context of the spiritual revolution begun in the 1960s in California and continuing today. Today Jacob Needleman talks with Nipun Mehta, the founder of Servicespace.org. Nipun started his career at Sun Microsystems. Dissatisfied with the dot-com greed of the 90s, he went to a homeless shelter with three friends to give with no agenda. That was the beginning of ServiceSpace. On his personal website Nipun writes, “My life is an attempt to bring smiles into the world and silence into my heart. I want to live simply, love purely and give fearlessly.”
Jacob Needleman: My dialogue partner today is Nipun Mehta—a man, who just looking at him, makes me happy. We’re going to talk about what we think is important in this world, in this time and how we're trying to participate in it. I thought I would start with a wonderful quote that was attributed to the great American philosopher William James. It's meant a lot to me and somehow it reminds me of you and what you're doing. James says, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible, molecular, moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.” What do you think of that?
Nipun Mehta: I'm happy to be here, Jerry. I love that quote, as you might guess. I think it reallyâ€¨ puts the emphasis on inner transformation. The reward for doing any act of service, no matter how small, is the inner transformation that you may experience right then and there. It’s not the outer impact—which is real, but a material and reductionist impact—but something that changes your inner being, your mind, and stays with you forever. I think that's what James was getting at.
Jacob: I think so, too. You have a way of acting through the heart, through actions of the heart. I work with ideas, and although I try to speak from and to the heart with ideas, you are doing it through actions. Can you say a little bit about the specific kind of actions that you find transformative, with which your whole life now is engaged and encouraging?
Nipun: I don't think I’m as intellectually gifted as you. But I said at some point, it’s not enough to read a book and get an intellectual understanding of swimming, you have to go and touch and feel the water. I had this inner drive toward direct experience. So, what is compassion? What is good will? What is care? I had some idea of it; I had some understanding of it. I think there is something innate there, but I really wanted to understand it at a deeper level. So I tried it. I would do small acts that would give me that experience mostly to learn, and to experiment and to grow. That became the foundation of the work I do in the world, which fundamentally is acts of love. It’s not just thinking about it, but really experiencing it that has helped me a great deal.
Jacob: What was your first practical, experiential discovery that really opened you up to this?
Nipun: It's hard to say what the first thing was because it’s been like a slow-growing plant. I think one of the earlier formative experiences in my life was volunteering at a hospice. I was 17 and I had this obsession, a curiosity perhaps, about death. What is all this for? Why are we living, and what is death? So I wanted to volunteer. I wanted to give—that was another driving force—so I thought why don’t I go and help at a hospice where people are on their deathbeds? So I went and they said, “Are you serious? You look a little young.” They found out I was only 17 and said, “You actually can't legally volunteer here.” So I said, “How old you have to be?” They said, “Eighteen.” I said, “OK, I’ll come back.” I went back. There was a six-month orientation. You never know that even when you're volunteering, someone may pass away. For example, it was very powerful to see people who I’d only known for two weeks pass on. And how do you process that impermanence? Is it a depressing thing? Or is it something that allows you to embrace life in a deeper way? It was one of those profound experiences early on in my life that taught me a great deal about giving and not waiting until I’m 65 or until I’m retired or have a lot of money.
Jacob: This was the giving that had no hidden agenda, no personal gain. That seems to me more rare than we would like to imagine—to give without the hidden impulse for some kind of personal gain. Sometimes when I talk about this to my students or to others about this, they say, “Well it makes you feel better.” And, of course, yes it does; in a way, it makes you feel completely different than any other pleasure that life has to offer. It is unimaginable actually until you actually experience it. Is that something you discovered?
Nipun: I think that giving for the satisfaction of the ego is â€¨almost the opposite. I was trying to understand the ego, trying to dissolve the ego in some sense. I was giving to purify myself through an active service, and what I discovered is that even with the smallest act you do—if it is done with genuine care and genuine intention—it actually stills the mind, and in that stillness, you explore a deeper interconnection with all life. So it isn't ego affirming. It is more oneness affirming. It was very counter to “I want to go out and do something that has an impact in the world.” This was like, hey, I want to be sincere and do something that deepens my interconnection. And, low and behold, this was verified through my humble task. I don’t think it would pass through a Harvard case study, but I’m certainly convinced that it works like that, and it has worked in my life that way.
Jacob: So actually the motive of doing something purely for the sake of â€¨understanding—I am thinking of understanding humanity, the human condition, the ego, whatever we are going to call it—is in itself a transformative action. But that's very important because sometimes I think people are sort of conditioned to believe they’re supposed to love, they’re supposed to care, without actually ever having experienced what real love and real care is. But almost everybody can appreciate the impulse to wish to understand, to understand why, and to try to understand who we are, what I am—and going with that motive sometimes leads you to love.
Nipun: Absolutely. I think sometimes we have these clouds over our awareness that don't let us see; however, we have all experienced love. We start with nine months of a gift from our moms. They’re unconditional gifts; there’s no business plan and no handshake. That’s how we all came into this world. This was nine months of love, and how are you going to process that? It’s just that we forget about a lot of these gifts and these gifts are happening to us every single day, every single moment in some sense, and we forget because we have these big clouds of self-obsession over our awareness. I think as the sun starts to shine and the clouds start to disappear, we have a very different perspective on what is already there.
Jacob: Of course people might say, yes, alright, gifts are coming all the time—the air we breathe, life, sights we see, the people we know—but there is also the opposite of gifting coming at us. The world is not all smiling faces, as St. Augustine said. So how can you face, how can we face, the so-called realistic perspective which is “it's a jungle out there” as well as being a glorious array of God’s gifts.
Nipun: Yes, I think a lot of people, when they process giving, when they process generosity, or even compassion, it tends to get boxed into a feel-good box and they do it to feel good. That’s actually not how I classify generosity or giving. For me generosity comes when you're in a state of equanimity. So it has nothing to do with the state or the context that you’re in. It’s about accepting life—radical acceptance of life—as it is. And when you do that, then you realize that, “Oh, I don’t want anything from it so what can I do for it?” It’s almost like this natural state of service happens. So this is not to say, like a lot of people say, “Well it's worked out for you.” But I say that the real test of something that works out is not something that is materially good or bad. It’s your equanimity. If you're able to accept life as it is, no matter if it is good or bad, or even if it is in transition, if you can accept life as it is, then I think that becomes the basis of real generosity.
Jacob: That kind of acceptance of life as it is—and we may even say as well the acceptance of myself as I am with all my flaws—is really a pure acceptance, which means you receive it without judgment, without blame, without hidden agendas to change anything. That kind of inaction seems to release something deeply natural in us that is the power of love and giving as though that is a part of our DNA about which no one has told us. Do you see it that way?
Nipun: Yes, I think it does. If I look back at my life, I have probably gone through three distinct stages on this journey. The first is when I said I wanted to go out and serve people, and it was a conscious act like going and doing something. Then over time, perhaps from the stillness that came from that giving, I realized that I was actually receiving. And I do need to receive as a part of this whole ecosystem of the give-and-take in which we’re all enmeshed. You realize, “Wow, I’m receiving!” And then you realize the third stage, which is, “How do I know whether to give or to receive?” I’m planted in a certain context. Do I give? Do I receive? You don’t know, and so then you learn with equanimity that you just dance! That to me is the essence of what you're talking about—something is released inside of us. When you understand giving, when you understand receiving, you understand that it is all self-organizing. You just have to dance, and in some moments you’re asked to give and in some moments you are asked to receive, but your ultimate prerogative is to just dance.
Jacob: Very beautiful. But sometimes receiving can be the biggest gift you give to another person. Isn’t it? There are people for whom it is very hard to receive and they immediately always want to pay you back. Years ago I traveled to Mount Athos in Macedonia, Greece, where the orthodox Greek monasteries were all located. Well after that trip, I had a dialogue with a man in London who was at that time, the Russian Orthodox Archbishop, Anthony Bloom. I’ve told this story before, but it’s part of what you’re talking about. I’d been to a church in Athens and on the ceiling of this orthodox cathedral is this huge face of Christ, the Creator, looking down. And I was in a certain state and I felt, “My God! This life is such a gift!” This image represents a tremendous gift from above, this symbol. And how am I supposed to respond to it? How can I respond to such an immense gift of life? When I asked Anthony Bloom that question, he said very simply, “Well, what is the proper response to a gift?” I started to think, and I had the feeling of what it was. And he said, “To accept it!” He said that all of our spiritual work is to make us capable of accepting the gift that is constantly being offered. Is that beautiful?
Nipun: Yes, it is so beautiful.â€¨ It’s quite a beautiful paradox when giving is receiving and when receiving is giving. It totally is, and it’s really hard. If you start looking at any act of giving and receiving and start breaking it down, it’s really hard to say who is giving and who is receiving. I mean it’s about the polarity, which is a function of our lack of awareness, in some sense. Also I would ask that, “Is there an act where you are purely just giving? Is there an act where you are purely just receiving?” Even if you receive like you said, you are giving the other person an opportunity to share. Let’s say, you’re giving—you’re also receiving at the same time this immense satisfaction. Are those polarities even real?
Jacob: The kind of work you’re doing seems to be trying to cut through the clichés and the sermonizing and moralizing about this subject, because on the surface in our culture everyone is saying, “It is better to give than to receive.”—Especially around now at Christmas time. And it becomes a kind of moralizing. When I was a teenager, like a lot of teenagers think today, it seemed so hypocritical. But what you're doing, I believe, is trying to break through that and show people by experience a little atom of this truth of giving and receiving.
Nipun: Yes. One of my friends walked into a restaurant and went upâ€¨ to the server and said, “Find the couple who are most madly in love and tell them that someone anonymously has paid for their meal.” So the waiter went looking around and came back and said, “I think I found the right people.” This was a New York restaurant where an entree cost a couple of hundred dollars. He was just feeling like he wanted to be generous, so he did this; he was thankful for something that someone had done for him. So the waiter went and told this couple and as soon as the couple heard it, they started crying—the woman, in particular. So this server thought, “Well, they’re touched.” He leaves them alone, but keeps an eye on the table and the woman is still crying; she’s totally in tears, weeping for five or ten minutes. So the waiter thinks, “OK, I need to do something. What do I do?” But his instructions were that it has to be anonymous. So he goes up to them and tries to talk to them. It does not work out, so he comes back to the guy who had given that gift and said, “Sir, I know you wanted it to be anonymous, but that woman has just lost it. I think you need to come out of your batman cover (laughing) and just approach them because I think something’s going on. I don’t know how to deal with it.” So this guy who paid decides, okay, I will go and talk to them. He goes over and he says, “It was me. I hope you enjoy your meal.” The woman looks him in the eye, still kind of teary, and says, “You have no idea what this means to us. Today is our one-year anniversary, and we both work at a non-profit organization. We could never afford to be here, but we saved up the whole year to have this meal. We serve the world and feel like there are so many challenges always thrown our way and here we come on our special day and now we get a response in this way.” Wow! You look at that and you ask, “Was this fellow who paid for the tab the giver or the receiver?” He’s the one who told me this story. He’s never going to forget; he even had tears in his eyes, too. So it’s not so clear. Now he’s on the board of an organization and he ended up doing all kinds of other things that rippled out. So this dynamic, this gap between the giver and the receiver is really hard to process in such polarizing terms. I think it’s just this dance that happens and, in some moments and in some contexts, you’re getting more and in some contexts you’re receiving more. And that’s all OK.
Jacob: Sometimes I give my class an assignment where I ask them, “Has anybody in this class ever done something for someone else that involved you sacrificing or giving up something that meant a lot to you without ever letting them know you did it?” Very few people have tried that. One woman, however, had. I asked, “How did it make you feel?” She said, “I never felt anything like that.” It’s a whole different dimension, and how do we try to inject this into the culture? The vastness of what you’ve already tried in giving is so awesome. How can we communicate this a little more? Because this is a world, as we know from politics now, that believes in greed and personal gain. These are the gods of the world. And in comparison to those vast forces of egoism and great personal gain, you're trying—like in the James’ quote—to show the value of the small acts of giving. Is there some hope that anything you're doing can actually get people in touch with the transformation of the heart of which we’re speaking?
Nipun: If you look at the Internet, you find a very interesting phenomenon in many ways. Look at CDs, which are now disintermediated into small tracks. Look at billboards that are broken into small Google ad words. I wonder if we can take teachers or lecturers or preachers and disintermediate them. So instead of Roger Ebert saying go and watch this movie because I give it two thumbs up, when you listen to your neighbor who comes and tells you, it has a very different impact. I think that the Internet makes this possible. We’re trying to encourage everyday people to do small acts, and it appears to be a peer phenomenon. A very fine example is Karma Kitchen, which is a restaurant that started in Berkeley and is now in D.C. and Chicago and several other places. On Sundays we take on a restaurant and turn it into a volunteer-run experiment in generosity. You have a meal, like you do at a regular restaurant, but the check reads “You owe zero dollars because someone before you paid for you, so you get to pay forward for the people who come in after you.” It's like someone “going on the mantle.”1 They’re not saying, “You should be kind.” You come in and you get a meal, but all of a sudden you realize, wait a second!— the meal is a gift from somebody before me who I don’t know. The person serving me is a volunteer. They’re just giving their time and their labor and I don’t know them, either. How do you process that? Then at the end of the meal you get to pay forward for people in the coming week to have the same experience. But these are also people you don't know, so how do you process that? It's a very different dynamic than like, “I’m smart, so I have money. And this server is doing it for a salary. And he messed up my order!” It’s a very different dynamic. So now you don’t need to tell them to be kind or generous.
Jacob: That’s the point. You don't need to go and tell. The culture has practices where people are told what they should be doing and that blocks the normal human impulse to give. If I get a free meal where someone's paid for me, that is so, aha! That brings something in. Some cynical people will say, “Well, that’s great. I don't think that happens very much.”
Nipun: Even when you have people who don't understand this spirit, it's just because their cup is empty, and if a cup is empty, it’s not going to overflow. This is a very real part of generosity. You cannot expect it to overflow. But you have to say, “Okay. It’s empty because of what somebody else did to them before. So now I’m going to add my two drops and then have it overflow in time.” A hundred percent of the people will not come in and be totally in tears. Some will come in and be crabby. Some will come in because they’re having a bad day, and maybe by the end they say, “Wow, I feel a lot better now!” And they say, “Thank you.” Or maybe they go and do something for someone else afterwards and at home they treat their family differently. Jacob: This is very important. I know that Gurdjieff, for example, would be kind toâ€¨ young children. He was a great teacher. He would walk around and always had pieces of candy in his pocket. And whenever he saw a little kid in the park or somewhere, he would give these to the kids. Then the mother would come over and say, “What do you say to the kind man?” And he would shout at her, “No!” He would come away feeling that she had ruined it. The child knows what to say. He feels the thing. This fact that you don’t tell them what to do is so liberating, and it gets twisted by the mind and the moralistic culture that says this is what you are supposed to do. And that’s not we are looking for.
Nipun: I think it’s as simple as what my tenth grade teacher said, “When you write, don’tâ€¨ tell, show.” Show and not tell. This is exactly it and, in a way, Ghandi was all about this as well when he said the famous phrase, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is exactly what he was trying to get at.
Jacob: Let me bring up an aspect that was just hinted at. There’sâ€¨ a great saying in the Islamic tradition—and which is also in the Jewish tradition—but in the Islamic it’s very strong, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.” When we realize we are dealing in a world that is full of crime and selfishness, etc., etc., how do people negotiate that polarity?
Nipun: I think that’s a very important thing for anyone to consider, especially as you walk along this path of generosity. The Buddha talked about the middle way between the two extremes. But there is one curious thing about the middle. You can only find the middle when you know the two endpoints. But what are the two endpoints? I think these are very different for different people at different times. You have to find your endpoints and then you have to find the middle. For one person tying the camel may be taking care of their family, for someone else tying the camel is making sure they're meditating forty hours a week. So it’s a different equation based on how you identify with the endpoints. I think it's very critical to be conscious of what the two ends of the spectrum are for you. At that point in time it’s important to be dynamic so that you can adjust those. Certainly my two endpoints have changed from where I was. My spectrum is very different now than where it was ten years ago. One of the things I love to do is to give gifts—material gifts. I had a job and, whenever I had money left over, I just loved to go and give gifts to people. At some point I said that I'd rather not spend my time going to work and having money and then buying gifts. Instead I just wanted to give my time and then just give my presence. Those were radical shifts in my own internal ecosystem—to go away from this giving (identifying giving as a material thing) to having it be more a thing of labor, to it becoming a thing of presence. So where is the middle with those changes in the whole ecosystem? And what does it mean to tie your camel? It’s a totally different equation in each of those.
(1) Footnote: “going on the mantle” A mantle is a grace given by God that rests upon an individual’s life that others readily identify and willingly submit to. [There is an absence of coercion, force, and manipulation to get others to follow]. Out of this grace flows an anointing that others partake of, learn from, and are elevated by. The recipient of this grace understands that the mantle of leadership is a responsibility to serve and impart; not a right to be served and take. A mantle freely reproduces its self without being intimidated by the gifts and callings of others.
Update Note: CharityFocus.org (now ServiceSpace.org) is an all volunteer-run organization that leverages technology to inspire greater volunteerism. It’s a space to explore our own relationship with service and our interconnection with the rest of the world. ServiceSpace allows our inherent generosity to blossom out into small acts of service for the community around us. It’s a space to learn how outer change is closely tied to our own inner transformation. It’s about changing ourselves, to change the world. ServiceSpace was conceived by volunteers, was built by volunteers, and is run by volunteers—all for the benefit of volunteers. Our projects range from a daily positive news service, to an acts-of-kindness portal, to a gift-economy restaurant. Regardless of the endeavor, we act in concert to create service opportunities for each other and to support each other’s service journeys. Founded in 1999, CharityFocus (now ServiceSpace) was originally started to help non-profits with technical services. Over the past dozen years, the organization has become an umbrella for many generosity-driven projects. Thus we have expanded our services from focusing just on helping charities, to encouraging everyday people to contribute in meaningful ways to the world around them. As the name suggests, our new expanded platform allows people to stay connected with others interested in service, participate in service opportunities through any of our dozen projects, organize their own local service events using our tools, and stay connected to inspirational content. Above all, we believe in the inherent generosity of others and aim to ignite that spirit of service. Through our small, collective acts, we hope to transform ourselves and the world.
Transcribed by Sheila Kathleen Donis, Jasonville, Indiana USA â€¨June 2012
This article originally appeared in Works & Conversations and is republished with permission. Works & Conversations is an inspiring collection of in-depth interviews with artists from all walks of life. Jacob Needleman is an internationally renowned author and philosopher whose many distinguished books include A Sense of the Cosmos, The Heart of Philosophy, The American Soul and Money and the Meaning of Life.
Great article. I really needed this today. I agree, that giving in ways is a form of receiving, and sometimes it is in receiving, with grace, that one becomes happy. I find the concept of interconnection very interesting, as well as just learning to dance. I feel like that is the great harmony of life. Thanks for this article, and insight, I hope I'll do well with it! :)
On Feb 23, 2016 Jennifer wrote:
Hi everyone, I love the ideas and concepts of your stories however I have found that for the average busy person (like me) they are a bit too long to read through the whole thing. I would appreciate and love a shortened version! Thanks
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