Power of silence: Reflection on The Paradox of Our Age

Our lives have become unimaginably complex and paradoxical. We do more, but get less done. We know more, but lack insight. We seek purpose, but lose meaning. The complexity in our external lives had made us morally and spiritually shallow: Our criticality has replaced our curiosity, our rationality trumps our compassion.

Was life always so complex? So paradoxical? I look at my nephews (ages 8 and 3) and think not. Is this complexity just a part of growing up? Maybe, but shouldn’t it be that the older we get, the wiser we become to exercise judgement in realizing the faults of our self-made complexity? Is this complexity the inevitable result of living in our society? Perhaps, but it shouldn’t be the case that our lifestyles stagnate our inner development. It should be the other way around, in fact.

Our complexities make us “sophisticated,” which comes with “sophisticated tastes,” and so we seize to enjoy everyday life and crave things more “sophisticated.” Our complexities consume our lives, leaving us with no space for higher pursuits, such as love, service and self-awareness. We have to do this, do that, and we continuing doing. And in craving and doing, we lose what came so easy to us in childhood:  a state of being.

So what to do about all this complexity? I think we must first realize the things that make our lives so complex, to specifically identify those things which consume our mental and physical space. Is it your phone? The internet? Your professional work? Friends? Is it a particular thought or feeling?

I think the next step is practicing silence. Once you’ve identified your complexities, exercise putting them aside for an hour daily and maintaining silence. Silence is not just the absence of speech; it is the presence of an inner stillness.  So during your hour of silence, work on being still internally by calming your thoughts. One way to do the latter is to focus on your breath.

This may seem tough, but the very act of silence will help us reflect, and to some degree, simplify those complexities which make our lives so complex and paradoxical. Shedding the layers of complexity will lead to a better understanding of self and will help us maintain inner stillness in this fast-paced world. As Pancho says, “Sometimes the most radical thing to do in a polluted violence-based system, is to be still. The mud settles to the bottom and we then have a clearer vision about our next steps.”

For more on silence, watch this video on being alone, read this article on the importance of solitude in leadership, and watch this video on the man who stayed silent for 17 years!


A good way to start your week

Acts of kindness are the pillars of caring societies.


Would MLK want MLK Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day signifies different things to different people. Some see it as history while others see it as a continuing struggle against discrimination. Some see it as a day to spend extra time with the family, a day to sleep in or a day to relax.

Through Public Allies New York, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to serve on MLK Day with youth from Police Athletic League (PAL). We–the Allies–provided PAL youth with a safe space to reflect, to serve and to express themselves creatively through art. The reflections were personal, with youth sharing stories of when they’ve discriminated and when they’ve been discriminated against, and how to overcome barriers so that we can collectively uproot discrimination. To serve, the youth made care packages for the homeless. The youth also made t-shirts which told stories of how they want to lead, whether through care, love, friendship or initiative. Some youth made banners (see photo below).

I think Dr. King would’ve been proud of these youth for their hard work and open-mindedness to service.

I personally spent the day thinking about whether Dr. King would want MLK Day? I see the benefit in having such a day to commemorate Dr. King and his life’s work. I also value the passion of those who worked tirelessly to make MLK Day a nationally recognized holiday. Moreover, if MLK Day wasn’t celebrated, perhaps I would’ve never gotten the opportunity to serve with PAL youth.

However, by having such a day, do we limit the permanence of Dr. King’s legacy? Does Dr. King’s legacy come and go as quickly as MLK day? Dr. King believed in love, non-violence, and in establishing equality through service. To truly honor Dr. King, one has to observe these values everyday, and it’s not that tough to do so. Here are some ways:

  1. Serve. Any service is significant, no matter how small, be it helping someone carry home groceries or finding ways to improve your neighborhood and community. Check out All for Good to find nearby opportunities to serve.
  2. Reflect. Think about what you’re doing and whether your actions will help you and others become better people. Contemplate the impact of your actions in the present, and not what you think the impact will be in the future. Doing morally questionable things now to do good in the future is a rationality trap.
  3. Love. Be compassionate towards others, especially to those that don’t reciprocate; they perhaps need compassion the most. See the goodness in people, no matter how wicked their actions.

The things Dr. King stood for are very much needed today, and observing Dr. King’s legacy is therefore an everyday sort of thing. What I’m not suggesting is to do away with MLK Day. I’m instead recommending that we supplement MLK Day with a continuous effort to serve, reflect and love daily. I humbly contend that through such a continuous effort we can realize Dr. King’s dream of a better world.

Coke Studio: Mixing Classical with Contemporary

I’ve been listening to two songs A LOT recently:

Both are productions of Coke Studio, a Pakistani television series that provides a venue for classical, folk and various other musical influences in Pakistan to fuse with contemporary popular music.

I am torn over this sort of music. One side of me says that traditional classical and folk music should be left untouched. Another side says that trying to preserve things undermines the dynamic ability of those things to change and adapt, and that experimentation in art is important for self expression. If I agree with the latter, than do I also agree with globalization and modernization, which can be seen as forms of experimentation that often force traditions to change?

What matters to me is whether the change supplements the tradition with something new or replaces it with something new. There is an important distinction between supplementing something, e.g., what Coke Studio does, versus replacing it, e.g., the Jersey cow replacing yaks in Ladakh and Spiti. Globalization and modernization currently work by replacing the old tradition with a new mono-culture. In this process, we lose valuable things worth cherishing, such as Arif Lohar and Fareed Ayaz from the above songs.

The old is the foundation for the new. So, by replacing the old with the new, we weaken our own foundation. Finding unique, creative and organic ways to supplement the old with the new can produce beautiful things. Just listen to the above two songs if you disagree 🙂

Coke Studio has a YouTube channelthat is worth checking out. Enjoy.

The worst type of violence

They speak of humanity. My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty. – Jorge Luis Borges

I can think of two types of violence: the direct kind that usually has a clear causation; the indirect kind that is hidden in the underbelly of society. Poverty is a form of the second type of violence. It is subtle and has become so ingrained into society that we forget to recognize it as violence.

To say that living in Sujan Singh Park, a low-income community in New Delhi, has changed my perspective of poverty is an understatement; it has rocked me to my core. Below are a few things I have learned about poverty:

(1) Poverty is not just a lack of material wealth; it is also an impoverished state of mind. It is the latter that is more debilitating, usually creating poverty-cycles among the poor.

(2) Schooling society, in the conventional sense, is not a panacea for poverty. If anything, government schools are making children inadequate to perform basic functions, such as cooking and cleaning, and are dangerously persuading children to move away from their localized knowledge base to uphold unjustifiable national benchmarks. For instance, farming is not part of the government school curriculum in rural India, where agricultural knowledge is direly needed.

(3) Poverty cannot be measured by GDP. India, for example, has ~8% per annum GDP growth rate, one of the best in the world. Yet, in a 2005 World Bank estimate, over 40% of Indians lived below the poverty line, with increasing income inequality. Tools, such as the Gini coefficient, Global Hunger Index the Inequalities-adjusted Human Development Index are better indicators of poverty.

(4) I think many people have accepted poverty as a natural part of life. This is unacceptable. We need to re-sensitize people to poverty so when they see it they recognize it and do something to fight it.

How to fight poverty? I think the battle needs to occur at three levels: (1) education; (2) job creation; (3) discipline.

The fundamental issue with our current education system is its utilitarian nature: education for getting a job and making money. Our education system needs to also focus on cultivating active citizenship among youth. As a result of active citizenship, educated students may feel a moral responsibility to help those in need.

Jobs play two important parts: they provide funds for acquiring goods; more importantly, they make people feel a sense of worth. To create jobs, we should focus on changing society’s mindset from mass production to production by the masses: the former comes at the peril of thousands of jobs; the latter recognizes the importance of work in human life.

Without discipline, both education and jobs are futile. With discipline comes consistency to carry forth an education and a job even though the immediate benefits may be absent. I would promote discipline by living it. Only once I embody discipline can I convince others to do the same.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The shackles of poverty are overwhelming; the malignant nature of this sort of violence is beyond the books of law, order and justice. However, through cultivating active citizenship among youth, providing stable jobs and instilling discipline, we can empower individuals to break the shackles of poverty. And, transform the valley of shadows in their lives into beacons of light that guide them and others to their full human worth and potential.

Mid-Year (Aug 2010-March 2011) Public Progress Report

Hi Everyone,

It has been a while…Lots of work, not enough time to write and post on the blog. I’ll try to be better from now, but no promises 🙂 To get things rolling, below is my mid-year public progress report. It’s a long one. At-minimum, I recommend you read the end. Feedback is appreciated!

A little about myself:

My name is Ranjodh. I was born in a small village in Punjab, India. When I was 10 years old, my family immigrated to the US. I completed my college education in Pittsburgh, PA. Upon graduating, I decided to come back to India for a year of service.

A little about Manzil:

Manzil, an NGO located in Khan Market, New Delhi, empowers children and youth from low-income families by providing resources and a platform to learn, teach and be creative. Through empowering, Manzil seeks to create an environment that seeds the next generation of sound Indian and global citizens.

Manzil was co-founded by Ravi Gulati, and functions from the Gulati house in Khan Market. We work with about 150 students and run 45 classes a week from a house in Khan Market and two quarters in Sujan Singh Park. Apart from classes in English, Maths and Computers, we have given equal importance to the opening of young minds, broadening of their horizons and the enhancement of their self-expression, confidence and creativity through the Arts, like Theatre, Dance and Music. Although this has been difficult, through determination and perseverance we have been at it for the last 13 years.

For more information about Manzil, please see: www.manzil.in

A little about my project:

My project’s vision is to ensure that Manzil continues its work without the founder and the foundation; that is, without Ravi Bhaiya (“Bhaiya” is Hindi for “Older Brother”) and the house in Khan Market, respectively. To achieve this, I have worked both at the organizational, top-down level and at the day-to-day operations, bottom-up level. My project can be subdivided into three major components:

  1. Strengthening the core team;
  2. Consolidating the organizational processes and systems;
  3. Constructing two apartments in Sujan Singh Park, an apartment complex adjacent to Khan Market.

Strengthening the core team has been a work in progress. We realized early that the chain of influence extending from Ravi Bhaiya to the students has been fractured, where Ravi Bhaiya’s teachings are not reaching Manzil’s students. We suspected this was primarily due to a disorganized and weak Core team, which has been unable to relay Ravi Bhaiya’s teachings to the students. My goal was to reestablish the chain of influence between Ravi BhaiyaàCore teamàstudent-teachersàstudents. I started by strengthening the core team through equipping them with new skills (e.g. Google Docs and time management), giving them continual feedback, challenging them on Manzil issues to provoke thinking, purposefully putting them in leadership roles to exercise their new skill-sets and overall encouraging team-work. Strengthening the Core team will continue until the end of the fellowship year, but will be spearheaded primarily by Geetika Kapoor, our new Chief Coordinator.

Another major part of strengthening the Core team was finding a Chief Coordinator. This person would eventually replace Ravi Bhaiya. We were originally looking externally to find such a person. We lucked-out with Geetika Bhen (“Bhen” is Hindi for “Older Sister”). Geetika Bhen has volunteered part-time with Manzil for the past year and has played a major role in the organizational decision-making. Her background is in learning and development and, while previously she was lost to the corporate world, she has found a rejuvenated sense for services and decided to join us full-time as the Chief Coordinator.

While the Core team was getting stronger, I also paid close attention to the systems and processes in Manzil. I noted four main things:

  1. Time management of the Core team was poor;
  2. There was no system for managing volunteers;
  3. Roles and responsibilities of each person in Manzil were unclear;
  4. The classes had no structure

To tackle the first, I started making a daily schedule for myself. Only after I had made and followed religiously a daily schedule for a month did I ask the remaining Core team to join me in doing the same. The time management has been a running success. We are much more efficient with our work, meaning we can get our daily chores out of way to spend more time with the students.

To manage volunteers, we have created applications for part-time and full-time volunteers. The idea of the application is to filter out non-serious applicants. Those who clear the application are then encouraged to visit Manzil. We have a whole process for the visit (classes to show, things to tell, etc.). The process allows us to be economical about managing volunteers, filtering our non-serious applicants, and investing our time in serious volunteers.

The vagueness around the roles and responsibilities of people in Manzil became clear over one singular example: No one knew who was responsible for filling the water tank. We realized that being unclear about one’s roles and responsibilities was making our work inefficient and redundant. We thus decided to meticulously write-out the roles and responsibilities of the following key people in Manzil: Chief Coordinator, Senior Coordinator, Student Coordinator, Facilities and Accounts Manager, Subject Coordinator, Student-Teachers, Volunteers, and Students. Writing out the roles and responsibilities has allowed us to hold each other accountable for our work, increase our efficiency, and has made us stronger as a team.

From observing classes, I noted that teachers were repeating materials from one class to the next. Because of this, the students were often bored. And, due to the students’ lack of interest, the teacher would disengage from the class. This was a downward spiral. It was clear that our classes needed a curriculum that presented fresh material and engaged the students.

For our math classes, the curriculum is largely the same as the one in government schools. Therefore, we let them run as they are running. Computer classes have a good curriculum. English classes, on the other hand, are disorganized and in-need of a better structure. To respond to this need, we have started compiling an English curriculum for our English classes. Including myself, we have three other people working on the curriculum. We hope to implement the curriculum in May, and see how it progress.

The construction in Sujan Singh Park is progressing nicely. We are renovating two quarters –a total of four rooms—into a common room, classroom, computer room and office. In addition to this space, we have additional spaces for dance and music within a 5 kilometer radius of Khan Market. We are hoping to finish construction and move Manzil to Sujan Singh Park by end of April.

Below is what I’d like to accomplish in my remaining time at Manzil:

  1. Finish Sujan Singh Park construction
  2. Support Geetika Bhen
  3. Strengthen classes
  4. Strengthen students
  5. Strengthen Core team

A little about my personal growth:

“I sought my soul, my soul I could not see.

“I sought my love, my love eluded me;

“I sought my brother, I found all three.”

-Babe Amte

Closing remarks for the reader:

To the one seeking knowledge, you and I are brothers;

To the one seeking wisdom, you and I are one.

To the general reader, wish luck upon me;

To the reflective reader, criticize me;

To the daring reader: Join me.

Response to the thought experiment at the atomistic-level

Regarding the thought experiment at the atomistic-level, I received the following response a while back:

“Just a quick point on your atomic analogy of life and the space within it you mentioned in your biweekly. You’re right to point out that 99.9% of an atom is empty space and therefore perhaps 99.9% of our life is empty.

But what makes an atom so substantial are the bonds between neutrons and protons in the nucleus, and the bonds between the nucleus and the electrons that ring it. That’s why splitting an atom decimates cities, but throwing an atom is harmless.

Expanding on your point – maybe the nuclear bonds in your analogy are a metaphor for how strong and substantial relationships and bonds that we form in life are, against the material possessions that we think make our life so important but form – in this analogy – 0.01% of reality.”

My response as noted below:

Your take on the atom analogy is excellent. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of electrostatic interactions. I hadn’t considered it when I was ‘thought-experimenting.’

I’d like to point out that it is the empty space in atoms that gives rise to stable electrostatic interactions: if an electron is too close to the nucleus, electrostatic forces go to infinitum, thus, destabilizing the atom; if the electron is too far from the nucleus, then electrostatic forces becomes marginal, approaching 0. There is an optimum empty space that must exist in an atom for that atom to be stable. This is explained by Coulomb’s law (see visual on the left).

Accordingly, I give primacy to the empty space and not the electrostatic interactions for the simple reason that without the former, the latter ceases to exist in a stable manner. To expand your metaphor appropriately: I would say that empty space has equal, if not more, impact on human relationships then the actual bonds.

Kahlil Gibran captures the necessity of space in a relationship best:

“You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together, yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”