What Occupy Wall Street and Gandhi have in common (and what they don’t)

A friend recently forward to me an article from The New York Times on Gandhi in NYC. It’s an excellent article, well written, and I agree with Mr. Desai’s assessment of what Gandhi would’ve thought about Occupy Wall Street. I’d highly recommend the article to those interested in Gandhi and how he continues to influence the world. The article is a refreshing reminder of a life changing experience I had in India, which I’d like to share.

After a few months into my Indicorps Fellowship, I began questioning my social conditioning, my biases and, in general, my way of looking at the world. During this turbulent, introspective phase, I came across a short book which had exerts from Gandhi’s writings. I found Gandhi’s words inspiring and relevant to my inner journey. I was so moved that I put together a constructive study of Gandhi and his writings. Just before starting this self-study, I met a Gandhian (one who adheres to Gandhi’s way of life), and excitedly shared with him my academic plan. What he said in response rocked me to my very core, and has changed me ever since.

He said, “All this is good and I’m glad you want to learn more about Gandhi. But, more important than reading Gandhi is being Gandhi.”

Gandhi’s life was his message. For Gandhi, life was service and service was joy. And service was his path to self-purification. In his autobiography, Gandhi writes, “What I want to achieve–what I have been striving and pinning to achieve these thirty years–is self-realization,” which here can be taken to mean self-purification. So, to really understand Gandhi, one has to walk Gandhi’s path of self-purification, which is tougher to follow than his words and requires one to constantly grope in the dark.

Therefore, I’d humbly like to add to Mr. Desai’s article that for Gandhi, the ultimate goal of non-violent protest is to heighten the moral stature of the protesters through self-purification, which is rooted in humility, non-violence, love and truth expressed in word, deed and thought. This is the most basic yet toughest part of Satyagraha (loosely translated as “non-violent and truthful protest” or “truth-force”). Occupy Wall Street would benefit from incorporating Gandhi’s ideals of self-purification into their movement.

We’re quick to point fingers but hesitant to notice our flaws. We internalize our successes but externalize our failures. We judge others by their actions but judge ourselves by our intentions. Self-purification is therefore a path to help us build our characters and become better people. It’s through bettering ourselves that we can better the world around us, and this is as true for the avid non-violent protester as it is for you and me.

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.

Conversation on poverty and character building

I’m fortunate to have good friends who push me to consider new ideas, deepen my introspection and strengthen my stern self-examination. With permission, I’m sharing some conversations that I’ve had with these friends in hope that they motivate you, the reader, to have such conversations with your friends.

A friend wrote to me and said the following about India, “I know there are big changes needed in our country but it won’t happen over night nor will it happen if the people themselves don’t change the thinking: especially when they give up thinking that they were born poor and die poor and don’t have any power. Anna’s situation is a great example of what unity of poor people can do.”

I wrote the following in response:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. What you’ve described is mental poverty, which is more invasive than material poverty and is often linked to a fearful, undisciplined and unloving character. This is why, in my opinion, character building naturally leads to nation building, and not the other way around. Character building requires tremendous effort, even more so than building the economy. I contend, however, that the social fabric of our nation must be woven with the moral thread of our people. It’s only then can we strive forward to adhere the laws of society to the laws of humanity.

Conversation on vision, insight, organizations and individual responsibility

I’m fortunate to have good friends who push me to consider new ideas, deepen my introspection and strengthen my stern self-examination. With permission, I’m sharing some conversations I’ve had with these friends in hope that they motivate you, the reader, to have such conversations with your friends.
Friend: The medical industry has so much complexity.
me: I wonder why, if the basis of medicine is to help patients, is the industry so complex and beyond the reach of the average patient? This makes me suspect the basis on which the medical industry stands.
Friend: Well, I can tell you not everyone is in it for the patients – and I am pretty sure that is why every system that is messed up gets messed up – cause some of the stakeholders prioritize something other than the original reason for the system.
me: Why do you think that is?
Friend: I think it starts with people having different priorities than overall visions but then it turns into organizational issues – like pleasing shareholders who invest because of returns not because of the underlying reason for providing the service.
me: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thinking about them has made me aware of my shortcomings, and thus humbled me and given me some things to work on. I want to expand on what you said, and I hope you won’t take this as a rebuttal. On the contrary, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am sharing my thoughts to help me write down what I am thinking 🙂
Could having a vision be the problem? Does having a vision lock us into a narrow mindset so that we become like horses with blinders? I think a vision, in itself, is not the problem; it’s the blind adherence to vision and vision disconnected from insight that are the problems. Blindly following a vision hinders exploration, blocks creativity and robs us of our journey. A vision disconnected from insight (of self) is without foundation and morality. It’s why a clash between personal priorities and vision arises.
Is the shift in priorities due to organizational issues or due to something deeply internal, e.g. doing what is right vs. what is expected or doing what is best for the individual vs. what is best for the group (in the long-term). I wonder if people is such positions rationalize their behavior by blaming organizations without finding the culprit within. I have a feeling we all do this.
Friend: Love the shared thoughts. I agree that we can’t blindly follow a vision, and we often do so without much insight into ourselves or without understanding how to connect vision to every moment’s actions. I know it was something I struggled with in India. How is it that insight into ourselves has become one of our largest challenges? You would think knowing yourself (or being honest with yourself) would be one of the easier challenges of the world.
Making organizations the culprit is easier than taking hard steps to make individual level decisions that may go against the traditional system or expectations. It is like that diffusion of responsibility article we read at one of the workshops. We say it is the organization’s fault so, we don’t have to do anything because no one else is.

Conversation on plans and happiness

I’m fortunate to have good friends who push me to consider new ideas, deepen my introspection and strengthen my stern self-examination. With permission, I’m sharing some conversations that I’ve had with these friends in hope that they motivate you, the reader, to have such conversations with your friends.

Friend: I have this huge problem making decisions and sticking to them, and I am trying to fix it. I am still not sure that GMAT/MBA is made for me and will help me become happier, but I guess sometimes execution is more important than strategy.

me: I understand. Some thoughts on what you’ve said…

A world map doesn’t represent the world. Equally, a strategy–which is a mini-map of life doesn’t represent the actual course of life. Strategy is based on the false premise that the circumstance that exists now will also exist in the future. Strategy is an ointment to soothe our mind’s discomfort about the future. Instead of strategizing, you’ll learn more by doing, but know that your happiness is dependent more on your being than your doing. Let happiness come from within and permeate out; not the other way around.

Rather than becoming happy, be happy 🙂

Friend: It is true that sometimes my uncertainties and insecurities drown me for a short time and I become confused, but generally speaking I am a happy person no matter what 🙂

Friend a few weeks later: For people like me who struggle in decision making, it is because we are too attached to the result- what will the outcome of the decision be? Did I take the RIGHT or the WRONG decision? In the little “spiritual therapy” that I did, this aspect came out very clearly. The realization that the notion of right/wrong is very complex and that it actually doesn’t really exist makes you detach from the result. So the “trick” is to take conscious decisions to the best of your ability but be detached to what the outcome will be. Subtle exercise, eh?

my response: I’m happy to see how you’ve progressed in your spiritual journey. You’ve come to realize through experience what the Gita says, “You have right only to the action, never to the fruit of the action. The fruit of the action should not be your motivation, nor should you be driven by attachment to action.”

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 4Hs of education

There are five basic problems with India’s current education system:

  1. It only focuses on providing students with an education so that they can get jobs and make money.
  2. It gives students skills to only be successful in urban centers. In India, this approach neglects the fact that roughly 70% of Indians still live in villages!
  3. It actively persuades students to move away from local knowledge to uphold universal benchmarks. Most often, the local knowledge that is available to students has formed over many years of trial and error, and has evolved with the land and the people. To replace this historical, evolved, culturally-competent knowledge base with universal benchmarks established by state and national governments is highly impractical.
  4. It makes students feel that their local knowledge is inferior to the education provided in schools.
  5. It promotes competition among students where self interest is valued more than general good.

In India, the Right to Education Act is hailed as a step towards ending illiteracy. But, if being literate means going through the current education system, then I am not sure if being literate is beneficial. In the current education system, we are pegged against our peers and must compete, thus, making us feel insecure about our abilities. We are taught to view our communities in economic ways only, where each member provides us with certain services. We are taught to view nature as resources to be used rather than a living entity to be conserved. It appears that the more literate we become in the current education system, the farther we get away from understanding ourselves, our communities and nature.

I think we need to expand our approach to education so that it combines a sound understanding of students with their socioeconomic, cultural and natural surroundings. Education should help students build a connection with self, their community and nature. For me, one of the goals of education is to make students understand the difference between their need and their greed. And, when their need is not provided, to make an effort to attain it, and when their greed is exacerbated, to have the capacity to control it. Understanding the difference between need and greed is rooted in a deep connection with self, community and nature: Only when one is insecure about self, unsure about the community and distant from nature does one begin to convert their greed into their need.

A few months back I attended a talk by Satish Kumar—educator, activist, Gandhian. Prior to the talk, we had some time to chat about education. He said education is that which focuses on the 4Hs: Home, Heart, Hand, and Head. I think this is an excellent way to sum-up education and potentially a viable means to change our current education system.

Home refers to land, nature and people. Education should teach students to coexist peacefully and sustainably, and to not lose connection with their home. Heart refers to love, courage, discipline and wisdom. Education should teach students to exercise these values and to use them to build a secure connection with self. Hand refers to the importance of daily labor. Education should teach students to engage in daily labor to help their communities, to become active citizens. Head refers to rationality and discernment. Education should teach students to logically study, assess and construct problems and to vocalize their thoughts in a coherent way.

Just as a car does not move without all four wheels, the 4 Hs must act together to provide holistic education. For rationality without wisdom is self-interest; courage without discernment is foolishness; cultivating land without discipline is exploitation; love without labor is expressionless.