What I learned through the In-Turnship
Thinking back on our “In-turnship” last month, it’s hard to put in words. The opportunity to visit and spend both structured and unstructured time with such a diverse group of service-hearted people has been a gem of an experience. Beyond that, just having the chance to dedicate 30 days solely for the purpose of reflecting on my values, practicing them with a sincere group of peers, and asking deeper questions of life has been an enormous blessing.
More and more, a few themes have cropped up within myself and across the mentors we visited...
On the second day of our in-turnship, Kantidada the sculptor tells us, “The Upanishads say, ‘You are whole.’ We have to realize this. We are whole. Nothing is missing in us.” This inner conviction has helped him move through the adversities in life with an inner lightness. Now in his eighties, there is a radiance in his eyes and a contentment with his life path. He never did what he perceived to be expected of him—he asked instead what values he stood for and he has consistently followed those, no matter what challenges or favors life threw his way.
A few days later, we visit two brothers, Vasanthkaka and Kantidada, in their eighties and nineties who have dedicated the majority of their lives to simplicity. They live off the land on a rural organic farm and naturopathy center, and spend their days spinning khadi, reading and writing. With such minimal wants and needs both internally and externally, their life feels abundant. As we spoke with them, they shared the importance of knowing what they wanted and also being flexible with the conditions they were given in life. Kantidada was unable to find a wife, and decided to live as a brahmacharya, study the values of Gandhi and Vinoba, and live with less material comforts and simple joys. It’s hard to explain with words, but there’s an aliveness that sparked as we sat with them on their farm and shared insights from their 80-90+ years of life experience and offered us fresh tomatoes or a taste of Vasanthkaka’s lunch of raw vegetable puree. There’s a spirit in that exchange that you don’t get through reading books or sitting at a desk or focused on some project or form of tangible result.
John and Mia shared about Angeles Arrien’s Four Archetypes, and the importance of being aware of which one you are as you decide what work and roles to take on in your community. Nimo talked with a genuine transparency about his own phases in life—how each period influenced who he wanted to be and how he wanted to work in the world. I was struck by his acceptance in each step along the path, and understanding that we are all where we need to be at different times.
When Anarben shared her personal experiences, it was evident that she is one who is aware of her nature, and has applied them to her work and life. With direct candor, she shared about her strengths, weaknesses, and journey of growth as she lives her days practicing and doing what she believes in. As we sat in on a circle of sharing to discuss an issue that that had come up among the Craftroots/Gramshree staff, we were able to witness the way her open communication, directness, and caring integrity structured a space of collaboration, transparency, and constructive learning.
It’s so simple, yet so easy to forget. More and more, I’m noticing how it’s not so much the conversations, the readings, the images or scenery that stick with me, but the love. It’s the depth of presence—the sense of wonder at our wholeness—that leaves an imprint on my mind and heart.
In an impromptu walk along the nearby canal with Jayeshbhai, Mukeshbhai, and four of us in-turns, Jayeshbhai shared the story of his adopted son Krishna, and how now there is a teenage boy Raju living with them in their home. Sometimes I feel guilt at receiving the overwhelming gift of being here—at the constant flow of compassion and generosity and thoughtful sensitivity that comes from all angles and in all forms. As we walked, I asked Jayeshbhai how when someone in need (such as a child in clear material suffering) shows up, how do you tap into that ego-lessness to respond with such love and generosity? I personally would want to help in some way, but would first think about how to be realistic in supporting myself and my own needs. At this point on my path, I don’t think I have the strength of heart and equanimity of mind to have such a continuous flow of people stay in my home, and to serve them with such a depth of genuine, selfless spirit. I shared this with him, and he simply responded, “I have faith. It’s not a coincidence that Raju came to us. It’s not a coincidence that you are here and we are talking now. So how can I give love to each person that comes?”
You can feel the depth of faith he carries. In each interaction, each situation—be it a tragedy, a celebration, a routine meal, meeting, or circle of sharing with one or hundreds of visitors—there’s an awe, a wonder, and a deep surrender to the moment. How can I approach life with that constant awe and reverence? How can I follow that faith—that trust in the sanctity of life—and channel my abilities in a balanced way in that direction?
A week earlier, we had a circle with Siddharth, where he shared thoughts on his relationship with money, stories of his experiences with different types of capital, and experiments from the last three years in the Gandhi Ashram ecosystem of love. Yet in it, he held space for us to each first share where we were at—what we were learning or what questions we were holding at this point in the “in-turnship”. Then from there, he shared stories of his own experiences, and spontaneously emptied the money in his wallet for us to use as a four-day experiment with abundance: What kind of value can we create when we view money as a means to build regenerative relationships? As an instrument to give? What different forms of capital can flow through?
In a spontaneous stroke of inspiration that evening, we used some of the money to pick up ingredients and make hearty Punjabi-style parathas for all the residential staff at ESI. After a circle of sharing, Gitanjali is mixing the paratha filling, Meet’s making tomato chutney, I’m rolling the dough, Swara’s at the stove, Trupti’s lighting candles and sprucing up the ambiance in the outdoor seating area, and Pratyush, Meet and Mukeshbhai welcome and seat the staff with paper flower garlands and then serve their plates, offering seconds and thirds as they eat in silence. At the end of the meal, we all bow down in gratitude—with inspiration for their consistent day-in and day-out commitment to serving us (and all the thousands of guests that flow through ESI each month) with humility, quiet grace, and physical endurance and compassionate presence.
Beyond it all, how can I give more love? How can I use the opportunity of my time here to simply share unconditional love? Because, at the end of the day, at the end of a life, that’s all that really matters.
After our visit with Mukeshbhai at the Santram Mandir in Nadiad, I’ve been noticing the power of equanimity. Mukeshbhai sees every moment as an opportunity to be of service through stillness and silence. Though he’s constantly swimming in a range of external responsibilities—from ashram duties to requests from students all over asking to meditate with him to hosting visitors like us in-turns :) and assisting with managing activities at his ashram during large multi-day festivals (when 1-3 lakh people will visit and eat there)—there’s an internal stillness that you feel in his focused presence, an equanimity that holds all the people and activity lightly, and an inner sense of what to prioritize in each moment and in life.
In the first week of our in-turnship, we visited a young couple, Jaldeepbhai and Snehalben, who have chosen to live in a village two hours away, dedicating their lives to serving the community. They started a women’s milk collective, work with a primary school, offer tutoring and additional after-school programs in academics and activities like spinning khadi, and run a support group and micro-finance bank for the village women to invest their savings (which are mostly too small for a bank to open a single account for). Not to mention, they’ve adopted a boy, Ajay, and often will have few to many children sleeping, eating, and doing homework in their home on any given night. But what strikes me about this couple (who are in their mid to late-twenties) is their level of maturity and the lightness with which they live.
When we stayed over for a day and night, I noticed that there was a natural rhythm, an unhurried sense of time and playfulness in all their interactions. We visited the school next door, played with the children, walked to the milk collective and temple, cooked meals and household chores, and accompanied them to a monthly meeting with the women’s support group/micro-finance bank where they deposit their savings, share updates, and sing bhajans (devotional prayer songs). In the mix of predictable and unpredictable events of the day, there was a lightness in their presence and attitude. They would be joking with kids in one moment and calmly mediating a village conflict in another.
Once I asked, “What kinds of challenges do you face on this path?” Jaldeepbhai paused for a moment, and then softly responded, “There are no challenges.” It’s not exactly an easy life, but Jaldeepbhai and Snehalben have an inner clarity to see each obstacle as an opportunity to grow and a way to use their creativity to work around the situation. As we left their home and walked the 2 km to Vasanthkaka and Kantidada’s farm the next morning, I found myself touched by the extraordinary ordinariness of this couple’s life. They don’t see themselves doing anything big or great—they don’t view themselves as wise or even leading lives of service. It’s just something that feels natural and right for them—a way of spending their time that feels complete— nothing more, nothing less.
In the last few days of our “in-turnship” we spent time with elders at a Vinoba ashram in Paunar called the Brahma Vidya Mandir. Vinoba established this ashram specifically for women to have a focused environment in which to nurture their spiritual growth and pursuit of self-discovery and truth. It was humbling to spend time in the presence of such deep cultivators. Every morning before dawn, at mid-morning, and in the evening, all the residents gather for a prayer. Throughout the rest of the day, they are engrossed in ashram activities and work, (writing, translating Vinoba’s writings, farming, cooking, cleaning, hosting guests, etc). The ashram residents range from mid-30s to mid-80s, and it was rather amazing to see how some of the sisters in their seventies and eighties had such strong mental health and sphysical fitness that they could move about the ashram doing hard physical labor with the lightness of a bird. And the focused silence of their work permeated the air and infused my body with a stillness. I felt like just being in that vibration cleansed my mind and heart.
We sat with several of the elders there, and listened to stories of their time with Vinoba, experiments with nonviolence, insights from their study of the Gita, and thoughts on service, stillness, and spirituality. There was a hard rigor to the discipline with which they live—such a continuous, focused way of life holds little material comforts—yet there was a radiance and lightness that shined through as they sang songs and prayers, shared stories and laughter, and held and listened to our stories with such open curiosity and acceptance. In many ways, I felt like a grandchild listening to stories from my grandparents. Yet, on a deeper level, it was like sitting at the foot of a lineage-- a heritage of individuals who found themselves pulled and transformed by a deeper current, a conviction in the power of love to connect and transform, and a commitment to live each day, each moment, with that kind of presence.
As we journeyed back to Ahmedabad and shared our reflections with a small group of MBL friends and family, I was struck by the incredible diversity of people we had met in the last 30 days. And how, everyone had found different ways—different configurations of life and work and levels of engagement with sectors of society—to use their lives as an instrument for the same underlying values. After these 30 days, I’m realizing more and more the power of seeing people and situations as nature unfolding. And how the more I can see this—the more I can understand that the way I think, see, and act in the world is simply a design principle of nature—the more able I am to see how the people and situations I come across are opportunities to express our interconnectedness, to live out the symbiosis of an ecosystem.
Gandhi said, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.”
Throughout this month, I’ve found that when I am able to tap into that reservoir within—that when I engage with the world through a curious openness of possibility, and when I view each person around me as my mentor, teacher, and friend—there is a stillness of mind and openness of heart that enables me to simply be a witness to the unfolding of nature within and without. And when I can view my life in such a way, there’s an extraordinary ordinary lightness to life.
I think at the end of the 30 days I’m realizing that I know less now than I thought I did at the beginning. It’s incredible the amount of unlearning that needs to take place before one can even take a single step on this path. But I’m very grateful for the opportunity to grow in these intentions, and to let the roots of them sink a little deeper in this field of maitri.
As Kantidada the sculptor sings, “Life is a game. Game, game, game. We come crying, crying. Shall go laughing, laughing. Life is a game. Game, game, game.”