Our First Virtual Head-Hands-Heart Immersion

Posted by Deven Shah on Jun 13, 2020

Can we organize a virtual retreat to align our Head-Hands-Heart? Would people really participate sincerely? Can an online space facilitate intimate interactions with depth and sacredness? While none of us had clear answers, many of us said “Yes” to the experiment of co-creating our first ‘Moved By Love’ Virtual Immersion. The experience has been so enriching and beautiful that it’s impossible to express it fully in words and yet this is an attempt to share a few glimpses from what emerged.

When did it all begin?
About a dozen volunteers and many more invisible hearts who had experienced ‘Moved By Love’ retreats in physical spaces started the process of birthing the online retreat. It’s hard to say whether the work actually began during the ‘lockdown phase’ or whether all these years of organizing physical retreats was also silently preparing us for this. A week before the retreat, all the volunteers started doing acts of kindness, reading inspiring passages, sharing reflections with each other and we could really feel a sense of strong bonding and the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle started coming together. We could sense that the groundwork for creating a ‘field of unconditional love’ for the retreat and beyond was progressing wonderfully. Even though we were connecting virtually, there was a real sense of joy being felt in the process of serving together. So while none of us knew how this experiment would unfold, as a collective, we were at ease with ‘not knowing’ and ready to flow with whatever was emerging.

Melting of the Ice
​​A volunteer had spoken to each and every participant on the phone as part of the registration process and could feel a sense of curiosity and excitement in them to participate in the virtual retreat. It turned into a real experience when four days before the retreat was to begin, we had an orientation call with the participants and volunteers coming together in an online video call. After a welcome and brief introduction, we collectively held space on the question: “What inspired you to participate in this experiment - Virtual Retreat (Immersion)?” and to also “Share one story that has inspired hope in you during these difficult times.” The magic started unfolding from this call itself as everyone felt comfortable enough to share many personal stories with the group.

Some of the resounding responses to what inspired them to participate were:

- Possibility of being moved by love.
- Longing for a community where I can genuinely belong.
- Am not very fond of virtual spaces but this one appealed as authentic to me
- I needed a space of reflection and make sense of what’s going around
- Interacting with this ecosystem puts a big smile on my face

Some of the responses to what gives them hope were:
- I saw this woman scavenging rubbish to resell. She was looking unhappy and after - I gave her a pack of instant noodles and she smiled so sweetly.
- A daily wage earner refused to take money from my neighbor for the month she had not worked.
- “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.” - Tagore.
- My father who does the chores reversing long standing gender roles
- New Delhi feels like Himachal to me in terms of silence.
- I see many people doing small things like giving up meals
- Acknowledgement of mental health issues is now on the rise
- We have extraordinary potential to take anything and alchemize it.
- Materially poor people are sharing things with a sense of abundance
- People are becoming more compassionate and grateful and looking for opportunities to serve.
- My friend checked on my mother living alone, just like that and offered all her help.
- Nature is healing itself and this is giving me hope
- Listening to all of you gives me hope

Some of our earlier questions around whether participants will open up so soon in an online setting got answered with a “Yes” :)

Connecting through kindness
All participants were given a small act of kindness to perform and reflect everyday for the next 4 days.

What began as a drizzle of kind acts and reflections trickling in soon turned into a thunderous rain of powerful stories of kindness. Photos and reflections from serving tea, cutting vegetables for a neighbor, surprise flower decorations, hand-made thank you cards, anonymous gratitude notes, giving away some really special possessions kept pouring in.

Even before the retreat began, there was a strong sense of connection amongst the participants and volunteers through these small acts of kindness.

Some of our earlier questions around whether participants will sincerely do the acts of kindness “when nobody is watching” and share reflections got answered with more than a “Yes” :) because the reflections came in so many creative expressions.

Day 1 of the Retreat (June 6, 2020)
It really didn’t feel like Day 1 :) as there was already a wonderful sense of camaraderie and comfort amongst the participants and volunteers.

Energiser @ 7:00 am: We began the morning together with a beautiful movement and dance session which literally ‘moved’ us all. Even family members of the participants and volunteers were invited in this session and that was something that could happen only in the virtual retreat format.

Breakfast and Refresh Break: The two days of the retreat immersion were a mix of ‘online and offline’ interactions. The online video calls followed by offline time for break and homework :) followed by another online video call and so on.

Opening Circle @ 9:30 am: We started with the All-Religion-Prayers and Silence. It gave so many of us a deja-vu feeling of sitting in the “Maitri Hall” during our in-person retreats and listening to these prayers :) We have been usually welcoming participants of the in-person retreat by saying “Welcome Home” to bring a sense of the new home away from their homes, but in this virtual retreat “Welcome Home” had a different meaning. We were in our personal spaces and yet we were together in the ‘Virtual Home’ connected through the Internet and Inner-net :)

The circle began with presencing the intention of the retreat by aligning our Head-Hands-Heart. However, given the present situation with the Corona Virus pandemic, we also reflected on “Re-Imagining the New Normal”. The circle anchors shared a story about different animals questioning whether human beings were really a better species than them. The story ended with a reflection that if humans act with discernment (viveka buddhi) then they contribute towards the well-being of all else they can act worse than animals and contribute to destructive situations. We also reflected on the importance of “being the change” and how rapidly the ‘Karuna Virus’ (Compassion) is spreading.

The participants were asked to reflect on the question:
Can you share a personal story of one positive shift that you have observed in yourself during the last few days/weeks of the pandemic?

That seed question led to participants and volunteers sharing personal stories of change that gave us all so much inspiration and joy. Here are some of the shifts that were shared:
- From a mechanical routine to seeing the priorities clearly.
- From self-dependence to co-dependence.
- Moving from head to heart, and valuing the connection without attachment.
- From who will I become to honoring who I am now.
- Learning to create happiness for myself wherever I am irrespective of external situations.
- Embrace death gracefully and live fully.
- Learning to be patient with myself and everyone around.
- From frustration to self-control.
- From thinking for myself to thinking for others.
- From problem-solving / trouble-shooting to relaxing as a dew drop in “What is”.
- I started yearning for human connection and got messages from the moon and stars.
- Understanding the deeper meaning of service, cultivating patience and empathy.
- To be in the moment and not worry.
- Be more grateful and happy within.
- Realized the power of collective effort.
- More at peace with connecting online.
- Able to clearly see and differentiate needs from wants.
- Understanding of death and impermanence really deepened.
- More grateful to all who help with daily household chores
- From eating food to growing and eating local food

Hands Activity and Lunch Break
Our in-break homework involved having a conversation with the family members / friends or in silence with oneself to reflect on "how you would re-imagine a new normal or new way forward". Within a couple of hours we started receiving inspiring thoughts on how they would look at needs and wants in the domain of food, clothing, shelter, sanitization etc. Also myriad reflections on what kind of relationships they would like to foster with neighbors or what kind of connection they would like to feel with Nature on a regular basis.

Afternoon Circle @ 3:00 pm: We gathered online again and through a popcorn style circle we heard some wonderful experiences and reflections from the activity done during the break. The afternoon then moved into a presentation that shared many inspiring stories of generosity driven experiments across the Moved By Love and Global community.

Break and ‘River of Life’
Most breaks included a suggestion of some activity or practice to keep the spirit of the retreat alive :) This homework encouraged participants to reflect on their life journeys and express creatively through an activity called River Of Life. Very soon we started receiving deeply powerful expressions from the participants.

SpiriTed Circle @ 6:30 pm: Nimo was our guest listener for the evening, where he shared his life’s journey and songs from the Empty Hands Music Album that left us all deeply moved and inspired. He also facilitated meaningful interactions and in the process invited a couple of participants to sing a couple of songs.

End of Day 1 merges into beginning of Day 2
As we wished each other good-bye, good evening and goodnight, there was a natural prompt to also reflect on the how the day unfolded. The homework for the evening was to journal around the the question, "What are you grateful for?"

Energiser @ 7:00 am: The beauty of the virtual immersion is such that many friends from our community are able to be a part of this evolving idea. This morning we welcomed Ana Valdes-Lim, along with her colleagues Ango, Erwin and Jo to facilitate a creative session on Movement and Meditation along with live music. For most participants it was a unique experience and we felt deeply grateful to the whole team who offered this session just because they were “Moved By Love” in one of our retreats a couple of years ago :)

Morning Circle @ 9:30 am: We started our day 2 morning circle with popcorn reflections from the participants from Day 1. Here are few examples:
  • In the last 24 hours we have connected, I kept reaffirming to be an open channel of giving and receiving.
  • I am embracing vulnerability, my boundaries are dropping and am feeling more connected.
  • Deeply thinking about the question Nimo raised yesterday “What seeds am I committed to planting in the world?” I wish to keep this question in my heart and be the change by taking up something which is close to my heart - education and gender equality.
  • I really feel the magic and feel really held.
  • Thank you for co-creating such spaces. I feel so accepted in this space and somewhere my boundaries are melting.
  • My mentor often asks me “Why can't you selflessly receive when somebody is giving?” After yesterday’s session I was so happy to receive that I called so many of my friends offering them virtual hugs and smiles without any particular reason :)
  • I am not a person who likes to share in public and on screen and yet I am feeling very grateful to be here and share.
  • I shared with my friends yesterday night what I experienced here yesterday. People find it difficult to accept that love and care are possible in every moment of life.
  • It has been a question I ask every time: “Why do we volunteer in retreats?” and the answer is very difficult to put in words and it is something to experience.
  • While volunteering there was a thought that I was creating something great but more and more I volunteer the realization comes that the moment “I” take out myself from the picture co-creation happens beautifully.
  • I am receiving too much at this moment and it is difficult to process everything and share.

Post which, we were then joined by our dear friends Nipun Mehta and Audrey Lin. They shared a very powerful presentation on Cultivating Courageous Compassion with several insights and thought provoking questions in their presentation.

Some of the key questions they raised were:
1) Search For Compassion: What is your relationship with the suffering of the others?
2) Compassion Connects: When did an act of compassion build an unexpected bridge?
3) Skillful Compassion: When has compassion ‘backfired’ for you?
4) Courageous Compassion: How do you stay open-hearted in the face of great stress?

In the end they concluded with a story of The Dalai Lama bowing lower than others with ‘Humble Compassion’.

Hands Activity and Lunch Break
The participants were encouraged to share a story of a local, every day hero and within a couple of hours we got so many pictures and inspiring stories.

Afternoon Circle @ 3:00 pm: This afternoon we went deep into the insights on multiple forms of poverty and wealth. Many inspiring examples of gift culture and the spirit of pay-it-forward were brought in the circle for more food for thought around 'How do we extend our gratitude through our personal practices, to people we know, to strangers we have not yet met and then share the merits with the world?'

As we pondered on ways to share the merits with the world, we invited yet another dear friend, Trupti Pandya and facilitated a conversation with her around the Narmada Parikrama pilgrimage that she and her sister had embarked upon in 2018. We were all moved by their authenticity and courageous journey. Some of the highlights of her sharing were:
The inspiration and blessings from friends and elders of the community made us feel that we were walking together with them and never felt ‘alone’. We were walking as a “bhikshu” and it was initially difficult for the ego to ask for food, shelter etc. The hesitation and the ego started dissolving gradually. Most people in the villages where we walked didn’t have much material possessions but they had king-sized hearts. The gifts and generosity we received filled our hearts. Farmers build their homes, grow their food and are mostly self-sufficient. Many said that except for buying salt, oil and few other essentials like clothing, they don’t use money. Unlike the city, it felt very safe to interact with people whom you would be meeting for the first time and yet never felt like strangers. Insecurity was only in the mind which we had to remove and trust that the universe is not a scary place but full of generous souls."

The stories from Trupti's pilgrimage were a natural invitation to dive into our own practice of three-steps-and-a-bow. We share stories of Rev. Heng Sure’s three-steps-and-a-bow pilgrimage and also touched upon various nuances of bowing as a practice for cultivating humility, gratitude, forgiveness, reverence and so much more. Rumi has said it so beautifully “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again.” For the next hour, each of us, found our own rhythm into the practice of bowing or sitting in silence as we shared our gratitude out into the world.

Closing Circle @ 5:30 pm: This marked the last circle of the retreat with reflections from participants and volunteers. Some words that were shared were:
  • It was a surreal experience and I don't know why I have not bowed like this before.
  • I got my piece of peace.
  • I have so much abundance in life and I can see that.
  • This retreat gives me strength and feels it will give direction to my life.
  • I am taking away some daily practices (e.g. one minute silence before and after every meeting) and reminders (e.g. assuming value in everyone.)
  • I feel content with everything that has emerged in the last week. I feel full.
  • Really really grateful for the space and how I was held. Intention really matters.
  • One key takeaway is small is beautiful and great too. Music can make a big difference to how we feel and think. I would like to collaborate and contribute songs which are soothing and calming.
  • Thank you for providing a safe space for all of us.
  • I am really inspired to attend in person retreat whenever that happens.
  • I like the silence in between. There is so much that happens without words in the circle of sharing and that is very touching.
  • The present time needs a lot of compassion and I wish we all carry on doing good work.
  • Community - Connection - Communication - I found all in this space.

The virtual immersion also allowed designs of volunteers participating from any part of the world. A volunteer from Dubai who was serving invisibly for the retreat was so moved by all the sharing of the participants throughout the retreat that she couldn’t stop herself from joining the closing circle just to see once “who are these angels?” who have been constantly doing acts of kindness and reflecting with so much depth and sincerity.

The virtual immersion ended with prayers, videos from our time together (yes, that was possible too) and photo collages of all the one-liners from the participants that made us all go "Aha" :)

End or Beginning?
Like what has happened at the end of most of the Moved By Love retreats, it felt like a new beginning. Unlike the in-person retreats where it felt like one is stepping out from the “Bubble of Love” of the retreat space and will now have to step in the “Real World” of home or work life, in this virtual retreat, most of us were already in our personal spaces and participating in everyday life and work with a new spirit.

As we write this blog, messages from participants like this one came pouring in. Even though the retreat was virtual, the changes that were happening inside and outside us were very real. It also led to deeper questions of what is virtual and what is real? We can be either bogged down by uncertainty or embrace impermanence and flow with Nature’s plan. I feel that life is almost always standing at the crossroads where we can either choose to live in a narrow consciousness or widen our consciousness. This virtual retreat gave us one more glimpse of what is possible when we expand our hearts and say “Yes” to Unconditional Love.

Posted by Deven Shah on Jun 13, 2020 | permalink

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  • Rohit Rajgarhia wrote ...

    wow. :) Thank you Deven and everyone - volunteers and participants for co-creating this beautiful example of innovative compassion. :)

  • Ashima Goyal wrote ...

    Truly amazing! I remember Pavings mentioning about a call that virtual can be virtuous :-) Thank you Deven for sharing with so much heart and bring it alive for all of us!

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  • Arun Wakhlu wrote ...

    Thank you so much, Deven for sharing this detailed account of the workshop. Would be grateful if you shared the platform you used. Zoom? Any other? We are planning a Youth Unconference on the same lines after a very successful one for teachers/educators/principals on the theme "Creating a Compassionate World Together" . Will share more with the Moved by Love network. Much appreciation and gratitude....Arun