Seva is Love
Miss the previous update about my work at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh? Read it here.
It's funny in a way. Back in January of 2010, my intent was to be working in Africa this year on a different project. I ended up in India.
Arriving in India, my intent was to create something of a health clinic for leprosy patients in the leprosy community I’m living in. I mostly ended up working with a young boy with Cerebral Palsy.
Now, I've started a leadership program with some of the brightest children of the community. My treatment work has not been nearly as front and center as I anticipated it would be. As they say, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans!
Meet the gang
During my first weeks at the community, I noticed there were a few children who really
stood out from the rest. They had a certain glow, a level of maturity beyond their years, and were always willing to lend a helping hand when asked.
As loving as the community is, I've observed it has few individuals willing to take initiative to solve community problems (and this could be as simple as picking up a pile of trash on the ground). So why not try and inspire and empower this group to think in terms of community leadership, and give them a larger sense of purpose beyond school, house, and homework?
There are a total of 12 in the program, four boys and eight girls, ages 9 — 18. At our first meeting, I offered that participation in the program was not mandatory, that it was their choice to stay or leave—each agreed to participate.
We meet weekly as a group and every week I share a lesson, create team or individual exercises, schedule field trips, or come up with a community service activity to support the themes we're working with. Yet, really, the greatest impact is created in our shared time together and the journey of the program.
I do not expect everybody to be ready to conquer the world after our time together. What
I do expect is for the training to help each member grow into a more service-minded, caring adult who believes in possibility and feels sufficiently able to work towards their dream.
What is loving leadership?
This was a question I had to answer for myself.
Leadership. A leader is somebody who takes initiative, usually to solve a problem.
What does it mean to be loving? That’s a bit more vague, more difficult to define. I decided
we needed a teacher.
Nature, to me, is the best teacher of what it means to be loving. So, as a group, we traveled to a home with a magnificent garden that would allow the kids to connect with the natural surroundings (and play in the sprinkler system) and muse on Nature's qualities.
It's worth nothing that the leprosy community is located in a grinding slum area, next to the city's sewage canal. There are hardly any trees, a fair share of sanitation problems, and so it was good, simply, for everybody to step out of that kind of environment for a moment.
Each student found a quiet space and took 15 minutes to write down their thoughts about what makes Nature loving.
To no surprise, the overwhelming majority of responses surrounded Nature’s giving qualities.
Nature gives and gives and gives. Selflessly. The fruit tree bears fruit for the saint and sinner alike. The sun shines on every human being, not just the "good" ones. Never a day goes by where Nature says, “I’m tired, I don’t feel working.” And Nature never submits an invoice for the work that it performs—everything is freely given.
From this understanding we derived our first and perhaps most important loving quality—seva (selfless giving or selfless service), which immediately gave rise to one of our favorite sayings, “Seva is Love and Love is Seva.”
There can be no question that the giving of ourselves, unconditionally, without any reservation, without any expectation of reciprocity is at the core of what it means to be loving.
One said that Nature never fights or starts wars. While Nature does have fiercely destructive properties, we can take from this insight that Nature is in a perpetual state of harmony.
And it is, just look at our ecosystem. How perfect it is, how it self-regulates, self-sustains, self-heals, how it never has any problems.
So, some concept of harmony seems to be wrapped up in what it means to be loving as well.
Another said that Nature is loving because it provides food for us and the animals to eat. A giving quality, yes, but this reveals something interesting—that Nature’s giving is always in the context of life promotion.
And so our third and last loving quality, life promotion. Nature is constantly promoting and sustaining life.
Now we have a better idea of what it means to be loving. To give of ourselves selflessly in such
a way that promotes life and harmony.
A loving leader then is one who takes initiative to solve a problem, selflessly, and in such a way that promotes life and harmony.
With this definition, I asked the group if it sounded like anybody they knew.
One raised their hand enthusiastically and said, “Mommy.”
Absolutely. If you need a practical example of what it means to be loving, look to the women, and especially look to the mothers.
Some of our activities
Based on our definition, I've designed the program to revolve around six main themes:
- Knowing Yourself
- Taking Initiative
- Problem Solving
- Seva (Selfless Service)
- Life Promotion
Here is a sampling of the activities we’ve been doing to support them.
Perform a Random Act of Kindness
The first homework assignment was to use the Smile Card, perform a random act of kindness, and then write a reflection about the experience.
This means approach somebody randomly, do something good for them that would make them smile, and then give that person the smile card for them to perform an act of kindness, like a game of tag.
The point of the exercise was to give a live demonstration of the value of giving selflessly, which is tied up in two main concepts: 1) The joy or fulfillment when you give in this manner and 2) The potential ripple effects of the act of kindness creating others.
Care for a Plant
After our exercise in the garden, a snack was given, and then standing before a row of baby plants we had purchased, each student was asked to choose one and give it a name.
The plants will serve as a symbol of growth and confer some leader-like responsibility. It's now the responsibility of the students to keep the plants alive, just like it is their mother's job to keep them alive.
Visit to Seva Café
The Seva Café is a restaurant in the heart of Ahmedabad built entirely on the concept of
seva and volunteerism.
Seva Café uses a gift economy model, which means there are no prices for any of the meals on the menu—your bill always reads "zero" and you pay what you want to pay (if at all), and with the knowing you are contributing to a future guest's meal. It’s also staffed almost entirely by unpaid volunteers.
Yes, the model is sustainable—they've been in service for a number of years, open six nights a week.
Our group was given a tour of the restaurant and educated about their unconventional model. They also heard from the volunteers and staff who shared about what seva means to them, and why they give their time to the restaurant (all answers surrounded that doing so provides fulfillment not found elsewhere).
Everybody enjoyed immensely. It's rare that anybody in the community leaves their own borders, even rarer to do so to go to a fun restaurant!
Suffice it to say, this visit was a radical departure from life in the slum. The energetic environment of the café has a way of passing on its values, its happiness, its love, which you then carry with you to your own home. This is what I was hoping for. For some new ideas to get introduced and some seeds about the joy of giving to get planted.
Every night at the community there is a free dinner service for 20 or so residents with leprosy, who have no family and beg each day.
About an hour beforehand, several of the kids and I get together to sweep and clean the dining area. They participate in the prayer before the meal, help serve food, and clear dishes when they are done (when they could be playing and goofing around!).
This program touches on several of our themes. It’s seva. It’s about promoting life. It’s hands on experience working solely for the benefit of another human being.
Team Building Exercises
We've done a few team building exercises for fun and to help our group dynamic.
Photographed below is the Magic Carpet exercise, which is great to do with any age group.
You have your group stand on a rug and they imagine it’s a magic carpet that has just lifted off the ground. But, the instructions to fly it are on the underside of the carpet and they must get at them somehow.
As a team, you have to figure out a way to turn the blanket upside down without having your feet touch the floor. If your feet touch the floor, you're out.
Prayer and Meditation
Almost all our activities and time together begins and ends in prayer and meditation, which
is a custom of the culture, and something I particularly picked up from spending time at Manav Sadhna.
One of our favorite prayers is Om Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu (May all the beings in all the worlds become happy. Peace, peace, and peace be everywhere). We also pray that any goodness we are creating in this group is also affecting the whole of humanity, in the spirit of Gandhi's, "Think Globally, Act Locally" idea.
Our prayer and meditation time makes the experience more conscious, more sacred, and fosters togetherness. I fully recommend it if you work with kids, as much as the culture will allow.
On occasion, I've led the group through stress-reducing relaxation exercises. These guys go and go and go. Busy at school. Busy at the house. Busy with homework. It's rare they take any sort of pause throughout the day.
When we've done these exercises, a powerful silence and peace would envelop the room as the kids got quiet and still.
Start Before You’re ready
I recently read a great book by Steven Pressfield called Do the Work. In it he highlights the importance of starting a project before you’re ready, so as not to get hindered by resistance that might prevent action or cause you to give up the project.
In other words, start working. Take the first step however imperfect, then edit and revise as you go along.
It made a lot of sense and gave me the confidence to start this program because it was the first time I ever did something like this.