FLOW: From Transaction to Trust to Transformation
Thank you for this award, and for this incredible recognition. I’m so deeply grateful to Masahisa Goi for his visionary inspiration, for Masami and Hiro Saionji for so generously blessing the world, and for my beloved Saionji sisters and entire Goi Peace family for their unconditional love. To the entire Goi Peace community, thank you so very much. I’m also mindful that this is the first time in Goi Peace Award’s history that an award is being given to a person and an entire community, and I offer a bow of gratitude to the countless bright lights that have held up the ServiceSpace values for the last two decades, and humbled me with the opportunity to live into those values. And I’m especially delighted that both my parents are able to be here today. If I’m on my best behavior today, you know why. : )
Receiving this award today, I’m reminded of a story of a monk who held out a piece of paper and asked his students, “What do you see here?” Most saw a paper for its utility, but someone said, “I also see the tree behind it.” Then he asked, “What does the tree need to survive?” “Water.” “Where does the water come from?” A young child yelled out, “Clouds.” After a pause, the monk asked the congregation, “How many of you can see the cloud in this piece of paper?”
So many clouds bring us all to this moment, to each moment. To forget the cloud is to miss life altogether. Yet, these days, not only have we lost track of the clouds, we barely even notice the paper.
If we are to have peace in the world, we must lead our fundamental interconnection. All around the world today, exponential change is creating unprecedented uncertainty about our future, and we are shrinking in fear. Narrower boundaries, narrower friendships, narrower views. It’s as if we are clenching our fists harder and harder and hoping that the problem will go away. It cannot. We must tap into our intrinsic generous impulse to open up our palms, and we must support each other in doing this.
To help anyone open a clenched fist is incredibly subtle work. We cannot use the same tools and organizing principles that compelled us to shrink in fear. If building barriers required muscle, we can only build bridges with love. And love is a far more powerful and subtler force than muscle, because it doesn’t march to the orders of our ego, but is in concert with nature’s elaborate symphony. That is why Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, we can shake the world.”
Today, more than ever, we need a resurgence of that gentleness. If we are to create sustainable peace in the world, we must practice subtle activism. We must design for “Flow.”
Flow is a dissolution of apparent boundaries. It is athletes recall when they are unexpectedly “in the zone,” it is what neuroscientists call coherence when different parts of our brains start working in synergy, it is what so many of us experience personally in meditation and prayer.
I remember back when I was in college, one night, I went for a run. It had just return from my computer lab, and it was 3AM. So I put on my Walkman―I’m dating myself now―and headed to the track. After my run, as I was returning back to my apartment, all of a sudden, I find myself in a dark alley with a big, threatening man peering at me from a distance. It appeared that he was hiding something, possibly a gun, under the newspaper in his hand. An immense fear gripped me. “Oh my god, I’m going to be mugged, for the first time in my life,” I thought to myself. I thought about running the other way, but it was too late. And then, almost out of nowhere, I had another thought: “Hey, what are you afraid of? What if this was your brother? What could he possibly take, when you are willing to give him everything?” With that thought alone, an immense wave of compassion took over me. I felt huge. Typically, when you’re afraid, like when the teacher is asking you a question and you don’t know the answer, you look down. That’s what I was doing―trying to avoid eye contact. But as I experienced this flow of love, I no longer felt afraid. The boundaries started dissolving, and instead of looking away, I now just looked straight in the eyes of this man. Now, I felt no fear, and I naturally smiled as if he really was my brother. That was the feeling in my heart. And you know what? He smiled back. I walked on home. Nothing happened. Maybe nothing was ever going to happen. But what I experienced was unmistakable. It was flow.
Most of us have had such experiences that deeply connect us to each other. If we look close enough, nature is constantly mirroring this insight.
Last year, a German photographer named Justin Biber was casually capturing a murmuration of starlings in Spain. At first, he didn’t even notice what he was seeing, but when he went home, he saw the stunning and gorgeous shapes that these birds had created. Starlings, feeling like they were going to fall prey to a larger bird, immediately fell into this formation. In just 10 seconds. And then dissolved again and kept flowing in another formation.
Imagine if human beings, with their uncountable gifts, were able to effortlessly glide into their collective magnificence.
To tap into the flow is to first sense the flow. If we’re zoomed into looking at a fruit on a tree, it’s going to be very hard to see the branches. Yet, if we can let go of the immediate and the visible, we not only start to see the branches and the trunk, but can also sense into the invisible roots.
Once we sense the flow, we can learn to embrace the flow. Any good surfer will tell you that her job is not to change the wave – it is, instead, to ride the wave. Instead of identifying as a wave in the ocean, we now become the ocean in which waves arise and pass. When we can let go of control, we learn to embrace the flow.
And finally, we learn to trust the flow. Becoming the flow. By releasing our conscious and subconscious agenda, we rely entirely on the field’s intelligence. We become an instrument of emergence.
All put together, flow changes how we see ourselves and the world. We are no longer subsumed with what we do, what we accumulate, or what we accomplish. Our greatest asset is in who we are becoming through that process. We are not merely what we do, but who we become by what we do. It is not that what we do is not important, but who we become that is far more significant because that becoming aligns our unique gifts with the universal flow. We still sing our particular notes, but now it is flowing with the winds of nature.
Unfortunately, humanity today is overwhelmingly biased towards “what we do” over “who we become.” So many times, I’ll meet people and before they even say hello, they’ll offer their cards, as if to say, “I am my title, my company, my wealth. Not my presence.” That is how we are all conditioned, and that is how we have hard-wired our systems.
Last month, I remember reading some startling headlines in the Washington Post. “Hey, Google! Let me talk to my departed father.” It profiled corporations that are creating personal profiles, so that we can continue to receive texts from them while they have passed away. As one of the company taglines reads, “Never lose someone you love.” Or “Who wants to live forever?”
In a world rooted in fear, we seek refuge in permanence. We shrink, not just externally, but internally. Surely, our loved ones are much more than their content. Yet, if our strength resides in the solidity of our ego, we handcuff our magnificence. In place of riding the waves with great joy, we make futile attempts to fit the ocean in our tiny bucket.
The world of permanence is completely invalidated by our intrinsic biology and the neuroscience of the mind. Yet, we have systems in place that amplify that solidity over fluidity.
In particular, there are three major building blocks of that false solidity. Three M’s. Markets, Media, and Military. In other words, money, fame, and power. It’s not that they don’t work, but it’s just a low-bandwidth way to interact with each other. Money is optimized for efficiency but it turns everything into short-term transactions; fame helps you scale quickly but it cheapens our engagement; power helps you retain control but it curbs our collective emergence. Over time, the 3 M’s are biased towards centralization, which not only creates polarities and fragmentation, but limits our potential.
Yet, this is just a call to upgrade our operating system. We are constantly evolving. It took hundreds of years to put wheels on bags — such a simple thing, but it hadn’t quite occurred to us. Similarly, we need to reinvent some of the building blocks of our society, if we are going to liberate the power of flow.
Given the unprecedented levels of suffering in our world today, many of us are wanting to create change. Yet all too often, we get trapped by the very tools we’re opposing. “If only I had more funding, louder microphone, and a bigger hammer.”
The famous feminist, Audre Lorde, once wisely said, “The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.” It is impossible to oppose the three M’s, if the only tools we have are money, power and fame. We must uncover a subtler, gentler and more powerful toolkit that leads with our inter-connection. Of course, we don’t want to be allergic to the 3 M’s, but we want to compost it underground so its healthy nutrients are utilized for the harvest of the future.
For the last twenty years, ServiceSpace has composted these three 3 M’s. We’ve never fundraised; we’ve never pitched a story to the media, or asked even to speak anywhere; we’ve never sought or held on to any power. Initially, it was seen as a sweet lemonade stand that kids would do on weekends. “Tell us when you grow up,” they said. Well, we did grow up, and ServiceSpace was touching millions of lives, and yet operating beyond the three M’s. Eventually, even billionaires from the market-world, famous luminaries and Noble Laureates, even presidents of countries, all started seeking our insights into this alternative framework social change.
From all that experience, I want to share three specific shifts that can help us compost the three M’s.
To compost Markets, we need to balance transactions with relationships. Transactions are powered by accumulation. When we are rooted in the solidity of permanence, we accumulate for security―and transactions facilitate that. The challenge with transaction is that they are extremely narrow and one dimensional.
It is easy to break a vase into a million different pieces, but it’s much, much harder to put the pieces back together. It’s easy to strip down multi-dimensional relationships into micro transactions, but we are losing on value which is greater than the sum of the parts. And it’s not making us happy.
To return to greater flow, we need more relational frameworks. Unlike transactions, relationships are multi-dimensional. Consider these kids in a circle. If I give a shoulder rub to the person in front of me, and that person pays it forward, we don’t have any quid-pro-quo transaction and yet everyone is taken care of. And most importantly, an entirely new entity emerges because of those connections. For instance, hydrogen is not a liquid and oxygen is not a liquid, but when they come together, it creates an entirely new property―water! Similarly, when these different parts start to come together, it unravels a whole new set of resources that everyone can benefit from.
A very concrete example of this is an experiment we run called Karma Kitchen. It’s a restaurant where you walk in and your check reads zero. It’s zero because someone before you paid for you and you are trusted to pay it forward.
Individually, that’s a very intriguing concept, and now, there has been a fair amount of research on why people pay more when paying for others. Yet, it’s real magic lies in the new collective field that is generated. The wisdom of that synergy interacts with each person differently.
I remember a PhD student at UC Berkeley was confused by this idea and came in to volunteer. At one of his table, the guest questions him, “So, what? You just trust me to give whatever I want?” Showing his own confusion, he responds, “Well, I think that’s how it works.” After some reflection, the guest does something interesting. He says to the waiter, “Well, I tell you what. Here’s $100. And I trust you bring me back whatever change you want.” Wow. What to do? I was also volunteering that day, and he looks to me. I myself don’t know what to do. “Do whatever you want,” I said. After some perplexing moments, he does something none of us could’ve imagined. He takes out a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket, and give this man back his $100 and an extra $20! The fellow couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know how to respond. “Is this heaven or something?” he joked, as he walked out, shaking his head.
Like the starling birds, the particular formations are very contextual to that moment. That’s not the main story, though. The main story is that only when we are related do we unlock this wisdom of the flow.
To compost Media, we need to balance broadcast with deepcast. Now, this is not a word we can find in the dictionary, but if broadcast is about one-to-many amplification, deepcast is about a peer-to-peer ripple effect.
If we consider our media landscape, we have gone through a rather remarkable shift from the world of TV to telephone to the Internet. TV was rooted in a one-to-many centralized model. If you have an audience of 50, you generate 50 connections. Then came telephone networks that were rooted in one-to-one connections. More decentralized. With 50 people, you could now generate1225 connections. But then came the Internet, which did something dramatic. It created a many-to-many network. In a room of just 50 people, you could generate 100 million trillion connections! And if flow is our goal, it is quite clear that you want to head towards a distributed web.
We have been able to tap into this potential for profit and protest, and that has certainly had some benefit, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the Internet has profoundly disconnected us.
Because it is rooted in the three M’s, all it could do was increase the quantity of connections, without paying any attention to the quality of connections. As Henry David Thoreau joked in the previous century, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
However, we can unlock this potential for a third force―Compassion. Such a field will allow us to create a web, not just of loose ties or deep relationships, but far deeper noble friendships.
I’ve witnessed the power of deepcasting first hand, in the very house I grew up in. Many years ago, my parents and I decided to try a little experiment―let’s meditate one hour together every week. We chose Wednesday because it’s the middle of the week, most boring day with no scheduling conflicts. Initially, it was just me and my mom and another friend. But we thought, “Let’s leave the door open, in case anyone else wants to join.” We would meditate for an hour and do a circle of sharing around aha moments in the second hour. And my mom said, “I have to feed Nipun anyways, so I’ll feed whoever else comes.” Now, you won’t believe it, those circles have continued every single week for the last 22 years. My mom would’ve fed more than 45 thousand people with her own hand-cooked meals.
By itself, that’s a phenomenal story of everyday heroes. But what started happening is something even more remarkable. Many of the people who experienced the Awakin Circle, said, “I’d like to do this too.” Vietnam, Poland, Austria, India, UK. Now in over a 100 living rooms around the world.
I remember a woman coming to her first Awakin Circle. At the time we didn’t know that she used to be President Obama’s general counsel, or that she had drafted the Iraqi and Afghani constitution, and had a long list of accomplishments to her name. When it was her time to share in the circle, she said, “Hi, I’m Preeta. I’ve been at the Supreme Court and the White House, and finally, I’m at the right house.” Few years later, now she’s hosting regular circles in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, and we non-jokingly joke, “From the right house, she’s now a lighthouse.”
Awakin Circles didn’t spread by my parent’s effort. In fact, we’ve never even had a mass-media outlet cover the story. My parents just did their part, but it was Nature that did the heavy lifting. After the hour of silence, it was nature that generated gratitude in people’s hearts; after the circle of sharing and listening, it was nature that evoked a sense of belonging; after receiving a gift of a meal, it was nature that inspired a pay it forward spirit. Without any marketing plan or intent, it just spread naturally. Hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from it. Yet, if you ask my parents, they wouldn’t even know to replicate it. We tend to put a premium of such kind of knowing, when, in fact, it is the quiet surrender of selflessness that invites the flow.
Lastly, to compost Military, we need to balance leadership with laddership. Again, Laddership isn’t a word that is found in the dictionary, but if leadership is about reaching a higher ground and speaking to the down, laddership is staying down and helping others climb the ladder and reach a much higher ground than you.
If we consider the history of organizing, as Frederick Lalloux has done, we see an evolutionary pattern. Originally, we organized in wolf-packs where we were primarily reacting in fear; then, we went through army model of a more strategic command and control; more recently, we have been in the era of corporations where everyone is seen as interchangeable parts; and now, some organizations have started to lead with shared purpose and values to create more of a family. But what we are heading towards is a living systems approach, wherever everyone is connected to everything else. This requires a very different kind of leadership.
We see many examples of this in the farming world. This is Akinori Kimura, who grows “miracle apples” in Japan. Why do his apples have the miracle prefix? Because you could cut them in half and leave them outside and they won’t rot. A typical apple goes brown because it has iron compounds that react with the oxygen in the air, to create a form of “rust” on the apple. But Kimura’s miracle apples have antioxidants that prevent this from happening. How? Well, he says he doesn’t grow his apples―nature does. On his farm, he doesn’t just have rows and rows of apple trees; no, it could be mixed in with peaches and chives and marigold. He doesn’t use any fertilizers or pesticides, and doesn’t remove any weeds either. Every part has its value in being connected to the rest of the ecosystem. What that implies is that his apples don’t just come from a tree; underneath the tree are roots, which are connected with roots of myriad neighboring trees, which are similarly connected to a remarkably diverse ecosystem. That makes the apples incredibly resilient “Miracle” apples. People would fly from all over the world to eat them. Akinori Kimura is a ladder for the apples, because he is operating with the awareness of the whole field.
As we shift from transaction to relationship, and from one-to-many broadcast to a many-to-many deepcast via noble friendships, it mandates a very different way to lead.
Traditionally, a leader starts with a bold vision, and then coordinate some muscle to execute it. The stronger the center, the greater the chances of success. It is optimized for efficiency, control and scale. A ladder, on the other hand, starts from a very different place―from a field of relationships. After cultivating the density of connections in the field, a ladder looks to amplify patterns of positive deviance. Plan-and-execute turns into search-and-amplify. In such a web, innovation can occur anywhere, so every place is the center. By trusting the natural flow of organizing, the quality of relationships are much deeper, and offer far greater resilience. And we shift from predictability to emergence.
More fundamentally, ladders have no need for coercion. Because they are aware of various interconnections in the network, they simply create small nudges that create a profound ripple effect. Someone looking at the circle from a different angle might think, “Oh it’s Tile #19 that tipped Tile #20 and created an impact,” or someone else might say, “Tile #42 deserve a Prize,” but actually, it’s all just interconnected.
The social sphere offers us really compelling examples as well. Nelson Mandela was prisoned in a six-foot wide jail cell for 27 years. He went in a very angry person, but came out deeply transformed. His first words when he came out were, “I stand before you, not as a prophet, but a humble servant.” Prior to his election in 1995, and much after that too, there was major civil unrest in the country. During this time, Mandela did something remarkable. He invited the opposing Afrikaans leader General Constand Viljoen for tea. Now, this man was not only a vocal opponent of Mandela and proponent of apartheid, but he commanded a militia of 50 to 60 thousand men. Quite literally, a man that could ignite a civil war. Mandela sat next to him on the couch, instead of the other side. And when he spoke to him in Afrikaans – not Mandela’s native language — General Viljoen was stunned by his familiarity with his culture.
Mandela did succeed in convincing the General to call off the armed insurrection, and instead run in the upcoming election as an opposition leader, but that’s not even the most remarkable part of the story. When Mandela retired from his presidency in 1999, General Viljoen insisted on giving a talk. He praised Mandela, and he gave the entire talk in Xhosa, Mandela’s native language. Like a great ladder, Mandela lifted up the General, not by his muscle but by his love. A ladder has the humility to know that a rising tide, our universal flow, lifts all boats.
In conclusion, if we are to ignite a subtle revolution of flow, we need to tap into our fundamental interconnection, tune into a field of relationships, and lead with a heart of service. As we do this, we will step into a new narrative. In fact, not a new narrative, but an existing one that has simply been buried by the 3 M’s.
In a compelling study in the UK, they polled citizens about pro-social values and it turned out that 75% believed in compassionate values; yet, when asked about what others believed in, they felt that only 25% cared for such values. We are telling and retelling ourselves a false narrative. When, actually, we have been wired to align with the flow all along.
Gandhi once said, “Those who discovered for us the Law of Love were greater scientists than any of our modern scientists. […] The Law will work, just as the Law of Gravitation will work.” His world-changing example was rooted in this law of love, what we might even call the law of Flow.
When Gandhi was assassinated, only eleven things were all that he owned. On live television, CBS commentator Edwin Murrow relayed this remarkable message.
“Here lies a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not a commander of great armies nor ruler of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. Pope Pius, the Archbishop of Canterbury, President Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, the Foreign Minister of Russia, the President of France… are among the millions here and abroad who have lamented his passing. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, ‘Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.’”
When the winds of nature are behind us, we fly through the skies like the murmurations of starlings―in elegant formations divined by an intelligence that far surpasses the power of markets, military and mass media. We realize that we are not merely what we do, but who we become by what we do. As our ego empties, the song of the infinite plays through our lute. With our hand, head and heart extended out in great awe, it becomes clear that the smallest of our intentions is a delicate prayer that tilts the axis of all life.
Indeed, in a gentle way, we can shake the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.