This is the first in a series of reflections by our Founder & Director, Ping Ho, MPH, on her transformational journey to India.
"Service is external meditation; meditation is internal service." – Anonymous sage
I had the ultimate human experience at the Gandhi 3.0 retreat in India.
The 40-ish attendees were all social changemakers invited to engage in a gathering with mysterious objectives yet meaningful potential. There were also 30 Indian volunteers from ServiceSpace, a nonprofit that aims to create both inner and outer transformation by igniting fundamental human generosity. We were literally surrounded by people dedicated to perpetuating kindness—in small and large ways—through joyful, humble service.
The nine days were filled with vulnerability, insight, tears, uproarious laughter, storytelling, arts experiences and presentations, introspective walking rituals, tons of deep sharing on everything from intuition in decision-making to finding joy in service to ahimsa—Gandhian “creative action” for the benefit of all. Gandhi spent 15 years preparing himself and his 78 followers for leading the movement to Indian independence without engaging in violence. This retreat was preparing us to expand our service for greater good, rooted in Gandhian values.
I had the great privilege of walking the old city of Ahmedabad with Kishan, one of my ServiceSpace mentors, and was able to witness how he lit up the lives of everyone he met and catalyzed their generosity as well. There was an old woman seated on the ground begging at the entrance to the temple gate. He asked her, "Sister, what blessing do you have for us? We are on a pilgrimage." She said, "Take whatever you wish." Kishan took a wrapped biscuit from her.
Inside the temple grounds, Kishan obtained some free greenery from someone he had befriended (to whom he had previously donated rupees for the purchase of apples to help his friend abstain from chewing tobacco) so we could feed the cows, and then he purchased some more for 50 rupees, asking his friend to consider giving it to the woman at the gate - which the man gave to a little boy to give to the woman.
After feeding the cows, he gathered us into a circle for a moment of silence and small prayer, inviting a man in the stable to join us—despite his initially unwelcoming presence. The man joined us. As we left the temple grounds where the old woman sat, the man at the stable appeared, gifting us a kilogram of regionally special cake in a large box.
Kishan offered the first piece of cake to the old woman. She shed tears of joy. The man who gifted us was also touched. The small single biscuit became a large, luscious piece of cake. The woman on the ground shared that she used to work at the temple but had broken her leg and was alone and no longer able to work. That day, she felt as if she belonged.
One of our group members was fishing around in her bag wanting to help. Kishan advised blessing her by touching her feet. After leaving the temple, he encouraged us to connect with children in the street by giving them high fives. The second time we passed by the child, they initiated the high-five greeting!
That day, I witnessed the power of presence to the intention of proliferating kindness. And in the wee hours that night, I realized that we were here to learn from the ServiceSpace volunteers.
Those of us in the business of social change are professional givers. At Gandhi 3.0, I learned there are many ways to give, and the important thing is to give with clear intention to enable service with joy and the proliferation of kindness. This kind of service is not transactional in nature, but intentionally relational and feels connected, spiritual. This is when giving becomes receiving.
I also realized that our capacity to give is related to our capacity to receive. For example, when giving becomes obligatory or needs to live up to a certain standard, it can feel stressful or exhausting and can lead to resentment or avoidance of giving. In this case, receiving might be setting a loving boundary or asking someone for their support (these are forms of self-care). Similarly, if we do not allow ourselves to receive or if we insist upon reciprocating fully each time, we deny others the opportunity and joy of giving, and we deny ourselves the joy of receiving and future giving.
The work we do at Arts & Healing Initiative involves holding space with humility and nonjudgment to facilitate kindness, compassion, and community through the creative arts process. From a broader perspective, it’s about finding ways to operationalize love.
I came to Gandhi 3.0, wanting to learn how others operationalize love. And I got what I was looking for, plus the added gift of personal insight. ServiceSpace offers a spiritual practice for meaning and connection by remaining present to the intention of proliferating kindness for the greater good. In this way, service becomes external meditation.