In today’s world, no one has done more to advance the healing power of generosity on the global level than Nipun Mehta. Jumping off a lucrative career in computer engineering, Nipun applied the notion of “small acts of kindness” to invent a way to take small distributed units and build it into a dynamic platform for collective impact. His nonprofit organization, ServiceSpace.org, is described as an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, technology and the gift-economy. In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed him to an advisory council on addressing poverty and inequality. Through his efforts, the act of “paying it forward” has become a powerful daily habit for thousands of people around the world.
When we perform the smallest kind act of generosity, we set in motion a ripple effect of so many remarkable benefits. Our dopamine and oxytocin levels go up and so does our sense of wellbeing. The condition of our heart is better. We have better social relations as a result of which we may actually live longer. Tons of scientific research tells us how good it is for us. It’s good for other people, too. Everybody wins. So, the big question is, why don’t we do more of it? Many of us harbor this untested belief that you can only afford to be generous once you become rich and dominant and powerful. In truth, we can all give. It’s hard to remember that because we live in individualistic times. The onus of our happiness is
purely on our shoulders, and it lends itself to: “It’s me against the world, and I have to do my best to take care of myself.” Mired in self-maximizing transactions, we dilute our connection with others and trust in the social fabric of the communities we are embedded in. Against this backdrop, it’s hard for us to believe in the possibilities that are set in motion from the smallest gestures. Yet, I think it’s just a matter of looking deeper into this idea of what your self-interest is. Is getting ahead and having a big bank balance going to make you happy? It’s quite clear that it doesn’t. Some of us may recite the merits of Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” mantra, but I think that generosity is much better. As an alternative, I prefer the Dalai Lama’s quote: “Be selfish, be generous.” On the face of it, it appears to be a paradox, but it’s only so if our worldview is external. If we factor in the inner experience of generosity, it is actually in our self-interest to be kind to other people because you’re going to immediately feel better with that act of generosity. And it’s going to have all these ripple effects that are going to change you, your social fabric and ultimately the system as a whole. Kids totally get the power of small acts of service. Adults, on the other hand, can have the knee-jerk reaction on first impression — “Oh, that’s cute. Call me when you grow up.” Sometimes after talking to a group of young students, I’ll open up a bouquet and give everyone a flower. I will ask them to pay it forward by thanking someone they’ve never appreciated before, like a teacher, a fellow student, a janitor, somebody working in the cafeteria or anyone else. On various occasions, they come back with tears of gratitude and ask if they can get another flower. This is natural. I have a lot of faith in generosity, and now we also have a lot of neuroscience backing up this notion that we’re wired to care.
For me, personally, generosity has been a great spiritual practice. It allowed me to act without wanting to own or dictate the outcome. Both in my organization, ServiceSpace, and my personal life, we really don’t have an agenda other than to spread love. Even spreading love can’t really be called an agenda, because that’s the default direction of all existence. In ServiceSpace, we have built up some wonderful tools and processes that allow things like micro-volunteering to scale up into a focused effort, and into a larger movement. But we’re also not attached to holding it all under one umbrella. If it’s helpful for someone to do acts of kindness in the cocoon of our umbrella, fantastic — if you’d rather go out and do it on your own, that’s just as great too. The message is always about being the change we wish to see and thus allowing love, generosity, and compassion to flourish in our society at large.
When we approach a moment without an agenda — without expecting anything in return — we relate to life in a multi-dimensional way and activate that possibility in the other person as well. And that kind of a deep relationship makes way for a radical emergence that we might’ve never imagined. Over time, we come to trust in that process — of life’s natural propensity to take us to the doorsteps of greater good. It’s a beautiful way to go about life. Instead of sizing others up constantly, we let go of our judgments and let in an unexpected possibility. With a sense of awe, we look to the fertile soil of deep relationships to discover which flower will bloom next. It brings great joy and fresh eyes to each moment, in place of trying to shoehorn each moment to fit into some biased, pre-meditated outcome. It lends itself to a quiet kind of contentment and a very satisfying way of being.
To give you an example, just a couple days ago, I was out shopping for art supplies with my wife. A guy in the aisle called my name, but I didn’t recognize him. He told me we had met 12 years ago and went on to share a bit about his journey. Few months back, he had bought a food truck, and he shared, “Someday, I’d like to add some pieces of generosity and community building into it.” I asked him, “Why don’t you start by doing some little acts right now?” “What do you mean?” he replied. I opened my wallet. I happened to have $40 and gave it
to him, with a few Smile Cards (printed with the message of paying it forward).
“Whenever you’re serving someone and you feel moved to make their day, just tell them that their tab is covered by somebody they don’t know. And it’s up to them to pay it forward however they want. Try it out and see what happens.” In all such encounters, we have a choice. I could have just totally looked the other way or just said, “Hey, nice to see you.” But if we are willing to assume value in each moment, a whole new possibility can be birthed. His eyes were radiant with love, and we both left our brief encounter with a sense of elation and connection. And inevitably, there will be ripples.
Having this kind of practice is hardly a static thing; it requires a constant orientation towards our inner growth. Whenever I am perplexed or get overly drawn into external work, I return to my practice of small acts of kindness to help me navigate the terrain. It’s a process of constant learning and improvement. Sometimes, it also requires us to go far outside of our comfort zones. For example, several years ago, my wife and I intentionally chose to embark on walking pilgrimage in India. We started at the Gandhi Ashram in Western India and ended up walking 1000 kilometers south, eating whatever food was offered and sleeping wherever the place was offered along the way. Rather organically, we landed up at a monastery where we meditated for the better part of the next few months. When you do something like this, you uncover the hidden basements within your consciousness. It’s easy to be centered and look at how good things are in your comfort zone, but
all of a sudden it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit outside. You don’t know the people in that community. You may not speak the language. You don’t have access to money. You are insecure about how your wife is going to be treated or how you are going to be fed. Put all of this together, and it’s a little different than running into the guy in the art supplies shop after having a nice lunch. 🙂
The first thing that comes up is that you start to discover your own dark spots and limitations. “Wait a second, I thought I was generous, but I’m only generous to a certain degree.” Beyond that degree, all these inner-negativities started coming up. That was the first realization. The second realization was that if you persevere with it long enough, there is light at the end of the tunnel. You realize you actually have the capacity to be far more magnanimous, to actually grow in love. Firsthand, you see how kindness is actually a muscle that the more you flex it, the stronger it becomes—and the more compassion you have. By the end of the three months on the streets and subsequent three months in the monastery, I had found a much deeper composure and a grander reservoir of compassion that I didn’t know I had. Instead of reacting blindly to a man who insulted me, I could now respond with patience. Most of the time I would fail, but those few successes exposed my latent capacity for being more loving and equanimous. I felt so much stronger to take on the world and all the high tides and low ebbs that life throws our way.
Once we start practicing generosity, the practice itself becomes the reward. All kinds of other virtues start blossoming inside us. The hidden traits and capacities that have always been there, but now, it’s activated. Previously, we might’ve thought that kindness was cool — but after seeing it’s positive feedback loop, it’s kindness on steroids. The sages across all traditions have repeated this wisdom, but it mostly remains an intellectual idea. When we do something about it, though, it becomes a lived reality and the magic begins.
At least, that’s been my experience. That’s been my growth curve all my life. I hope that today I have a kinder heart than I had 10 years ago, and ten years from now it will be even more firmly rooted in unconditional love.
In the end, I don’t think there is one grand answer to solve all the problems of the world. A mono-crop farm will never be as rich a poly-culture ecosystem. We need an infinite series of experiments.
And to create that social poly-culture farm, it helps to remember that we are all contributors, that every small act changes us and the world, and there is an inevitable ripple effect of every action we take.
So let’s experiment and get creative in the direction of greater generosity, greater connection, and greater compassion.
To follow Nipun, visit: servicespace.org