From East to West – and Back Again

I got a lot out of the discussion on vision-making. I especially appreciated the passage’s reference to the inner landscape, to the importance of cultivating an inner vision to be able to more clearly see that outside ourselves.

The lesson that “life is a journey, not a destination” has come to me in many ways. I first received this message when transitioning to high school.

It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey, in the end, that matters. – Ursula K. LeGuin

My 8th grade teacher had written this in a world atlas she gave as a gift. No matter how far I have traveled physically, nothing can ever compare to the journey within, the journey deep inside my own self. Like many children of immigrants growing up in western countries, I used to be very eager to please others, particularly my parents. I was a perfectionist in every sense – and felt valued and appreciated for this trait and the results it brought me. In the beginning stages of my life, I was outcome-driven to a fault. The only real purpose of these outcomes, however, was for me to achieve “success,” in the very narrowly defined manner that was prescribed to me by my parents, the culture I was raised in and the predominant western mindset of personal achievement as the ultimate purpose of one’s life.

I have heard a spiritual calling since I can remember, but how easy it is for the whisperings of the soul to be silenced by the noise of the senses! I remember how upset and heartbroken I was when I graduated second and thus did not get to be Valedictorian of my high school class. All my hard work and natural intelligence should, after all, be rewarded and recognized by others, right? Maybe. But why did I need the external validity to prove my ability?

I am so grateful now to the teacher who gave me my first-ever then dreadful “B+,” as it is our mistakes that kindly curtail the real dreadfulness of arrogance and greed, paving the way for the cultivation of humility. I love the metaphor of being a mere instrument for a higher power to work through, like a flute for sweet music to naturally flow through. I really believe that all the gifts we possess are just on loan to us, to be collected at the end of our life cycle, when we will ultimately be judged by how well we used them. Like how the famous parable of the talents illustrates, we must use our gifts wisely, in the service of others. The dedication of the merits of one’s work to a higher purpose, or the divine by whatever name you feel comfortable acknowledging this presence has also been a way to bring awareness to the larger implications of how one’s individual thoughts, words and actions have a profound impact on the collective whole.

The importance of the journey aspect of realizing a vision, whether internal or external, came to me again when I transitioned from high school to college. My speech/drama teacher Mrs. Sanders was my eye in the midst of many emotional storms during my high school years. For graduation, she gifted me with three beautiful presents and a card with a message that served as the beginning of the journey I’ve been on to bridge together two seemingly very different spheres of the world:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust

Much of my calling has been about becoming a seamless bridge between east and west. My journey has involved a lot of travel between these geographic directions. Growing up in the midwestern part of America, I often made the long journeys from the western to the eastern sphere of the world to visit India. Then I moved to the east coast for college, which led me back to the western part of India, where I originate from. Upon returning to the west, I was inspired to drive from the eastern to the western coast of America. Now I find myself called back to the eastern part of India, the east of the east, if you will, as part of my dance journey. Even within the city I live in, I often find myself traveling back and forth between the eastern and western parts of it, as I used to do in NYC on the east coast.

No new landscapes in the sense that I continue to spend meaningful periods of time in just two countries – and yet the journey has shifted and transformed my inner landscape, with each enhancing the other in countless beautiful ways. The integration of east and west within myself has made me whole and shaped me into the person I am today.

Any time there is the presence of polarity there is, I believe, a real opportunity to transcend the duality and move into a deeper reality of existence. To tap into the powerful force of one’s own soul. I am now so grateful for all the challenges of growing up with such a, in some sense, dualistic background.

The eastern culture places a lot of emphasis on the collective, on the whole. I always find the community aspect of India so beautiful and comforting, something that can easily lend itself toward serving others and encouraging people to become selfless: a wonderful spiritual ideal. My favorite part of Indian culture is the high value of humility: knowing we are but part of a greater whole and consciously ridding ourselves of the many entrapments of the ego. On the downside, however, the eastern culture puts such a high price on blending with the crowd and doing things for the mere sake of filial piety, without so much consideration for the purpose of some of these actions. “Honor” crimes come to mind as one of the severe examples of this eastern emphasis taken to the extreme.

The western culture, on the other hand, values the role of the individual above all else, which gives way to creativity, self-discovery and exploration. The big downside of this is the breakdown of the family unit and collective community as the loneliness that often accompanies high individual accomplishment settles slowly in.

At the very heart and essence of both cultures, however, I do find a fearless quest for freedom. The forefathers of America had a lot in common with the ancient rishis (seers) of India in terms of the ideals sought, with similar fervor and intensity. I bow at Mrs. Sanders’ feet for teaching me to take only the best of the material offered in any context and to leave the rest. Or better yet, apply the best to the worst to serve those who suffer most.

The deep, ancient spiritual values of the East I use as guidance in informing my individual contributions and creativity in the service of those in need. My western upbringing and education provide me the freedom to follow my heart to realize the ancient spiritual ideals of my eastern heritage. A compass I have found valuable in guiding my journey, both within and without, is whether my thoughts, words and actions are in harmony and whether the poorest person could benefit from them. Do my thoughts, my words and what I do, in any given moment, actively serve others, or have that potential? When the answer is no, I know it is time to change course.

My desire to dedicate my life to the service of others, and the service of the timeless universal values of truth, freedom and wholeness has certainly raised conflicts within my family life. The more committed I remain to my mission, however, the more I have been able to invite my family to join the incredible journey – and the more they have accepted the invitation. It has been scary at times to follow my vision of my life, rather than my father’s vision of me as a businessman and my mother’s of me as a traditional stay at home wife and mother, a caretaker. Embracing the opportunity in polarity has, however, been a great gift and gateway to creative possibility.

Teaching meditation in juvenile hall makes for a most interesting intersection of the eastern and western and masculine and feminine aspects of myself (photo courtesy of MBA Project)

I now see myself making the best of what I’ve been given by bringing together my business background with my passion for social service by creating a comprehensive teacher training program for prisoners. I envision it as a “spiritual boot camp” of sorts, to transform prisons into places of personal development, as Kiran Bedi had done in Tihar Jail in New Delhi, India. The program will be modeled after incredible work the Insight Prison Project has done in San Quentin, with rigorous yoga, meditation and writing sessions as well as group processes designed to help criminals address the root causes of their crimes.

I believe in the potential of this work from the transformations I have been privileged to witness and be part of in juvenile hall youth, whose support I have enlisted to develop such a program. One inmate last week was particularly open and shared how the thing he – and so many – need is unconditional faith and support to make change possible. Role models. Community. Continuity. I have assigned him and a couple other youth to reflect more on what such a program would ideally look like for them. Several kids have given their contact info to be part of leadership training when they exit the hall, which will be an important component to develop alongside the in-prison work.

I plan to deepen my involvement in Silicon Valley: the heart of entrepreneurship, to create a corporate wellness program that will help another high-stress population relax, focus more deeply, work more efficiently and have more peace of mind and happiness. Payment for this program will cross-subsidize the prison work. Like prisoners, who cost the government millions of dollars each year, corporate leaders are incredibly powerful – to provide them tools to transform their thinking to include stakeholders rather than mere shareholders in decision-making could have profound implications on the many lives big businesses touch each year. To deepen the connection between corporations and criminals, I also plan to seek out business leaders who would like to serve as mentors for prisoners interested in entrepreneurship. Many prisoners have or presently run illegal operations – imagine the potential for the economy if their entrepreneurial talents could be channeled into ethical enterprises! As such a big part of the ultimate sustainability of this project will be what happens to these people when they leave prison, I want to make the creation of social enterprises and socially responsible companies integral to the entrepreneurial aspect of the prison training, to encourage them to create ventures that can benefit victims and perpetrators of crime in society.

Though this is certainly not the route I would have ever imagined traveling growing up, I am so grateful for the many ways my journey has come full circle, allowing me to offer the diverse experiences and background I have to such meaningful and necessary work. To the West, I am grateful for the freedom to be able to do such radical work. And to the East, I bow down deeply at the opportunity to be a mere instrument to serve the needs of others, knowing that, as Lilla Watson once said,

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

The ultimate reason for my desire to serve prisoners – and anyone else for that matter – is because I see just how deeply my fate is interconnected with the lives of others. As Dr. King has proclaimed,

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you are ought to be.

Like that, service to another is really service to my own self. I have already grown in infinite ways through my journey, which has closely connected me with slumdwellers, shelter children, corporate professionals, prisoners, public and private high school students in NYC and OH, young social entrepreneurs in NY, homeless youth, drug addicts in CA, the elderly and more. Despite the differences in the forms these people have come in, I am always able to see a reflection of myself in each population and really each person I meet. As a young, female child of immigrant parents, I feel tremendously fortunate and grateful for all the opportunities and gifts my parents have given me and see service as the most appropriate venue to be able to pay forward all I have received to others who suffer. From East to West – and back again.

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