Awakin Calls » Ajay Dahiya » Transcript
Ajay Dahiya: From Teenage Monk to Lifelong Experimentation in Service
Guest: Ajay Dahiya
Host: Aryae Coopersmith
Moderator: Birju Pandya
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of Service Space, a global platform founded on the simple principle that that by changing ourselves, we change the world, to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!
Aryae: Well, good morning, good afternoon and good evening. My name is Aryae and I'm really excited to be your host for our weekly Global Awakin Call. Welcome and thank you for joining us. Now the purpose of these calls is to share stories that helped plant seeds for more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. And we do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, who inspires us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is entire team of service based volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today, our special guest speaker is Ajay Dahiya. Thank you for joining our call. Let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space. A minute of silence, please.
Thank you and welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call, today in conversation with Ajay Dahiya. As an all-volunteer offering, each Awakin Call is a conversational space that's co-created by many invisible hands. In a few minutes our moderator Birju will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker, and by the top of the hour, we will roll into a Q&A and a circle of sharing where we'll invite all of your reflections and questions. Now, I've gone ahead and opened up the queue right now. So at any point you can hit star six on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us at email@example.com that's ask at service-based dot org or submit a question or comment via our webcast form, if you're listening in online via the webcast.
Our moderator today is Birju Pandya. Birju is a longtime volunteer with ServiceSpace. He is interested in how to bring the the topic of transformation and human development into business and finance. He has played decision making roles in multiple financial institutions pushing the boundaries of 'finance for good'. Most recently that has included bringing concepts such as dialogue practice and shadow work into the office. I will now turn it over to Birju to introduce our guest and get the ball rolling in this conversation. Birju, over to you!
Birju: Thanks so much, Aryae. Can you hear me?
Aryae: I sure can.
Birju: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, I'm grateful today to be a part of this conversation to have as our guest speaker, Ajay Dahiya, as Aryae was sharing. He is the executive director of the Pollination Project which makes micro grants to people who are starting their service journeys, all over the world. As I understand it, over a hundred countries have been supported. He's also been the executive director of Insight LA which is a meditation community in California, and The Bhakti Center, which is a spiritual center in New York City and/or London. I guess we'll learn more. In addition to these roles, he was also an ordained monk for many years in the ISKCON tradition. Ajay, welcome! Thank you so much for your presence and for sharing today.
Ajay: Thank you so much. I'm really grateful to be here and I'm grateful to everyone who's listening on a Saturday. I know you have many other choices of what you could be doing with your time. And so I'm really grateful that you chose to be here. Thank you.
Birju: Well, we'd love to have these conversations start with a little bit of a sharing of one's journey. And so I'm going to borrow a question that I hear from the wonderful interviewer Krista Tippett. And so I'm curious if you'd share a little bit more about your upbringing and in particularly where you would feel that there were seeds in that upbringing, that connected to your eventual life path heading in this direction of service and inner work?
Ajay: Yeah, I think I can speak of this lifetime, and I'm not sure about the others. I haven't quite figured that part out yet. But I was, in one sense, a seed was planted and cultivated in India, my parents were from India. And they'd actually lived in the UK, before I was born for a number of years and then they moved back to India. So actually my mother was pregnant with me while living in India and they moved back to London, like the week before I was born. So we could say that, you know, I was incubated in India.
But somehow or other, by my, I don't know if some people would say fortune, others may say misfortune, I was born in the UK. And so I grew up in the outskirts of London in a really light-industrial, working-class town. And I mean we were the only Indian family. Everyone else was either, you know, a native English family, or...We grew up in a town that actually has the first mosque that was established in the UK. And so had a large community of people from Pakistan, who were practicing Muslims, and then a really large working class, native English community. And so it was an interesting dynamic to grow up in because anyone who knows the history of India and Pakistan, knows that a Hindu Indian is kind of like the sworn enemy of the Pakistani Muslim. And at least, you know, to some people's minds.
And then also, in a working class white town, which is very British, anyone who was coming from outside was seen as unwelcome. And so that's where I kind of grew up. And it was a really interesting place to be, because, you know, especially being young I couldn't quite figure out why I didn't fit in. I didn't understand these historical or constructed reasons of difference and separation. But I could feel it. I could feel it in my body. I could feel it in my consciousness, and I could feel it in the world around me, but I couldn't understand or articulate it.
And so, you know, I just saw a lot of people who worked extremely hard in their lives and had very little and it was just like a Daily Grind for a lot of people. And I was like -- I have a brother and sister who are older, my sister is 10 years older than me, my brother's eight years older than me. And I saw that they took the traditional route that most people have to take, that all people are being taught to take, which is, you know, they went to school. They worked very hard. They went on to college, and got their degrees and got their jobs and got married and had the kids. And I could just see that, like everyone around me was doing that.
And I just never felt so called to it. And I felt there had to be something more, because I could just see it -- the more people were accumulating, it didn't really fill the void that they were trying to fill. And so from a really young age, I could just sense that there was something more to life than just let me get some stuff, and let me feel comfortable in my life. And you know, that just didn't quite resonate. And so that was there, very acutely, from a young age.
I was fortunate that I grew up in a family that, by culture, they were spiritual. I don't think it was like, you know a deep analysis of life, but rather just culturally. I think you find this in a lot of immigrant communities -- when you leave your native land, you hold onto the cultural values because that's your connection, now that you're living somewhere foreign. And so my parents had that. Particularly, my mother had a deep spiritual kind of inclination. And so, yeah, we were taught these kind of values. Even if your enemy comes to your door, you should offer them water and like greet them graciously. And so many of these beautiful values, which I couldn't understand back then, but now I really (9:38 unclear).
And so along with that kind of cultural leaning, we would naturally go to the temples. We were a Hindu family and so our kind of weekends were spent going to the temple, because that again was a cultural connection. And so I just can remember, like as far back as I can remember, in fact, that I just loved it. Like I lived for going to those temples! Whereas my peer group will be running around and screaming, wanting to just leave and go and do something else. I was just like enthralled by -- you couldn't tear me away -- like my parents would have to drag me out. And I just, it was something about that going to those temples that just really called to me, deep within my heart.
And I started to see that the people who are really dedicated in those places were the most happy people I'd ever seen. And particularly the monastics that I would encounter, you know? They didn't, they had very little, yet they had the whole world deep within the heart. And that really kind of, there was something about that, at the time, that just captured me. And that kind of became like an obsession of mine -- that that's what I want to do!
And particularly my teacher Radhanath Swami who I met, I was 10 years old when I first met him, and there was just something about him that I could not put my finger on. But I could see he had something that I wanted, and I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew I wanted it. And I knew the only way I would get it was like by spending more and more time with people like him. And so yeah, you know, like most kids wanted to be race car drivers or astronauts, and I just wanted to be a monk. I just like, I would dream of it. And I was, every spare moment I had, I would go to the temple and try and engage in some service with people, or you know? Because that's, to me, it was the best way to get to know them. It wasn't to sit down and take on, you know, shoot the breeze. It was to engage in some sort of meaningful service together.
Birju: Can I jump in there for a second? I'm intrigued here, because -- so what I'm hearing is this Outsider mindset that was cultivated very early from the communities that you're connected to; and then figuring out how to make bridges. And then here's this temple side of life, which is really more of a home space, but it sounds like you, even as early as age 10, you were called to this question of: well, what would it be like for my life to be in the monastic route? And and I'm just curious how that felt in your ecology. You mentioned your brother and your sister and your parents. And was your family okay with you being deeply enthralled by monastic life before you were a teen?
Ajay: Not at all, to put it simply (laughs). I mean, you know here’s something about Indian parents, which I'll share with, for those who are not Indian. Especially Indian immigrant parents. Which is that because you're in a foreign place, the bar is kind of set a little higher for you. So there's an expectation of you have to become the best, because this is not where you're from, so you're already kind of like fighting against the stream. Qnd then academically, I was like a straight A student. I was like, you know, I was like top of every class and with very little effort, to be honest. And so there was this idea for my parents and my family of like what I could become in the world. And what I was wanting to become was so different to that. Like I just, you know, I wasn't...I remember, like even, you know, my parents would buy me toys as a present on my birthday, whatever, and I’d make them give the toys back, like take them back. Like I just wasn't, those things didn’t appeal to me. And that was very unusual. My parents found it to be kind of strange. It wasn't like the rest of my family, it wasn't like other kids that we knew. And it wasn't harmonious that I wanted to do this. And I think there was a feeling that this is just a phase, you know? Kids go through their phases and this is your phase!
Birju: How did you go about as you as you matured into really feeling called into this direction? How did you go about making that life decision to actually become a monk especially knowing the the discord that that may create within your family structure?
Ajay: I think what I started to realize was that I have to put my becoming above and beyond my being. And that meant that like I realized that I had to go through the discomfort in that moment, of creating that discord, because I could feel that there was a future of who I could become. And how I went about it was you know -- like I actually I started skipping school, here and there, so I could, I would catch this train for an hour to the temple to just like clean the floor, and it was this great joy for me. And then more and more, whatever spare time I had, I would be at the temple, where I would spend weekends, and stay over, so I could do similar stuff -- clean pots and stuff like that.
And when it came time to go to college in England, I don't know what it's like now, but then, in those days, you would get this three-month period in the summer where you had nothing to do. Like you finish school and now college doesn't start until the summer. And so, you know, I convinced my parents that hey, let me just stay at the monastery for the summer. And I wasn't allowed to join the monastery. I kept talking to the president of the monastery and he wouldn't, until I turned 18, it was like no, you can't. And physically not without the permission of your parents, you cannot become a full-time member of the monastery.
And so now, I was 18. At first, it became like let me just stay for the summer and spend three months, and I genuinely meant that, you know, I really just felt -- let me just try this for the summer, and then I'll go on to college and do all of that. And so I did it for the three months of the summer. And as the three months were winding down, you know, I went home and spoke to my parents. And said -- “Look, you know, I'm really feeling that this is what I want to be doing. And I'm getting so much out of this!” And I think it was interesting, because it was a time where if you compared me as an 18 year-old to most of the 18 year olds that were around my community, people knew I wasn't going out and partying, and you know doing all the stuff that most teenagers do. And I think so, on on some level, my parents were appreciating the kind of character that it was developing in me, to dedicate myself in this way and so I convinced them. “Okay, I did this for three months. Let me just do this for one year, right?”
And in Europe, this is a big thing. l think maybe, outside of America, where people take a gap year before going to college, you take a year off. Most people travel and they volunteer in different areas. And so I said, let me just take this gap year and then I'll go to college. And so I did it for a year. After that year came to an end, I just kept extending it. Okay, just one more year. Three years, and then it turned into eight years eventually! And my parents started to appreciate it. My mother... My father actually passed away in my late teens. But my mother started to come and visit me more at the temple, and she saw what I was doing, and she started to appreciate it, on a such a deep level. And actually I remember one moment. I gave this talk and she was in the audience. And after, she came up to me, and I was walking her back to the train station, and she finally you know, she said -- I finally get it. I understand. And you're doing, like you're doing something far greater than you could have if you had gone and got the degree and got a job and all that. So it was definitely a gradual process.
Birju: Let me try to zoom in a little bit here, because I mean -- It's wonderful. It's like this eight-year chunk of your life, but I'd really like to try to understand it, in block, so to speak. You had that initial three months and one year period, and something in that experience made you say -- Yeah, this is actually feeling right in my bones. So I'm curious if you could articulate -- what was that early time of your monastic experience like? And then to what extent were you interfacing with the teacher that you felt so connected to, as part of that?
Ajay: The initial phases -- I was like, right away I became the assistant of the president of the monastery. And he could see that I had some ability to kind of get things done, and not just get them done. But the way I would get them done, you know? I would do it without ruffling too many feathers and so it was nice, like right from the get-go. I was, you know, I took on a lot of responsibility. Because I took on responsibility, my life became very, it became very meaningful to the people around me in the monastery, because I would take care of a lot of stuff. And so the initial three months, it was just, it was great to have this deep dive, and to realize like this is something I've been aspiring for as long as I can remember now. I'm finally here and so I was just trying to make the most of every moment.
Birju: That sounds more like you know if I were to draw a corollary. Of course, this is probably an inappropriate example, but you know, I think of an operations manager in an organization, versus, another way to frame this is ‘oh, you came in and you meditated for three months straight’. Like I'm trying to get a flavor of what it was like to actually be there?
Ajay: Well, yeah, it was actually a mix of it. So the flavor is like -- in the monastery, the rule was that one would get up at 3:45 in the morning and you would meditate together for at least an hour and a half, two hours. And then you would go about your study and services. And so, me, I'm just kind of like this person, I'm all in or I'm just not going to bother. And so I would get up at 2 a.m. everyday and I would meditate for four hours every morning. And I studied a lot, but my service became so, as you kind of mentioned, somewhat like operations. And so it was like engaging on two levels. It was engaging like a deep spiritual level, which is what I was really called for. And yeah, I had certain abilities and kind of talents that people could see, that was then engaged in a greater mission of keeping something moving. So it was a mix of the two.
Birju: And you were in London at the time -- is that right?
Ajay: I was in London at the time, right in the center of London. Yes. That's correct.
Birju: So can you share more about your interface and growth with this concept of being with a teacher? It seems like part of the reason why you joined the order that you did was because of an affinity with this particular teacher -- is that right?
Ajay: Yeah. There was an affinity there. I think there was an affinity with what he was embodying and within...
Birju: Radhanath Swami?
Ajay: Radhanath Swami, that's correct. And so I first met him when I was 10 years old and then subsequently he would come to London. He's always on the move. And so he'd come to London regularly and I would see him often. So, as years progressed… So within the Sanskrit or within the Vedic terminology of our tradition, there are two types of association. One is called Vani and one is called Vapu. Vapu means the physical association with someone and being with them in that way and the second, Vani, means you associate with them by trying to embody what they're embodying. And actually, it's considered that the Vani is much more powerful than the physical proximity, because it's a proximity of hearts.
Like right now, I haven't seen Radhanath Swami in almost two years. And, as we speak further, you'll find that I spent large chunks of time with him, like 24 hours a day, for months, years on end. But I haven't seen him now in two years. I feel closer to him now, than I've ever felt, because I'm starting to understand certain things. Our hearts. I'm associating on that Vani level, on that level of the heart more than I am physically. So that three month period, during that one year period, Radhanath Swami, as he would come into town, into London, I also was like the only -- He had some serious health issues, and so his diet became extremely restricted. I was the only one that could cook food that was healthy for him and also tasted good. So you have people who could cook real food that tasted really great, but it wasn't healthy for him. Or they would cook food that was really healthy for him and it didn't taste too good. And somehow I knew how to cook from a really young age.
And so, I just started becoming his cook. So whenever he'd come into London, I would cook for him. And the first time I ever cooked for him, it was right before he was going to speak at HSBC headquarters in London. And he's done that now a lot of times. This was the first time he was going to do it. And so I cooked for him and then he went off and gave this talk. Then on the way home, someone was saying, "Hey that's was such a --" I wasn't there but someone was speaking to him and was talking about how it was such a great talk that he gave, and he said, "The only reason I gave such a good talk was because I had such a great lunch." And so from the next day, I just became his cook. And so I cooked every single meal. So he would come to London, at least twice a year, spending up to 10 days at a time. And so I had the good fortune of, then I got to go and live with him. I cooked him breakfast, lunch and dinner and all of that stuff. So, that's when we started to really start to connect with each other on that level.
Birju: So it sounds like you've gone through this journey where it looks from the outside like what you're doing is your physical body is more connected to other people's physical bodies in this structure of a monastic order, but what's really happening is a heart-melding process which continues to this day, if I'm hearing right.
Ajay: That's absolutely right. Yeah. And so the physical proximity to me is like the, it's what is the catalyst for that heart connection. So this way, we can be on the other side of the world, and if we turn on the news, which I wouldn't recommend these days, because there's so much chaos that goes on, but our hearts can resonate with someone in Syria who's starving, or whose family has just been blown up by a bomb, because we may not ever have physically connected with them, but there's a connection of heart. There's a connection of spirit there. And for me, the monastic training, you put yourself in a physical space that allows you to fine-tune that inner connection.
Birju: So in that journey of heart-melding that continued on, there was a point, as I understand it, that you went from being based in London to having what seems like more of a nomadic experience of continuing in the robes. Can you describe a bit of that process, if I understand it correctly?
Ajay: Yeah, absolutely. So even from the early days in my monastic life, I would travel quite frequently. I would particularly travel here to the US and then to India, but London was my home base, and is where I spent most of my time. I think after five years of being there in the monastery, my travel just started to increase and increase and increase to where I basically no longer had a home base and I was just on the move. I spent a lot of time in America, a lot of time in India again.
And on one of those trips, I was in India. I was in Radhanath Swami’s monastery there in Mumbai. And he happened to call me into his room to talk and just catch up and see what was going on in my life. And I told him, "I'm traveling. I'm not really sure what's next in terms of my service." And, "What would you like me to do? What would you suggest? What would be best for me?" And he just kind of said, "You should just come and travel with me" which was kind of mind-blowing because he really does not like anyone traveling with him. He's always meeting with people. So he told me that the time that he has in airports is the only time he gets to be alone. So I was hesitant because it's kind of like, I love Radhanath Swami. He's my teacher. At the same time, the closer you get to the fire, if you get too close, you can also get burned. So I hesitated at first and said, "Yeah, I'm not too sure. I don't want to be a hindrance to you." So he was kind of insistent. "No, you should just come and travel with me." And so that's what I did. I spent the next chunk of my time as his assistant, I guess you can say, and I traveled the world with him. So, he doesn't really stay in one place for too long. I think more than two weeks we weren't in one single place. I continued as his cook, and then I took on a lot of admin duties of like scheduling travel, scheduling his talks and meetings, and stuff like that. And so I took on this holistic service for him, of caretaker and administrator at the same time. And from there, I did that for a good chunk of time.
Birju: Let me jump in. I'm curious. So, part of the the ethos of this call is about trying to dovetail between the outer and the inner, right? And so you know what I hear you describing is a different chapter in terms of the corporal body. And I'm curious to what extent that was meaningful in terms of your journey of insight. Were there different embodied lessons that were coming up for you, or what was that experience in terms of your own growth as a person?
Ajay: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it was extremely transformative. I think I'm still living on, the reason my spiritual life still continues is largely because of the lessons I learned during that time. So again in our tradition, they talk about the Bhagavata. And so the Bhagavata -- there's a book called Bhagavata Purana, which is actually a huge work of philosophy and practices. But our tradition also teaches that the Bhagavata manifested two ways. One is through the literature, but also through the living Bhagavata, someone who lives that philosophy, someone who lives that practice. And so while I'd done a lot of study of the philosophy, now I had this opportunity to see the philosophy being lived, by someone, on the highest and deepest level. And it was really transformative to me, because I could see what it meant when someone dedicates a hundred percent of their energy 24 hours a day to the service of others. What I could understand intellectually, now I was seeing physically. And I mean like he dedicates every moment of his life in service, and it was mind-blowing to see that, yeah, you can actually do this. And he's not a young man. He's coming up to 70-years old. When I was with him, he was in his 60s.
It wasn't like he was sprightly, but yet he had given himself to this to this path of service. And so for me to see that being lived made me realize, "Hey, this isn't just philosophy actually. You can actually do this and do it with grace and with joy." So it was extremely transformative.
Birju: So tell me how that led to a shift? As I understand it, at some point you were running a monastic center in New York City. Well, how did that happen?
Ajay: So through my travels with Radhanath Swami, we visited many places all over the world, and one of the places that we would frequently stop in was in New York. He had a friend of his actually, another kind of spiritualist he was connected to had this six-story building in Manhattan, and he had it for a long time. And then this particular person's health started to deteriorate, and so he gifted this to Radhanath Swami. And Radhanath Swami is always on the move and so he tried to put a team together to run the place. And he'd had it for a number of years, but it never got off the ground.
I think we were maybe in Russia. I remember we were walking around Red Square and he started to talk to me about New York and he said, "Hey, New York. What do you think about New York?" And I said, "Yeah it's nice. I mean, it's New York, I mean it depends who you are." He started to more and more, like every day, bring up New York. "What do you think? What could we do in New York? What about this? How would you handle this? And how would you do that?" And basically for the next three months just every day, we're talking about New York. And then eventually he said, "I really would like, I really need someone there who I can just depend on, and all these things keep coming up in terms of running the place, and I just don't have that kind of time. I'm just all over the place in terms of my travel and time zones. And so I'm wondering, would you be willing to go to New York and run this place?" And I said no immediately. That was my first reaction. "No. Not doing it. Sorry." And he again, he just kept bringing it up every day.
And I think then we were maybe somewhere like Ukraine or something like that. We were walking in the morning. It was just he and I, and he was kind of in this intense mood. I'm six foot tall. I think he's maybe five foot six, if that. And he just put his arm around my waist and pulled me in, as we were walking, and he looked me dead in the eye and said, "New York. What's your conclusion?" And I said, "I'll do it. I'll go." And he said, "Okay. Let's book your ticket immediately." And so then I ended up in New York at this place called The Bhakti Center in Manhattan. And it was an interesting place. I think over the years that he had had it, it had these moments of like, about to bloom and then something would happen and then it would kind of dissipate again. And so when I got there, it was a skeleton crew trying to run this place. There were conflicting ideas of how it should be run. And so,
Birju: Hold on. You left your teacher, and you left him willingly and joyfully.
Ajay: Well, it was a journey to leave him. It was like months of him asking. Yeah, I left him because I realized that it was more important to him. Now you just reminded me of the thing he said that really pushed me to do it. When he asked me one time, "Why won't you go?" I said, "Because I want to be with you. I want to serve you." And his health has always been bad and so, I really felt this responsibility of like, "No I have to be with you so there's someone saying 'No' and someone to make sure you get what you need, so you're like you're functioning in a way that your health isn't deteriorating." And he said, "You can be with me and serve my body. But if you go to New York, you'll serve my heart." And that was the clincher for me. I was like, "Okay well. That makes it kind of clear what you want me to do."
And I realized, on a deeper level that, he was carrying this weight of responsibility and actually by going there and taking that responsibility on -- let me shoulder that responsibility so that you feel a little lighter in your life. That was a greater service than cooking and cleaning and scheduling. And it was tough. I remember we were in Germany. I think we were in Munich. That was the last time I left his service in that way, and I was going to New York and he was going to India. We'd been together for a long time every day, for a long, long time. We were walking down this the terminal corridor, and it came to a point where it split, and he had to go left and I had to go right, and we had to catch our respective flights, and it was one of the hardest moments. I remember he cried and I cried and then we separated. And I realized that I was on a journey of like, "Now it's time to grow up. Now it's time -- like what's being expected of you. You've been given so much and that means now you have to give so much also, and so now it's time to go out on your own, at least physically and make something happen."
Birju: And so that led you to run the Bhakti Center.
Ajay: That led me to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I ran the Bhakti Center for about two and a half years, almost three years. And we transformed the place. I can say I ran the Bhakti Center, but really what I did is I went there and I held space and, from holding space with a certain intention, the right people came together and formed a team and formed a connection in spirit of seeing something and wanting to offer something. And then it started to flourish in that way.
Birju: What is holding space to you?
Ajay: To me, holding space means setting your own intention really deeply and sitting with that, and allowing that to kind of reverberate around you and create almost like a field of your intention. And I think people who then resonate with that intention in their own life start to then gravitate towards it. And then as you start to gravitate more and more people, now you create this community through space, through holding that space and that community then becomes aligned hopefully in their intentions.
Birju: Into what has become a thriving community in the Bhakti Center! And yet, as I understand it, you shifted out, not only of the Bhakti Center, but out of the monastic experience completely and so I'm curious to hear what brought that on?
Ajay: There's a number of layers there. One layer was that as I was managing the Bhakti Center and as it started to grow and started to scale up, I realized that I was playing almost a dual life. So the monastic, you don't deal with money, you don't deal with women, you live a very kind of cloistered life almost, of studying and teaching. My amount of time for study and practice and teaching started to diminish, and more and more I was in this kind of management place. I realized I wasn't doing justice to either one and so I asked Radhanath, "This is what I'm experiencing. What should I do?" And he said, "Well, you have two choices: either give up your ashra (meaning give up being a monk) or you give up your service. But to me, service should always take priority. So whatever helps you serve the best, that's what you should do." And so I realized yeah, well, what's gonna help me serve the best here is to give up the monastic life and to do that. So that was one layer.
The other layer was I became a monk at 18 and by 21, I'm the vice-president of the center in London, which is the only center in the heart of London, the city of Westminster, which, like Mick Jagger donated the marble for the altar. And Chrissie Hynde is a regular member of that community, a community connected to us, which is like a sister organization in the countryside. Just very recently, like two years ago, the prime minister of England, David Cameron at the time, was there for a groundbreaking ceremony. So when you're 21 and you're kind of in this position, it can start to get to your head a little bit. Then I became Radhanath Swami's second in command which, at a young age again, was, externally people would see you in a certain light, and offer you certain respect.
And then New York, which the whole world has its eyes on -- at least in our tradition the whole world had its eyes on the Bhakti Center. We were doing this thing that no one else had done. We were taking these really ancient traditional teachings, but we were repurposing them for the modern age and it was kind of like a cool and hip place. So on one level as I said earlier, it was this mismatch of being a monk and running this place.
But on another level, I started to realize that my identity was becoming more and more attached to being a monk than for the reasons I actually became a monk. It just felt like even though I had the robes on and all of that, and it fit the the idea I had years and years previously of who I wanted to be, my motivation for remaining in those robes start to change. I could see that and I felt unworthy. I felt unworthy of getting that respect and that kind of recognition from people. I realized that I had grown as much as I was going to grow as a monk and it was now time for the transformation and to step out of the robes and then realign myself with the original purpose in which I went into monastic life for.
Birju: I'm curious: so one piece that you mentioned there was about service. And of course the topic of this call ostensibly is that topic and I'm curious if you could share a little bit more about how you parse that word "service" such that your conviction for service actually played a role in a major decision to step away from monasticism?
Ajay: That's a really interesting question. Well, I can take it back and trace out the journey. I think in the beginning of my life, I talked about this idea of three planes of existence, three planes of action. In the beginning, what I was seeing was that a lot of people operate on this plane of exploitation, and exploitation carries a heavy connotation with it. But what I mean by plane of exploitation -- it means you're moving in the world because you're trying to get, you’re trying to take. I need this. I need that. It's all about bringing things into you. I didn't find that to be the most fulfilling way of living, at least from the people I saw around me and even in my own attempts of being on that plane. I just didn't feel like that meant too much.
So from there, I went into the plane of renunciation. Well, I'm going to give up the world. I'm not going to interact. I'm not going to be a taker anymore.
Birju: So the pendulum swung.
Ajay: The pendulum swung. It's like I was operating in negative numbers and now I'm at zero. But throughout my monastic journey, I started to see that there was actually a third plane. There's another layer to this, to me at least, which is above the other two, which is beyond the plane of exploitation and really qualifies the plane of renunciation. And that's the plane of dedication -- which means, no, it's not just about stopping interacting with the world, and I'm not going to take anymore; but actually now that we moved from the negative numbers to zero, now let's move into the positive numbers. And that's a life of giving. And so how that renunciation becomes qualified -- the Bhakti scriptures speak about this in some depth, and this concept is called yukta-vairagya. In Sanskrit, vairagya means renunciation, but within Gaudiya Vedanta, this idea of yukta-vairagya means renunciation through engagement. And so I started to realize that actually the highest level is to engage my energy, to engage my resources, to engage my brain and everything else in a service of a higher dimension of living.
So to me, firstly, that’s service. It's not about necessarily the external ways in which we serve but it's about adopting that spirit that nothing is for me. This is not for me. I need whatever I need to survive, but actually my life needs to be dedicated. So this is the plane of dedication I'm speaking about. So how do you now connect that to leaving monastic life? There's a number of ways I can say. One thing is since I've married and I have a small son now who's 16 months old, my life experience now has allowed me to understand life from a very different angle. And so a lot of the work that I do these days is speaking to people who come to me for advice, in one way or another. Not many people become monastics. Most people don't do that. And so when I was giving advice as a monastic, it was tough for me to speak to a married man, who's having challenges in a marriage, because I never experienced what it was to be married. Now I'm in this place where I've had the monastic experience. I'm married. I have a son. I have a full time job, which I'm fortunate enough to enjoy greatly. I understand the challenges that most people face in life.
Previously, where I could speak on the level of principle, now I can weld principle with the practical. And so while it looks like, at the time of leaving monastic life and leaving New York and leaving this center that we had created together that my service was diminishing, actually, what was happening was, deep down inside, I was re-fortifying myself. My foundation was going much deeper. So that in my life as I progressed, I now have other experiences to draw from, that now deepens my service to other people.
The analogy that I often give is of a bow and arrow. Actually if you look at someone who's going to shoot a bow and arrow, you have the target in front of you, but you have to pull the arrow back. Actually it has to move away from the target. And that moving back, creating that tension there in the bow, allows the arrow now to fly and project itself right towards the target. But in that moment, it looks like the arrow is moving away from the target. But if you take a step back and look at the picture as it unfolds, while it looks like I'm moving back, it actually allows it to now pick up the speed it needs, to get to where it needs to go. And so I see that in my own kind of Journey. There is this period that looks like -- I never had a job in my life. Well, I did have a job, but not anything substantial. I become a monk at 18. I didn't have a bank account, until I got married at 27. I only just got a credit card a few years ago. So in many ways I had to figure out my material situation after leaving monastic life. My service started to grind to a halt almost. But now I see actually it wasn't that. It was kind of like the arrow. I had to be pulled back a little bit in order for me to project forward in the future.
Birju: And to me, there's so many ways to think about this and people who don't have a nuanced view may see this as you taking a permanent step back, right? Monasticism is the deepest place to maintain a practice and now here you are, having all these other responsibilities that keep you from going deeper and what I hear you describing is this was the next step of your own evolution.
Ajay: To me, it was the next step in my evolution. I think I've grown as much as I was going to grow in the monastic order, and this is what was needed. Actually for me -- I can only speak for me -- by being engaged in the world in the way that I have to now, as a married man, as a man who has responsibilities outside of my spiritual life, it actually makes me even more serious about my spiritual practice because as a monk, in one sense, you can take it for granted. That's just what I do every day. This is what my life is here for. But now it's like I have to find time. I have to really concentrate and carve out chunks of my day, so I don't lose that spiritual connection and the act of doing that, in and of itself, gives it more and more value to me.
Birju: Can you share about how the experience of the inner and outer melding together, the experience of both sides of the pendulum being transmuted into dedication, how does that show up in the role that you have shown up in since, whether that's Insight LA, it's a sort of a spiritual organization anyway, and certainly the Pollination Project as well? How have you seen that ethos that you're stepping into now, which is slightly different it seems, like even after monasticism, actually take root and become actualized, becomes something that the rubber hits the road, and results in something that's tangibly different as a result of you holding the space inside?
Ajay: Well I think the foundational piece of spiritual life is that you take yourself out of the center. I think what happens a lot in the business world or just in most people's lives is that you try and establish yourself as the absolute center of the world. And then your action in the world is a cause of you trying to expand the circumference of your exploitation. I think what monasticism at least for me taught me was that actually I'm not the center of the world. I'm not the center of the universe. Actually there are many centers of the world and there are many centers of the universe and my job is not to expand the circumference of my exploitation but rather to expand the circumference of my compassion.
So I think going through the inner journey has now allowed me to bring this into my working life in a way that I'm not trying to be someone in the world. I know a lot of people who are really ambitious and their ambition is driven by they have to be someone in the world. For me, what I really resonated with and I've tried to make a mantra in my life is I'm not trying to be someone in the world. I'm trying to be someone for the world. And that is a different orientation on an internal level. That means I have certain skills and talents and abilities, and rather than using those to submit my own position on the top of the pyramid, allow me to use those talents and those skills and that ability to push other people up. Whether I go up or not, to me, is a secondary point there. I've been fortunate I think particularly with the Pollination Project, in that it's an organization that really values that. Birju, you and I have spoken about this in other times of becoming that ladder. And so I don't think that would have been possible if I hadn't had monastic training, and had this kind of inner journey to realize actually this is not about me. What this is about is allowing myself to be an instrument and let the universe play me as it sees fit, and let those notes come together in a way that creates a beautiful song. But I am the instrument. I'm not the song and I'm not the musician either.
Aryae: Wonderful conversation, you guys.
Birju: Thanks so much Aryae. So this is helpful in terms of an orientation as I hear you describe it, AJ. I'm curious to hear any particular stories where that the implementation of that really comes with some thorns and it's not clear. How does that actually play out? I think it might be helpful for the listeners to also hear that the philosophy then starts running into its own challenges, in the day-to-day.
Ajay: I think anything of worth in the world doesn't come for free. The only things that come for free in life are the things you don't want. By free, what I mean is without effort, and no one has to put too much effort into getting a cold or having a headache. But the things that are really meaningful, it means that you have to bear the responsibility of making them happen, and it's really against the current of the way that the world is set up in many ways, at the least the way that we have set up the world and society. You always run into challenges and difficulties.
I'm trying to think of some specific examples of where I've seen this. I think you know the Bhakti Center is one of those examples. I think a real reason that the Bhakti Center never really took off, and why I was asked to go there, is that they were so much in a conflict, within like the leadership. That conflict was really the root of it. Everyone was attached to their own idea, rather than being attached to the ideal. People were attached to the idea of the Center. I think that's where the rubber kind of hit the road, as I've seen that whenever you see these areas of conflict where things aren't really harmonious, is when the idealism is no longer being served. Rather than trying to serve my own idea or my own view on something, I think we have to be willing to sacrifice everything in order to uphold the ideal. So it's not like I can get into too many of the details, but that is one example. Two members of our board who were just always in conflict and they just could not, they could not see each other in their wholeness. All they could see in the other person was all the things they didn't like about them, or what they were saying. And again, we all look at the world through our lens or through our own viewpoint.
Birju: This is a spiritual organization--not even a Fortune 500 corporation. They are all in it to try to grow.
Ajay: Well, I think if you look at spiritual organizations, you'll find these sorts of issues because spiritual organizations are made up of people. As people we all have our shortcomings. We all have our flaws. So I don't think there's the perfect person. I was just talking about this yesterday with someone. He was getting advice as he was entering into a relationship, and some of the advice he's getting is like, you must be complete in and of yourself, and then you will then get into this relationship. I said, no actually you'll never be complete in and of yourself, because to be complete or to become perfect is not a destination. It's a journey and it's a moment-by-moment thing. What you need to do is accept yourself in your incompleteness and accept the other person in their incompleteness in the hope that they'll also accept you with your imperfections and flaws. Out of that we then create the ideal and enter into that relationship as a journey together to try and strive to reach the ideal; that's completeness. It's not that you have to become complete.
I say this because I went to a Christian School, and I grew up in an Islamic town to Hindu parents. I work as a monastic within a, broadly speaking, Hindu tradition and I worked for a Buddhist organization. I've seen that wherever you are, no matter what path you follow, those organizations and those communities are made up of people. People have their own baggage that they bring into it. I think that's part of the inner journey, that is part of the transformation that I'm speaking about. You take yourself out of the center. That means take your baggage and your own kind of ego trip out of the center of this thing and put something else at the center that you're all now serving towards. If you do that, then you can put up with people's quirks in a far greater way, than if you think that you're the center or they’re the center of something.
Birju: I'm curious, now that you're currently running the Pollination Project, this one avenue of manifesting the service orientation -- can you share more about how all of these pieces of embodied insight fit into your own service picture going forward? Where is the next step of depth for you?
Ajay: Yeah, I think something I did for a long period of my life was teaching and mainly that teaching I believe now, while it had some value, I don't think it had the depth that I may have now because I just had certain experiences that have given me more insight. So as it manifests for me, I just feel more and more as I get older, my orientation is speaking to people. I connect better to others. I do this a lot already, but I see that becoming more prominent in my life, in these one-on-one conversations, or facilitating larger conversations around these sorts of topics.
What I see is I lived in a kind of service orientation in terms like volunteerism for two-thirds of my life-- maybe longer for as far back as I can remember again. Now I'm in this period where I have responsibilities, I have to maintain for a family. So that means I'm working, in order to do that. What I see in the future is I want to set up my life in such a way that more and more of what I'm offering to the world is not because I need something back from it. I'm not sure how it will be manifested into something. It is something I meditate on often. I want to almost become that Urban monastic. I kind of live like that already. I still cultivate many of the lifestyle habits I had as a monk. It's something I'm curious about myself and I'm hoping with the association of people like you and others, that I'll figure it out somewhere along the line.
Birju: Well, I'm curious to touch on, you know, it's so much of the thread that I have heard you describe in your journey is strongly based off of melds. You know, the heart meld that you talked about earlier and and it seems like a lot of that is not just driven by peers, but that experience with the teacher-student breakdown of relationship. It seems to me like you've had experience on both sides, of being both a teacher and a student, and I'm curious what has been the value of engaging in that approach in your journey?
Ajay: Well, I think I'm eternally a student. Even when I'm playing the role of a teacher, I'm learning. I feel again we go to this idea of like being a vessel. I just gave a talk last night and there was so much in that talk really where I was talking to myself about the things that I'm dealing with in my life. Messages were coming through that I was articulating, that’d really work for me and that I hadn't really thought about. There's this concept we see that -- if we take the kind of Guru-disciple model, I've seen this in many places where you have one Guru. The thought process is that there is one Guru and I am one amongst thousands of disciples. Actually, it's not quite like that. The mindset has to be that I am one disciple and I have thousands of gurus. So everyone is my teacher.
In one of the stories I wrote in my bio was one of the greatest lessons I ever learned from this amazing person who I met for a moment in time -- only five minutes of my life. Some of you may have heard of this thing called the Rainbow Gathering. I happened to be the Rainbow Gathering in the National Forest in Tennessee some years ago. I was there and we were cooking for the people at the festival. It's an amazing festival. There's no money involved. Everything is on gift at this Rainbow Gathering, so we just cooked up the whole pot of food and we served it all out. After I was cleaning up, this tiny girl, about four foot tall crawled out of the forest. I could see she wasn't well. She came up and asked if there was any food left. I said unfortunately not. She said, I've been sick and I haven't been able to leave my tent for the last three days and this is the first time I've come out. I'm really hungry. So I looked around to see what we had. The only thing I could find was an orange. I took this orange and I said, this is all I have and I gave it to her. She was so grateful, and the first thing she did was peel the orange and broke it in half. Now, I remembered that she had just said I haven't left my tent in three days. She was clearly sick. She hadn't had anything to eat. She breaks this orange in half and she extends her hand to me and says, “Would you like some?” To me, she was my Guru in that moment. She taught me something that was unbelievable. Here she was with this great need, but before she shoved the orange in her mouth she stopped and said would you like some. She offered it back to me? And so, I try and position myself in life to always be in that student mindset. I don't really see myself as a teacher. I just see myself as a student who somehow is trying to help other people with their homework here and there.
Birju: I'm grateful to see that breakdown. I'm curious if you, and I'm thinking about your teacher, Radhanath Swami or one of your teachers, and if you think it would be appropriate to apply that same principle to him?
Ajay: Could you explain what you mean by that principle,?
Birju: In other words, he would have infinite teachers as well?
Ajay: Yeah, I think he does live that way. I think he and this idea within our tradition is there's a concept of Guru and Guru Tatva. Tatva means the thread of truth around Guru and Guru Tatva actually is not -- it's an energy, it's not a person. Energy can, energy can manifest itself in anything around you, to teach you the lesson that you need to learn in that moment. The real thing is that you have to, you have to be in the student mindset, so that when it does manifest, you actually see what's being taught to you.
And there is this beautiful, you know, the Bhagavata Purana, which is this huge, I mean, like these 60 volumes of books, and there's one chapter within that which is one of my favourites. And it's called the Avanti Brahmana, and this is like, a sage, who's like a nomadic living in the forest; he's actually laying in the middle of this forest path. And the king of that region near, he happens to be walking through the forest and he sees this man. He says, “Who are you? Why are you laying in the path?” The man's explaining, you know, “I'm just here. I'm just, I live in the forest, and whatever else.” And he started to speak this philosophy and the king was so blown away by his wisdom. And the King asks him, “Who's your Guru? You know, you're so deep. Who's your Guru? Who's your teacher? Where did you learn this?” And so this chapter, you know is actually in another form called the 24 Gurus because then this person goes on to say, “Well, I have many gurus.” And he list 24 of them and he says, “The mountain is my Guru, this tree is my Guru.” I mean he even goes as far as saying, you know, the prostitute who lives down the street whose name is Pingala, I consider her to be my Guru. And he starts to explain all the lessons he's learned from all of these different aspects, through nature, through people, through animals. And so I think that's really the mindset. I think that Radhanath Swami does live by that. I actually don't think you can be an effective teacher, if you put yourself on the pedestal of being a teacher. I think, you can really only affect change in people, if you realize that, actually, I'm still a student.
Birju: Very helpful to have that articulation and beautiful reminder of how to apply that outside of the previous context that you had as well. I'm curious to draw a parallel, in that path of thinking, with now having a family of your own and I'm curious to hear to what extent you would say that there's a parallel between your prior life experiences in the past versus today? Where is, where is the inner life manifesting? Where are your gurus in the familial relationship?
Ajay: Well, having a 16-month old son, like I say, he's like my biggest Guru these days. And where the parallel, where a parallel really lies is, actually, I don't know if it's quite the parallel. I think it's deeper in some sense, is that like through having a child, I realized actually more and more than ever, that actually my whole life has to be dedicated to serving the child. Right, so even as a monastic like I'm not feeling quite up to speed today, so I'm going to, you know, ease a few things here and there. But now there's no chance to do that! Any time of day, that kid starts crying, he'll need something, you are responsible, like his life depends on your service.
And anyone who has a, who's had children, I mean, there's a constant reminder of that throughout the day of like -- no, no I’m here to serve this child. And my child is, he's pretty headstrong, and he, if he starts crying, he's crying, man. And you gotta get up and you got to, you got to, you got to do something, even if you don't feel like doing it, because it's the right thing to do, you've taken on this responsibility. So I think anyone who enters into a journey of inner transformation, you take on this responsibility -- that when you're called to serve, you have to step up. And I think that's the parallel to the monastic training I've had, and now, I think it’s even deeper now, because now, there's no other monks who can cover the area that I'm kind of dropping the ball.
Aryae : I love the, I love what you're saying about gurus, there is really a lot to think about there. Thank you Ajay and thank you Birju. We have one caller who has been waiting for a while. So caller, you're on.
Caller: Hello, am I audible? Yeah, it was great listening to the talk and understanding the whole human race, being enacted by you as an individual, going into the monastic life and then coming out finding it incomplete and then making into the family life. This is I would say summarizing the whole human existence that has been on the planet so far, all the religious and happy moments and all those moments are not able to satiate man. So men turn to materialism and we had lot of materialism things going around and then that resulted in the global existence being in question, and now human beings are really worried about whether the planet will be safe for human beings to exist or not. So I see in your life you have moved on from being a man and being a monk and then into family man. It was really good to hear that that you now are serving your child, because you have nobody else to serve him. That's a great lesson I have learned today and I think the purpose of human being is to produce more than what he can consume and serve other human beings is the takeaway that I have and I'm really grateful to you for sharing that with us.
Aryae: Can you share your name?
Caller: I am Anand from India.
Ajay: Thank you, Anand. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you sharing that and you know, it's interesting. What it brings up for me is this perpetual journey of service, that will exist, hopefully, even when I'm long, long gone from the world. That if I start to serve my son, that he will now continue on this service mindset in his life and then with his children and their children and so on and so forth. And so like, you set the domino effects of service off, if you are really oriented, you dedicate yourself to that practise of service. So thank you for that very much.
Aryae: Thank you very much. We have a post that came in from Mish that I want to read and she says: Love listening to you, Ajay. So much of what you've shared here cause me to bubble up with joy and smile. Thank you for sparking my mind and heart with your shared wisdom. Grateful smiles from Mish in Brooklyn.
Ajay: Well, thank you Mish and you know to me, I'm on this journey with you guys. And like any wisdom I have is really just a reflection of the space that you are holding. And so I'm grateful to have the opportunity to like, track my own thoughts. And Birju asked me these questions and helped me along this path. And also, thank you for sharing that.
Aryae: Thank you. Okay, and now we have another caller.
Caller: Hi, this is Wendy and I was very, very struck with your teacher, that when it came time, that he was ready to let you go. And how much of the path of service is really knowing when to let go, so that another can become who they're really meant to be. So, just a comment, I don't know if there's any question here, but that something, that just really struck me in your story and thank you for all the service, that you've been doing all your life. Thank you.
Ajay: Thank you so much. I feel like I'm just scratching the surface of the service I could be doing and I really love that point actually. It makes me think, it actually would have been better for him in one sense. Like, it would've been easier for him to keep me with him, like I'm a pretty good cook. I'll just add that in there! And like, you know, I was good kind of like serving him in that way. And actually he, to me it's a manifestation of what I was talking about. Like he didn't want to put himself in the centre. You know, there was something else that was at the centre and like, he was willing to let go and also have the discomfort now of, you know, that was years ago, that was like six years ago, I think, and he's never had anyone with him since. But he was willing to go through that discomfort for a higher ideal, and letting me go in that way. And yeah, I was thinking what would have happened, if I’d just said no, like no adamantly, I'm not going. I know life would have been very different. Thank you.
Aryae: Thank you, Wendy, Ajay, you know as I'm listening to you, I'm curious about how your path of service concretely is manifesting itself right now with your work at the Pollination Project and I'd be interested in hearing some highlights. I know that with the Pollination Project, you are engaged with so many people around the world and giving them grants and empowering them through the attention and recognition that you give them. And I'd love to hear a story or two about, what's going on there right now and how that relates to your path of service?
Ajay: Well, I feel really fortunate that like, somehow, you know, I’ve come into the Pollination Project ecosystem, and for anyone who's hearing this and doesn't know about the Pollination project, I would really encourage you to check out the website: thepollinationproject.org and see the work that we're doing in the world. And yeah, we have over 3,000 grantees now, in I believe a hundred, over a 112 countries .
I can't give any specific examples but what I can say is what really drew me into the Pollination Project was it kind of showed me this almost somewhat of a parallel to my own life. Which is, I kind of grew up in a place that was a bit of a dead-end town. And it was a place in the outskirts of London that most people never leave, you're born there, you live there, and you die there. And somehow I went on this journey. I always say there's two occupations in that town, you could become a taxi driver or you could become a drug dealer and you get to choose between those two things.
Aryae: Sounds like a lot of places over here.
Ajay: Yeah, it sounds like that, right? And neither of those sounded too appealing to me. I didn't learn to drive until I was 29 and, you know, I can't even drink coffee because it gives me a headache. So neither of those were a very appealing thing. But I didn't, I felt kind of hopeless. I didn't realize, I didn't think I could do anything beyond that and I was lucky that the last kind of jobs I had, before I became a monk, I had this manager, who was probably my father's age, who, he really believed in me. And it was the first time I met someone, well not the first time but outside of like the monastic tradition, I met someone in the world who thought no, no, you can make a difference; you can live a fulfilling life. And he would give me, he'd bring in books once a week and give me books to read and then we'd talk about them. We go to art galleries and all these things. I saw that he believed in me and he invested in me and that allowed me to flourish into who I became.
And that's what we do in the Pollination Project. If you're a person who wants to bring out compassion and goodness and kindness in the world and you have a project that really can effectively impact not only your own inner transformation but the transformation of the world around you, however big or small, the Pollination Project is the home for you. So it's a place where people who may not necessarily be able to get their foot in the door in larger foundations to get funding, those are the people that we want to connect with because we believe in the power of people. And so we're investing in those people and and I think there's an immeasurable value that you can't like put into a metric or into a data point and that is connection. Making people feel like someone sees them, someone hears them and someone believes in them. And I think that's, I'm really grateful every day to be able to work in a environment like that.
And of course, any organization comes along with its challenges. But again, it's the ideal, the ideal of, hey, anyone, whoever you are, you can make a difference, you can transform the world around you. And so I think that's really the power of the Pollination Project. I think we see that in three thousand grantees, hundred and ten, hundred and twelve countries. These small acts of kindness, these small acts of service, they accumulate. And they kind of, there's a snowball effect that takes place. And I think if all of us can just do these small acts, then pretty much the whole world would change.
Aryae: Wow, I love how you're saying that of the connection with how much it meant to you when somebody recognized you and then you get to sort of go around to the other side of the cycle and do the same for others.
I'm wondering if this, you were talking earlier with Birju about Vani and Vapu and I'm wondering if this is like that. It's like the Vani part when you're recognizing people. Maybe the Vapu is the cash award and the Vani is that they now feel connected.
Ajay: Yeah, I think that's a very good point. I've never drawn that analogy, but I think that it does relate. And the other thing I will add also is, it wasn't just that someone acknowledged me, and I don't think it's just that we are acknowledging people through the Pollination Project, it's that we're accepting them where they are, but we're also seeing what they could become and what they could be. That's the investment. Accept you fully and wholly as you are, but I also feel and see that what you could be or what you could do in the world and that's what I'm investing in. I'm investing in your future self.
Aryae: The future self, yes, that's beautiful. Thank you. I believe that Birju has another question that he'd love to ask.
Birju: Yeah, thanks for letting me jump in, Aryae. I was thinking about a conversation that I had with Ajay a while back and I think this is a topic that you feel some passion about. So I wanted to create some space, that you and I have talked about this idea of discovering one's nature as a path to service and I'm curious, one, if you could just share a little bit more about how you parse that phrase of what is your nature, but also particularly if you would speak to your own true nature as it's currently unfolding?
Ajay: Yeah, I'm really fascinated by this concept of natures and, you know, it's coming from this Vedic concept of Vana ashram and Vana Ashram means like one’s contribution to the world, whether through the occupation or other things. And I think we all have gifts to offer the world that are unique. And so when I speak about natures, it means uncovering your true, your true Birju-ness. Or my Ajay-ness. What is unique to me? Rather than trying to imitate someone else and what they're giving the world, let me find what I have been uniquely called to give to the world. And so what happens is that I think we all have inherent qualities that we come into this lifetime with. There's a whole topic of how do we develop those inherent qualities?
But nonetheless we come into the world with some inherent skills and qualities and when you couple that with the environment in which you are operating, those two things come together, your nature and your environment. And where they come together, you have a manifest character, manifested in you and who you become. And so I think it's a fascinating thing, because I think what we do is, we often fall into this comparison trap. And I think in the world of social media and all these other things, it's very easy to fall into that trap, because you see other people doing certain things and you think, wow, I wish I was doing that. But maybe that's not your calling. Maybe that's not what you're meant to be doing. And I think there's infinite value in actually figuring out your true calling and actually making the time and effort to find out my unique contribution to the world.
So for me on a personal level, I think it's changed over the years, as I've evolved and kind of matured. At least some people will say I'm still immature and I would agree with them. But as I've grown up, I... It used to be that I was very good at managing stuff, especially in my late teens, early 20s. I had so much energy and passion for putting things in order and creating systems and all of the stuff. And I think that's changed now. I think my nature now is far more about empowering other people and I'm realizing I don't have to be the hands-on person anymore. And not only do I not have to be the hands-on person, I don't feel like I'm called to be the hands-on person. And what I prefer now, what is manifesting in my nature now, is to hold the space for thought partnership with people, and to help people strategize and to help people remove obstacles that they see in their path, for them achieving their true potential.
And so, again now to use the phrase of being a teacher isn't quite appropriate after everything else we've said. But to be in that zone, I think my nature nowadays, more and more as I get older, is to be in a space of sharing wisdom with people, and having people share their wisdom with me and creating those kind of environments. And I think more and more... And it's kind of happening naturally. I've shared this with a few people, Birju definitely and others, that for a long time in my life as a monk I would give talks and I would give a lot of talks and I stopped doing that once I got married. I wasn't giving so many of them. And just naturally nowadays, people are just asking me to. I just gave a talk yesterday, I'm doing this today, I'm doing something else next Sunday. And just naturally now, that's starting to come out. And I think because I'm trying to not strive for anything outside of myself too much, then I'm able to see what my nature is, and the universe is bringing the opportunities to engage my nature to me naturally, without me having to push for those things.
Birju: I hear you talking about this approach that in the ServiceSpace context I think is really strongly thought of, this idea of doing nothing and allowing for emergence, or that which is, call it the divine nature, to guide us in where it seems most appropriate to go.
Ajay: Yeah, I really, really feel that. And my constant, I guess you could call it a prayer, but whatever it maybe, my intention is to just, I'm calling out, I'm calling out to say -- Hey, show me where I can be most of service. Rather than trying to impose my own conception of where I could be most of service. And things are looking up, things are opening up in that way, I think, that allow me to really live my nature.
Aryae: There's another comment that's come in from ask at ServiceSpace. This is from Anand and he says, "As many of you know, our dear friend and beloved executive director, Ajay, was involved in a terrible car accident on the weekend of December 2nd." And he goes into some details about that, but he wants to know how you're doing, Ajay. Are you okay? How is your recovery coming along?
Ajay: Yeah. I had a car accident, not this December 2nd, but it was 2017.
Aryae: Oh, really? Okay. That makes it different. Okay.
Ajay: But it was an interesting thing. It was, you know, I broke my neck, I broke my back, six broken ribs, fractured skull, and basically was told I would never walk again. But nowadays if you see me, you wouldn't be able to tell too much from the outside. And that was an interesting experience for me, because it was a time in which I compromised on one of my principles in life, which led to me then having a car accident. And to me it's fascinating because I got real time feedback on -- hey, if you stop living with the integrity that you're trying to live with, this is what happens to you. And I feel it was one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life, because it showed me almost immediately the importance and power of living with integrity and living what you're speaking. And the time that I didn't do that led to something that, unfortunately, was quite painful for some months, but allowed me to learn more lessons. I think I learned more lessons over the last year than I had in eight years in monastic life. So yeah, I'm doing well, thank you for the question.
Aryae: Well, just listening to you Ajay, it's reminding me of that attitude that you're bringing, that when misfortune happens, how with the right attitude, this is really a gift.
Ajay: Yeah, I really try to, and I fail at it miserably, but I try to see everything as a gift in my life. A long time ago, I changed the mantra, and the mantra used to be, “Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to me?” And I try and change that now and I try and say, “Why is this happening for me?”
Because in everything and anything that happens in our lives there's something in it for us, it's been arranged because internally, there's something that's too hard that needs to be softened, that's too soft that needs to be hardened, that we're holding onto that needs to be let go of, something that we haven't held on to tight enough... And I think all of our experiences are happening to show us those blind spots that we have internally. And I changed the mantra, “Why is this happening for me?” rather than “Why is this happening to me?” And I think if you do that, you no longer become the victim of the misfortunes of life, and rather you become the student of those misfortunes.
Aryae: Why is this happening for me rather than why is this happening to me? Wonderful.
So we're at that time of the call where we ask this closing question. And that is, how can all of us, what can all of us in the ServiceSpace community do, to support your work and your service?
Ajay: Well first and foremost, I'm going to give another plug for the Pollination Project. I think you should go on the Pollination Project's website and check out the great work that we're doing and we're always looking for people who want to volunteer and kind of contribute in some way. So check out thepollinationproject.org.
For me, personally? Firstly, I'm really grateful to have had this time with all of you. And what I ask, if I may and if you feel appropriate and deem it fit, is that in whatever way you do, whether you pray, whether you meditate, whether you send out good vibes, good energy...I sincerely and deeply ask you that you please petition the universe to always keep me aligned with integrity and to always, to allow me to try and live my life with pure intentions. And if you can send out any good vibes or energy that petition the universe to allow me to do that, to live with pure intentions, then I'll be eternally grateful to all of you and in your debt. And that's how you can help me.
Aryae: Wow, beautiful. Birju, any final reflections on your end?
Birju: I'm just grateful for the space that you were holding in this call itself, Ajay, to be able to describe elements of your journey across these multiple chapters in a way that is not just about, call it the book report of your life, but how you were impacted, every step of the way. To me that is an offering of vulnerability, and especially within the kind of traditions that you've held in, that offering to me is something to hold very tenderly. And I'm really grateful that you're laddering, in the form of offering in that way.
Ajay: Thank you, Birju. I'm really honored to have been led on this journey by you. So thank you.
Aryae: Thank you, Birju. Thank you, Ajay. It's time for us to bring our call to a close. So as we always do let's take a minute of collective silence in gratitude.
Aryae: So thank you, everyone. We'll be getting back to you with questions, asking your reflections on this call and with links to the recording and nuggets from the call. And thank you so much, Ajay, for being here with us. Thank you, Birju, for your wonderful moderation. Wishing everybody a great rest of your day, afternoon, evening, and days to come.
Ajay: Thank you so much.
Birju: Thank you.
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