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Milan Rai: The Butterfly Effect of Art



Guest: Milan Rai
Host: Pavi Mehta
Moderator: Richard Whittaker

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.

Pavi: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. My name is Pavi Mehta and I will be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call -- welcome, and thank you for joining us! The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life -- who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.

Today, our scheduled guest speaker is a visionary artist from Nepal, Milan Rai. In a few minutes, our moderator Richard Whittaker, will engage in a dialogue with our speaker Milan Rai and by the top of hour we'll roll into Q&A and circle of sharing -- where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us ask@servicespace.org or submit a comment or question via the webcast form, if you are listening online.

Again, our moderator today is Richard Whittaker. As founding editor of the one of a kind art magazine works & conversations, Richard has spent over three decades seeking out artists off the beaten path and engaging them in powerful, revelatory conversations. In a world given to soundbite, tweets, and rampant commercialism, Richard's in-depth, meditative approach to the art of dialogue and his dedication to distilling the elusive, delicate, fierce and richly dimensioned nature of the relationship between artists and their life's work is a priceless gift to our world. It is an honor to have him moderating this conversation today. Richard over to you now, to introduce our guest and set the ball rolling

Richard: Thank you so much, Pavi. Milan, glad to have you here with us! Like most of you, what I know of Milan is what I read of Trishna Shah’s interview with him and the wonderful write-up that we all probably read, prior to this call. In short, Milan has been on a tremendous personal journey, which I think is deeply inspiring to anyone who reads it. And rather than try to sort of talk about the details of his journey, I think we should just get right into our conversation with Milan, because we only have an hour and a half, and I think we could spend many hours with Milan, if we had the time, asking him many questions and listening to what he has to say.

So Milan, I hope you don't mind repeating some of the things in your story. Are you OK with that?

Milan: Absolutely fine. This is my first -- I'm not so used to this live conversation, conference calls. I’m good at face to face conversations, but I’ll try my best.

Richard: (Laughs) That's great. I took a lot of notes. And, excuse me. Pavi, I have some sort of echo on my end and I don't know if I had this the last time with...the call. I don't know.

Pavi: Yeah, I'm not sure what that is, but we are still able to hear you so if you just speak up a little bit, I think it should be fine.

Richard: All right! So, Milan, I think it would be very interesting for people to hear about your difficulties in school. This is a fascinating story and how you had all kinds of troubles, right from the beginning in school. Would you, would you mind just talking a little bit about that journey that you had? A difficult journey of arriving in school and having all kinds of problems there?

Milan: Yeah, I was good at my primary school level but when I reached high school, I started having problems, like I started failing all the subjects. I never liked to go inside the classroom or the school compound. Recently, there is a college called Gate College in Kathmandu and they had invited me to do a guest speaker session, as a guest speaker. So I joked that I never liked entering the gate of schools, so I might come from the compound (laughter), jump the compound! So I never liked being inside a confined classroom, and I started failing all my subjects and in eighth grade, I failed all my subjects and then I had to repeat with my juniors. And I did not like that. I felt quite offended and then I quit, I quit that school.

I was labeled as a hopeless kid because I was very poor in math, in mostly all the subjects because I was not paying attention to what teacher was teaching inside the classroom. I was rather paying attention outside. So I always joke that I was one of the brightest kids. Always pulled out of the room, on a bright sunny day.

Richard: Well, I mean there's something, something sort of instinctively intelligent about that. If there's a sort of attraction to real life outside of the school room; it wasn't connecting for you.

Milan: Yeah, it was very difficult for me...as a teenage boy. There was a big pressure. You have to have a certificate. If you do not pass, if you do not do well in your studies, you will not be able to face the modern world. And I was very discouraged. I kept changing schools and got kicked out from several schools. I changed another school and I got kicked out from there in seven days, one week. I changed another school and got kicked out from there in 3 months. Then I had to change my city!

Richard: Yeah. So this was in eighth grade, you're saying, when you really started having the problems and you were then maybe about twelve or thirteen years old?

Milan: I was 14, I guess. The turbulence of my life really started when I was 14.

Richard: And you decided finally that you were done with school, you kicked school out.

Milan: Yeah, finally, yeah. After being kicked out of several schools, I decided to kick school out of my life.

Richard: Now, in the interview that I read, you talked about how that began a difficult period for you and you described it is as getting involved in gangs and fights and all kinds of other problems. Would you just tell us a little bit about about that part of your life, after you were done with school?

Milan: It was a way of living out my frustrations, because people were telling me -- society, relatives, friends -- were telling me that you will not be able to do anything because you don’t have a degree or certificate. So I was feeling lost and sometimes I think that people didn’t know how to handle that. Instead of getting encouragement...maybe I got encouragement also, but I was not...I was swallowed by frustration. The label of frustration was so big, the pressure was so...I found solace, I slipped into drugs and negative activities and the result was devastating. I ended up in a hospital.

Richard: You got, you got into some sort of bad injury. You got injured, right?

Milan: Yeah, my jaw broke, got fractured. I was in a bed-rest. In that bed-rest, I got lot of time to reflect, to think about my days, whatever I did. I was not so active. I had to be in bed all the time, no energy in my body. So I was laying there and thinking about all my past days and the results. And in that bed-rest, I came to realise that I also have another quality that I did not treasure, did not polish, did not show. I was a very silent kind of..I used to sit in the last bench of my classroom. But I did not give time for...so I said I will start painting, that’s a really good quality I have, a talent I was born with. I will focus on that. That’s how I came to...I used to draw and paint in my early childhood. I came back to art again. So art changed my life.

Richard: Well, that's interesting. That time in the hospital where you had nothing to do but lay there and think allowed this sort of deep self inquiry. And it’s often that, were people not put in a position of such extreme circumstance, they sometimes don't think deeply about about their lives, and seems like this was a great gift to you to really look at your life so carefully and then to see that what it was gave you the most pleasure and was most alive. What gave you life was the creative work of drawing and painting then. That's what you discovered or realized while you were in the hospital -- that's what you said, right?

Milan: I didn’t spend the entire 45 days in the hospital. I came back to home and rested there after discharge from the hospital. And I thought it was the universe’s way of showing me the way. So yeah, it was definitely, I got to spend a lot of time with myself. It was painful, but it was worth it.

Richard: So yeah, you describe in the interview, you describe yourself as a shy and introverted person.

Milan: I was not actively involved, I mean I didn’t actively engage in activities. There are popular girls, popular boys in school, right? I was a backbencher and I did not participate in any kind of extra activities like sports, debate, quiz contests. I was never interested. I don’t know! Like I was not comfortable or confident enough, let’s say. Yeah, I was not confident enough. So yeah, but now, I'm not shy.

Richard: No, it seems like, you know, we read about your story -- if you had been shy in the past, you seem to have gotten past that. Anyway, your life has changed so radically. Let's just go back to this interesting story of how you saw the poster about an art competition and that you decided to enter that art competition.

Milan: So I was painting secretly, only my family and my near friends knew that I love to paint. I never showed my work anywhere because I was not confident enough. Like does this qualify as an artwork? So one day I went to buy colors and then I saw a notice, an open call for artists from Nepal as well.

The color shop people encouraged me to apply and I said, "Uh, maybe I'm not ready for this and then he said like just try. And then I saw the form and I realized that I'm not eligible because I had no degree. I was not eligible for the student category because I'm not studying anywhere, I'm not going to art college. So I tore that form and chose the professional category and entered the competition, and to my surprise, after sometime, few months I guess, they shortlisted the top 10 paintings and I made it to, my painting made it to the top ten. That came as a surprise! As you know, the painting was light and then I was trying to find my own light or you know, like deal with the darkness and I was, it was a little bit inspired by my own, what I was going through, that phase of philosophical kind of work. And then I have to submit the original painting for the final round. It was previously just photos and now I submitted the original work and then after a bit of time, they announced the winner and it was me.

Richard: What an amazing experience! Uh, it almost seems like destiny to have taken the...to have got through this suffering and darkness into a sort of done a painting related to light, and then to have that recognized and to win that prize -- that must have been just a tremendous experience for you.

Milan: Like in that young age, I learned, I gathered courage and confidence.

Richard: Yeah. Yeah. Right, it's fascinating to me that the sort of, how your story has sort of progressed from there. Where you, after you won the prize, you found it easy to get shows in Kathmandu, I take it? Is that where you were getting shows after?

Milan: After that, I approached galleries myself, that I have this work, I want exhibit space. I became really confident to go and talk to galleries and I got my first exhibition, released my first exhibition in an art gallery in 2007. Yeah, it was a new artist, first experience. Like people started buying my paintings and I was not satisfied. I kept on questioning like every time, I keep questioning and I kept questioning, like my own practice, why people are buying my paintings? I can't be satisfied like...it did last for some time. Like when people started buying my paintings and the price of my paintings kept increasing, I felt like wow. You know, I'm going in the right direction, but I questioned that. I questioned why people are buying the paintings.

Richard: You know, that's fascinating to me. Now, can you say more about the questioning process. What was the questioning about exactly?

Milan: Questioning was like I used to receive phone calls from the color shop, from people who are interested to buy my paintings, they were from the priveleged background -- restaurant owner, like upper-class family. So they would call me and they would say I want your paintings this much. I want this. I want you to paint in this theme. I want you to paint in this world. I want a canvas dedicated to this world. You know?
So I was like painting over night and giving paintings to them and bringing money. And like I was thinking when I was making money. So at one point, I felt like I'm painting what they like. Stop painting what they like, start painting what you like.

Richard: Yeah

Milan: Then they stopped buying my paintings!

Richard: Well, that's interesting though. There were something, I mean there was a kind of, I hear and certainly this is so clear when we read that other interview with you that...You have a very powerful sort of intuitive or instinctive sense of honoring what's really true for you, that you really couldn't, you just couldn't give up on ‘what's true for me’. Like you said, "What do I like?"

So it's interesting to me how your journey went from that point. Would you just say a little bit about after you sort of realized that you wanted to stay true to what you wanted and what you liked, how did things go from there? They stopped buying your paintings and tell us a little bit about your journey from, you know, in the next couple of years from there

Milan: And all of these people who were buying the paintings, except few, like not all of them were serious collectors. They just had money and they wanted the work of an artist. Not serious. And then I started later, I started thinking like I will not exhibit my work in galleries because I'll repeat the same circle. The same Circle will keep repeating and I wanted to extend and expand because I felt especially in my country, people usually don't go to galleries. People that you see in galleries are few academics interested in art or collectors from the same artist circle. Besides that, there are no people coming from other backgrounds like doctor or pilots. So I thought that art should not be limited within this privileged group of people or within this tiny little circle, so I thought I will not exhibit my work. I will find other alternative ways where if they cannot come to the gallery, I will go to them.

Richard: Great idea, great idea. It is a great inspiration that you made that leap.

Milan: Yes and then instead of making my work and paintings in a studio, I started doing live paintings, action paintings in front of the audience where the people have gathered for Friday night hangout with friends, and I would go there, ask for permission and later they started hiring me and paying for my performance. And then I would sell them right away. So people started buying my paintings.

Richard: Why live? What was it like to paint in front of people?

Milan: It was like you can do anything you like to do where nobody questions and I felt so free. I did this for 3 years.

Richard: And I know at one point, I guess you were very rigorous and you knocked the canvas over and that was a big moment.

Milan: (Laughs) Yes.

Richard: Would you like to share about it as that opened your eyes to a whole new level.

Milan: Yes. I felt that I am so wild. Whatever I want to express even the canvas started becoming small for me. I even felt that the artist in me has come out of the gallery for sure and it has reached to little more people, but still the people who come to these fancy restaurants -- they are like rich people. Whereas the taxi driver or the cab driver, the newspaper seller all these people are still deprived, and are still not getting the opportunity or say art is not reaching out to these people.
So after three years, the same question hit me that this is not enough. So I said to myself that I will stop this and now I will expand even more and will experiment now. So I started experimenting with various ideas thinking of a lot of ways to make art accessible to all. So my first idea was that I went to a metropolitan city and talked with the mayor and shared my idea. So let us collaborate and work on this idea together because art has a tremendous power to change the way we think. It can bring big shifts in our perception.

Richard: That was a bold move for you to go to the mayor.

Milan: Yes. And they were simply disinterested in terms that they really were not aware and well informed about the power of art and they did not allow me. So it came like an obstacle. So I started researching. Now as I had stepped out of the gallery and now my studio was wherever I go. My city became my studio. So I started researching, talking to random people, introducing myself by saying I am an artist can you do me a little favor. So I started asking each and every person that I met on the road in public spaces.

Richard: So this is an incredible story so I just want you to say something about the experience of stopping all these people and strangers. That must have been for you, very interesting, just even talking to strangers, so many people now.

Milan: Yeah. I felt there was a huge gap between art and the audience, common people. So the common people that I met at the bus stop or anywhere, I saw them or noticed them being in their own world. I stopped them and asked them, can you please donate these earphones for my art project that I am creating. I am making an installation. So they tell me that, no I cannot, because I am using it. And I would tell them, do you have a spare one, or do you have a damaged piece of an earphone. And they would say yes it is lying in my home, I can give it to you. So I would follow them. I will ask can I come with you and I would go to their home or I will take their contact number, and then started collecting earphones single-handedly, one by one, and after three to four months, I realized it is a very time-consuming process because I go out and approach so many people and I come back only with one earphone. And so I felt like going to college and spreading the news in the classroom and then all the students will bring earphones. So at one point, I will be able to collect many earphones.

Richard: So you went to colleges to do that?

Milan: I thought of going to the colleges and I actually went to the colleges, and like I talked to the mayor, I talked to the principal, but no one allowed me. Not a single college allowed me to get to any class.

Richard: It seems that you were single-minded. You wanted to get the earphones but in the meantime, you talk to all these people. How was it for you all this interaction with people. Just the interaction part.

Milan: Interaction part was like I was nobody. The first struggle was to make them believe that I'm serious in what I'm doing, right?

Richard: Right (Laughs)

Milan: I was nobody, so there were questions like why do you want my earphones. So it was interesting to meet people from all walks of life. So when I said art was not going beyond certain groups, so through this process of talking with people from all walks of life from our street vendor to politicians, with that, I was getting there. So that time it was tiring, but now I feel that it was an amazing experience.

And then the idea of collecting earphones was that I was very sensitive to energies. I felt that these piece of earphones are just not a piece of earphones or materialistic pieces. These earphones, so many people must have talked with their loved ones, they might have broken their relationships, might have patched up, they might have listened to their favorite songs. It might be the only companion when they were traveling alone. So lots of emotions deposited in this single piece of an earphone.

So I was trying to collect those emotions and make thousands and thousands of earphones and make a big art piece installation and put in the middle of the, heart of the city. And when they are in their daily commute, when they are going for their work, office, colleges, they would see this big piece of work and they would feel that I have contributed to this. This was my way of thanking people by using people's earphones and connecting them with the artwork, and make them feel like they had contributed to the artwork. Like my piece of the earphone is somewhere there. But this did not work as the municipal corporation did not give me permission to show that piece, because that piece was really big and would take a lot of time and manpower, and I could not arrange that because they were not supportive.

But I did not quit. So this is just one example about my experiments, my trial and error and failures. So like this, I tried many other ideas.

Richard: Yes, that is fascinating. One thing that really strikes me and I might as well bring it up here is you have a kind of inner strength. You are very persistent and you've been able to persist in the face of failures and rejections, and I just wonder if you would reflect at all about, do you have any thoughts about what might be the source of the kind of inner strength that you seem to have?

Milan: Now I think I have a much richer and grounded experience. When I was very young, I did not have any other option like when students study they have so many options and they can choose different streams like science or management. There are so many fields. I had nothing, because I had no certificate. I had nothing except art. So this is all that I have. So I was not confused as this is all that I had.

And then I went with my madness because people told me that you cannot do it, so I started transforming those energies. I started realizing that these are energies, these are raw material needed for my work. So it was not from the mind, but strength from the heart. You just do it, no matter what others have to say. Mind was like I have nothing beside this, so stick with this.

Richard: If I follow you right, you spent around three years experimenting with life, painting, collaborating with other artists. Then you spent about two years with these experiments like the one you described with the earphones, so that's five years of kind of experimenting and searching, and then there is this day in the studio when you notice a butterfly.

Milan: In five or six years maybe experimenting with various ideas to make art accessible to all, I started thinking of complex ideas to shock people with my art, to provoke them and at last I realized that I always wanted to change people's thinking using the power of art. But after five-six years nobody changed. Yeah and that came as a big insight. I was always trying to become this big artist and nothing happened, so I could not achieve what I hoped for and so again I felt lonely and lost.

Richard: 5 years, that’s a lot of effort

Milan: Yes so after that I carried a bag pack, locked my studio and went for a trip. Actually, before that, I came up with some idea and I went to see sponsors for that at big corporate houses. They all laughed at it. They said don't come up with such silly ideas. So then I packed my bags and went for a trip. So when I came back from the trip, I noticed a white butterfly in my studio.

Richard: I see. Is the trip that you went on, is that the trip you made to India?

Milan: Yes.

Richard: That was another big thing for you, wasn't it? When you went on this trip to India.

Milan: Yes because it wasn't a kind of vacation or a break. It was an intense episode of my life. I was like kind of a pilgrim on a self-searching journey. I was crying throughout my journey.

Richard: This is just an amazing part of your story, this pilgrimage to India and the realizations that came to you from this.

Milan: The first realization that I got was -- I was trying to become a big artist. Few people knew about what I'm trying to do with my art, because I was telling everyone that I have this idea, so they were continuously asking me what is your next project, what are you doing, what are you upto. I had no answers, and I wasn't able to do anything, prove anything. When I was in India, on the road, I started crying like with strangers, with everything. I just started crying. And I felt much lighter. And then I realized I wasn't able to cry like this in my city. So crying is nothing to be ashamed of. If it's for your dream, it's so right. I came back to my city and then I started implementing those realizations in my daily life, in my practice. So I started crying everywhere I went, in the bus, in the metro. If I liked to cry, I cried, without any inhibitions.

Richard: That's an amazing story right there, I mean, my goodness to be able to do that.

Milan: To know that there's nothing wrong to cry. You don't have to be ashamed to cry for your dreams. To understand this, I had to go to a foreign land, cry and come.

Richard: Did you have experiences where people when you were crying, did anyone ever approach or did people just leave you alone?

Milan: In my case, no one approached me. But if you cry, there will be people who will approach you, and there will not be people who will approach you. In my case, there were no people, they just looked at me.

Richard: Interesting, very interesting. There was something freeing, I guess in that, something freeing for you.

Milan: And then if I had not implemented those realizations, it would not have worked. After that I felt so much light, so much content with what I had and as well with what I don't have. And then I started downloading so many other realizations and then I started implementing every realization. And I started becoming aware of so many things around me. Then I started seeing small things, little things and slowly, slowly, slowly, I forgot about becoming a great artist.

Richard: Wow. Give us an example of one of those small things you noticed.

Milan: One of the small things I noticed was this butterfly, this tiny little insect. It came to my studio and it left. Again at other times, other butterflies, I used to see them. When they came, I became so happy and when left I became equally happy. And I learnt to let go. So every time a butterfly came, I feel so happy every time and every time it left, I learned to let go. I said, I'll let you go, I'll let you go.

So all the burden I was carrying, all the emotional baggages...And then I started following butterflies. So I stopped thinking of great ideas, I stopped thinking of pushing hard. And I started relaxing more and then doing nothing. And when I was doing nothing, deep work was happening. As I began following butterflies, I started spending more time in greeneries, in woods, where I can see more butterflies rather than concrete city. So I spent a lot of time going to the woods, sitting under a tree, resting under a tree, following a butterfly. So the butterfly would come, then I could be happy. Just sit under a tree...

Richard: In your interview, you said that, this must have happened during your time following the butterflies, that one time you heard a leaf fall. I mean you heard. That was a big moment, right?

Milan: Yeah. And then I consciously started listening to the flight of the birds. Tiny, tiny, little sounds, you know. It was like a meditation...it was not like a, it was meditation.

Richard: So that's very interesting. I know from your interview that you said something when the butterfly idea really took form in your mind, and you were ready to make the butterfly, that you referenced a Native American story about making a wish. It's interesting to me that I know a Native American who talks about going out in nature, like you did, and he says you can learn things. That sounds like a very simple statement - you can learn things out in nature, but it's very deep really. And I think what you're talking about is on this level of depth, in terms of being out in nature. That makes sense to you now?

Milan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Richard: That's inspiring to hear the story.

Milan: When my friends were coming to see me in my studio, they would not find me. They'd ask me where did you go when you are not home, and I would tell them that I'm going and sitting under a tree, sleeping under a tree. They'll say don't waste time, be productive.
I just saw a quote today -- "Master, what are you doing? The Master replied, I'm doing nothing. You were doing the same thing yesterday, you were doing nothing yesterday, says the student. The Master replies, I'm not finished doing nothing".

People call me crazy when I say I communicate with trees. I started developing the connection and establishing that connection. I used to pick-up leaves, branches, twigs. I'd be hugging trees, talking with the trees. Started from there. People called me crazy.

Richard: You felt in a real relationship to a tree, I mean, you must've felt really related to...

Milan: I talk to a tree, like I talk to another person, like my best friend. I started telling everything to a tree. And people call me crazy. But what am i supposed to do when a tree communicates?

Richard: Beautiful, that's really beautiful (laughter)!

Milan: The biggest step after this....I was doing this in the woods where there are not much people, not much crowd. And when you sit there, people find you, they assume that you are doing some meditation. You are finding your silence, you inner silence, your inner peace, looking for some peace. After spending some time in the forest, sitting under the trees, sleeping under a tree, I came back to the city and started sitting under a tree in a city. So people could not guess that I was meditating. They would think that he is just a passerby, who is resting under a tree, like people come & go & rest. But I was deeply meditating there. There were a lot of horns, people, so many sounds, city sounds. But then I realized that all these sounds, things happening outside of me can create hell only around me, and not within me. So I started sitting and practicing in the city, in the heart of the city. Then I was able to achieve the same quietness, stillness, in my heart, within me, like I had achieved in the forest.

Richard: That's remarkable. I had a tiny bit of experience myself, being out on the street and just standing there and trying to come back to myself and realizing that it was possible, although I didn't achieve the level you've achieved. But I could see that that would be possible.

Milan: So after doing a lot of things, I decided, because I was spending so much time with butterflies, that I said, "Ok, this is what I am doing now. Before you were expecting so many thing, you were trying to change people, you are trying to change things, you are trying to do big things. Now forget about all of those things. Express what you truly feel, express what happened to you when the butterfly landed in the studio, express what happened to you when the butterfly left, express that. Without expecting anything in return. Just express yourself, be honest with your expression and don't expect anything. No money, no fame. Just forget about it."

The aim of taking my art to a larger audience... the goal remained the same, the goal did not change but the process of working towards that goal changed.

Before I was always trying to please...not even please, shock people with my art. Later, I just expressed myself and let it take a life of its own without trying to set its size or form. Just express and leave it.

Richard: That's very interesting. I mean the whole story of the butterflies, which is so entrancing. I see that we have maybe 30 mins before we open this call to everybody and I would be interested in skipping that for the moment. People would wanna ask about that but I wanted to ask about what are you currently spending your time doing? I think you are spending a lot of time trying to get trees planted and also you've got this image of a gas mask... you walk around sometimes with a gas mask on, and a broom. Would you just talk a little bit about the current things that are really occupying you in terms of what you are doing with your art and the efforts you are making.

Milan: Many foreigner friends tell me that "when we think of Nepal, we picture Himalayas, clean", but the city where I live, the capital, is ranked amongst one of the most polluted cities in the world. I think it made it to the top. Every breath is so poisonous and I was wearing a gas mask symbolically, to protest. We are breathing in harmful poisonous air, so I started wearing gas mask and standing in protest, like a performance art protest in the city, in the traffic and then from the streets, I eventually started going to visit the mayor with the gas mask on, I started to visit the health minister with the gas mask on. So I was doing all these things and suddenly I had to go to London and there was a real...So when I was not able to do this, all the cartoonists started making cartoons of gas mask man fighting with dust man. All these things came up.

I spent a lot of time in London and when I came back, there was a discontinuation. I started doing some other things and again the problem was getting so big so I thought, the gas mask did raise a little bit of awareness but everyone is aware of it; now the awareness has to move towards solutions, some action. I again went to meet with the mayor, the policy makers, and all the bureaucrats and talk to them that, "Let's plant trees." But they were not so responsive. And then I asked for them to just give me the permission to use the land and then I will raise all the funding, whatever necessary, all the things as needed. So I have now, after a lot of tireless work, finally obtained the land and now, I am going to raise funds for the trees and the good thing is that without even asking anyone or announcing this fundraiser on Facebook, the fund for over 100 trees has already been managed through personal connections, without even asking.

I know the challenges, we now need a tree guard to protect the trees, without the tree guard it won't survive. So now I am trying to raise funds for the tree guard. It is getting on the track, now we are pushing it more. And I want it to be community-owned. It is easy to just go an plant a tree but to make it community-based is a challenge. I am trying to make it into a community-based art project. I contacted some banks to sponsor that and they were asking me, "how much mileage do we get? Is it visible? do enough people go to that place... for advertisement." So I told that that while I understand that part, the first priority has to be the environment. But your first priority is greed and so I don't need you.

Now I am thinking of dedicating each tree guard and there will be a poem of somebody, feelings of someone, and stories of some people. Each tree guard will have a story of an individual. Some people are secret poets, they can write their poetry, they write their feelings, they can dedicate that tree guard to their lost ones... I am trying to bring personal touches to this. Today before talking to you, I was even thinking of designing these tree guards in some art form.

Richard: That's beautiful.

Milan: My art should not be limited inside someone's room and that person will watch this art, it has to be beneficial to all. But having said that, it has to be deeply personal. I spent so much time with trees, putting butterflies in them. It is deeply personal and I am doing this very intuitively. There is a deep personal connection.

Richard: That's wonderful. One more question, I saw on your Facebook page, a public exhibit of a Facebook page on a big screen in public, and I think you have some very interesting concerns, which a lot of people would share, about why people are sucked into their cellphones. Would you talk about some of your thoughts around the way that we are living in our cellphones and not in the real world?

Milan: I did this only once. There is this mainstream culture where your nose is always buried in your cell phone, you don't look around. I was like, "If you are so immersed in Facebook, I will put this Facebook on big wall - on bridges, in hospitals, city malls, so that its the same Facebook but now you look at the bigger screen." When you look in a bigger screen, the same Facebook, there is chances that you might see a bird flying or people hugging, or people smiling. I was trying to tell people to just look around, look up and what do you see?

And recently I've also been taking pictures of strangers in the street. I am using the same smartphone, you get so distracted with or buried in too much information, to interact. I will just say, "you have very nice hair, you have very nice dimple, you have very beautiful eyes, can I take a picture of you?" So I am using this mobile phone as a medium to interact, to strike a conversation.

Richard: That's wonderful. I think we need to figure out some creative ways to use the technology that can help bring us back to the real world, so to speak.

Milan: Also the Facebook thing, that I projected on big walls, there was like conflict in my country in between. It was a racial thing, politically-charged. People were throwing harsh comments, so I said, "It is so easy to sit behind your computer, in a room, and type nasty comments. Now here [on the big Facebook wall] I am typing some status here regarding this issue and whoever comments, people are watching you." I was trying to raise that.. it is so easy to bang the computer but just come out and speak the truth, speak from your heart.

Richard: You know what you share -- speak from your heart-- you have been very clear that we need to pay attention to the heart's intelligence. In the West, we have a big culture about our intellectual astuteness, as you say. But what is often missing is recognising the heart and recognising the intelligence of the heart. Would you say something about that? I think this is a big central thing for you.

Milan: When I put some butterflies for the first time and the second day when I visited, people had tore it... there were no butterflies. I saw the wings on the ground. I asked my mind, my intellect, about why people are behaving like this. And my mind told me, this is not practical, you will get tired, there are 10 people who will destroy it, you are 1 person doing it. And I said, "Ok, thank you for the advice but again I will ask my heart." And my heart told me that a butterfly doesn't stay at one place, it keeps flying. So from that point, when I started to listen to my heart and after following my heart for all these years, I've found that heart has its own intelligence, that you were just talking about. Intellect has its own use -- make most out of it, but when it is time to make a decision, just listen to your heart. That's what I do.

Richard: That's beautiful, Milan.

Pavi: We are on track for opening into the QnA session. This is a marvellous conversation. Just want to remind our listeners that they can join the queue by hitting *6 or you can send us an email at ask@servicespace.org with your question. We already actually do have a few questions that have come in on the web form. So I will start with one of those.

This is a question from Gayathri, in India, who wanted to learn more about how you live your life on gift economy terms and the way of trusting the flow of the universe. She wanted to know whether you've asked the universe for support at certain times and has it come in unexpected ways? [audio jumbled a little here]

Milan: The universe has always been supportive. It has my back. I do ask for things and I do ask for my wishes, I do throw my wishes but whenever I don't see my wishes being fulfilled, I don't complain. I immediately start imagining someone, somewhere, out in the world, whose wish has been fulfilled just now. So be happy for that person.

I learnt to be content, no matter -- like it's not craving, like I wish, I want, I want this, I want this. So it's like, I do throw wishes -- even when they don't turn into, like when I don't get them fulfilled, turn into reality, I just don't complain. For so many others, like I just think I'm happy because miles away, like this flower bloomed, this plane arrived. I just become happy for that.

There's no heaviness and the gift economy culture, like I have had, I'm saying this from my...I am not repeating this from books or texts, I'm saying this from my lived experience that the secret of receiving is giving. Always giving. Like I was in, you know, I don't know if you are familiar with this, but there is this big stupa, a Buddhist monastery, there is a big stupa and people -- it's a very famous place in Nepal. So I was there and that day, I was feeling a little bit hungry and I wanted to go to a restaurant to eat, and I realized that I had only 100 rupees, not enough money to buy good food. Like so I checked the menu and not enough money, not enough money.

So I came outside and I started walking around that stupa saying that today, what I want is just food, nothing more than that. And after like few rounds, a foreigner stopped me and said like I've been following you on Facebook. I would like to buy dinner for you and I said I didn't have enough money. And he said like if I invite you, it's all me. And then we went and we had a very nice dinner and then I looked at this stupa, and then I said, "What I asked today was just food to fill my stomach” and the stupa told me, "Yes, I know that. It was just so simple. So I put in the first priority and I recommended that foreigner." Yeah, very simple things, very simple things

​​​​​​​Pavi: You know, I'm intrigued by something that Richard was asking you about and I know many of our listeners as well have, you know, (thought) really that works, if we really tune into that. And I remember reading you talked about once using spiritual pendrives to download from the Source and now having gotten rid of your pen drives and doing you know, that direct communication! Can you speak a little bit more about that? It was very interesting.

Milan: I strongly believe that there has to be humour in life, so yeah, so I joke around. I love to joke around. So it was like, I was in one IT Institute. They invited me as a guest speaker and they were telling me like we go to different retreats, we follow YouTube videos, all this, but it's still not happening. So I told them, like it just came out there, and I started telling them -- everywhere, any other places, what many people do is they depend upon pen drives; you can create a special Wifi and connect straight to the source and download straight from there. Many people do it. They connect, depend upon pendrives and that's where the virus enters.

​​​​​​​Pavi: How do you get rid of that? Like what does that mean? What are the practices you currently have to tune into that heart intelligence.

Milan: Uh, it's like, it did not came overnight. It was like a lot of practice, self-discipline. Uh, it's a very, like I, I started dating myself. I started going on a date with myself and spending a lot of time with myself. I started telling I love you to myself and that's like, it's like talking to a tree. People again call you crazy if someone catches you. Like if you got caught saying I love you to yourself, people would think you've gone crazy. So I'm doing all the things, saying I love you to myself all the time, all the time, all the time. I did not hear I love you back from me. Yeah, but I kept consistently, kept telling I love you and in the process, I realized the inner child, he's not talking to me because, maybe he's not talking to me because the inner child tried to talk to me so many times, and I did not listen.

So keep talking, keep talking, because there were so many times, they tried to talk to you and you did not listen to it. It simply asks for a movie and then we did not go. So I think simple things, so I started pampering that inner child and then one day I heard that inner voice connecting with me. And then I said are you, are you talking to me?

Yes, I'm talkin to you, I've been trying to talk to you for all these months. So it came through a lot of practice. And then when you are connected to your inner child, and then I started every day, and the connection became stronger and stronger and stronger. And what I learned was like if it was with grown-up people, they would not talk to you, they would stop talking to you but that inner child, it forgives. So I learned forgiveness. So it is through a lot of practice.

And when you connect to the inner source and when you connect with...like when I was talking about my journey, if it was just an outer journey, I would have just covered some miles. It looked like an outer journey, but it was more an inner journey.

​​​​​​​Pavi: That's profound. So well-articulated. I'm wondering, Milan, there were so many people in your life, especially early on, who thought you were ruining your life by kicking school out, who told you that your journey wasn't going to go anywhere without a certificate. What has the response been from I'm thinking of your family and the people who knew you back then, if they've watched your past unfold and your journey taking you to MIT, to Harvard, to London to Scotland, all these places all over the world. What has the response been?

Milan: MIT was my personal, it was not an official invitation. I just went to see, meet Noam Chomsky. So it was my very personal, like not an official (trip). But yeah, Harvard was an official invitation, they invited me. So I was like, I went to so many colleges to ask for earphones, to give one minute inside the classroom. No one allowed me. After coming back from Harvard, same person, every college, so many colleges started calling me. I was busy like every day, I had two to three colleges to just share my experiences. So their perspective towards me changed. I did not try to do anything to change them. I just put all effort on me to change me, and then their perspective changed towards me automatically. And I sometimes joke like I get invited by different colleges, institutes, like Institute of Management, and I don't know what I'm doing there. I'm a very unmanaged person in a management institute!

​​​​​​​Pavi: How about your family? What has their response been?

Milan: Yeah, they are. Uh, I don't know, I don't know...They are supportive. They have been very supportive. And supportive in the sense like they want, they don't ask me like when are you getting married? When are you getting a house? You know, everyone has done that. So they don't ask me, I don't have to tolerate that -- so they have been supportive and in many other ways. I don't know...

​​​​​​​Pavi: I can imagine that you have been continually supported by everyone around you. I'm wondering how especially in a place like Nepal and all the, this is another question that came in from the web form, how do you, when you look at the general indifference in society and kind of all the resistance to change, how do you keep your morale up and continue to show up to serve in all the ways that you do?

Milan: Everything like... Okay, like I ask, like everything, whatever happens, I see it as an opportunity. I just change the perspective. I just enhance my perspective and I see it as an opportunity. Like for example, I asked sponsor covering from one of the banks, for the tree guard project. They asked me so many questions and I came up with the idea of another thing -- like make it even more artistic. So I thanked that banker -- thank you. If you had said yes, I would have just gone forward with it, it would not be so beautiful like this. So I think I see everything as an opportunity.

It's like, first it comes -- like you don't know anything, right? You don't know what to do with it. But to keep doing, keep going. If you don't know where you are going, just keep going, you will get the answers. Maybe not immediately. I just see it as an opportunity. Be positive, be positive, be positive and then keep going and I don't have to know the answer immediately. And whatever frustrates me, I see them as teachers. It'a reminder. It's a test. It's a test. It's a test. Practice, practice, practice.

It's like I used to tell, I used to think like I was a very sad person, hopeless person, depressed person. I used to think like whenever I was sad, I was just thinking like I imagine sadness as a log of wood. I didn't know what to do with it. I used to carry them, drag it all along wherever I go, and I used to complain. It's so heavy. I don't know what to do with this.

Now, the sadness still comes. I'm not someone who doesn't feel sad, who’s gone beyond all these emotions. Sadness still comes. What I do is like I used to complain that it's like a log of wood, I don't know what to do with it. Now, when the sadness arrives, I say become a carpenter. Make a beautiful chair out of it. There are so many ways. If you don't want to make a chair, and this can then...straight away make a guitar and play it. So these are the raw materials. Transform yourself, transform it and everything around you. So every, all these things are like opportunities, opportunities. I see it as an opportunity.

​​​​​​​Pavi: Yeah, I was struck by...

Milan: I hope I got close to your question, the enquiry...And because I don't have very, I'm not very, about all these wider issues, about social...

​​​​​​​Pavi: No, it was perfect. And I'm sorry about the echo that seems to be happening on our end. But just wanted to ask you -- I was struck by what you said about.

Milan: When you said echo, I imagined myself at the top of the mountain and...

​​​​​​​Pavi: Wonderful. Always good to have the artistic interpretation. When you talked about turning the world into your studio and just that the freedom that came from, you know, kind of taking down the walls at the galleries and and just wherever you are, that's where you create your art. I was wondering what the concept of home means to you and whether, you know, whether you've found a new kind of home in the world? Or what is it about your current, you know physical home in Nepal? Like is there a special relationship that you have to that part of the world that you grew up in?

Milan: I think I'll take the liberty to answer this in a very odd way. When you see home, I'm, I don't like, I always -- whenever, before I go to bed, I always gaze at the night sky and I always, I've been doing this for many years, and while doing this continually every night, looking up in the sky, I felt like my home is somewhere else. Right? I'm coming home. I'm returning home actually. So this is my vacation here. So whenever -- it came like my home is somewhere up there and I'm here, on vacation. So make the most beautiful memories so that you don't have to regret being here. I said this similar thing in India, in the Gandhi 3.0 retreat.

I wanted, I wanted to visit this Earth that we call home. We share this planet. So but to visit here, I had a spaceship. If I had landed in a spaceship, my birth would have been very controversial. Right? People would think...scientist would dissect me, my body and they would make it a breaking news by breaking my bones! And then we made a spiritual contract with the God and I was put into a special womb so that my birth would look normal and nobody would, it would have been controversial. Some people may not have believed my birth. You know, (saying) that's a hoax...

So I was put into a spiritual, with a spiritual contract, I was put into a space womb and came to this earth to avoid controversies. But what I'm doing here in Earth became controversial in heaven. And they're talking about it. They're saying he's having a love affair with humanity, it became very controversial and scandalous in heaven. So my home is somewhere else!

​​​​​​​Pavi: That's a fabulous and unexpected answer to that question. Richard, I know you had a whole host of questions. So can I turn it back to you?

Richard: Well, uh, let's try. I noticed on your Facebook page, Milan, that you, some time you found this group of Elder citizens under the shade of a tree, sharing, talking about divinity, telling ancient tales, singing spiritual songs, listening to each other with great care. Can you talk about the sort of things that you find, the kind of things you like to share on Facebook?

Milan: Sorry, I missed the last word.

Richard: Well, talk about the sort of things that you find, that you discover out there in the world and the kind of things you like to share with others.

Milan: Uh, with others. Yeah, the meeting with Elders was my recent one, but I just love to interact with people, talk to them, actually first listen to them. Whenever I approach people, I always approach myself first. I ask myself -- are you ready to listen? Do you have the capacity to listen if the person really talks. If that person really, person wants to share the feelings with you? Just don't go and say, "Hello nice day. Bye. Bye." Ask yourself first -- do you have the capacity? I approach myself before approaching all the people. And it's also like being very aware of what's around you, and then like talking to, approaching strangers and I sometimes, not all the time, I share with other peoples. Or I just leave it at that moment and stop there. Sometimes I like to record it and share it with other people.

Like there was one -- these elder people, I met with porters. That was a rainy day and then they did not make any income because of the rain and because of the vehicles; people choose to carry their goods, transport their goods in vehicles because they are more efficient, than porters in the city. So they were looking for a job. They are there. It's very tough for them even in other days, but in rainy day, they didn't make any money, so they were all sad and they were sitting, three of them in one place, uh standing actually. I went there and I asked them did you make any income today? They said, no income. And they I said, even though you didn't make any income, laugh! Let's laugh! And then I started laughing and one started laughing. It became infectious, contagious and then everybody started laughing, and it did not stop, right? It was laughter therapy right in the middle of the street.

Richard: That's beautiful

Milan: Yeah, so it can, like world is my studio, world is a meditation, yoga center, everywhere. Like when I say world is my studio, world is my yoga mat, center, like when I approached people in London, when I approached people, not every time, it was a friendly encounter. Some people were very pissed off, you know, because they had, they were going through their own...so whenever it happened to me, I said to myself -- this person is not unfriendly, this person is not unfriendly by nature, maybe some of the previous experiences in the past with previous stranger, maybe the situations, no? So I started praying for that person.

And I started, before praying for that person, I started imagining the person with his/her best friend. Not with me, at that moment. And when I imagined them, I saw bells, I heard bell, I saw pillow fights. I heard balloon bursting, so... And then later, then I moved, and then I went to another space/corner, find one corner spot and then started praying for the person. Yeah, and then when I started praying for those people, everywhere, every spot, every corner became sacred spaces.

Richard: That's very, very touching. Did you...

Milan: And I shared this with other people, and in some cities, I just published one or two videos. I was just sitting there listening, because I found it really interesting. Just deeply listening and then one elder person, man, or grandpa, he just looked at me and said, "I found you so calm, so calm. Your face is so bright." And then he was like, how do you, how can you stay that way? You have already expressed without you expressing it, you're so calm.

And then one thing really hit me was like, there is an astrologer friend of mine who talks about, who talks about energies and understanding that. And I was thinking of sharing this meeting/encounter with an astrologer and thinking of telling him -- I met this man, he said this to me, when he saw me. And then I posted it on Facebook and before telling him, the astrologer messaged me and asked, where did you meet that uncle? And I said I was about to share this incident with you, and he said like, he is a Bodhisattva, sometimes, the third eye activates. So it was like a very deep connection, because I was thinking of the astrologer and the astrologer wrote to me and said...So these are like... then I started making out that there are no accidents.

Richard: Do you, Milan, do you have a formal spiritual practice of any kind?

Milan: Uh, No, I did not...You know, sorry to say but this staying inside in strict posture, reading scriptures -- I find it too boring. But when I say this, but having said this, but for some people, it can be a path to, you know, to finding themselves. It can work in those worlds.
It did not work for me doesn't mean it doesn't work for other people. But for me, my process is like more, like little bit wild!

Richard: You are, you have come to, obviously, you've come to a lot of spiritual understanding and that makes me think of, you know, Krishnamurthi. Krishnamurthi says we don't need any gurus. Tell me about your email address -- showekphrasis@gmail.com

Milan: Yeah, It was like, Ekphrasis is a Greek word. I did one show, it was an art show before butterfly. The title of that show was Ekphrasis. So only for that show, I made this email address and I've been using that since. There's nothing more.

Richard: That's interesting. What um, what are you going to do tomorrow?

Milan: (laughter) That's too far.

Richard: I know that someone asked you what your plan is. And you said I don't have a Plan A or Plan B. Maybe you have a plan T? Yeah. I love that, I mean, uh Plan T -- that sort of takes us back...

Milan: It becomes plant more trees! Yeah, when you said what are you going to do tomorrow -- I get lots of stupid questions from people like what is my next project? I was uh, like even when we were having lunch in India, someone was nearby; and the next time we were having lunch together, he asked me what is your next project. And I said to him -- do you really want to hear my next project? It is very like, you know, they (people) usually just come up and ask me, but do they have time to listen to my next project? And they said -- yes, of course. And then I said after this lunch, I'll go wash this dish. Yeah, so that's my next plan for ahead! So what I'm going to do tomorrow is like, that's too far. But if I can, I think what I'll do tomorrow is smile -- I'll wake up and smile!

Richard: Now, you've, somewhere I saw, you said that the heart and the mind, if they can come together, it's powerful. What do you think about the body? Are you -- what's your relationship to your body?

Milan: Body, body? Uh, it's, my body's like, whenever (pauses) whenever I'm walking, you know, I just get like little tiny little scratches or when I hit, when I'm knocked somewhere, I just stop doing anything and then start talking to my body. Wherever it's injured, it doesn't have to be a big injury, just a tiny injury, I just talk to my body. I'm sorry, it was not intentional, I'm sorry, it was not intentional. Like, even, it doesn't have to be directly...Sometimes when I'm on my cycle, that's my method of transportation, I sometimes, I get like, I hear like the loud honk, or horns, and that scares me, lots of disturbance, and then I stop my bicycle and I say to my ear -- it was just a horn, don't panic. I console myself. I calm myself, I heal myself and then only, I'll ride.

Otherwise, I feel like someone who is disturbed by the horn is riding, not a conscious rider. So if you are disturbed, you will disturb others as well around you. So if you are conscious, you will not be disturbed by anything, nor will you disturb anybody else. It's not just, it doesn't even have to be like direct physical injury, like even the horns. When I hear the sound, I calm myself, It was just a horn, don't panic! That's why I listen to my body, very, very lovingly because It's where my soul resides for the time being, it's my temple.

​​​​​​​Pavi: Wow, beautiful. We are almost at the end of our call, Milan. And before we end, I wanted to ask you a question that we ask all of our guests and that is what can we, as the extended Awakin Calls ServiceSpace community, what can we do to help further and support your beautiful work in the world?

Milan: You have already done so much! I've received lots of emails and requests from the US and from other parts of the world and even before coming to this call, someone wrote me from the UK and she said that, "We had a plan with my friend of going to see butteflies in the city and if you follow the butterflies, if you see butterflies, it will give you peace and that's why we need to do a butterly walk. And after reading about it and about your work, life pointed me to it. I want to invite you here if you have work..."

So you have already done so much by connecting so many people. Uh, I don't know, I don't know (what else)

​​​​​​​Pavi: Well, then we'll keep smiling and keep connecting and keep looking out for butterflies. We are at the end of our call. Before we go into our minute of gratitude, I just wanted to share that the word that has kept coming up as you shared from your journey is the word 'unadulterated' and I think about your spirit and that inner child and the love, the compassion, the generosity, the thing that allows you to cry on a bus, or to talk to a tree, things that as adults we oftentimes think are, you know, not the done thing, to see your unadulterated approach to Art, to life, to nature, to each moment. It's been such a gift. Thank you, Milan, and thank you, Richard.

Richard: Thank you, Milan. Thank you, Pavi.

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