A Ready CanvasThey hung suspended in the white-walled room; two mountainous landscapes lit with an unearthly glow. A bluish light filtered through two large criss-cross windows at the far end, highlighting their jagged peaks and swooping troughs with stark shadows.

The sculptures, made out of a kind of translucent white elastic, filled the room with a questioning, adventurous presence. They were a canvas ready to be painted by our anticipating minds.

She walked into the room calm and quiet, with a steady focus, making her way towards their centre. Climbing into a navy blue boiler suit spattered with coloured remnants of past experiments, she began.


As her concentration stilled, ours followed.

She picked up a strand of bright orange thread and passed it through the eye of a large silvery needle. Looking closely, it became clear that she was surrounded by lots of small orange spools coiled into tiny polka dots on the floor and attached to various parts of her suit; primed to become part of the emergent dance.

She began, stitch by stitch, movement by careful movement, to sew herself to the landscape that surrounded her. There was not a sound in the room as we watched, transfixed.

At first, the lengths of thread were long, evoking images of slender blood vessels, connecting her to a life force that was beginning to pulse through the enlivened landscape. The more connections were made, the more the elastic mountains began to respond, moulding around her with each tug.

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Prayers in the Wind

Prayers in the Wind

I was up in the mountains last week with two friends, researching a story and taking some time to soak in the clean air and stunning mountain views. It was a world away from Delhi’s steaming hubbub.

On the last night, we had dinner with the owners of our guesthouse and a number of other Tibetan people, all of whom are close to the Dalai Lama and his teachings. They spoke animatedly in lyrical Tibetan, with its soft, whispery tones that are so gentle on the ears. I’ve come to the conclusion that Tibetans really know how to laugh. They hardly stopped all evening. It was wonderful!

Sitting on my left was the owner of our guesthouse, who himself had taken the treacherous ten day journey through the Himalayan mountains from Tibet to India when he was only eight. He doesn’t remember much about it, he said.

My friend, whom I’d been plying with questions about Tibetan Buddhism all weekend, encouraged me to go ahead and ask him some of them.

I plunged ahead with the first.

It felt a little trite; but I’ve always been curious about this.

“How is it that reincarnation works if the total number of life forms keeps increasing on the planet?”, I asked. “Where are all of these new souls coming from?”

“Ah”, he said. “We have a very simple answer for this. We don’t believe that this is the only universe that exists. There are many worlds that exist far beyond our knowledge, which also contain life forms. That’s how we get around it”, he said, winking.

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In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter put 32 solar panels on the roof of the Whitehouse, saying:

“a generation from now, this solar heater can be… a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people; harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

It was a progressive step on Carter’s part. But change wasn’t quite that simple.

Just a few years later, in 1986, incoming President Ronald Regan had them quietly removed. According to the engineer that had installed them, his staff felt that the equipment “was just a joke and… had it taken down”.

This, says the Berkana Institute‘s former co-President, Deborah Frieze, is a classic example of what happens when a failing system is starting to decline and people attempt to find new ways of doing things. The system resists change.

Old systems will seek to crush alternatives, tending – as all living systems do – towards self-preservation, says Freize.

In the case of the Whitehouse, Regan crushed the initiative that Carter took to promote an alternative energy system. But Carter was just an example of someone trying to do something differently; someone trying to innovate ways to overcome the challenges of our times.

So how do we allow new efforts to emerge within hostile, resistant environments?

According to Berkana’s theory, two important things have to happen.

Firstly, there need to be a growing number of alternatives to the status quo emerging (the little stars in the pictures below): that means lots of innovation, new ideas, experimentation with new models, and trying out new ways of seeing and doing things.

Secondly the alternatives and ideas that do emerge with promise need to be named, connected, nourished and illuminated. This creates the conditions for a different way of doing things to be pioneered.

Thankfully in the case of the Whitehouse’s solar panels, Carter was not alone. While his individual effort alongside many such others was crushed (check out: Who Killed the Electric Car), many, many more were beginning to bubble up not only in America, but across the world as a response to the sustainability challenges we face today.

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Cross-posted from The Better India.

Nine months after my last visit to the tiny district block of Reusa in Uttar Pradesh, I was back to see how Mera Gao Power‘s work is going there and what some of the impacts have been. It was as inspiring, humbling and thought-provoking a journey as ever. Here’s a little photoblog on the trip:

As a social enterprise committed to providing some of the poorest households in India with solar power, Mera Gao Power is making great inroads. Starting from Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, the venture has reached out to more than 3500 customers in just over a year.


Girl atop buffalo in the evening light
The fading light begins to slope and redden as evening approaches in Sitapur district, north-central Uttar Pradesh. As you journey here from the bustling city of Lucknow, you travel not only across space but time, too, into a medieval world of smoking wood fires, trundling bullock carts and mud-walled, straw-topped huts. Scantily clad children herd buffalos in from pasture, riding atop them like tiny warriors. There is little electricity here, and access to clean water or basic sanitation is almost absent too. The summers are scorching and the winters frigid yet at this time of year, just after the rains, a cool breeze tousles the teeming grasses blissfully. Even this heavenly vision, though, veils the challenges that were brought to the region by heavy monsoon rains this season, which swelled the Ghaghara river’s banks to bursting point, inundating more than seventy villages in the area and multiple croplands.

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Blue Sky-29

It was like a vacuum. An open packet of biscuits, or a plate of peanuts left unattended for just a few minutes would halve in size. It wasn’t theft. Phones, money, laptops: none of them went, despite ample opportunities. Food, on the other hand. That was fair game. When none of us were looking, the staff from the villages would suck it into their wanting systems. One in seven worldwide go to bed hungry each night. Many of those “ones” were here.

My latest trip to Reusa, a district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, was as stark and shocking as the last. Intense, searing heat replacing the bitter cold of winter. Fanless and lightless. Dust. Paltry, threadbare shops. A chemist with a few paracetamols, some iron tonic and plasters. A roadside dukan with long chains of brightly coloured shampoo packets and washing powders, biscuits in the better ones, and perhaps a few bottles of hot water. You will find pesticides though. You’ve gotta hand it to those distributors. Pesticides and fertilisers, along with petrol, seem to have reached everywhere. Even if they come at a price.

No electricity means a lot of things. A lot of things we don’t realize until we experience it. It means no milk for chai in the morning unless it’s fresh from the cow, because there are no fridges. It means no welcome stirring of the air as the midday heat reaches its sweaty climax. It means no light past 6.30 in the evening, unless you have kerosene lamps or are one of those rare few with a generator. And that means no work, no studies, no play and cooking in the dark. Just…. waiting for dawn.

It’s not only a lack of electricity though. Clean water is but an imagination, unless you bring or buy bottles. Hot baths only accompany the burning heat of the summer. Healthcare and access to education is known only to a few. Sniffling, coughing children had welts and infections, with stomachs swollen and reddening hair.

While the place is beautiful, the conditions are dire.

“It feels like the asshole of India”, said a friend who works here on a particularly frustrated day. In many ways, I had to agree…. well not about the asshole bit, but… the situation here feels pretty hopeless. Pretty helpless. And to cap it, pretty oppressed.

“How can I know what is out there”, said Bitti Devi, a farmer’s wife. “My husband keeps me at home, and there are no opportunities here. We have no choices. I don’t know what the world has to offer”.

Yet the people and their warmth were a glowing source of the possible in some of the most challenging situations. I encountered generosity and strength beyond my wildest expectations, a feeling of safety that I did not bargain for, and a never-ending wave of smiles and curiosity, giggles and gurgles from the wide-eyed children in the villages.

The words that rippled through my subconscious most deeply as I left Reusa, clanging at the nerves of my mind, were need and vacuum. Despite the potential inherent in each and every human being, there are certain conditions that seem to leave almost any individual helpless and fettered, to strip them of their most fundamental rights and freedoms – as Amartya Sen might describe it. These abounded here, and it seemed there was no way out. It was like seeing butterflies trapped in a wine bottle.

I was left wondering how on earth I could help. What on earth was I doing there trying to talk about “meaning” in life? I know there is a logic to my questioning, but I am finding it hard to see at times. I know I seek common ground, common pathways. I am following a pull, and having to trust it is taking me towards something larger than myself.

IMG_1535As the last sunset of 2012 painted the darkening sky an ever-richer shade of orange I sat by the ocean, my feet sinking deep into the sand. It was a beautiful evening; one for which I was lucky enough to find myself on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The sea swept towards the shore in rhythmic waves, crashing onto the sand and then gurgling outwards in a wash of sound.

Watching the year’s end evolve into a new beginning, I found myself deeply reflective. I was thinking not only of my own experiences over the past year, but more so of the inflection point our world is at right now: the immense pressures that strain our ecological and social systems across continents, and yet the opportunities and insights for humanity to capture from these very challenges. It felt, somehow, as if inner was mirroring outer. The Mayan’s referred to 2012 as the end of the world, but ends are always new beginnings. It seemed pretty apt, therefore, to discover that apocalypse and revelation are described with the same word in Ancient Greek.

I looked down the beach in the direction of what was now becoming a reddish-gold ball of liquid light that seeped towards us across the sand. A palm tree sloped in the direction of the ocean, silhouetted against the portrait-like sky, and the wild sea air tousled my hair. I breathed it all in with wonder, looking out towards the horizon, whose very edges reminded me of the curve of the Earth upon which I stood. I was at once a part of something so much larger than myself, watching, sensing; communicating with all that surrounded me from the heart.

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birth-and-deathIt was a few years ago in the depths of rural Hertfordshire that I first heard Luang Por Sumedho talk about the nature of birth and death. Speaking at one of the Sunday talks held at Amaravati Buddhist monastery each Autumn, he described how each of our lifetimes is characterized not by one single bold entry into and exit from this world, but rather by a constant series of births and deaths. “Every breath we take”, he said, every rise and fall of our lungs “is in itself an experience of birth and death”.

Curious though it seemed at the time, it couldn’t be any other way. “We couldn’t just keep breathing in”, he said, laughing in his jovial way, “our lungs would explode! We have to breathe out so that we can breathe in again”. In other words: death has to exist, so that birth can too.

These words stayed with me. Somehow they rang so true. They startled me for their description of something I had often recognized but not “known”. Not only, said Sumedho, is experiencing birth and death from moment to moment important to come to terms with the impermanence of life, it is also a reminder of life’s utterly fluid nature: a reminder that change is the only constant.

The more I reflected on this, the more I began to see that everything we experience and so much of who we are goes through a constant cycle of creation and dissolution: moments in time, thoughts that preoccupy us, people who come into and leave our lives, experiences we love and hate, personas that rise and fall, even our very understandings about the way things are. Everything is born and ebbs away, emerges and dissolves. It is this that is the substrate of change, and remembering this is not only a means to be aware, it is a tool for eternal release from those things that bind us.

In many ways Sumedho was simply stating the obvious: that nothing lasts forever and that everything is impermanent. Yet somehow his way of seeing things took me deeper than that. It helped me to acknowledge not only what is transient in life, but also what is possible. Allowing death to take place within life is essential to allow us to live our lives fully.

Our perceptions of birth and death are often so loaded. One with intensely positive emotions, and the other, more often than not, with the reverse. Rarely do we come to reflect on the deep interconnection between and necessity of the two. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is considered vital to “practice dying” to come to terms with impermanence, and to practice non-attachment, as a means to reduce our own suffering. Although I can rarely think of death in its realest form without something of a shudder, wondering if I will simply cease to exist, observing these two forces and their intimate relationship with one another can bring a deep sense of perspective and even peace.

Sumedho’s words, in their profound simplicity, remind us to absorb every precious experience as fully and deeply as we can, because it will inevitably end. They also remind us of the need to eternally seek to expand beyond what we know – to allow new things to be born, to let go of parts of ourselves and our lives that no longer have a place, and to remember that change is not only always possible, but inevitable.

Remembering and engaging with this idea, as with everything in life, is a work in progress. But whenever I remember to listen to my breathing — to the rise and fall of my lungs — I am reminded of the possibility that exists in each moment, dare we grasp it!


“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera