New Year’s Evolution

AJ Dahiya - New Year's Evolution

I must admit, I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. 

I appreciate setting positive intentions, continual improvement, and self-reflective efforts to be a better human. However, I find the idea of rigid timelines and lofty goals counterproductive and in some cases self-defeating. Too often, they are an outgrowth of a misplaced focus on outcome over process, intensity over consistency, and towering achievement over slow and steady daily practice. 

We celebrate astounding weight loss, forgetting that it is the product of thousands of small healthy decisions made repeatedly over time. 

We celebrate awe-inspiring athletic milestones, but not the daily training regimen that makes them possible. 

We marvel at scientific breakthroughs, but ignore the fact that these advances require determination through many failed attempts before ultimate success. 

I believe it was Aristotle who said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

The key here is the reference to repetition; even though we may see the new year as a demarcation of change, or sign up for a 21-day challenge, or pledge to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 days, the truth is that building a daily practice – building a habit – is not a time-limited proposition. 

The answer to the question “How long does it take to build a daily practice?” is simple. It takes a lifetime. 

Rather than resolution, I believe in evolution. 

That’s why our work at The Pollination Project matters to me. It’s a collection of seemingly small grassroots actions that are helping evolve not just the individuals behind them, but our entire planet, into a daily practice of compassion and kindness. It is a community of people who care about outcomes and achievement, sure; but who are also in love with the process of becoming. 

There is nothing special about January 1st except that, like every other day, it is a precious gift shimmering with potential; a new opportunity to build a practice of loving kindness, one small yet beautiful step at a time. 

The Place Where We Are Kind

This week, I am drawing inspiration from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. In particular, his poignant piece “From The Place Where We Are Right.”

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood

In these words I feel a call to humility, mercy, and compassion.

Indeed, so much of our political and social discourse has come to feel like a “ruined house.” Yet at a time of such great division in the world, Amichai’s simple reflection reminds us that even across great differences we have so much in common. We all long for safety, love our children and families, and want to be understood. And perhaps even more fundamentally, I suspect we all have our doubts. We wonder if we are choosing the right paths – whether we are doing enough – both individually and collectively. Yet we hesitate to give ourselves permission to admit that there is so much we do not understand.

If we lead with these “doubts and loves,” perhaps we can stand together not in the place where we are right, but in the place where we are kind. If we choose to listen more, perhaps in this stillness we will hear the whisper of our own consciousness, reminding us of the beauty and promise of our interconnectedness.

Planting Seeds or Stones?

AJ Dahiya - Planting seeds or stones

Lately I have found inspiration in the writings of the Polish-born American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s own life was a testament to the power of the human spirit. His father died when he was just a child, and many more of his family members were murdered in the Holocaust. He escaped to New York in 1940, where he continued his lifelong exploration of Jewish mysticism. 

What I love about Heschel is that although he was a prolific author, scholar, and professor, he was not an armchair philosopher. His faith deeply informed his thoughts on social responsibility. Heschel was a passionate activist for civil rights, joining his friend Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in the Selma to Montgomery march for equality. Of that experience he said “I felt my legs were praying,” and called on other religious leaders to show “spiritual audacity” in the face of oppression. 

Heschel was a man who thought deeply about the relative value of questions versus answers.

His work has particular resonance at this moment in history because, in my humble opinion, we seem to have far more answers than we do questions. Even in our most prescient social challenges – things like racial equity, climate change, animal rights, and more – we see that individuals tend to attach themselves to answers, catchy slogans, and foregone conclusions. The overarching values system has overpromoted the defense of answers far more than it has the passionate inquiry that should lead to them. 

This imbalance might be why we struggle to move forward meaningfully on even those issues that dominate public discourse. According to Heschel, adopting answers without questioning can never lead to meaningful forward motion. He once wrote:

“There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.”

Heschel, like our community of changemakers at The Pollination Project, was a doer. He was a thinker who manifested action through a process of deep inquiry, just like those our community uplifts each day. I daresay he was a heartivist. 

No stones have been planted in our global garden; only living thoughts that grow and blossom into a kinder, more compassionate world. Thank you to each of our changemakers who make up this vibrant ecosystem of kindness, whose prayers are extended hands to their communities. I am eternally inspired by you.

Real Friends

AJ Dahiya - Real Friends

There are over 7 billion people on the planet, each born with a drive to connect. The explosion of technology means we can digitally meet new people from all over the world. Social media “friends” lists can number in the thousands, a testament to our innate interest in the lives of others. 

But what is a “friend,” really?

When things are going well, we may find ourselves surrounded by friends. But when things are more challenging, many of those same people may well disappear. When adversity comes knocking, those who turn toward us rather than away from us are our real friends. When life becomes messy and the party’s over, real friends step forward and lend a hand to help us clean it all up. 

Early in The Pollination Project’s history, we supported a project led by Kelsey Crowe, an empathy expert who went on to co-write a book called “There is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” The book deals with how to support the people we love through illness or adversity. One aspect of the book that I won’t soon forget involved moving from thinking about being helpful to actually acting on that intention. This means replacing the ubiquitous “let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” with statements “I will bring you dinner on Friday,” or “I am coming over tomorrow to tidy up for you.” 

There is so much in this simple notion that underlies who we are at The Pollination Project. Our community is full of compassionate doers. Rather than waiting to be asked, they show up and fill the need before them. 

During the unfolding of COVID-19 across the world, I was so uplifted by the ways our community turned towards the most vulnerable in their own backyards. In recent weeks during the second surge in India, I felt this same inspiration. In moments of crisis, we are here for each other, bonded in our shared hope of a kind, compassionate world. 

Our highest aspiration is not to be a foundation that only gives away money. Our aim is simple: to show up and be a friend – a real friend. 

AJ Dahiya of The Pollination Project: “Compassion has many different faces”

AJ Dahiya on Thrive Global

by Ben Ari

Compassion has many different faces: Through our focus on individuals working at grassroots levels, we gain the chance to uplift the voices of diverse and marginalized leaders whose work is often overlooked by larger institutional funders. When you make the opportunity to serve accessibly, you get so much more diversity; not only racial or socioeconomic diversity of the players, but also a diversity of ideas and solutions.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing AJ Dahiya.

AJ Dahiya is a former monk who is now a writer, speaker, and Chief Vision Officer of The Pollination Project, a global community of 4,000+ grassroots volunteer leaders in over 125 countries. At The Pollination Project, AJ pioneers disruptive philanthropic approaches that serve as an antidote to apathy, funding individuals directly for social projects in their own communities. A leader of the #heartivist movement, AJ advocates for the amplifying effects of non-financial resources and self-reflective practices as foundational factors in building a kinder, more compassionate world.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I would say my path is untraditional, but my past connects to my present role through the principle of service. The role I’ve held for most of my life was that of a monk. At 18, I renounced all my worldly possessions and joined a monastery. I spent the better part of a decade traveling to monastic communities around the world, consulting with the leaders of those communities about how they could be more connected and compassionate. But at a certain point, I began to feel I had grown as much as I could in that life, and decided to stake out a new path. Still desiring to be in service, I was fortunate to lead several organizations before coming to The Pollination Project; notably The Bhakti Center in New York, and Hope Not Hate USA. I still feel, even today, that the center of my work is to be in deep service to others, although doing that through the lens of philanthropy looks very different than it did when I was a monk.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

At The Pollination Project, our model is centered around funding individuals directly through seed grants, so that they are able to act on the inspiration to serve that they feel within their own communities. I always thought that this model could have real value in the case of natural disasters or other emergency relief, but that was truly put to the test during this last year. At the start of the pandemic, we mobilized our entire global community within two weeks to serve COVID-related needs like support of vulnerable communities, deploying supplies to hard-hit areas, and support for food insecure communities particularly in the global south. It was inspiring to see what could happen, and how quickly it could unfold, when you are mobilizing the capacity of people to act out of great love and concern for their friends and neighbors.

Read the full interview here 

Becoming Justice

People protesting - AJ Dahiya - Becoming Justice

Over the last year, much of America and the world waited with heavy hearts for the outcome of the case against Derek Chauvin.

This wasn’t just a fight for George Floyd. This wasn’t just a fight against Derek Chauvin. This was a fight for the soul of a nation, a fight for humanity, and a fight for justice.

This week, the American legal system finally delivered accountability for this grievous murder. Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts. Yet, only a few hours after the Chauvin verdict another young Black person was shot dead by the police.

This is the problem with accountability: it is retrospective, not preventative, coming only after the loss of another precious, irreplaceable life. Perhaps even more importantly, accountability is not restorative. George Floyd’s young daughter will still live a life without her father, irrespective of what the jury decided, just as Ma’Khia Bryant’s mother will never again hold her child.

I’ve been thinking this week, like so many others, can we now move from accountability to true justice? Is our duty only to build and support the legal system and other institutions, making them more fair? Or is there a personal duty that each of us have to live the embodied virtue of justice in our everyday lives?

If I consider what is needed to prevent another murder such as George Floyd’s, I am not sure the problem is solely an institutional one. Part of it must be personal. What I see fundamentally missing in these violent and traumatic events is relationship, loving personal concern, and a lack of understanding of our interdependence.

Bureaucracies cannot love. They have no soul, heart, or conscience. Only individuals have those things. The “society” implied in “social” justice is made of a collective of individuals. The collective shapes the individual, but so too does the individual shape the collective. Perhaps the fight for justice is a fight with ourselves, one that starts within our own hearts; and “the work” to be done is the work of manifesting justice in our own thoughts, words and actions.

At The Pollination Project, here is what we will do: we will continue uplifting individual action, working with people within their own communities to understand where they see just solutions. We will continue to invest in their loving concern for their neighbors, knowing this builds the capacity for compassion that exists there. And as individuals, we will work to better understand ourselves, remembering Frankl’s idea that happiness cannot be pursued, but is something that ensues.

Perhaps justice is the same, and the answer is not to seek justice but to become justice.