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At a time when politicians and the insurance companies debate about who deserves health care at what price, Dr. Aumatma Shah and the other practitioners at Karma Clinic literally gift their care and services to patients  in an offering that is full of sacrifice in the truest meaning of the word– “to make sacred”.

Health care can often be characterized as a pretty sick business, leaving many patients wondering whether their physicians got into medicine because of status and financial security rather than the compassion they hope to be at core of the profession.

Karma Clinic practitioners remove any doubt about their desire to help people heal and reduce their suffering by putting money and status on the sidelines.  They regard themselves as humble partners in healing, with financial security outsourced to the circulation of gifts of gratitude that come from their service.

The debt incurred through acquiring a medical education and the sword of malpractice hanging over most doctor’s heads encourages the self-interested physician to orchestrate a delicate dance of concern against profit, often leading to minimal time with patients, costly ‘cover your a$$’ diagnostics and tests, and over-reliance on pills and procedures for patients to the neglect of prescriptions for health-supporting changes in lifestyle.

While Karma Clinic practitioners have incurred financial debt for their medical education, they’re driven by the debt of gratitude in being instruments of healing.  Patients get intensive time with the practitioners, with an emphasis on arriving at the root cause of health problems and treatments geared toward adjustments in diet, attitude, and lifestyle as much as the remedies and procedures provided.  Treatment itself is a gift, removing the quid pro quo of ‘care’ for money while pushing the burden of sustainability to what overflows from the gratitude at becoming whole.

We think of sacrifice as a dirty word we’d rather not have to indulge in, but if you could trade your fancy car for the health and longevity of a loved one, wouldn’t you do so in an instant?  In a consumer-driven society, we forget that real sacrifices are always offerings that get us closer to our real treasures in a step toward the sacred.

Karma Clinic is a dance in the sacred, radical in that its practitioners dare to see you as an equal and care for you as much as a member of your own family.  Wouldn’t you rather have a doctor who sacrifices their Benz for your health, rather than visa versa?

While gifts have sustained Karma Clinic so far, the experiment is about to intensify for one of the practitioners.  Dr. Shah’s med school loans are about to come due starting in May.  The increased expenses give the community an opportunity to join the sacred dance through sacrifices of their own that allow the clinic to sustain.

Check out a video on Karma Clinic from GoInspireGo:

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The Ideal India

People buy iPhones to be universally connected and have a ton of cool functions and features at their fingertips.  But as Rev. Heng Sure once said, everything we create in silicon already exists in carbon.  I’d add that the silicon technology is a poor facsimile at best.

So how exactly do you tap into the wonderful carbon technology you carry around with you all the time?

Meditation is a phenomenal tool to do just that.

Here are five areas where meditation beats an iPhone.

1. Connectivity

The truth is that you can’t really connect to anyone else unless you’re in touch with yourself.  The iPhone allows and encourages you to be marginally present when physically absent, and marginally absent when physically present.

Meditation gets you back in touch with yourself and helps you be present.  Period. Sometimes meditators are so present, they’re even present when absent!  And that makes their ability to connect way beyond what the iPhone allows!

2. Social Networking

Let’s face it: Twitter is often mostly random bits of irrelevant thought that you cursorily follow from people you don’t always know.  That Facebook’s popularity surpasses porn suggests that there is certainly something sexual about its magic, as 400+ million people compete for collecting more friends and appearing to have the most fun while waiting for the next ‘serendipitous’ connection.

Behind their popularity is the myth that quantity makes up for quality. 

How many of your Facebook friends could you call in a jam at 3am?  How many tweets will you ponder longer than a 160 character attention-span?

The truth is that quality is what counts, and meditation eases the disease of a random mind to add increased quality and relevance to ‘mental tweets’.  Random thoughts get slowly recycled into the mental soil, fertilizing the thoughts worth nurturing as attention stabilizes and intensifies.  The growing relief felt from all the chaos sloshing around in your head starts building sympathy for other people’s struggles.  You yourself start becoming a person willing to dash to the rescue at 3am, or just helping to make people around you a little bit happier, and that starts earning you deeper friends willing to respond in kind.

Cooling down with meditation

Suddenly you’re having real fun wherever you are, with no time left to tweet about it, snap pictures for facebook, or passively stalk other people’s lives.  Birds of a feather flock together, so you’re soon surrounded by like-minded people, paving the path for serendipitous connections that give you goosebumps in ways that connecting to your 2nd-grade-best-friend or unrequited-secret-lover-from-prom on facebook never can.

3. Features and Functionality

Is the iPhone’s 2-megapixel camera not enough for you?  How about the 324-megapixel equivalent of the human eye?  Not enough storage on your iPhone for those kinds of pictures?  Nobody knows a good way to calculate the storage of the human brain, but credible guesses say it can hold 1 to 1000 terabytes of information.  Can’t remember that much, you say?  Meditation improves memory, reverses memory loss, and delays or prevents Alzheimer’s and dementia.  How about GPS?  Meditation really grounds you and helps you figure out where you’re at and where you’re headed.  What about apps and games?  Meditation starts unlocking the games you play best and opening you up to more productive applications.

4. Environment

When 3G turns to 4G or 6F or whatever is next, your smart iPhone gets closer to becoming e-waste, full of toxic chemicals that California consider to be hazardous waste.  Be sure to recycle it when you’re done playing, and remind the other kids to do so too.

Meanwhile, meditation doesn’t add to your footprint on the planet, but might just soften it.  There isn’t much research on this, but a lot of anecdotal evidence that shows that you’ll start feeling the need for fewer material things.  And that’s great for the planet!

5. Cost

After all your fancy data plans and minutes, you can spend $5 or more a day on your iPhone.  Meditation is free, barring what you pay to learn or attend a course.  If you decide to try Vipassana, a past student who benefited will pay for your course!  And if you’re serious about practicing, meditation starts paying you, as all of that focus makes you more productive, creative, insightful, and energetic.  I’d call that a fantastic investment in any economic climate  🙂

In short, meditation is an unparalleled technology that surpasses the iPhone by leaps and bounds.  In fairness, any technology simply amplifies the will you place behind it, and its possible to use things like iPhone, Twitter, and Facebook while minimizing their downsides just like its possible to misuse meditation.

Yet playing with our silicon technology seems to have a much more slippery slope than figuring out our carbon technology, and that will keep me away from iPhones for a while.

Tejdeep Singh. Photo from CBS News

On the heels of last weeks news that Howard University dental student Ramy Zamzam has been convicted of terrorism in Pakistan, the United States loses yet another dental professional in the war on terror as 31-year-old dentist Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan becomes the first openly-Sikh US Army Officer in a generation.

While civil rights groups and Sikhs around the world are certain to cheer the decision, I secretly fear that the change will sow confusion in the Armed Services and general public in a perfect storm of geography and oral hygiene ignorance.

Let’s be honest: we’re a nation where many of our people and sometimes our Presidents have scarcely heard of a country until we invade it.  Identifying it on a map, or knowing even basic information about it is tough for a lot of our people.  The following video is case-in-point.

How many soldiers and citizens think that the bad guys are brown-skinned, turban-headed men?  Introducing one of them into the Army as a “good guy” is a brain-popping level of complexity that we’re simply not equipped for as a nation.  Even Halliburton and Blackwater don’t have a subsidiary where we can outsource the massive cultural training project needed to re-educate our troops.

And what will Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s legions claim when they descend on Washington donning their already scarily funny repetoire of signs?  Can we expect them to be protesting the Obama adminstration allowing openly-Taliban soldiers into the US Army in the boldest move at allegedly dismantling America to-date?

Americans are also prejudiced against seeing dentists as the good guys, given our 142 lbs of per capita of sugar consumption.   Far easier to type-caste them as terrorists given the pain and bloodshed we should rightly expect on a visit, and Singh Rattan will only add to the confusion that many of our citizens are likely to feel upon learning that he’s one of our finest.

More importantly, given the oral casualties our sweet diets inflict, can we really afford to be losing another dentist to the war on terror, regardless of what side they’re on?  Don’t we need these people fighting caries in the Homeland?  One can only hope that Singh Rattan’s success means that our soldiers ravaged teeth will be protected and defended in the heroic warrior-saint tradition of his noble faith.

Meanwhile, someone in Bollywood is already churning away on a film dramatizing the story– a touching tale of an “ABCD” dentist son of Sikh immigrants finding his tooth fairy-like true love in the war-ravaged Kabul countryside as they race to stop an orthodontic madman from spreading IEDDs (improvised explosive dental devices) to toothless Afghan refugees.

My bet on the title?  Kabhi Kushi Bloody Gums!

The Indian press is in a frenzy over a video of a man who appears to be Paramahamsa Nithyananda of Life Bliss Foundation / Dhyanapeetam

Paramahamsa Nithyananda

engaging in intimate relations with a young woman who is allegedly South Indian film actress Ranjitha, jolting worldwide devotees and followers to either recoil in shock and betrayal, or flock to his support and allege a fraudulent smear campaign.  Regardless of what camp people fall in, the scandal is tremendously painful for most who are involved, perhaps with the exception of the few who benefit from it.  Believer or not, the scandal can also be a moment of deeper introspection.

What can all of us, regardless of faith, creed, and path learn from this situation?

I’ll attempt to distill five provocative lessons.

Lesson 1: Nobody Is Immune

Every religious and spiritual organization has had some kind of scandal.  Every. Single. One.  Without regard to whether these scandals are legitimate or not, they are ubiquitous and often easily discovered by anyone who cares to be persistent, inconspicuous, and objective about doing their homework. The only question is whether you care to know.

Western readers may feel that this disease is a mostly an Indian or Hindu phenomenon as a result of an open source religion that is eager to see God everywhere, including in every living and dead guru, but that would be a hypocritical and undeniably amnesic assertion.

At the risk of offending several billion people, the Abrahamic traditions are no strangers to scandals, often ones that strike to their very core.  Wikipedia has an (incomplete) list of Christian evangelist scandals, and the Catholic church’s deep history of corruption, abuse, and tyranny involving many Popes, including the latest Pope is easy Googled.  Long before Dan Brown’s novels, credible archaeologist had reason to believe that Jesus had a son, launching other credible archaeologists to battle the assertion as if their afterlives depended on it.

Islam’s scandals are either less prolific and public, or much more so depending on your perspective.  To be honest, I am a little afraid to mention them, but I’ll say that the Prophet Mohammed is alone as the founder of a major world religion to have done things that most modern people would find disagreeable and shocking.

Those who devote their energies to secular do-gooder organizations and choose agnosticism or atheism because (or even despite) religious/spiritual scandal, they too should not feel immune.  Even in the very best of organizations, you can find something disagreeable if you look hard and deep enough, or stick around long enough.

And to all those whose religious, spiritual, and secular organizations have not yet been caught in some scandal, I say that you a.) should continue to remain objective or intensive in your examination and b.) its probably only matter of time before you find something to disappoint you.

I’m not trying to be universally offensive, but rather to cut through the notion that any group should feel superior to anybody else.

scandals everywhere

What we witness in these scandals are ubiquitously human phenomena and behavior, and that is exactly why we’re all in this together and no person is immune.

Lesson 2: Scandals Reflect Our Own Nature

Most scandals have a dynamic two-fold nature: high-profile individuals and organizations generate enemies both within and outside their ranks, and everyone on both sides operates within the limitations of human traits that we all share.

symbolic of the nature of reality

In short, everyone is both a Jesus and a Judas.

There is always a grain of truth in the lies, and a grain of lie in the truth from both sides.  This comes from living in a relative, dualistic world where all things are known by their opposites.

Scandals often boil down to someone doing

Uncle Sam thinks YOU are guilty

something that we too might have done or actually do often.  And if we’re not ‘guilty’, chances are that someone very close to us–close enough to implicate us by association– is ‘guilty’.

The reality of our own behavior should be at the forefront of our minds, and serve as a buffer to our instincts of judgment and condemnation.

As Jesus said when Mary was about to be stoned, “Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone.”

Lessson 3: Know And Own Your Values

Like It?

Our reactions to situations like these tend to reveal the core of our values around things like money and sex.

How do you feel about it?

These values have often been programmed into our minds at a young age when we weren’t fully aware or equipped to alter the code, or blindly swallowed under the influence of a charismatic figure in our adult life.

Not being the author or at least the controller of the software that runs your conscious and subconscious mind can be troubling, especially in a crisis.  Continue to ask yourself honest and difficult questions, and be prepared for unsettling answers that keep evolving for your entire life.  Deepening your own awareness and integrity is what counts.

After all, what is spiritual growth besides an evolving of how you view and live in the world?

As with all growth, no pain means no gain.  Be with the pain, and try to rise above the suffering.

Lesson 4: Separate Principles from Personalities

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater

“This allegation cannot be true, because I have benefited so much from [X practice/teaching]!”

Whether guru/Lord/prophet/avatar/teacher has done X, Y, and Z with which you disagree with does not necessarily invalidate the principle, technique, or teaching they have shared.

If what you have learned from someone has added value to your life, you should not toss out the teaching with the teacher.  Life is simply too short to not use every possible tool at your disposal to live the best possible life you can.

Lesson 5: Your Own Experiences Are What Count

Regardless of whether you believe you will be saved, liberated through your own efforts, or born just as confused, hopelessly flawed and selfish as everyone else, what counts most is your own experience in life.

Be true to your own direct experience with an organization, faith, individual, or practice, while also willing to dissect those experiences to their essential lessons.  This is the only thing that will get you anywhere.

Without a doubt, it takes a lot of courage and hard work to keep doing this, but it makes a world of difference for the better in your life trajectory.

Conclusions

One thing is certain: after this scandal and regardless of its degree of truth, Paramahansa Nithyananda will continue to have throngs of followers and supporters.  We’ve seen this with every past scandal everywhere else, despite how bad things seemed.

The key question is how to reduce the suffering people feel as a result of scandals that hit close to home.

These five lessons keep things in perspective and assure that everyone can grow in beneficial ways.

The New York Times recently reported on the Peepoo, a biodegradable plastic bag containing urea crystals that serves as a single-use disposable ‘toilet’ for people that lack access to regular toilets.  The urea crystals kill the harmful bacteria in the excrement that would ordinarily end up contaminating water supplies and spreading very preventable diseases.

The World Health Organization estimates that unsafe water kills 1.8 million people a year, and that inadequate sanitation and hygiene is responsible for 88% of that burden.  When you include the millions who daily suffer from non-lethal sickness from contaminated water, its easy to say that this is one of the world’s biggest problems.

The inventor of the Peepoo got the idea from observing African slum dwellers using regular plastic bags as ‘helicopter toilets’ that would be disposed of by twirling overhead after use to fling as far as possible.  Bags easily burst on or after impact, so this practice is as ineffective in dealing with the problem as it is humorously disgusting.  Can you imagine all the bag bombs flying around Kenyan slums in the morning?

The company claims to have done successful testing of the bags in Kenya, so would disposable, biodegradable ‘toilets’ work in Indian slums?  Let’s consider the question from several perspectives.

Economics

Each bag will be sold for $.02 – .03 , so an average Indian slum family of 5 would spend 10 – 15 cents (or Rs 5 – 8 ) per day, or Rs. 150 – 230 per month for their waste disposal needs.  That can be as high as 10% of household income for waste disposal in the face of several compelling alternatives.

Option 1:  Status quo.  Open defecation wherever you want.  Financial cost: zero.

Option 2:  Gov’t toilet.  On-going programs in most states allocate funds for toilet construction for those who lack access.  Financial cost: Rs. 1000 unsubsidized; or Rs. 100 with NGO subsidy.

Option 3:  Pay-use toilet. Like seen in Slumdog Millionaire, or those operated by a number of private players like Sulabh.  Financial cost: Rs. 1 per use.

Clearly, any option trumps the Peepoo.  The economics of a solution usually determine its fate, but there are ways to mitigate economic cost so we’ll examine social aspects next.

Social Dimensions

First, there is a widespread belief in India that the excrement of children is more ‘pure’ and less dirty than that of adults.  Slum kids tend to defecate openly even when their households have a toilet, and dislodging the adult misinformation around changing this practice is challenging.

Secondly, most Indian slum dwellers use water and their left-hand to clean themselves after defecating.  I wonder if the design accommodates for this, as it would make it more challenging to tie and dispose of the bag in a manner that doesn’t contaminate the right hand.

Boy holding his own poop in a bag.

Third, the stigma surrounding any type of waste handling is huge, and also has deeply entrenched caste and class characteristics.  An illustrative example is that people are opposed to using the biogas from composting toilets to cook even after all the smell has been removed.  Ignoring these facts, would you want to be seen carrying a bag labeled “Peepoo” in big letters?  I didn’t think so.

Fourth is the question of privacy.  For women in Indian slums, this is often the driving force behind getting a toilet, trumping all other financial and social costs associated with open defecation.  Peepoo does nothing to address this fundamental market-driver for toilets.

Lastly, one of the value propositions of Peepoo is that can be buried and used and fertilizer for crops.  However, there is usually very little digging that happens for human waste in Indian slums.  Only farming communities have adopted this practice, though I have not researched how widespread it is.

One segment of Lok Darshan‘s first episode, made by our talented team drawn from Gujarat’s largest slum, examines the realities of toilets for Indian slums through humor and song.

Community Compliance

Assuming economic and social barriers are overcome, Peepoo requires 100% community compliance in order to reduce the burden of disease.  In other words, it only takes one person pooping outdoors to contaminate a community’s water supply.  To my knowledge, the only organization deploying toilets and sanitation solutions that has understood this from the beginning is Gram Vikas, which insists that 100% of a community sign up for full sanitation facilities before deploying anything.  Everyone else can pat themselves on the back for building a few people toilets, but cannot rightly hope to impact that family’s or that community’s incidence of waterborne disease.

So What Is Peepoo Good For?

Despite this product’s current limitations in the context of Indian slums, I would argue that it has a number of practical, potentially powerful uses besides those in African slums.

Refugee Camps and Disaster Areas

Keeping them from becoming breeding grounds of disease is difficult.  I’d be willing to wager that the end-to-end cost of the current portable options is much higher than the PeePoo, and that gov’ts and aid agencies would be thrilled to take advantage of the cost savings.

Hikers / Campers In The West

On trails and locations that lack access to toilet facilities, Peepoo would be ideal.  Stores like North Face and REI could probably sell them for $1 / bag or more, especially if the price aimed at subsidizing 50+ free bags for refugee camps.

Diapers

Seriously.  Just counting America’s 8.8 million babies, we generate 27.4 billion disposable diapers a year.  Getting even a small fraction of these to be biodegradable reaps huge benefits, though landfill degradation is still slower than normal degradation.  Again, I would subsidize free bags for Africa through sales to disposable diaper makers.

Regular Plastic Bags

The Pacific has its plastic garbage patch and it was recently discovered that the Atlantic has one to match, leading progressive cities like San Francisco to ban plastic bags entirely.  During the 2005 monsoon season, Mumbai was flooded because plastic bags had clogged the drainage systems, leading to a statewide ban on them.  If the plastic in Peepoo is truly biodegradable, why not take the urea out of them, re/de-brand the bags, and make them available to all the places still using plastic.  Its an instant market that addresses a global issue, and has huge potential to subsidize free PeePoos where needed.

All that said, there is a model for how Peepoo could work in Indian slums.  Whether the company is smart enough to discern it’s appropriate use and drive the market towards this solution is an entirely different question, and perhaps the test of how committed they are to their stated mission.