Service, simplicity & songwriting – part 1
With an Ivy league education, this MTV rap/hip hop star was living the American dream and working on Wall Street when the events of 9/11 unfolded in front of his eyes. Giving up the corporate world, NIMO PATEL decided to pursue his passion for music in LA, but a chronic health issue led him to seek Ayurvedic treatment in India. He stayed back for 6 months to volunteer at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, and continues to this day working with the slum children of the city when he’s not working for his own non-profit organization, Empty Hands Music. VANESSA PATEL caught up with him in June to learn more about his mantra, “Service, Simplicity & Songwriting.”
Q: Hello, Nimo, so happy to have this opportunity to chat with you. How are you doing during this lockdown?
NP: Wonderful! Breathing, and deep breathing, doing good. You know, it’s a time of reflection and introspection, to reflect on the way we live, how we interact with each other, with humanity. It’s really a blessing. There’s so much suffering going on, so this is a gift of transformation. Obviously, we will get through this suffering, but hopefully, we can use it for the betterment of humanity. So, collectively and individually, this is a gift in many ways, although in the short term it’s tough to digest.
How are you doing?
Q: Doing well. As you said, using this time to reflect. And one of the things I realize is that we don’t need a lot of the stuff we’ve accumulated in our lives. You already started this process several years ago when you took up a life dedicated to service. So, when you did a U-turn from your previous lifestyle and did a ‘material’ cleanse, would you say this was a spiritual shift?
NP: For me, the spiritual journey is such a gradual process, so even the word ‘U-turn’ feels a bit abrupt, as though I saw the sign right away and it fixed everything. Instead, I would say, my journey has been ongoing – from the seeds that were planted when I was young, from memories of going to the temple, to being exposed to such a diverse group of friends and community in elementary school, high school, then college. Just the diversity around me was a spiritual teacher, in a sense, to accept and embrace all faiths. Whether I’m in an honors class with people with a certain mindset, or on the sports team playing basketball with people of a different mindset, that for me laid the foundation. It’s hard to capture, and I feel so honored and blessed to have grown up in that diverse community outside Los Angeles, and later on going through college.
I feel one of the major triggers for me happened when I was working on Wall Street and 9/11 happened before my eyes; seeing that happen and then embracing things, the ongoing process of healing and reflection. That was literally the biggest trigger. I was one and a half years out of college, and it hit hard: “What are you actually doing with your life?” You never know, you could have literally been gone today. You don’t know when this is going to end, when this magical journey you’re blessed with on planet Earth is going to end. So, that triggered me to say, “I don’t think I’m having a purpose at this company at a deeper level.” I needed to follow my passion and it pushed me to leave New York to pursue music, media and entertainment.
And then, another thing triggered me along the way, which was my health journey. I got this chronic illness in my hand, called carpel tunnel syndrome or repetitive stress injury, which gradually got worse. I was doing a lot of computer work at that time in 2002, as my friends and I had just started an online comic strip that turned into a media company and animation studio. And through that, by 2005 the problem started increasing, and by 2006 it was unbearable. By 2007, it was so bad I couldn’t even brush my teeth or hold a bag.
“What are you actually doing with your life?”
You never know, you could have literally been gone today.
You don’t know when this is going to end,
when this magical journey you’re blessed with
on planet Earth is going to end.
It was then that my dad suggested getting Ayurvedic treatment, and my parents knew a healer in India. I had tried everything in the allopathic world and alternative medicines, and I had nothing to lose, because it wasn’t getting better.
In 2004, because of this suffering, which was both physical and mental – we create it in our mind because of what’s going on – it led me to pursue meditation at a deeper level. My roommate in NY had once told me about Vipassana and it was the perfect time to try it. It became a big part of my life. Being in a deeper connection with my mind and body was one benefit. I stopped drinking alcohol; I thought if I really want to heal, then I need to purify my mind and body. I became more health conscious than before, took a deeper stand.
When I came to India, another seed was planted. I arrived in Ahmedabad and stayed with my cousin and his wife (whose house I’m at now). I volunteered for 6 months at Manav Sadna, the NGO that I have been volunteering with for 10 years. The seed planted in my heart back then was working with children; we recorded a music album called Let Them Sing. It was an album of their voices, their stories. When I went back to the US the journey continued. There was funding to open an animation studio and I got into that. Again, a trigger came up, “What are you doing?”.
You know, Vanessa, when I graduated from high school my dream was to become the CEO of Warner Bros. I always had a passion for media and entertainment. I chose Wharton Business School because I wanted to bridge business and entertainment; that was my vision. So, this animation studio was a dream for me. I’m not even mentioning the music stuff, which I loved – that was definitely my passion. But this career dream was as a businessman blended with entertainment, so, having the studio gave me that space and all the partners I was working with were amazing. It was in that space that I realized I wasn’t happy. I had worked so far in my life for this career goal, and I was finally in the space that resembled it, and still I was suffering in my heart. I was not feeling any sense of fulfillment or purpose. So either I could go with what the mind said, which was “You’re successful, you’re on a successful path”, or I could follow this soft, quaint voice which was not really able to reveal itself because the mind and the ego were more deceiving. But I’m so happy that, somehow, the suffering in whatever form it was, was calling out to say, “Please listen.” It was saying, “You need to start again.”
I said to myself, “These last 10 years of your career have been amazing. You’ve been able to experience the world in such an amazing way.” I mean, we were touring as a music group, and the media and entertainment opportunities were really exciting, but there was something missing. And to listen to that voice was the key thing for me. I didn’t know what that meant, to be honest, and that was the scary part of it. The vulnerability that came with the change – from a mindset of set a goal and reach the goal to the mindset of surrender, but you don’t know where it’s going to lead you – was scary, but I felt that that was the only way I was going to realign myself at a stage in my life where I could still do it. I think we can do that at any stage, but I felt that at 30 I still had the capacity to follow my heart instead of going with what seems to be right in everybody’s mind or in the outside world, or from a material point of view.
There’s a quote from Mahatma Gandhi that I always like to share, and it helped me at that time: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
I had felt lost in my own way, because my heart was not connecting with the external. So, basically, the next phase of the journey of my life became: What does it mean to serve? Not merely because I want to help others, but because I really need to understand myself. If service is the best medium to find myself, then what a win-win!
After I moved to Ahmedabad, although I had external goals, for the next two years I was really focused on, “How am I purifying my own mind and heart in being a part of others’ journeys?” And that then became the formula.
Q: You said that you didn’t want service to be ego-based, to have as little attachment to it as possible. So, you went out there with the idea to serve and actually felt yourself being served. That must have been a very humbling experience. Were there people in your life, your peers, perhaps, who questioned your new way of life?
NP: Yes, there are all types of resistance when you’re going against the external grain, and also going against the internal wiring of your own conditioning. So, for sure, the journey with mom and dad, with friends and family, and with college mates especially, because they are all successful in different ways – for them to see me living this new life, a lot of questions kept coming up. But, the most important thing was to keep digging and trying to understand myself – why I was doing what I was doing. In the beginning phase it was an experiment! I remember thinking, “I can do this for a year, why not? And then start something else, or get a nice paying job, whatever it is, I’m fine, I have enough savings.”
That’s how it started, and I said to myself, “I need to commit at least one year, and I need to go all in.” I remember one of my mentors, someone I’m close to here in Ahmedabad, said something that had such an effect on me: “Beta, you should live life like a flashlight. In the dark, you have a light and you see 6 feet in front of you. You don’t need to see more than that, actually, because with every step you take you’ll still have 6 feet of light in front of you. So, what’s the need to look back and stumble?” That really clicked with me, because it had always been, “What’s your 5, 10, 15-year plan, your retirement plan?” So, this became an experiment to learn, to grow, and to rewire myself, because I realized that my wiring was not the way it should be. Why? Because I was suffering.
I truly felt, and still feel, that we have the full capacity to minimize, if not eradicate, our suffering, but there are so many layers on us. So, it was really an opportunity to find out what’s creating the suffering and, in the process of service, how I was going to touch upon these layers, one at a time. We’re not going to clear everything in one go; it’s a lifelong journey.
In that first year, my parents gave me the benefit of the doubt: “He was doing good, now he wants to do this, okay.” And in the second or third year, my dad specifically said, “You realize that if you want to live this type of life, you have to be passionate about it, and you’re going to have to simplify your life. Are you okay with not having so much and not doing all these things?” And after the third year, he was like, “Is this really what you want to do? Are you sure?” Then, little by little, they embraced the work I was doing, they were exposed to it, they started taking part in it. They started understanding, and being around me, with me. I think they started seeing the value in it, the purpose and joy in it, and the meaning in it.
Q: And the fact that it was making you happy.
NP: Absolutely! That was the impact on them. They were thinking not only of my own joy, but also what is it doing for the world, and they started seeing value in it. And when I reconnected with my music, in the third year after I moved to Ahmedabad, I started sharing that with the world as a gift. I didn’t want to charge for it. I wanted it to be pure, from a space of offering and not from me as an artist. A lot of people started questioning me then, too. And my dad and my uncle started wondering what I was doing.
At one point, I was in Denver with my family and I remember asking my father, “Dad, when somebody is working for a company, he’s adding value to the company, and for that he’s getting compensated with a cheque every two weeks. So, that’s the materialistic business world we’re talking about. So, don’t you think that when, from my heart of hearts, I try my best to do my small part for the world, whatever that might be, God is going to support me, just as the boss supports his employee?” And I think it clicked for my dad at that point, and it was a nice turning point for him, as well, to realize that it’s much beyond the numbers game.
We have the full capacity to minimize, if not eradicate,
our suffering, but there are so many layers on us.
So, it was really an opportunity to find out
what’s creating the suffering and, in the process of service,
how I was going to touch upon these layers, one at a time.
It has been amazing, Vanessa, this journey of surrendering. As a human being and as a being full of ego, there are a lot of things that come up and it happens in phases. I’m much more grounded and connected to the Source during certain phases, and then I get karmically oriented, and I start doing projects and get caught up in the doing – even though it might be service, you’re still in this mindset of trying to account for something. Then I lose that stillness in me, which is the most important thing to me, the whole process. But I go back to “I’m not doing this to accomplish something, I’m doing this to purify my heart,” then it comes back.
I’m on this journey with noble friends and family, who are walking this path together, not only to serve externally, but also purify internally. To me, that’s been the blessing on this path, and I couldn’t care less what I accomplish. If I die today, it would be feeling so humbled and blessed, crying tears of joy, and thanking God and all those people around for this journey that has unfolded.
To be continued
Interviewed by VANESSA PATEL
Photographs courtesy of NIMO PATEL
September 30, 2020
September 29, 2020
September 29, 2020