Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Milan Rai: To Follow a Butterfly

by Pavi Mehta, Richard Whittaker, Jun 16, 2018



Guest: Milan Rai
Host: Pavi Mehta
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer run offering of Service Space.

Pavi:  Welcome. My name is Pavi Mehta and I will be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space. Today our guest speaker is a visionary artist from Nepal, Milan Rai. And our moderator today is Richard Whittaker. As founding editor of the magazine works & conversations, Richard has spent three decades seeking out artists off the beaten path and engaging them in powerful, revelatory conversations. Thank you moderating this conversation today. Richard.

Richard:  Thank you, Pavi. And Milan, we’re glad to have you here with us! What I know of Milan I learned reading Trishna Shah’s interview with him and the wonderful write-up we all probably read, ahead of this call. In short, Milan has been on a remarkable personal journey and I think we should get right into our conversation. So Milan, I hope you don't mind repeating some of the things you spoke of earlier. Are you OK with that?

Milan:  Absolutely fine. I’ll try my best.

Richard:  All right. So, Milan, I think it would be interesting for people to hear about your difficulties in school. Would you mind just talking a little bit about that?

Milan:  No. 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 school compound or the classroom. Just recently, Gate College in Kathmandu invited me to do a guest speaker session. So I joked that I never liked entering the gate of schools, and I might jump out of the compound!
     So I never liked being inside a confined classroom, and I started failing my subjects. In eighth grade, I failed all my subjects and then I had to repeat with my juniors. I felt quite offended by that and I quit. I quit that school.
     I was labeled as a hopeless kid. I was very poor in math—in mostly all the subjects—because I wasn’t paying attention to what teacher was teaching. I was paying attention to what was outside. So I always joke that I was one of the brightest kids. I always pulled out of the classroom on bright, sunny days.

Richard:  Well, maybe there was something sort of instinctively intelligent about being attracted to real life that way. So you weren’t connecting in school.

Milan:  No. It was very difficult for me. As a teenage boy, there was big pressure. You have to get a certificate. If you don’t pass, you won’t be able to face the modern world. And I was very discouraged. I kept changing schools and got kicked out of several schools. I got kicked out of one in seven days. I changed to another school and got kicked out of it in 3 months. Then I had to change my city!

Richard:  And this was in eighth grade when you were thirteen, or around there?

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

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

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

Richard:  Now, I read that this began a difficult period for you. 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 that part of your life?

Milan:  It was a way of living out my frustrations, because people—society, relatives, friends—were telling me I wouldn’t be able to do anything without a degree or certificate. I was feeling lost and sometimes I think people didn’t know how to handle that. I was swallowed by frustration. The frustration and pressure was so big, that I found solace in drugs and negative activities and the result was devastating. I ended up in a hospital. My jaw got fractured.
     In that bed-rest, I got lot of time to think about my days. I had to be in bed all the time with no energy in my body. So I was thinking about all my past days and the results. And I came to realize that I also have another quality that I did not treasure, did not polish, did not show. So I said I’ll start painting! That’s a talent I was born with. I’ll focus on that. I used to draw and paint in my early childhood. So I came back to art again, and art changed my life.

Richard:  Well, that's something. And this was a great gift, seeing that it was the drawing and painting you could do, 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. It was painful, but it was worth it.

Richard:  You described yourself as a shy and introverted person.

Milan:  I mean, I didn’t actively engage in activities. I was a backbencher and I didn’t participate in any extra activities like sports, debate, quiz contests. Like I was not comfortable or confident enough, let’s say. But now, I'm not shy.

Richard:  No. 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.

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 saw a notice, an open call for artists.
     The color shop people encouraged me to apply. I said, “Maybe I'm not ready for this. But the guy said, “Just try it.”
     So I looked at the form and realized I wasn’t eligible because I had no degree. I wasn’t eligible for the student category, either, because I wasn’t studying anywhere. So I tore that form up and picked up one for the professional category. I entered that competition, and to my surprise, my painting made it to the top ten. That came as a surprise!
     My painting was of light because I was trying to find my own light or, you know, deal with the darkness. It was inspired by what I was going through. Then I have to submit the original painting for the final round. Before there were just photos. So I submitted the original work and then, after some time, they announced the winner, and it was me.

Richard:  Wow! It almost seems like destiny. That must have been just a tremendous experience for you.

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

Richard:  Right. And it's fascinating how your story has progressed from there. After you won the prize, you found it easy to get shows in Kathmandu, I take it. What was happening afterwards?

Milan:  After that, I approached galleries myself. I became really confident and I got my first exhibition in an art gallery in 2007. Yeah. It was a new experience. Like people started buying my paintings. But I was not satisfied. I kept on questioning and questioning—ike why people are buying my paintings? I couldn’t be satisfied and that lasted for some time. People started buying my paintings and the price kept increasing. I felt like, wow! I'm going in the right direction. But I questioned that, too.

Richard:  Can you say more about what the questioning was about, exactly?

Milan:  Like I used to receive phone calls from the color shop, from people who were interested to buy my paintings. They were from privileged backgrounds, like upper-class families. So they would call me and say, I want you to paint a canvas dedicated to this or that. You know? So I was bringing in money painting what they liked. And at one point, I thought, stop painting what they like. Start painting what I like. And then they stopped buying my paintings!

Richard:  It’s so clear reading another interview with you that you have a powerful instinctive sense of honoring what's really true for you. So would you tell us a little about how your journey went in the next couple of years from there?

Milan:  Most of these people who were buying the paintings were not serious collectors. They had money and just wanted the work of an artist. So I started thinking I'll stop exhibiting my work in galleries because the same circle will keep repeating. I wanted to extend and expand, especially in my country where people usually don't go to galleries. The people you see in galleries are few academics interested in art, or collectors from the same artist circle. Besides that, no people are coming from other backgrounds.
    I thought art should not be limited to this privileged group of people. I thought I’ll find alternative ways where, if they cannot come to the gallery, I’ll go to them.

Richard:  It’s a great inspiration that you made that leap.

Milan:  Yes. Then, instead of making my work and paintings in a studio, I started doing live paintings, action paintings, in front of an audience, like where the people gathered for Friday night hangout with friends. I’d go there and ask for permission. Then 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:  What was it like to paint in front of people?

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

Richard:  I know that, at one point where you were doing this live painting, you knocked the canvas over, and that was a big moment.

Milan:  (Laughs) Yes.

Richard:  Would you like to share about it? It 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 too small for me. The artist in me had left the gallery for sure but, still, the people who came to these fancy restaurants, they were like rich people. Whereas the cab driver, the newspaper seller—all these people were still deprived, and art was not reaching out to these people. So after three years, the same question hit me: this is not enough. So I said to myself, I will stop this and now expand even more and will start to experiment.
     So I started experimenting with various ideas thinking of a lot of ways to make art accessible to all. My first idea was to go to a city and talk with the mayor and share my idea. I said, “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 to go to the mayor.

Milan:  Yes. But they were simply not interested. They really were not aware and well informed about the power of art and they did not allow me. So I started researching. As I had stepped out of the gallery, now my studio was wherever I go. My city became my studio. So I started researching, talking to random people, introducing myself and saying, “I am an artist. Can you do me a little favor?” So I started asking each and every person I met on the road in public spaces.

Richard:  It must have been very interesting, even just talking with strangers.

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

Richard:  So you went to colleges to do that?

Milan:  I actually went to the colleges, and like I talked to the mayor, I talked to the principal. But not a single college allowed me to get to any class.

Richard:  How was it for you, all this interaction with people—just the interaction part?

Milan:  That 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. There were questions like why do you want my earphones? But it was interesting to meet people from all walks of life. 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. It was tiring, but now I feel that it was an amazing experience.
     The idea of collecting earphones was that I was very sensitive to energies. I felt that these earphones are not just material pieces. With them, 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. These earphones might be the only companions when someone was traveling alone.
     Lots of emotions are deposited in this single piece of an earphone. And I was trying to collect those emotions. With thousands and thousands of earphones I wanted to make a big art piece installation and put in the middle of the, the heart of the city. And when people are in their daily commute to their work, office, colleges, they would see this big piece of work and would feel. “I have contributed to this.”  
     This was my way of thanking. By using people's earphones and connecting them with the artwork, I could make them feel like they had contributed to the artwork—like my piece of the earphone is somewhere in there.
     But this didn't work. The municipal corporation did not give me permission to show that piece because it was really big and would take a lot of time and manpower. So I could not arrange that because they were not supportive. But I did not quit. This is just one example about my experiments—my trial and error and failures. So like this, I tried many other ideas.

Richard:  You’ve been able to persist in the face of failures and rejections, and I just wonder if you would reflect at all about what might be the source of that inner strength you seem to have?

Milan:  Now I have a much richer and grounded experience. When I was very young, I did not have any other options. I had nothing, because I had no certificate. I had nothing except art. 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.

Richard:  If I follow you, 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 experimenting and searching. Then there’s this day in the studio when you notice a butterfly.

Milan:  In five or six years 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 or six years nobody changed. 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, again, I felt lonely and lost.

Richard:  Five years. That’s a lot of effort

Milan:  Yes. So after that I carried a back pack, locked my studio and went for a trip. Actually, before that trip, I came up with another idea. 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. When I came back from the trip, I noticed a white butterfly in my studio.

Richard:  I see. Is the trip the one you made to India? [yes] That was another big thing for you, wasn't it?

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

Richard:  This is a big part of your story, this pilgrimage to India—and the realizations that came to you from this.

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

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

Milan:  To know that there's nothing wrong in crying. 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 home.

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

Milan:  In my case, no one approached me. They just looked at me.

Richard:  But there was something freeing in that, you said.

Milan:   If I had not implemented those realizations, it would not have worked. After that I felt so much light, so contented with what I had and with what I don't have, as well. 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 going slowly, slowly, slowly, I forgot about becoming a great artist.

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

Milan:  One of the small things I noticed was this butterfly, this tiny little insect. It came to my studio and it left. And at other times, I’d see butterflies. When they came, I became so happy, and when left I became equally happy. I learned to let go. So every time a butterfly came, I felt so happy every time, and every time it left, I learned to let go. I said, I'll let you go.
     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 nature, in the woods, where I could see more butterflies rather than in a concrete city. So I spent a lot of time going to the woods, sitting under a tree, resting under a tree, following a butterfly. The butterfly would come, then I could be happy, just sitting under a tree...

Richard:  I read that during your time following the butterflies, that one time you heard a leaf fall. That was a big moment, right?

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

Richard:  I know from your interview, that when the butterfly idea really took form and you were ready to make the butterfly, you referenced a Native American story about making a wish. Not long ago I met a Native American who talked about going out in nature, like you did. He said, “You can learn things.” It sounds like a very simple statement, but it's very deep, really. Does that make sense to you now?

Milan:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely! When my friends were coming to see me in my studio, they would not find me. They'd ask me where do you go when you are not home? I’d tell them, “I'm going and sitting under a tree.”
     They'd 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, doing nothing,” 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. People called me crazy.

Richard:  You felt in a real relationship to a tree.

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:  That's really beautiful (laughter)!

Milan:  I was doing this in the woods where there are not many people. And when you sit there and people find you, they assume you’re doing meditation, looking for some inner peace. But after spending 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 the city. Then people could not guess that I was meditating. They would think I was just a passerby resting under a tree. But I was deeply meditating there. There were horns, people, so many 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 heart of the city, and I was able to achieve the same quietness, stillness in my heart, that I’d achieved in the forest.
     So after doing a lot of things, I decided—because I was spending so much time with butterflies—“Ok, this is what I’m doing now.” Before I was expecting so many things. I was trying to change people, trying to do big things. I thought, “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, that goal remained the same, but the process of working towards that goal changed.
Richard:  What are you currently spending your time doing? I think that sometimes you walk around with a gas mask on.
Milan:  Many foreigner friends tell me that "when we think of Nepal, we picture Himalayas, clean." But the city where I live, Kathmandu, is ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world and I was wearing a gas mask symbolically, to protest. We are breathing in harmful, poisonous air, so I started wearing a gas mask and standing, like a performance artist, in the traffic and the streets. I eventually started visiting the mayor with the gas mask on. I started to visit the health minister with the gas mask on. I was doing all these things and suddenly I had to go to London.
     I spent a lot of time in London and when I came back, I started doing some other things. I thought the gas mask did raise a little awareness, but now the awareness had to move towards solutions, some action. So I again went to meet with the mayor, the policy makers and all the bureaucrats and talk to them about that. “Let's plant trees," I said. But they were not so responsive. Then I asked them to just give me permission to use the land and I would raise all the funding, as needed. So now, after a lot of tireless work, I’ve finally obtained the land and I’m going to raise funds for the trees. The good thing is that without even asking anyone or announcing this fundraiser on Facebook, the money for over 100 trees has already come in through personal connections, without even asking.
      We now need a tree guard to protect the trees or they won’t survive. So I’m trying to raise funds for the tree guard. It’s easy to just go and plant a tree, but I’m trying to make it into a community- based art project. That’s a big challenge. I contacted some banks to sponsor this and they were asking, “How much mileage do we get? Is it visible? Do enough people go to that place for advertising?" So I told them, “The first priority has to be the environment. But your first priority is greed, so I don't need you.”
      Now I am thinking of dedicating each tree guard and there will be a poems and stories. Each tree guard will have a story of an individual. Some people are secret poets. They can write their feelings; they can dedicate that tree guard to their lost ones. I’m trying to bring personal touches to this. Before talking to you today, I was even thinking of designing these tree guards in some art form.
Richard:  That's beautiful.
Milan:  My art should not be limited to someone's room. 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.
Richard:  That's wonderful. I saw a public exhibit of yours of a Facebook page on a big screen, and I think you have some very interesting concerns, which a lot of people would share, about why people are sucked into their cell phones. What are some of your thoughts around that?
Milan:  I did this only once. There’s this mainstream culture where your nose is always buried in your cell phone. You don't look around. I was like, "If you’re so immersed in Facebook, I’ll put Facebook on big walls, on bridges, in hospitals, city malls, so it’s the same Facebook, but now you look at the bigger screen.” So there’s a chance 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’m using the same smart phone that you get so distracted with to interact. I’ll just say, “You have very nice hair.”  “You have very beautiful eyes, can I take a picture of you?" So I’m using this mobile phone as a medium to interact, to strike a conversation.
     Also when I did the Facebook thing on big walls, there was conflict in Nepal. It was a racial thing, politically-charged. People were throwing harsh comments. So I said, “It’s so easy to sit behind your computer and type nasty comments. Now here [on the big Facebook wall] I’m typing some things about this issue and whoever comments, people are watching you.” It is so easy to bang the computer, but just come out and speak from your heart.
Richard:  You know, you’ve 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’s often missing is recognizing the heart, and the intelligence of the heart. Would you say something about that?
Milan:  When I put some butterflies out for the first time, the second day when I visited, there were no butterflies. I saw the wings on the ground. I asked my intellect, “Why people are behaving like this?” And my mind told me, “This is not practical. You’ll get tired. You’re one person doing it, and there will be 10 people who will destroy it.”
     And then I said, “Ok, thank you for the advice, but now 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—what you were just talking about. Intellect has its own use; make most out of it. But when it’s time to make a decision, listen to your heart. That's what I do.

Pavi:  This is a marvelous conversation. We already have a few questions. This one 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?
Milan:  The universe has always been supportive. It has my back. I do ask for things, and I do ask for 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 learned to be content. It's like, I do throw wishes, and even when they don’t turn into reality, I just don't complain.
     There's no heaviness in the gift economy culture, like I’ve had. I'm not repeating this from a book. I'm saying this from my lived experience that the secret of receiving is giving. Always giving.
     I don't know if you are familiar with this, but there’s this big stupa at a Buddhist monastery—it's a very famous place in Nepal. I was there and feeling a little hungry. I had only 100 rupees so I checked the menu and it wasn’t enough money. So I started walking around that stupa saying, “Today, what I want is just food, nothing more than that.” And after a few rounds, a foreigner stopped me and said, “I've been following you on Facebook. I would like to buy dinner for you. It's all me.” We had a very nice dinner and then I looked at this stupa, and said, "What I asked for today was just food to fill my stomach.” And the stupa told me, "I know that. It was so simple.” So I recommended that to the foreigner. Very simple things, very simple things

​​​​​​​Pavi:  I remember reading where you talked once about using “spiritual pen drives” to download from the Source and doing, you know, direct communication! Can you speak a little bit more about that?

Milan:  I strongly believe that there has to be humor in life, so I love to joke around. So I was invited as a guest speaker at an IT institute. They were telling me we follow your YouTube videos, but it's still not happening. So I told them—it just came out—“So many depend upon their pen drives, but you can create a special wifi connection and download straight from the Source. Many people do it. But if you depend upon pen drives that's where the virus enters.”

​​​​​​​Pavi:  What are the practices you currently have to tune into that heart intelligence.

Milan:  It didn’t come overnight. There was a lot of practice, self-discipline. It's like I started dating myself. I started spending a lot of time with myself. I started saying, “I love you,” to myself. It's like talking to a tree. People 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 saying “I love you” to myself all the time, all the time, all the time. I didn’t hear “I love you” coming back from me. But consistently, I kept doing that. And in the process, I realized the inner child was 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. There were so many times, they tried to talk to you and you did not listen. So I started pampering that inner child and one day I heard that inner voice connecting with me. I said, “Are you talking to me?”
     “Yes! I'm talking to you! I've been trying to talk to you for so long.”
     So it came through a lot of practice. And when you’re connected to your inner child, and practice every day, the connection gets stronger and stronger and stronger. What I learned was like, if it was with grown-up people, they would not talk to you, but that inner child, it forgives. So I learned forgiveness. It’s through a lot of practice.
     And when you connect to the inner source—it’s like when I was talking about my journey—if it was just an outer journey, I would have just covered some miles, but it was more of an inner journey.

​​​​​​​Pavi:  That's profound and 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, who told you that your journey wasn't going to go anywhere without a certificate. What has the response been from your family and the people who knew you back then, if they've watched your journey unfold 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 not an official invitation. I just went to see, meet Noam Chomsky. But yeah, Harvard was an official invitation; they invited me. 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, so many colleges started calling me. I didn’t do anything to change them. I just put all the effort in to change myself.

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

Milan:  They’ve been very supportive. They don't ask me like when are you getting married? When are you getting a house? And they’ve been supportive in many other ways.

​​​​​​​Pavi:  Here’s another question that came in “How do you, when you look at the general indifference in society and 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:  Okay, I ask everything, whatever happens, I see it as an opportunity. For example, I asked sponsor from one of the banks, for the tree guard project. They asked me so many questions, and I came up with the idea of making it even more artistic. So I thanked that banker. If there had just been a “yes,” I would have just gone forward with it, and it would not be so beautiful.
     So I think I see everything as an opportunity. First an obstacle comes and you don't know what to do with it. But keep going. If you don't know where you are going, just keep going; you will get the answers—maybe not immediately.
     Be positive, be positive, be positive and keep going. I don't have to know the answer immediately. And the frustrations, I see them as teachers. It's a test. It's a test. It's a test. Practice, practice, practice.
     I used to think I was a sad person, a hopeless person, a depressed person. I used to drag it all along like a heavy log wherever I went, and I used to complain. Now, the sadness still comes. I'm not someone who doesn't feel sad, who’s gone beyond all these emotions. Sadness still comes. But now, when the sadness arrives, I say “Become a carpenter. Make a beautiful chair out of it.”
     There are so many ways. If I don't want to make a chair out of it, I can make a guitar and play it. So these are the raw materials. So every, all these things are like opportunities. I hope I got close to your question.

​​​​​​​Pavi:  No, it was perfect. When you talked about turning the world into your studio and just that the freedom that came from taking down the gallery walls, I was wondering what the concept of home means to you. Have you found a new kind of home in the world? Or what about your physical home in Nepal? Is there a special relationship you have with the part of the world you grew up in?

Milan:   I think I'll take the liberty to answer this in a very odd way. When you say home - before I go to bed, I always gaze at the night sky. 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 returning home, actually. So this is my vacation here, 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.

​​​​​​​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, let's try. I noticed on your Facebook page, Milan, that you found this group of elder citizens under the shade of a tree. They were 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 that you like to share on Facebook?

Milan:  The meeting with elders was my recent one, but I just love to interact with people. 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 that person really wants to share feelings with you? I approach myself before approaching all the people. It's like being very aware of what's around you. Then with talking with strangers, sometimes, I share that with others. Or I just leave it at that moment and stop there.
     Like there was one time I met with these elder porters. It was a rainy day and then they weren’t making any income because of the rain. So they were looking for a job. It’s why they were there. It's very tough for them even in other days, so they were all sad and standing there together. I went over and asked, “Did you make any money today?”
     They said, “No money.”
     Then I said, “Even though you didn't make any income, let's laugh!” And I started laughing. Then one of them started laughing and it became contagious. Then everybody started laughing, and it didn’t stop, right? It was laughter therapy right in the middle of the street.

Richard:  Wow. How beautiful!

Milan:  Yeah. So the world is my studio, my meditation and yoga center. Like when I approached people in London, not every time, it was a friendly encounter. Some people were pissed off, you know, because they were going through their own... So whenever that happened to me, I said to myself “this person is not unfriendly by nature,” and I started praying for that person. I started imagining the person with his/her best friend. And when I imagined them, I heard bell; I saw pillow fights; I heard balloons bursting. Then I went to another spot and then started praying for the person. And then when I started praying for those people, every corner became a sacred space.
     I shared this with other people. And in some cities, I just published one or two videos, like just deeply listening. One elder man, a grandpa, just looked at me and said, “I found you so calm, so calm. Your face is so bright.”

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

Milan:  You know, sorry to say, but staying inside in a strict posture, reading scriptures—I find it too boring. But for some people, it can be a path to finding themselves. But my process is a little bit wild!

Richard:  And obviously, you've come to a lot of spiritual understanding. It makes me think of Krishnamurti who always said we don't need any gurus. Now tell me about your email address --

Milan:  Yeah. Ekphrasis is a Greek word. I did an art show before Butterfly. The title of that show was Ekphrasis. So I made this email address only for that show, and I've been using it since.
Richard:  That's interesting. What are you going to do tomorrow?

Milan:  (laughter) That's too far.

Richard:  I know someone asked you what your plan is. You said I don't have a “plan A” or “plan B,” but maybe I have a “plan T.” So tell us about that.

Milan:  It becomes plant more trees! Yeah, when you asked “What are you going to do tomorrow?”—I get lots of stupid questions from people like what is my next project? Like even when we were having lunch in India, someone was nearby and he asked me “What is your next project?” And I said, “Do you really want to hear my next project?” You know, people usually come up and ask me, but do they have time to listen to my next project? So tomorrow I think what I'll do is smile—I'll wake up and smile!

Richard:  That’s good. Somewhere you said that with the heart and the mind, if they can come together, it's powerful. So I’m wondering what's your relationship to your body?

Milan:  Body? (pauses) Whenever I'm walking, if I get scratches or when I'm knocked somewhere, I just stop doing anything and start talking to my body. It doesn't have to be a big injury, but when it happens, I just talk to my body. “I'm sorry, it was not intentional.” Sometimes when I'm on my cycle—that's my method of transportation— sometimes, if I hear a loud honk and it scares me, 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 only then, I'll ride. Otherwise, I’m someone who is disturbed by the horn and not a conscious rider.
     So if you’re disturbed, you will disturb others around you, as well. But if you are conscious, you will not be disturbed by anything, nor will you disturb anybody else. That's why I listen to my body, very, very lovingly. It's where my soul resides for the time being; it's my temple.



About the Author

Pavithra Mehta is co-editor of and co-author of Infinite Vision: The World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion   

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.

Milan Rai is a self-taught Nepalese contemporary visual artist. His artistic expression includes a variety of mediums. For Milan, the world is his studio. A moment of serendipity set him on his path. Inspired by a butterfly that alighted in his studio in the middle of a challenging project in 2013, Rai began cutting out simple white butterfly shapes from paper and affixing them on trees, bridge pillars, walls and dilapidated buildings in his hometown of Kathmandu. His project spread across more than 40 countries around the globe. “I wanted my butterflies to destroy the walls people build around them and, in doing so, I wanted them to free themselves, just like the butterflies who break out of the cocoon. He is the recipient of the 2016 Harvard Visiting Artist Award. Behind his work is the firm belief that art can change the way we perceive the world around us and help to shape the choices we make.           


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