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The Age of the Inner-Net?

How to make the Internet era also the "Inner-net" era

We live in accelerated times: It took the radio 38 years to reach 50 million users. Television did it in 13 years. Hotmail, in less than a year. Cityville? 15 days. And now, with the advent of social media, the nature of our connectivity is also changing. We are able to connect to more people more quickly—but what about deepening the quality of our connections? At the heart of that exploration lies an ever-present kind of offline communication: the subtle exchange going on between us and those around us right now.

Scientific research shows that when people touch or are in close proximity, one person's heartbeat signal is registered in the other person's brain waves, and vice versa. The same studies show that our emotions are reflected in the patterns of our heart rhythms. This means we're transmitting and receiving very significant information without even realizing it. And it's not just our words and our actions that have an impact but also our thoughts, emotions and feelings. So when we are happy, when we are peaceful and when we are loving, then that actually makes a difference to the people around us, on a very real physiological level.

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There's another principle from science that is relevant. A meteorologist from MIT discovered the Butterfly Effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can actually create a tornado in Texas a week later. If a butterfly's actions can have such an impact, imagine the ripple effect of our lives. Knowing that our thoughts and actions have an impact, both now and later, inspires a greater focus on the quality of our attention. Adding value in any of our relationships, then, isn't static and externally focused; it is a series of internal decisions that always start here and now. Our entire lives balance on each moment, and we have a major, perpetual choice: Do we want to be in an internal space that's good for us and good for others? Of course, it's not always as easy as flipping a switch. But many of the times we aren't in that space are times when we aren't even aware that we have a choice.

So in this new age of communication, we can work to make the age of the Internet also the age of the "inner-net": the vast, highly inter-connected network within, where we are constantly giving and receiving. Those who've tapped into this "inner-net" offer valuable insights. I was fortunate to spend some time with one of them, a service legend from South India known as Dr. V, someone who has personally given sight to over 100,000 people, most of them for free. Fast Company magazine once asked him, "What are your gifts?" Dr. V replied, "People thank me for giving them sight." This humble revolutionary considered his gifts to lie not in the qualities he possesses, but rather in what he is able to give.

The great thing is that each of us has such gifts—skills, material resources, connections, presence—everything we consider ourselves privileged to have. And when we actually start to use our gifts as tools to facilitate giving, we deepen our understanding of relationships and start to sync up with this vast "inner-net." Every time we make that choice, our perspective shifts. As French author Marcel Proust once wrote: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." When we increasingly choose to remain in that space of service, our new eyes start to see new things. The needs of the current situation become clearer, we become instruments of a greater order and consequently our actions become more effortless.

I remember a time when I was walking down the street and, out of nowhere, I saw a quadriplegic man in a wheelchair, stuck in the middle of an intersection. His wheelchair battery had died and the light was about to turn red. Without thinking about it one bit, I pushed him out of the intersection and back to his home. It was just natural. In that brief period, the needs of the moment had been matched with my "gift" which, at that time, was simply the ability to push a wheelchair. These subtle shifts in awareness sensitize us to the place within ourselves where we unmistakably feel inter-connection. And they allow us to discover and act on our true gifts— the ones that are so valuable that they have to be shared.

Opportunities to strengthen the "inner-net" abound, and as we start taking them, they start pervading all of our relationships, online and offline: genuinely greeting the cashier at the grocery store, emailing an inspiring quote to a friend who is struggling or unconditionally wishing a colleague well. Sometimes it organizes itself into 100,000 people getting eyesight, like it did through Dr. V, and sometimes it manifests in a man in a wheelchair safely arriving home. Through it all, instead of just breadth of connection, we nurture depth of connection, and giving and receiving start to blur. Our focus moves from possessing to sharing. We start to live ourselves into an effortlessembodiment of service, one my older brother describes beautifully: "Service doesn't start when you have something to give—it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

Viral Mehta is the co-founder of a nonprofit that builds free websites for nonprofits.

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