It’s so easy to sleepwalk without realizing that’s what we’ve been doing.  Sometimes we experience situations in our work and lives that rock our world and help us see that we’ve been caught in a trance, that our ideas about the world are not necessarily the way things are.  Often it takes a jolting event to wake us up.

These wake-up calls often occur through an unexpected loss of something we hold dear―the death of a loved one, losing a job our family is dependent on for support, not receiving a promotion we expected, a betrayal by a spouse.  It can even be something so outside the realm of our everyday experience it makes us stop and question everything we thought was true about the world.  As challenging as these experiences are, they open our perspective and help us grow.  When we’re sleepwalking, we bump into obstacles in our path, often blaming them for getting in our way.  When we wake up, we can tap into insight that helps us be more mindful about how and where we want to go, even in the darkness.

I was recently awakened from an episode of sleepwalking.  In December, I traveled on a medical mission to observe eye camps in villages in northeastern Nepal.  I went with a group of donors and staff from The Seva Foundationwhose mission is to “help prevent blindness and restore sight worldwide.”  I made that trip with the intention of observing how my donations were helping others see.  I returned from that journey three weeks later realizing the person most in need of sight was me.

The conditions on much of our trip were rough by western standards. I quickly realized how privileged I was―that there were more blessings in my life than I could count that I simply took for granted.  Even simple things.  Hot water to take a shower, food in my stomach when I was hungry, heat in my house when nights were cold, paved roads that would safely deliver me to my next destination, proper sanitation, safe water to drink, and air that I could breathe.  Not to mention the bigger things like deeply meaningful work, a nice home, a loving family and wonderful friends.

Many of the people who came to the eye camps in Nepal had walked from one to three days to get there.  Some came barefoot.  Hanging on the arm of a relative, they traversed the woods from their villages by daylight and stopped to rest along the chilly roadside at night.

SevaEyeCampPatientOne man I remember from the eye camp in Khandbari had been bilaterally blind for six months, but actively losing his sight for several years.  The first day we met him, his shoulders were slumped, his head was bent down in dejection and he looked broken.  But the next day, after spending the night on a thin wool blanket in a shed on the concrete floor with the other patients, his bandages from his cataract surgery were removed and he was able to see again.  Tears rolled down my cheeks as I observed a smile as big as Texas unfurl across his weathered face.  He lifted his hands in the universal sign of gratitude and offered a “Namaste” to the doctor who helped him regain the gift of sight.

The beautiful people we met at the eye camps in Nepal awakened me to how much I have to be grateful for in more ways than I can count.  They opened my eyes to a world I’d never seen before, but even more importantly, they opened my heart to a deeper level of compassion for the suffering I see and experience around me, whether it’s a homeless person on the street or a leader in a corner office charged with laying people off in a corporation.

The people at the eye camps helped me recognize the profound privilege I have, and along with that, my responsibility to do whatever I can to make a difference in the lives of those I serve, as well as those who have less.  This experience made me reassess how I’ve been spending my time, my energy and my money.  I left Nepal with far more questions than answers, but it’s the questions we ask that keep us growing.  My hope is that living these questions will help to keep me awake, so I’ll never have to sleepwalk again.

Are there places in your life and leadership where you may be sleepwalking?  If so, where and how?  What are the bandages that if removed from your eyes, would enable you to see the riches you possess?  What are you most grateful for?  How can you pay that forward?