The 108 Lives Project

It was early morning in December 2008, when one of the wealthiest, most successful financiers in the world heard a sharp rap on the front door of his New York City apartment.

We use the term “apartment” loosely here; the upper east side duplex penthouse (which is currently on the market for $14 million) is 4,000 square feet and boasts every luxury money can buy, including a breakfast atrium nook, a personal elevator, and a huge wrap-around terrace.

Bernie Madoff answered the knocking in his bathrobe and was reportedly not in the least surprised to find federal agents waiting on the other side, ready to arrest him. Weeks prior, he had confessed to his family that he was leading the world’s largest Ponzi scheme–an investment scam that involves constantly rotating funds from various investors to make it look like they are reaping high returns, when in fact they are losing everything they’ve put in.

Bernie Madoff’s son Andrew turned him into the FBI, claiming to have just discovered the truth of his father’s fortune. Andrew Madoff told 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer that he, his brother, and his mother “knew that we couldn’t live with this information and not do something about it.”

In the (arguably) three decades that Madoff had been operating the scheme, he cheated thousands of people out of billions of dollars.

Sixty-five billion, to be exact.

After Madoff’s arrest, the FBI searched his house to discover $137 million worth of checks made out to close friends and family locked in his desk. Most investors lost their life savings, and to date only a small fraction of them have received anything back.

That same year, Hector Marcel was in Kathmandu, Nepal. One early morning, as he left his home to go to a cafe, Marcel saw a beggar in an alleyway whose face had been disfigured with acid to such an extent that half of it was fused with his shoulder. As their eyes locked, Marcel felt at once a burning desire to help the man, and an instant frustration because he didn’t know how.

“In that millisecond I knew that we were exactly the same,” recalls Marcel to BTR. “Behind those eyes could have been any kind of wish for happiness, just like mine, and it burst my heart open.”

The man quickly disappeared. Determined to assist him, Marcel spent the morning asking other beggars if they knew him or his whereabouts. He immediately realized how the people living on the streets–the people with literally nothing–were unconditionally happy to help him.

It was at that moment that Marcel first conceived the idea behind the 108 Lives Project—named for the 108 wooden beads that adorn prayer necklaces in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. With each prayer sent, one bead is moved slightly on the string. Instead of moving beads, though, Marcel wanted to move lives.

The organization evolved from a photo essay that grew from his encounters with beggars that day. It attempts to highlight similarities between beggars and those who might be considered better off, into a volunteer-based NPO that helps thousands in Nepal through community outreach and charity events, including the funding of soup kitchens, medical clinics, and children’s housing.

Photo courtesy of Hector Marcel.

When the earthquake hit the country in April 25, 2015, the 108 Lives Project mobilized to rural areas to provide workshops focused on relieving symptoms of post-traumatic stress for people affected by the disaster, a form of therapy known as “second-response.”

“It was an incredible experience of really helping these kids laugh for the first time, often; cry for the first time, often; all telling their stories, but in a joyful way, meaning there is hope beyond the story,” Marcel says of his first second-response event.

As part of their extensive on-going goals, the 108 Lives Project is re-building two schools in Nepal, and Marcel and a troop of volunteers, will be returning for a second series of second-response workshops in 2016.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the 108 Lives Project is that it is centered around the concept of unconditional giving–which is also the foundation of the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. It derives from the conviction that the way we experience life has much more to do with who we are internally, and the imprints that we have in our mind about the world outside ourselves, than what tangibly exists.

Marcel gives the example of “the angry yelling boss, because I’ve had so many of them”:

When the angry yelling boss comes to scream at Marcel, Marcel cringes. But Marcel’s co-worker, who is standing nearby, chuckles.

If Marcel and his co-worker both hear the exact same words, and there is something intrinsic to those words (outside of either man’s control) that makes Marcel react badly, then both he and his co-worker will respond identically. But, since Marcel and his co-worker have such different reactions to the same sounds, the words themselves can’t possibly be what is making Marcel feel upset.

“So, there was something in me,” he concludes. “I was making myself feel that way.”

Furthermore, he explains, when you determine this to be true, it must also be true that whatever you put out into the world will be what you receive from it. If you put love into your surroundings, you will see love in them. If you put hate into your surroundings, you will see hate in them, and that is why unconditional giving is so important.

To test this theory, Marcel gathered people from the western world with “luxury problems,” as he gently puts it; problems in relationships, problems with work, problems with money. They were his first 108 Lives Project volunteers, and he hypothesized that by taking care of complete strangers, the volunteers themselves would feel a sense of being taken care of, love, and peace.

“We’d go and for a week or two, forget about luxury problems, and just help out in this orphanage or this school, or help the homeless, as if they were our own skin,” he explains. “And I tell you, the transformations in the hearts and minds of the volunteers that came from the U.S., and Germany, and Australia, and all over, has been palpable and nearly permanent.”

Of course, unconditional giving naturally complements the ideals of an NPO, however, the conceit intuitively seems to conflict with the capitalistic laurels western corporations strive towards.

But let’s return to Madoff for a moment.

Madoff, who betrayed most of his close friends and family, was in turn, betrayed by his son. He had been at fault for thousands of people losing their life savings, and disrespected his investors and the financial industry as a whole. Ultimately, he and his family lost their fortune, their friends, and fell from the graces of Wall Street forever. He was sentenced to 150 years in prison, and in 2010, Madoff’’s eldest son committed suicide on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest.

An extreme example though he may be, Madoff certainly reaped what he sowed.

What’s more, the idea of unconditional giving is not as foreign to contemporary enterprise as you might think. In fact, Marcel believes it’s already infiltrating what used to be an industry ruled by the predominantly selfish focus of turning a profit.

“If corporations today don’t have some kind of ‘give-back’ they’re not going to make it,” he says. “More and more I’m seeing corporations do that, because the employees and executives actually do have some wisdom in their hearts and recognize that we are part of a global economy, and one of its core values must be to take care of humans.”

Photo courtesy of Hector Marcel.

He and the 108 Lives Project believe in this giving principal as the best chance for a better, more humanistic future.