Life is about Service
Every religious fanatic from the beginning of time who has achieved some degree of enlightenment has said the same thing: spiritual practice finds its completion in service to others. The reason for this is as profound as it is simple. There is no real “self” that is apart from life. To serve the (fictional) separate self is to dissipate our energy and attention on an illusion and to gain nothing of value; to serve others truly (more about that in a moment) requires that we let go of the separate self, a relinquishment that completely reconfigures the world that we perceive. Where there is no self there is no selfishness, and where there is no selfishness there is peace—and the desire to offer others the same possibility of living beyond ego.
I’ve noticed that as people attempt to apply this principle they/we run afoul of the direct path to real service in two opposite ways. In the first they inadvertently serve the “self” as they serve others. Examples are common: this is the person who helps others in order to compensate for a believe in their own inferiority or their own want of value; or who serve conspicuously, so that they get credit for their good works in the eyes of others. In the second they serve at the expense of their own needs. This type of error is even more common but less recognized, as it tends to be invisible to all concerned, even the person it is happening to. We have so much conditioning in our society that says it’s good to give and selfish to receive that we fail to detect falsehood in service that does not include the human who is attempting to offer it. I see this all the time in the people I talk to: for many it’s an effortless thing to give to others but a nearly impossible chore to give lovingly to themselves, and yet they feel as if they are doing something noble or right in denying the authentic human in this way. The key distinction in both cases, of course, lies with that word “authentic”. Wherever we are inclined to indulge the imaginary “I” conditioned mind does a little dance of joy, but this, ironically, only leads to deprivation. Where we are willing to give as the compassionate being that we are to the natural human who we also are (in a way), there we will lose our identity but gain real autonomy and the love we are all looking for.
This is a tricky business, and I tend to fall off the wagon in both directions. The effort is well worth making, however. The consequences of serving ego—for the individual, society and the planet--are enormous, and the rewards of serving Life, as those same fanatics have said from the beginning of human memory, are beyond description.
And so what does service look like on a practical level? This will appear differently for everyone in the particulars, of course, but I would say that as a rule the smallest things are the most important. To smile at people, to treat others gently and with respect, to perform little acts of unnecessary kindness, to let go of feeling right or wronged so that others may feel listened to, or valued, or loved—these are the sorts of things that could change the world if everyone practiced them. One gift of service I feel that I have to offer is my ability to disidentify. The power to access compassionate acceptance in the midst of a disagreement (for example) can have a tremendous impact and produce a deep feeling of connection. A few months ago I went vegan as an act of service to the earth and to the critters who share it with me. I attempt to live as consciously as I can for the good of all beings, and, while I find great satisfaction in this (and great challenge), I still crave a larger way to serve that would consume my whole life. My life at the monastery was fully devoted to service and I miss that. I consider the writing, counseling, and facilitation I do to be of service, and I hope to continue with these things no matter what else happens, but these things are still “mine”. I know the deep satisfaction that comes from working towards a common good with others, and I hope to find a way before long to give of myself in this way.
The thing is, my life does not belong to me: it belongs to Life. To treat is as a possession that I may spend as I choose is to devalue it, as it is not given to me to squander in that way. Like all things good and true (love, peace, generosity, kindness…), life may only be possessed by giving it away. To give life to others in service is to receive it myself. Isn’t that amazing? Who would have thought that Life could be so kind, and such a demanding master?