From early childhood I was steeped in the tradition of service, first from a Catholic upbringing and then later from the eastern spiritual traditions of Seva (meaning self-less service). This culture of giving ran the gamut, from helping my mom make ornaments to sell at a hospital Christmas bazaar, to taking in elderly family members, to visiting nursing homes, as well as running a family preservation program and an AIDS organization. Even as a lawyer, I chose to work at Legal Aid, providing services to the poorest developmentally disabled clients. A colleague once commented that, at that pathetic salary, in less than a year I would qualify as a client! Sadly, he was correct.
Balancing a great desire to “do good” with tending my own inner state, energy, self-care, and personal finances has been one of my greatest challenges and deepest teachings.
It always seemed easier to pay off my karmic debt through service and trust that “God would provide,” rather than to deal with my student loan and credit card debt. The deeper I immersed myself in the spiritual path and understood that selfless service paved the way to liberation, the deeper the chasm became as I desperately wanted that promise of true fulfillment and freedom.
Don’t get me wrong; I received so much along the way from the deeply entrenched notion of giving back. It was totally necessary for me and served as a wonderful way to attain a higher level of detachment, as well as to truly benefit the receiver and the giver. If you have not experienced the true joy of giving, I highly recommend stretching yourself in this direction.
Where does this need to give come from? A college friend asked me this after hearing of my Legal Aid choice. The question shocked me, as it felt so natural to me that I thought everyone had this need at their core. Of course, if that is true, our world would not be so lopsided with so few having most of the resources, and so many having such desperate poverty. Let’s take a closer look at some of the perennial teachings around service to others as a path to happiness and enlightenment, as well as some of the common pitfalls.
Karma Yoga—The Path of Action and Selfless Service
Why does anyone want to do something for others? Where does this motivation and loving tendency come from? Ultimately, that love comes from the awareness of the unity of all things and the realization that as we assist others we are truly helping ourselves. In the law of karma, each “good act” paves the way for a healthy savings account of good karma chips that can wipe out the debts of past bad actions, or you can accumulate them to create a better future, either here or in the next realm.
Seva, or selfless service is a practice of nonattachment, another key to personal happiness and spiritual liberation. Nonattachment does not mean not caring; nonattachment and love are one and the same. Nonattachment brings freedom, where attachment brings bondage. Becoming detached from desires, ambitions, and anxieties, the aspirant becomes one pointed and free from distractions so that the spiritual practices can ripen.
Bringing comfort and happiness to others is perhaps the fastest way to attain it for ourselves.
I often counsel my clients who are sad and depressed to do some volunteer work to turn it around quickly.
I knew helping others produced a very good feeling within, but it wasn’t until I had ashram seva experiences that I really began to understand the role of detachment in paving the way to extraordinary states of ecstasy doing mundane tasks. For the first time, my focus was inward, present, and aware of devoting the “fruits of my labor to God.” I was in bliss whether washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, or digging out huge rocks in the rain. Perhaps, for the first time, the tasks were not about me or the acknowledgment I may receive—or even about achieving great results or perfection. The focus now was to do everything from a place of love and devotion.
“When you work, you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. To love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. All work is empty save where there is love, for work is love made visible.”—Kahil Gibran, author of The Prophet
Mother Theresa vs. St. Theresa of “The Little Way”
The world has recognized Mother Teresa’s great acts of service in India, where she served the poorest of the poor tirelessly. She set the bar extremely high and, by comparison, most of us will fall far short of her Herculean efforts. Rather than feeling inspired, some may even have a feeling of guilt that we are never doing enough.
But there is another way to achieve this goal, and it does not require living in Calcutta serving the lepers. It is “The Little Way” by another Therese, St. Thérèse of Liseiux. In her autobiography Story of a Soul she writes:
“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love…Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
Selfless service doesn’t have to be extraordinary efforts. We do not have to go to India or serve in an AIDS hospice to perform valuable life-altering seva. In fact, everything we do, and even think, can be seva…a devotional offering, made with pure love and a detachment from reward or acknowledgment.
My Aunt Patsy taught me this when I was 10; my mom was busy cooking for a family holiday, and my Aunt whispered: “Help me make your mother’s bed—but don’t tell; you get more brownie points in heaven that way.” It was harder than I expected not to get the credit, but the teaching stuck with me. Random acts of kindness fall in this category; that is, doing things for others when they will have no idea who helped them out.
Are We Serving or Avoiding?
If you are on a spiritual path you probably know how good giving to others can feel and have no problem finding myriad opportunities for offering your service. However, this may come to a point of over-giving at the expense of your own well-being, health, and financial stability.
In some form, we may still be doing it for the “feel good,” as in “I am a good person because I am helping you.” Service from this place can feel needy or sticky. This is not detachment and may in fact still be coming from a sense of ego. Underlying the giving may be a belief that unless we do all these good works for others, we are not a good person, or not a spiritual person.
The belief in and consequent over-giving to depletion stems from a deeper well of unworthiness.
This foundational unworthiness, or need to constantly prove our “goodness,” stems from a lack of loving self. It is ultimately easier for many of us to focus externally, outside of oneself, going to great lengths, great debt, and even great exhaustion to continue to try to “buy” our way to heaven, or worthiness, or love of the Creator, instead of doing the unthinkable—directing that loving attention to ourselves.
Why is this so hard? Why can’t we forgive ourselves? Why do we feel so unworthy and unlovable? This is why we also need to be attending to our spiritual and personal growth work. Sometimes we are using outer service and busyness to avoid the deeper work of uprooting the unworthiness in all of its myriad forms, of healing the old wounds and hurts.
Finding Balance Between Service and Spiritual Practices
“You don’t complete your inner work before you do your outer work. Nor do you say, ‘Well, the hell with the inner work: I’ll go do the outer work because it’s so important and pressing.’ That’s not conscious either. The conscious thing is the simultaneous doing of both.”—Ram Dass
My first teacher busted this pattern early on. In the ashram, many would come and want to mobilize the troops to do service projects rather than waste so much time on spiritual practices when there were such pressing needs around the planet. When faced with these critics, she would always say there is nothing more important than the inner work; nothing more powerful than an awakened consciousness.
She even commented on the issue of over-giving. It was traditional to offer a coconut, money, or some other offering when you were in the presence of a holy one. Night after night, I offered something as I approached my guru for a blessing.
She chided us all: “Don’t give if you don’t have it. This is NOT service; going into debt is out of balance. Take care of your own finances first; don’t become a burden to others!” That hit me; I certainly didn’t wish to be a burden to anyone! Under this scrutiny, I realized my giving was really out of balance as I was deeply in student loan debt. I felt really embarrassed; but I stopped making any offering that cost money. Instead, I became more creative and offered flowers I grew or something handmade.
Knowing what is needed in each situation requires an astute sense of discernment plus detachment. Depending on where you are in your spiritual path, you may very well need to come into balance by offering more service to others. This is often true at the earlier stages of spiritual growth.
However, at some point, you may need to shift and spend more time going within and tend to your own garden, and really focus on truly loving and nurturing yourself. It seems to fly in the face of the teachings, but in the higher states of awareness, you recognize that you are now serving the many. Your energetic transmission of higher love and serenity bathes and soothes the whole of humanity, and even all of creation.
Higher Consciousness Creates a Saving Presence
“Via silent transmission, the energy from the advanced teacher or saint is incorporated into our aura, our brain function, our whole being. It’s because this energy of peace is transmitted outward into the world that mankind is still alive. It would have destroyed itself a long time ago without this energy to counterbalance it. That’s why our own evolution serves all of mankind…by reaching these higher states of lovingness and peace within ourselves, we become a saving presence in the world.”—David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D, Letting Go: Pathway of Surrender
Recently, I noticed a deeper level to this aspect of service through developing higher consciousness. There is a space where I am aware that I am serving at a very high level, yet going nowhere, doing not a thing. For in this state everything is just perfect, there is no one to fix, and nothing is broken. All is unified, one breath, one heart, one mind.
There is a deep serenity, and that peaceful loving energy is flowing through me to the earth in each footstep; each breath becomes a blessing wave, each thought a precious offering of love to everyone. I can see the scintillating radiance of each blade of grass as it laps up the energy from my feet, until I feel that my whole landscape is aglow with light, awash with a soft tenderness of appreciation and gratitude. I can no longer tell whether I am giving or receiving, there is a flowing emanation of which I am both part of and the source of.
In meditation this morning I asked Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) to speak to me of service. This was the response:
“Self-love is the only service truly needed. When truly loving Self, it is as natural as breathing to serve others. In fact, there is really only one service, and that is to Love. Love is the thread that holds the fabric of the Universe together. We are all woven of the same cloth. When we serve with love; that is, when we perform any action, or birth any thought from the cradle of love—this is the highest service. All creation is a mirror of our own Consciousness, therefore when we are loving towards creation, we are loving towards self, and vice versa.”
Selfless Service Affirmation:
I give lovingly to myself and others, my time, experience, skills and resources without expectation and in perfect balance and alignment in each situation. I offer the fruits of my duties and actions in devotion to _____________ (Higher Power, God, Nature, Love).
Contemplation: Observe Your Giving
Take a day to journal about your service, your giving. Begin to see what is easier for you to give (time, money, experience, or to a certain person) and what (or to whom) it is more difficult. Notice especially the feelings before, during, and after each giving exchange.
Does the offering of a gift produce happiness or well-being? Does it result in weariness or resentment? Begin to explore what seems to produce these different results. Was there expectation involved? A feeling of imbalance? Of always being the giver and not being the receiver?
When in doubt, ask: WWLD? What Would LOVE Do?
Kumari is an internationally acclaimed intuitive coach, master healer, best-selling author, spiritual evolutionary, and animal mystic. Her deepest joy is empowering others to unwrap their innate intuitive, manifesting, and healing gifts. Kumari hosted “Co-Creation Activations” radio show on World Puja Network and the Internet TV program “How to Heal Anything Live.” She is coauthor of the bestselling book Empowering Transformations for Women and just released her new eBook Animal Communication Magic & Miracles: 13 Keys to Deepen Your Bond with Your Pets, Improve Health & Change Behavior Immediately. Kumari is a catalyst for spiritual evolution. Through energy alchemy and unveiling the human/animal spiritual interconnectedness, she has helped thousands around the globe experience bliss, our true divinity and Oneness. For more information visit www.kumarihealing.com.