family visiting hospiceFrom early childhood I was steeped in the tradition of service both from a Catholic upbringing first, 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, visiting nursing homes, 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 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” 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 as a wonderful way to attain a higher level of detachment, as well as truly benefiting 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 were 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

Help Others Help Yourself Purple Pink RingsWhy 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 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, 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 it was a very good feeling to help others; 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.    My focus for the first time 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, devotion and detachment.  

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.” ~ Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet 

Mother Theresa v. St. Theresa of the Little Way

The world has recognized the great acts of service of Mother Teresa in India serving the poorest of the poor tirelessly.  She has 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 in comparison.

But there is another way than living in Calcutta serving the lepers….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.” 

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.

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.

Earth globe in hands Conceptual recycling symbol

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January 7, 2016 @ 1:00 pm.

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