The idea of service as a way of life, as work, and as a spiritual practice has attracted me for a long time. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and one thing that has become clear to me is that service is what I want my life to look like. I want to spend my time being of service.
Okay, that said…what is service, exactly? We can take for granted that we know what service is, that we know what it means – but I’m not so sure that there is a clear-cut and universally agreed-upon definition. You may think of service as volunteering. Or maybe it brings to mind the “service sector” – jobs in hospitality (restaurants, hotels, tourism) or housekeeping, dogwalking, carwashing, and so on. Service might mean running a marathon to raise money for a charity – or donating to a charity.
All these are aspects of service – or manifestations of it. But service as a way of being – this is what I’m thinking about these days. Service as what I do – as working and living and playing and breathing. In January, I quit my job. (Note: this is not such a surprising thing, as those of you who know me well will recognize. I am forever quitting jobs, moving to new homes and cycling throughout the cities of the Bay Area and, occasionally, beyond.) I thought I was going to start a dog food business. But then I decided to just stop for a minute. To really stop doing and be. Just be for a moment And one moment led to another, which led me to here…
So, what is service? Or, what is it for me, now – and what is it that is calling me? The answer is a work in progress. This post is a compilation of musings on the topic, and is also about the 3-month program I’m starting next week that has service as its centerpiece.
Okay, so…first off, for me, the very word “service” brings to mind people like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. I googled Mother Teresa and found this quote:
Love cannot remain by itself — it has no meaning.
Love has to be put into action, and that action is service.
That starts to get at it. That starts to convey what is inspiring me, and driving me. I don’t mean to sound like I’m accessing some great well of love or something mystical or esoteric. It’s more feet-on-the-ground than that. The love that I am able to experience – it wants to be expressed. Recently a teacher I know (Ngak’chang Rinpoche) used “compassion” as a verb. That it’s what we DO. Not an emotion. That stuck with me.
And the Dalai Lama:
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.
He has such a great sense of humor. I love that about him.
On April 6, I start a 3 month program at Mt. Madonna Center (MMC) called Yoga, Service and Community (YSC1 – the 1 denotes the first 3 month session – it’s possible to continue in YSC2 and YSC Leadership, additional 3 month stints). MMC is a retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains about 45 minutes from where I live. Which is convenient. (Some people are coming from far off lands like PENNSYLVANIA.) MMC was founded in the late 70s. It is a beautiful place up on the summit of the mountains, overlooking the Pajaro Valley and Monterey Bay. The views are CRAZILY stunning (some not-so-stunning pictures here – I promise I’ll take more and post them here eventually).
The place is inspired by the teachings of Baba Hari Dass. I’m not particularly drawn directly to his teachings, from the little I know of them. (Neither am I repelled by them.) But I am very drawn to the fact that the center is based on service. At MMC, “service” is understood as a very specific spiritual practice known as “karma yoga.” Yoga is usually misunderstood in the western world as the physical practice of putting your leg behind your head. However, that is only one branch of yoga (“hatha yoga”).
Yoga is actually a highly developed system of spiritual practices that address all aspects of the human being. Of being human. “Karma” roughly translates as “work” or “action.” (Most of us know the word karma as related to ideas like “what goes around comes around” or good deeds beget good ends, or heaven and hell, etc. – but maybe that can be a topic for another post someday – it’s a bit different than most of us think.)
A quote from the MMC website:
Karma Yoga translates literally as “yoga of action”, which aims to reduce our self interest to the minimum by working as a self-dedicated duty without attachment to the fruits of our labor. It is often translated as selfless service.
Here, you can see the way that most yoga traditions (e.g., “hinduism”) from India perceive karma yoga – as a way to eradicate the self. However – my path is not one of self-eradication. (More on that in another post, probably.) So, for me – we shall see what comes up while I’m there.
Practical details: The program has 9 participants. We live in one large building called Forest View House, each with a private bedroom, and we share a bathroom with one other person. We work at the Center 24 hours a week, and participate in at least 2 yoga classes and a couple of meetings each week. We are fed amazing vegetarian food from their fantastic kitchen. We learn about the Center’s activities, which include among other things a K-12 college prep day school on the property as well as an orphanage in India. I’m looking forward to finding out about these, as teaching and kids are high on my interest list. MMC is very modern: well-made woodframe buildings, paved roads, internet, etc. We will go into town at least weekly to do laundry (in this arid Mediterranean climate, the land is supporting 100 residents, the retreat center and school on well water) and get into whatever other mischief we desire.
I hope that during this time, the path of my life will become clear – or begin to become clear. Even if only the faint outline of a life emerges in these three months, that will be enough for me. I am living on a shoestring of money saved and small bits of money earned at odd jobs. I know that I don’t want to be a botanist again.
When I left New York so many years ago, and came to Hawaii, and then California, I was on a path. There was a life I was going to live. It was exciting and world-wide and fun, and also inspirational. It turned out that I had other things to tend to. A broken heart to break some more and then to mend. Deceptions of mind that caused me to think I was bad, unworthy, unable to accomplish. I had to dive in deep, and work below the surface, in murky depths of my own being, which is also the being of us all. And recently I burst to the surface. Whole beyond imagining. More aware of that wholeness all the time. And knowing that we are one leads me naturally to service.
What that’s gonna look like…this is what the next bit of time is going to let me know. I’ll keep you all posted. Signing off from the west coast, under an almost full moon. Happy and safe travels to you all.