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Striving to Live a Life of Service

When you picture “the good life,” what comes to mind? Is it landing a book deal, having a big house, lots of travel? The word “service” doesn’t often come to mind for most. Which is not surprising as we are not taught to revere the idea. In fact, some are given “community service” as a punishment for a crime. We are taught instead that achievements and acquisitions are the definitions of a successful existence, but these are only nurturing to the ego. Instead, a life of service is the highest level of achievement for which one can strive, especially if one is interested in their own happiness.

What a life of service looks like

This topic has been percolating for a while for me, but it came to the forefront recently when I read David Brooks’ article, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy. It’s unusual for me to read something so in line with Vedic teaching by someone so entrenched in Western culture. In his article he talks of two different mountains, the first is the life of what we’re told is success and then something happens that throws you in the valley, which breaks you open to the second mountain, a life of giving yourself away in service. This two mountain structure happened to me. I was a “successful” advertising creative exec in which everything looked very good on paper. It took the death of my mother to first break me open that eventually led me on the path to teaching meditation. That is what my service looks like, devoting my time to helping others find fulfillment within. But you don’t have to quit your job and become Mother Theresa to live a life of service. Any time you get out of your own way and think of others before yourself, any time you react with kindness or radiate love, that is service.

What a life of service is not

Service is never depleting, it is in fact, energizing. There are those who live for others’ expectations and confuse that with service. For example, perhaps you’re constantly bending to make your partner happy without reciprocation or you become a shell of yourself trying to do everything for your kids. This is not what I’m talking about. There are also those that appear to serve but in fact are expecting some kind of reward in return. Like if I do this good act, I’ll get press which will end up promoting my business, thereby making me money. This is not living in service, this is living in servitude.

How to find your unique version of service

Everyone is looking for direction in life. Some of the luckiest have a true calling (or callings, really they come in a series). Nature will give us assignments based on our capability and level of awareness. When you bring your awareness out of your small self or ego (the wave of self) and bring it into the Big Self (or ocean of self), your larger nature will point you in the right direction. This is where meditation comes in. It lets us hear that inner voice that is often a set of instructions. The more closely you follow those intuitive instructions, the more complicated and bigger assignments you will get. Meditation also is the tool for finding fulfillment within. When you no longer need to look outside for happiness, you will feel compelled to bring your fulfillment to others. Your life becomes one of service from that point on.

In service to what?

When we listen to our inner voice and follow those instructions, we find the life of service is in fact service to our larger nature. Some call that the Universe, some the Oneness, some God. Those instructions dictate your personal path to yours and everyone else’s best evolution, known in Sanskrit as Kriya. Going against the intuitive path is known as Karma. Everyone’s instructions are different and the evolutionary purpose may not be apparent at first. If you don’t feel a strong sense of direction at this point, then simply look for need. It’s everywhere. Just by acting in that direction, the path will light itself.

What a life of service feels like

Service is healing, it’s inspiring, it’s freeing. Living for ego is uncomfortable, grippy and painful. Trying to control outcomes, swimming in self-critical thoughts, reviewing personal slights, this is all the ego life. Whenever I get stuck in an ego space, frustrated that I haven’t lost the baby weight, or worried that I’m not teaching hundreds of students a month, I witness the thoughts, then turn my attention outward and look for who could use my help. It immediately lessens the anxiety, and ideas start flowing from there. The first time I really interrupted my self-focused path and stopped to look around for need was years ago when my daughter’s preschool teacher was very sick. I had an idea to do a fundraising event for her. For some reason, I was terrified to tell anyone my idea for months, my ego kept telling me no one would think my idea was good and I would be rejected. But I put it out there, it ended up inspiring other people, and we were able raise some money for this woman which ended up keeping her from losing her health benefits in a gap of coverage. I saw how one bit of service has so much power. It drowns out the insignificant whinings of the ego. It becomes contagious and can uplift whole communities. It is the answer to the suffering in our culture.

I’d like to end this piece with one of my favorite quotes. I look to it often to lift me out of the ego into my bigger self.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy.”

-Rabindranath Tagore

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When I first met these little girls in India, I thought I was helping them. I would see them almost daily and gave them food and little notebooks and toys. Their little smiles reminded me of my girls back home and their giggly, unconditional happiness always lifted my spirits. They gave me so much more in return.


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