SERVICE AS A MINDSET RATHER THAN A TASK
by Kevin Smith
The spiritual path is chock full of selfish acts. Becoming “self-aware” is perhaps one of the first steps we take on that path. We might practice meditation of some sort, learning how to direct and focus our awareness (what some call “mindfulness“) and becoming aware of our emotions, projections and defense mechanisms.
We spend a good amount of time simply getting to know ourselves, sitting with ourselves, learning how we work. The self is one of the primary beneficiaries of an effective spiritual practice and, necessarily, one of the first places we focus.
Because of all this time spent on and with the self, an intentional practice of being of service to others can have a powerful “balancing” effect on spiritual practice. And anonymous service—where no one knows who I am or what I have contributed—seems to have uniquely powerful impact.
If I were to define it, I’d say service is the willingness to direct resources from the self towards a purpose higher than, or beyond, the self. It enhances our ability to dissolve or merge the sense of self into a greater goal or larger organism.
When we think of service, we might immediately think of volunteering at organizations—perhaps groups who feed the homeless, work for social justice or dedicate themselves to a variety of charitable causes. These are all good works, to be sure. Service is vast and broad, however, and it’s fair to say the opportunity to be of service to others surfaces almost every hour. Fully embraced, being of service to others becomes a mindset rather than a task, and the opportunities show up in places we’d never expect.
I had a friend who spent every Tuesday evening at an animal shelter playing with the dogs and cats who were waiting for adoption there. It was her way of setting aside one evening per week for service to other beings. Picking up trash in a local park can be a beautiful way of dedicating service to Mother Earth as well as the humans and furry ones who then enjoy that park even more.
Service can be a meaningful way to build friendships. Go to that same animal shelter or park with a buddy—perhaps even making it your weekly mission together—and you may find that service is a wonderful alternative to coffee dates, meals or movies as a way to deepen relationships. People may even notice you and join in the trash picking, forming a larger group of friends.
One of my own favorite ways to be of service has to do with helping visitors to our city. I live in a part of town where there is virtually always someone standing on a corner with a map, straining to see the street signs and looking puzzled.
When I see someone with a map, my practice is to stop and ask them if they need directions. It’s a tiny little thing that takes 15 seconds of my time, but it often makes such an impact on the visitors that they remark, “this city is so friendly to newcomers!” Such a simple act can have a big impact on the quality of their visit. Offering directions is my version of going to the animal shelter on Tuesday nights.
Because service sublimates the ego into a larger sense of “we,” I have found anonymous service, where no one knows who I am or what I’ve done, to be particularly powerful. If we can somehow sneak in and out of that park and pick up the trash with no one ever knowing we were there, the power of service is amplified, because the ego has less to grab hold of.
Let me turn this around so you can perhaps see it more clearly. A political candidate makes an appearance in suit-and-tie to operate a ladle at a local soup kitchen, an event which his press office has trumpeted in advance. Nice idea; relatively low service value. It’s great that he’s doing service for others, and every little bit helps, but this is largely self-promotion, which is close to the exact opposite of service.
The benefit to those served might be the same, but the benefit to the candidate’s spiritual path is lessened by the degree to which his ego (and his political campaign) are served by his actions. Were that same person to appear quietly in jeans and a t-shirt, blending in as much as possible, unknown to those around him, “just another guy,” the impact of the service practice to his own spiritual life becomes more powerful.
An important spiritual goal in serving others seems to involve losing the sense of self, merging with the higher goal, the larger organism. It is this loss of the sense of self from which the joy of service springs. You can read more about this by studying the nature of “flow” as described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Looking for joy in your life? Try anonymous service as a pathway.
Mind-numbing, as I write about this: even service can be self-serving if done in such a way that it’s not self-serving! Think about that one. Very few things on the spiritual plane move us forward in such a balanced and powerful way as true, dedicated, no-strings-attached service to others that comes from clear intention and full awareness. The more I construct it so that I get nothing out of it, the more I get out of it.
Service is so reliable as a tool for spiritual growth that it is a cornerstone of many recovery programs. Go to any twelve-step program and you’ll likely hear someone tell a newcomer, “keep coming back. And if you really want to make progress, do service. Set up the chairs, or volunteer to make the coffee.”
Even people in very early recovery, people who are often very nearly incapacitated, are able to rely on service as a way forward. Anyone can do it. No matter what season we find ourselves in, rich or poor, content or unhappy, well-fed or hungry, my personal experience is that service moves me forward and increases joy. Of all the complexity around spiritual life, service is simple, it’s easy, and it works.
If you’ve never investigated the idea of intentional service, I encourage you to check it out. It’s one of the best things you can possibly do for yourself! Google “community service opportunities” for a list of possibilities in your area. Many cities now have websites which will pair those willing to do service with causes and organizations in the area that fit your interests, values and passions. And if that sounds too complicated, the opportunity to be of service to fellow creatures, human and otherwise, will appear within the hour if you watch for it.