Life of Service

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Life of Service

This series was started based on my current thoughts on romance (current in April of 2007, anyway) and looks to be a three part series.

Surprisingly enough, while I have often discussed various aspects of what helps to create a sweet and joyful life, I have only really danced around the central idea (similar to layers of an onion). Each discussion was true by itself, but not really the core.

For me the core (at least as far as I have reached so far, who knows if there aren't layers under this) to a sweet and joyful life is to maintain an inward focus. If your focus is to always be the sort of person you want to be (which is what I mean by an inward focus) then there is nothing outside of you that can restrict your success. You can ALWAYS be the sort of person you want to be. This is in contrast to an outward focus where you decide that to be happy or successful you have to get certain things or certain things have to happen. I can assure you that no matter how competent you are, there will always be things outside of yourself that you can not control and this can lead to frustration (and will do so the more you maintain an outward focus).

Of course while it is very easy to say 'maintain an inward focus' (try it, you can say it three times quite easily), the reality is that it is a very difficult thing to do. There are uncountable ways that we convince ourselves that we have to have certain things external to us in order to be happy. The truth is that we have all always had everything we need. I have never met a person who hasn't had enough food, water, and air for their entire life. Of course, those people who haven't had enough of those basics aren't alive and so I can't meet them, but we really imagine we have so much greater requirements. Even if those really basic requirements aren't met, the only thing that happens is that we die and we are going to die in any case. Isn't it better to have a short but good life rather than a long and despicable life. Isn't our self respect worth more than that?


As I contemplate what sort of person I want to be, it is a kind, compassionate, responsible, and caring person. It is only from a mistaken outward focus that we ever imagine that there is any reason to be anything else. In that sense meditation can be most useful in learning our own true nature and determining who we really want to be as well as developing an inward focus (as I said, an inward focus is much easier said than done). Being busy during our day naturally develops an outward focus, but sitting quietly, doing as little as possible, allows us to develop an inward focus.

There are many subtle ways that we slip into an outward focus. For example, we imagine that we can't be a loving person unless we have things to be generous to others with, but that is not true at all. To be the kind of person we want to be we only have to do our best. It is enough to be loving to those around us whether we have a lot of material goods or not; we can always be loving. Indeed, if we simply do our best that is always good enough. People often fall into the trap of believing that their best is not good enough as if there was some external standard of competency or accomplishments which makes a person valuable or worthy of respect. That is one of the many traps of an outward focus.

My favorite way to develop an inward focus is, surprisingly enough, to practice leading a life of service. For many years I understood the ideas of service but never really understood it in my heart until once, in a particular difficult time in my life, I read Martin the Cobbler, a short story by Leo Tolstoy. From it I really understood how a life of service brings peace and satisfaction through the natural inward focus it brings. You might consider reading it some times. It only takes twenty or thirty minutes and is very sweet.1


In Sanskrit there is a word Dharma which I love very much. It means 'right action'2, but right has a very sweet meaning. If an action is taken for self-serving motives, to benefit myself, then it is Karma. Karma is not necessarily bad or good, but it always has consequences because the action was taken with self-serving motives.3 To be Dharma, an action must be taken with selfless motives, seeking to benefit everyone. Dharma also changes as our understanding changes. It is about doing what is best based on our current understanding. As our understanding changes, so our Dharma changes. Similarly, Dharma is very personal. It is about me taking actions based on my own duties and responsibilities, not based on the duties and responsibilities of some nebulous other person or group.

Following Dharma is not really all that disruptive to our life. In most cases (perhaps even nine out of ten), the same things that we would do for self-serving motives (things like eating, sleeping, going to work) we would also do for selfless reasons (we can't serve others without taking care of ourselves), but, not to worry, there will also be blessed moments when we have to choose between self serving actions and selfless actions. Those are the points where we have to opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to a life of service. Our motives are purified when we make the 'tough' choices and it may be that the reason that actions are so important to the process is that they force us to really choose and go beyond empty 'lip service'.

In truth, there is a cycle of service (right action) which naturally brings joy (the joy of being true to our own nature and loving ourselves) which leads to an adjustment of our attitude (inward focus) which leads to, of course, service. A person can start the cycle anywhere (and service is my favorite part of the process), but each step feeds the next in an ever increasing spiral of sweetness and joy. The cycle is required because the quality of our service is very much dependent on our ability to maintain an inward focus (for truly selfless service). It can be most surprising just how deeply ingrained an outward focus is in so many of our habitual thoughts and ideas and it can take many years to root them all out. However, it is a very sweet process and we experience increasing joy as we progress.


1 I first read this story when I was doing seva (or helping out) at the Children's House in Syda Yoga, looking after children while their parents took courses. My seva supervisor, Annie (you can see pictures of her in 1995 and 2001) asked me to read the story and be ready to tell it to the children during our meeting (satsang) the next day. She gave me a photocopy and highlighter. I was in a low point in my life, in the midst of a bitterly disputed divorce and worried that I might lose contact with my kids and having just broken up with a girlfriend who I had hoped would make my life complete. As I read the story I saw how I was making myself miserable and the importance of a life of service. I can't say it was the first step in my path of improved spiritual understanding as there were countless events which led up to this point and it certainly wasn't the last step on my path, but it was a major step for me. I read the story on April 10, 1993. There wasn't time for me to tell the story the next day and Annie had me return the copy I had marked, but later I got my own copy and every year read it on April 10. After a few days I concluded (based on some subtle clues) who had really assigned me to read and mark up the story, but you will have to figure that out for yourself (and with less clues, too).

2 In Syda Yoga they would often have talks about various spiritual practice, but Dharma was always one of my favorite topics. John Grimes is a renowned professor of Eastern mysticism. He once spoke on Karma and Dharma and it really resonated with me. He could be considered my source on what Dharma means in Sanskrit.

3 As the consequences of self-serving actions can not be separated from the actions themselves, Karma is often used to refer simply to the consequences of past actions. This is alright, but can lead to shift of focus to the consequences alone which is not so good. It is far better to focus on the choices which we are facing right now and let past choices be used only as a guide for future choices.

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This page was last updated on November 27, 2009