Service is the best practice

I’ve mainly spoken about meditation and prayer, but for me, the practice that made the biggest difference was service. If you don’t know where to begin, don’t think you’re worthy of awakening, don’t know what you even want, don’t trust that anything can ever change- just serve, in whatever way you can.

Service work is the very real expression of my desire to touch the unconditional. It is never wasted and it is never unwelcome: have you ever seen well-intentioned and careful service be anything but helpful in a situation? Service is intuitive and it is very human, requiring at base no special abilities, no lotus position, no esoteric knowledge, no ordination: just that one decision to do something helpful in the next few seconds. When that is made into a consistent and intentional practice, service involves the development of so many bloody amazing qualities that I’m getting as excited as a puppy thinking about it and how it has been so crucial to me.

Service work is incredibly powerful for me. It can be like a stretching out to others when I have been wrapped up in myself. My mind and body creaked to begin with, when they were suddenly expected to put others first and my comfort second, unused to taking these unusual, taxing stances. I was like a person who had been curled up into a foetal position in self-defence, and suddenly I was demanding of myself that I stand up and take some risks. I was full of fear that I would do it wrong, look stupid, hurt others, and it was incredibly painful at times to submit to that with any humility I could muster.

Service develops habits of grace under pressure, patience with difficult situations and challenging people, resilience to changing circumstances, consistency of intention. Doing something outside of your comfort zone especially helps to develop calm, adventurousness, the ability to accept mistakes. It can be completely concrete for people who don’t know how to practice and think that sitting on your bum praying is useless: doing the dishes for your tired old mum or going to a Parent-Teacher Association meeting and thanklessly organising the minutes has a real effect, bringing a pleasure that is blameless. If you’re scared of death, you could volunteer at a hospice and really get acquainted with the thing that you fear. If you avoid homeless people in the street, you could help one out and find out what kind of human they are. Finding the joy in the most grim situation is a graceful way of living and entirely what practice is about for me.

Service is a great leveller. I once went to a Thai Forest tradition retreat and was assigned to work in the kitchen. In an eager but arrogant way, I asked the tiny woman next to me chopping onions silently what she did for a living. She told me very quietly, continuing to chop the onions slowly and mindfully, that she was a consultant doctor in cardiology. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are capable of doing; the intention to serve is something everyone can have. In a way, there’s no excuse not to. Once you have done some service, it is completely reasonable to reflect on what a good thing it was to do, and have some self-respect for doing something kind. It seems rare that the desire to service gets corrupted utterly into self-glorification. It’s just too powerful and satisfying.

One thing I do not see service as, is some way of stocking up karma points that you then redeem for God’s blessing, a rebirth in a deva realm, or some superpowers. If you prefer the more clinical stance I’ve taken on mindfulness in the past, it is more that service is a perfectly mundane activity that happens to massively cultivate a multitude of factors of enlightenment. You can’t worry too much about yourself when you’re too busy worrying about whatever you’re looking after. Your attention is removed from your habitual dwelling in concepts, from the suffering that is only possible with self-reference. Even if you do find yourself making it about you, the simple sticking with it will help you develop some stress tolerance, and that helps you be with your sensations as you examine them.

A more abstract, but perhaps more visceral way of looking at service (and practice in general) is that you stop worrying about how crap you and the world are, and you make a vow to do the right thing anyway. No excuses, no justifications, no rewards and no punishments: you can let all that go and just be unconditionally kind, patient, helpful. Emulating the unconditional brings it closer. What is left is grace.

Like every other part of my life, sometimes I do it grumpily, sometimes half-arsedly, and sometimes with joy that brings out the best in me. But the doing it anyway is the thing. When you avoid doing it, that’s another thing to investigate, and it only takes one second to go back to wanting to do something kind. And once your stint is over, that relaxation is blameless and no doubt well deserved.

This is not a theoretical blogpost, y’all. It is entirely practical.

Practice suggestions

  • Sign up to do some beneficial work you have been wanting to do, but been too shy to try.
  • Sign up to do some beneficial work you’re scared of. Do it for a set period regardless of how tough it gets.
  • Ask yourself right now: what can I do in this situation to be of service?