In one of the most powerful passages on oneness in world spiritual literature, the prophet Isaiah describes service as the ultimate path to enlightenment and the source of real health (the words whole, holy and healthy stem from the same root):
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily.
For many years, I complained constantly that I did not have enough time for my spiritual development until I suddenly realised that I had 24 hours a day to grow spiritually, not only the moments set aside for meditation and spiritual study. My mantra became ‘Spirituality is a clean kitchen’, to stress that true spirituality was doing ordinary things in a special manner – with quality, care and love.
Over a period of 15 years, I have had thousands of people in my workshops. And I have noticed that for many, the spiritual quest is a rather self-centred thing: the search for personal enlightenment and well-being. However, I believe there is no authentic spirituality where there is no healing of one’s community and of the world – just as social, environmental and political activism without a spiritual dimension can easily lead to anger, bitterness and burnout.
Balance on the spiritual quest
One of my heroes in this field is an Indian teacher and activist called Vimala Thakar.
Born in 1920 into a Brahmin family, she very early manifested a passion for spirituality, and very early in life started visiting ashrams. At 19 she spent a year in a cave meditating. Following that experience, she went to the opposite end of the spectrum and joined the land distribution movement inspired by Gandhi and then led by Vinoba Bhave, travelling the Indian countryside for eight years.
Then a major event occurred in her life. At 40 years of age, she met the legendary Krishnamurti, the great teacher. He encouraged her to teach, and she left the field of social activism, writing to her friends in the movement that ‘the only salvation for mankind appears to be in a religious revolution of the individual’. Yet, 18 years later, the same Vimala returned to activism with the aim of aiding the poor and disenfranchised and healing the environment. She is the only major example I know of a person with that particular path: from meditation to activism, to teaching, and back to activism.
The clue, I believe lies in her reply to the well-known American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield*, who questioned her about returning to her earlier love: ‘I am a lover of life’, she replied, ‘and as a lover of life, I cannot keep out of any activity of life. If people are hungry for food, my response is to help feed them. If people are hungry for truth, my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction between serving people who are starving and have no dignity in their physical lives and serving people who are fearful and closed and have no dignity in their mental lives. I LOVE ALL LIFE’.
I have, alas, met so many people claiming to be ‘spiritual’ who were totally indifferent to the very real sufferings of the world, and too many social activists ruining their health and killing the deep joy born of authentic service by always trying to do more.
The world is not exactly in a good shape, to put it mildly, and many observers of the world scene give us 30-40 years to pull our act together if we want to survive. The need for unselfed world servers has never been so great, for we live in a time of immense urgency: urgency to get off our little spiritual cloud, urgency to help heal the world and become true world servers. This urgency is not a reason to get frantic; on the contrary it demands quiet inner strength. But it is a time to stop playing marbles and being a passive witness of world events, and really buckle down to serving humanity. I personally believe this should be the first aim of any spirituality worth its salt today.
A deep dimension of healing
However, it is important to stress that service does not necessarily mean rushing around doing things. The service we have in mind is characterised by a deep dimension of healing: healing relationships (including with oneself!), healing the environment, eradicating all forms of poverty (mental as well as physical), healing disease. I personally have friends who have healed situations of collective violence, diseased crops and a large herd of cattle (overnight) through the very clear understanding of the spiritual laws ultimately governing reality. And over the years, people from all round the world have shared with me healings which happened through the simple practice of blessing.
Tibetan master Djwhal Khul, who inspired the writings of Alice Bailey (author of Serving Humanity, among many other works), wrote the following: ‘True service is the spontaneous outflow of a loving heart and an intelligent mind; it is the result of being in the right place and staying there; it is produced by the inevitable inflow of spiritual force and not by strenuous physical plane activity; it is an effect of a man’s being where he truly is, a divine Son (or Daughter) of God, and not by the studied effect of his words or deeds’.
Each one needs to find her or his own unique path of service. However, in our consumer society, it seems that becoming a world servant demands a radical realigning of one’s priorities, starting with one’s time, income and possessions. The question then becomes not, ‘What do I want to do with my time, money, possessions’, but: ‘how do I realign their use to be consistent with my aim of service and healing? It is a tall demand, and one that appears menacing to our little egos running the show and clamouring for self-importance. But once one has started practicing stewardship (or non-possession) in everything, the inner freedom it offers is so glorious one could not think for a minute of turning back to the gilded cage of possessiveness.
This slow thawing of the ego is beautifully expressed in the words of the great Sufi poet Rumi:
Take away what I want
Take away what I do
Take away everything
That takes me from you.
Might not this be the ultimate way?