Service is an endless series of questions, puzzling and insistent. It not only raises questions, it helps to answer them. Service is a curriculum.
In this curriculum, we encounter our own limitations – we have seen how our ego can lock us into narrow self-images, leaving us tentative and hesitant to reach out. Our resistance to pain can lead us to insulate ourselves from suffering. When our hearts do open in empathy, all too often we close down quickly, frightened by the intensity of our feelings; we substitute denial, pity, or other defense mechanisms for the spontaneous response of the heart. Frequently, we find ourselves so identified with our own needs that we tend to treat others as objects to be manipulated toward our own ends. We see how the restlessness of our minds can hinder our ability to listen; we find ourselves at least one thought away from someone else. And when we try to help through social action, we often so identify an opponent as an enemy that we remain locked in a cycle of recrimination. Meanwhile, as the toxicity of these and other hindrances build up, we begin to wear down. We burn out. Helping starts to hurt.
But the curriculum of service provides us with information about our strengths as well, and we discover how these contribute to genuinely help-full service. Each time we drop our masks and meet heart-to-heart, reassuring one another simply by the quality of our presence, we experience a profound bond which we intuitively understand is nourishing everyone.
Each time we quiet our mind, our listening becomes sharp and clear, deep and perceptive; we realize that we know more than we thought we knew, and can reach out and hear, as if from inside, the heart of someone’s pain.
Each time we are able to remain open to suffering, despite our fear and defensiveness, we sense a love in us which becomes increasingly unconditional.
As we close our inquiry into service, then, we can see in this mosaic of limitations and strength a still deeper teaching. Common to all those habits which hinder us is a sense of separateness; we are divided within ourselves and cut off from others. Common to all those moments and actions which truly seem to help, however, is the experience of unity; the mind and the heart work in harmony, and barriers between us dissolve.
– Excerpt from How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman
Photo by Marité Toledo via Flickr