If you would like to feel more love in your life, there is a guaranteed method to open your heart: do selfless service. We all have an inherent human need to feel we are contributing towards making the world a better place. Altruism is not just a characteristic of a few special saintly people that we admire from afar – it is our part of our true nature. If we are not expressing our need to feel that we are helping others, something is missing, and we feel depressed, lonely, empty – even when we may seem to have everything we need on other levels.
I am speaking from personal experience. In my early 20s I went through a very dark period in my life, and I was suffering from a deep depression. Something was missing in my life – but I wasn’t sure what it was. My attempts to understand myself had only led me deeper into an inner labyrinth – the more I analyzed my depression, the more reasons I seemed to find to be depressed. Depression, though, is a wonderful catalyst for personal and spiritual growth – and indeed, it led me to begin my own personal quest to understand the meaning of life. This led me to the local library where I began to systematically devour the section on spirituality – reading wisdom teachings from many different sources which gave me the thrilling realization that they were all saying remarkably similar things.
My next step was to start to seek out teachers from various traditions that I found to be authentic. One of these teachers was giving a talk in Chicago. She was a spiritual guru who was also leading service work for people with HIV and AIDs right at the frightening start of this epidemic in the US. As I watched her respond to many of the spiritual questions of the participants in a big seminar she was leading – I saw how she kept repeating “What are you doing for my children? What are you doing for others?”. This was her response to many people that were themselves facing serious illness, or other major obstacles in life.
I was inspired. I decided to follow her example and signed up as a volunteer to help AIDs patients at a charity hospital in the inner city. A couple of months later, after completing mandatory trainings, I finally was allowed to have contact with the patients. I read a book by Ram Dass about Seva (the sanskrit word for service), that when we decide to do service, we should choose to do something that we already enjoy doing and turn that into a service. That way we are doing it truly out of love and joy, and not just a sense of obligation, or rigid concepts about what service should look like. You can find ways to do service with all of your favorite hobbies – and as one of my hobbies at the time was baking sweets, I decided to make a tray of oatmeal raisin cookies for the patients at the hospital. It seemed like a good idea, until I actually entered the ward, and realized in a few moments that it wasn’t.
Most of the patients were on respirators, or simply too sick to eat. But when I came with my well-intentioned plate of cookies, they were so touched by my efforts, that tears glistened in their eyes. One very thin, guant man stretched out his hand with the dark brown skin drawn tight over the bones, and held my hand in his thanking me with so much sincerity that my eyes began to glisten….I received so much from those patients that day. It was the first time that I realized that my presence could actually be meaningful for another human being. It wasn’t anything special I had done – rather my efforts to “do” something felt pretty silly. But it wasn’t about doing, it was about being. Being willing to open up and just be alongside someone who is in difficulty. These patients had no visitors. There wasn’t even a television. The nurses avoided them as well. They were starved for a little human love. Just being there had brought some joy for a few moments into their lives.
It changed me. I never felt depressed again. I realized that my existence is valuable and important because I can make a positive contribution to the lives of others. That Sunday morning, the zen group that I was meditating with had a session. I arrived late, as I had been at the hospital, so I tried to enter and sit down on a meditation cushion as discretely as possible, hoping that I wouldn’t disturb the group. After the session ended, the teacher turned to me and looked at me for a brief moment. I thought perhaps he was going to comment on my late arrival. He then said, “When you walked in and sat down this morning, I felt a beautiful vibration and you were just shining – what happened?”
Indeed, I ended up enjoying the deep satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others so much , that later I would make a life-committment to service by becoming a nun. This may seem like a more radical choice – but for me it was spontaneous and natural. I was simply enjoying my volunteer work so much that it was painful to imagine leaving it to return to developing things like a career, family, etc.
However, the world is constantly offering all of us so many opportunities to serve. I personally admire parents. New mothers and fathers somehow manage to both work and take care of an infant on a fraction of our normal hours of sleep. And that is only the beginning of the millions of sacrifices parents will make for their children. Yet, these sacrifices are not just burdensome obligations – most parents feel an immense satisfaction and joy in raising their children.
So look for ways to help and serve the world around you. Help your loved ones – but also challenge yourself to expand that circle to be as wide and inclusive as possible. Include not only people – find ways to care for animals, plants, nature itself.
While not everyone has the opportunity to help those in the most need directly through volunteering, but in that case, find ways to donate towards causes that make a difference. We don’t have to feel helpless and overwhelmed when we watch the news about the environmental crisis, wars, violence and famines. There are always people and organizations trying to make a difference on the very issues you feel the most strongly about. Both donating and volunteering are ways that foster generosity, compassion, kindness. Our reward is the immense inner satisfaction that we feel when we have been a small part of the forces for good in the world. The more generously we express our love through actions, the more we feel it all around us.
Our service becomes even more meaningful when we approach it not from an attitude of pity, which creates distance and reinforces a dynamic of superiority / inferiority, but rather when we turn service into a meditation. Mother Teresa’s practice was to serve everyone seeing Christ in them – no matter how sick, poor, dirty or depraved they were. In yoga as well – there is a similar practice of seeing the divine in every entity which is called “Madhuvidya” or “honey-sweet knowledge”. It is a type of mindfulness that makes your existence rich and blissful, and can turn the most mundane of actions – even washing the dishes, or sweeping a floor, into a sacred offering of service to Divine Consciousness. When we cultivate this attitude, then we are grateful to those that give us the opportunity to help them, rather than considering that they should be grateful to us. Service then truly becomes selfless, without ulterior motives, and thus purifies us of ego, making our existence light, free and joyful.
A video from our service project Familia AMURTEL in Romania:
[vimeo 9515893 w=500 h=375]
Donations are always welcome!!! 😉