Service as Spiritual Practice

Editor’s note: Roger Walsh M.D., Ph.D., is professor of psychiatry, philosophy, and anthropology, and adjunct professor of religious studies at the University of California at Irvine. He is a student and researcher of contemplative practices, and his publications include the books Essential Spirituality: The Seven Central Practices, Paths Beyond Ego, The World of Shamanism, and Gifts from A Course in Miracles.(1)

If there’s one thing on which the world’s great religions agree, it’s the importance of generosity and service. “Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others,” urged Confucius. Mohammad never said no when asked for anything, while Jesus encouraged us to “Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” When Mohammad was asked, “What actions are most excellent?” he replied, “To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured.”

But the great religions regard helping one another as more than mere obligation. Rather, they see service as both a central human motive and as a source of profound satisfaction and well-being. In the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, love and service of others are often given equal status with love and service of God. In Buddhism, compassion is seen as an inherent aspect of our nature, while Confucianism regards benevolence as “the most important moral quality.”

So esteemed are generosity and service that some traditions regard them as the culmination of spiritual life, the practice upon which all other practices converge. From this perspective, a central goal of spiritual life is to equip oneself to serve effectively. Even the supreme goal of satori, salvation, or awakening is sought not just for oneself alone, but also so as to better serve and awaken others.

The Joy of Service

For a long time psychologists held a rather dim view of altruism and argued that people helped merely to feel good about themselves or to look good to others. However, recent experiments paint a far more pleasant picture. Human beings seem to be genuinely altruistic; we all have a desire to help.

Mother Teresa’s nuns offer dramatic examples of generosity and the joy it can produce. Theirs is an austere lifestyle. They leave the comforts of home and live like the poorest of the poor people whom they serve. At their central house in Calcutta, they are packed three or four to a room, and their only possessions are two dresses and a bucket for washing. They eat much the same food as the poor, and despite the suffocating Indian heat they have no air conditioning. They rise before dawn and spend their days working in the slums. It’s an existence that most of us would regard as difficult, if not downright depressing.

[Yet] when a television interviewer visited Mother Teresa, he told her, “The thing I notice about you and the hundreds of sisters who now form your team is that you all look so happy. Is it a put-on?” She replied, “Oh no. Not at all. Nothing makes you happier than when you really reach out in mercy to someone who is badly hurt.” “I swear,” wrote the interviewer afterwards, “I have never experienced so sharp a sense of joy.”(2)

The Nobel Prize winning Indian poet, Tagore, summarized the practice in two exquisite lines.

I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.

Another Nobel Prize winner, Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to treating the poor and sick of Africa, agreed and warned: “The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

Of course we don’ t have to be nuns or Nobel Prize winners to serve and to reap the rewards of service. When people are asked to recall acts of generosity they feel good about, they are often surprised by how simple and apparently small acts — even small gifts or simple acts of kindness — can produce an enduring glow which psychologists call “helper’s high.”

Psychologists have found striking evidence that support religious claims for the benefits of generosity. Generous people tend to be happier, healthier (both physically and psychologically), and even to live longer. For older people it is their contributions to the world and future generations that usually give meaning and satisfaction to their lives. Paradoxically, taking time to make others happy makes us feel better than devoting all our efforts to our own pleasures. Psychologists call this “the paradox of pleasure,” and there are three major reasons for it:

  • First, generosity weakens negative motives and emotions. For example, when we share our possessions, time, or energy, we loosen the heavy chains of egocentric greed, jealousy, and fear of loss that keep us contracted and defensive.
  • Generosity also strengthens positive emotions and motives. For example, when emotions such as love and happiness are expressed as kindness, they thereby grow stronger.
  • We ourselves experience what we intend for others. If we boil with rage, it is our minds that are convulsed by the anger, even before we vent it on someone else. On the other hand, when we desire happiness for others, feelings of happiness first fill our own minds and then overflow into caring action. What you intend for another, you tend to experience yourself.

But in order for service to be a source of joy for everyone, including us, it’s important to find out how you would like to help.

There is a little-known secret about service: It’s okay to have a good time! In fact it’s more than okay; it’s a gift to everyone. It is a gift to you because service is then a pleasure rather than a chore. It is a gift to others because then you not only share your time but also your happiness. After all, who wants to be assisted by someone who’s grumpy and resentful about giving?

The first step is to get in touch with your feelings and find out how you would like to help. For this it is crucial to set aside any tyrannical thoughts about what you should do, any limiting beliefs about what you cannot do, and to simply recognize what you would like to do. Often what you would really like to do is also what makes best use of your unique talents. Of course it may take time and perhaps experimenting with different types of service to find out what most appeals to you.

Awakening Service: Service As Spiritual Practice

Spiritual life therefore has two central goals: to awaken to our true nature and to help heal and awaken others. Obviously, it would be wonderful if there was a way of doing both simultaneously. Fortunately there is. It’s the practice of what we might call “awakening service.” This is a variant of a venerable practice that is particularly well described in the Indian yogi tradition where it is called “karma yoga.” Karma yoga is the yoga that uses our daily activities as the focus and opportunity for spiritual practice. Karma yoga classically has two aspects, both aimed at changing and purifying motivation.

The first aspect is to do our service and work in the world, not for ourselves alone, but for a higher purpose. This purpose might be the good of one’s community or the welfare of the world. However, the traditional goal is to express and fulfill the Divine Will by offering one’s actions to God. Thus, one of Hinduism’s central scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, declares:

Work is holy
When the heart of the worker
Is fixed on the Highest....
Action rightly performed brings freedom.

Of course this idea is not unique to Hinduism. St. Paul, for example, urged, “Do everything for the glory of God.”

The second element of classical karma yoga and of awakening service is to release attachments to the results of our contributions. Often when we contribute something, we have definite ideas about the outcome we want and the rewards we deserve and get very attached to getting them. Yet this is a recipe for disaster. For if things work out differently than we expect or if we are not lavished with praise, then our attachments go unfulfilled and we suffer accordingly. This is one reason why Confucius recommended so strongly, “Put service before the reward you get for it.”

How much we suffer depends on whether we are run by, or learn from, our attachments. On one hand, if we mindlessly cling to our attachments and they aren’ t fulfilled, then we may boil with anger or slide into a funk. On the other hand, we can recognize these painful emotions as a wake-up call. They are the screams of our frustrated ego letting us know that we are attached to a particular outcome, and reminding us that we can stay attached and continue to suffer, or let go and come to peace.

One way to reduce attachment to recognition is to do good works quietly, without the fanfare and trumpet blowing that would draw attention, swell our egos, and puff up pride. “So whenever you give alms (charity),” urged Jesus, “do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do.” In fact both Jesus and Mohammed used almost identical words when they recommended, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be done in secret.”

Awakening service is a delicate balancing act. We work and contribute wholeheartedly, yet at the same time try to relinquish attachment to how things turn out and to receiving recognition. The Bhagavad Gita summarizes the challenge as follows:

Do your duty, always; but without attachment.
That is how [one] reaches the ultimate Truth;
By working without anxiety about results.
In fact... many others reached enlightenment
simply because they did their duty in this spirit.

Adding a third component makes awakening service still more potent. By learning as much as we can from serving, we simultaneously grow in wisdom and effectiveness.

To do this means bringing a desire to learn and grow to all that we do. Each act of service and every result of that service then becomes a source of learning. With this attitude, each success or failure and each emotional reaction becomes a kind of feedback. If the project we are working on turns out well, we try to learn why. If we make a mistake (which of course we will, many times), we explore this also. Mistakes can prove just as valuable as triumphs, sometimes even more so. With this perspective there is no need for guilt or self-blame; these are merely sorry substitutes for learning. Sufis call one who has learned to accept and learn from any outcome a “contented self.” A person at this advanced stage is a living example of Confucius’ claim that “The person of benevolence never worries.”

These three elements dedicating efforts to a higher goal, relinquishing attachments to specific outcomes, and learning from experience are the keys to effective awakening service. By combining them we create a spiritual practice of enormous power. Through awakening service we simultaneously purify motivation, weaken cravings, serve as best we can, and learn how to serve and awaken more effectively in the future.

One enormous advantage of awakening service is that it transforms daily activities into spiritual practices. With its help we need not change what we are doing so much as how and why we are doing it. Awakening service is therefore a superb practice for those busily engaged with work and families. With this approach, work and family far from being distractions from spiritual life now become central to spiritual life, and each project or family activity can be transformed into a sacred act.

A beautiful example comes from Sri Anandamaya Ma, a 20th-century Indian saint who mastered multiple spiritual paths. Although she had only two years of schooling and referred to herself as “a little unlettered child,” she spoke beautifully and profoundly, and her students included renowned scholars, philosophers, and statesmen. She described her relationship with her family as follows:

This body has lived with father, mother, husband and all. This body has served the husband, so you may call it a wife. It has prepared dishes for all, so you may call it a cook. It has done all sorts of scrubbing and menial work, so you may call it a servant. But if you look at the thing from another standpoint you will realize that this body has served none but God. For when I served my father, mother, husband and others, I simply considered them as different manifestations of the Almighty and served them as such. When I sat down to prepare food I did so as if it were a ritual, for the food cooked was after all meant for God. Whatever I did, I did in a spirit of divine service. Hence I was not quite worldly though always engaged in household affairs. I had but one ideal, viz. To serve all as God, to do everything for the sake of God.(3)

As with all practices, awakening service initially requires effort. But over time the effort becomes spontaneous and service becomes joy. Gradually awakening service extends to encompass our lives and each activity within its healing, awakening embrace. As it does so, we begin to recognize who we really are, and the words of an ancient Hindu saying ring increasingly true:

When I forget who I am I serve you.
Through serving I remember who I am
And know I am you.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

by T. S. Eliot from “East Coker”



1 This article is based on parts of the book Essential Spirituality: The Seven Central Practices by Roger Walsh (Wiley, 2000). The author would like to acknowledge the excellent assistance of Marisol Palomera and Bonnie L’ Allier in the preparation of this article.

2 Andrew Vidich, Light Upon Light: Five Master Paths to Awakening the Mindful Self (Houston, TX: Elite Books, 2008), p. 139.

3 Atmananda, Atmananda, Matri Darshan (Westerkappeln, Germany: Mangalam-Verlag S. Schang, 1988).