Service Through Life’s Seasons

Lord, help me . . .
Because my boat is so small,
And your sea is so immense.(1)

Once upon a time, in a far kingdom, a certain king said to himself: “If only I knew the answer to three questions I would never go astray.” The questions were these:

  • What is the best time to do each thing?

  • Who is the most important person to work with?

  • What is the most important thing to do?

The king’s counselors had many answers. Yet none satisfied the king. So he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived on a mountain and received none but common folk. So the king put on simple clothes, left his bodyguards at the foot of the mountain, dismounted, and climbed to the hermit’s hut alone.

When the king approached, the hermit was digging in his garden preparing to plant seeds. Seeing his visitor, the hermit greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak. He breathed heavily as he worked.

The king went up to him and asked his three questions — about the best time to act, the best person to work with, and the best thing to do. The hermit listened but said nothing and continued digging.

“You are tired,” said the king, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the king, he sat down on the ground.

As the king continued to work, the sun began to sink behind the trees. Finally the king was ready to leave, but the hermit said: “Here comes someone running; let us see who it is.”

The king turned to see a bearded man running out of the wood, holding his hands pressed against his stomach. Blood was flowing from under his tunic. When the man reached the king, he fell fainting on the ground, moaning feebly. The king and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing to reveal a large wound in his stomach. The king washed the man’s wound and bandaged it carefully. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The king brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the king, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the king was so tired with his walk and work that he crouched down on the threshold and he too fell asleep — so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night.

When the king awoke in the morning, he struggled to remember where he was and who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed, gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and looking at him.

“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the king.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed my brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and encountered your bodyguards. They recognized me and wounded me. I escaped but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful servant, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The king, very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, not only forgave him but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him. Furthermore, the king promised to restore the man’s property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the king went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the three questions. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds dug the day before. The King approached him, and said:

“For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”

Details from "King and Hermit" by Mirza Ali at the
Raphael Museum (Click above to view full image).

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit. “Do you not see, if you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; I was the most important person; and to do me good was your most important task. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important person, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary person is the one you are with, for no one knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else, and the most important affair is to do the other person good. For that purpose alone were we humans sent into this life!”(2)

This parable recovered and retold by Leo Tolstoy is a teaching story that sees life as service. We learn that “now” is the most important moment, the other whom we encounter is the most important person to work with, and doing good to the other is the best thing to do. Adding to service the phrase “in the spirit” reminds us that not only what we do but how we do it makes all the difference. How do we dwell in the moment — peacefully or anxiously? How do we receive each person — lovingly or resentfully? How do we proceed in seeking the other’s good — wisely or foolishly?

Four gifts of the spirit can be found in the wisdom traditions of east and west. They are love, compassion, joy, and peace. From this perspective, we are serving in the spirit when we are dwelling and acting ever more lovingly, compassionately, joyfully, and peacefully.(3)

Yet more can be said. Suppose we think of life in four seasons and correlate each season with a stage of life as understood in ancient India.(4) Then we can distinguish four kinds of service, each appropriate to a stage of life:

On the arc of ascent,
  • the service of the Spring Student and
  • the service of the Summer Householder.
On the arc of descent,
  • the service of the Autumn Forest Dweller and
  • the service of the Winter Sage.

The seeds of all the stages are present from the beginning so that we can, in certain moments, touch future stages as if for a preview taste and we can also return to earlier capacities from a new place on the spiral of our lives.

Life in Two Halves

To understand the four kinds of service, it will be helpful to look at life in two halves: the first half of life ascending and the second half of life descending.(5)

In the first half of life, we strive to become somebody — to take our place in the world, to achieve maturity, to develop the capacities to love and to work.

In the first half of life, we focus on the three R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic, as part of our striving toward mastery in the world. Or, even more powerfully, we are inducted into another three R’s: the Rules, Roles, and “Religions” of the Culture, where “religion” can include worldviews such as nationalism, rugged individualism, capitalism, and other ideologies.

In the second half of life, we release into the depth, becoming in a certain sense nobody and everyone — an empty mirror for all that is. In the downward arc, we are invited to release from attachments to what we have constructed and to rest in the Great Mystery — in the silence, in the stillness, in the simplicity, in union with the Source and all things. In essence, we release from those stories and sentiments that no longer serve. We let go, return first to our place in the natural world and then to our true nature in and out of time. We experience life as vast, mysterious, loving, compassionate, joyful, and peaceful.

In the second half, we focus on the three R’s of later life: Receiving, Releasing, and Remembering. Receiving life as sufficient and responding in gratitude and joy. Releasing from being defined by roles and rules and ideologies. Remembering who we are in our widest and deepest natures. At our core we already have all we need to live a life of quality.

Our deep Self reflects more and more our Source and reflects more and more how deeply intertwined we are with one another in the great Circle of Life — people, other animals, plants, and minerals.

With this context in place, it is time to explore briefly the four kinds of service from each of the four standpoints.

Service of the Student-in-Us

Here we serve by learning. The deeper the learning, the better the service. The best learning stays with us, becomes more and more a part of who we are and what we do. There is a form of detachment, of cultivating an observing, listening self able to see what is happening and how we are commenting on and emotionally intertwined with what is happening. The time of the lifetime is opening before us.

Zen practitioners celebrate “beginner’s mind” throughout all the circumstances of our lives. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki tells us:

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin,
which means “beginner’s mind.”
The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. . .
Our “original mind” includes everything with itself.
It is always rich and sufficient within itself. . . .
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything;
it is open to everything.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities;
in the expert’s mind there are few.(6)

So at any stage of life we can be of service by remaining a learner. By emptying mind of preconceptions and engaging life anew. Thus, we stay open to possibilities and encourage creativity.

Service of the Householder-in-Us

This is service as we usually think of it. Concrete visible works. Building up the community through good deeds. Seeking social betterment. Freud has characterized maturity as gaining the capacities to love and work, that is, the capacity to engage in long-term relationships of intimacy and the capacity to take on tasks and see them through, whether one feels like it or not! The capacities to love and to work are very much Summer Householder skills.

The Householder takes on responsibility for units larger than him or herself alone. Care for one’s relationship, one’s family, one’s organization broadens the horizon in space. As families welcome children, a sense of ancestors dawns as well. Householders begin to understand — in their bones — that they stand in the midst of seven generations, called to honor the ancestors (one’s parents and their parents and their parents) and to serve the children (this generation of children and their children and their children). Intergenerational time expands before us. And, in space, we are invited to expand our sense of the human to include all humans as our brothers and sisters.

From the standpoint of Householder various kinds of service become permanent possibilities. We can mentor youth, aiding them to find their paths in work and in intimacy, aiding them to learn how to join with integrity and effectiveness in the world work they are given. For those of us in retirement, encore careers become possible, where people place their householder skills in service of new profit-making enterprises or in service of non-profits, devoted to causes one supports.

Service of the Forest Dweller-in-Us

Here we arrive at a reversal of sorts. We begin the arc of descent. On the circle, we move from Summer into Autumn and Winter. We move from expressing ourselves in the “doing” mode to dwelling more in a “being mode.” In Eastern terms, the transition is from Yang (active upward and outer movement) to Yin (receptive downward and inward movement). We also tip into the side of the circle where paradox reigns. We are both this and that. We are neither this nor that.

In space, we widen the circle from “humans only” to all creatures great and small in the interconnected community of the natural world. In time, we move to cosmic time — the time of billions of years.

At this period of human history, the Forest Dweller takes on ecological significance. As post-retirement Forest Dwellers, we come to love the natural world, to learn from it, to see ourselves as intimately interwoven in it. We come to simplify and care for elemental realities. We come to situate ourselves within “the Great Family,” in poet Gary Snyder’s phrase. And we tend to align ourselves with deeper rhythms.

Poet Wendell Berry expresses it in this way:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.(7)

Service of the Sage-in-Us

When we contact the Sage-in-Us, we return, in a new way, to what is — to the present moment, yet in a new way. We return to a present moment in time and out of time. As we grow into the Sage-in-Us we live more in mystery, in a kind of wondrous unknowing. Resting in peace, we are in contact with the eternal. We sense the spacious and special everywhere. Released from control, we rest in openness to what is emerging. Retired from responsibility to change the world, we can love more fully, holding true to that which matters. We can encourage creativity and bless the young.

In the language of the East, the meditative and mindfulness disciplines now bear fruit. In the language of the West, a new sense of prayer emerges — less for petition, more for simple gratefulness and joy. In fact, life becomes prayer. More and more, we rest in the silence, in the stillness, in contact with the mysterious Source, ever present, ever new. Having developed a taste for silence and stillness, we keep returning to a present moment that excludes nothing. Our presence is our service. What we do is less important than who we are becoming.

Service here is subtle. It is a service of being ourselves more fully. And finding that our deepest being is intertwined with everything. It is a mode of presence that opens us, as a channel, for the Great Mystery to manifest through us.

It is said, in Jewish tradition, that there are 36 just humans. They do not even know who they are. Yet for their sake the world is not destroyed. Here, one can think of a punishing God who withholds punishment. Yet I believe this teaching points far beyond reward and punishment. The service of the 36 derives from how they are present in the world. They are relatively sane in the midst of collective insanity. They understand what is real, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful. Because they hold to the real, the leaven is there for all, the lamp in the darkness does not go out. A smile remains. Love remains. Compassion remains. Joy resurfaces. Peace returns. And we see again and again the answer to the three questions:

  • What is the best time to do each thing?

  • Who is the most important person to work with?

  • What is the most important thing to do?

Releasing from attachments to unnecessary things, we enjoy all our kin in the natural world.

Remembering the saints and sages, we rest in contemplative mind. As the East would have it:

When the ten thousand things
are viewed in their one-ness,
we return to the Origin
and remain where we have always been.(8)

Is this not a beautiful service to all our kin?



1 French Medieval prayer. See Robert Bly, The Soul is Here for its Own Joy (Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), p. 112.

2 I take the story with minor edits from Tolstoy’s telling. See “The Three Questions” in Leo Tolstoy, Fables and Fairy Tales, trans. Ann Dunnigan (New York: New American Library, 1980), pp. 82–88. The story was first published in 1903.

3 See my book, The Fourfold Path to Wholeness: A Compass for the Heart (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2010). In the Buddhist tradition these four are called the Four Divine Dwellings or Brahmaviharas. In the west, they could well be a shorthand for the gifts of the spirit or even four of the names of God.

4 See my book, The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2009) for an extended discussion of the four stages of life as understood in the wisdom tradition of India overlaid on the four seasons.

5 Life in halves has a certain simplicity. However, while holding this perspective, it is also useful to hold a second perspective wherein we see life in thirds: say, 20 years as student, 40 years as householder and 20 years — what the British call the Third Age — as the post-retirement years. The life stages of Autumn Forest Dweller and Winter Sage belong most properly to the post-retirement years. For more, see my book The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life.

6 See Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1970), p. 21.

7 From the poem “Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry. See Wendell Berry, Collected Poems 1957–1982 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), pp.155–156.

8 Seng-Ts’an. Quoted in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books Division of Random House, 1960), p.271. Also see Frederick Franck, Echoes from a Bottomless Well (New York: Random House Vintage, 1985), p. 91.