As my path continued I found myself in service situations more and more. Although this doesn’t mean that it was always easy or fun, being in a ‘real life’ setting with an emphasis on clear seeing, open heartedness and clear communication has helped me grow. I have learnt and I am still learning a lot about myself.
One example that comes to mind happened in the leprosy community in India where we have been doing work retreats for the last four years. One year I decided to join others from the group who were giving simple massage to the elderly women of the community. But when I arrived at the old people’s home I found I was scared of catching their lice or skin diseases, and disturbed by the smells of urine. I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to experience their living conditions. I also felt that as the facilitator of the group I should be able to lead by example. I was feeling very embarrassed and uncomfortable both from my reaction to their situation and failing to live up to my self image.
Somehow I had enough space to be kind to myself, and enough room to let go of needing to be somebody special. Naturally this allowed me to be more accepting of where I was, and I was able to talk with the group about what was going on for me. I received a lot of support and wisdom from the group and this honest expression of my limitations created a much healthier and richer way of being together for all of us. With time and gentleness I also found my place with the old ladies, and I have been lovingly working with them ever since.
This experience showed me that we don’t need to be Bodhisatvas in order to do service. It’s enough to care and be interested in understanding ourselves and the world we live in to promote change. Also we don’t need to wait to be perfect; a sense of our own imperfection is a great place to start.
Service can be a wonderfully nourishing and illuminating practice for many of us. A practice where we find we are truly helpful when we are truly ourselves.
For me this story also illuminates some of the reasons why we sometimes don’t engage. This is usually either because we don’t feel good enough, or that the ‘problem’ seems too much. Either we can’t match our own expectations of the kind of person we should be to be helpful, or we shut down because it feels we cannot do anything in relation to so much suffering.
Often inaction is not because we don't care, but because we feel too much and it’s too painful. In these cases our starting point is to let ourselves open to pain, and this is heart work. In these situations it helps to take some deep breaths instead of beating ourselves up. To acknowledge where we are at the moment, and to be there just as we are. Then when we are ready we can begin to explore our comfort zone, and slowly move closer and closer to its edges. It doesn’t need to get too serious, it is not up to us to transform all the suffering of this world. Our spiritual path is made up of moment to moment happenings. We only have the possibility to do what we can, with what we have, where we are. In the words of Mother Theresa: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love”. If we can share love and understanding one moment at a time, transformation can happen.
Friends often wonder why we choose to call SanghaSeva events, which combine meditation and service, retreats. The word ‘retreat’ literarily means to move back or withdraw, usually to a quieter or more secluded place. In a dharma context this is a stepping back from our lives in order to see ourselves and the world we share more clearly. We move back in order to look more closely. In SanghaSeva retreats we do not withdraw from life but step forward in to it. But we try to move into life from the quiet and peaceful place within each of us, as well as maintaining this space together as a group. In meditation practice we develop the capacity to be in touch with our own suffering and to be intimate with it. We learn not to shrink around an experience, not to cling or push it away. What we experiment with on our retreats is doing the same thing in the world, especially in situations where there is suffering. When we encounter pain or suffering, we attempt to stay open to them. As much as we can we stay in touch with our hearts. We practice staying soft while doing everything we can to make more and more inner space. So when we work with people with leprosy, we are in touch with their pain, and also with what is going on inside us. We are listening inwardly and outwardly. And we practise love and acceptance towards them and their situation, as well as towards ourselves and whatever is going on within us at the time.
The amazing thing is that by doing this our spiritual practice becomes richer, it grows. By being with the suffering of others our capacity to be with our own suffering increases. And the boundaries between ‘my’ suffering and ‘someone else’s’ becomes less easy to see. The idea of a helper over here and someone over there being helped just can't exist anymore. Dropping our masks and roles keeps making more and more space to act in. More and more space for love to flow and fill.
We realize that in practising service we are sharing not giving. And that in the give and take of the web of life, we have everything to offer and nothing to lose.
Zohar Lavie has been involved with dharma practice and service work for many years. In 2004 she co-founded SanghaSeva, an organisation that offers retreats combining service and meditation. For more about SanghaSeva please see