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Advanced Yoga Practices
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Lesson 347 - The Role of Service (Audio)
AYP Plus Additions:
New Visitors: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the archive, as previous lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why This Discussion?"
There have been some famous people who spent a lifetime in service to others, engaged in right action, who doubted if they came closer to God or Truth in an absolute sense. Yet, they served to the last.
Probably because real service is never about what we might expect from it, even if we are expecting something like spiritual progress. We just do it because we are moved from within. It is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Which comes first, spiritual progress, or service? It can work either way.
One thing is for sure. Sincere service for others comes from within us and cannot be structured externally, at least not entirely. It is the difference between service and servitude. One we will freely choose, and the other is imposed on us, perhaps even by our own internal mental tyranny. Ironically, the danger in living by strictly enforced rules of conduct is that it can be spiritually counterproductive. Clearly, free choosing is preferred. The heart cannot be opened by holding on. Only by letting go. Then we can see that the needs of others are as important to us as our own needs, and we will be drawn to serve. It is the essence of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the essence of right action.
Is right action cause or effect on our spiritual path? The question arises: What brings us to a point in our life where we may freely choose to do less harm, and to serve others more than we did before? Is it our rising bhakti? Is it others encouraging us to do it by their own example? Is it our daily deep meditation and its resulting inner silence?
It is all of these.
Once we find ourselves choosing to do more for others, it can become a habit, not necessarily an entirely good one in the beginning, because there will be feedback positive reinforcement. We will be complimented for our service. We will be admired and revered. People may even give us money so we can continue to serve on an ever-larger scale. We may be tempted to continue for those reasons alone. Then what becomes of our bhakti, our chosen ideal, and the relationship of our activity to our deep meditation and other yoga practices? For those who enter service as a profession, it can become a bit muddled.
Does this mean we should not serve? No, it doesn't mean that. But we will be wise to keep our service in proportion to our inner call, particularly as it relates to our bhakti and spiritual practices.
For those who want to change the world, the advice is simple: Stand up for what you believe in, while cultivating inner silence in deep meditation each day. Consider the lives and works of great people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Move as stillness moves, not as greed or fear would have you move.
Service is not mainly about doing great things that may draw the worlds attention. Only a few are called to that. Rather, service is about what we are doing right now. It is about our present relationships and current opportunities we have to help, and taking that next step to help someone anyone. We are lucky to have responsibilities and know people who are in need right here, right now. Being able to say "Yes" to that is a step on our spiritual path, as we continue to maintain balance and good self-pacing in our bhakti, practices, and daily routine of activities. As we open here and now within ourselves, we are opening the entire world.
Living a family life can draw us deeper into practices and service, leading to much joy and fulfillment. The greatest challenge that family life presents on the spiritual path is the need to provide for everyone while also making the time for practices. It takes a strong commitment, a lot of bhakti. There are many rewards if one keeps in balance. See Lesson 209 for tips on fitting daily practices into a busy life.
Some may prefer to focus only on their spiritual life, avoiding external responsibilities. This is not so simple either. Without adequate engagement in the world, renunciates can become ingrown and narrow in their outlook, with little regard for others, and stunted in their spiritual progress even while doing many yoga practices.
Service to "a family" of some kind is necessary to keep the heart and spiritual progress growing. The family may be our neighbor who needs help, our spouse and children, our community, or all of humanity. A joining that connects us to others in service is important, no matter who we are. It is an essential part of everyone's path, especially in the later stages of spiritual opening, when it is all about cultivating the divine flow in daily living bringing the inner reality into outer manifestation.
If our path is in marriage and family life, that is great. Whether we are married or not, it is likely we will find ourselves gravitating toward a role in life that puts us in the position of having some responsibility to help someone other than ourselves. If we are helping others, we are helping ourselves. It is the oldest wisdom in the scriptures. It will happen naturally as stillness begins to move out from us in waves of love and ecstatic bliss.
Real service is based in abiding inner silence, the witness, and is not affected by outer circumstances, or the sirens of praise or material rewards, whether they come or not. We can say that inner silence is the primary prerequisite for service that will be progressive for our own spiritual development, as well as for those who we may serve. In this sense, bhakti that calls us to daily meditation first is more fundamental to our spiritual progress than bhakti that calls us to service. If the meditation comes first, then we will surely be drawn to service that is evolutionary rather than binding.
While we may be attending to those who are in need, the real import of our service to them and to ourselves will be in the love that is conveyed relationally through our inner silence. If there is inner silence stirring, the heart will melt, and this is the essential dynamic of service. Once this process is underway, the service itself will promote the melting and increase the flow of divine love coming from within. Before inner silence is abiding, there can be doubts, and the service may be forced. We will know it when we feel it, and we should self-pace our service as necessary, like any other yoga practice.
There are many levels of service. It begins at home, wherever that happens to be, and with whomever we are in relationship with on a daily basis. Big openings come from small acts of service, when we are ready.
If we are hungry for our inner growth (cultivating bhakti) and are engaged in daily deep meditation, we will be naturally inclined to engage in service. We don't have to make a big thing of it. We can begin by doing a few more chores around the house that maybe we were not inclined to do before. We can meet the negativity we find in ourselves and in those around us with more kindness. We can forgive, which is the greatest service we can offer to anyone, and to ourselves. A heart in constant forgiveness of the ills of the world, near and far, is a heart in constant service.
The saints and sages take as much joy in the small acts of service as in the big ones. It is all the same to one who is becoming stillness in action.
The transformation does not happen overnight. As we continue along our path, desiring a closer connection with the divine within us, and engaging in deep meditation and other spiritual practices, we will see a gradual rise in our empathy for those around us. A little bit more each month and year, we will be able to forgive ourselves and others, and our conduct will gradually rise to become a natural outflow. As this happens, we will have less awareness about what positive feedback may or may not be coming as a result of our positive actions. The so-called fruits of our action will matter less and less.
At the same time, we will notice any negative effects of our actions much more acutely, and be inclined to make the necessary corrections to reduce negative consequences for ourselves and others. Our actions will become increasingly intuitive and morally self-regulating. We will sense consequences before we engage in the actions that will bring them about, and act accordingly for the most positive result, even while being not much attached to the outcome. Like the great concert pianist who hears all of the notes from first to last in every moment she is playing, so too will our actions in the divine flow naturally optimize the results.
While it is true that, ultimately, karma yoga is action without attachment to its fruits, it is also action with the most evolutionary outcome. It is a natural inner process that occurs in stillness. In time, it becomes automatic.
This kind of service begins in our ordinary life. If it expands to a broader arena, affecting many others, it will be according to our own inclinations. What we can do at home, we can do everywhere. If we are making a big reputation by serving very publicly, and are not doing so at home, then our path will be flawed. It is said that the true spiritual depth of a sage is known not by the public life, but by the personal life.
The scope of our actions is influenced by karma also. There are particular inclinations each of us have, and we can follow them for the greater good. There is no such thing as "good" or "bad" karma. Only the expression of karma today in following our inclinations, which become elevated in purpose as we move forward on our spiritual path, expressed in the specific actions we take to manifest those inclinations in the present.
In other words, our present spiritual condition determines the expression of our karma. If we have a karmic tendency to be intense and impatient in performing tasks, then this may be expressed as an intensity and impatience to maximize the pace of spiritual progress in ourselves and in those around us. Of course it can be too much at times, and this is why self-pacing is advised. Yet, the karmic energy that may have otherwise gone to creating unpleasant friction in life, goes to advancing spiritual progress with the elements of bhakti and spiritual practices in the picture. There are many instances where negative experiences have inspired people to great positive accomplishments.
Like emotional energy, karma is energy that can be automatically directed by the spiritual practitioner to its highest manifestation. And in doing so, the consequences of actions undertaken become elevated. It is the essential technique of bhakti the transformation of all energy to serve our chosen ideal.
It will happen in ordinary life, in our work, in our family, and in our interactions with everyone we may encounter. It can be as simple as just being there for someone in need, or as complex as organizing and managing a massive aid program on the institutional level. Whatever the call may be, and whatever we choose to do within that context, inner silence will elevate the outcome in ways that are far beyond human reckoning. Like that, in advancing karma yoga, we become pure channels for the divine.
From this perspective, every event we encounter in life becomes an opening in pure bliss consciousness. Even as we mourn the tragedies that inevitably will visit us in life, we know that loss and adversity can lead us to new outpourings of divine love and spiritual realization. The best way to honor the past is to fully honor the present, attending to the well-being of those who are with us today. This is bhakti and karma yoga in action.
The role of service in spiritual life is both effect and cause. Service is an effect of rising inner silence, and a cause of the transformation of all karma to its most positive influence for the evolution of humanity and all of manifest existence. This is the sole purpose of karma, and its fulfillment is found in our fulfillment. Our evolution is the same as the evolution of the entire cosmos. As we undergo the process of purification and opening in our nervous system, we act accordingly. It is the gentle favoring of stillness in all action, much the same as the gentle favoring of the mantra in the simple technique of deep meditation.
From there, all we must do is go out and engage in normal daily activity, following our hearts desire, expressing toward our chosen ideal. Stillness will take care of the rest.
The guru is in you.
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Note: For detailed discussion on the rise of service to others, coming naturally from within, and its role on our path to enlightenment, see the Bhakti and Karma Yoga book and AYP Plus.
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