How Can Meditation Possibly Be Service?
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | January 20, 2024
When I returned to the U.S. after living in Asia for four years, I moved back in with my parents for a few months till I could figure out what to do next. My mom and dad were super kind and generous about it – happy to have me home for a bit. However, they were somewhat puzzled and concerned by my tendency to sit for long periods with my eyes closed every morning.
My mom said, “I get that you’re meditating, but it just feels so, I don’t know…unproductive.”
Like most of us Americans, my mom lives in the ethos of a culture that equates our value with our busy-ness, our worth with our productivity, and our beingness with our doingness – so of course meditation seemed like an indulgent waste of time. (To be fair, over the years my mom has grown to embrace my decisions around my practice. Also, she reads my blogs (Hi mom!) so I’m not gonna throw her under the bus 🤣).
The western need for busy-ness and productivity dominates many aspects of our lives including our ideas around spirituality and its cousin, service. We tend to think that because so many people are struggling with material needs we should be doing something to alleviate their suffering. If you say that you lead a spiritual life, you’d better get off your butt and help others. And for service to be real, it has to involve muscle and sweat.
I think service (seva in the yoga tradition) in the form of physical labor is essential. And many people get a lot out of helping others at soup kitchens, food pantries, neighborhood clean ups, homeless shelters, relief work, etc. This kind of service has become increasingly essential as societies lose their parity and more people need help getting their basic needs met.
But, when I was younger, I thought it was the only kind of service that mattered. Yes, I was teaching yoga and I liked it, but I thought I had to bring coats and blankets to the homeless in the cold, work at community gardens, clean up trash, etc. if I wanted to actually do something good in the world, that wasn’t just for myself. Eventually, I started to realize that while all of those activities are noble, essential, and great to participate in whenever I could, they are not the only form of seva that matters.
One day, after I had helped to cook a bunch of food, serve it to 70 people, and clean up at a fundraising event, I went home, took a shower, sat down to meditate, and had an insight – I was doing these things because I thought I was supposed to, not because it was the best way for me, personally, to help.
I knew I had some skills around teaching yoga and writing, but to be able to develop them and move in the direction of a more honed, focused kind of service, I would have to get better with boundaries – boundaries with my time, my focus, and with saying no to some of the service opportunities that I often participated in. I had to shift my focus so that I could put my energy into the kind of seva that matched my skills. I started to understand that the best form of seva is actually the seva that leveraged my svadharma – the unique meaning and purpose of my life, the skills and talents that I can offer the world.
When I think about someone who is self-actualizing their svadharma – whether it’s a marine biologist, a special ed teacher, a gastroenterologist, or a pastry chef – I don’t think that they need to do more physical service or assume that they’re not doing the right kind of service in the world. So why would I assume that about myself? Sure, they make money at those jobs but they probably also do them because they can. It’s how they contribute. For all it’s problems and misuse (and if you have your head on straight and your heart in the right place) money is simply a vehicle that enables you to give the world the best of yourself.
Certainly, the immediate needs of family and community can (and often do) trump the desire to serve in alignment with your svadharma. Becoming a parent taught me that. There are plenty of times I need to abandon my unique seva in order to serve the immediate needs of others. We have to be psychologically flexible, willing to change gears when necessary. Also, nowhere does it say that seva has to be a grand gesture. Small, everyday things like saying hello to someone with a smile and taking a moment to listen and offer compassion are legit. Ultimately, we have to be willing to serve in many different ways in many different situations.
But because life is short and energy is limited, focusing on service that aligns with your unique svadharma can lead you to a life of meaning and purpose – which is not only the best way to use your skills and time, it’s also the definition of a happy life.
We are a part of the natural world. When blossoms appear on a cherry tree, they don’t think, “Look at me, I am so beautiful, I’m going to live an amazing life and be so happy!”
All they do is saturate the landscape in beauty for a few weeks, then get scattered away in the wind so that cherries can form. Then the cherries sacrifice themselves to the birds and the animals, so that their seeds can travel far and new cherry trees can grow. Trees, plants and animals are always willing to serve the whole, it’s all they do actually, in their own unique ways.
In the same way our human lives are a part of the web of life and the endless cycle of Prakriti’s emergence and mergence. Our existence is integral to the whole. Even the most foundational act of breathing is a form of service because of our interconnection with the plants. Basically, the whole cycle of existence on this planet is one of sacrifice and service. And when we consciously participate in it, with discernment, focus, and thoughtfulness, we uncover the deeper meaning of our existence.
Which brings me back to meditation.
Meditation is a way to get in touch with your unique svadharma – it helps you refine your thoughts, get clear about our feelings, and focus on discerning right action. It increases empathy and understanding. It makes us more human.
Since all life is interconnected, not just physically, but also mentally and spiritually, meditating on interconnectedness and learning to embody that interconnectedness helps to raise the collective vibration of the planet. It creates a more conducive environment for others to learn about themselves and choose compassion. Once I heard a yogi in India say that if the masters retreated from their meditation caves in the Himalayas, the whole world would fall into chaos. That sounds about right. They are doing their svadharmic version of seva. They are the keepers of the vibes.
The other thing is that sometimes, for whatever reason, you just can’t get up and help – usually because of some physical or mental health issue. But that doesn’t mean your existence is less valuable. At these times your call to service shifts – maybe to vibration raising, maybe to just breathing. Also, sometimes it’s okay to sit back and give other people the chance to serve – it’s important to learn how to be the recipient service (which is, weirdly, a service in and of itself).
All forms of service are important – physical, monetary, defensive, emergency, health, spiritual, etc. All forms of service help us step into the flow of Prakriti’s endless emergence and mergence cycle. I’m not saying that it’s better to meditate than to help other people in tangible ways. What I’m saying is that meditation is not a waste of time. It has intrinsic value. And it’s so critical for the evolution of this planet that it deserves to have its own category of service.
What does service mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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