The Varieties of Service

Compassion in Action or Feelgood Palliative?

Many spiritual leaders, both independent and mainstream, have spoken on a path of service as a way to beat back the sense of separate self. Quotes below are mostly in support of this proposition, with varying degrees of didacticism, nuance and paradox. 

"Sir, I am a lover of life, and as a lover of life, I cannot keep out of any activity of life. If people are hungry for food, my response is to help feed them. If people are hungry for truth, my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction between serving people who are starving and have no dignity in their physical lives and serving people who are fearful and closed and have no dignity in their mental lives. I love all life." – to Jack Kornfield's question about why she returned to development work and helping the hungry and homeless.

– Vimala Thakar, as reported in WIE

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The best service you can do
is to keep your thoughts on God.
Keep God in mind every minute.

– Sri Neem Karoli Baba

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God's plan for man's evolution is work.

Love of God and service of man is the secret of true life. The meaning of true life is service and sacrifice.

Life is meant for service, and not for self-seeking. Sacrifice! Do your duties well, sincerely. Your privileges will follow unasked.

Hold your life for the service of others. The more the energy you spend in elevating and serving others, the more the divine energy which will flow to you.

– Sri Swami Sivananda,  from Divya Jivan

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What we call "the spiritual" pertains to the connected aspects of reality; service enables us to experience that kind of connectedness. The function of this connectedness or knowing is seldom appreciated; nevertheless, service is one of the most direct routes to the spiritual--a route often obstructed and confused by moral preaching, religious mythology, and everyday assumptions about the motivations and possibilities of human beings. To understand how this is so we need to consider instrumental and receptive functional modes of consciousness and also the way in which our intentionality determines the forms our consciousness takes.

– Arthur J Deikman, from Service as a Way of Knowing

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Remember to set apart at least one hour every day to do some service for others. While the food we eat nurtures our bodies, it is what we give in charity that nurtures our souls. If time is not available daily, reserve at least a few hours every week for some worthwhile act of charity. Whatever we give, give it with discrimination.

Thank God for giving us a chance to do His service. It is better to serve the beggars no food rather than serving them spoiled food on dirty plates. Never give anything with contempt. Loving words and deeds are the best alms. Try not to see them as beggars, but as God Himself.

– Ammachi, from Selfless Service

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Charles Tart shares a story that was told to him by the Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, who was once the translator for the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama said that he would really like to have time off to go on lots of meditation retreats and to practice and to become an enlightened person, but that obviously he didn't have time to, as he all the work of being the Dalai Lama. But then he thought, "If I did get enlightened, I'd spend all my time working to help other sentient beings be happier. And what am I doing Now? I am spending all my time working to help other sentient beings be happier. So I guess it's not important to get enlightened." 

– from Halfway up the Mountain, on Surrender and Service

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"Serve people."

What? It was totally beyond our understanding. We tried again. "How do we raise our kundalini?’"

"Feed people."

"What? But Maharaji, how can we be happy?"

"Stop thinking of yourselves."

On his last day in India, Krishna Das asked Neem Karoli Baba, "How can I serve you in America?" 

"You ask about service? Then it’s not service. Then I’m telling you what to do. Do what you want."

– Sri Neem Karoli Baba, answering questions from Krishna Das

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It is very important that service, even when it is utterly selfless, be guided by spiritual understanding, for selfless service, when unintelligently handled, often creates chaos and complications. Many good persons are ceaselessly active for public cause through social institutions. But what does that activity lead to? For one problem which it solves, it often creates ten other problems owing to the unforeseen and uncontrollable side-results of such activity. Worldly men try, to counteract evil through opposition, but in doing so they often unconsciously become authors of other evils.

– Avatar Meher Baba, from Selfless Service

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In many ways inaction is preferable to unintelligent action, for it has at least the merit of not creating further samskaras and complications. Even good and righteous action creates samskaras and means one more addition to the complications created by past actions and experiences. All life is an effort, a desperate struggle to undo what has been done in ignorance, to throw away the accumulated burden of the past, to find rescue from the debris left by a series of temporary achievements and failures. Life seeks to unwind the limiting samskaras of the past and to obtain release, so that its further creations may spring directly from the heart of eternity and bear the stamp of unhampered freedom.

Action that helps in attaining God is truly intelligent and spiritually fruitful because it brings release from bondage. It is second only to that action that springs spontaneously from the state of God-realization itself. All other forms of action, however, good or bad, effective or ineffective from a worldly point of view, contribute towards bondage and are inferior to inaction. Inaction is less helpful than intelligent action; but it is better than unintelligent action.

- Avatar Meher Baba, from Life Positive 

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I don't teach you to be altruistic. That's what the priests of almost all the religions go on doing. They say, "Selfishness is bad." They don't say, "Selfishness is false." They say, "Selfishness is bad, selfishness is sin." But they accept its reality, they don't reject its reality. If it is unreal, then they cannot condemn it as a sin. How can you call anything unreal a sin? If it does not exist in the first place, how can it be sin and how can it be bad? So they go on saying, "Selfishness is bad, selfishness is sin." And to avoid it they teach you to be altruistic: "Serve others, be servants of humanity, public servants."

Many times people who have been conditioned by these priests and missionaries come to me and, of course, they are shocked because I never talk about altruism. And they ask me why I don't teach my sannyasins to be altruistic.

I cannot, because in the first place the self is false, so to tell them to be unselfish is absolutely wrong. To tell them to serve others, to be altruistic, is taking them deeper and deeper into unreality.

My effort here is to help them to see that the self is false. Hence I am not against the self -- it does not exist. How can I be against something which does not exist? And I don't teach you altruism. If the disease is false, what is the point of giving you some medicine?

– Osho, from The Dhammapada, commentaries on the Buddha

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Do you require the help of a mirror to see your wristwatch on your wrist? No, you will never do that. Likewise, you need not go to the Himalayas in search of Paramapurusa (God), who is hidden in your own 'I- ness'. Living in the world, put forth your entire self for the service of society, and then you will attain Paramapurusa. 

– Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, from Meditation and Social Service

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