Do Unto Others
If you are like me, you might clamor to read an article on “Self-care” or “Acceptance,” but you might hesitate to voluntarily investigate this week’s topic of “Service.” We are not alone! The Dalai Lama points out the contradiction that there are 7 billion humans who all want to avoid suffering and problems, and yet there are many problems and much suffering. There is a disconnect somewhere. We know everybody has the responsibility to create a better world, but sometimes it feels like a chore to initiate the acts of service required to make this happen! Desmond Tutu suggests that instead of asking, “How can I be happy?”, we ask “How can I help to spread compassion and love?” He says we are wired to be compassionate. Doing good for others can be our greatest source of joy. (“The Book of Joy” by Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama and Douglas Carlton Abrams).
Science supports the benefits of service and concern for others. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson does neuroimaging research into a unified theory of the happy brain. He found there are four independent brain circuits that influence our lasting well-being.
Our ability to maintain positive states
Our ability to recover from negative states
Our ability to focus and avoid mind-wandering (meditation)
Our ability to be generous.
Our brain activity confirms that we experience good feelings when we help others, when we are helped, or even when we just witness others being helped!
“Still some might wonder what our own joy has to do with countering injustice and inequality. What does our happiness have to do with addressing the suffering of the world? In short, the more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others.” (Douglas Carlton Abrams in “The Book of Joy”) In a synchronous stroke of good fortune, the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others! It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves, but as the Archbishop poetically phrased it ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.’ As we will see, joy is in fact, quite contagious. As is love, compassion and generosity.” (Douglas Carlton Abrams in “The Book of Joy”)
Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved. Compassion is what underlies acts of service-- expressions of kindness, generosity and altruism. Buddha said “What is the one thing, which when you possess, you have all other virtues? It is compassion.” Too much self-centered thinking is a source of suffering. The good news is compassion can be cultivated! Some of us have good models of compassion in our early lives. The Hebrew word for compassion is “rachamim” which comes from the root word for womb “rechem”. The Dalai Lama often says that it is from our mother’s nurturing that we learn compassion, and, once learned, we can extend this maternal instinct to others. We carry the “seed of compassion” from our own experience of being nurtured by others, whether it be our mother or someone else in our life.
If you sometimes feel short on compassion you are not alone! Traumatic experiences in our past, a lack of role models, and even “compassion fatigue” can make it difficult to tap into our inherently compassionate nature. The good news is that no matter how much nurturing you have received to-date, compassion is a skill that can be cultivated. Clearing the barriers to compassion may involve therapy, coming to terms with our past, peeling back the layers of our stories, creating boundaries and healing significant relationships. All of these tasks require patience and kindness towards yourself. Like any “spiritual practice”, compassion also requires practice! When someone is passing through a difficult period or difficult circumstances, you can pause and think about them and what they are feeling in order to develop a sense of concern for their well-being. If there is the possibility to help, how can you help? If there is not a possibility to help, then you can pray for them or wish them well. The Dalai Lama says this is a hard thing to convey just speaking about it theoretically. It will become apparent as you practice. Experiment with being kind when you are walking down the street… say good morning or smile at people you encounter, even when you don’t initially feel like it, and observe how it affects your mood and the moods of others over time.
Compassion literally makes our heart healthy and happy. When we help others, we often experience the “helper’s high”, as endorphins are released in our brain, leading to a euphoric state. The same reward centers of the brain seem to light up when we are doing something compassionate as when we think of chocolate. The warm feeling we get from helping others comes from the release of oxytocin, the same hormone that is released by lactating mothers. This hormone has health benefits, including reduction of inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Also, compassion is contagious. When we see others being compassionate, we are more likely to be compassionate. Recent research by social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler suggests that this ripple effect can extend out to two and three degrees of separation.
Generosity is a natural outgrowth of compassion, but we must also feel like we have enough of something to share! If we are stuck in a scarcity mentality, feeling inadequate and unworthy, we will hoard things. Our fear of loss causes us to hold on tightly, and this leads to suffering. We wish for comfort, but instead we reinforce a feeling of helplessness. So the basic idea of generosity is to experience fundamental richness, so that we can loosen our grip. Fundamental richness is available in each moment. The more present we become, the more we can soak up the gifts that the moment contains, and the more we will feel that we have to share. When we touch on this richness, we will let go of anything that blocks it-- old ways of thinking, conspicuous consumption, false underlying beliefs.
We don’t have to wait until the feelings of compassion arise before we choose to be generous. We learn to enjoy generosity by doing it. Charity is prescribed by almost every religious tradition. It is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. In Judaism it is called “tzedakah”, which literally means justice. In Hinduism and Buddhism it is called “Dana” and in Christianity it is “charity.” Once we start practicing generosity, others will be attracted to join in too! Being other-focused necessarily relaxes some of our pretence, and eases our focus on how we are perceived. People are naturally attracted to this openness and authenticity. As if by magic, generosity is no longer a burden, but a joy.
There is plenty of scientific evidence to support this magic. The reward centers in our brain light up as strongly when we give as when we receive, sometimes even more so. Generosity is associated with better health and longer life expectancy. Researchers David McClelland and Carol Kirshnit say that just thinking about being generous significantly increases the protective antibody salivary immunoglobulin A, a protein used by the immune system. So it appears that money can buy happiness, but only when we are giving it away! Not just about the money we give, but also how we give our time. A large meta-analysis by cardiologist Randy Cohen conducted at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Medical Center found that a high sense of purpose correlates with a 23 percent reduction in death from all causes! In another study conducted by neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle and her colleagues and reported in JAMA Psychiatry, people with a sense of purpose were half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease after seven years. A large meta-analysis by Morris Okun and his colleagues have found that volunteering reduces the risk of death by 24 percent!
So, if we decide to dive in and trust that small acts of service and generosity will bloom and grow, there are a couple of important things to remember. Start where you are and realize that you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems. In order to avoid service burn-out, simply do what you can. Remember you are not alone and you do not have to personally finish the work. It takes time. “ If we see ourselves as small and separate individuals trying to take on the world as our responsibility, we set ourselves up for delusion and failure. Rather, our aspiration to be of benefit arises from the radical realization that we all belong to the web of life, and that everything that happens within it affects everything else. Every thought we have, every action we take has an impact for good or for ill.” (Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach) As well as physically taking on only what we can, we can also learn to be compassionate without drowning in the emotional life of another. Compassion doesn’t mean we have to take on another’s feelings. As the Dalai Lama described it, if we see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling, it is to help to remove the rock.
“Service” does not necessarily mean picking up trash or working in a soup kitchen. There are many ways to be of service in the world. Material giving is at the heart of generosity. Redistributing wealth through giving is essential to level the scales of inequality in our world. Get curious about what you have that you could give away to benefit others. The things that are hard to part with become wonderful explorations into non-attachment and abundance. There are, however, non-material gifts to give. Our time and attention is often needed even more than our possessions. We can give freedom from fear, by protecting or offering solace to someone in need. It is important when inserting ourselves in another’s life with an offer of assistance, that we defer to the other. We have not walked in their shoes. They are in the best position to tell us how to support them. Part of our service can be listening with an open mind as they share their experience. How can you be fully present with another today and offer your support?
You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu to give spiritually as well. Spiritual giving can involve sharing wisdom and teachings to those who need them, but it can also involve helping others to feel peaceful through the energy you bring. How you live your life is as important as what you say for spiritual giving. We’ve all felt the power of someone’s care to melt our armor. Often when we are upset, it is not until someone cares enough to listen or give us a hug that we are able to melt down and cry. “Holding space” for another is more transformative than what you say, and can even have a bigger effect than what you do. We are best able to “hold space” for another when we are connected to Source. From this place, spontaneous acts of generosity happen naturally, and these acts will be infused with a moment of shared “being”. In those moments, there is no giver and no receiver.
What about activism? There have been so many schools of thought on how to bring about societal and legal change. No matter how noble our cause is, it won’t be helped if we feel aggression towards the oppressors or those who are promoting the danger. Nothing will ever change through aggression. You cannot fight the darkness or unconsciousness without strengthening that which you are trying to fight. This warning against aggression includes not being aggressive towards yourself for feeling anger or outrage! These are natural reactions to injustice and can instigate action and change. We can use this fuel to raise awareness by disseminating information or practice passive resistance, but make sure that you carry no resistance within, no hatred, no negativity. I don’t say this lightly, and because of my limited experience I rely on the insight of teachers who have first-hand experience with hardship and injustice-- people like Nelson Mandela. He tells the story of his 26 years in prison and describes the anger and hatred that he carried with him at first, but that he came to a place of not even resenting his captors. He found meaning in his suffering and used it to generate a deeper sense of purpose. If you feel called upon to alleviate the suffering of the world, that is a very noble thing to do, but remember not to focus exclusively on the outer; otherwise you will encounter frustration and despair. Connect with larger truths and let your peace flow into whatever you do and you will be working on the levels of effect and cause simultaneously. In activism we must remain committed to seeing clearly. Seeing the whole of a situation, and to be willing to feel the emotions that come along with that vision. We must allow ourselves to feel and accept our grief for how the earth has been polluted, our anger about the destruction of wildlife, our shame around not doing enough. No matter what the situation, our immediate personal experience is the first place to practice radical acceptance. (Tara Brach) This is where we cultivate the genuine wakefulness and kindness that underlie effective action.
Even if you’re out there tireless working, and the particular issue doesn’t get resolved, remember you are adding peace to the world. We have to do our best and give up all hopes of fruition. Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda, “Do everything as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered, while all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.” This attitude leads to more appreciation and less burnout. In activism and a life of service, we must extend the same underlying compassion for ourselves. Our reality doesn’t always live up to our aspirations. We may be totally inspired by a cause in one moment, and then lose it over traffic or lash out when our day doesn’t go as planned. This is even more true if we are feeling tired, hungry, stressed-out or afraid. If we feel reactive or frustrated instead of compassionate, it is not a sign of failure, it just means we need to befriend what is happening inside us before compassion for others can naturally arise. This is an exceedingly important place in our practice. When we find ourselves in “the squeeze,” we begin to look for alternatives to being in the moment, but if we can stay there in the awkward tenderness of the moment, we will begin to learn the meaning behind all the concepts and the words. (Pema Chodron, Start Where you Are).
Another mode of service is “meaningful work.” (Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly”).
We all have gifts and talents. When we cultivate those gifts and share them with the world, we create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. If we don’t use the gifts we have been given, we may find ourselves feeling frustrated, empty or depressed. Sharing our gifts and talents with the world is the most powerful source of connection with God, but it requires commitment, because more often than not meaningful work is not what pays the bills.
A life of service necessarily involves working on ourselves. This is, for some, the most challenging. Before we can “not shut down” to our family, a homeless person, a friend… we must first “not shut down” to ourselves. We must allow ourselves to feel and not push it away. (Pema Chodron). When we start to try to work with other people, sooner or later, our unresolved issues will come up. By bringing our awareness to our own pain, our hearts are tender and open to our own suffering. Then we can more easily extend compassion to others. Therefore don’t run from your suffering. Deliberately bring your attention to it. (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance) Caring for yourself can feel strange and unfamiliar at first. It can trigger a sense of shame about being needy and undeserving and self-indulgent. But this revolutionary act can undo the negative messages of a lifetime. Roshi Bernard Glassman, a zen teacher who runs a project for the homeless in yonkers, said he doesn’t really do this work to help others; he does it because he feels moving into the areas of society that he has rejected is the same as working with the parts of himself that he has rejected. If we find ourselves unworkable and give up, we will find others unworkable and give up. Becoming unstuck in our life and being a force for good in the world are inseparable. As we become more at ease with ourselves and more passionately involved with whatever fulfills us, our focus naturally expands to our families, friends, communities and our world. (If the Buddha got stuck, Charlotte Kasl)
If you are interested in serving more, Jen Sincero, in her book You are a Badass, lists some practical ways to get started. These are ways to get into the give-and-take flow. The energy we send out, multiplies, and necessarily affects the energy that comes back into our lives.
Pick one or two causes that have real meaning to you and give to them every month. It doesn’t matter how much, just make it a consistent part of your life.
Give away something that is hard to part with, anonymously if possible. In the book called 29 gifts, a woman with MS was told by her mentor to give away 29 things for 29 days as part of her cure. She gave away one thing every day and found herself feeling more joyful and excited. She began to feel significantly better physically, her business started booming and she went on to have a successful blog and a best-selling book!
Leave a dollar more than you normally would every time you tip.
If someone is being snarky, rather than sinking to their level, raise them up by giving them love.
Smile and compliment people up as often as possible. Make people laugh!
Say I love you with your whole being, not just your mouth or your intellect. It can transform the world. Because we are interconnected, when we awaken love in ourselves and express it, our love changes the world around us. Whether we offer love in silence or aloud, we are helping love to flower in humans everywhere. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Say yes to invitations that you wouldn’t normally say yes to and give people the opportunity to give to you.
Stop and feel in your body how great it feels when you give and receive.
Dedicate your practice. Whether you are meditating or taking a yoga class, you can consciously send the good energy and merit that you generate to someone who needs it.
Know that everyone has their own ways to serve. Some people focus on creating a loving home for their families; others on changing laws to help marginalized groups; others practice random acts of kindness; there are those who educate; and some may bring beauty and light into the world. It is easy to get caught up in believing we should be doing something more or different. What really matters is that we care. As Mother Teresa teaches, “We can do no great things - only small things with great love.”
The Dalai Lama says “My religion is kindness.” If kindness is a religion, then St. Francis has written the perfect prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
* (For further reading, check out “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, “The Book of Joy” by Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama and Douglas Carlton Abrams, “Start Where you Are” by Pema Chodron, “The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown, “If the Buddha Got Stuck” by Charlotte Kasl. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)