As a younger man, I was more innocent, more idealistic – and also more anxious. At this time in my life, I saw a placard in someone’s office. It said something like this: “How can I use today to serve others?”
I believe that, at the time, it both inspired and scared me. It inspired me: the dedication to being of service, and the practical suggestion that a life of service was made up of days asking and answering this question.
But it also scared me. What if I forgot to ask myself the question? What if I didn’t have an answer to the question? What if I didn’t want to live the answers I found?
This would feel paralyzing, overwhelming- impossible. That was because I had some implicit, subconscious beliefs about service and responsibility that would have made asking this question feel intimidating.
The words “service” and “responsibility” had a very specific feeling tone for me. They reminded me of being in the sixth grade being dragged to volunteer to a soup kitchen. I knew abstractly that volunteering at a food shelter is a good thing for other people, and I didn’t want anyone to be hungry, but I really would have preferred to do other things, like play video games.
These feelings reflected a deeper belief that being of service required self-sacrifice- that you had to sacrifice yourself – your own time, energy, values, preferences – for the sake of others. Therefore, I believed that service was necessarily painful – so naturally, I wanted to avoid it.
These beliefs were implicit, so I might not have said or thought that explicitly. But I felt it.
Gradually, over the years, these beliefs and feelings shifted. I’ve come to view service and being of benefit in the world as a joyful thing, something that is as much a gift for me as it is to others. The feeling has become one of joy, excitement, delight .
Partly, this shift happened from years of monastic training. My training involved many opportunities practicing serving others. I got many chances to see what it actually felt like to be of service. I saw that while being of service is indeed a gift to others, it also feels good to give. It makes you feel happy and connected when you serve others.
These experiences gave me a new way of seeing, a new way of holding service and responsibility and being of benefit in the world that felt different – easier, lighter, more joyful. This new way of seeing is what has allowed me to take the bodhisattva vows, and to try to live my life in a way that is of service and benefit to all living beings.
While some might champion self-sacrifice as a virtue on the path of service, I would not. If you wish to serve all living beings, you must act and live in a way that is of benefit to all living beings. That includes you! If something is of benefit to all living beings, but not you, it is not of benefit to all living beings.
So something that benefits all living beings must also benefit you. And indeed, I would argue that if you seek to act in a way that benefits all living beings, it should *start* with benefitting yourself.
You are the locus of your actions, the center of the universe, the well from which all benefit springs. If you poison your own well, if you act in a way that harms yourself, how could you benefit all beings?
Certainly it shouldn’t harm yourself – it shouldn’t be a self-sacrifice. It shouldn’t physically harm you, or bring you emotional pain. Nor should it drain your energy or aliveness.
To the contrary, your acts of service should bring you energy, should increase your vitality, should give you joy.
My teacher Soryu Forall spoke of a vow as being a fit between oneself and the world, “the place where what we want and what others want meet, where there’s no conflict between inside and outside.”
True service is a match between your own dreams and skills and goals, and the requests that the world is asking of you. If you remove yourself from the equation, if you sacrifice or harm yourself, you are not living that true service, you are not living your vow. This meeting between self and world, this vow, is not tragic – it is delightful, it is a relief, it is a joy.
Over time, I’ve returned to that question on the placard. I like to ask myself, “What can I do today to give my life to service? How can I use this day to be of highest benefit? What actions can I take that will be of service to all living beings?”
Actually asking myself this question has produced non-obvious answers.
I might have assumed that if I took this question seriously I should grind day and night, day after day, month after month, year after year, working tirelessly for the benefit of all living beings. No. Bodhisattvas can burn out, just like everyone else.
It’s a well-established finding in performance psychology that top performance in any field requires cycles of exertion, rest + recovery. The same is true for living a life of service.
Importantly, you also have to do something that you enjoy, that brings you energy, that brings you to life, that delights you. The service you do in the world, the gift you have to give with your life, is unique and special to you.
Service that consistently drains you will only compromise your ability to benefit the world. Service that enlivens you will leave you excited and motivated to be of even more benefit.
My friend River has spoken to me often about not relating to the phrase “for the benefit of all beings.” He’s found a phrase that points in a similar direction, but does resonate for him – “aligned with cascading benefit.”
I would offer up the phrase “for maximum deep benefit.”
We cannot necessarily know that our actions benefit all beings. This might be confusing – how could I possibly benefit all beings? – or feel overwhelming, impossible.
But we can act in a way that is intended to benefit as many beings as possible, as deeply as possible. We can align ourselves with cascading benefit. And what is aligned with cascading benefit, what is of maximum deep benefit, what aims to benefit all living beings – must begin with ourselves. It must begin with our own safety, health, curiosity, joy, and delight.
That which benefits all living beings benefits me as well, for I, too, am a living being.
May my life be of benefit to all living beings.
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