Are there days when you feel more like a yo-yo than a yogi?
Partner and parents. Spouse and bosses. Kids and clients. Teachers and colleagues. Who are you always caught between? Mix and match the pairs—or any others that apply to your situation.
I’ve had plenty of days like those. Life revolving around having to please several people simultaneously. Each one expecting to be the epicenter of your universe at any given time. A game of Please and Appease created by a sense of duty, or obligation frequently underlayed by guilt. The thought-loop repeating, If I do this for them it will make them happy, they will love me and then they will leave me alone to get on with my life. That kind of thinking is the shortest distance from a devoted bond to emotional bondage. Feed somebody’s emotional neediness and they will constantly expect you to keep on feeding. And our resentments and hurts get shoved under the rug. We can barely express them to ourselves before the next emotional hole has to be plugged.
When I first heard my guru, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, say those words in one of her public talks, I wanted to take them to heart. I really did. Hadn’t masters through the ages asked their devotees, “Which container will you bring to the ocean of the guru’s grace, a bucket or a teacup?” Right. I was lucky if I had a measly old teaspoon.
It’s said that the words of an enlightened being are mantra, meaning they possess the cosmic power to rearrange our molecules, supercharge our understanding and even shift the course of our destiny. But how fast this alchemy happens—if indeed it happens at all—depends less on the guru than it does on us as spiritual seekers. We may receive direct understanding while sitting in satsang at the guru’s feet or standing at the kitchen sink.
If not, it can take months, years or lifetimes for the penny to drop. Which way it goes depends on two main things: how ready we are to receive a hit of that power and how much baggage we’re able to drop in order to receive it. The meaning and power of Gurumayi’s words had to penetrate the thickness of my head and cut through the obstinacy of my ego. To get the gold I had to get the lead out first.
It was one thing to hear that particular mantra—which is actually a command of sorts—and quite another thing to fully absorb it and live it. Over time and through practices such as meditation and particularly seva, selfless service, I came to understand what Gurumayi meant. Only it took the unraveling of certain misconceptions to get there.
To begin with, the entire concept of pleasing yourself in order to please God sounds, well, selfish—even hedonistic—to our puritanical western culture. But mantras are vibrational scouring pads that can dissolve the constructions and constrictions of society, revealing a deeper level of knowing.
Is it really this selfish self we’re aiming to please? More aptly it’s our inner divine nature, our Higher Self, that we are pleasing. This Self loves everything we do with an open heart and an inwardly focused absorption, known as “one-pointedness.” The Divine Shakti loves nothing more than the play of her magnificent human manifestations making themselves happy by pleasing others. There’s zero selfishness here.
But there’s a catch. (Who ever said there were no catches on the spiritual path?). And that has to do with how we please others. If we are constantly attempting to do what we think will make somebody happy we’re playing a game that we cannot win. It’s the kind of game that drains bank accounts, causes break-ups and has been known to result in the committing of criminal acts. All in the name of doing what we think will make someone else happy. Only anything of a material nature that we give someone else is impermanent. It wears out, dies or obsolesces. Attachment to impermanence creates suffering. Any happiness derived from such things is short lived at best and we are back to square one, striving desperately to make them happy yet again.
Pleasing our Self changes the dynamic. We’re motivated more by doing simple acts of kindness that ease someone’s burden instead of by guilt or fear. It could be anything—cleaning up after dinner, walking a sick friend’s dog or taking on a vacationing coworker’s duties—all without being asked first. We please our Self by acting selflessly, without attachment to the results. This in essence is seva, selfless service.
Performing seva for a satguru—true guru—is an act of deep surrender. Not slavishly to a guru-figure as an egoic personality but to the higher cosmic force of the Guru Principle or that which dispels darkness. Seva is a fulcrum of spiritual practice that rotates our perspective from self-centered to Self-centered.
In the Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna says, “I, the soul of all beings, cannot be satisfied as much by ritual worship, by generating progeny, by observing penances, or by self-control, as I am by faithful service rendered to one’s spiritual master.”*
This is the force that opens our hearts. Around the ashram seva can mean anything from greeting visitors to cleaning toilets and a thousand tasks in between. Take a broom and sweep out your heart, Swami Muktananda (Gurumayi’s predecessor in the Siddha lineage) would always tell devotees. While sweeping the walk, sweep out anger, resentment, frustration, attachments. Sweep in patience, perseverance and trust.
We act without interest in the fruits of our actions and we act immediately. In the moment. Without stopping to judge or react. It’s a truly powerful feeling, like you’re Superman—faster than a speeding bullet. Even grabbing the bullet in mid-air. You may find yourself doing things for others with a speed and an ease you’ve never known before.
One time in the ashram dining hall while eating my lunch I noticed an older woman standing a few feet away, holding a tray full of food and looking around helplessly for an empty chair among the crowded tables. As she turned her head, the great big lovely scoop of ice cream on her tray fell out of its dish and plopped onto the floor. Before my mind even had time to think my body was in action (the body’s own karma is food for another post), diving to sweep the dead ice cream into a napkin.
Spotting an empty place at a nearby table, I told the woman to go sit there and that I’d get her another dessert. The woman’s face softened into a look of relief and gratitude that was palpable. When I finally got back to my table, my food was getting cold but it didn’t really matter because it tasted that much sweeter.
No matter what the Shakti, manifest creative force, throws at us, no matter whether it ditches our original plans, we take on cheerfully, willingly, easily. Our resistance goes into meltdown and we flow like water in taking action.
Now comes the best part—we perform everything with the full thrust of our individuality. Even as our old resentments dissolve into selfless action, we become even more fully ourselves, more aware, more joyful, more real. Every action is done with complete inner authority. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s aha! moment at the ashram came when her seva was changed from cleaning the floor to shepherding a group of visitors. No accident that seva was just her style. She saw that she could be fully surrendered and fully herself simultaneously. We serve others while rocking out our given role in life to the hilt.
When you begin to notice how pleasing God when you please yourself and pleasing yourself through selfless service mesh together, then all your relationships exist in a new light. Seva’s letters also spell save. You are saving yourself in the process. Cutting the yo-yo’s string, you roll through life ever grateful to serve yet joyously free.
*Quote excerpted from “Intimate Guru-Seva, the Spiritual Catalyst” by Babhru Das at harmonist.us. See the complete article here.
Images: NBC/Screen Gems, mynameisvincent.tumblr.com, iloveyoulove.com, catchcomics.com
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.