Strength, Service, Love.
Last night I arrived in beautiful Monterey, California for a unique 5-day retreat, the Integral Spiritual Experience (Year 2). At this rare assembly, dozens of spiritual teachers of the highest caliber have gathered to practice, celebrate, and foster community. (Read about the event and why I’m so excited here.) The nearly 500 participants have started trickling in today, and the grounds are beginning to stir happily. I’ve smuggled myself into a small respite from the excitement, nested in the balcony overlooking the main hall. The stage is lit and the empty chairs are charged with the possibilities of what’s to begin with the first keynote this evening.
Today’s extroverted bustle is a striking contrast from the intimacy of last night. After dinner, a small group of volunteers gathered around a fireplace to discuss roles and logistics. Before we delved into the minutia of walkie-talkies, meal tickets and the like, Rabbi Marc Gafni took a few moments to set the tone—not just for the meeting, but for our entire time together here over the next few days. In those few moments around the fireplace, Marc’s words brought my heart to its knees, as deeply as any sermon or dharma talk I’ve ever been privileged to attend. In the spirit of service they inspired, I’m compelled to share them with you now.
Gafni began by acknowledging the trajectory so many of us have followed in terms of our relationship to service. As open-minded, spiritual-seeker-types, many of us challenged and deconstructed the roles and obligations we were brought up to take for granted, whether they came from a parent, a church, or a school. Self-discovery, to even begin, requires a razing of our presumed identities and a re-evaluating of our inherited worldviews. With increasing awareness of what feel like former shackles, we disentangle ourselves from institutions that ask us to serve a greater cause we’re now uncertain about. What’s beautiful about this process is the increased awareness inherent in the movement. Yet the painful companion of this extrapolation is the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose.
There’s something beautiful about serving something greater than ourselves—much as our modern and postmodern emphasis on the autonomous individual is crucial to self-development, our thirst for something greater than our small self-sense seems absolutely hardwired in the human condition. And while we cannot revert to that unconscious type of serving, such a comforting platitude before its deconstruction, we crave a new invitation to serve, hopefully in a more illumined way.
As excited as we all are by how we can personally grow from the teaching and community here, everyone on the staff and volunteer team also has a deep commitment to serving this transitory community. Gafni skillfully addressed our hushed, uneasy desire to serve from a new, self-actualized place. “In Hebrew, ‘love’ and ‘obligation’ are the same word,” he explained. To truly serve in a powerful sense is to open ourselves fully to the divine, intelligent love pulsating through our very core and the fabric of the universe, itself. And once we become aware of the depth of love we’re capable of, it’s no longer a facile option whether we show up, but a grave responsibility.
The difference between this new, higher level of responsibility and the former, preconscious role we worked so hard to slough off is the integration of our unique self into the equation. Obligation, Gafni asserts, occurs when we recognize a need that we’re not only capable of meeting but uniquely capable of meeting. No one, he explained, can condemn or congratulate us on whether we’re loving as fully and deeply as possible. This expression of love through us is as unique as a fingerprint, and it’s up to each one of us to check for integrity. I find that when we question with a sincere and humble heart whether we’re living fully, if we answer from a place of great love and clear, deep awareness, the answer is unmistakable and resounding.
As he spoke of this great, humbling love, I was transported back to that afternoon, when I stood on Monterey’s pale beach, paying homage to the ocean. There’s something about the expanse of that deep blue that touches me with the world’s grandeur in a way even Boulder’s majestic mountains remain mute to. I felt with a rush of longing an old, cherished humility. Our busy modern lives seduce us so skillfully into a worship of the self, it’s easy to forget how small we truly are. It often takes something as awe-inspiring as nature, art, or love take our breath away and relax that clenched solipsism; once we do, though, it’s often with surprising relief.
Paradoxically, this surrender to love is simultaneously our ego’s fullest destruction and its greatest expansion. In my experience, the tension between these two poles is illuminated and dissolved in the light of ever deepening awareness.
Last night, his talk punctuated by popping embers, Gafni closed with a rousing injunction to all of us to show up and love in precisely that way which only we can. By blinding, blending, blanding our individuation, we disserve not only ourselves, but Divinity, itself, as it shines through us. And yet by clinging too tightly to that small self which only serves itself, we do exactly the same thing.
As I sit in stillness, imagining the next few days, I’m sure they’ll be brimming with both spiritual expansion and humbling grounding. I’m deeply grateful to embark with this injunction to step out of the way of who I assume I am, in humble service to a greater cause—in the way that only I can.
BONUS: Check out the marvelously lovely Marcy Baruch, who’s enchanting us with her soundcheck as I write this.