by Lee Harrington
When natural disasters strike, I’ve noticed that people tend to respond in one of two ways. For many, the first reaction to the tragedy is to feel a sense of hopelessness or helplessness. Such people make a statement, along the lines of: “There is nothing I can do.” For others, the first reaction is to ask a question: “How can I help?” There is no right or wrong here, by the way.Sometimes making an absolutist statement versus asking a question is simply an indication of where we are on our path at that particular moment in time. “Live the questions,” the poet Rilke once wrote. But the truly enlightened ones—and the advanced practitioners—will live the answers as well: “I can help by [fill in the blank].” This is why we practice. So that, when tragedy strikes, we become the answer.
Of course, giving money can be an option. But what if you simply do not have spare funds at this particular moment? Does that mean you cannot be part of the answer? Certainly not.
First of all, let’s explore our definition of “funds” or “resources.” Those of us who were raised in capitalist societies may have been conditioned to define “resources” as “money” and “time,” completely forgetting that our greatest resources are actually things like love, kindness, prayer and God. But this is a large topic, best saved for another blog another day.
When I first got news of the earthquake in Nepal, my first reaction was to want to hop on a plane, throw myself into the center of things, and help the Buddhist nuns who are helping the animals. Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that have a strong Buddhist practice alongside my Kundalini Yoga practice. (We haven’t come up with a word for this dual path yet, but someone suggested Ku-Bu.) I did some quick research on volunteer efforts and airfare, only to discover that the airfares alone were beyond my budget. Plus, I have some teaching and editorial commitments I need to honor. So no volunteering in Nepal for me. I made a few small donations to various causes close to my heart (street dogs in Nepal, the rebuilding of Buddhist monasteries) but I still feel, at times, that this is not “enough.”
This brings to mind a piece I wrote for Spirit Voyage several months ago on seva. I wrote about a friend of mine, who was newly divorced with two young children, and who was bemoaning the fact that, as a single parent with two full-time jobs, she could no longer walk dogs with me at our local animal shelter. “I wish I had the time to volunteer,” she said, “but someone has to feed the family and that someone is me.”
We can all relate, right? We live in a fast-paced world, one in which volunteering is seen as kind of a luxury. But again, large topic. What I want to address here is the guilt my friend feels that she can no longer offer seva to the shelter. “But you’re raising two children,” I reminded her, “and you are raising them consciously. That’s certainly seva.” “It just doesn’t feel like enough,” she said.
Ah. The “Not Enough” syndrome. Mega-huge topic. The human mind, left unchecked, can steer us down some bumpy roads. Many of us, like my service-minded friend, are currently feeling guilty that we don’t have time to, say, volunteer at the local soup kitchen and/or that we don’t have the funds to fly off to Nepal for a few months to help with the post-earthquake efforts there and/or volunteer with Street Dog Care (which is my dream seva, thank you very much). And then we start to feel resentful that we don’t have the time or the funds, because we’re too busy working all the time, and then we start to feel guilty for having felt any resentment in the first place, because it’s not like we’re being tortured and held prisoner in Tehran at that particular moment, nor have we been born into the bodies of abused circus elephants this time around; nor have our homes and all our possessions simply disintegrated as a result of the shifting plates of Mother Earth; and then, before we know it, we’ve worked ourselves into a tizzy of spiraling emotions and are completely misaligned. Funny what the mind can do, right?
Anyway, that conversation with my friend—and the current tragedies in Nepal—got me thinking again about simple forms of seva—those acts of love, kindness, and service you can offer if you don’t have a lot of spare time or money.
Whether you follow the Aquarian Sutras or the Ten Commandments or the Eight Limbs of Yoga or the Noble Eightfold Path, it’s beneficial to keep in mind that following your own precepts—and being true to yourself and to the Divine—is not just a service you perform for your own self and your soul and your higher powers. Following your precepts and being impeccable is—in my young mind, at least—a service to humanity as well. We’re all connected, after all. You might find that this one small shift in thinking—remembering that your commitment to yourself is also a commitment to others—can really enrich your practice and keep you in service mode all the time.
2. DEDICATE THE MERIT
In Buddhism, we have a practice called “dedicating the merit” in which we offer up the “merit” or positive outcomes accumulated from any practice for the benefit of all sentient beings. (I’m not a Lama, so if you want a more formal, esoteric description of Dedicating the Merit, click here.) In a formal setting, we might chant, say, 100,000 Tara mantras during a retreat and dedicate the merit of for the benefit of all sentient beings. But I enjoy this practice so much that I take it into informal settings as well.
Say you are a yogi with a committed asana practice, and you’ve been practicing for months—perhaps even years—to bring yourself to a point where you can hold a five-minute unsupported handstand. And finally, you achieve it! Bravo! It’s a wonderful feeling to reach such a goal and to allow your physical body to experience the realignment and strengthening that can occur with such a powerful asana. Now, dedicate that feeling to someone who has not yet mastered the handstand. Or someone who is recovering in the hospital from a broken arm. Better still, dedicate the merit to someone who was born without arms. You will literally feel an energy moving through you—the energy of the merit—as you pass it on to someone else.
Here’s another example. Up here in the Northeast we enjoyed a particularly beautiful spring this season. Spring in New England is always beautiful, of course but this year it is spectacular. The skies are always clear, the sunlight is always both crisp and buttery, and the leaves—newly green–seem to emit an almost Technicolor glow. I have an 88-year male relative who absolutely loves to go leaf-peeping and, back in the day, would schedule long scenic drives through Vermont or Western Massachusetts during the height of the leaf season. Now, however, my relative is wheelchair bound and lives in a retirement community. His days of long country drives through the golden kingdoms of Vermont are, alas, a thing of the past. Just thinking about that makes me a little sad. It’s so easy to get caught up in such sadness, especially if it’s related to large things, such as the inevitable cycles of life. So what do I do in those moments when the mind almost gets caught in one of those cycles? I dedicate the merit. Whenever I walk down to my mountain road and behold the beauty of the Hudson River sparkling in the distance; whenever I encounter a particularly flawless cherry tree blooming in all its spring splendor; whenever I experience one of those time-stopping moments of awe when you witness the absolutely beauty, glory, and perfection of Nature, and you realize that the world actually does make sense: I offer up that awe to others. First, I give thanks that I have the desire, ability, and time to seek beauty and to recognize beauty when I see it. Then, I dedicate the merit of the moment to all the people who are wheelchair bound, who are confined in hospitals and nursing homes, who might never smell the rich green smell of new spring leaves again. I dedicate the merit to my French ancestors, laborers who may not have had the time to “take time along the way to smell the flowers.” May all beings have the opportunity to experience beauty. May the long time sun shine upon you. Is this service? Is this seva? Is this true Dedication of Merit in Buddhist terms? I don’t know, but sometimes it feels as though something else is stirring out there with me among the leaves, almost whispering in response.
Dedicating the merit has been one of the most profound practices and life-altering experiences for me in this lifetime. At this point, I now basically dedicate the merit of almost everything, to the point where I recently signed off a work-related email—out of habit—with the salutation, “May all beings benefit,” which probably left the recipient—my book publisher—scratching her head. But maybe it didn’t.
Any moment of joy or peace we experience could (and should) be used to relieve the suffering of others. We are all one, after all. So if our friends in Nepal are suffering, we will suffer at some level, too. And vice versa. Let our joy be everyone’s joy.
3. DO THE RIGHT THING. ALWAYS.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least do not hurt them.”
So another simple way to be of service is to make conscious choices and ask yourself—as often as you can—whether your choices are creating good or creating harm. Is the food you’re consuming organic and locally made or grown, or is it grown and/or processed with toxic chemicals that harm the earth? Is your toothpaste or shampoo or dish soap or anti-bacterial hand-wipe manufactured by a company that tests on animals? Were the clothes you are wearing made with ethical or unethical practices? Yes, these are consumerist examples, but remember that every choice we make affects all sentient beings, including Mother Earth. So no more dilly-dallying. The time to change is now. I know that organic food is more expensive, and that ethically-made products and “health and beauty aids” are harder to find, but energetically, spiritually, and collectively, it’s worth the effort and the expense.
“But it’s not going to make a difference,” the voice of fear often interjects.
The voice of fear could even argue that, hey, I stopped brushing my teeth with commercial dental products about five years ago, and the animal-testing giant Colgate is still going strong despite my stance. But—and this is a big but—if you add a prayer and an intention to your service, if you Dedicate the Merit, you will strengthen that vibration of your skillful act, plain and simple. So whenever I bring out the organic baking soda to brush my teeth, I say: may all laboratory animals benefit and be free from harm.
All of these things—conscious choices, supported with prayers, mantras and well-wishes—are, in my humble opinion, of service to humanity and Mother Earth.