The Greatness of Seva

My new job at the ashram is Seva Manager. Seva is selfless service. It’s a tradition at ashrams that everyone performs seva. It’s how ashrams function.

I wasn’t appointed to the position of Seva Manager. I volunteered. A lot of people said it was the hardest job in the ashram and congratulated me for becoming the new Seva Manager. Somehow, I felt that they were relieved that now they wouldn’t be asked to do the job.

I volunteered to be Seva Manager because I love seva. I really love seva! An early teacher of mine said, “Selfless service is the greatest secret of life.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been doing seva for 34 years and I’d have to say that all the best things that have happened to me in life have been the result of seva. This isn’t about how great I am for doing seva. This is about how great seva has been to me.

I started doing seva when I learned Transcendental Meditation and immediately volunteered to help my TM teacher put up posters for his public lectures. I’ve been putting up posters ever since. Actually, the truth is that I’ve spent more time in this life putting up posters than any other single activity, except sleeping, and sleeping isn’t much activity at all. There’s no way of knowing. I never counted but I’m sure that I’ve put up well over 100,000 posters advertising spiritual events in my lifetime. Since you only get a poster up in one out of every three or four stores at best, it’s safe to say that I’ve walked into nearly half a million stores to ask if they’d let me put up a poster. It’s not always easy. Often the manager flatly refuses or is even angry that you’ve asked. It’s very common that people give you a condescending look as though to say, “Why is someone your age putting up posters.” Still, I love putting up posters. For me, it’s a sadhana, a spiritual practice, and I’ll probably continue doing it until I die. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to go.

A few years ago, I was putting up posters in Sausalito, California for a beautiful teacher of mine, Yuan Miao, when I heard a voice from the back of the store yell out, “I remember you from Amsterdam.” It was a young man who I’d met while I was putting up posters for a meditation center that I started with some friends in Amsterdam in the 1990’s. When I turned around to greet him, he said, “I can’t believe it. It’s been fifteen years sine I last saw you and you’re still putting up posters.” Sometimes, I can’t believe it either. It was a lot easier when I was in my twenties and thirties. Why, at this age, do I still do it so much? I do it because I love it. Why do I love walking city streets, sometimes in the heat of summer, or the cold of winter, sometimes when my feet hurt or when I don’t even have money for lunch? It’s the secret of seva. Seva is love. If it’s not done out of love, it’s not seva. I love the teachers. I love the teachings and I love the people who are suffering and need spiritual wisdom that can transform their life for the better.

When I put up a poster, I know that that single piece of paper has the power to change a person’s life. That poster is a doorway into Enlightenment. I’ve seen it happen thousands of times. An unsuspecting person happens across a poster while walking down the sidewalk doing their daily errands. The poster catches their eye and a connection is made. They attend a lecture and begin meditating. Now, they’ve stepped onto the Pathway to Enlightenment and their life has changed forever. It’s amazing. It’s such a beautiful process. A simple piece of paper can change the direction of a person’s life and transform it into something that their soul yearned for but that they never dreamed was possible. That’s why I love postering.

Postering is just one type of seva. Seva can take many forms. One can do karma yoga in the world by feeding hungry people, by visiting the elderly in nursing homes, or by caring for the sick and needy. We can be of service in many ways. Just offering a smile to those we pass in life is a form of selfless giving. All forms of seva are good but the scriptures say that the highest seva is guru seva, service to a spiritual teacher. I’ve definitely found this to be true. In my 34 years of doing seva, I’ve served six spiritual teachers, two of them for 14 years each. When you serve a spiritual teacher, it opens a channel through which the love that motivates their life flows through you. It doesn’t just flow through you. It purifies and empowers you. It connects you with the spiritual hierarchy, the guru parampara, the tradition of masters. It’s called various names in different traditions but it’s the Universal Fellowship of Light, the ring of all enlightened beings, divine souls, the saints and sages who throughout the ages have been working for the spiritual upliftment of mankind. By engaging in guru seva, you become a member of that fellowship. You become a co-worker in it. The divine light and love that is the true reality of all enlightened beings functions through you and transforms your life into sometime unbelievably magical and beautiful beyond belief. That is the greatness of seva.

The inner secret of seva is that we end up benefiting the most from the seva we perform. What is the inner mechanism through which this works. It works by getting us out of our ego, by freeing us from focusing on our selfish interests. Instead of focusing on what we want or need to be happy, we discover that our own happiness comes from helping others. People who never help others are rarely happy themselves. I hand that is always grabbing and clinched isn’t open to receive. Give and you will receive. That is a divine law.

True seva can never be a means to strengthening one’s ego. If you’re doing seva with the motivation to demonstrate how great you are, it isn’t really seva. Seva is selfless giving. It develops humility, not an inflated ego.

No form of seva is better than any other. In my life, I’ve engaged in many types of seva, from extremely menial tasks to very glamorous projects. I’ve swept floor and washed dishes and been asked to start meditation centers in foreign countries. None is better that another. One teacher that I had for 14 years noticed how willing I was to be of service. After years of simple service, he asked me to accompany him on his Lear jet to private meetings with high Tibetan masters. No matter how important or glamorous the service may be, it’s important to stay humble and realize that anyone could be doing the same job. We thank God for the opportunity to be of service and attempt to do whatever is required to the best of our ability, free of attachment or pride.

Often a teacher will test the student to see how willing the student is to be of service and how humbly they do it. Often the teacher will give the student more responsibility when they see that the student is performing seva in the right spirit, joyfully and without ego. Actually, this is a form of spiritual training. Masters, the great adepts, serve humanity all the time. They are on the job 24/7, whether awake of sleeping, whether acting in the world, or performing dream yoga, to guide and assist humanity.

The sun gives constantly. It is the source of life. Without the sun giving light and heat, all life on this planet would cease. We must become like the sun. God and the spiritual masters give unconditional love and assistance all the time. To be given the opportunity to do any type of seva is a blessing. Selfless giving is indeed the greatest secret of life.

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