What Is Selfless Service, Exactly?

I heard a story from my friend Gretchen Dykstra, who had the job coordinating fund-raising for the 9/11 Memorial. Her work was to help the families who had tragically lost loved ones and to first responders, many who are still suffering.

When Gretchen quit that job she told the New York Times that the work had stopped being about fund-raising; it was about egos, power and control.  She left New York and took off to work in an AIDS hospital in Africa.  She needed to do some real service, she said, and cleanse herself from something that just felt icky.  She washed bedpans, held sick infants, even organized closets.

After hearing about Gretchen’s experiences, when I think about seva and then read about the yoga trips to Africa (seva safaris, they’re sometimes called) or South America or some other exotic third-world country to teach kids to do yoga, I wonder: do the yogis understand that this is not necessarily selfless service.  It’s exciting, it’s fun, it is a way to visit a foreign land as the teacher – always a title of respect – and then leave after a week or two with your buddies.

(Don’t get me wrong, I am no dour scrooge.  I love to travel, do yoga, show new friends how to do asanas, and I’ve done it in some strange places like Tonga. It was a kick – it wasn’t seva.)

I am not advocating drudgery (I don’t think I could just wash bedpans for months on end) but I also know that those who work for The Lineage Project, The Prison Yoga Project, Bent on Learning and other organizations get a real sense of accomplishment from  that deep feeling of true giving  – which does feel like cleansing their souls of ickiness.  It comes from driving 30 minutes to a prison and showing up only to be told there is a lockdown and you can’t work today.  It comes from returning again and again until blank eyes staring at you, starting to get it.  It comes from doing menial labor for the sheer sense of accomplishment and generosity of giving.

One of the primary aspects of seva is “egoless” service – that is not quite the same as flying in, putting on a show, and they flying out again in a week.

Yogis are expected to perform seva. As the spring finally arrives and brings us all this loveliness, celebrate the season,  have fun, and choose your seva carefully. It’s one of the most important parts of your spiritual practice. Choose with satya.

Cynthia Kling


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