“To progress, society doesn’t need ‘leaders’ anymore. […] When we will all see our role in society as servants, we will all light up the sky together like countless stars on a dark night. Don’t think of society as the sky on a full moon night. The moon’s harsh light blinds us to the true and humble work of the stars. But on a moonless night, the true servants shine forth, as though they are connected invisibly in this vast and infinite cosmos.”
– Acharya Vinoba Bhave
One of my most abiding memories of the Exxon-Valdez oil-spill is the photograph of a dazed sea bird, live but covered in oil, sitting still but probably gasping for air and wondering at the limits of human foolishness, greed and superiority complex. It was sheer coincidence that this particular image of the disaster (which occurred on March 24, 1989) flashed in my mind on its anniversary last week and got woven into one of the many stories that my untethered mind sometimes weaves at leisure. I visualized the oil-laden duck nudging and pushing another nearly drowning bird with feathers slick with grime and oil, onto a rock, away and on to safety. This set me thinking on acts of service.
In an account of his experiences with Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Sh. Arun Dada recalls a photograph of the former picking up small pieces of straw which he calls ‘Subtle Cleaning’ which is purification of the mind through external service, something that we will not get from documentation of knowledge. Service is a subtle act and we have to be aware whether we are helping or serving, whom are we serving, are we giving or receiving?
The pandemic has served to shake human consciousness and made us aware once again of the ties that connect us all, across the globe and through the food and energy chain, much beyond and deeper than the more visibilized economic inter-dependencies. There is an increasing urge to GIVE, to BE OF SERVICE, to TRANSCEND SELF, and I believe that humanity has been at its humane best in the last couple of years (however much what is happening in Ukraine swings your opinion). As individuals, organisations and communities we can feel ourselves moved and transformed in various ways, and like never before. Translating the welling urge-to-serve into action usually hits the block not of information or means, but paradoxically of too much information and intellection. I find a parallel here with the situation Margaret Wheatly described in the context of learning from Katrina; quoting her here:
The source of our fatigue is that we don’t have the organizational structures or the leadership that can respond quickly […] We want to help, but our organizations fail to deliver our compassion to those most in need. This is both frustrating and exhausting because, as humans, we are spontaneously generous and want to be of service.
My experiments and experience suggest that for individuals and families, spontaneity is the way to go. Just do it. Do not bring thought into it. But how do you find the receptacle of your spontaneous outpouring of compassion? Just be in the moment, will be my humble submission. If we ponder on this a bit, we are presented with several opportunities on a daily basis when we find ourselves in a place and position to lift the moment for and with those around us and beyond:
- Outside your house, a worker on a break between multiple gigs, is resting under the shade of a tree and the heat is sweltering and unforgiving.
- Your reportee in office is worried about the constant ill-health of her spouse or ward.
- The colony washerman has lost most of his regular customers due to the pandemic and shares with you his dream to diversify into vegetable vending.
- Your house-help wants to take her children to their native village and leave them there with her extended family for summer vacations. But she will need her employers to give her a week off if she has to do this.
- The rickshaw puller you hired to drop you home is donning a tattered sweater.
- As you emerge from the grocers, you encounter a woman collecting left-overs from a dust-bin outside an eatery.
- You are outdoors when you notice a limping ungulate on the other side of the road – its hind feet are tied together with a rope that has cut into the flesh and the wound is bleeding.
If our heart is open, our perceptive mind, free from the encumbrances of self and ego will be able to spot and deliver on these moments effortlessly. Away from organised giving, which may not be possible or not perceived as ‘service enough’ (beyond tax saving) by some of us, elevating the moment presents a way. Spontaneity lends purity to this proposition; it exudes the fragrance of accountability – that another being’s suffering is also ours (rev. Vinoba) and is a reminder of the fragility of life and of living which is ending from day to day (rev. Jiddu).
May we be a sun, a moon or a star, a cleansing rivulet or a mighty mountain, or even an oil-grimed duck, and in that form apply ourselves spontaneously – to serve the moment before us.