I’d like to share with you some information about the subject of seva, or selfless service, that has helped me a lot my life. During the over fifty years that I’ve been on the spiritual path, I’ve noticed that people who understand the value of seva usually meet with great success on the path and those who miss this important point usually end up with less than the results that they’d hoped for.
A wise woman once told me,
“A noble seeker is one for whom spiritual cultivation is not a refuge, but a form of service to others.”
I understood what she meant. Most spiritual seekers start on the spiritual path out of a personal desire to have a better life, to get out of suffering and to experience more happiness. In order to achieve this, they practice meditation and other spiritual disciplines and, as a result, they enjoy greater peace of mind and greater fulfillment. However, at a certain point, if they don’t go beyond self-interest and grow into a greater awareness of the need to serve others, their spiritual development usually stagnates and stalls. Seva is the key to making this important transition in order to keep one’s motivation correct and to maintain progress spiritually.
Seva, or selfless service, is an ancient tradition. It has been practiced for thousands of years. There are many kinds of service. One can perform karma yoga by helping people in need but the highest form of seva is called guru seva, or service to a spiritual master. It places us in correct relationship with the guru and to God. Seva is not for the guru. It’s for us. We receive profound blessings by doing seva. What is the inner mechanism of seva? When we do seva, we are opening our spiritual heart to the guru.
"Seva transforms one’s life from being self-centered to being more interested in the welfare of others. "
~ Romarishi & Tara Leela
Before I dId seva, I was selfish and basically only cared about what was going to make me happy. The more seva I did, the less selfish I became, and the happier I became. Why? Because when you perform seva, it connects you with what motivates the teacher – Divine Love. There is a flow of energy that occurs. By opening your heart in service to the master, the love that motivates the guru’s life, flows through you, purifies you, empowers you, and protects you. This is why seva can’t be forced. It has to come from an open heart, full of love, gratitude, and respect.
I love seva. I really love seva! An early spiritual teacher of mine said,
“Selfless giving is the greatest secret of life,”
and I couldn’t agree more. I'd like to share some of my experiences with seva but this isn’t about how great I am for doing seva. This is about how great seva has been for me and what it can do for you.
I started doing seva when I first learned to meditate forty-five years ago. From the first week that I started meditating, I volunteered to help my meditation teacher put up posters for his public lectures and I’ve been putting up posters ever since. Actually, the truth is that I’ve spent more time in this life putting up posters for spiritual events than probably any other single activity. 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 four or five stores, 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 for one spiritual event or another. It’s not always easy. Sometimes the manager flatly refuses or treats you impolitely. Still, I love putting up posters. For me, it’s a wonderful sadhana, a spiritual practice that develops patience and equanimity. You learn to always be polite, whether or not people are polite to you, and to do your duty, while remaining unattached to the results of your actions. In other words, you put a smile on your face, treat everyone with kindness and know that, whether they let you put up a poster or not, you have done your best.
A few years ago, I was putting up posters for a spiritual event in Sausalito, California, 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 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 since I last saw you and you’re still putting up posters.” Sometimes, I can’t believe it either. Why do I love walking city streets, sometimes in the heat of summer, or the cold of winter, sometimes when my feet hurt?? It’s the secret of seva. Seva is love. If it’s not done out of love, it’s not true seva. I love the spiritual teachers. I love the teachings and I love the people who are suffering and need spiritual wisdom that can transform their life.
When I put up a poster, I know that a 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. Then, they attend a lecture, begin to learn spiritual teachings and to practice meditation. 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 has been yearning for but that they never dreamed was possible. That’s why I love putting up posters for spiritual events. If you’ve never done it, try it. In the process, you’ll meet people who end up coming to the events and who years later thank you for putting up that poster that changed their life.
But, putting up posters is just one type of seva. Seva can take many forms. One can do selfless service in the world by feeding hungry people, by visiting the elderly in nursing homes, or by caring for the sick and needy. We can do volunteer office work in a spiritual center or assist in organizing spiritual events. We can be of service in many ways. Just offering a smile to those we encounter in life is a form of selfless giving. Every word we speak can be a form of seva. We are giving our energy. It’s good to consider what kind of energy we are giving to others, a smile or a frown, words that brings happiness or the opposite.
All forms of seva are good but the Indian spiritual tradition says that the highest seva is guru seva, service to a spiritual teacher. When you serve a spiritual teacher, it opens a channel to them and it connects you with the spiritual hierarchy, the Guru Parampara, the tradition of masters. By engaging in guru seva, you align yourself with that great lineage of masters. You become a co-worker in it. The divine light and love that is the true nature of all enlightened beings flows 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. It works by getting us out of our ego and 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. A hand that is always grabbing and clinched isn’t open to receive. Give and you shall receive. It’s 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. Some spiritual seekers suffer from the misconception that meditation and only meditation is the means by which they will attain enlightenment. They become so attached to the idea of meditating that they resist engaging in the activity of seva. They don’t understand that seva done with the correct intention and in a spirit of devotion is meditation. One of my teachers said that an hour of seva is equal to an hour of meditation. He also said that if we we’re smart we’d look at what Shirdi Sai Baba did and then follow his example. Baba exclusively performed guru seva.
No form of seva is better than any other. In my life, I’ve performed many types of seva, from extremely menial tasks, like mopping floors, to very glamorous projects. No matter how important the service may be, it’s important to stay humble and to realize that someone else could be doing the same job tomorrow. If we’re asked by the teacher to be of service in a way that seems important and then we boast of it to others, we’ve lost the correct attitude and have made a serious spiritual error. If we constantly have to tell everyone what important seva we’re doing, we’re failing in seva. The correct attitude is to thank God for the opportunity to be of service and then to 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. 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, seva is one of the highest forms of spiritual training. Masters serve humanity all the time. They are on the job every moment of every day. Whether they are awake of sleeping, whether acting in the world, or performing dream yoga, great masters guide and assist humanity with every breath they take and every word they speak. And sometimes they remain silent while still radiating profound blessings to all.
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.
In closing, I’d like to share with you a quote from the ancient Chinese Taoist master Lao Tsu.