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Self-Righteous Seva as Spiritual Bypass

Upon returning from Rootwire, I was fired up. Festivals always fill me with lots of raw power, pulsating energy, and a whole boatload of idealism, but those are generally accompanied by a great pit of frustration at “normal life” in the working world. This time upon touching back down on home soil, I felt a passionate pull to direct my life towards something more in line with spirituality, to offer true service to the world. Already frustrated at the repetitive cyclical mundanity of five years working at a health food store, I came back from the festival destined with a drive to propel myself out of the clutches of the corporate 40 hour work week and into something which contained more freedom, something that fell in line with what I thought spiritual service was. I aimed a tractor beam towards my imagined future with a fire, a ferocity, and a “don’t take ‘no’ for an answer” attitude, which in hindsight, lacked the patience, foresight, and heedful integrity that any good project needs to actually come to fruition. More importantly; though, my actions lacked the mindful presence, gratitude, and selflessness that represents true service.

Looking back at the crushing bevy of various ideas that flowed out of my brain and into the earholes of my close friends, family, and satsang over the week or so after the festival, it was clear I was in a frenzied state of attempts at manifesting a service-based life. The whirlpool of harmonious and creative ideas that I was swathed within was not a bad thing; though, as many of the ideas that came to me, with a little tweaking and planning, could really have the opportunity become something beneficial to both the world and myself. The problem was that instead of simply mindfully observing the ideas swirling around in the whirlpool and cautiously pulling out the fish that were biting, I decided to jump headfirst into the eye of it all, proverbially drowning myself in a personal cyclone of half-hazard, big-project ideas which all needed much more time and subtle thought to truly ripen and manifest.

I was producing all of these prodigious plans to write multiple books, to start up a traveling non-profit organization, to create dharma-based illustrated stories, to start up a podcast to help budding artists, to get really serious about learning how to teach bhakti, and to find a way to do this on the road, all while upping my blog output for The Sloppy Bhakti. I saw this all as a great service I could provide for the world, building up all of these ideas as the most important things in my life and seeing anything that got in the way of this, like my normal schedule, as a complete and utter adharmic nuisance. My rampant and naïve idealism painted the picture in my mind that if I did all of this under the label of service, that all the doors would immediately open with no struggle, for I was on a “righteous path of the dharma.” I put that in quotes because I see now in hindsight that I was hilariously jaded, and probably still am, to what true service actually is.

A wonderful artistic representation of the essence of selfless service drawn by Anna Oneglia

Seva translates to selfless service. It is a core principal in almost all religions, and at the center of earnest spiritual life. The key word pertaining to it would be “selfless.” My idealistic fervor propelled me into a land of what I thought was seva, but was in all actuality just personal, overt, self-serving aversion cloaked in the dharma. While yes, a huge part of me was completely earnest in wanting to provide knowledge, wisdom, entertainment, graciousness, and love with the world in cool, unique ways, but there was also an underlying subconscious layer in me that just wanted to get the hell out of the repetitive, frustrating, and time-consuming samsaric cycle of the corporate grind. I was subconsciously and naively hoping that all of these big ideas I was having, touted as seva, would provide the grace I needed to propel myself away from the place I was so dividedly adverse to. This can be marked up as a special case of something called “Spiritual Bypass.” A proper example of common spiritual bypass would be going and meditating, chanting, or doing practice in order to actually forget, push down, or run away from something we don’t want to have to think about or deal with. I was doing this subconsciously with my intense flood of projects. I was hoping the grace bestowed upon me from my "service” would take me away from the place that I didn’t want to be, but that fully denied exactly where I was.

The term coined by Ram Dass, “Be Here Now,” is not a conditional one. Wherever “Here” is, that’s right where you are. Instead of graciously sinking into the present moment of where I was, I was actively fighting against it, and using the vail of seva to build up my case for how “incredibly horrible” "Here" felt to me. I spent the next three weeks completely overwhelmed, bogged down by my own ideas of what I wanted to be become and how I thought it should all play out. Every moment at work I felt trapped, hopeless, and fervently angry because I wasn’t able to be at home working on these millions of projects that I felt were my escape route to greener pastures. Then, back at home I spent every moment completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and immensity of all the projects that I felt I needed to tackle simultaneously. It was as if there were a number of empty cups standing scattered on a table, all representing different projects that I wanted to complete, and I was holding a pitcher of water overtop them all, representing the amount of time and energy I could split between them. I was so scattered, averse, and overwhelmed that in all honesty, most of the water in this analogy missed the cups all together, spilling into the space between them, utterly soaking the table and creating a wet mess for myself and those around me.

It was during this big spill-out, that I realized that in my self-righteous vehemence to provide service, I was actually doing the exact opposite. I was angry and shutdown at work, rather than being a bubble of light, laughter, and mindful presence. At home I was like a chicken with my head cut off, not knowing where to start, and not being able to ever sit down and totally relax into the moment. I would text my friends in deep, unruly complaints, just completely unloading all of my frustrations like a fire hydrant that had exploded. I forgot my thankfulness. I forgot the magic in life. I was “over there” rather than right “Here.” My practice suffered. My friendships suffered. My work relationships suffered. I suffered. What I thought was pure seva, was actually doing the opposite of service. It was creating more suffering in the world, for myself, and for everyone around me.

Once realizing this, I thought back to one of my conversations with an elder in our satsang who told me, “It’s not about what you are doing. It’s about how you are Being.” Take that in for a moment. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. It’s all about how you are Being. This flipped everything on its head for me. I thought with all of these projects that I was going to be “doing” so much good for the world, but really I was “being” a horrible, grotesque, generator of total suffering, the exact opposite of my, albeit muddled, intent. Had I purely surrendered to the Here and Now, as it was, in a state of thankfulness and mindful equanimity, I would have provided much more helpful, present service to everyone around me, simply through my Being. Any "doing" with a motive, especially out of aversion, is completely within the realm of karma. "Doing" acts out conditioned responses to outside stimuli, embodied through judgments like, “Oh, I’m doing well,” or, “I’m doing this for a reward,” or, “Hmm, I don't like do this,” or, “Wow, I should be doing that!,” but Being, is not contingent on outside forces. Being is internal, unconditional, and of our essence, rather than representative of what our external circumstances happen to be, or our feelings towards them. No matter what you are “doing,” to quote Ram Dass again, you can, “Be Here Now.” I’ve probably read through that book fifty times by now, and said the phrase thousands of times, but I feel like I’m just only starting to really unpack its meaning and utterly holographic nature.

What "Be Here Now" was back then, "From Bindu to Ojas"

To bring this back to the very core sentiments of existence where seva touches suffering, the other day at work, I finally started dropping my intense yearning for all of those “doings” and began trading that for more Being; being more present, being in love with the moment, and more in tune with my surroundings. I stopped thinking so intensely about myself, and started being more present with the people around me. My friend at work began talking about how hard of a time she was having with the declining health of her family dog. She was a dog person through and through, and she explained that the ensuing passing of this dog was going to be a very tumultuous one for her to deal with. Had I still been in my spinning whirlpool of a phony-service based mental spiral, I would have been too closed-off, angry, and in-my-own-head about the future to have even started the conversation with her, let alone be there, be present, and really open up a space for her to let it out and work through these heavy emotions. Later in the day, she heard the passing was imminent, and upon her leaving to be with the dog, we shared in a tender, emotional embrace. Reaching out to her the next day to see how she was, she relayed the news that the dog had indeed passed. Spontaneously, I was able to effortlessly and innately dip into a well of compassion and send her a message that she stated ended up being some of the most touching words her and her Mom had ever received. At that moment, without trying to become anything, without attempting to "do" anything, I was finally and truly of loving service. The lesson for me was loud and clear. My satsang elder was totally right, “It’s not about what you are doing, it’s about how you are Being.” It’s not that I’m going to give up on my hopes, dreams, and aspirations, but I am no longer going to push away the “Here” in order to try to get there, because all I was pushing away was my innate ability to offer Love in the present moment. Ram Ram, James

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