When I was in my late teens and early twenties studying Buddhism and international development, and wondering how the two fitted together, I came across the idea of “socially engaged Buddhism”, a term coined by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that completely lit my fire and made my heart glow. Here was a way that helped me make sense of the connection I felt between my growing spiritual path and my fervent desire for social justice in a confounding and beautiful world. It felt like a call to action with the deepest of intentions and understanding: that we are all fundamentally connected, and that the path of personal transformation for our own happiness is actually the path of the heart that leads us to desiring freedom, happiness and equality for all the people and all the creatures that we share this earth with.
Many years later, and deeply on the path of yoga, I discovered that this was not in fact a relatively new ‘spiritual’ concept as I had naively believed, but a very ancient practice in the yoga tradition: ‘seva’ or selfless service.
“Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes from selfless worship and service.” – Bhagavad Gita, 3.14
Yoga means union. It is a path of self-transformation that leads us to feel and experience deep connection with ourselves, others, and all of life. Feeling this connection can naturally lead us to want to help others – not from a desire for personal gain, recognition, or even martyrdom, but because we see the same preciousness of life (which some would call the divine, or God) in every person, in every creature, in every particle of earth. It is a selfless desire to give and to serve life, in any form, and where it is most needed.
We start to feel a natural desire to share the benefits of our yoga practice (peace, happiness, vitality, love), and then to our delight we also discover that what goes around comes around: love creates love, peace creates peace, and by transforming the self we also come to transform our world. Gandhi was right on point when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It starts right with ourselves and our own transformation. But it doesn’t end there.
In our contemporary world, we hear less about ‘seva’ – selfless service, and more about the ideas of social justice and activism. In many ways, they are not so different – they are about creating a better world for all. But to place social justice and social change within the realm of seva means that we are creating social change from a genuine place of love, from the felt experience that we are deeply connected and truly one, rather than from a place of guilt, anger, or a purely intellectual understanding. Our attitude and energy become completely transformed, and this is when we realise what it truly means to give and to serve – the gift of our positive energy and our ability to love and connect may be enough to create great change. And as we practice the art of selfless service, we also deepen our experience of what it means to be truly connected, to realise that we are all the same, and we receive the gifts of giving. When we come from this place, we find an abundance of energy and inspiration – giving becomes receiving, rather than depleting.
So this is an invitation to enter the world of personal transformation and the path of the heart, and to practice the art of selfless service in whichever way you feel inspired – starting a free community yoga class, teaching English to a newly arrived refugee, making an inspiring film, giving an elderly woman a foot massage, volunteering abroad to build a school or making a meal for a homeless person. Every small action, done with love, counts…
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” – Mother Theresa … which I think means that all of us can do great things.