Grandfather ghost gum at Emily Creek, just outside Alice Springs
Last week I had the great fortune of spending a week out in Alice Springs, my home of 3 years (2006-2008), and still my heart’s home, where I had organised for my teacher and friend Amber Gray to teach a series of workshops in somatic trauma therapy and Continuum Movement (see www.restorativeresources.net to check out some of Amber’s incredible work).
One of my favourite things in the world is to sleep out in a swag, under the stars, in a dry desert creek bed. Just ten minutes out of town, we spent a few nights sleeping out under this magnificent ghost gum at Emily Creek, with the full moon and night birds as our companions. Although it was late each night we arrived to camp, and dawn when we woke to pack up camp and head back into town, I felt incredibly rested and nourished. I was reminded of the importance of connecting deeply with nature, and celebrating her beauty, her gifts, and her peace.
(Photo courtesy of Heike Qualitz)
To place your feet directly in the earth, to watch the flickering glow of a camp fire, to listen to the calls of so many different birds, to chase the tracks of lizards and dingoes in the sand, and to gaze into the night sky to remember your place, your home, your heart. This too is yoga. The yoga of listening. The yoga of gratitude. The yoga of being. The yoga that is union: feeling deeply connected to our earth, to all the creatures we share her with, and remembering our fundamental humanity.
So if it’s been a while, switch off your phone, shut down your laptop, kick off your shoes and take yourself to your favourite place in nature to celebrate, renew, and remember. Your body, your spirit, and your heart will thank you. And so will the earth, for remembering to appreciate her beauty.
I love to touch this fragrant earth pod
with feet toughened by love
of hard dirt and soft dirt and clay
of rock and sand and salt that’s left
like the taste of a breeze caressing coast,
evaporated kiss of sea.
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.