Sunday, July 11, 2010

Being of Service

Recently I've devoted a significant amount of my time to volunteering - a richly rewarding activity that, with inattention, can become a hungry monster eager to devour as much time as I'm willing to give it. In order to take better care with myself, and bring more integrity to the time I do volunteer, I've had to look more closely at the notion of service.

At first I looked at it all pretty practically, setting a specific number of hours per week that seemed reasonable. Time was a useful feedback system, but gave me no sense of how to set priorities. Indeed, there were some weeks when the priorities at play made time a meaningless measure - either because my work and personal life demanded all my attention, or the volunteer work rightfully compelled my attention beyond the allotted time.

Recently I had the opportunity to devote two weeks to being in service, volunteering my time and skills to an event that is precious and important to me. This experience turned time upside down, demanding more attention and less sleep than I even knew was possible.

Coming out of that experience, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. My time bound mind was worried - had I gone too far? done too much? On a practical level, I've needed significant recovery time in the days after the event - physically, emotionally, mentally. In fact, it was a bit of a struggle to get back into the swing of my regular life.

Spiritually, though, I was elated. I had faced a big challenge - a whole series of them, in fact - and had brought my very best to the table: calling on all I had, putting as much beauty in the space as I knew how, making mistakes and not letting them stop me, learning new skills and ways of being, asking for help, taking care with what I needed and stalking in each moment how I might be fed by it, and continually connecting to the ways that my individual pieces were a part of something greater.

That's what the Sweet Medicine SunDance path teaches about service through the concept of maku. (Here's a full article on the topic, a message from the elder ThunderStrikes.)

From the article:
"Maku is not so much a sacrifice as it is a full offering of one’s self without expectation of return because to not do so is not an option."

Without the spiritual thread of my service experience, it would have been sacrifice (and even now I know I have more to learn about this difference so that these experiences are more maku, less sacrifice). Through spiritual determination, however, this service becomes a lesson in how to live my life.

It's not about how much time I give here, there, or the other place. It's about giving the time I'm giving in any moment because it is the best I have to bring to whatever is most needed, be it my dishes, a client's problem, a ceremony, or caressing a loved one. It's discerning what is true and real, within me and within the spaces I inhabit, and honoring what matters most.


  1. Yes - so much depends on the attitude in giving. It's pretty easy to get caught in cycles of resentment and obligation, and in the midst of that forget why we volunteer in the first place. I think the spiritual connection is crucial, regardless of the kind of volunteer work.

    I'd like to hear others' experience with this volunteering-spirit connection. Anybody out there?

  2. I'm finding that the more I take care of myself, not necessary in the ways my rational mind tell me, but in the ways that really make me feel happy and alive, the easier it is to bring the best of myself to the table. Sometimes that means doing things only for myself that no one else is every likely to ever know about. Sometimes in means more public stretches. But yes, the key, as you say, seems to be honoring what matters most.