Regenerative Service, And Heading Towards Zero
Posted by Jignasha Pandya on Feb 18, 2019
Nipun: On this topic of regenerative service, let me first build on Ragu's comment -- how do you choose between broccoli and ice cream? One is stepping up and another is self-care. Well, I don't know if ice cream is actually self-care, but it is for me. :)
I'll start with some reflections from my meditation retreat. One recurring insight that kept landing for me was this idea of no self. When we look at an animated movie, we look at 24 frames per second and think its continuous motion. Actually, it's not but we trick ourselves into thinking that. And in a very real way, we do the same with reality. We freeze it, and delude ourselves into thinking it's continuous motion. We can say this is Nipun, this is Vicky and I've known her for so many years, it’s not so clear that life is continuous in that way.
That lends itself to a very helpful insight, something that was a common refrain for Gandhi -- the whole purpose of our service is to become zero. That's quite opposite of a typical change-maker mindset.
As we head towards zero, and get out of the way, we naturally regenerate. Our acts of service can cultivate inner transformation that brings us to the point of becoming emptier, of becoming zero, of realizing that there is actually no self, that reality is not continuous. It is our desires, it is all the judgments that we super-impose onto reality, that freezes the frame. Under the microscope of our awareness, this doesn't hold true. So if we approach service with this idea of inner transformation, then it be a powerful tool for regeneration and illumination.
Along the path of service, it's natural to get tired. Sometimes we don't pay attention to that signal and we burn out. I think that's fine. Either way, we are left with two possible responses: one is to step-it-up and another is to retreat. :)
To step-up, I remember Ishwar-kaka saying, "Change of work is rest." Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take, points to research with burnt-out teachers who were asked to volunteer more (added more things to do their todo list!). Lo and behold, they performed better! The trick was to make sure it's a different kind of work. As Ragu mentioned, we need a salad. A diversity of inputs and its inter-relations that build our inner ecology is really helpful. If I'm burnt out in my particular role at my particular organization, instead of just stepping back, stepping forward could actually increase my capacity.
Another option is to retreat. Sometimes you advance by retreating. Our secret – and sometimes not so secret! – ambitions and agendas often thrash our system. Whatever we do, it feeds into this inexhaustible black hole. In such a state, it's most skillful to just pause and take stock of the situation. I won't elaborate on this, since most of us are quite attuned to this.
Now, the hard part is figuring out which approach to take and when, and for how long. There's a skilfulness to it, I have learned. And two shifts help in the process.
First shift is to go from transaction to trust. We often speak about it in an external context, but it’s relevant internally too. Transaction puts a lot of weight on the ego, on "me" to do something. When much is given and much is expected and the onus of the perfect action lands on your shoulders – that’s heavy. Trust, on the other hand, outsources that to nature. It’s much lighter, but comes with its own set of challenges. In particular, a compassionate heart feels obliged to just say yes to everything – in the name of trust.
So we arrive at this question of creating boundaries. It’s really an art. If we do it callously, then there’s a sense of isolation from all that we shut out. What I’ve found, though, is that there is a third option between yes and no -- which is ‘not now’. If we can master the art of ‘not now’, then trust becomes a lot easier and one is relieved of the entire weight of transaction. It takes humility to say ‘not now’, that I’m not a Boddhisattva with a massive toolkit, that I don’t want to climb on conditions, that it’s alright -- and kind -- of me to say “not now”.
Threading that balance between yes, no and not-now is very contextual. On one side, we can retract in fear or laziness, which then just deepens that groove. On the other end, we want to step things up simply because we’re itching to do something or avoiding our inner stillness. It fuels a pernicious over-estimation of our ego to think we can single-handled solve every situation that comes our way. The helpful shift here is to really about going from me oriented transaction, me oriented capacities, me oriented view of the world, to trusting in the inter-dependence of the whole process. We have to do our part, but not more. It helps to meditate on this quote by Gandhi: “Everything you do is insignificant. Yet it is most important you do it.”
The second helpful shift is from scarcity to abundance. We all know it in so many other contexts, but, in this context, as Giang said, can you see the hundred million trillion connections. Can you see it, or at least sense it?
We all sit in circles. Now, each circle is a living, breathing ecology. So many times, people come into a circle with a greedy mind and start networking. “Quick, quick, everyone connect with everyone, so we can do the maximum amount.” Perhaps that a reasonable intent, to maximize the potential, but that is far from our optimal position in a circle. We may get to a few thousand connections, but it’s a far cry from hundred million trillion. When our ego is the center of our world, we can’t get to that exponential potential. If, however, we learn to zoom-out and get our ego out of the way – even a little bit – we notice that the lesser we try, the more things flow. The more we rest in the laps of grace. That’s abundance. Not an abundance for our ego’s agenda, but an abundance for the circle’s emergence. Scarcity mindset leads us to FOMO (fear of missing out) while an abundance mindset leads us to JOMO (joy of missing out!). Like Rev. Heng Sure’s song goes, “I have enough, I am grateful, share the blessings, Hallelujah!” If we don’t get to sufficiency of enough, it’s hard to experience the gratitude of abundance and impossible to share the blessings.
In conclusion, feeling tired or burnt out is a great signal for our inner transformation. That alone is a huge boon. Then, we can respond by either stepping up or stepping down. Both are legitimate pathways to regeneration. As we pick a path that is appropriate for our context, we embrace this shift from me-oriented transaction to a deeper trust-the-field approach. That lends itself to going from oh-my-god scarcity to abundance of sufficiency. Whenever we arrive at a moment where this is enough, a smile blossoms. That regenerates us infinitely.
Suffering has been around forever. As Sachi said, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But the flip side of suffering is compassion, the wish to help ourselves and others out of that suffering. That is also not going anywhere anytime soon. The invitation for us to see which side of the equation we’re on. To the extent that we’re suffering, we can’t be compassionate. Coming out of suffering isn’t as simple as eating ice-cream. :) Yet, each act of service holds tremendous potential for an inner transformation that reduces our suffering and delivers us as stronger instruments of compassion. Fortunately for us, the winds of nature are with us, pushing us away from suffering. The universe wants us to be in alignment. Sometimes some of our arrows are pointing in one direction, and some in the other. So we do burn out. It’s natural, but we learn and return back with full gusto. Eventually, all the arrows point in one direction and we regenerate naturally and infinitely.
Last week, I was speaking to a long-time friend of ServiceSpace and he asked me about the biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way. I said, “I’ve realized I can happy without wanting any outcome. I can just do dishes for no purpose.” That may sound like a simple thing, but it’s super light. No burn out, because there’s no destination to get to. You’re constantly arriving. J And I think when we have that kind of an act of service, we are invariably going to create noble bonds with those we are with. That's what brings us together as ServiceSpace volunteers. Thank you.
Trishna: Between stepping up and stepping back, there’s also retuning?
Nipun: Indeed. When I say retreat, it's not necessarily a 10-day break. Retreat could just be simply taking a moment to watch your breath in that moment, which then allows you to get another lens of the situation. The magic of stepping up or back is simply a contextual way to allow ourselves to accept what is and see it in a different light.
Nisha: What’s the subtle difference between the joy of missing out and renunciation?
Nipun: In renunciation, there’s an effort. You’re letting go, there’s a sacrifice. The joy of missing out arises when renunciation is effortless, when we realize that we’re actually not sacrificing anything. We are going from being identified as a wave to the ocean.
Giang: I need to unlearn a lot of what I know. Yet, we still must act while we’re ignorant?
Nipun: Yes. :) Just because we are ignorant that doesn't imply retreating to a cave. In fact, even when we go into a cave, we have to act. It’s impossible to get away from action, so long as we’re in the field of mind and matter. What has helped me, though, is to tune into the pointer of my effort. If we’re pointing inside, we have a greater chance of untangling our knots.
I'll give you an example from my own meditation retreat. Every morning I would look outside the window and I would ask myself: is the bird moving or is my mind moving? And then you start to look at everything in a very different way because you are bringing in the observer into question. You are looking and saying, “Oh, who is doing this and why is it happening?” Now, for me, most of the times, I’m looking at the bird and saying it’s so beautiful. Yet, it may just be that mind is moving and I’m not aware of that subtlety. So with that ignorance, I just observe it. But instead of looking on the outside, you are pointing inwards, bringing the observer into question – and that itself is of tremendous value. It leads to much more wisdom than to try to solve things on the outside or offer descriptions of the bird’s beauty and this and that. Of course, if I awaken some wisdom, see the duality and paradoxes, then the bird may actually be even more beautiful, but my relationship to that beauty is so different now.
That inside-out approach has been the ServiceSpace credo from the beginning – we serve for inner transformation. At some point, that inner transformation may even complete and we may still serve. But then we serve, as Ana would tell us from her Catholic tradition, as an instrument of God. Sometimes we get momentary glimpses into being an instrument and sometimes we have to suffer through ignorance, but eventually, as the sages promise, J we align for good.
On this long journey, though, it really helps to have noble friends. In ServiceSpace, there is no other incentive but this. So the degree to which you help others is the degree to which you get served yourself. Even when I’m on the cushion, I feel great strength from all my kin, all of you. That’s why I keep showing up for this -- because I’m grateful. Thank you.
Trishna: Before we close with a minute of silence, here's a poem by Emily shared at the ServiceSpace retreat this past August:
Where there are many, many are one,
rooted in kindness and small acts of love.
Where there was stillness, community grew.
Moments of service sown with gratitude.
Where there is space,
we learn to let go by holding together what we cannot alone.
Where there were ripples,
waves have emerged to honor the stories that yearn to be told.
Where there is silence, the sacred unfolds.
Moments of surrender, quietly transformed.