How to Answer the Call to Service With Love
In her debut book Revolution of the Soul, Seane Corn shares that in order for real change to happen, we must move our intentions to serve into action—and practice “equanimity by connecting inward first to minimize the chance of creating more suffering.
Showing up from love when engaged in service is not a form of spiritual bypass; it’s not declaring “our thoughts and prayers are with you” in a knee-jerk, BS kind of way. Lives are at stake, sh*% needs to get done, and it needs to get done now. In the presence of suffering, no doubt you’ll feel devastated. That’s okay. Feel all the feelings, express and release all your rage—and act anyway. Serve anyway. But remember, for service to be truly sustainable, you must choose love over fear and most certainly empathy over sympathy or pity every single time.
Serving from love, keeping love at the forefront of all that we do, means keeping the ego in check, which is a challenging and yet integral part of yoga in action. It is how we can hold ourselves accountable for the ways in which we, consciously or unconsciously, contribute to the suffering of others through our choices, actions, and words. There’s a Sanskrit mantra many people often recite during yoga class: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu, which means “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
Reciting mantra and praying are powerful, of course, but in order for real change to happen, we must move those intentions into action. One way to do that is to practice the Four Immeasurables (or Brahma-viharas)—friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity — which form the basis of the mantra, as well as the popular loving-kindness meditation.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not enough to pray for happiness or wish for an end to suffering. Those are lovely heart-tugging sentiments, but they won’t get the job done. We must work to find the causes of happiness and alleviate the causes of suffering—for everyone, even those we don’t understand, even those we believe are evil. This takes engaging the mind as well as expanding the heart. In an article for Tricycle magazine, Thai monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote that your heart is the part of your mind that wants everyone to be happy. The head is the part of your mind that has to figure out how to make that happen. Your head and heart have to learn how to cooperate, he says, so that once your head finds the causes of happiness, your heart can “learn to embrace those causes.”
Offering the four Buddhist virtues known as the Four Immeasurables—or Brahma-viharas—to yourself allows you to discover, in a powerful and loving way, how best you can be of service.
Friendliness (Maitri or Metta)
Some teachers call this goodwill or loving-kindness, but basically maitri or metta is our wish that everyone find true happiness and the causes of happiness. I sometimes think of metta as a gentle sprinkling of goodwill that we offer to everyone because, let’s face it, whether we love them, hate them, or fear them, everyone wants to be happy. And, when our hearts feel particularly open, we can admit that everyone deserves that happiness.
Remember, compassion means “feeling with” or even “suffering with”; it’s an earnest desire to alleviate suffering and the causes of suffering—wherever you find them. Indeed, it is what prevents us from turning away from injustice and misery; it reminds us that when one person suffers, we all suffer. Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone’s plight or stepping in to fix or save anyone. If we truly want to alleviate suffering, we must help tear down systems that foster oppression and inequality and build those that support freedom and inclusiveness. Even more, we must each understand how we contribute to those systems—consciously or unconsciously.
Empathetic Joy (Mudita)
Another translation for mudita is “appreciative joy”—our ability to feel happiness for the good fortune of others. We want others to be happy, right? So, it logically follows that we would rejoice in that happiness. But what if someone’s happiness makes no sense to you? Can you love what they love anyway? Can you feel happy for someone who has found joy traveling a path that you would never in a million years choose for yourself? That’s mudita. Practicing empathetic joy also means remembering the joy that comes from being alive, from doing your dharma, from connecting with another being, soul-to-soul.
Equanimity (Upeksha or Upekkha)
All four of the immeasurables, according to Buddhism, arise from our essential nature. We are naturally predisposed to want all beings to be happy, to do what we can to alleviate suffering, and to rejoice in the happiness of others. The fourth immeasurable, equanimity, is a bit different. Equanimity is often translated as “standing in the middle,” “seeing with patience,” or even “looking over,” all of which suggest that we see what’s in front of us without getting caught by it—without judging it, fearing it, or jumping in to try to fix it. Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that by practicing equanimity, you can see whether you are contributing to or alleviating suffering. He says that when you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, equanimity prevents you from creating more. Equanimity helps you “channel your energies to areas where you can be of help,” he says. It also implies “seeing equally,” or understanding that your happiness is inseparable from the happiness of others, and your liberation is intimately tied to the liberation of all beings.
The truth is you won’t be able to serve everywhere, and you won’t be able to alleviate all of the suffering you encounter. None of us will. But you can practice equanimity by connecting inward first in order to minimize the chance of creating more suffering. That is why you get on the mat and breathe. Then you get off the mat, and from that centered place, do whatever it is that needs to be done in order to create peace.
The Four Immeasurables allow you to see how your traumas—personal, ancestral, and cultural—and your unprocessed emotions prevent you from being loving, compassionate, and joyful; how your unchecked privileges and inherent biases stop you from learning about and understanding the personal, ancestral, and cultural traumas of those you wish to serve; and finally, how all of that contributes to the suffering of others. By being tender, loving, and ruthlessly honest, we can all begin to heal the fractured places within us, love who we are, and embrace the path toward wholeness we’ve chosen. Once that happens, we can cast off the veil of ignorance that clouds our ability to see and embrace the humanity in all souls. We can then feel another’s pain and also connect with their joy and their Spirit. When we love bigger than we ever imagined possible and embrace the interdependence of ALL souls as One, then peace isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable. This is the revolution of the soul; this is the evolution of consciousness; this is the pathway to peace.