Doing some deck sweeping this afternoon at a cabin in central Oregon that we share with three other owners, I got to thinking about service.
This used to be a big deal to me in my Eastern religion days. Seva is an Indian word for service. It really just means volunteering. But when seva is done for the guru, who devotees consider to be God in human form, the service takes on an aspect that's hard to describe if you haven't experienced it.
I wrote about seva in my "When it isn't good to do good" post.
One of my points there was that it isn't good to feel that selfless service to your religious organization is vastly more important than volunteering close to home – like I've done for seventeen years for our neighborhood association.
As secretary, I've spent countless hours writing minutes, slaving over a hot copier at Kinkos, putting stamps and labels on a mailing, and other secretarial chores.
Interestingly, I spent about the same number of years serving as secretary for our local branch of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (guess I've got some significant secretary karma). That also involved many, many hours of service.
One difference: my neighborhood association service – like my cabin sweeping – is considerably humbler than my religious seva was. That's because service to God or a guru is much more of an exchange relationship, rather than truly selfless.
You're hoping to please God or the guru. You're looking to get on his good side. You're envisioning that all of your seva will help to reduce your ego and thus speed your way on the path to enlightenment.
I know this, because I used to see seva that way. And over thirty-five years or so, I talked with lots of other sevadars who felt the same.
People enjoy belonging to a religious organization because it feels good to do good for others. But there's nothing special about volunteering for your church, temple, mosque, or other religious group. Service is service, no matter where it's done or who it's done for.
Today I enjoyed my sweeping. I do a more careful job than I really need to. Pine needles continually fall onto the decks. By the time the next owner comes to the cabin, my meticulous sweeping isn't even going to be apparent, most likely.
But I like to sweep for sweeping's sake. I don't figure that it's going to bring me any spiritual benefit. Or any material benefit either, for that matter.
I imagine that the next family coming to the cabin will appreciate a deck that's cleaner than if I hadn't done my sweeping thing. I realize that this is mostly a fantasy, though, given that the pine trees are also doing their needle falling thing.
Anyway, however I felt during my seva days is still much like how I feel in my current churchless days. Except, as noted above my ego isn't nearly as involved.
Service is just service now, not a means to some spiritual end.
And that, perhaps, makes it a lot more spiritual.