Dear Still Water Friends,
Several years ago, for more than a year, Still Water had a series of biweekly support groups we called "Companions for the Journey." The basic format was simple: when we came together we broke into smaller groups of four. Then for the next 90 minutes or so we took turns sharing. The first person had 10 minutes to speak about what was alive in his or her practice and inner life, to talk about the growing edges. After a few minutes of silence, the other three people in the group offered their reflections for about 10 minutes. Our intention was to appreciate and to encourage. Often we offered “open and honest questions.” One of our rules, borrowed from A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer, was “No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.” When the first person’s sharing and reflection had continued for about a quarter of our time together, we sat in silence again for a few minutes. Then it was the second person’s time to share.
The groups changed my sense of how I was (and wanted to be) with people. I became aware of how easy it was for me to slip into the role of expert, helper, or fixer. Once I became sensitive to this, and made an effort to not act in these ways, I was surprised that there were many people in the group who wanted me and others to be the experts, helpers, or fixers. They were disappointed when we didn’t offer it. My strongest recollections, though, are of the times when a group found its groove and there was just sharing from the heart, appreciation, and encouragement. We all felt lifted and inspired.
Memories of our Companions for the Journey groups came back to me this week while I was reading two short essays by Rachel Naomi Remen on helping, fixing, and serving. Remen describes three different ways we can be with people.
When we help, we see others as weak, in need of our assistance. It is not a relationship of equals. When we provide our help, without intending to, we may diminish their sense of worth and self-esteem.
When we fix, we see others as broken, in need our our repair. Without intending to, we may diminish their sense of integrity and wholeness.
When we serve, we see life as whole, sacred, and mysterious. We serve not with our strengths or expertise, but with our presence and our lifetime of experiences. In serving there is mutuality, wholeness recognizing wholeness. While helping and fixing can be draining, serving is renewing.
Remen clarifies the difference with a story from her own life:
At twenty-nine, because of Crohn’s Disease, much of my intestine was removed surgically and I was left with an ileostomy. A loop of bowel opens on my abdomen and an ingeniously designed plastic appliance which I remove and replace every few days covers it. Not an easy thing for a young woman to live with, and I was not at all sure that I would be able to do this. While this surgery had given me back much of my vitality, the appliance and the profound change in my body made me feel hopelessly different, permanently shut out of the world of femininity and elegance.
At the beginning, before I could change my appliance myself, it was changed for me by nurse specialists called enterostomal therapists. These white-coated experts were women my own age. They would enter my hospital room, put on an apron, a mask and gloves, and then remove and replace my appliance. The task completed, they would strip off all their protective clothing. Then they would carefully wash their hands. This elaborate ritual made it harder for me. I felt shamed.
One day a woman I had never met before came to do this task. It was late in the day and she was dressed not in a white coat but in a silk dress, heels and stockings. She looked as if she was about to meet someone for dinner. In a friendly way she told me her first name and asked if I wished to have my ileostomy changed. When I nodded, she pulled back my covers, produced a new appliance, and in the most simple and natural way imaginable removed my old one and replaced it, without putting on gloves. I remember watching her hands. She had washed them carefully before she touched me. They were soft and gentle and beautifully cared for. She was wearing a pale pink nail polish and her delicate rings were gold.
At first, I was stunned by this break in professional procedure. But as she laughed and spoke with me in the most ordinary and easy way, I suddenly felt a great wave of unsuspected strength come up from someplace deep in me, and I knew without the slightest doubt that I could do this. I could find a way. It was going to be all right.
I doubt that she ever knew what her willingness to touch me in such a natural way meant to me. In ten minutes she not only tended my body, but healed my wounds. What is most professional is not always what best serves and strengthens the wholeness in others. Fixing and helping create a distance between people, an experience of difference. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. Fixing and helping are strategies to repair life. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy. (from "Helping, Fixing, or Serving?," Shambhala Sun, September, 1999)
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will explore instances of helping, fixing, and serving in our lives. We will begin by reading Rachel Naomi Remen’s article, "In the Service of Life," which is below. You are invited to join us.
You are are also invited to join us this week for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm. If you would like to attend, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.
The best times to join our Sunday evening gatherings are just before the beginning of our 6:30 p.m. meditation, just before we begin walking meditation (around 6:50), and just after our walking meditation (around 7:10).
Celebrating the New Year, New Year’s Day Brunch, Saturday, January 1, 2012, in Silver Spring, Maryland
Transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Saturday, January 7, 2012, in Oakton, Virginia.
In the Service of Life
by Rachel Naomi Remen
(Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1996)
In recent years the question how can I help? has become meaningful to many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps the real question is not how can I help? but how can I serve?
Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. If I’m attentive to what’s going on inside of me when I’m helping, I find that I’m always helping someone who’s not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.
Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude. These are very different things.
Serving is also different from fixing. When I fix a person I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When I serve I see and trust that wholeness. It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.
There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment. All judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. This is Mother Teresa’s basic message. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.
If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise. Service, on the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. A fixer has the illusion of being causal. A server knows that he or she is being used and has a willingness to be used in the service of something greater, something essentially unknown. Fixing and helping are very personal; they are very particular, concrete and specific. We fix and help many different things in our lifetimes, but when we serve we are always serving the same thing. Everyone who has ever served through the history of time serves the same thing. We are servers of the wholeness and mystery in life.
The bottom line, of course, is that we can fix without serving. And we can help without serving. And we can serve without fixing or helping. I think I would go so far as to say that fixing and helping may often be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul. They may look similar if you’re watching from the outside, but the inner experience is different. The outcome is often different, too.
Our service serves us as well as others. That which uses us strengthens us. Over time, fixing and helping are draining, depleting. Over time we burn out. Service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will sustain us.
Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. Fundamentally, helping, fixing and service are ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.
Lastly, fixing and helping are the basis of curing, but not of healing. In 40 years of chronic illness I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.