Service Is the Work of the Soul
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Service Is the Work of the Soul

Discussion date: Thu, Jan 18, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Over the past two decades Still Water periodically offered a series of biweekly support groups called “Companions for the Journey.” The basic format was simple: when we came together we broke into smaller groups of four or five people. Then for the next ninety minutes or so we took turns sharing. The first person had ten minutes to speak about what was alive in their practice and inner life, to talk about the growing edges. After a few minutes of silence, the other people in the group offered their reflections for about ten minutes. Our intention was to listen, appreciate, and encourage. Often we offered “open and honest questions.” One of our guidelines, borrowed from A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer, was “No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.” When the first person had shared and received the group’s reflections, we sat in silence again for a few minutes. Then it was the second person’s time to share.

A few years have elapsed since we last formed these support groups and, in the meantime, some of our regular weekly sittings have grown to twenty or thirty people. We’ve heard from those who practice with us that they’d welcome the opportunity to share in a small-group setting about their lives and practice. It seems a good time to bring back the Companions for the Journey program.

The past Companions groups that I participated in 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 tendency 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, deep listening, appreciation, and encouragement. We all felt uplifted and inspired.

One of the readings that helped me understand the power of our Companions for the Journey groups was the article “Helping, Fixing, or Serving?” by Rachel Naomi Remen. She clarified some very subtle differences in how I, or anyone, may relate to others:

Helping, fixing and serving represent three different 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. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.

Service rests on the 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. 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.

Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that 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 or even wholeness.

When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. My pain is the source of my compassion; my woundedness is the key to my empathy.

Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. 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: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will explore our experiences of being helped, fixed, or served. Ann Kline and I will facilitate the evening. Ann is a decades-long Still Water practitioner and an experienced Group Spiritual Direction guide who co-created and co-led the previous Companions programs.

You are invited to join us.

Below is an excerpt from Rachel Naomi Remen’s article about how an emergency room physician came to understand the difference between fixing and serving.

This time around, the Companions for the Journey groups will have the option of meeting online or in person in the homes of participants. Orientation sessions for the Companions program will be offered online on Saturday, January 27, 3:00–4:30 pm Eastern, and Sunday, January 28, 7:00–8:30 pm Eastern. More information about the program is available on the Still Water website.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Excerpt from “Helping, Fixing, or Serving?” 

by Rachel Naomi Remen

Harry, an emergency physician, tells a story about discovering this [the renewing power of serving]. One evening on his shift in a busy emergency room, a woman was brought in about to give birth. When he examined her, Harry realized immediately that her obstetrician would not be able to get there in time and he was going to deliver this baby himself. Harry likes the technical challenge of delivering babies, and he was pleased. The team swung into action, one nurse hastily opening the instrument packs and two others standing at the foot of the table on either side of Harry, supporting the woman’s legs on their shoulders and murmuring reassurance. The baby was born almost immediately.

While the infant was still attached to her mother, Harry laid her along his left forearm. Holding the back of her head in his left hand, he took a suction bulb in his right and began to clear her mouth and nose of mucus. Suddenly, the baby opened her eyes and looked directly at him. In that instant, Harry stepped past all of his training and realized a very simple thing: that he was the first human being this baby girl had ever seen. He felt his heart go out to her in welcome from all people everywhere, and tears came to his eyes.

Harry has delivered hundreds of babies, and has always enjoyed the excitement of making rapid decisions and testing his own competency. But he says that he had never let himself experience the meaning of what he was doing before, or recognize what he was serving with his expertise. In that flash of recognition he felt years of cynicism and fatigue fall away and remembered why he had chosen this work in the first place. All his hard work and personal sacrifice suddenly seemed to him to be worth it.

He feels now that, in a certain sense, this was the first baby he ever delivered. In the past he had been preoccupied with his expertise, assessing and responding to needs and dangers. He had been there many times as an expert, but never before as a human being. He wonders how many other such moments of connection to life he has missed. He suspects there have been many.

As Harry discovered, serving is different from fixing. In fixing, we see others as broken, and respond to this perception with our expertise. Fixers trust their own expertise but may not see the wholeness in another person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When we serve we see and trust that wholeness. We respond to it and collaborate with it. And when we see the wholeness in another, we strengthen it. They may then be able to see it for themselves for the first time.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jan 18, 2024


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