Seva: Compassion in Action
Seva is a Sanskrit word meaning selfless service. Seva is an action performed selflessly that doesn’t seek anything in return.
As I’ve reflected about what seva is over the years, I’ve realized how little I know about it. I wondered: what is the essence of seva? I mean, what is its feeling deep in my bones? What is seva asking of us? I wondered if I ever really had the experience of Seva. What would that experience be, anyway?
I recall that at an early age, on weekends my dad would take me to remote villages near our beautiful city of Islamabad in Pakistan. He and his friends would set up makeshift camps and provide healthcare to villagers. My role was to hand out two kinds of pills: the white or the blue. The white was a pain killer and the blue an antibiotic. I would faithfully carry out instructions and hand out the pills as requested. I loved spending the day helping and would always wonder when we were going back. I remember receiving blessings from the villagers. Some would put their hands on their hearts with gratitude, others would touch my head or cheeks and then do some ritual to keep evil at bay. I thought all this was amusing but regardless felt a sense of joy. Much later in life, here in New Orleans, when I started to cook meals for the unhoused, I reconnected with the same sense of joy and received similar blessings. Reflecting back on such experiences, I realize what many mention as the joy of service. How lit up and connected we can feel as when we serve each other.
Seva is compassion in action. Any action can be broken into three parts: 1. The intention with which the action is performed; 2. The action itself; and 3. The fruits that the action may bear. Karma yoga tells us that the results of an action are a combination of the clarity with which the action was intended and the action itself. Furthermore, it clarifies that for the results, intention of the action is of more importance than the action itself. Consider this verse in the Corinthians (13:3), when Saint Paul says: “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it brings me nothing.”
In a typical action, the intention is self-serving. It goes something like this: we want a new job, a new partner, or to attend a retreat. In each of these, the action is designed to benefit oneself. We act on our intention, which is greatly self-serving. And great value is placed on the results of the action. Our wellbeing gets identified with whether we were able to get the new job or the new partner or go on the retreat.
Contrast this with an action based on the philosophy of Seva. Here, the intention is to serve the whole; the action is selfless and geared towards helping others: compassion in action. And little to any value is placed on the results of one’s action! In one way, it’s completely the opposite of a regular action. Furthermore, in the philosophy of Seva, it’s entirely possible to continue with the same actions that you may have been doing, even the same profession, and yet be able to perform seva.
Taking the above into consideration, a Seva-inspired action may look the same on the outside; however, its internal intention might be different, such as: how I might help others? would this new job allow me more time so that I may be able to serve the whole? would this new partner make for an environment where I can be of more use and in harmony? would this retreat help me clear my stuff so I may help others? Then, with this clarity of intention, we perform the action.
And lastly, we don’t attach to the outcome. So we don’t spend time worrying (losing energy): “Oh I’m still stuck in this job I dislike;” “I can’t believe I’m still with this partner;” or “Why don’t I get to go on retreat?” The instructions of Seva are to not let the mind dwell on these ideas. It was never about you!
The action does not have to be some grand action. In the Bhagavad Gita (9:26), Krishna says: “If One offers Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even water, I will accept it.” This emphasizes one’s clarity of intention or devotion. “Me” referred to here can be the Divine or Other Beings. Krishna also confirms that our freedom is in direct proportion to our ability to not be attached to the results of an action. Consider this verse in the Bhagavad Gita (3:23): “The key is to not be bound by our actions.”
How are we to practically perform Seva? Is it possible to truly perform an action without wanting anything back? Is selfless action really possible?
These are great inquiries which start to reveal the nature of Seva. At our seva- and donation-based studio in Arabi, we started to meet monthly to discuss these and other related questions. In these sessions, which we lovingly call “Seva Satsangs,” we together explore, inquire and challenge our understanding of Seva. From these sessions, here are some practical things I have found valuable.
1. Anyone can do Seva. It does not require one to have a limber body, identify with a certain group, have a special skill or a social privilege. Ram Dass famously said, “Anyone can do seva.” Seva is a mindset, a way of perceiving the world where we focus on the giving more than the receiving.
2. Seva doesn’t have to just be an action. It can be kind thoughts, or words of gratitude and love. It can also be done in almost any situation and condition.
3. To find its benefits, Seva should be performed regularly and over a long period of time. This slowly changes our habitual mental patterns for the better. In another verse of the Gita (3:31) Krishna says, “Faith is freedom and comes from the work of cultivation.” Here he implies that by performing regular seva, one creates faith or the release of doubt and fear.
4. Seva emphasizes relational action. Most of our relationships and meetings are very transactional. We mostly focus on what we can get from the other. In mature and conscious relationships, equity is emphasized. An equal exchange of energy. This is beautiful and sustainable. Seva, however, is something different. It doesn’t emphasize an exchange. It engages in a unilateral action in which nothing is expected in return. It’s a one way giving. It is the practice of unconditional Love. As a result, it evokes Love and gratitude in others.
5. Seva can be done in exchange for money. This can be a controversial topic as classical seva is done without any compensation. However, in our group meetings in Arabi, we talked about how Seva is a mindset. A mindset or intention that emphasizes relations rather than transactions. And thus not only does it seem right but it is quite important to bring such a mindset into the work we do. Imagine a world where businesses value relationships above all and yet provide services for fair exchange.
6. Here are three simple ways to practice Seva
a. Refine your Intention. Perhaps every morning as you wake up, set your intention for the day. Have this intention not be only about you and what you want, but include others, your loved ones, animals, strangers and perhaps even people you don’t like. See how each of us is desiring peace, harmony, and wish all true peace and harmony.
b. Volunteer. Volunteer your time to some cause as you are able. Remember to set your intention and don’t be attached to the outcome. As a byproduct, you will feel the joy of service.
c. Listen/Communicate with an attitude of Seva. What if you could listen without a personal agenda? What if you could be present, resting in yourself, not in an energetic hurry or waiting for someone to finish so you can tell them all about your experience? What if we could stay open during communications? And still communicate our needs with clarity? And what if we engaged in this communication regardless of the outcome of it? What is the experience of being in this way? Try it!
Hatha yoga is a great place to practice Seva. You can approach your poses with the intention of unconditional love and compassion to yourself. Deeply listen to your body. Honor its guidance. You can dedicate your practice to others. You can fully use all the cues from your teacher and let go of the undue burden perfection or doing something better than the other. You can surrender to the pose or you can get active and fully engage and play.
Seva is a practice. Thus, if you engage in Seva, or compassion in action, you will notice that despite your best intentions, you may feel selfish and very identified with the outcome. You may also notice that you may have expectations of what you will get in return. When you see this, don’t be disappointed. Seva is working! This is the dark work that we rarely talk about. Pause. Take a moment. Several moments. Breathe. Check in with your intention. See how you maybe feel identified. Notice how the body knots up. Notice the narrative of the mind. Maybe it is wanting something in return. Or perhaps the narrative is making someone (including ourselves) or something wrong. See the movement of separation. This is samsara. Suffering. This is how we create it in every moment. Our willingness hold on to our story is the fabric of our continuing to feel suffering.
If you find yourself on this path, take your time. Expect to fall. A lot. Be gentle with yourself. Enjoy the beauty of this practice. It has tremendous benefits. It’s such a beautiful path. It helps us stay engaged within our community and with each other. It keeps us humble. It allows us to express Love and it allows us to deepen in our spirituality regardless of our other beliefs. Watch out for being in a hurry and getting too attached to outcomes of your actions. Otherwise you may risk becoming bitter, resentful, or burning out.
As you move along on your journey or perhaps one day out of nowhere, spirit will move you and you’ll receive an inner confirmation from the path. Follow that. Serve the highest, open your heart, study with teachers whenever you get a chance (we have so many great ones in our community), forgive rather than hold on, open rather than close. Love rather than separate. Then perhaps one day we will have the genuine appreciation of figures such as Jesus, who when under great duress, utter a prayered (seva of thought) to the ones who literally were responsible for taking his life: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
With so much Love
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
• Peace Pilgrim
o Your motive, if you are to find inner peace, must be an outgoing motive—it must be service
o The turning point came when, in desperation and out of a very deep seeking for a meaningful way of life, I walked all one night through the woods. I came to a moonlight glade and prayed. I felt a complete willingness, without reservations, to give my life—to dedicate my life—to service. “Please use me! Take all of me, I hold nothing back.” I prayed to God. And a great peace came over me.
o I got him to do little things for service. I talked to him about the joy of service and I knew that after he had experienced this, he could never go back into really self-centered living.
• Lama Zopa Rinpoche
o If we want happiness, then we should never harm others and always benefit them, finding the best ways to serve them. In other words, the best way to take care of ourselves is to fully dedicate ourselves to the welfare of others.
o The most valuable form of service is to fully awaken to who you are, and then live that awakening in every moment.
• Bhagavad Gita (Bhagavad Gita by Eknat Easwaran)
o 3:29 Let not the wise reflect piousness towards the unwise.
• Meister Eckhart
o It is not by your actions that you will be saved, but by your being. It is not by what you do, but by what you are that you will be judged
• Yoga Sutra
o Yoga Sutras 1.12-1.16 talk about two main themes. Abhyasa & Vayragya. Practice and Non Attachment. This is very much Seva. And in Yoga Sutras it says this allows for the mind control and realization of true Self.
Story of Hanuman
• You may want to use the story of Hanuman and how his selfless service to Ram made him remember his true nature.
• Hanuman holding in devotion Ram & Sita.
• Throughout the poses bring in elements of intention and non-attachment. Consider that these poses make the body strong so one is able to serve others. And thus do not attach to the outcome but come back to the intention.
• Heart Openers
• Throat poses if wanting to emphasize communications
• Hanuman is the embodiment of Seva thus poses such as: Ardha Hanumanasana, Hanumanasana, Anjaneyasana (Anjane is Hanuman)
• Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
• Shri Ram Jai Ram
• YS 1.12-1.16
• Twameva Chant with this verse:
Kaayena Vaacaa Manasandriyairvaa
Buddhyi-Aatmanaa Vaa Prakrteh Svabhaavaat
Karomi Yad-Yat-Sakalam Parasmai
1: (Whatever I do) with my Body, Speech, Mind or Sense Organs,
2: (Whatever I do) using my Intellect, Feelings of Heart or (unconsciously) through the natural tendencies of my Mind,
3: Whatever I do, I do all for others (i.e. without the sense of attachment to the results),
4: (And) I Surrender them all at the Lotus Feet of the Supreme Guru.
Written by Haiyan Khan