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Journal

How may I serve?

How may I serve?

Inside the Dhamma Hall

gong

The famous gong which is sounded many times a day!

Outside Dhamma hall

Outside the Dhamma Hall

 

Those of you who know me will know that I like to visit the meditation centre as regularly as I can. ‘The’ meditation centre I refer to is Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire which teaches Vipassana in the tradition of S N Goenka. This centre has become a sort of home-from-home for me over the years and whenever I go to sit or serve courses, I am welcomed by many friendly and familiar faces; a Dhamma family whose friendship and support I treasure greatly.

 

Having recently returned from serving a 10 day course at Dhamma Dipa, I wanted to reflect on what it means to serve and why I find it so helpful, not just when I am at the centre but also how the experience benefits me on a day-to-day basis.

 

Dhamma service is just that; giving service to help people learn and develop in Dhamma (the law of nature). That is, volunteering your time to do whatever task is needed to facilitate meditation for others and help them learn and develop their understanding of Dhamma. It is so humbling to give your time in this way, knowing that you are helping other people to find the way out of their own suffering. By serving we help to rotate the wheel of Dhamma - that is, the wheel of liberation.

 

In this particular tradition courses are run on a donation-basis and courses are only made possible by servers. No-one who serves on a course receives any renumeration. This keeps the Dhamma pure and free from commercialism. Service – as with donations – can only be given once someone has completed a 10-day course. Feeling the benefits of the practice, we feel like sharing our merits (that is, the peace and harmony we have experienced) with all beings and so choose to give our time in order to help others experience this too. Serving helps us develop good qualities within ourselves; qualities such as tolerance, selfless love and equanimity, which in turn help to strengthen our meditation practice. In Vipassana centres, servers get time to meditate as well as serve :- a minimum of 3 hours every day which helps us stay balanced and focused for whatever tasks we have to undertake.  

 

I remember being blissfully unaware that the centre was run in this way on the first 10 day course I sat at Dhamma Dipa back in 2014. It was such a whirlwind of internal confusion and struggle for me that I didn’t even consider where all of these helpers (chefs, managers etc) had even come from. If anything I would have guessed they were paid staff! It was only after the course finished that I came to realise that every single person who had been serving me throughout my 10 days of silent meditation was doing it on a voluntary basis out of their own good will. This blew my mind.

 

What’s wonderful about service is that no hierarchy exists at the centre; no one role is considered better than another. Whether you are cleaning the toilets, working in the kitchen, maintaining the site, gardening or managing the course, the purity of your intentions is what is important. When we serve with joy and perform our tasks with the well-wishes of all beings at the forefront of our minds, we help suffuse the atmosphere with good vibrations and this creates a conducive atmosphere for the meditators (and everyone for that matter!)

 

For this most recent service I was helping to manage the course. Although you can put in a request for where you want to serve, generally you are just given a role by the centre management upon arrival. I remember feeling trepidation in the old days when I climbed the steps to the registration desk to find out where I would be serving. I worried whether I would suit the role or whether it would challenge me beyond my capacities but now I know that the centre doesn’t work like the outside world and you won’t ever be forced to do something you don’t want to do or don’t have the energy (or volition) for. Now, I am happy wherever I am put. I trust that I will always be where I need to be, learning the lessons I need to learn.

 

The role of course manager is a lovely one as you have direct contact with the students, seeing to their needs and giving them whatever they need to feel comfortable (although the courses are silent, students are allowed to communicate with course managers and teachers). For the first few days this involves fetching blankets/toothbrushes/hot water bottles – anything they need on a practical level and as the course goes on and the operation goes deeper, the support tends to become more emotional than pastoral. Sometimes strong emotions come up for students as a result of the practice so we ensure everyone feels taken care of and arrange interviews with the Assistant Teacher if students are struggling or need meditation advice. It is an immersive role as you are technically ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day for 10 days - students are told where your bedroom if in case they need you - and you are meditating a lot (sometimes up to 7 hours a day!) so it can feel quite intense. That said, we are encouraged to meditate in a relaxed way so that we are still ‘available’ - that is so that we can hear when a student has left the hall during a group sit or when we might need to get a squirrel out of the hall (this happened on a course I sat earlier this year!)

 

I always think of Dhamma service as a sort of training ground for life. It helps me reconcile and integrate the quiet ‘retreat space’ with the activity of life, showing me how to live my meditation practice. Just like in the outside world, all sorts of dramas, dilemmas and unexpected/unwanted things happen at the meditation centre and I am continually called to use my mindfulness training to respond to these challenges with compassion, equanimity and wisdom. I have many-a tale of ‘Dhamma dramas’ that have happened over the years including one time when I was serving in household and a large (almost full) box of laundry liquid leaked in the storeroom whilst we were in the hall meditating for an hour. I came back to an inch-deep soap flood that took well over an hour to clean up and ended in an unruly foamy-bubble mess! Times like this require a lot of equanimity and patience and really put the practice to the test!! I also remember the fire alarm going off in the middle of the night the first time I ever course-managed. As all the pyjama-dressed students filed out of their bedrooms into the cold night air in silent, startled confusion it was my responsibility to make sure everyone was safe and to investigate if there was in fact a fire. It ended up being a false alarm but trying to recall the fire protocols I had learnt just a couple of days earlier with a foggy 2am brain was challenging, as was discouraging the students from chatting as they waited outside for those 15 minutes! It was a good test of my ability to cope under pressure (something I am still working on!)

 

As the years go by I have found that this question ‘how may I serve?’ has started presenting itself in my everyday life too. I often start my day with it, asking life to show me how I can serve other beings, myself or life itself that particular day. In other words I ask how I can respond to life and people in a compassionate way and/or use my unique gifts to make a difference. Of course, it is hard to compare pure Dhamma service (ie serving at the centre where you are focused entirely on supporting meditators) with life on the outside but this desire to serve in a selfless way naturally begins to manifest when we start waking up to our true nature. We see that we can make contributions to the happiness of others on a daily basis, no matter how small. Smiling at a stranger, giving our time to someone - a friend, a shop assistant, a colleague - and just generally looking for opportunities to help others and make them feel loved is so important. We don’t know what other people are going through and a small gesture of kindness could make all the difference to their day. And we can always rely on the natural law which shows us that the more we give, the more we receive so by helping others we are also helping ourselves and inviting a greater sense of peace and contentment into our lives.

 

I will leave you with the lyrics of ‘Make me a channel of your peace’, a hymn that beautifully captures the essence of what it means to serve. May we all find ways to channel our gifts to serve others.

 

 Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon Lord
And where there is doubt true faith in You

 

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness only light
And where there's sadness ever joy

 

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul

 

Make me a channel of your peace
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
It is in giving to all men that we receive
And in dying that we are born to eternal life

 

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul

 

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there's despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness only light
And where there's sadness ever joy

 

St. Francis of Assisi, 1225

 

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