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The Art of Serving

Understanding Service

Audio Introduction: On Service

Life is all about maintaining balance, and service is a very important aspect of that balance. Of course, we have a variety of needs that we must attend to which often involve taking from the world around us, but in order to balance this taking we must learn how to give something back. True service means that we take time to give our energy to something outside of ourselves with no expectation of reward or payment as our motivation for serving. For some, the art of serving is well ingrained, and this chapter may just be a reminder of things they have learned already but may have lost track of. For others, it will be the first time that they have ever explored the concept of service in their daily activities, outside of the traditional sense of giving someone money to perform a service.

New center at Stanford to study brain’s role in compassion, altruism

Research conducted on the effect of service on health provides powerful evidence of its benefits, not only for those who are helped, but also for the service providers. One study done by House et al, in Tecumseh, Michigan, focused on 2754 people for up to 12 years. The researchers found that the men who did no volunteer work were two and a half times more likely to die during the study than the men who had volunteered at least once a week. Other research focusing on volunteer work time again points out the significance of altruism and its positive influence on health (Justice). This is not to say that we serve with the expectation of living longer, but rather that service is an integral part of living. Service reflects a healthy outlook on life, and in itself can help to improve our health further.

Generosity of Spirit

Reflecting on Service

Begin the reflection by examining your routine, needs, expectations, desires, and disappointments. After thinking about these fully, write down in your journal to what extent these things are based on either serving or being served in one way or another. It is incredible how service comes into just about every aspect of daily lives-in the expectations we have of receiving quality service, as well as in the deep-seated need we have to be able to serve those around us in some form or another. Service is the vehicle for how we express our essence in society. Service allows us to love through giving to others. By serving the world around us, we make tangible the lessons we have learned in life, and contribute to the health and well-being of the planet. We may think that serving others is selfless, but in reality it is perhaps the most selfish thing we do, as it allows us the privilege of giving, to grow, and to feel whole as a result of sharing with others. At the same time, it provides the person receiving the service with both the benefit from the service and the joy of offering someone the opportunity to give of themselves.

We have all experienced periods in our lives when we were searching for the thread of meaning behind it all. Our associations with events outside, people in our lives, emotions within, our state of health: one of these factors took an unexpected turn, and left us feeling in a quandary as to where our life could go from there. Take health as an example; let us reflect on it and see where service comes in.

Perhaps you have just experienced a heart attack, you are in your mid- 60s, and you have been advised that you cannot return to your strenuous career without risking further damage and possibly your life. You are sitting in the hospital bed and looking around at all the other patients and the variety of challenges they face. There is a sense of unreality about the whole scene. Yesterday you were active, vibrant, and extremely busy with matters far too important to wait, and with a personal sense of responsibility to co-workers, family, and society. Today you have a sense of despair, as you look around and see so many people clinging onto life, tenaciously battling against the odds. Your ailment, heart disease, is the number one cause of death. More deaths than cancer, AIDS, and all other causes put together! How did this happen to me? What will I do now? Why do I feel so helpless and empty inside?

When you think about forced retirement, there is a void. When you reflect on not being able to run around with the grandchildren without thinking about your heart, there is a feeling of loss. When you think about all the people who have depended on your continued health and well-being, from co-workers to people in society who perhaps did not even know the face behind the service they were receiving, and how this has all changed in an instant, you are lost for words.

Reflect on the roles you cherish in life, that make your life challenging, meaningful, rewarding, and worth tackling. Is there one that does not involve giving or receiving service? Now realize that service provision or acceptance is based on you serving yourself. If you do not look after yourself, all these other areas are in jeopardy. Service can be divided into four interdependent areas:

  • Serving yourself
  • Serving other people
  • Serving institutions
  • Serving the planet

If we neglect quality service in any one of these areas, the whole picture begins to unravel. At times there will be conflict, when serving in one area brings neglect to another-that is where balance and moderation come in-but know that these four areas of service to a great extent will determine just how rewarding your life is. Through quality service life becomes whole, fully integrated, and flowing. What would life be without it?


If you have ever experienced a time when it was not possible to provide any service at all, including the service of receiving (yes, when we receive things from other people we are providing a service, in that we are giving them an opportunity to serve), reflect back on that time. Through this reflection you will be aware of the emptiness it is possible to feel when you are unable to serve in one way or another.

Accumulating money, experiencing life’s pleasures, seeking adventure, obtaining power, educating ourselves, having a family, developing a career: these are all masks for the different forms that service takes. Unfortunately, because many of us do not see these things as service, we feel stuck in these roles, until we realize the true art of serving. When we become aware of how important service is to maintaining balance in our lives and allowing us to express ourselves, we can realize the worth of these roles and provide quality service.

Reflect for a moment on what quality service means to you, and write down your thoughts in your journal. Next reflect on this question: how can we serve in a way that will promote peace of mind and ease of body, while being useful to those around us, and experiencing the joy of giving?
We are all familiar with what it feels like to be served, whether in a restaurant or a hospital; we have all been on the receiving end of service. One of the best ways to reflect on the art of serving is to recall a situation in which you were served and your reactions based on that service. The simpler the example, the easier it may be to understand.

Imagine that you go into a restaurant, sit down at a table, and no one comes to give you a menu or take your order. Do you feel a sense of unfairness, neglect, anger, and of course hunger? Of course you do! When you walk into a restaurant, you expect that the people serving will be pleased that you have chosen their establishment, that they will be attentive to your needs, doing their utmost to serve you and make your meal both a delicious and an enjoyable one. In turn you will respect the restaurant that you are in and its code of conduct. When you are finished, you will pay them fairly for what you have received, and perhaps pass on some feedback, both of which will enable the restaurant to continue to provide quality service in the future. What a beautiful scenario. Then why are you left sitting at this table waiting for a menu and feeling agitated?

A number of circumstances have conspired to teach everyone in the restaurant a range of lessons about service. Five minutes before you walked into the restaurant, the manager received a call from her best friend who had just had a car accident up the road, and desperately needed assistance. The manager gave instructions to the chef to be in charge of all the employees, before rushing out to serve her friend in a time of need. The waiter walked into the kitchen just as the manager was racing out the door. He assumed that the manager was having a break, and that he also deserved a break after a busy afternoon. The chef passed on the manager’s instructions to the waiter, but he decided to ignore the instructions and take a needed break. Even though his shift was almost over, it had been so busy in the restaurant in the afternoon that he had not had his full break. The chef likewise decided to take some time off given the manager was not there and he was tired. At that point you walked in and sat down, not knowing any of this.

The chef saw you come in, but it was not his job to give you a menu or take your order; he was there to cook. After a few minutes his conscience got the better of him, and he called out to the waiter in the back that there was someone needing help. The waiter called back that he was on his break to which he was entitled, and that you could leave as far as he was concerned. He had another five minutes, and if the manager could have a break, he certainly deserved one too, as he worked twice as hard on one-third of the pay.

At this point Karl, another waiter, walked into the employees’ entrance of the restaurant, 15 minutes early for his shift and looking forward to a quick snack before work as he had not eaten anything all day. He greeted the others and asked where the manager was. Then he noticed you sitting in the restaurant, looking extremely frustrated. He asked the chef whether there had been some type of incident, to which the chef replied it was not his job to know these things.

Karl comes out and approaches you, and asks if he can help. By this time you are ready to explode, and you let him have it with both barrels about how long you have been waiting, and what type of establishment this is. Karl calmly and coolly listens, realizing that he has walked into a dynamic situation that he had no part in creating; in fact, technically he is not even working yet, and besides, he is ravenously hungry. After listening and apologizing profusely, Karl takes your order, offers you a complimentary cold drink, and lets you know that he will do his utmost to ensure that your order is attended to promptly. Karl smiles, and quickly goes back to the kitchen and immediately passes on your order.

The manager, Sue, had walked back into the restaurant just as you launched into your tirade about the poor service, and she heard every word. Sue also comes out to you and apologizes, and decides to share her experience of having to leave urgently to attend a car accident up the road. You had seen the car accident on your way to the restaurant, had thought about stopping to see if anyone needed help, but decided not to because someone else would probably be better at helping. You are glad to hear that everything is okay, and that Sue took the time to do what you had not done. In a way you feel a bit sheepish now about having lost your temper with the waiter. The meal is wonderful, you feel an affinity with the manager and Karl, and promise to recommend the restaurant highly to your friends.

If someone were watching this whole scene from above, a bit like Karl walking into it, they could see the beautiful play of the energy of service being woven into a tapestry. Karl, because of his detachment, was able to handle the challenge, while the other waiter and chef were not. But you and Sue were able to let go of expectations and move on, as both of you were not attached.

Random Acts of Kindness

Quality Service in Action

One of the keys to providing quality service is flexibility, letting go of expectations. This is a form of detachment, not in the sense of not caring, but rather detachment from all the strings we often get caught up in when engaged in providing service. The restaurant story illustrates some of these strings, including:

  • Only providing the service that is expected of you when you know more is needed
  • Basing your service on what you are getting for it
  • Judging others and their service, and then deciding to adjust your service accordingly
  • Believing someone else will be better than you at serving, so not providing the service
  • Giving quality service only when you feel like you are being supervised
  • Ignoring the implications of not providing quality service in terms of your own needs

If there is one word to describe these strings we get caught up in when providing service it is “expectations.” Always be aware of your expectations when providing or receiving service.

  • What is expected from you?
  • What are you expecting in return?
  • What do you expect from others?
  • What do you expect of yourself?

If we can let go of our expectations and serve from a place of detachment from expectations, or provide selfless service, we are then providing quality service. How do we let go of these strings and enter into selfless service? Compassion is the answer, not only for serving others but also for serving ourselves. Through compassion we transcend our feelings of isolation and pain, and experience the peace and joy of giving and receiving love with no strings attached. Following are suggestions to help allow compassion to flow:

  • Recognize the needs of those around you by putting yourself in their situation.
  • Provide service to those around you without it being contingent on any external reward or acknowledgment.
  • Focus at all times on the process of serving rather than any expected result of service.
  • Attune to any inner expectations you might still have regarding Service and then let them go.
  • Try to give more than you receive.

When we serve from a place of compassion, the transformation that takes place on all levels is nothing short of miraculous, because we are no longer caught up in our particular role, but giving from our heart and giving without conditions. An inability to serve or receive service causes us to be isolated and leads to pain and anguish.

Free Hugs Campaign – Official Page (music by Sick Puppies)

How can I Serve as Part of My Routine

The beautiful thing about service is that you can do it anytime, anywhere, as long as you are aware of the true nature of quality service. Some people identify service with charitable or volunteer work. They may dissociate service from the workplace as they are being remunerated for their service. Or they feel that true service takes place beyond the family, as there are blood ties and expectations to serve your family. Many people feel they have to go far a field, across the globe, to serve. There is certainly no harm in this, and thank God for those dedicated souls who do it. But let there be no misunderstanding: service is not something that must take place in certain places, between certain times, and under the auspices of specific organizations.

Quality service can be a way of life that you carry with you wherever you go and with whomever you find yourself. It is all about your motivation for what you are doing, rather than what others think you may or may not be getting or expecting in return. If you are giving without any expectation of something in return you are providing selfless service.

Whenever possible, using the guidelines noted above, allow quality service to flow into your routine. Let go of expectations and give from your heart in whatever way, shape, or form you are capable of. If you find it difficult at this stage to adopt this attitude in situations where there is too much past history and unresolved emotions, approach community agencies, welfare groups, or people seeking volunteers. Offer some of your time and support in a selfless way. Perhaps if you become aware of serving through these organizations, that same spirit of service will flow into your daily routine wherever you are.

Service is but one component of HELP; it is not to be practiced to the exclusion of other components. It is no good becoming so busy serving others that you do not look after yourself, or you could end up like the man who woke up in the cardiac wing of the hospital unable to deal with his future. Remember to integrate each component into your life; this will then allow you to serve with vitality, humour, and compassion, while remaining healthy and balanced in body, mind, and spirit.

Keep track in your journal of your reflections on the road of serving -the feelings that come up when serving, and the dynamics that take place. Then refer back to the restaurant scene, and the guidelines, to help to extricate yourself from any strings that may be binding you. When serving, remember how in your selflessness you are really being selfish through your knowledge of how quality service breaks down isolation and pain, and brings intimacy into your life and those around you. What better way to heal yourself than through serving!

Jonathan Zittrain: The Web as random acts of kindness

HELP-ful Hints for Serving

Look in your immediate area for people and organizations to serve. These may include:

The Fun of Being Thoughtful (1950)
  • Family members
  • Neighbours
  • Co-workers
  • Hospice Charitable organizations
  • Community centres
  • The physically challenged
  • Religious organizations
  • Service clubs
  • Prisons

Identify international opportunities to serve:

  • Volunteering abroad
  • Environmental campaigns
  • Health education and Fundraising for charity
  • Hunger and homeless projects
  • Peace work
  • Human rights
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on “Seeds of Compassion”

Further Reading

Fields, Rick with Taylor, Peggy, Weyler, Rex & Ingrasci,RickChop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life, Jeremy P Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1984.
House, JS, Robbins, C & Metzner, HL“The Association of Social Relationships and Activities with Mortality: Prospective Evidence from the Tecumseh Community Health Study”, American Journal of Epidemiology, 116(1), 1982, 123-140.
Justice, BlairWho Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health, Jeremy P Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1987.
Luks, Allan with Payne, PeggyThe Healing Power of Doing Good, Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1992.
Ram Dass & Bush, MirabaiCompassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service, Bell Tower, New York, 1992.
Ram Dass & Gorman, PaulHow Can I Help?: Stories and Reflection on Service, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1985.