Living a Life of Service (Without Burning Out)

living a life of service

Spiritual maturation naturally leads to changes in perspective and priorities. Where once we were concerned mainly with ourselves and that which reflects directly upon our status in the world—our career, our family, our finances, our possessions, etc.—our orientation becomes less self-centered. Eventually, the lines between our needs and those of others become blurred; my happiness and success is inextricably linked to everyone else’s happiness and success.

That’s why many advanced spiritual practitioners speak in terms of “living a life of service.” It is no longer satisfactory to live only for oneself, so they seek to live lives that are of wider benefit, what we call the Hongik ideal in Sundo, Korea’s ancient mind-body tradition. But so much in society today is geared toward people chasing after individual success in a never-ending competitive game. If we stop this game, we fear ending up used and abused, down on the bottom of societal heap. So, how do we live a life of service in a way that is good for us while also being beneficial for all people?

Service Is Not Self-Sacrifice

When airline stewards present safety instructions before a flight takes off, they always give the same direction: “Place the drop-down oxygen mask on yourself before helping others.” The wisdom of this is obvious since you can’t help anyone if you don’t first help yourself. The same wisdom applies to a life of service as well. The word service does not mean being eternally selfless since that will only lead to exhaustion. You must attend to your own healing before you can fully attend to anyone else’s.

Of course, you do not have to wait until everything is perfect in your own life before you can start helping others. Rather, it simply means that you must have an established habit of self-care and self-development training that helps keep you strong and growing, and, yes, you need to take time for a little fun and relaxation, too. Presumably at this point on your spiritual journey, you have some idea about your personal self-development path, but I do recommend addressing all parts of the human being: body (yoga, tai chi, walking, etc.), mind (meditation, breathing, etc.), and spirit (contemplative practice, sacred texts, etc.).

Setting an Honest Vision for Your Life

When you set your vision for your life of service, remember to be honest and realistic about what you want. You do not have to fulfill anyone else’s idea of what that should look like, and you do not need to compare your life of service with others who have gone before you. You do not need to do anything extreme. Yes, people like Mother Teresa are admirable and we need them in the world, but the call to this kind of service is rare and should only be undertaken if the call is genuine.

The need for service is everywhere, not just among the materially poor, so search your own soul for your calling. Spiritual poverty is everywhere at all levels of society, so the need for service is everywhere. A life of service can even be connected to a normal career path. The difference lies in the mindset you take to all these things. If you are a business person, you will be a business person seeking to make a better world through the products and services you offer. If you are parent, you will grow children toward their own soul’s growth and toward their own life of service. If you are a school teacher, you will bring your heart into that in ways far beyond the ordinary. The same can be said of any way of life, so long as it can benefit humanity.

The Importance of Regenerative Rest

Allowing for rest is very important for avoiding burnout on the path of service. However, what we call “time off” is often not really rest. Sometimes, it makes our minds even busier (i.e., streaming, surfing), or it exhausts us (i.e., amusement parks, sports). These activities are fine in moderation, great for fun and release of tension, but please take time for deeper, regenerative rest, too.

In addition to a regular meditation practice, try turning your processes of rest and rejuvenation into a meditation, too. Pay close attention to your sleep cycles and make a meditative ritual out of it each night so that your mind can truly quiet down and rest. For example, you could plan a short time of meditation or deep breathing before bed, or you could make a meditative ritual out of a cup of chamomile tea. Also, please look for time to walk slowly and restfully in nature; nothing is better for the mind and soul.

The World Needs You at Your Best

We were born in difficult yet important times. The turning of the tide of consciousness, and the fate of the planet, will depend on people like you. Whatever form of service you feel called to, humanity and the planet needs you at your best. Be bold and proactive about whatever you choose, but also take time to take care of yourself.

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