One spring several years ago, our wonderful adult Sunday school class read Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth. I was intrigued by what it had to say about our inner character. Recently I’ve been thinking about how the lessons in the book apply to helping others. They reinforce two points I’ve come to believe with all my heart: As much as anything, service is a spiritual practice. And the journey—the approach you take when you help others—is every bit as important as the destination.
In my favorite chapter, Tolle writes about the social roles we take on and how tightly they constrict us, if we let them. Like it or not, our social standing largely determines how we move through the world, and how others orbit around us. “The way in which you speak to the chairman of the company might be different in subtle ways from how you speak to the janitor,” he writes. True, and I’m ashamed to admit it. Watch carefully, he writes, and you will detect this kind of performance first in others and then in yourself. Often it’s a formidable barrier to loving kindness.
But how do you not play a role? As soon as you try to be “just yourself,” Tolle notes, your mind creates a role for you, perhaps something like “wise one.” The only way to step completely out of role-playing is to admit you don’t know who you are. “If you can be absolutely comfortable with not knowing who you are, then what’s left is who you are—the Being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality rather than something that is already defined.”
“Give up defining yourself—to yourself and others,” he counsels. “You won’t die. You will come to life.”
I liked the idea of losing myself, of shedding my social standing like snake skin. I tried it and found that by not defining myself by vocation or any other label, I remained more open to the people I met each day, regardless of whether I knew them. I was having fun with it—until our son was killed and the role of Mother was taken from me.
Here’s the interesting thing: Although it robbed me of a key part of my identity, losing Reid also awakened in me the desire to serve others. It gave me a choice. I could wrap myself tightly in the cloak of Brokenhearted, and no one would blame me. But it also made me wonder how I might learn and grow from here. What new roles should I take on? Which old ones should I discard?
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who continually broadens her horizons. The challenge now is to step into the new situations in which I find myself without letting myself be pigeon-holed as someone who believes or acts or must be treated a certain way. I’ve also got to keep from pigeon-holing myself.
Does serving others make me financially richer or poorer? My job is to not let that worry me, not even for an instant. Am I suddenly subservient to another person? Just writing that makes me squirm with discomfort. Frequently, though, volunteer work requires each of us to start from the bottom up, helping in small ways until we prove ourselves. And that means taking orders, even when we disagree with them.
If I can make kindness and openness my prevailing sentiment, it helps me ignore the incessant voice of the ego when, for instance, it tells me that I know more than the person who’s instructing me. Possibly I do know more. But as someone who is trying to give up myself in order to give of myself, I should assume that I do not. And even if I do, an essential part of the journey is letting go of my own need to control things and allow people to become empowered in their own ways. If I make suggestions, I must make them lovingly and with respect.
How comfortable am I without a prescribed role? Not at all, most days. How can I become more comfortable? I suspect it’s by gradually peeling away the layers of artificial skin and refusing to don others. And when I realize I’ve taken on yet more roles, I need to be willing to let them go as well.
When I offer help by opening myself completely to others, I reach the deep level of service I have come to call Seva. In the process I receive help and nourishment at a level much deeper than my skin.
In the Shamanistic practices of Peru, there is a prayer that asks Sachamama, the Great Serpent, to help us learn to shed our pasts the way she sheds her skin. To me, this is where aboriginal practices, Christian beliefs, and Eastern and New Age philosophies converge. Jesus asks us to be humble and to nurture the deepest compassion we possibly can. What better way to become “the Being behind the human” than to step away from the roles and labels we’ve had heaped on us since birth?