Service Can Give or It Can Take…It’s Your Choice.
When we think of service, we often consider it to be a type of job you can have. Years and years in the trenches of the restaurant and bar industry resulted in me seeing only this dimension of it. For much of my working life, I considered service to be something you do simply because you are professionally obliged to.
The power of service didn’t reveal itself to me until I broke my conditioning around it. I’m not sure where I got those beliefs from, but given that the role is so deeply resented in our society, I’m sure the answer is “everywhere.” Too much of modern Western culture, service represents a state of vocational purgatory. We do it while we’re waiting for a better opportunity – a career path that feels more meaningful, purposeful and generally fulfilling (theoretically, anyway). Or worse, it represents having already failed – a sentence of survival we need to carry out because our bigger aspirations didn’t come to fruition.
This stigma is primarily placed on roles in the retail sector: shop attendant, customer service rep, and the notorious food and beverage server. So often these roles are occupied miserably, as though every act is taking something from the person serving. A conditioning forms: helping others means getting taken advantage of and denying one’s own needs and value. Service professionals working in such unconscious states get cut-off from their sense of worth and often develop self-destructive habits outside of work.
At best, today’s professionals off-set the toll service takes with lifestyles, practices, and aspirations outside of their service roles that keep them inspired and energized. Initially, this was the role meditation had in my life: service depleted me and meditation topped up the tank in an endless Sisyphian play of energetic yo-yo.
Eventually, it became clear that my source of self-nourishment had to also be service itself rather than just whatever I did outside of it. After all, so many wisdom traditions value service. So many heroes across eras and nations were people of service: devoted to something bigger than them, getting fulfillment from helping others.
I suspected that in my little corner of service life I was working similar muscles, but thanks to the persistence of my conditioning, I thought:
“But this isn’t a valuable service, this is a frivolous service. I’m serving people food saturated with putrefied oil and drinks filled with one of the most dangerous toxins to have ever become socially encouraged. Service I could be proud of would involve humanitarian work, or healing, or spiritual leadership…”
Fortunately, I discovered that the power of service to elevate you and the people around you is not a matter of the conditions in which you are serving, but the inner state you carry into service. It’s a practice made sacred by your ownership of the role – your attention to the needs of the moment and intention to meet them as your best self.
When you recognize service as an opportunity to practice as the person you want to be then everything you thought it was taking from you becomes an endless source of growth and self-understanding. If you serve from a mindful, empowered place, then any venue can become your temple.
Wanna Serve To Your Highest Potential? Then Just Be Present Anywhere
I thought food and beverage service was too “low vibe” a medium to be of value to the world. So I left a high profile management role and traveled to India to learn to be a meditation teacher. I came out thinking: “Now I have can the tools to serve! Let’s upgrade humanity properly!”
I worked with groups and individuals, teaching in calm environments where people were mostly really enthusiastic and super appreciative and always telling me how awesome I was. I discussed lofty, inspiring spiritual ideas with my students, only to sentence them to an outside world where they would experience endless frustrations attempting to apply them. And I was teaching them ways to make their own lives better without tools to navigate challenging realities and truly help others. I needed a crucible for truly testing these principles more thoroughly than the calm, sterile environment that I was teaching in.
I spent years teaching in ways that certainly helped others, but felt unsatisfactory and incomplete. And then I found an unexpected attraction to the clatter of the restaurants I thought I’d left behind.
It was there the whole time. Service. The sinew connecting grand principles of self-development with ground-level reality. Service is the reason, the whole “why” behind becoming better people. It not only drives but shapes our evolution. The very motivation to serve provides the tools to navigate life as the mindful, empowered human we hope and imagine we can be. I’d been cultivating this connection all along, but dismissed the power of restaurant work because of its unglamorous appearance. I thought I needed to go to India to get the tools I needed to help humanity (and was glad I did, don’t get me wrong), but just as many were right in front of me all along.
So I abandoned my original model of “become a teacher and build a following” and went “back to the streets” of service. If I had anything to offer, any potential of being an agent of conscious life, it would be proven while undercover. That’s right, I re-entered the food and beverage industry. I said to myself, “If I can’t be of value to others in this environment, while myself continuing to learn and grow then I haven’t earned being a teacher.” Restaurant service became the laboratory I was looking for. The place to embody and practice all I had learned to share a batter navigational map for my students.
In the process of serving intently, as established as possible in a mindful state while dealing with the endless demands and triggers of high-octane restaurant life, I learned what service is. I saw the untold power burbling in the humblest of service roles. I learned about service not as a job, but as an essential human drive that is not the lowly role we think it is, but both the fruit of our inner potential and the catalyst for continually developing it.
Mindful, Empowered Service 101
Though I emphasize how service is so much more than just a job, let’s be clear that it virtually always involves work to carry out. Whether it’s the extension of physical energy/attention outward or the turning of such attention inward to work on whatever is blocking us from really showing up to the role. The problem is when we reduce our idea of service to its strictly mechanical layers. The work that is occurring through service is much deeper and more potentially transformative for all involved.
Whatever basic duties a service role requires are certainly important, but it’s ultimately not how well you serve is not just based on how much information you gather and regurgitate – no matter how well you’ve articulated whatever it is you’re trying to educate people on. It’s not measured by how many laughs or high fives you get. It’s not about how well you chase around people’s needs.
Serving well isn’t just a matter of how well you can think beyond yourself, but also your awareness of yourself in that moment. You need to be able to see what triggers are arising and what aromas of old conditioning need to air out. You need to make yourself a vessel for the exchange of service.
You’re providing maximum care and attention to the needs of others, and yourself gaining the growth and transformation that is infinitely valuable. This approach where you engage your natural ability to be mindful is how you experience service beyond the mechanical layers that deaden its myriad unconscious agents the world over. And it will empower you. It will reconnect you to your innate value and show you its possibilities. You will see all that you and others have to gain from exporting your value to the world.
Empowerment is a mode where you always know your freedom, authority and capability as an agent of service. It allows you to show up as the person you want to be regardless of the situation. And it allows you to gather nourishment from an experience rather than being depleted by it. Depletion happens when you’re in victim mode, believing that others are taking from you. Empowerment makes us feel abundant, giving us access to the unbounded supply of energy and attention within us and all the opportunities generosity with it can bring.
Empowered service depends on you overcoming your in-built tendency for negativity – beliefs that you are weak, inferior, incapable, not in control of your experiences, etc.
Whatever conditioning around the “inferior” position of the service role you’ve acquired will only exaggerate your doubts about your worth. Serving from a mindful, empowered place will reveal that you aren’t just worthy even though you serve, you’re worthy because you serve (and you serve because you’re worthy).
The essence of service has a transformative power regardless of the context that it occurs. You don’t need fancy tools, settings, stories or information to be the most powerful agent of service that you can be. You don’t need anything other than an opportunity to do it. Whether you’re a monk or a householder, an oil tycoon or a rig worker, a political leader or a vagabond, service is the only ultimately fulfilling act you can perform.
Because being truly engaged with life and offering the most possible value is a function of awareness – knowing the needs of the moment and all of the people in it. Such awareness reveals the interrelated nature of yourself and the people you are serving. Serving the needs of others always ultimately benefits you because we are not the isolated beings we think we are.
Serving the needs of others is heightened most by serving your growth and well-being because elevating your value simultaneously elevates others. Knowing yourself, and knowing your needs and capabilities, means knowing where you can offer the most value – ultimately everyone benefits. It’s an endless cycle, a spinning wheel that grinds you into a state of self-mastery.
What I’m talking about here is real growth – born of the grind, discomfort, vulnerability, and constant-self-examination that comes from truly committing to doing anything well. The more challenges, the better. The more triggers, the better. When you attempt to master anything, you ultimately must master yourself. Every obstacle sheds light on a dark corner of yourself that needs understanding and healing in order to better show up not just for our service lives, but everywhere.
Service Would Be Easy…If We Didn’t Have To Serve People
These ideas sound great in theory, don’t they? Speaking such lofty ideas from a comfortably dissociated place reminds me of my days as a pure meditation teacher. They don’t mean much until we come into contact with other people. And the free-flowing application of a mindful, empowered mode of doing something is easily jammed without a certain resilience – a commitment to doing it because we want to be such a person of service at all times, not just when it’s comfortable. Because it only takes a moment for an unpleasant encounter to cause us to abandon every nice intention we’ve accumulated.
All too often, I show up to serve a group and I’m fizzing with friendliness and enthusiasm. I greet them, I say friendly things…and then they say something dismissive, condemning or something on my list of “annoying things to say to a server.” And the switch goes off and I say to myself “these guys are getting ice cold Stefan the rest of the night.”
Like many probably do, I want to be a kind, compassionate, joyful, non-condemning person – and carry that person into every scenario. The thing with service is that it seems to reveal that humanity doesn’t deserve it. They’ll “let you down.” But what empowered service reveals is that even if they don’t “deserve” my best self…I do. Because it feels better. Because it’s practice for the person I permanently want to establish myself as. Learning to serve consciously makes service simultaneously all about others and not about them at all. Helping them (regardless of how “deserving” they seem) becomes satisfying and inspiring in and of itself – without you expecting them to fulfill a certain checklist of acceptable behaviors. You need nothing from them, except the opportunity to serve because service itself nourishes you so much more than whatever they can reciprocate.
Waiting for the right person to really show up for and serve well and be the person you want to be. Someone you’re perfectly aligned with always inspires you, never troubles you means you’re waiting for the circumstances to encourage you to be the person you want to be. Empowered means not passively waiting for the situation to be convenient for you to show up as the person you want to be. If you are depending on your circumstances to define your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs, and identity, then service has truly disempowered you.
When you realize such power you can alchemize the challenges of service into a medium for your own growth. Things that trigger you aren’t received passively with the story “oh well, they’re horrible and I’m a victim of their awfulness; I suppose I now owe them resentment in return.” No matter how much they bother me, I try to move to gratitude as quickly as possible.
Thanking them in the moment (internally, of course) helps switch on a light within me that digests their triggering behaviors into fuel for self-understanding.
“Thank you for the opportunity to understand another obstacle within me to truly serving”.
And this fire burns even brighter when your intent is taking such understanding into better serving the next person that puts themselves in front of you.
Breaking Conditioning Around What “Important” Work Looks Like
One of the biggest obstacles to living a happy life is the belief that having a certain status (money, influence, responsibility, social media followers) is somehow a measure of your worth. And it’s also one of the biggest obstacles to serving well when you allow yourself to believe that service is some kind of “lowly” role.
Somehow, through social conditioning, and our insecurities, we default to the idea that a service role is a sign that we have failed to become a worthy human in some other “important” domain of life. However, you will find that when you truly show up to the service role, the opposite is true. Being able to serve (in any way) without insecurity is a sign of your inner development, not some failure to be something else.
Through service, you’re practicing the art of being self-actualized. The ultimate barometer of anyone’s self-development is not what socioeconomic status you’ve acquired, but simply the extent to which they are of service. Not on what “scale” they are of service. I used to think you were more “of service” if you were running a multi-billion-dollar charity. This kind of measurement allows the simple power of service to once again get hijacked by socioeconomic standards.
Your ability to serve in significant ways depends on how easily are and attention flows from you in the smallest of moments. Such care impacts people and resonates outward into everyone they come into contact with going forward. This can be just as impactful (especially over time) than someone running some grand organization. Condemning yourself to these standards cuts you off from the power you have to create an impact in subtle, covert, and deceptively humble ways.
Regardless of scale, service is a sign that your inner system of growth has an outlet and is therefore complete. You are established in yourself firmly enough that it is ready for export. At this point, self-gratification does not bring nearly the satisfaction and joy and bringing value to others. Does that mean you no longer care about your needs? No, you would care even more than ever since your commitment to helping others requires that you are in good shape to do it.True motivation for service would be applied equally to yourself, taking every opportunity to serve your well-being. This is ultimately an unselfish act when the endgame is paying your well-being forward into better-serving others.
This practice of humility allows you to be able to serve anywhere, at any time, without requiring a service opportunity that seems more “impactful”. Bearing the flashings lights of whatever our culture values as “noble” or “important”. Someone truly of service, that is connected to it mindfully, moves according to the need of the moment, uninhibited by cultural conditioning that tells them all the more important stuff they’re supposed to be preoccupied with.
If you embrace the little service opportunities that don’t offer your ego a single lick of the lollipop, you’ll experience fulfillment beyond whatever heroic story you’d imagined yourself playing a role in. True calls to service are continuous and usually unglamorous. If we simply saw the potential of whatever service role we’re in right now, then we could be members of a softly dispersed movement, co-creating a better world that will blossom in ways almost unbeknownst to those on the receiving. Because I have found, and wish to continue revealing, that true growth and transformation happen by agents in the most unexpected of places.