What is service? On the surface, it sounds so simple: the act of identifying needs and working to fulfill them. Service is often thought of as oriented to others, but the target should just as often be yourself. Service is often thought of as a professional imperative (i.e. “I work in the customer service department”), but is also a fundamental aspect of relationships, spiritual practices, everyday encounters, and pretty much any avenue of life. More broadly, service can be thought of as “the direction one’s energy is flowing.” I know that’s an extremely zoomed out perspective on service, since that question is also asking “how are you living your life?” But…yeah, exactly. That’s why I say “how you serve anything is how you serve everything.”
Regardless, the art of service would actually be pretty easy to navigate if the needs of others weren’t potentially such a hazard to their well-being (and potentially your own). Because there is a difference between what people are seeking (AKA: “want”, “think they need, but may not actually benefit from receiving”, etc.) and what they actually need. Sometimes it’s our responsibility to undermine what they are seeking and offer them what they need, and sometimes it’s not. This distinction needs to be made with care, since needs and the consequences of their fulfillment or denial can so profoundly shift any relationship (casual, intimate, professional, etc) in our lives.
It’s More Than Just That We’re Showing Up For Others…It’s What Our Energy Is Enabling
Deciding whether someone’s needs are healthy or worthwhile can be immensely challenging. For example, if a relative needs to borrow money to start a business, you may want to say “yes” because it will bring them over a threshold that propels them to success or “no” because you’d just be enabling them to depend on others. And perhaps you’re also funding a yet-another-scheme that will only dig them further into financial ruin. Or both possibilities may exist simultaneously and you now need to think about which decision is better for the long-term integrity of the relationship.
It’s beyond the scope of this post (and any individual person’s knowledge) to nail down a system to somehow identify the right course of action in any given situation. The right answer is dependent on the endless dimensions of each moment, and the endless shockwaves our decisions send into the future. So we need to prime ourselves to with discrimination skills so we can distinguish whether we are fulfilling the right or wrong need. Indian philosophy calls this “Viveka”. It allows us to be of service consciously, but also to navigate life skillfully.
For me, this resulted from years of professional and spiritual service. Eventually, I had to take things further than just getting good at showing up to the role of service (something that can be in itself immensely challenging). I then had to consider the ethical ramifications of any act therein. Being able to put energy into service was just the beginning. It ultimately became a matter of putting it in the right direction. For example, if I became the top recruiter of a death cult, I probably would have done a great job of investing energy into service, but I certainly hope I would eventually start examining the direction of my energy’s investment. (Is all this devotion going to amount to much? Well, we’re all pointlessly dead so perhaps not).
How can professional service roles become spiritual practice? Explore this question with Stefan: Hospitality As A Spiritual Practice
Indian Hospitality: Treating The Guest Like A God…Even When They Act Like A Demon?
I know, these are huge conversations. So let’s zoom into India, a country that is legendary for hospitality. Traditionally, a guest is welcomed into an Indian home with a Puja, a very involved ritual that connects the guest and host. Pujas are also employed to connect people with a deity of worship, which implies that strangers or guests to an Indian home are held with the highest possible esteem. Hence the Sanskrit proverb Atithi Devo Bhava (“The guest is God”), a saying that could be as much as two and a half thousand years old(1), but has very recently been brought back into prominence. Since the early 2000’s the Indian government has even been found invoking it to bolster its tourism industry.(2) With the Puja, every means necessary is used to break down the guest’s strangeness. The ritual does this by cleansing and elevating each of the five senses. Since the senses are our most primal and essential method of familiarizing ourselves with the world, what better way to break down strangeness than to elevate these instruments of connection.
Puja Offerings: Their Meaning & Sense Relationship
- Smell: Incense; used to purify the air of a space; honors the guest by removing any undesirable experiences
- Sight: Light; reveals the other, removing obscurity
- Hearing: Flowers; they have a lot of meaning in Indian culture, but here they can represent the true essence of something blossoming outward into the world; it honors the fundamentally good and generous nature of the guest and host.
- Taste: Fruit/sweets; wholeness and abundance.
- Touch: Fragrant paste and rice are placed on the skin; represents unity and non-difference.
I’ve found that a lot of India has moved away from these principles, but also that a lot of it remains very connected to them. For example, I work with Niven Patel, a Miami chef/restaurateur whose family is from the state of Gujarat. Gujarat culture is highly hospitality-driven and it may be no surprise that one of my favorite quotes about service is from Gandhi, one of Gujarat’s own: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Now, the kind of service Gandhi was dedicated to was certainly different than the kind intended for hospitality, but my work is based around showing how truly interrelated these different manifestations of service actually are. Both have the power to change the world through respect for one’s fellow man, hospitality just does so on a small everyday scale (and would be necessary even in the absence of political conflict or hardship).
It may also be no surprise that 50% of the motels in America are owned by Indian immigrants (that’s right…half of the entire country’s motels). And most of them are from Gujarat. Niven’s own parents are proud members of this affectionately-named “Patel Motel Cartel”.(3)
Indian hospitality is a great way to take a simple look at the ethical dilemmas of service.(4) There is a fable of a great ruler (…of some sort…it’s amazing how difficult it has been for me to locate the source of this tale).(5) He was one of those sagely benevolent varieties that are common characters of Indian history. He was so committed to hospitality that he would grant his guests whatever they asked. Once a guest even asked for a night with his wife – and I think the king obliged. Which raises the question of unconditional hospitality. Where is the line? And what are the lines in each situation? The guest did not need a night with his wife. He needed food, water, shelter, comfort, and good company. Asking for a night with his wife was exploitation of his host’s generosity. I’m sure the guest enjoyed himself, but did it ultimately serve anything more than his baser impulses? And also…was his wife cool with this? What does that say about how the king views her? How is he being of service to her when she is being rendered as nothing more than another object of indulgence for his guest?
Unconditional Hospitality: Where To Draw The Lines
So the question of “unconditional hospitality” is an interesting one. You don’t unconditionally fulfill every impulse you have. This could get you in serious trouble. You benefit from observing the origin of the impulse and where it is potentially leading you. So why would you enable the unconditional fulfillment of anyone else’s impulses? At least without inviting them to first examine these impulses.
Serving professionally involves a certain obligation to just give someone what they want over what they need. Restaurant service offers a pretty plain example of these dilemmas. Usually, a guest does not “need” dessert, they just want it and you are obligated to provide it…and, in fact, would the emotional harm of telling them they shouldn’t have it (especially if they were overweight) even be worth it? Someone with gout does not need kidney pie (in fact it would make his/her condition worse), but your role is to support their sensory interests, not their medical ones.
But there are lines, and observing them is sometimes difficult. An intoxicated guest doesn’t need another drink, and in this case you’re actually obliged to not provide it. But I can’t tell you how often bartenders dread having to cut off their consumption. A guest may really enjoy abusing a server in order to exhaust their deep sense of inner lack, and to what extent is the server no longer obligated to fulfill their role in satisfying that desire? When can they “It’s no longer my job to provide this former of pleasure for you – I don’t have to tolerate this”? An employer is also supposed to thwart any and all harassment of their employees by guests (especially sexually), but I can’t tell you how often they ignore their obligation to do so. No one likes depriving people of what they want. Some of these issues end up becoming discussions about labor law, but this article is meant to be about recognizing our obligation to do what is right over indulging what someone wants. And when saying “no” is not worth the potential fallout…and when it is.
There is an art to it. A maturity of perception is required. You need to observe the context of the situation and see what role you are being called to. When are battles worth fighting and when are people worth upsetting? These are challenging roads to navigate. It gets even more complicated when you bring in the factor of time. What will benefit them most now, in this moment vs. years into the future? And then there’s the question of the radiating effect to people all around that person. You can’t know or predict these things. All you can do is observe the moment and what it asks of you. Then act, observe the results, learn what you can, and move on. Doing this smoothly, without the unnecessary inner turmoil we experience when we want something to turn out a certain way, but does not, is a spiritual practice known as Karma Yoga (which is discussed more here and here).
This limberness is indispensable. Because in any given moment, your role could be re-drawn in an instant. For example, your gout-ridden guest could ask “is this good for gout?” in which you are now obliged to either find out or tell them “Hell, no!” if you already know how bad eating kidneys are for that illness.
Just know that whatever role you are called to play is not your identity. It does not confine you to a narrow way of being. It is just something you are offering to the other person. It is a fleeting condition of the moment. This can be taken even further: all those roles you play in your life (job, family, friend), do not define you. They simply provide an outlet for your uniqueness that is valuable to others. The roles you play are the acts of service you offer the world (and hopefully yourself too). But they are not the boundaries of who you are.
Check out this reflection from the Dalai Lama on cultivating inner-peace and kindness, qualities essential for compassionate service: The Dalai Lama’s Policy of Kindness
Cultivating The Self-Knowledge To Be A Smart, Discriminating Person of Service
So, to summarize, our ability to effectively determine when to act in service of what someone needs vs. what they want is all about how much we know ourselves, internally, and what is happening out there in the world, externally. It’s about paying attention to what the world requires of this “self” of ours. Daily meditation is vital for this. It helps us realize the limitlessness of who we are, beyond the roles we play. It doesn’t excuse us from our roles, but in fact, makes us better at identifying and playing them. It expands our idea of all the possible roles that can be played in our lives, gives us the confidence to play ones we never thought possible, and the creativity to develop new ones that serve yourself and others better. Meditation opens our ability to look at what is happening and say “what is demanded of me right now?” And to do this right we need to be both non-attached to a present role and ready to strap on a new one. Interesting that the Puja ceremony acknowledges the senses so primarily. One of the most central spiritual practices in India directly honors our ability to perceive and pay attention.
Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata are rich with Yogic spiritual lessons. One very prominent one is the importance of authenticity – not resisting the role that life is calling you to (the sages would call this “Dharma”). You will notice that characters are not necessarily rewarded by how “good” or “bad” they are, but by how truly they play their intended role (I know, you’re probably asking, “but ‘intended role’ according to whom?” You’re right, but that’s a whole other discussion.). The stories don’t prop up individual virtue but reveal a collective play of beings meant to teach one another about life. And the more unobstructed they are at doing this, the better.
The Mahabharata especially likes revealing the element of time in our actions. Its most central and infamous chapter, called the Bhagavad Gita, lays out the art of Karma Yoga. It reveals that we don’t know how the results of our actions are going to ripple through time. What seems “good” now may have dire consequences in the future – and vice versa. The fulcrum of the story centered on Krishna insisting that Arjuna go to war with his enemies rather than try and keep the peace. Compromise might have pleased Arjuna’s Yogic sensibilities in the most immediate sense, but the long-term consequences would be dire. The broader picture of civilization was at risk of being overcome by destructive forces that he was charged with stopping. He urgently had to play his role even though it was, in the moment, an ugly one.
This same negotiation is put before us with everyday situations. And it’s equally difficult to really know the right path with anything other than well-tended intuition. Using hard analysis, it’s probably easier to predict the cryptocurrency market than the ethical ramifications of making toast. All you can know is yourself and what aspect of it life is calling you to put out there. Using meditation to connect to our true, wise and knowing selves, the part of us not getting pulled around by the conflicting obligations of our lives, is one of the surest ways to ensure our actions continue to have a valuable role as time carries their consequences forward.
- It’s from the Taittiriya Upanishad.
- The Indian government seemed to really start using Atithi Devo Bhava during the launch of their “Incredible India” campaign in 2002. Then, their visitors-per-year were a little higher than Puerto Rico’s, despite being about 300 times the population. That number has grown six-fold for them, which is an enormous increase compared to the tourism growth of any other country. In an increasingly global culture that has been paying more and more attention to how they will be treated as visitors in other countries, how much did their touting of that ancient principle have to do with this?
- Referred to as such since it seems like almost everyone’s last name in Gujarat, related or not, is Patel. Interestingly, if you ask a Gujarati why they own a hotel, they’re less likely to tell you something like “hospitality runs through our veins” and more likely to offer something to the tune of “it’s a highly profitable business” or “it can be family run and occupied and easily passed to our kids”. This either suggests that what I’ve heard about them being some of the most prominent representatives of Indian hospitality is wrong or it’s so entrenched in their culture that it is something they just do naturally without having to even articulate a philosophy.
- But soon I will take some more challenging looks at the controversial service ethos of Afghanistan/Pakistan’s Pashtun people and the world’s Christians, past and present.
- Still, after days of scouring, I’ve come up with literally nothing. One thing I’d like to change about the world: more studies of hospitality….I just don’t have the bandwidth to go deeply into every single avenue of this vast subject. For now, check out King Ranti-Deva as the possible mystery suspect.
Stefan Ravalli’s education project Serve Conscious teaches the art of service as a means of self-cultivation, merging his background as a hospitality professional with his training in Yogic meditation, Cha Dao (The Zen “Way of Tea”), and other mindfulness practices. Find blogs, podcasts and more from Stefan at serveconscious.com