Serving from Spirit
By Robert C. Atchley, PhD

Editor's note: Robert C. Atchley is a distinguished professor of gerontology emeritus at Miami University, OH, where he also served as the director of the Scripps Gerontology Center. Atchley was previously a professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, CO, and is the author of Social Forces and Aging and of Continuity and Adaptation in Aging: Creating Positive Experiences, both published by Johns Hopkins.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 5 of the author's recently published book, Spirituality and Aging, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Among elders, service is very often a spiritual experience. For many, service is a source of much joy and satisfaction. Uplifting is a word often used to describe experiences of service. Much of this service happens in the context of friendship and family networks, but elders are also mainstays of service in many community organizations.

The serving-from-spirit concept is based on the idea that effective service in the community is rooted in two things: 1) a cultivated connection with the experiential spirituality that lies within each human being, and 2) knowledge and skills needed to be effective in whatever arena of service one chooses. Serving from spirit is a stance from which to be of service and a model of how one can grow spiritually and at the same time become more effective in service to the community.

In their book How Can I Help? authors Ram Dass and Paul Gorman assert that service stems from the human impulse to care. We can see this especially clearly in how communities respond to disasters such as floods or tornados. At such times, the impulse to care for one another is overwhelming. The impulse to care is a noble inclination, but it tells us little about how to care or what will be effective. Service over the long run requires that we build on the impulse to care.

The serving-from-spirit model begins with the goal of being spiritually grounded while serving. As people grow spiritually, they develop levels of consciousness and awareness that alert them to the obstacles thrown in their paths by self-centeredness. Ego-based service is first and foremost about the ego’s needs. A reflective process of examining personal motives for serving can help identify ego-based motives. Enlightened service rises above the ego to more clearly see what is needed. To move toward enlightened service requires skill in remaining spiritually centered while doing the work of service.

Many well-intentioned people find their service less satisfying than they would like because they do not have essential information about the structure and operation of the field in which they wish to serve. Most areas of service have their own unique concepts and language about what they do and how they do it. “Paying your dues” involves getting the experience needed to ensure being sufficiently informed to serve effectively. This does not mean passively accepting other people’s definitions of what is good, true, or beautiful; it means making sure to understand the situation before weighing in with suggestions for change.

A person who is accomplished at serving from spirit is able to stay spiritually centered amid the ups and downs of working in an organizational environment, often in situations involving people who are in desperate need. Those serving from spirit are also very knowledgeable about how to work within the organizational context and/or with the types of people who are to be served.

Listening to One’s Entire Being

People find their way to spiritual paths and to community service in a large variety of ways. The mind, the ego, the heart, the body, and the soul can each lead us. But if people are only listening to one part of being, then they are not taking advantage of all their resources for being clear about what they are doing, or thinking about doing. Listening to one’s entire being involves cultivating sensitivity to each dimension of being. This possibility is greatly enhanced by contemplative practice—meditation, rumination, and inner stillness and quietude. In this sense, contemplative practice is an important companion on both the inner spiritual journey and the outer journey of service. Contemplative practice can put people in touch with higher levels of consciousness, from which it is possible to see clearly the workings of mind and ego, the shape of true compassion, actions that would truly be of service, and a pace that is healthy for the mind and body of the server.

Mindfulness and Transcendence

 

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Order your copy of

Aging and Spirituality

A spiritual life, one focused on personal growth and deep human experience, is a major focus and motivator for people over the age of 40. Yet there is a marked lack of rigorous academic study of spirituality's importance in the lives of aging people. Noted gerontologist Robert C. Atchley remedies this problem by developing complex concepts and language about spirituality.

Spirituality and Aging incorporates material from two decades of interviews, observations, study, and reflection to illustrate ways of thinking about and discussing spirituality—what it is, why it is important, and how it influences the experience of aging. This book provides a nuanced view of spirituality and the richness it brings to the lives of older people.

Separating spirituality from religion—something few books on this topic do—Spirituality and Aging offers a plan for incorporating spirituality into gerontological scholarship, research, education, and practice.
 

Published by
Johns Hopkins University Press

Mindfulness and transcendence are important qualities to bring to the spiritual journey and to bring to service. Mindfulness is being right here, right now. It is an intense awareness of the present moment. With mindfulness people are able to see more clearly what is before them. They are more likely to see what will actually be helpful in serving another human being or serving an organization. In this framework, it is not so much a matter of doing for others as “I” would like to be done for, but doing for others as they would like. It is a matter of doing service that is not self-centered.

To employ mindful service, we also need a vantage point that transcends our ordinary consciousness of self. Ordinary consciousness is ego-centered. We are the main character in the drama. But as soon as we begin to witness our ordinary self, we have transcended that self and can see it more clearly than we possibly could from the middle of our ego-agendas of desire or fear. To the witness, we are only one of the characters in the drama and not necessarily the most important one at a given moment. When we look into the eyes of another person and realize that we are looking at another being just like us, we can experience a unity level of consciousness. Witness and unity consciousness are both transcendent levels of awareness that make it more possible to grow spiritually and to serve effectively.

Becoming Wisdom and Compassion in Action

Being wise and having compassion are not all or nothing. They are qualities that exist in degrees. They are not something we have, they are capacities we can develop. They are qualities that we might be able to bring into being in a given situation. If we have cultivated wisdom and compassion, then we have a greater capacity to manifest those qualities, but this happens in the present moment. Whether we can manifest wisdom and compassion depends on how centered we can remain. When we are in a situation of service, we are usually called to be wise and to be compassionate. How well we can do this depends a great deal on how long we have been practicing wisdom and compassion. In practice, a circle of sages is always more effective than a single sage precisely because even sages cannot be all things to all people.

Often we think of service as something that involves volunteering or working within an organizational context. However, service is really an intention that we can take with us into a wide variety of situations we find ourselves in. What would happen if we went joyfully about our daily lives seeing every person as someone we could potentially serve, in however small a way? What would happen if we took every opportunity to tend our planet and our environment? Many times these are not big programs or long-term tasks but instead are things we can do moment, by moment, by moment. It only takes a few minutes to deeply listen to someone who needs a receptive ear; it only takes a few seconds to pick up a piece of trash. The feeling of service is something that happens in the present moment, whether we are doing it in an organizational context or purely on our own.
 

On Prayer by Czeslaw Milosz
(Trans. by C. Milosz and Robert Hass)

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say “we”; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
 

 
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