The Path of Committed Service
Lorraine Christensen – Canada
[The following article is based on a talk by Lorraine Christensen, given during the 2007 summer meeting of the Theosophical Society in America at Wheaton, Illinois.]
The ideal of a path of committed service derives from what Theosophy teaches about the spiritual path and the place of service on that path. That teaching is set forth clearly in three well-known Theosophical classics: At the Feet of the Master, Light on the Path, and The Voice of the Silence. Each of these books describes progressively the journey of the aspirant along the far-reaching spiritual path, offering guideposts along the way.
Each of those books talks about three key aspects of the topic: the path, commitment, and service. For a Theosophist these aspects are inseparable, as we cannot have any one of them without the other two. In the lives of each of us, all three are mixed in varying degrees. So let us explore each of these aspects and consider how they fit together.
Path. In the Theosophical tradition, "the path" implies a conscious journey, returning to our ultimate spiritual source. This journey contrasts with traveling through life like a leaf in the wind, pulled and charmed every which way by a variety of outside forces and impelled from within by often unruly and conflicting impulses, desires, and instincts. The path denotes not only a journey, but also a state of being. The Voice of the Silence says: "Thou canst not travel on the path before thou hast become that path itself."
What are some of the characteristics of this spiritual path? They include the following. The path implies active movement, as opposed to remaining static. The path is often rugged, so those who walk it need sometimes to take refuge and find shelter along the way. We do not travel alone on the path. We receive from, and extend to others, helping hands. The path has purpose, which gives meaning to our lives. The path is empowering, as one's confidence grows with each step forward. The path involves being in the divine flow, which we can experience profoundly as losing ourselves in the moving energy of something greater than ourselves.
The path of spiritual return has three basic stages: aspiration, probation, and discipleship. Each stage incorporates what comes before and builds on it.
At the first stage of aspiration, we become seekers and inquirers, as though seated at the feet of the master teacher. We are most eager to leave the hall of ignorance to enter the lighted way, or what HPB refers to as the "hall of probationary learning." At each stage, service plays a part. However, at the early stages of aspiration, the focus is more on seeking and finding answers rather than on seeking out ways to share what is learned in order to be of service.
Aspiration is an important part of the spiritual path. As the poet Robert Browning put it, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?" Once on the path of return, we are forever reaching or aspiring beyond our grasp and seeking answers to the unending mysteries of existence, as we find our way into greater light. Gradually, stabilization occurs and the aspirant finds a niche, a place to belong, perhaps by settling into a Theosophical lodge or study group. Then the stage of probation can begin.
Probation is a time of preparation, for getting one's life adjusted to the path. This part of the spiritual path can be turbulent, a time of testing, trials, and tension. Part of probationary life is about learning how to serve selflessly and purely and how to apply what has been acquired in the hall of learning. At the probationary stage, therefore, service becomes more dominant. In the very act of service, aspirants undergo further learning experiences, by applying what they know.
Gradually the third stage comes into play—that of discipleship. As service increases, so also does the capacity for discipleship. Regarding this stage, The Voice of the Silence has these words for the probationary pupil: "To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second." It is noteworthy that the "first step" involves service: "to live to benefit mankind." Service comes before perfecting our virtues. On the path, selfless service and discipleship go together. For everyone undergoing probationary training in the hall of learning, much dross has to be burned away so that service becomes increasingly selfless and pure in motive and the disciple is no longer under the sway of personal needs and selfish interests.
As the knowledge acquired is distilled into wisdom and as aspirants apply themselves as probationers through moral effort and the practice of the virtues, a threshold of purification and empowerment is reached. Then probationers enter a realm where they can serve fully and freely. This is when training in discipleship really starts as one begins to live the Bodhisattva way, by a life pledged to serve all beings ceaselessly.
Commitment. In spiritual terms, commitment means choice, a choice that is conscious, focused, and consecrated. Consecration implies a dedicated, sacred pledge. Choosing to enter the spiritual path means that a conscious decision has been made to dedicate oneself to the spiritual life, and it is at this point of decision that commitment becomes a reality.
What are some characteristics of commitment? Commitment is one-pointed: one endeavors to stay on course and be true, to be persistent and persevering, to stand unwaveringly at one's post through the highs and lows. Commitment may be conceptualized in the mind, but it is born in the heart. No amount of reasoning and intellectual understanding can activate commitment. It issues forth as a spontaneous outpouring of the heart.
When the heart has been touched, a kind of internal combustion has taken place. Signs of this combustion include finding a steadiness born of a core of understanding, the rock at the center of one's being; taking refuge in what one has cognized at the core of one's being; responding to what is held most dear in the depths of one's heart; losing oneself willingly in something greater than oneself; experiencing a zeal fuelled by a heart enflamed, which will carry one through periods of discouragement and inertia.
Commitment is an attitude, which HPB defined as "to live to benefit mankind." That attitude continually fuels commitment. The disciple who consciously commits himself to the spiritual life has pledged himself to what is called the Great Work, which is sacred labor in the shining fields of service. Commitment is liberating. It takes us out of ourselves. Working for that which is greater than ourselves is an excellent way to break free from the ups and downs of the ego-centric life.
Service. Service is the third aspect and is also liberating. That which has been gained through study, meditation, and self-improvement practices can remain imprisoned within ourselves, unless it is released through constructive channels by sharing with and helping others. Service springs from an enlightened mind that sees the need for it, and a compassionate heart that responds to the need. Service is a natural outpouring of a pure and loving heart. To serve effectively, one's heart must be in it. As there cannot be real discipleship without service, a true disciple is also a servant of humanity.
For a Theosophist, service is linked to brotherhood and to the oneness of all life: human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and elemental. Service extends to all kingdoms of nature. Service is fundamentally an attitude of unselfishness, a path of doing, of being there. It is not necessarily a specific task or occupation. Both the greatest and the smallest acts of kindness and unselfishness flow out of a loving heart.
Service is not always easy. In choosing the esoteric path of service, one takes the path of renunciation, called "the path of Woe" in The Voice of the Silence, which refers to the woe as a result of working for "those ignorant of the esoteric truths and wisdom." Service is also difficult because it goes against natural selfish tendencies. Service often requires great sacrifice of time, energy and resources—a putting out of oneself in conditions that can be disheartening and discouraging, where even the most selfless and sincere efforts may be undermined and discredited. Understandably, therefore, many aspirants give up along the way, at least temporarily.
During times of discouragement especially, one has to rely on the heart and on the pledge to serve. We have to ask ourselves, "What is the alternative to what we are doing? Is the alternative a higher and better way?" We need to consider that, if we choose a lesser way, we may live to regret it bitterly. At times of great discouragement, it is important to remember that we are not alone, that others are also striving to work for a better world, and that the blessings of the Great Ones remain with us. At such times of despondency it is helpful to recall the words of Mahatma KH in Mahatma Letter 59: ". . . at all events Try. Nothing was ever lost by trying. . . . But still—TRY."
Many aspirants—most in fact—steadily serve in unseen ways, unknown to others, and they are the ones who are holding up the world. Those who quietly serve, often in the background, seldom think of service as burdensome. Rather, it becomes for them as natural as breathing. True service is process-oriented, an ongoing rewarding experience, not goal-oriented. In fact, the idea of reward does not enter into the consciousness of a true server, who is already experiencing the rewards of deep joy and inner peace in the "doing" and the "being."
Ability to serve grows over time until a stage is reached when it becomes spontaneous. Eventually one's whole life automatically becomes one of total service, where every moment is dedicated to serving the Good, where everything is turned around to serve a higher purpose, and that includes all the lessons learned through trials and errors. Everything can consciously be transformed into fodder to serve the Good.
For a sincere Theosophist, the three aspects of the path, commitment, and service go together. They are inseparable, and we do well to consider them in that light, as did Annie Besant, founder of the Theosophical Order of Service, when she wrote in her book In the Outer Court: "When the soul has caught glimpses of its goal and of the more direct pathway that leads towards it, then it understands that the pathway must enter through a gate on which 'Service to Man' is shining in golden letters." No matter at what stage we find ourselves on the path, we can begin where we are—now—today—to renew our efforts to be true to the path we have chosen, to strengthen our commitment to that path, and to redouble our efforts to be of useful service as we tread the path.
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