The Spiritual Heart of Service

Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.1

   The call to service arouses conflicted feelings: Helping others may feel like being good on command, showing you are a good person because service is what good people do. This idea of service mixed with moral injunctions is learned by the child in the family setting: Do good and you will be rewarded; do bad and you will be punished.

   These childhood beliefs persist and suggest an omnipresent parent who is watching, keeping score. Most of us do not admit to such notions, but I have found that almost everyone, including myself, has a background fantasy of some celestial entity that is watching, keeping track of what we do, keeping accounts for a final settling‑up after we die.

   The idea of service seen in that context can easily result in a sense of obligation and nagging guilt; it can lead to resentment of the burden and resistance to action. For those who do act on the basis of reward and punishment  — no matter how hidden the fantasy may be  — there is the danger of self-inflation and self-righteousness on the one hand, disappointment and "burnout" on the other.

   Perhaps most important of all, such expectations and reactions interfere with effective action and render service useless for deepening our perception.

   Service is a way of knowing, a way of making deeper contact with the interconnectedness of reality we call "spiritual." Knowing this interconnectedness is the heart of service, a heart that is easily obscured and hindered by moral preaching, religious mythology, and everyday assumptions about the motivations and possibilities of human beings.

   To grasp more clearly what I mean by the spiritual heart of service, it will help if I say something about two basic modes of consciousness: instrumental and receptive.


   Most of our lives are spent with a form of consciousness that enables us to act on the environment so that we will survive as biological organisms. This form or mode of consciousness develops to obtain food and defend against attack. In order to do so successfully, we need to learn to deal with the world in its object aspects, evoking a specific type of consciousness I call the instrumental mode.

   In the instrumental mode we automatically perceive boundaries, discriminate between ourselves and others, and are wedded to linear rime. Above all, we perceive the self as an object, separate, competing with others, dependent on others. That self  — the survival self  — is the one with which we are most familiar. It is the organization of all the psychological structures that employ instrumental consciousness for its own benefit. This is the self that is busy acquiring, defending, controlling. All these functions are necessary, but they have their price: They set the agenda for the form of consciousness with which we experience the world and limit the information open to us.

   Instrumental consciousness is the mode of consciousness we employ when driving a car in heavy traffic, or planning a business strategy, or maneuvering strategically at a social event. Useful and necessary as this mode may be, when it dominates our lives it creates problems. It underlies the exploitation of others and it supports violence and war, all of which depend on separateness, on disconnection. Disregard for the natural environment is another consequence. Furthermore, because it forms a barrier to experiencing the connectedness of reality, instrumental dominance leads to meaninglessness, the "mid-life crisis," alienation, fear of aging and death.

   The instrumental mode can raise the Big Questions  — "Who am I? What am I? Why am I?"  — but it cannot hear the answers. A different mode of consciousness is needed, one responsive to reality in its connected aspects.


   This is the mode whose function is to receive the environment. Suppose you've driven your car to the airport, flown to another city, and checked in to your hotel. You want to relax, to unwind, to be comforted. So, you fill the bathtub with steaming hot water, ease your body into it, and relax your muscles . . . Ahhhhh! How good that feels! Chances are you were able to shift out of the instrumental mode and into the receptive, that mode whose function is to receive the environment. In that mode, awareness of separateness diminishes; there is a sense of merging with the heat, the water, the surrounding environment. Boundaries relax, past and future drop away; the sensual takes over from verbs meanings and formal proper ties. Thinking fragments slows down, and blurs, and the object self subsides. As boundaries diminish, the sense of self becomes less distinct and less contained. "Now" and "merging" are the dominant aspect of receptive experience.

   I had a vivid demonstration of receptive consciousness while attending a sever day Zen retreat. Part of the day was spent chanting. W held up stiff white sheets of paper covered with Japanese words printed starkly black. As the retreat progresses the words seemed to became more intense, more vivid About the fourth day, I began to think that the letter didn't need me to be there, the chanting would continue and the words would go on marching across the page I themselves. The thought grew that the world did not need me to be here. In an internal dialogue I urged myself "Go on, disappear! Let yourself vanish from the world! Go! Jump!" And at one point I dumped," whatever that meant.

   At that precise instant, the room and the others sitting there suddenly changed, becoming transfigure archetypal. Each student was a Buddha, awesome. A bell was rung, and the sound rolled toward me like shimmer silver. I don't know how long the state lasted; I returned my usual consciousness as we walked from the meditation hall. But afterwards, I tried to understand what had happened, why my state changed so dramatically when myself "vanished" I now believe it was because the unusually profound deactivation of the survival self permitted a deeper experience of reality in its holistic aspects.       


     The survival self of instrumental consciousness has distinct characteristics related to that mode. The emphasis is on boundaries, differences, form, and distinctions. Consequently, the self is experienced as a discrete object, more isolated than not. And we suffer the consequences.

   The critical dynamic that determines the form of survival consciousness is intention. The intention to act on the environment necessarily features control and mobilizes the instrumental mode. In contrast, to take in the environment, to be nourished, requires allowing and a kind of merging‑the receptive mode. Just as the instrumental mode is associated with the understanding of objects, separation and borders, the receptive gains access to knowledge of a different sort.

   In order to appreciate this, try an experiment. (A human partner is best, but a flower or a tree will do.) Look into your partner’s face with the specific intent of making a model of it, a sculpture. Analyze the planes of the head, the spacing of the eyes, the balance of the shapes. Spend a few moments doing that. Then shift your intention to one of receiving. Relax your gaze; allow the experience of your partner’s face to be whatever it may be. Stay open and receptive to what comes to you.

   Most people notice a distinct difference in their perception of the other when they shift their intention in this manner. The analytic, instrumental experience is easier to describe. It lends itself to measurement, comparisons, analysis. The receptive experience is more difficult to talk about. Receptive perception evokes words like “mysterious,” “deeper,” “richer,” “soul.” Each mode reveals different aspects of your partner’s reality.

   Now try the same experiment again, this time focusing on your sense of self, rather than on the "other." First look at your partner (or flower or tree) while maintaining a strong sense of your ordinary self. Then allow that sense of self to diminish, subside, and disappear. Notice the change in your experience of your partner. Again, I think you will find that as the sense of self diminishes and drops out, the experience becomes deeper, richer  — your partner acquires the dimension of presence.


   The spiritual path is often described as learning to "forget the self." To perceive connectedness it is necessary for the survival self to become the servant, not the master. That is what "forget the self' means. The survival self is still needed to function in the world, but it must not dominate consciousness if a different experience of reality is to be made possible. There is no cheating on this one. Sitting cross‑legged, inhaling incense, wearing a saffron robe, and going vegetarian won't necessarily change the guiding intention.

   So what can be done to find freedom from self-centered motivations? How does the spiritual teacher help the student to "forget the self? If we turn to the mystical literature we find that most traditions emphasize service, not just meditation or renunciation.

   Service is vital in providing access to the spiritual. You have undoubtedly heard the cynical argument that everything we do is selfish because even doing a good deed gives us pleasure. There is some truth in that. Perhaps that is why the Sufi saint Rabia prayed:

      Oh Lord:
      If I worship you from fear of Hell
      cast me into Hell
      If I worship you from desire for Paradise,
      deny me Paradise.
      - (I. Shah, The Way of the Sufi, 1968)

   What she is countering in dramatic fashion is spiritual activity for gain, or from fear. Prayer, helping others, following a discipline, may all be performed on the basis of hidden vanity, greed, and fear, with the result that the survival self is enhanced, not diminished. Despite this pervasive and persistent problem, it turns out there is a way of acting that allows us to "forget the self: serving the task.

   This is an activity the cynics seem to miss. It is a type of service not done for any personal gain, but to satisfy the needs of the task  — to do what is called for. A carpenter may finish the underside of a chair because it feels right, is called for, even though the selling price will remain the same and the customer may not notice or care. I am aware that in writing this article, I have a mixture of personal motivations, concerns and hopes, but I can also feel a sense of what is needed to accomplish the task.

   That guiding sense of what is needed is impersonal and may be resisted by my survival self, but it is there. It is not a compulsion but a recognition that tugs at me. Self-interest and self-concern subside and disappear as what-is-called-for takes over. When I surrender to it I get in touch with another dimension that is hard to describe and elusive to the grasp. This place, where I meet the task and merge with it, feels more important, more meaningful than personal desires.

   People who are truly serving the task experience some­ thing they cannot name, something that can answer the Big Questions. They do not ask, "What is the meaning of life?" because the question no longer arises. The answer is implicit in the experience of connection which service makes possible, the experience of a self enlarged by connection and freed from its object goals. This "enlightenment" is not a guru's gift; it arises as a consequence of the forgetting of the self that service makes possible. That is why it is said that if a person is ready for enlightenment it cannot be withheld; if they are not, it cannot be given.

   You may wonder if an evil task can be served knowingly  — such as following the orders of an Adolph Hitler  — and still contribute to spiritual development. The answer is no. Not only do motives of hatred and fear reinforce identity with the survival self, the task of harming another human being cannot be done in a state of psychological connection. Barriers must be raised, the Other must be established as different from oneself, inferior, bad  — connection must be abolished.

   Service must necessarily be generous, beneficial in intent, in order to open the gates of perception. The more the survival self can subside, can cease to dominate consciousness, the wider the gates can open. This model featuring intention and self offers a means of evaluating spiritual groups and their leaders. Whether or not the teacher actually is fostering spiritual development can be assessed by listening carefully to what he or she says, noting whether or not the survival self is being stimulated or being subdued

   If the teacher emphasizes the promise of bliss, power, or invulnerability (often labeled "enlightenment"), greed is being stimulated. If the seeker is defined as being special, vanity is encouraged; an emphasis on the harm seekers will suffer if they leave the group stimulates fear. Greed, vanity, and fear reinforce the operations of the survival self, and the teacher who employs them is impeding‑not helping spiritual development.


   Imagine that our awareness is a pond connected by a narrow outlet to the ocean. At the mouth of the outlet there is a standing wave‑the survival self‑that blocks the ocean currents from entering the pond. As the survival self subsides, more and more of the ocean currents can gain access to the pond which then begins to resonate with the ocean. The pond then "knows" the ocean by resonating with it, in part becoming it.

   Probably it is this experience that underlies the statements of mystics such as Hallaj, who declared, "I am God" and was executed for blasphemy. He did not mean, "I, Hallaj, am the object God of your imagination," but "I am at one with the Reality that transcends understanding." The perception of the ocean's currents may lead to the experience of serving the Truth or "serving the Will of God," a phrase often misused by those still serving the survival self.

   Service is a way of knowing our connection  — at deeper and deeper levels‑with a reality much larger than that accessible by the survival self. The experience of the ocean's currents provides a sense of purpose and a guide to action that can use the survival self to fulfill a larger task. This alignment with the currents is referred to by mystics as "choiceless  choice." In this way, we best can balance the instrumental and receptive modes so as to preserve connection and yet be effective in the world.

   The knowing that takes place is not easily communicated. You may be acquainted with someone who is very active helping others. If you praise such people for what they are contributing they will likely reply, "I've received more than I've given." If you ask what it is they have received, they have difficulty saying. What they are experiencing is a kind of knowledge different from that to which they ordinarily have access. Rather than it being something they perceive, like the images in a movie, or concepts, as in a book, it is knowledge by being that which is known. Through service they are able to connect with the larger field and, to varying degrees, become it.

   There is nothing exotic here, nothing hidden, nothing arcane. But the knowledge does have its own requirements. It is as if you came to a stream and wanted to drink. If you persisted in trying to grab the water  — your usual approach  — you would obtain nothing. If you want to drink you would have to cup your hands. It has nothing to do with piety; it has everything to do with the nature of water.

   Serving the task can be our motivational guide so that we can spot the emergence of hidden self‑interest and reestablish the task-oriented attitude that we need. This monitoring protects us from the distorted perspective introduced by self‑centered consciousness, enabling our service to be more creative and effective and expanding our view of the world and of ourselves. 

[Home] [Consciousness] [Cult Psychology] [Spiritual/Mysticism] [Service] [Psychotherapy]