Showing up in service to others is an act of generosity. When we show up for others, we are not approaching people and situations wondering what we can GET from them, but what we can GIVE.
It’s the difference between moving through the world from your heart and moving through the world from your mind. There is a joy in it, partly because it feels good to help others, but also because most stressful thoughts start with the word “I.” When we focus on ourselves, we bring awareness to how we’re separate from those around us and then a feeling of disconnect begins to creep in. By being there for others, we automatically connect and give energy to that which we have in common.
I can practice this pretty easily when I’m teaching yoga, but feels like more of an effort for me to practice it off my mat. I am reminded when I see a friend offer to hold the door open for someone walking past whose hands are full and I think: why didn’t I see that and do that? Or with friends who are so good at asking questions, they rarely end up sharing when we catch up and later I think of myself as selfish. Or giving to strangers whether it’s money, food, or time and a listening ear – later I think, “What if I don’t have enough or what they need turns out to be more than I can handle? What if they’re lying and trying to use me?” It’s not that I never do those acts of service – it just doesn’t always come easily to me, or I can’t sustain that way of being without exhausting myself… or at least not all the time. So what’s the difference?
Most of the difference is in the noticing. When I am attuned to others and to what’s going on around me, it’s easy to care and to offer and to ask. When I am zoned out, disconnected from what’s happening around me, or rushing through, it just doesn’t occur to me.
The other difference is in feeling safe. If I look at when I am least likely to be helpful and most likely to be absorbed and not noticing others, it often when in public places (walking down the street) or when I’m somewhere where I don’t feel any sense of ownership. I focus on myself and tune out others as a way of setting boundaries in response to harassment or the general discomfort of not knowing how I want to respond to requests for money or other things I don’t feel comfortable giving…as a way of feeling in control. And so that’s really what keeps me from generosity and service: insecurity in my own boundaries and fear. Fear of the unfamiliar and fear that I don’t have enough to give, materially or emotionally.
And this is where it gets tricky – because boundaries ARE healthy and necessary and there ARE times when it IS inappropriate to give, or people who will take and take and drain you of everything you have.
So how do I start to practice more generosity through service in my life… healthily? Paradoxically, by taking better care of myself. I notice a difference in how engaged I am in conversations with friends when I’m tired and burnt out versus when I am excited to see them and can’t wait to hear more about their lives and give them the gift of attention and listening. There’s also a difference in how aware I am of ways I can be helpful depending on whether I’ve taken care of my own needs or not and thus feel supported and cared for. And taking care of myself in terms of time management means not rushing past opportunities to give and be generous. It also means practicing feeling ownership of myself regardless of where I am. And to do that, I need to trust myself. I need to trust that I will stop giving away power, that I am strong enough to handle the situation if any of my fears DO ever come to pass.
And finally, I need to stop judging myself for not being a saint and giving all the time, and I need to honor the times when I can’t find it in myself to give as sign posts that I have to take better care of myself and look a little more deeply at my fears and whether they’re protecting me or barricading me off.
Self-care, self-confidence, boundaries, and trust that I am taken care of – acts of generosity.