As we celebrate Black History Month in the U.S., and reflect on the actual meaning of Valentine’s Day, let us be inspired to answer the call to serve those in need. Saint Valentine’s life is just one enduring example of selfless service. Roses and chocolates aside, St. Valentine was one of many saints and sages whose life exemplified a natural impulse to love and serve humanity.
He and many of these great beings were so moved by a profound experience of interconnection with all of life, that they devoted their lives to relieving the suffering of others. While they came from diverse faith traditions, they recognized the importance of serving as one of the primary means by which one grows on the spiritual path – aligning one’s self-centered will with the Divine Will.
During this month, let us also be keenly mindful of the service of many great African Americans who selflessly dedicated their lives to awaken us to the light of truth that we are all loved, interconnected and equal in the eyes of God. Where would we be today without Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ruby Bridges and countless others who helped shape our nation through their lives, writings, leadership and sacrifices?
As we witness so many crises and so much injustice in our world today, how are we called to serve? How can each of us look beyond our own comfort-zone to allow the light of love to shine through our hearts?
The teachings of Yoga offer us a path—Karma Yoga—a practice of service in which selfless actions are performed with a focused mind, a caring heart, and without concern for self-serving gain. This intention can be incorporated into literally anything we do and as it deepens, we become less dependent on the outcome of our efforts and experience a new-found freedom from tension and expectations.
An equally powerful approach to service is through the practice of Bhakti Yoga — service as an offering to God. We may not easily recognize the Divine in each other, but some symbol, saint, or even a glorious sunset can inspire us to feel a very real spiritual presence behind the workings of the universe. Meditating, chanting mantras, and/or praying for guidance can attune us to this presence as a source of wisdom and strength much greater than our own.
When we strive to see ourselves as instruments of this Divine Will—the hands of God at work in the world—we access and allow ourselves to be guided by a concern for the well-being of everyone. We more easily let go of our personal desires, without force or denial, and find fulfillment in serving a higher purpose.
The intention to dedicate ourselves to a higher purpose inevitably leads us to serving our families, neighbors, and communities. As Mother Teresa beautifully experienced and taught, we serve God by serving the Divinity in each other, in all of nature. Serving this way is a practice, and if we practice seeing and serving God in all, we gradually erase the imaginary boundaries we have come to believe in.
We have countless opportunities to practice service in everyday life, whether we are mentoring someone, listening to a friend, checking out at the grocery store, or actively fighting for social justice. Clearly, the best motivation for serving others comes from experiencing the feeling of compassion flowing through our hearts and the natural sense of joy that arises from giving freely. Ultimately, we are all learning, one act of kindness at a time, that pursuing our spiritual growth also means nurturing the impulse to selflessly love and serve as instruments of the Divine Will.
About the Author:
Swami Ramananda is the president of the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco and a greatly respected master teacher in the Integral Yoga tradition, who has been practicing Yoga for more than 35 years. He offers practical methods for integrating the timeless teachings and practices of Yoga into daily life. He leads beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level Yoga Teacher Training programs in San Francisco and a variety of programs in many locations in the United States, Europe, and South America. Swami Ramananda trains Yoga teachers to carry Yoga into corporate, hospital, and medical settings and has taught mind/body wellness programs in many places. He is a founding board member of the Yoga Alliance, a national registry that supports and promotes Yoga teachers as professionals.