During the five weeks I spent volunteering in Athens in October and November last year, the question “What does it truly mean to serve?” was often at the forefront of my mind. In many ways it became something more akin to a koan–something I could commit to my store consciousness and allow to develop in its own time and way, slowly opening up new insights whenever I felt stuck.
I had arrived in Athens with a clear aspiration: to use my skills to support the refugee population to the best of my ability, whilst simultaneously co-creating a peaceful and nourishing Sangha home with friends, which would support us in the work we were undertaking. Having trained for some time in carpentry, I felt that supporting during the renovation of a community center would be the place I would be able to best offer my support. It was quite humbling when I saw how easily the ego had been guiding my intention and how strongly the element of pride was involved in my decision of where to work.
After two weeks, I noticed the excessive dust was beginning to cause health problems and took the decision to volunteer elsewhere. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
By just taking the chance to volunteer where there was a clear opportunity–sorting clothing donations in a local café, and preparing and serving food to the homeless–I could no longer hide behind my pride. I had no “special” skills that would make me stand out in any way. I could only offer myself and my love on the most simple and human of levels. These last two weeks, supporting the Sangha and the local community showed me another way–a more humble way–to offer my support. What can be more necessary, or more of service, than just offering support however and wherever it is needed?
On some level, it still feels like I could only make an insignificant contribution to a much larger problem, but in reality just being what I needed to be, rather than being how I wanted to be seen, really showed to me a different idea of service, where the ego is no longer in the driving seat. Perhaps this was all I could really offer.
Since leaving Athens, I have also felt how this koan has continued to affect my life. On a deeper level, it helped me to let go of many of the ideas and prejudices I had accumulated in my years of working on a golf course–a career I had chosen to turn my back on feeling that I could make a larger impact on our current world ecological crisis by doing something else, something more visible, maybe something that would satisfy my pride more. Suddenly I am presented with the vision that it is precisely by working on the golf course I am able to make some small contribution to a much larger cause. Perhaps, the place where I was is precisely the place that I now need to go. Only time will tell.
Looking back, I am left with the understanding that the place I am is the only place I can truly serve by being present to what there is in this moment. As Thay says, “The greatest gift you can offer to anyone is your True Presence.”
Barry Wright, Wondrous Lighting of the Heart, practices with the Wake Up Freiburg Sangha in Germany.