Taking Refuge - Reflections on Service by SarahJoy Marsh
It wasn't until I lived in the woods tending tasks at Breitenbush Hot Springs retreat center that I heard of “karma yoga”—the yoga of service and action. I'd wake up at 5 am and head to the kitchen in the dark hours of morning. Through the quiet hum of the oven and the softly burning gas stove, I'd make my prayers with my hands: muffins, fruit trays, cinnamon rolls and oatmeal. I was so grateful to be there that every service was a privilege and a prayer.
The hard work strengthened my body and challenged me in a way that honed my dedication to whatever task was before me. Following 10 hours in the kitchen, I often found myself on the busiest of days heading out to help the cleaning crew with the cabins or to prepare the workshop spaces for the 'all camp turn over', where we would be saying farewell to some 150 guests at 3 pm, and hello to another 100 at 4 pm! Then, on my luckiest days, I’d go to the Sanctuary to teach yoga class at 4:30 pm. Finally, I luxuriated in a soak in the springs and a good night’s sleep before awakening to the quiet of morning, and the cycle began again.
After several years, some of the freshness of that perspective wore off. I might find myself grumbling when kitchen work would head into the 12th hour. I started to prefer a walk in the woods to connect with God rather than a stroll with the vacuum cleaner.
What is it that transforms a task from grateful service to mundane chore? From spiritual expansion to mental & physical contraction? I’ve grown tired of truisms that always equate service to spiritual pursuit. Sometimes they’re used to rationalize workaholism; other times to justify exploitation of self, or other.
Using the concept of karma yoga to rationalize an out of balance situation serves neither God, the practitioner nor those receiving the service. Phrases like "Who serves?" can take you to the open heart of service, it’s true, but I have at times used that phrase to repel my own gathering resentment about once again having told myself I’d be home at a reasonable hour, yet here I am, four hours later, just wrapping up for the day. Grrrrrrrr.
I once read something on a button that made me laugh out loud for days (the true sign of something funny that also strikes a deeper meaning within). "If what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, I must be Arnold Swarzenager by now!" To the overworking, perfectionist in me, this was the most hilarious thing I’d come across in a long while. And boy was I getting strong!
But what kind of strength? Resilience? or spiritual immunity? Patience? or spiritual numbness? True joy? or an adrenalin rush?
A year and a half ago I opened a yoga studio in Portland, and I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of service as spiritual practice. When asked, I reply enthusiastically, "Yes, I would do it all over again". I’ve endured many long days and work cycles, and my love for yoga and community still thrives. I’m learning to live with the vulnerability of being occasionally worn down by my love, like a new mother. I welcome the fatigue that tells me it was too much today. When I welcome it, I can reflect back and see where the old perfectionist was directing the show, and remember that simplicity is a much better guide along the path.
Ultimately when I welcome both the vulnerability and the fatigue, there is a great forgiveness for myself, for the situation, for the student who just had to have 15 minutes more of my time. In the light of that forgiveness, the spark of gratitude comes. But the gratitude now has a different feel to it. Where once it was gratitude to be in a certain place, or to have a certain opportunity, this gratitude is less attached to any particular theme. It is gratitude simply for being aware of the largess, the mystery, that cradles me when I am tired and sustains me when I run headlong into the sunset with my heart full of giving.
Sometimes, through the simple act of serving, even an act as simple as allowing someone into the flow of traffic, we are once again connected to that largess and released from our own small prison of My needs, and My desires and My agenda.
In the past month, the key for me has been remembering the privilege of my work. In this remembering, an expansion occurs in which I see that I too am worthy of the same service that flows out to others: kindness, refuge, rejuvenation and restfulness. Then the instrument of this loving is finely tuned for its tasks. And I allow myself to be like clay spinning on a potters wheel with the hands of God sculpting a fine chalice for the wine of service.
Sarahjoy Marsh is a founder of The Sanctuary, A Center for Yoga, Dharma and Healing Arts. She is dedicated to the heart’s awakening through yoga and meditation. She can be reached at 503-552-9642 (552-YOGA).