The Path of Service

In his book, Return to the Sacred, Jonathan Ellerby writes of twelve paths that have been time-tested as ways to become closer to the Divine.  This month, March, our group, Approaching the Sacred, will focus on the eighth of his list: “the path of service.”

Though we often think of the word service as something unenjoyable and potentially energy draining, the path of service is not one in which you lose energy.  As Ellerby states, “The miracle of love and service is that it’s like a lit candle.  It can light the flame of other candles.  The flame burns without going out or being diminished, no matter how many new candles it lights.  This is the path of service” (159).

Following the path of service does not mean that you have to commit to volunteering at the soup kitchen or the like for the month, rather it is an awareness of and a commitment to the ways you are serving the health and healing of the whole in all that you do in life.  In order to be successful, your path needs to be highly personal. The parameters are similar to those you might follow when committing to an exercise program: if you do not enjoy and find fulfillment in the activity, you will not be able to continue for any length of time.  Similarly, a new “diet” plan has the same restrictions, if you are not enjoying the preparation and consumption of the food you eat, you will not stick with the path for long.  If it feels limiting, you will likely rebel in short order. In the path of service, keep these tenets in mind: you must choose to serve in a way that enriches and fulfills you, or you will not be able to sustain the path.

In another aspect, the path of service can be thought of as a fine-tuning of sorts, and perhaps an attitude change.  Rather than focusing on all the things you may be lacking, think instead of the phrase (as Wayne Dyer frequently expresses), “How can I serve?”  Rather than focusing on the ways you have been shortchanged or the ways in which a situation seems unfair to you, think to yourself, “how can I serve so that this situation will reach a more harmonious space?” It is imperative to realize that you are a powerful being, someone who can and will change the surrounding world. Thinking of yourself as a victim will undermine any potential you have for succeeding at the path of service.

Additionally, the specific path is not at issue here, rather, it’s the commitment to any path in which you selflessly help life in some way.  As Ellerby says, “There’s no limit to the myriad situations and causes that require support…the key is to give yourself freely, without any self-serving intentions…The path of service simply asks that you make your service an intentional and regular commitment” (160). To commit to the path of service is to commit to changing your attitude and way of being. Rather than finding ways that other people – or life itself – have been unfair, you find ways in which you can help those around you – and help the surrounding living system reach its natural state of harmony. In doing so, you will inevitably help yourself.

Diane Dreher, for example, in her book The Tao of Inner Peace, quotes an apt line from the Lao Tzu: “Harmony with nature means oneness with the Tao” (Tao 16, Dreher 260).   She cites the example of a rancher from Oregon who followed his heart to find his own unique path of service:

To support the local wildlife population, Oregon rancher Dayton Hyde returned one-fourth of his land to marshes.  Today, the native birds, fish, and small mammals are flourishing.  His land is home to rabbits, a herd of deer, even coyotes.  The Tao teaches that whenever we give, we receive in return.  In Hyde’s case, the additional water produced twice as much grass for his cattle, and troublesome grasshoppers were virtually eliminated by the teeming bird population.  But the greatest joy of all, he says, is to share in the beauty of the natural life around him.  He has started a national movement, “Operation Stronghold,” to help set up similar wildlife refuges around the country. (260)

In his generosity, and his shift to harmony with the Tao rather than our more typical fight against the current, Hyde reaped personal benefits while he aided the world around him.  

Any habitat you create adds to the whole.
Because it was something that he found joy implementing, it is a change and a path of service that he should be able to continue over the course of time (even expanding nationally, as Dreher notes) — and it seems that his outlook or life attitude has become one of strength and capability, not self-pity or victimization.

In Ellerby’s schema, the path of service is the second of the “heart-centered paths” (the first being the path of devotion).  Committing to this path helps you live in a more heart-centered way: refusing to rationalize and find ways to blame others, you follow your heart, doing what you know, instinctively, will do the most good for the whole. The heart bypasses the ego’s requirements for selfishness and pride – directing you immediately to that which needs doing – and that which you are able to do. It requires courage, for, as Ellerby notes, frequently the path of service puts you in a situation in which you are outside of your comfort zone, outside of your rational understanding of the way the world works, and it teaches you to “live from the heart.”   “So how do we feed and nourish our spirit, and the spirit of others?” asks Anne Lamott. “First find a path,” she says, “and a little light to see by. Then push up your sleeves and start helping…You do what you can, what good people have always done: you bring thirsty people water, you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog” (308). The path of service teaches you to be present, and, in being present, you learn that while you cannot have all the answers, you can always show up.

One of Woody Allen’s most famous quotations is: “80% of success is showing up.” Instincts guide you to show up, courage propels you there, but little do we realize, in the showing up, we are learning about ourselves. Are we repulsed by the grime on the homeless woman to whom we give some food? Are we irritated by the pollution as we join in a local river clean-up, trying to blame other people, forgetting that we, too, are a part of this human machine? Are we moved to tears by the child who has a terminal illness, upset at our inability to fix it, upset at what seems unfair in this mysterious life? The only solution is to show up, again and again, no matter how hard it is, no matter how hopeless it seems. As Ellerby says, “if we look at what we resist when we serve, in time it will set us free” (161). The freedom is becoming closer to wholeness. Becoming closer to wholeness is becoming closer to All That Is. Becoming closer to All That Is, some would say, is the path to Enlightenment.
Regardless, just show up! Life will follow.


Dreher, Diane. The Tao of Inner Peace. NY: HarperCollins, 1990.
Ellerby, Jonathan. Return to the Sacred. CA: Hay House, 2009.
Lamott, Anne. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. NY: Riverhead Books, 2005.

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