I used to spend a good deal of my free time working in meal centers when I was growing up in Colorado Springs. I remember feeling apprehensive about the experience the first time I went to volunteer—maybe I was even dreading it. But to my surprise, I came away with a smile on my face. Just like everyone said, the process was rewarding. I couldn’t wait to go back, and I got into the habit of volunteering there for a few years. I made friends. I felt fulfilled by the work. It was a token I could pull out as needed to remind myself that I was a good person. Really, it was so rewarding.
With my move to Canada for university, I lost track of volunteerism. I’ve been meaning to find a place to donate my time for the past seven years, and while I often had reminders written in my day planner to find a crisis center or community kitchen that needed an extra set of hands, I never quite got around to doing it. So naturally, when I was presented with the opportunity to complete a Seva Project that would impact my community, I felt drawn to volunteer at the Fort Collins Rescue Mission. I signed up for two shifts online and anticipated the day I would finally break back into such a rewarding space, with such good, rewarding work.
And then we read the Sutras.
Suddenly I was faced with five hours of volunteer work, the wisdom of the Sutras, and the recognition that dharma is not about rewards. To walk away from the service feeling rewarded seemed anathema to everything I had been learning at HYS. I wasn’t sure how to approach the work. How could I avoid leaving my shift with the insidious self-satisfaction of I have done good?
My first task was to wash and chop celery. A lot of celery.
I set to work: quietly, methodically, meditatively. And of course, in this frame of mind, the answer to my anxiety about how to work, how to feel about my service, came easily.
I didn’t think about the work as “work.” I stopped framing it in my mind as “volunteering,” and I stopped thinking of myself as the “server”—the wealthy but righteous, compassionate savior—and the patrons as disadvantaged—the pitiful, tragic invalids in need of saving. (It hurts to admit that I thought this way even subconsciously about my volunteerism years ago, but I did.) I simply let things be as they were. I focused on the celery.
I thought about the vegetable’s nutritional value. I celebrated quietly that it was local, organic, and later felt gratitude for the fact that it became part of a fresh salad that could provide wholesome sustenance. I washed it with care, spending much longer with it than I normally would; but I wanted it to be right. I wanted it to be clean. I cared for the food like it was my own, and I put prayer and intention into each bundle. I focused on infusing the food with positive energy, and that effort alone caused me to stop thinking about the work as service, or as rewarding, or as “the right thing to do,” or as anything at all except washing celery.
I expected my Seva reflection to be about the heartbreaking interaction I had with a disabled veteran, or a hungry child; someone I helped who came to me and said thank you and held my hands and looked into my eyes. None of that happened. I kept to myself the whole day, behind the scenes. No one thanked me for their food. I wasn’t the catalyst for positive change in the life of a drug addict or a battered woman. I was no hero. I just washed celery.