The call went out: sevadars were needed at a satsang site, located on 55 acres of wooded forest. Those who could use chainsaws were being asked to clear some fallen trees, to cut large piles of brush into manageable sizes, and to remove a lot of dead wood. The skilled application of chainsaws and muscle would allow greater access to land and parking lots.
But before the sevadars and their chainsaws were sent out into the forest, there were important preparations. First, there was a brief satsang, reminding us of the higher purpose behind all of our activity in the world. Then came the required half an hour of safety training. Chainsaws are inherently very dangerous power tools. One slip, one moment of careless inattention, could result in serious injury. But the basic principles of safety were meant to cover all seva: anytime, any place, any task. And these practical rules have as their foundation the conviction that it matters where we put our time and attention. If we do our work wisely we will be safer, and the people around us will be safer. And the ultimate purpose of seva, to grow in humility and love, will be realized.
We begin by taking into account the environment, the potential hazards and the people around us. In the forests in this area, certain precautions are essential. Poison ivy grows abundantly. If anyone comes into contact inadvertently with its leaves, stems or roots, there are specific ways to wash their hands and clothes that will help them avoid the painful rash. Likewise, there are ticks in the woods where deer are roaming. Lyme disease can be carried by these insects. Precautions include covering all skin with gloves and long sleeves, wearing light-coloured clothes, and pulling socks up over the legs of long trousers.
The sevadars who give these safety directions sometimes hear from the volunteers, “Grace will protect me – I don’t need to take all these precautions;” or “If I get injured or sick from this seva, I will clear twice as much karma.” But the Master says that such attitudes are misguided. He says that not using safety practices is foolish, much like standing in front of an oncoming truck and proclaiming that you are relying on grace to keep from getting run over.
Some of the safety directions are chainsaw-specific: always wear goggles and protective headphones or earplugs to protect your hearing from the loud motors. Wear thick gloves to protect your hands from sharp thorns on the brush. Be careful where you walk because the ground underneath the fallen leaves is uneven, and you don’t want to fall over rocks or fallen branches. Other safety directions are for every physical activity: lift objects correctly in order to protect your back by using the strong muscles of your legs. Don’t twist your back when you are carrying heavy things. The sevadars who offer us these safety lessons keep emphasizing, “Don’t overlook the small things that can harm you and others.” They are clear that prevention is a much smarter strategy than trying to treat an injury or cure a disease. Spotting a potential hazard helps us avoid future problems.
The wisest thing we are told is, “If you can’t do it, ask for help.” We human beings have our pride, our illusions of independence, and our delusions that we are self-sufficient. But when we are given the privilege of doing some seva, we are also given the blessing of the strengths and talents of others. No one does seva alone. We do seva together. At the heart of seva we are doing this service for our Master and remembering his presence. It is a wonderful spiritual training to learn to ask for help from our brothers and sisters. It prepares us for meditation.
Maharaj Charan Singh tells us that asking for help is at the heart of meditation.
Meditation is nothing but seeking his forgiveness … we are asking the Father to forgive us.… By meditation we are begging at his door for admission. We are asking just to become one with the Father. We are begging for forgiveness, to forgive what stands between us and the Father.… We should ask him to give us that heart which is full of gratitude for what he has given us.
Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III
In meditation, we are asking that the Lord remove that which separates us from him. We are asking for help because we cannot clear our own heavy load of karma.
There are challenges to face when doing seva. Looking at many acres of untouched forest, one gets the impression that there is an infinite amount of dead wood that needs to be cleared. This seva could go on forever, no matter how many chainsaws are buzzing away at the fallen trees. And yet how wonderful it is to be given the privilege to begin. When we are asked to do any kind of seva, we have been given work we can do and a way to be useful. Moreover, we are not doing it alone; help is there.
Whether our seva is with heavy, dangerous chainsaws or making food for hungry sevadars, whether our seva takes us to the Dera in India or keeps us at home where we may be given the opportunity to be kind to a neighbor or to the clerk in the grocery store, it matters how we offer our time and attention. In all varieties of service, we are asked to take certain precautions, and to meet high standards of conduct and care, for our own sakes as well as for the well-being of others. As we do work in the name of the Master, for the Master, we can do our best to emulate some of his graciousness, humility, generosity of spirit, and his ability to instil confidence.
In seva at various satsang properties, we are encouraged to wear thick boots and heavy gloves when we are travelling through rough terrain. In our daily lives, our meditation provides that protection. This material world is inherently dangerous, unpredictable and challenging to navigate. Even in the midst of faithfully and carefully performing our seva, in the midst of the storms of karma of our lives, we can get injured, distracted, lose our way, and even get discouraged by how much there is yet to accomplish. In such demanding circumstances, we can make careful preparations, adopt safe practices, take preventative actions whenever possible, and learn to ask for help.
In the opening line of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the narrator says: “Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood.” Dante was not equipped with a chainsaw (which had not yet been invented in thirteenth century Italy). But the allegory of the “dark woods” is easily recognizable. We human beings are all lost in dark forests: we awake to find ourselves in a tangled brush of karmas, circumstances and destiny. It is our work, our privilege and our sacred duty to follow our vows, especially our meditation, and to do our seva.
No matter how dark the forest or how thick the underbrush, we have been promised that someday all obstacles will be removed, and we will make it home. And meditation helps.