Vajrapani Institute of Wisdom Culture

Buddhism and the Path of Service

by Julia Hengst
First published on: November 26, 2016

In November 2016, Vajrapani Institute invited me to do a presentation for their Buddhism in Action webseries on the topic “The Path of Service and How Not To Help.”

Most of my material is sourced from Dr. Isa Gucciardi, founder and director of the Sacred Stream Center in Berkeley, and Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. For many spiritual seekers, we hold the idea that self-denial is a path to transcendence. We may think that in order to be of service to others, we must sacrifice everything and worry that if we focus on our own needs and happiness, it is selfish.

This attitude can lead us to constantly putting others’ needs before our own, feeling guilty about being happy, having nice possessions or even “having too much fun.” We risk getting into or staying in codependent relationships, or constantly trying to rescue others who are suffering. We can become “compulsive helpers,” as Isa describes it. Such attitudes can eventually lead to exhaustion, burnout, tension, resentment, conflicts, etc. One aspect of putting Buddhism into action is practicing it with our selves!

“Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.” ~ Lama Yeshe

In a teaching I attended by Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, she said it is very important to take time to focus on yourself, and that “what might look selfish to others in the short run can become extremely beneficial to others in the long run.” She also said that many of us, when we practice Buddhism, experience fear. “Strong fear arises that we’re a bad student, that we’re not good enough. A lot of us, especially in the West, don’t become kinder to ourselves. We become mean,” she said. As Lama Yeshe said, “Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.”

One practical exercise Isa teaches that helps us begin to be gentle with ourselves is to write down 5-10 specific needs in four categories: Spiritual, Mental, Emotional, Physical. I was amazed to hear people in their 50s and 60s say they hadn’t once thought of their own needs in a detailed manner because it was considered selfish in their family, social or spiritual systems. Examples of some needs could be: exercise (dancing included!), time to grieve past losses, meditation, quality time with friends, excursions into nature, working less (or more!), playing more (or less!), enjoying a hobby or activity, or relaxing one’s mind with a good book or movie. Lama Yeshe said movies can be a good source for Lam Rim meditations on the sufferings of sentient beings.

The Path of Service teaches that if we are not in touch with our own needs on these four levels, and if we are not congruent with them, we can end up being in servitude to others instead of being of service to them. Early on in my studies with Dr. Gucciardi, she shared an analogy that was a game-changer: she said, “When I used to see people suffering or drowning, I would jump in the water to try and save them. Then I would end up drowning with them. Now I sit on the shore and throw out life preservers.” We have to learn how NOT to help others as well as how to help them. The first step is getting in touch with our OWN needs and seeing how much we are taking care of ourselves.

Julia Hengst

Julia Hengst is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with teens and delights in supporting their self-exploration in any way possible. She has a private psychotherapy practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and occasionally runs groups in Santa Cruz.She has been associated with Vajrapani Institute and its sister center, Land of Medicine Buddha, for more than 20 years and has been part of the Wise Heart Teen Camp at Vajrapani Instituten since its unofficial beginning ten years ago.