When thinking about “being of service” we often think of feeding the homeless, tirelessly helping a friend, or going the extra mile with a kid or loved one. Parents, Educators, and People in Recovery (PIR) all have something in common- one of our main goals is to be of service to others- it’s part of the job and it’s kind of a big deal. Parents are the first teachers and we show up daily to serve, protect and nurture our children. Educators work long hours (who has weekends and summer break?????) thinking about, working to help, and training to serve our students better. PIR (yeah, that’s People in Recovery) strive to help others in recovery by setting up meetings, picking up the phone when someone calls and sponsoring new people. But when we begin to practice mindfulness we may find that we overly depleted. How can we be of service when our cups are empty?

Empty Cup

Ask a parent, teacher or PIR about self-care and the majority of them may say, “Yeah, I need to do that” or “I tried that once” or “I will do that just as soon as I’m done helping this person.” But at some point we all need help. As the old adage goes, “You cannot serve anyone from an empty cup.” But most of us try. We will squeeze every last drop of moisture out from the cup. The problem also arises when we actually begin taking care of ourselves. When we start adding to our cup many find we are so depleted that any self-care we practice is immediately withdrawn. This can be confusing and frustrating. Self-care is important but what we need to do is add more service to help fill our cups.

A Different Kind of Service

By practicing mindfulness we become aware of our limitations while also opening ourselves up for new experiences, insights and ways of living. In Narcotics Anonymous’ Basic Text it defines proper service as “Doing the right thing for the right reason” (p. xv). When we think of service only as us helping others we often lose sight of the fact that we, as humans, also need help. Most parents, educators, and PIR resist when anyone tries to help them. They will walk a thousand miles with you but will shut down like a turtle under attack when offered help. Bringing mindfulness to this experience I have found that I am limiting myself by not allowing others to be of service to me. In fact, allowing others to help me is an extension of my service to them!

The Gift of Mindful Service

By allowing others to help us we are actually being of service. We are allowing others to feel the joy of helping, supporting their development of skills, and showing them that service is important. Not allowing others to serve us is actually one of the highest forms of selfishness. Who are we to say we are the only ones who can be of service. Not only are we being of service to others when we receive help, we are being of service to ourselves (but not being selfish about it!). We cannot fill our cups alone. With the help of others we may find that we reach a healthier level of balance between giving and receiving- that is a huge gift.

Asking for Help

When people ask me, “What can I do to help?” I am often left with, “I don’t know.” I find myself becoming the turtle retreating into my shell. I realized that when someone asked me if they could be of service to me it triggered an automatic response. To counter this I began being proactive. What I do now is mindfully think about what I really need and then I ask for it. Asking for help is the biggest part of service because it really takes me getting outside of my comfort zone. But incorporating mindfulness I realize my discomfort, know that it “just is,” and I move forward with letting others help me. Having practiced being proactive in asking for help I have now moved to the next stage. When someone asks what they can do for me I tell them, “I need help with…….” I realize that the person may be unable or unwilling to help but I allow them the opportunity to make that decision.

The Practice

Sit for a moment- breathe in and out. Follow the breath. Allow yourself to ask the question, “What do I need?” Notice any thoughts, judgments, or feelings that arise. Sit with whatever arises breathing in and out. Allow yourself to know that it is alright to have wants, desires, and needs- allow yourself to be human. Watch for judgment about “selfishness.” When judgment arises, notice it and allow it to fade as much as possible. Keep coming back to the breath and to the idea of what you need. Sit with this experience as long as possible. When someone says, “Let me know if you can help” tell them what you need. Let the outcome just happen. If the person can or can’t help it doesn’t matter. Just letting someone know what you need is the main objective of the practice. See what happens!