Serving The Earth

All hands are needed in working to protect the planet

One of the articles in Earth & Spirit (IC#24)
Originally published in Late Winter 1990 on page 58
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

As many of the preceding articles suggest, spirituality is not just about embracing new ways of thinking, reviving lost cultural forms, or even praising the awesome beauty of creation. For a spirituality of the Earth to be bold and robust, it must include action. And to act on behalf of something is to be of service.

What does it mean to be of service, and especially of service to the Earth? Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez are members of the New Road Map Foundation (NRM), a small community of people devoted to the ideal of service, and they share with us here some of the insights they’ve accumulated in their twenty years of living a life that attempts to embody that ideal.

Vicki is President of NRM and an IC contributing editor. Joe is the author of the cassette course published by NRM, "Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence." All proceeds from the sale of the course go to support other service-oriented non-profits – NRM doesn’t keep a dime. For more information, write them at 5557 38th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98115.


"I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one
thing I do know; the only ones among you who will be
truly happy will be those who have sought and found
a way to serve."

– Albert Schweitzer

I slept and dreamt that life was joy,
I woke and saw that life was service,
I acted and behold, service was joy.

– Rabrindranahth Tagore

We are odd bedfellows, those of us answering the call of our wounded and endangered Earth. The boundaries are blurring between the mainstream and the counter culture; between staunch environmental veterans, and the "captains of industry" now openly committed to less wasteful and toxic manufacturing processes; between seasoned social activists, and spiritual seekers who found Gaia on their way to God.

Our internal boundaries are blurring also. Activists are learning that they must also nurture themselves and their relationships. Meditators are learning that they must also act. Ordinary people are being thrust by the times into leading campaigns for a cleaner environment. Nonordinary people, from famous actors to religious leaders, are responding humbly and heartfully to the simple needs of others. Each of us is being challenged to respond as whole people to the whole problem of the whole earth.

We have the awesome privilege of midwifing the birth of the "whole earth" as a symbol and as a reality, as a paradigm and as a practical economic, political, ecological, ecumenical, interconnected system.

This birth of wholeness is not without some labor pains – and the pains are not reserved only for those clinging to the old order. There is disharmony within and among the defenders of Earth as well. "The Earth is our resource base," some say, "and we are destroying it." They see the solution in terms of politics and policy. At a recent conference on sustainable development, for example, people talked principally of breakthrough technologies, tax incentives, and measurements other than the GNP to gauge economic viability. Even the religionists talked about initiatives and programs.

But initiatives and programs are not enough. Without our hearts and souls, saving the planet is just another manifestation of the Western Mind’s desire to dominate Nature: "We’ll take this baby off automatic pilot and run her ourselves." We may become thrifty in our use of material resources, but exhaust our spiritual ones.

At the other end of the spectrum are the champions of the sacred Earth, who see the solution in an inner turning, a change in consciousness. "The Earth is Gaia," they say, "and she is alive – but wounded. If we learn to listen, we can hear her. We can open our hearts and feel her pain." Humbled by the exquisite complexity and awesome power of even the simplest life form, we can relinquish our ego’s grandiose plans and pray that we may love even one other person well. Eventually we may learn that the Earth is sacred, all life is sacred, even we are sacred.

But we may not have the leisure for a gradual awakening to the sacredness of all life. Noel Brown, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, has predicted that we have just 4,000 days to turn the tide of environmental destruction … or we will all perish. If he (and many others) are even remotely right about the diagnosis and prognosis of the earth’s failing health, we must dress our wounds, heal quickly and go forward. We must go beyond personal and political change to cultural transformation, or we will continue to witness the soulless disassembly of our planet.

The call is clear: "Activists, Look Within!" Discover that spirit which is the spirit of the Earth, and work from there. The sacredness of all life must undergird our agendas and policies and technologies and initiatives – but we must act. Therefore, the call is equally clear: "Meditators, Arise (from your benches and cushions) and Make a Difference!"

But how do we create a cultural transformation? In many different ways, people seem to be asking two essential questions:

Question #1: How can I know what to do?

Question #2: How can I do it and maintain contact with my spiritual roots, to sustain my energy over the long haul?

These are questions we have grappled with for 20 years; what follows are some keys we have found. While our remarks are primarily addressed to people emerging from a spiritual focus to a focus on global action, these keys will serve anyone who truly wants to serve the Earth.


The first key, graduation, is the recognition that beyond the personal growth seminars, spiritual practices, and attaining enlightenment, there is another step: the "real world." Spiritual practices allow us to find and foster our inner relationship with the divine. But once we are grounded in a personal understanding of spirit, we go on to living as spiritual people: being God’s eyes, ears and hands on the scene. With all due respect and appreciation for our alma mater, we graduate, and life itself becomes our teacher.

There is no denying that graduation can be scary: every surgeon performs her first solo surgery; every teacher faces (often in terror) his first classroom. But life experience is what separates the hack from the genius. No matter how many graduate degrees you get, workshops you attend, books you read, or affirmations you tape to your refrigerator, it is your relationship with life itself that determines your fate.

For a while, you might find yourself checking back with your favorite teachers, books or tapes to verify the appropriateness of your choices – but eventually you will develop your own inner gyroscope. Like a tree, your roots will go deep into the soil of life, sustaining and nourishing you, and your branches will extend bravely into the sky.

Implicit in the choice to graduate is assuming personal responsibility for your own life – and for all life. You relinquish the stance of being the victim of your circumstances – your education, your family, your bad breaks, your handicaps, your unique assortment of neuroses and psychoses. Understanding that you are responsible for your life is empowering. If you know that your choices steered you into your circumstances, you can make different choices and navigate your way through or out of the situation. Problems of a global scale can be approached in the same way: As you make choices to recycle your garbage, support citizens’ initiatives, educate youth as global citizens, or organize your block to plant trees, you assume personal responsibility for the planet and are thereby empowered to act.


The next key is discerning right action in a complex and often contradictory world – a world of ambiguity. As we move from being on automatic to being authentic, again and again we encounter intractable problems crying out for solutions. But as "graduates," we understand that problems – especially ethical, moral, or spiritual problems – are there to be loved, not solved. As many spiritual teachers have said, developing the ability to live with a question is the beginning of wisdom. This living question can then bore down into our souls, creating new understandings, until eventually we find that we’ve grown bigger than the problem – and the apparent war of ideas and options over what is right action resolves itself.

Why is this so? In our experience, people’s motivations for both their best acts and their worst bloopers boil down to this: "It seemed like a good idea at the time." For better or worse, the conditions in the world today are the product of other people’s "good ideas at the time" – solutions to problems they faced. History, of course, is full of "good ideas" backfiring; so to paraphrase Einstein, we need to remember that a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness where it was created. Our task is to be with the problem, accept and embrace it in all its beauty and horror. That’s the hard part. If we can do that, right action will follow naturally.

And right action requires our best. We set our sights on "perfection," on every word and act carrying a full complement of integrity, accuracy and power. At the same time, we approach that action with both realism and a healthy sense of humor. We know that no act of ours will ever permanently turn the light on for others; we can only water the garden, we can’t make the flowers grow. So we remain both totally committed to the action, and totally unattached to the result – rich nourishment for a spiritually maturing servant of the Earth!

The need for embracing ambiguity also shows up in assessing our progress, which we do by referring to our ethics and principles – the code we live by. If our actions and our ethics are aligned, we know ourselves to be people of integrity. But at the same time, we must live with the knowledge that what might be right action in one situation could be dead wrong in another, and we can never know what evil might someday evolve from our efforts to do good. (This is especially useful to remember when you’re about to jump on a high horse called Judgment and take a righteous ride through other people’s actions.) So we act according to our highest vision – but we remain aware of the shadows cast by our light.


The final key to serving the Earth can be found in the old expression, "Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world." We search for that action, or set of actions, that can actually shift the course of history. We press and poke at the prevailing paradigm, seeking a weak point where we can lodge our lever and pry. Is the secret in using the longest lever? Not entirely. The secret is in what’s often missing from the quote. It actually goes, "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I can move the world."

We call that place to stand "service." First, what is service? Webster’s dictionary defines it as: 1) employment as a servant; 2) contribution to the welfare of others; 3) a meeting for worship; 4) a helpful act, a good turn. We embrace all four definitions, and we have added the following:

  • Service is giving back to Life the gift of life – with interest.
  • Service is the natural impulse to care for what we recognize is connected to us, for all that we see is part of ourselves.
  • Service is doing whatever is needed and wanted, through our talents and capabilities, to create a healthier planet and a greater sense of oneness among people, as well as between people and the living body of the Earth.
  • Service is relieving suffering wherever you find it. In broken bodies. In troubled minds. In empty bellies. In empty lives.
  • Service is love made manifest.

Service is where we come from, as well as what we do. It is right attitude and right action, and both need to be fully engaged for us to be effective. Attitude precedes action; it helps you see what to do (the answer to Question #1 above). Attitude is also the first key to going from being a sprinter to being a long distance runner, and experiencing an influx of energy not unlike a runner’s high (Question #2).

There are a number of different activities that answer to the name of service, and it is worthwhile to differentiate between them. Ego service is doing "good" for personal gain, power, prestige, fame. Conditional service is doing good to fulfill the expectations of a role, because you are a mother, a member of the church, etc. True service – love made manifest – is doing for others with no concern for gain or recognition.

But all this is nothing new. The Bible (in fact, any bible) said it years ago: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

We’ve known for a long time that compassionate action and service to others is an absolute necessity. How "in the world" have we managed, generation after generation, day after day, moment after moment, to ignore this? Part of the answer lies in our own low estimation of ourselves.

  • We feel inadequate. We question Life’s wisdom in selecting schmucks like us to accomplish such an awesome task as saving the planet. But the Earth is too precious, her situation too urgent to leave in the hands of professionals. We are beyond the age of hierarchies where experts weave solutions while the peasants sleep. All hands are needed – our hands.
  • We feel afraid – afraid of losing all that we have built up, our possessions, prestige, position, preferences. We plead for a bit more time to get ready for the journey into unknown territory – just one last fling! One more workshop! One more academic degree! One more session with the psychic/guru/psychiatrist/channel! One more trip to Hawaii! Just one more laugh … just one last laugh … then I’ll be ready.
  • We feel small, powerless, impure, unready. But as personalities, we will never be pure enough, we will never be ready. Yet we must begin. How?

If we recognize ourselves as part of a larger whole, the entire picture shifts. We are not "just one person." We are part of Life, one thread among billions in this unfolding that is already whole. We don’t need to change ourselves – we just need to change our address, our place to stand. We need to stand in service.

When we do, we see opportunities where before there were only obstacles. We find hidden talents and reserves of energy. We begin to know ourselves as sufficiently creative, noble, industrious, wise and wily to get the job done. Through a commitment to service, we learn right relationship with all of life – how we "fit," what we’re "fit for," and what choices are "fitting."

Service to others and to the planet provides the perfect tempering environment wherein individuals of real mettle are forged. It is the obvious and essential follow-through for people who have undergone a personal transformation. In fact, a transformation that doesn’t spill over in a beneficial way into the lives of others is of dubious authenticity.

The beauty, magic, poetry and economy of service is that it works either way: If we expand our affinities, our boundaries, and our understanding of who we are, we naturally and effortlessly want to increase our service. We are more generous, more kind, more "out there," more passionate in championing causes we care about. At the same time, a commitment to service naturally expands our horizons. Just a small extension of caring, with no concern for recognition or gain, opens a bit wider the channel into our hearts. And our love increases, our hearts open further as we risk ever bolder acts of caring and concern. As Mahatma Gandhi said:

"Consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does render some service or other. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make not only for our own happiness, but that of the world at large."

The secret, then, is to be constantly willing to step out into the unknown – to direct one’s doings toward the highest vision one can see, ignoring the rational mind’s attempts to impose limitations based on our current skills, aptitudes or credentials. Do it, and the necessary faculties will come.

Once you’ve established this place to stand (and that can happen in an instant, or over years), you can scan the horizon for what is yours to do. Joanna Macy, a wonderful exemplar of true service, suggests three directions in which to look:

1. "Work with your passion, on projects you care deeply about." What was your dream before you stopped dreaming? What is the work you would do, even if you weren’t paid to do it? (You’re not looking for a bumper-sticker purpose like "I’d rather be surfing," but for something you care more about than your own comfort and convenience.)

2. "Work with your pain, with people whose pain touches your heart." Have you "been there, so you know how it feels" – in grief, sorrow, despair, hunger, terror? Can you share with others the wisdom and compassion born of your experience? Is there an aspect of suffering in the world that calls you to action? If you are in such pain that you’ve lost touch with your ability to help others, now is the perfect time to extend your hand to others in pain. It’s healing!

3. "Work with what is at hand, with the opportunities that arise daily for responding to the simple needs of others." This suggestion brings you back to square one: reality. In an interconnected world, all acts of service contribute to the solution of all world problems. Few of us are a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa, but all of us are here for a purpose. Service is not exotic; it is mundane! As the homily goes, "Bloom where you’re planted."

Passion, pain, what’s at hand – these are your doorways into service. If this seems like a tall order, it is! But we are all equal to it. Once you’ve mastered your current level, service will naturally carry you into the next terrifying/exhilarating (take your pick) unknown. The only requirement is that your heart stay open and your focus stay on the good of the whole. Eventually the dance becomes an upward spiral – serving creates greater clarity and maturity, which leads to even more effective contribution.

There is a joy in interacting with life from a stance of service that opens up the kind of energy we experience when we are in love. In fact, we are in love! It is this love for Life itself that allows us to keep going over the long haul. And remember, you can accomplish anything if you are willing to take credit for nothing.

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