The Real Purpose of Seva or Selfless Service

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR from Pexels

It was a cold night in San Ramon, CA at the ashram of Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) and my back was aching from stooping over to wash dishes in that makeshift outdoor kitchen. I was attending one of her November public programs and had already been washing dishes for a couple of hours. I could end my shift at any time. Yet something was keeping me there. So, I asked myself, “what was it?” Even though my physical body ached and the cold was penetrating, my inner state was happiness and blissful devotion. My inner question persisted because the happiness and bliss did not seem like enough to explain my desire to keep going. There was something more.

What is Seva?

Seva is often defined as selfless service, but what does that really mean? Some say that it is  a way to clear past negative karma. Others believe that it’s helpful to serve all of humanity in order to recognize our interconnectedness and unity. Another common reason given for performing seva is that it is a means to give back to your teacher, and also to allow others to experience your teacher to receive the benefits that come from that.

The most compelling definition I’ve ever heard came through Sri Poornaji in a session where he was Onenessing with me (a process of being in the space of Samadhi or Oneness). The message came through that Seva means “self overflowing with love.” I’ve since had ample time to contemplate this meaning while doing seva and while reflecting on it.

On that cold November night at Amma’s ashram, I could feel the part of me that felt like it was my duty to serve. That part looked at the thousands of people waiting to get Amma’s darshan and wanted to be a “helper” who would make it possible for people to be served a hot meal while they attended. I also wanted to be a good devotee. And, since not many people wanted to do dishes, that part of me with the urge to be a good devotee wanted to take on a seva job that was not easily filled.

Another part of me wanted to just pass my time in a useful way while waiting for my turn for darshan. Still another part enjoyed the camaraderie of being a part of the kitchen team where we silently (or mostly silently) shared the joy of seva while chanting our mantras and listening to live bhajan music piped in from the main hall.  And, there was even a part of me that was doing it for the free chai that would get delivered to the kitchen helpers once every hour or two.

Yet I knew there was something more. Something magical would happen in those late-night kitchen experiences. As my body and mind would tire, it’s as though something were getting cleared out of the way so that a deeper surrender could occur through the guru’s grace. Not always, but often that surrender would happen, and it would leave me feeling simply present with the dishes and with a heart filled with love. It felt like a shared love – a love that was bigger than me. 

I think of the spiritual path as a means to expand consciousness and to learn how to experience being human in ways that are beyond the ordinary experience of most people. Indeed, becoming a fulfilled human being means knowing and experiencing my full human potential, including both worldly fulfillment and the uplifting experiences of the subtle realms of the world of Spirit.

Seva is a tool for expanding beyond ordinary mind through surrender into love. In my experience recounted above, my usual sense of self had gotten out of the way, making room for a more expansive consciousness to come through. Was it Seva that removed the ego, or was it just grace? When great souls such as Mother Theresa and Amma act tirelessly to help so many people, where does all of their energy come from? “Self overflowing with love,” gives us the answer. Actions are effortless when they spring forth from love. 

Effortless does not necessarily mean there is no physical effort nor mental struggles to be overcome. I can remember times as a father when one of my children would wake up sick in the middle of the night. There was never a doubt about whether one parent would get up to take care of them. But when it was my calling, there was sometimes a “why me” kind of response that I had to overcome before I could get my body out of bed. I didn’t have to think about the love that was behind my action. Love simply got up. And I might or might not feel love in the moment when my groggy body reached down to pick up my son or daughter and give them the care they needed. But love was always there nevertheless. 

As I’ve continued on my spiritual path for many years, the veils between “self” and “other” have gradually gotten thinner. The love on the inside and the love on the outside are now more unified. When my surrender to Oneness is really foreground, the love is always there and it flows both in and out. 

What seva has taught me is that love can indeed be overflowing. It can pour out of my heart in a way that allows love to be the source of my action. When that happens, whatever action I’m engaged in feels fulfilling and largely effortless. If my state were always that way, I can see how I’d be able to help others almost continuously with the kind of tireless effort behind the actions of Amma, Mother Theresa, and Sri Poornaji.

Wishing you the blessing and grace of feeling a heart overflowing with love.

To learn more about how your self can overflow with love, visit or talk to our spiritual buddies. 

Thanks for reading!

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My mission is to help humanity achieve Poornatwa, the space of complete fulfillment”
-Sri Poornaji