Becoming a Vessel

“In order for me to become a vessel, to be used, I had to have my attachments broken. You can’t be a true vessel if you’re attached. You have to be emptied out.”
—Julia Butterfly Hill

The idea of becoming a vessel, or conduit, for selfless love to flow through you into the world is part of many spiritual teachings. To be of service in this way can become one of the highest aspirations for those on a deeply committed spiritual path. Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years living in the branches of a 1500-year-old redwood tree to prevent it from being cut down, has described her own preparation for this dedicated act of service. She let go of all physical attachments in terms of possessions, but then Mother Nature emptied her of everything else in a fierce wind/rain storm that brought her face to face with the possibility of her own death. She was “emptied out” for the task ahead.

We may not all be called to such courageous actions, but more and more I believe we are called to be fully present in our lives in the most loving way possible. When your heart is open, you can touch the hearts of all those around you. Love is the greatest act of service imaginable. It doesn’t necessarily take physical stamina or facing death, but it may require you to let go of attachments that keep the energy of love from flowing freely. Ones you may not even be conscious of. Like attachments to particular outcomes or to controlling how things occur. This requires letting go at the deepest level. And often the letting go itself is beyond your control. Perfectly designed that way.

I have written previously about my move to Florida and my expectations about how it would unfold in terms of being of spiritual service there. God presented me with a framework, and then proceeded to take it apart piece by piece. Nothing I had planned on came to pass. And as things fell away, I felt at times lost and abandoned by spirit. Yet that same spirit kept me going, showed me light in the midst of my inner darkness—and the beauty of Nature everywhere. At the end of more than a year of being emptied out, I finally saw that this was exactly what was meant to happen. I had asked to be of service, to be a vessel, over and over in my prayers. I couldn’t be that when I was full of expectations and ideas about what that meant. Surrender means completely letting go and just being peacefully present, without attachments, for whatever arises.

Then the “storm” of COVID arrived, within which we each encountered our own possible death (like Julia). At that point, I could see that all I had just been through had prepared me for emptying out and letting go even further into acceptance and peace. There was nothing I could do about stopping this pandemic. I saw that what I could do was remain peaceful and loving every day, through meditation, writing, and connections with individuals around the world online or in my own neighborhood who were holding this same space of peace and love. The “invisible” network that the Internet provides has helped many of us find support when feeling isolated and alone during this time. It has shown us how we are always connected in our hearts.

We all do what we can in our lives—and the greatest gift we can offer is in being who we are deep inside: compassionate, peaceful human beings. COVID has compelled us to look inward, to meet our own souls, maybe for the first time. From the soul’s perspective, there is no necessity for trying to control what happens or doesn’t happen. Within the soul, there is only loving-awareness. When life empties you out of all external activities and aspirations, you come home to that wisdom within you. The wisdom that shows you that in emptiness is peace and space for the love in your heart to flow freely to all those who cross your path. This is what it means to become a vessel, a conduit, in the world. Perhaps yet another of COVID’s hidden blessings.

Service to Others, Service to God

Photograph © 2018 Peggy Kornegger
Service to God, in spiritual or religious terms, can become a grandiose, almost inaccessible concept. Something only great mystics and masters can fully live out. Possibly forsaking all worldly possessions and moving to another country. We think of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Or Martin Luther King Jr. and Peace Pilgrim. Lives of dedication and deep compassion. Yes, this is definitely service to God. But we don’t really have to be a saint or monk to be of service to others and God. Perhaps we need to simplify the definition itself.

So what exactly is service? The dictionary says “help, assistance, kindness.” A good turn or helping hand. It’s when we add God to the mix that everything gets a bit daunting. It becomes about life purpose and serving all of humanity in order to relieve suffering in the world. Almost nothing can live up to that tall order. People start to tune out and turn away because they feel inadequate to the task: “What could I as one individual human do to alleviate the pain of all humankind?” So, very few consciously choose service as a way of life. But what if service begins at a very basic level of a helping hand and kindness? What if my human purpose is just to be present to another when they are feeling most alone or lost?

I have asked myself what my life purpose is more times than I can count. Sometimes I think I know part of it, but I usually feel there is much more than what I think. I too have been intimidated by the larger sense of service to God, the purpose-of-life sense. My mind engages with the word purpose, trying to figure out what it is I’m supposed to be doing. However, as I grow and evolve on my spiritual path, I am finding that it has absolutely nothing to do with my mind’s ideas about any of it. It’s completely a heart issue. And it’s not necessarily a schematic that involves single-handedly eradicating world poverty or global warming. Maybe it’s less sweeping than that, something everyone can handle.

Volunteering one day a week at a food bank or donating regularly to an environmental cause are key individual contributions, but it is also more than those. Maybe our greatest gift to others and to God is day-to-day, moment-to-moment, heartfelt caring. The small gesture: the hand held, the loving smile, the encouraging word when someone is hurting. Perhaps that is the essence of service, available to each of us in every moment. Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. lived a lifetime of small gestures of kindness to others that became their larger service to God. When I think of service this way, it becomes more accessible, doable, all-inclusive. Something that, as each person responds to another with caring and empathy, shifts the collective balance from selfishness to generosity, from suffering to well-being, from fear to love. From one to many.

Service is actually not something outside of us that we have to aspire to. It is who we are at our core. We came from the heart of God, and our souls are pure love. When we remember that, kindness flows from us easily and effortlessly. We become the light-filled human beings we were born to be. In truth, service to others and service to God are one and the same. Hold out your hand and open your heart to those who cross your path each day—that’s all it takes.