Service without exhaustion

Can we live a life of service without exhaustion?

How can we maintain a sense of well being and happiness while being confronted with the suffering of others?

These and more questions came up in the mindfulness workshop for refugee workers last weekend.
Inspiring people met to share on their work and explore in which ways mindfulness can be a support to the service they provide for others.

I wish to pass on some of the beautiful and important insights that were shared.

On Motivation and Intention

The service we provide for others is based on motivation and intention. These are powerful views and ideas, that will considerably determine the extend to which we experience exhaustion or happiness in our work. If we validate our work in terms of success or results only, we run into a risk.

Easily we identify with the roles and identities that come with our work. Sometimes the wish to “do good” or “be good” determines intentions. Our own views on what “good” is might be blind for the actual needs of the other.
A result driven approach will continuously try to validate, whether our work is having the expected effects. We tend to overlook the fact, that our work normally has but a small influence on the other and his well being. Many factors contribute to the happiness of a person and we can not be in control of all of them. If we give ourselves over to speculations on the outcome, and attach a notion of either success and failure to it, we are building our service on brittle ground.

Participants reported that a shift from result driven work to an emphasize of connection and friendship contributed to their happiness. It is in the human to human contact, that nourishment can evolve. A nourishment which is then available as much to the one giving, as to the one receiving – to an extend that these terms start to blur and merge.

The interest in the other, the ability to learn from the situation about oneself as much as about life in general, shifts the focus away from an expected result. Humility and the awareness for the limits of our capacities and influence are qualities that must not be forgotten. Thus an expected result turns to a by-product of human interaction, where the “helper” and the “helped” encounter on eye level and share whatever qualities, knowledge and wisdom they can bring to the table.

On Empathy and Compassion

There is a new buzz-word in the realm of social service: “compassion-fatigue”. It is said that people how support others for a living or to large extends of their free time, inevitably run into the risk to get tired of being compassionate.

The participants reported that compassion as an important part of their work. For their work it is necessary to come into contact with the suffering of the other. Only empathy allows us to understand what can be helpful, instead of acting upon our existing ideas and views. We all have concepts of “how to help”, “the other’s needs” or “good action”. Facing the other and his suffering, we have to confront these views and be able to drop them, whenever they are not beneficial.

To offer compassion, the participants reported, can be an intense experience. We allow ourselves to be with the suffering of the other, to feel it for ourselves to a certain degree. But always with the intention to gain insight and understanding – not for the sake of co-suffering alone. Compassion thus is always connected to a wish for insight and onward leading action.

It is thus important to take time-outs and withdraw from intense work regularly. The participants reported that compassion is at its best, when it is authentically given and not forced by a sense of “ought to” or “should”.

The Permission to enjoy Life

A last, but maybe one of the most important points, was to allow oneself to enjoy life fully. When we work with people who experience intense suffering, we easily forsake ourselves to find joy in the pleasures of life. The suffering of the other might be given more importance than our own needs and wishes. The continuous call to action then can lead into exhaustion.

Those participants, who were able to continue their work over years and decades, all had found ways to enjoy life whether through good food, travelling, the company of others, music, nature, or resting regularly in silence. Sensuality and gratitude for the pleasant experiences at hand, were important aspects in their day to day experience. Most of them additionally engaged in practices that turned them back to themselves, like therapy or meditation.
It is necessary to equilibrate the attention to the outer, with an attention to the inner. Any overemphasize on one or the other, will in the long run disable us to be of service. A compassionate and sustainable meeting of our own needs and suffering is thus the pillar stone of compassionate work with others.

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