Doing service for others as a spiritual practice is a way to be in the world without separation. In the Buddhist tradition, we call this recognizing that everything is an expression of emptiness. The Heart Sutra says:
Form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form;
Form is precisely emptiness,
Emptiness precisely form.
Sensation, perception, reaction and consciousness
Are also like this.
All things are expressions of emptiness.
Form is the world of phenomena: spiritual teachings, individuals and ideas. Emptiness is the oneness of life, which means life as it is, without any distinctions. We get confused when we see others as separate from us, when we take form alone for reality. However, to see that "all things are expressions of emptiness" means to recognize that each one of us is totally affected by every other person. We are mutually interdependent. The part is the whole and the whole is the part. If we see that we are all interconnected, we can break down the barrier between Self and Other and experience that we are all One.
There are many ways to be in the world with separation. If you walk down the street and divert your eyes when a homeless person says hello, this is separation. You may take it further by avoiding the neighborhood with homeless people altogether. You are physically separating yourself from other members of society because they don't fit your idea of how people should live.
While engaging a homeless person, you can still hold onto a sense of separation. If you enter a soup kitchen, you will see things that you typically do not see: people who haven't showered for days or men who are drunk and arguing with each other at 6 a.m. If you get wrapped up in thinking, "All men should be clean and sober and polite" or, "Society should offer jobs and rehab for these men," you will get overwhelmed, drowning in sadness or anger. Your thoughts about how the world should be are separating you from the experience of what is in front of you.
But what happens if you sit down next to one of the men and engage openly in conversation? You may find that the man could help you with your calculus homework because he has a Ph.D. in mathematics. He may offer some valuable insight regarding your interactions with your parents. He may share his happiness about discovering a new Jazz musician or his sadness because a friend just died of AIDS.
You will certainly encounter suffering. The man's stories may stick around in your head once you leave the soup kitchen, and you will ruminate on them, reviewing the details worriedly in circles. When you come home, your spouse may get frustrated with you because all you talk about is the stories from the soup kitchen and you don't pay attention to them. This is not engagement from the standpoint of bearing witness. This is the road to burnout.
Being fully present to another person without clinging is medicine, not poison. Meaningful engagement deepens your heart and helps you be more fully present to any given situation that comes up -- at the soup kitchen, with your spouse or in solitude. You can be deeply present to other peoples' joy and suffering while they are sharing with you. You can let it wash through you to your bones and then let it pass. This way, you can feel deep joy or sadness without the added edge of anxiety.
If you venture out to remember society's forgotten people, and you do so with a spirit of presence and equanimity, you can experience deep fulfillment and wholeness. If you deepen your practice of moving outside your comfort zone, letting go of fixed ideas and bearing witness to the joy and suffering around you, loving actions will emerge that reduce suffering in the world. There are many ways to cultivate such presence and equanimity. Some compliment their social engagement with meditation or prayer. Cultivating a connection to the Oneness of life or to God means that we can both be perfectly content with the perfection of the world exactly as it is and do loving actions to make it better.
There are infinite forms that our loving actions can take. Perhaps we help an injured woman walk up the stairs. Perhaps we create jobs and affordable housing for hundreds of people off the streets. The Zen Peacemakers did just that in the 1980s in Yonkers, N.Y. The Zen Peacemakers, along with Jeff Bridges, are currently developing "Let All Eat" Cafés, centers that provide free community meals with love and dignity. Other offerings we made did not achieve their intended goal. Our loving actions can make big contributions to reduce suffering, but we are not attached to those results. After any particular offering, we simply regroup, reevaluate, note lessons for the future and return to the practice of our three tenets: not-knowing, bearing witness and loving actions.