Service is spiritual health

Note: This post is a continuation of a line of thinking I’ve been exploring here for years. See this this, this, this and this post for prior versions of my thinking on this topic.

The other day, I came across a profound sentence in the most unlikely of places, the biography of a personal trainer whose nickname is “The booty builder”:


As I read this profile, a big question entered my mind: what is spiritual health? We talk all about mental and physical health these days, but not really spiritual health.

I am reading a book right now called How to think like a monk by Jay Shetty. In the book, Shetty talks about four levels of motivation, which function on a hierarchy: fear, desire, duty, and love.

Here’s a nice graphic that gives some examples of these motivations:

From this blog

Hierarchies make me think of the psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose famous pyramid was turned into a sailboat by the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman:

In Kaufman’s model, we need a secure foundation of the boat before we can truly love and serve others. We need to feel a sense of physical safety, social belonging/intimacy, and have a healthy self-image. Maslow’s big insight is that physical and mental health precede spiritual health. You need a secure hull before you can sail.

I like this quote from the Indian sage Shantideva:

All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world arises from wishing others to be happy.

However, the language is a bit confusing. “Happy” is such a vague word. I would update the quote as follows:

All the suffering in the world arises from exclusively being motivated by desire and fear. All the meaning there is in this world comes from service.

This isn’t to say that desire and fear-based motivations are bad. I think we need a sense of pleasure in what we do if it is to be sustainable.

As Kimya Dawson put it:

Some people feel enslaved when they have a boss

Some people without one feel totally lost

To make this world work it takes all different kinds

We all have different tastes, different strengths, different minds

But once we have a basic sense of security and joy, I think it is important to start trying, as much as possible, to become motivated by service.

In the language of Maslow, this is transcendence.

In the language of Jay Shetty, this is service-based motivation.

In the language of Walter the Booty Builder, this is spiritual health.

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