By Alberto Anzan Apalategui

To me, some of the best practice lies within service. That’s ironic for me to say because I use to believe that service was for lower rank practitioners. That is false because ultimately there are no ranks. Moreover, being of service has allowed me to deepen my practice in ways I could not have fathomed.

 In February, I took my yearly visit to Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico for sesshin. My teacher Jose Shinzan Palma was leading the sesshin along with Sensei Kaz Tanahashi. I was excited to return to Upaya because the previous year had proven supremely valuable. However, this time Shinzan had signed me up to be a server during oryoki*. I was both disappointed and excited. I was disappointed because my sesshin would be interrupted by having to serve food for others, but I was excited because I recognized my teacher was trying to deepen my spiritual practice. I honestly did not know what to expect.

 The time had come. It was the first official day of sesshin, and I had brief training. At first, it was a matter of learning from my mistakes: “Set this pot down, but not that bowl. Or, this signal means that, so do this instead etc.” As meals continued, I noticed the team of six I was working with were also bringing their best effort. We then made a connection and built trust. And I believe that trust came from knowing we were all going to do our part. We were all accountable.

 For me, slowly, the “I” melted away until I was left bare. Free. Yet, I now had space to be myself; behaving without shame or self-criticism. While at the same time, I was a part of something bigger simultaneously. There was “we” the team and there was “me,” an authentic self. I enjoyed the paradox because there was an emancipation to it. We were getting into a flow and finding a footing upon which to dance. Something special, if I can say, was happening.

 When either of us forgot something, another of us provided it without second guessing. If a practitioner dropped a spoon, whoever was closets to it would immediately swap it for a new one. Meanwhile, one of us would wash the dirty spoon for reservation. One reason for this effect, this well-oiled system, was because we would regroup after each service and give time and energy to questions, comments, or concerns. Mali, our leader, was so sweet. She would listen and supply feedback, or contemplate our concerns so she could device a possible solution. Mali really took care of us, but at the same time she demonstrated true leadership. She was always on the ready, accountable, calm, and experienced. I was very grateful for her. We all were.

 Towards the end of the sesshin, I was beginning to feel the interconnectivity. I was starting to understand how we were all truly connected. Because of this experience serving, I solidified my dislike for the word “enlightenment” because ‘enlightenment’ revealed itself like a goal. I sincerely had no care for “enlightenment.” Ironically, all I cared about was being connected to everything and everyone. There was a sense of peace there, and it was revealed to me through service.

Today, every moment to serve is an opportunity to deeply practice for me. I am grateful for everyone’s contribution to this realization. Shinzan volunteered me, Mali took leadership and supported us, people needed to be fed, and my team was perfect to work with. I often think of my team. I miss those clowns. I miss Ellery and her inability to hold back laughter, Eddie provoking Ellery, Jyoshin’s sweetness and gentleness, Alex’s authenticity, and Ben who brought balance to our silliness by modeling a centered practitioner. Thank you.