In volunteering at a Zen center, a place that I love and that usually aligns me with parts of myself I love, I am reminded of the precious cruciality of 'doing you' in all things in life. Be true to who you are. Do, think, eat, drink, choose, work for, interact with, and appreciate the (perhaps bizarre) facets of this boundless universe that, for whatever reason, ring true to you.

I have found that braiding volunteer work and selfless service into these facets can lead to immense gratification and wholeness.


The concept of volunteer work is ancient: one of the earliest instances of organized voluntary action took place in 1688 in Québec City, when volunteers helped to aid the city after a great fire, and in the mid to late 1800’s, volunteer-oriented organizations including the YMCA and Salvation Army became standard in societies. Volunteering is inarguably a respectable form of work, and yet for many of us, it is something that seems to infrequently - if ever - find a place in our schedules, routines and thoughts.

Volunteering combats loneliness. For those who live or work alone, prioritize solitude or find themselves experiencing a sense of perceived isolation for whatever reason, volunteering can provide an excellent net through which to connect with humanity - and with ourselves. It’s a pipeline to others who are also choosing to spend their precious moments alive serving others. It’s humbling. It’s enjoyable. It’s educational. It removes us from the screens, routines, and overthinking. It urges us to be present.

I meditate several times a day. It untangles my mind, distances me from spirals of fear and anxiety and reminds me that everything is actually unchanged and ok - that I am safe. It provides me with authentic feelings of gratitude, bliss and euphoria, similar to those experienced within exchanges of real love.

I am an incredibly finicky, eccentric, perfectionist person and as such, have experienced anxiety and fear for as long as I can recall. I experienced OCD for the first time at the age of eight years old. It came back throughout different points in my life, occasionally in almost charming, superstitious ways. My particular anxiety and OCD demons try to falsely convince me that I want to change (or have already changed) into a totally different, slobish, careless person. That I don’t love myself exactly as I am, am not accepted exactly as I am, or that there is something wrong with me mentally and physically (or both). I experience this daily, though some days are worse than others. I refuse to take medication for this, but I do everything that I can - and know to work - to disarm it: herbal supplements, meditation, occasional therapy, being honest with myself, following a plant and protein-based diet, not consuming caffeine or sugar, sleeping well, spending time talking to and being with those who I love, practicing self care, accepting, respecting, and loving myself as I am.

I understand and study OCD, I know myself well and know that I cannot predict or control the future. I accept that I can and will control myself unendingly. But the voices go on and try to pull me in, and they being from my mind, sound real. I know that they are not actually my truth or my desires. Those with OCD are actually being tortured by false voices that taunt them with nightmarish words and visions and of their worst fears - the things that they of all humans are least likely to do, become, or desire - and yet it goes on. Meditation helps immensely in regard to stopping the voices, laughing at them, thanking them for their efforts and excusing them from the table.

Not long ago, I began attending events and discussion groups at a Zen center tucked into a dusty, chamisa-dotted mountain in Santa Fe. Shortly thereafter, while waiting for a Dharma Discussion Group to begin, I spontaneously asked a working resident if they accept volunteers. My inquiry was quickly met with an affirmative nod. Retreats at the center are expensive, and the carved wood, hand-poured adobe, sprawling organic gardens and fastidiously maintained temples of the physical grounds demonstrate care, privilege, and beauty. It's a prestigious place to be of service.

Mornings are especially difficult for me due to OCD and anxiety. So now, as a volunteer, I often go into the session feeling anxious, irrationally fearful and overwhelmed by my own mind and occasionally by reality. In my sneakers, leggings and black apron, I enter the work space and bow to a handful of coworkers, a mix of staff and temporary residents. Above the kitchen sink is a simple altar. The leader hits a gong and lights a stick of incense, and we stand for a few moments in silence before commencing our tasks. The work itself is simple: blending miso salad dressings, chopping vegetables for steaming, doing dishes, stirring soups, pouring vessels of hibiscus water used to dye eggs into the organic garden. We prepare simple, vegetarian and vegan food for residents and campus visitors.

Within the walls of the kitchen, which in Zen Buddhism is considered to be the 'second temple,' conversation is, according to instruction, kept to a minimum. Interactions are respectful and playful, but there’s a distinctive and purposeful lack of constant chatter. Several times throughout the session, someone rings the bell bowl comprising part of the altar. It serves as a reminder to recenter, and so we put down dishes and knives and stand for a few moments, in silence, mentally returning to the precise moment. These moments connect me to those who are also working. I feel grateful that we’re together, and compassionate towards myself and my co-workers. At the end of the session, we do another small prayer and bow to one another. We then hang up our errands, and leave in respectful silence.

After volunteering, I usually feel as though the nexus-tome known as the 'past' is nothing but a matchbook of memories. Working at the center is similar to meditation in this way - I re-realize that which I already know but occasionally allow OCD and anxiety to try to convince me of falsities. More importantly, I understand now that the fantastical unknown that we refer to as the ‘future,’ isn’t something to panic about, overthink, and freak out about. It will be a semi-controllable blessing. It’s crucial that we work diligently to make our current and future lives the best versions of themselves that we possibly can. But this wildly enjoyable and crucial work is entirely removed from the act of worrying, and is quite the opposite of feeling fearful. I leave feeling legitimately ecstatic, confident, centered and blissful. Some days, I don’t enjoy the service itself. My mind is elsewhere, I feel anxious, I’m assigned to manual labor rather than more charming tasks, I want to leave and resume my usual routines. This, too, is helpful and nourishing to experience.   

Of course, there are other important and honorable ways to be of service: working in a soup kitchen, assisting elders, tutoring underprivileged children and so on. Perhaps this particular one is just my first step. It is definitely something that has given me a safety net, allowing me to actually look forward to doing the work, both inside and out.

Alexandra Malmed

About the author:

Alexandra Malmed works in fine jewelry with her family company, Tony Malmed Jewelry, and is a writer for publications including, Man Repeller, and Coveteur. She also works as a freelance writer for private clients in wellness and fine jewelry including Spinelli Kilcollin, Marc Alary, and F-Factor. She is based in in Santa Fe, New Mexico.