mystery of selflessness

how to do the work that needs to get done

photo courtesy yasodhara ashram

Swami Sivananda, in his farewell address to me, said, “Don’t be concerned about samadhi or realization. Selfless service will make you Divine.”

What could he mean?

“Self-less.” Less the self. When the physical or mental pain of another person strikes a chord of compassion within, when our only concern is to help regardless of any return or recognition, then we have truly helped selflessly. Selflessness is an enormous power that radiates from a person like a light, attracting others. An aura of selflessness makes saintly people shine so brightly that the essential goodness in others, even if deeply hidden, responds.

Before we seek realization, we have to get rid of our selfish self that grabs at everything, seeks constant gratification, and is ever ready to scheme the fulfillment of its own desires. A mind that is ever engaged in scheming without the practice of surrender to the divine will is so out of balance that no single exercise will remedy it. Serving others selflessly — losing oneself and taking delight in helping others — is the best preparation for meditation.

Selflessness can be cultivated if it is our ideal, even though at first we may not be able to avoid the ego patting itself on the back for every little effort. If we are sincere, we will try again and again to loosen the grip of the desire for self-gratification. The next phase may be acting from a sense of duty. But if we keep the mind focused on our goal of selflessness, we will know the difference. We must also accept where we are and not allow the ego to come in by the back door, claiming, “I am selfless.”

Every work is the same. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, “Whatever obligatory action is done, O Arjuna, merely because it ought to be done, abandoning attachment and also the fruit, that renunciation is regarded as pure” (18: 9). The value is in the dignity of the person, the honesty with which the job is performed and the extra service given. This is the essence of karma yoga, to act but to leave aside attachment and the desire for rewards.

When I was at Sivananda Ashram, there was a famous medical surgeon on holiday. He said, “Swamiji, I’m going to retire early so I can spend the rest of my life here and I will be completely at your service.”

Gurudev said, “How long are you here?”

“Another six weeks.”

And Gurudev said, “Then why not start today?”

And he said, “Very well, Swamiji. What should I do?”

“You can start by cleaning the latrines.”

That was the last we saw of him. This particular work was not for him and he had no use for a guru who asked him to renounce his status.

When we have accepted an obligation, for example, to do a specific kind of work, then we simply do it because it needs to be done. If we say, “I don’t like this or I like that better,” we are catering to our likes and dislikes. Ask yourself if the spirit of the work, the true giving, is there. Instead of waiting for somebody to say, “You were wonderful and I’m so grateful to you,” your reward is knowing that you have done your best.

If we do service without self-gratification, we expand beyond ourselves. I think in our modern times we particularly need that. If I serve only myself, I create a small world, and self-centredness can be one of the most destructive forces. If I include you, then you are part of my world and my world becomes larger. Through service, we learn to see the Divine in others. By being generous, we develop purity of mind.

Selflessness helps you to do the greatest good. Even if you are not self-realized, but if you somehow know there is an inner Light, try to kindle it in yourself and in other people too. That will strengthen and clarify your knowing. The highest knowledge is knowledge of this inner Light. Once you recognize it, then the greatest good you can do is to help others to find it. Do not support their weaknesses so they will like you better or be nicer or accept you. That is like an indirect stealing from the Divine.

It would be fine if we could change everyone else to make the world a better place. But this better world starts with each one of us. “Daily we must die,” said St. Paul. Daily we must die to the urges that selfishness imposes on us. It is a hard and strenuous fight. Constant awareness sounds simple, but carrying it out is a continuous struggle. In the practice of awareness, the mysteries of the mind are discovered, and so are the subtleties of the ego.

We start to understand that every thought and action, no matter how small, is part of the whole. The more we become capable of acting from a less selfish place, the more we come into harmony with the divine law. The divine law can be seen at work in all spiritual paths. While the symbols that express it may differ from culture to culture, the aim is the same — the oneness of our human consciousness with cosmic consciousness.

Let yourself be guided by how to put this knowledge into practice. The unselfish desire to serve, to help others, will pave the road. The divine force will then work through you. Repeated experience will bring about the awareness that God, the Light, Energy, works through you. Service of others then becomes worship. Selfless work becomes love manifest. \

A pioneer in bringing yoga to the West, Swami Sivananda Radha is the author of 10 classic books on yoga, including Kundalini Yoga for the West and Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language. Her teachings focus on developing awareness and quality in life.

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