Selfless Service



There is a wonderful saying in the Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krishna exhorts his disciple, Arjuna, 'O Arjuna, be thou a mere instrument; you have the right to work, but not to the fruits thereof.' Sri Krishna was expanding the philosophy of Karma Yoga, the yoga of selfless service. Karma Yoga means working without thought of personal reward: we work selflessly and offer our actions to the divine. It means we need to work without regard for ego, fame and wealth. If we can work with the right attitude of selfless service, we can make progress. It is an opportunity to diminish the ego and slowly transform human nature from being selfish to selfless. Washing dishes may seem unrelated to the peace and calm of meditation, but done in the right way, it is a spiritual discipline requiring patience and perseverance. When we meditate we try to no longer identify with the ego; selfless service is an opportunity to work for a greater ideal than our own material benefit.

When Sri Chinmoy lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, one of his duties was washing the dishes. Guru said this was his favourite duty because it was something he could do without thinking; it was like a meditation for him. When we can work with the right attitude, hours can fly by and we can be really happy doing it. To the mind, this seems strange, because the mind finds it difficult to comprehend how we could be happy serving other people without material reward. We tend to equate happiness with pleasure, relaxation, and free time. The idea of being happy through selfless hard work is perhaps the antithesis of modern society.  Another lesson from selfless service is the idea that it is not what we do, but how we do it that is important. The ego feels it needs to do something big, something spectacular; it feels it needs to make a difference and change things. To be given an insignificant task like emptying garbage cans seems beneath the dignity of our proud ego. However, the spiritual life teaches us that if we do the smallest thing with love – the right spirit – then it can make the biggest difference. For example, this was the way of the Christian saint, St. Therese of Lisieux – to do small things with love. It is an essential part of the spiritual life, to be content with whatever part we have to play and do it well.

Sometimes, I would get a lot of joy from leafleting and postering to advertise concerts and meditation classes. Before starting, the idea of handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square seemed a real burden, but when you get into it, it can be really rewarding and enjoyable.

Rather unexpectedly, I also found myself being involved in the creation of some websites related to the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It was never planned; a friend had gone off to do the 3100 mile Race, and he asked me whether I would mind giving him a hand for two months whilst he was running this epic race. I didn’t know much about websites or computers, but I liked the idea of doing a ‘poem of the day’.  Gradually, I found myself immersed in this new project. It was great to be involved in sharing spiritual and poetic wisdom. The sites were relatively successful and attracted quite a few visitors. I spent many hours adding content, getting to know new poets and gaining spiritual wisdom in the process.

Many years later, rather out of the blue, I was informed that Guru had closed down the most successful site. It was for a seemingly small reason, and outwardly unrelated to me. But, there it was – months and years of hard work closed down in an instant. I felt pretty hurt. All my effort and work brought to naught. No appreciation, just dismissal. I had become quite attached to its success and my notion that I had done a great job on my site. On the one hand I felt pretty low, but another part of me was trying to work out what was going on. Maybe I had become too attached to something that was meant as selfless service. Maybe it was no longer selfless service but done out of personal motivation and personal aggrandizement. I felt Guru was trying to teach me that I shouldn't be thinking of it as 'my' site and 'my' success. It was something I had just been a part of; it was my selfless service and, like Arjuna, I should ‘listen to Sri Krishna’ and be unattached to the results thereof.

I realised that the immortal teaching of Sri Krishna was much harder to implement when you actually had to accept a pretty disappointing result. Nevertheless I tried to change my attitude and see it as an offering. If Guru wanted to take it down – so be it. Whether this was what Guru was actually doing, I will never know. But, the funny thing is, just after accepting the site going down and trying to be detached, it went straight back up with no reason given. The reason for taking it down was forgotten. I had regained the site which I had put so much into, but, also I now had a different, more detached attitude to the site and my selfless service in general. 

To the outside mind, the idea of taking down a site seems 'unfair' and goes against the human expectation of nice behavior. But, that is the thing about a real spiritual teacher – they don't come to merely reinforce our human expectations, human desires and concept of human morality. The spiritual life is not to have a better ego; it is not to have the same ego just directed towards something considered 'moral' or 'spiritual'. The real aim of the spiritual life is the transformation of the ego; it is to transform human nature into our divine nature. The problem is we find it difficult to let go of our human attachments, our worldly praise and egoistic demands. A real Guru cannot fulfil his promise to the Supreme if he merely feeds the human ego, and at times, it is necessary to remove the props of the proud ego. Sri Chinmoy, in the tradition of great spiritual Masters, was always looking at ways to transform the ego, even if this might prove uncomfortable for our fragile sense of self.

It was also fascinating to see how Guru would deal with different disciples. To some it would seem he would tolerate no end of misdemeanors; he would only offer compassion and forgiveness. To others he could be very strict – it was almost as if he was looking for a reason to shake up their ego. It all depended on what he considered the best for their different cases. One disciple, Pradhan, wrote a book, ‘At My Master’s Feet’, which includes all his scoldings from Guru. The tales are very illumining; through Guru's mixture of scoldings and compassion you see lessons that you really need yourself. You also realize that the spiritual life requires a real change in attitude – not just the reaffirmations of our expectations and wishes.

Though the book was about someone else’s experiences, I felt that his stories were relevant to me. True, Guru never gave me any personal scoldings, but how would I have reacted? Would my pride have been hurt or would I be grateful for being able to overcome obstacles preventing a deeper spirituality. It is said we can easily fool others, we can even fool ourselves, but we can never fool God. Part of me wishes that Guru could have spent longer in the body, so I could have had more direct lessons and scoldings. But, I also feel that if you really try to be receptive, you can see many life lessons as your Guru’s compassionate scoldings in disguise. For example, we have many situations where our ego is hurt or damaged. These can be painful, but can also be an opportunity to consider, ‘How does Guru want me to react to this?’

Sometimes, Guru would severely scold a disciple for a seemingly minor misdemeanor; perhaps they were not concentrating enough on a particular task. From a human judgement, it may seem harsh. But, I also strongly felt that Guru was willing to scold a disciple simply because he loved them too much to let them remain in ignorance.  Sri Chinmoy said his real punishment was inner indifference.

When I joined Sri Chinmoy's meditation path, I perhaps didn't realise it would also entail counting runners at a 24-hour race in the middle of the night or washing dishes in a vegetarian restaurant. Selfless service was an unexpected dimension of the spiritual life. But, also a dimension that has given me moments of great satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment. It also helps to give balance; it is an opportunity to give something back.