“Those who are self-realized have no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of their prescribed duties, nor have they any reason not to perform such work. Nor have they any need to depend on any other living being. Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.” Bhagavad-gita 3.18-19
In her recent contribution to Elephant Journal, Chelsea Roff offers us an unusually insightful perspective on the problem of trying to be of service for the right reason in the right way with the right consciousness. And she asked a few thought provoking questions: “Do you think ‘selfless service’ exists, or is it a misnomer we need to do away with altogether? Have you ever see well-meaning attempts at service do harm? What went wrong, and how can we move toward something different?”
I think that there is such a thing as selfless service, that the propensity for selfless service reflects the very nature of the self and, as yoga brings us closer to our true self, our propensity for such service becomes more prominent. However, I also think that our service rarely rises to the level of yoga, at least not as yoga is traditionally defined. Our tendency is to think that fulfilling the material desires of others without expecting a material reward for our selves is ‘karma yoga’ or selfless service. But if our service is based on a desire for people to experience worldly happiness and prosperity then our service is a form of extended selfishness; not quite selfless. Our contribution to their material well-being may give us some personal satisfaction and help lead society to a more equitable and civilized condition, but it’s still selfishly motivated, however extended that selfishness may be.
Service of this kind is actually based on a dharmic, or righteous, value system where we’re still very much attached to worldly outcomes. By contrast, yogic values are characterized by progressive detachment from worldly life altogether. Since most contemporary yoga practitioners don’t operate on the assumption that liberation from worldly consciousness is the goal of yoga most attempts at selfless service remain on the dharmic rather than yogic level. Hence, yoga is redefined as dharma, which may be fine for practitioners disinclined toward the idea of transcendence, but it may also explain why it isn’t ultimately satisfactory; a paradigm shift may be required.
We rise to the level of karma yoga, or selfless service, when we engage in service as a matter of duty without any attachment to the results of our actions, knowing that we’re not the ones who can determine those results, and with an understanding that both happiness and distress are two sides of the same coin called life in the material world. This is not to say that we should be indifferent to suffering. On the contrary, one symptom of a sadhu is the inability to tolerate the suffering of others. But a sadhu understands that the root cause of suffering will not be addressed by the pursuit of worldly remedies and works to alleviate the suffering of others with this idea in mind.
When we align our service with yogic values of equal-mindedness towards both happiness and distress and an intention of offering those whom we would serve a path out of the material conundrum altogether along with whatever material benefit our service may bestow, then our service will be genuinely selfless and, paradoxically but not surprisingly, satisfying to the self.