Nine Ways to Work in Unity
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Everything we do should be judged by how much it adds to the unity of life. This applies to jobs, to recreation, to everything we spend our time on. If it conduces to unity, that work is spiritual.
There is no conflict between what Christian mystics call the active and the contemplative lives, between meditation and selfless action; they go together as naturally as breathing out and breathing in. “What a person takes in by contemplation,” Eckhart says, “he pours forth in love.”
Today our troubled world is clamoring for action from each of us to help resolve the dilemmas with which it is faced.
Without being the president of the country or the prime minister, even in our own small life, in our home, with our neighbors, on our campus, in our town, all of us can make a real contribution to peace by not being violent under any circumstances and learning to live in harmony even with those who may cause trouble to us.
Of course, everyone does not make the same kind of contribution. But whatever our place in life, each of us has a contribution to make that can be made by no one else.
How we work is as important as what we do. Spiritual values are not so much taught as caught, from the lives of those who embody them. Your job may be nothing more glamorous than janitor in a hospital, but if you are practicing sadhana sincerely, you will be contributing to other people’s lives, even though you may not see it happening. These are spiritual laws.
I have friends who have come back from a stay in the hospital and told me that the person who gave them the most support and cheerful encouragement was an aide who was particularly thoughtful, or the night nurse who always had a smile and something cheerful to say.
We can each enrich our sadhana and improve our contribution to the world by giving the utmost concentration to the job at hand in a spirit of detachment. Both these are necessary: concentration and detachment. When they are present together, it is enough to go on giving our best in fulfilling the responsibilities with which we are entrusted.
There is no job without some drudgery, conflicts, unpleasantness, and a certain amount of plain slogging to get the work done. Therefore, the Gita says, don’t ask, “Is this interesting? Is this exciting?” If a job is exciting today, it’s going to be depressing later.
The answer is not to change jobs, drop out, or walk away, but to give more attention and do the very best we can. Interest does not lie in the job; it is a function of the attention we give. With complete attention, everything in life becomes fresh.
Ask if you are part of work that benefits people. If you are, give it your best. Doing a routine job well, with concentration, is the greatest challenge I can imagine. You’re not just doing a job but learning a skill: the skill of improving concentration, which pays rich dividends in every aspect of life.
Even if our paying job does not make much of a contribution, there are many opportunities for selfless service where we can offer our time, energy, skills, and enthusiasm to a cause bigger than ourselves.
I know earnest meditators who will give their best at work for eight hours, then come home and give their time and skills and energy to their family, or their neighbors, or their meditation center, or the local hospital, or any of a hundred and one other worthy causes. When you do, you will be able to say, “My real work starts when business hours are over.”
Those with some degree of spiritual wisdom do not retire from life when they retire from their job. They say, “Now is my chance! I don’t have to go to just one office any more; I can go wherever I’m needed.”
Some of us may contribute our time; for others it may be energy or skills. For still others it may be material possessions or expert advice. But it’s not enough just to give generously. We also have to work selflessly, trying to give without a trace of egoism or personal motives. We have to work together harmoniously without trying to see who is going to be the leader or to bend others to our will and ways.
In attending to the task at hand, the Gita urges us never to get attached to personal pleasure or profit. Whatever the job, do it as a service to others. Don’t do it to gain credit or prestige or to win attention.
To most of us today, excellence without personal ambition seems a contradiction. From the Gita’s perspective, however, you can’t have one and keep the other.
The key word here is “personal.” I am terribly ambitious where the world is concerned, but I would suggest that none of us try to be ambitious where our own small self is concerned. If we can forget ourselves and give full attention to the job at hand, we cannot help but excel.
I do not think it possible for anyone to become completely selfless in action without the practice of meditation. It is rather easy to think that we are living for others and contributing to their welfare, but very often we may not even know what the needs of others are.
All of us have immense resources of love, most of which swirl around our own ego. As long as we are in love with our own ego, dwelling upon ourselves, dreaming about ourselves, it will not be possible for us to love our family or our community.
In order to become aware of the needs of those around us, to become sensitive to the difficulties they face, we must minimize our obsession with ourselves. This requires the discipline of meditation, which enables us gradually to reduce self-will and preoccupation with our private needs.
In meditation, we gradually release this swirling whirlpool into channels of fruitful service which flow towards others. The more we think about ourselves, the less we can love others; the less we think about ourselves, the more we are able to love others. When the great day comes when I forget that most monotonous subject in the world, myself, on that day I am free to love everybody.
To imagine that we are going to learn the secret of selfless action in a few months, or even years, is being a little optimistic. Even sincere philanthropists, who do a lot of good for the world, are sometimes motivated by personal drives.
We all begin the spiritual life with action that is partly egoistic, partly egoless, and none of us need be discouraged when we find in the early days that there is some motive of enlightened self-interest driving us on to action. Without this motive in the beginning, action may be difficult.
It is good to accept this from the first. It takes quite a while for most of us to become fully aware that our welfare is included in the welfare of all and to realize that when we are working for everybody, we are also ensuring our own well- being. What matters is the effort – the mental state behind our action.
The secret of selfless action lies in using right means to achieve a right end, and then not getting anxious over the outcome. We all have to use our judgment, weighing the pros and cons before we select a selfless goal, assessing our capacity thoughtfully, and then selecting the right means. According to the great mystics, wrong means can never bring about a right end and right means can never fail to bring about a right end. This is why Gandhi has said, “Full effort is full victory.”
When we have learned to drop attachment to getting what we want while working hard and selflessly for a great cause, we can work without anxiety, with confidence and peace of mind. Reverses will come, but they will only drive us deeper into our consciousness.
I know of no other way to transform consciousness than the sustained, systematic practice of meditation and its ancillary disciplines. Until we make this commitment, the Gita says, the decisions of life “are many-branched and endless”; but once we do make this commitment, everything begins to fall into place. When we practice meditation regularly and follow the allied disciplines to the very best of our ability, we have only to do our best; the opportunities we need for spiritual growth cannot help but come when the time is right.
If we give ourselves wholeheartedly to selfless work without any desire for recognition or praise, power or remuneration, then our actions cannot help bearing good fruit – not only in the world but in our own lives, in our spiritual growth.
Selfless service brings out what is best in all of us. Below all the conditioned strata of the desire for profit and pleasure flows a deep river of love, a deep desire to give without thought of return.
When we start living for others, we come to life. All our deeper capacities flow into our hands; our security increases and our wisdom grows, as does our creative ability to solve the problems that confront the world. Living and acting selflessly, we will be constantly aware that all life is one – that all men are brothers, as Gandhi would say – and that throughout creation there is an underlying unity binding us all together.
So what I would tell all of you is this: meditate every day, throw yourself into some form of selfless work, and use your sense of suffering as a powerful motivation to help relieve the suffering of others. It is a wonderful gift to be able to give.
This article comes from the Blue Mountain Journal, Spring 2021.