The Secret of Selfless Action
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Recently a friend asked me a good question: “How can work help to slow down the mind?” On the one hand, Sri Krishna tells us in the Bhagavad Gita that the very purpose of work is to undo karma and still the mind. But on the other hand, as everyone with some self-knowledge knows, the usual effect of work is to get us speeded up and personally entangled in how the work turns out.
The key is simple to understand but difficult to practice: Sri Krishna is talking about selfless work. In this sense, the purpose of work is to learn to work hard without any ego involvement at all. Stilling the mind is simply another way of expressing this, for nothing stirs up the mind except the ego.
“Stilling the mind” is a very abstract concept, and “renouncing the ego” is worse. It may be impossible to understand these things until a person has some way of practicing them. That is one function of work in sadhana: to bring abstract ideals down to earth.
Many of the disciplines in my eight-point program are ways to still the mind through work. When you are working with one-pointed attention, for example, that in itself helps to slow the mind. When you do not gauge what you do by what you like or dislike, you are turning your back on the ego, which will make it easier to steady your mind.
When people tell me they would like a job that is more interesting or more intellectually challenging, they sometimes mean only that they want more personal recognition, perhaps even a little more power: not much, you know; just one step higher on the ladder, two or three more employees to supervise, a position a little closer to the boss’s ear.
These are very human foibles, but indulging them is the opposite of work’s real purpose. Instead of weakening the ego, this strengthens it. Whatever you are doing, don’t think in terms of prestige or personal power or profit, all of which can be terribly insidious. Working only for ourselves tightens the ties of our conditioning, but learning to work without selfish attachment gradually elevates our consciousness and purifies it of selfish motives.
For almost half a century I have had people tell me, “You don’t know human nature. Without a personal motive, human beings will never give their best.”
That debases human nature. Everywhere, the best work is prompted not by the profit motive but by love. We have only to consider the lives of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa to see that they offer us a vision of human nature vastly higher than what the world expects. They show us our real human stature, which reaches beyond biological conditioning to a level that approaches the divine. This is our glory as human beings.
In fact, the world’s mystics would say, learning to live for others is the very purpose of our existence. Life is a trust, and each of us is a trustee whose job is to use the assets entrusted to us for the greatest benefit to all. We are sent into life for one task: to enrich the lives of others, and anybody who takes from life without giving, the Bhagavad Gita says baldly, is a thief: stolen time, stolen energy, stolen education, stolen talent.
This goes against conventional thinking, but it is an orientation that can be learned. We can gradually teach ourselves to think first of what contributes to the welfare of all — by regularly giving part of our time, energy, and resources for supporting selfless causes without any thought of remuneration, reward, or recognition. There are so many opportunities: neighbors, schools, clinics, and shelters for the hungry and homeless are just a few.
I think children should also be trained from their early days to give some of their time and talents to selfless work.
Wherever work is done for a higher good, there will always be good, thoughtful, selfless people to support it. This is true in every country on the face of the earth.
But we ourselves set the example. Selfless service attracts selfless help. If I may illustrate from my small example, I work three hundred and sixty-five days of the year all the day through. I never take a vacation because I am always on vacation. That was my grandmother’s example, which I caught from Gandhi too — and it is highly infectious. Many of the young people meditating with me when we were building our ashram worked seven days a week: five days at a paying job or at the university and then two days more for the Blue Mountain Center. Even during the evening, they often found time to make some contribution.
That example is standing refutation of the claim that people will not give their best without self-interest. 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.
This kind of hard, conscientious, selfless work is a valuable aid to meditation.
On the one hand, the discipline it requires helps in mastering the mind. On the other hand, it helps to work out the debt to life we have accumulated by living for ourselves.
This debt is not a figure of speech. If, as all the world’s religions teach, the purpose of life is to give, it follows that when we’re not giving, we’re borrowing — running up bills, which have to be paid sooner or later. As I said earlier, the Gita actually calls this theft. I use more temperate language, but the meaning is the same.
Every one of us has a lot of red ink in our life’s ledger, and to make progress on the spiritual path, it’s necessary to start balancing the books. In other words, all of us have committed mistakes — including myself — and one of the ways of counteracting these mistakes is by giving more and more time to selfless service.
Spiritual awareness cannot come to us in any great measure until we have wiped out our backlog of these debts. That is why the Buddha, in very matter-of-fact language, urges us to keep on doing good if for no other reason than to get our accounts clear.
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 get the attention or to bend others to our will and ways.
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.
I, for one, 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.
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.
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 wellbeing.
What matters is the effort — the mental state behind our action. I, too, started my teaching work with some private motives. Although I was devoted to my students, there was a measure of personal motivation also.
But I went on giving my very best to my meditation and my students, and gradually, through a lot of effort, I found that my personal motives were dissolving in the overwhelming desire to be of service.
I can try to explain the dynamics of this in two ways. The more selfless work you do without thought of profit or pleasure, without even a thank you, the smaller the ego becomes. The more profit-seeking, pleasure-oriented work you do, the bigger the ego becomes. So selfless work itself is an attempt to reduce the size of our ego — which is, practically speaking, the only barrier between us and the unity of life, between us and the Lord within.
Second, when you work like this, instead of continuing to overdraw your account with self-centered activity, you have a certain positive balance at the end of the day, which you can deposit in your security bank inside. Every day you save, say, two units, and at the end of the year you get a very welcome statement from the internal auditor: not only is your debt no longer compounding, you have managed to reduce it dramatically.
In practical terms, this means that regrets begin to fall away. Instead of dwelling upon the debit side, you will be dwelling on the credit side. Eventually the great day will come when the account is balanced completely. After that, whatever you do goes as a bonus to those around you.
Karma yoga, the way of selfless action, is praised throughout the Gita. But you can see why a true karma yogi is so rare. The best example I can point to in our own times who embodies this path is Mahatma Gandhi, and he is quite candid about how difficult he found it to work tirelessly for others without getting attached to things turning out his way.
The key to this is given in some of the most famous verses in the Gita:
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself — without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. (2:47–48)
This sounds prescriptive, but Sri Krishna is just pointing out something we all know but can’t easily accept: we have really no control over the results of what we do. Even with something that seems completely within our domain, a million things can go wrong; a million events can change the outcome in an instant. We can’t control the universe; we are doing well if we manage to control ourselves.
Therefore, Sri Krishna says, it is within our power to act wisely, but wise not to be anxious about getting what we want. Gandhi summarized this in a memorable aphorism: “Do your best; then leave the results to God.”
Krishna goes on to explain the value of this kind of detachment:
Those who are
motivated only by desire for the fruits
of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill. Therefore, devote yourself to the disciplines of yoga, for yoga is skill in action. (2:49–50)
In practical terms, he is reminding us that worry, vacillation, and other divisions in consciousness only weaken our resolve and disturb our focus.
When Mahatma Gandhi had to make a decision, he would put his attention on the problem completely, work out the pros and cons, and listen to trusted advice before deciding what to do. Then, once he had made his decision, he didn’t pay the slightest attention to praise or blame or even threats. It’s not that he ignored the outcome; when he decided he had miscalculated, he could reverse himself spectacularly. But he was always in the driver’s seat, not pushed and pulled about by what other people thought.
The result of this is just marvelous: you don’t lose your nerve when things go wrong. The main reason why we get afraid of obstacles and anxious about problems, the Gita says, is that we become entangled in getting the results we want.
The secret of selfless action lies in using right means to achieve a right end, and then not getting anxious over the outcome. 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.
Without personal relationships, we cannot learn to work selflessly. That’s a very important point. If you retreat to the forest, you cannot work out your debts with bears and trees. You have to be in the midst of people, rubbing off the angles and corners of your personality in the give and take of every day.
In other words, as far as spiritual living is concerned, the purpose of selfless service is not only to benefit others; it is also to remove the obstacles to love in our own consciousness. And there is no way to do this except in our relationships at work and at home: by being patient, being kind, working in harmony, never failing to respect others, never shirking responsibilities, never insisting on our own way.
I have tried to follow this prescription for decades, and as a result I don’t feel any tension or fatigue because I don’t compete with anybody. I try to complete everybody; I try to help everybody around me to complete each other.
In this way none of us is unemployed. All of us are born to be servants of God. We are all born on earth to make life a little better than we found it. And until we understand this and begin to carry out our job, a feeling of frustration will always haunt us.
In whatever capacity — teacher, parent, student, doctor, computer programmer, or retired person — we become fulfilled when we use our talent, our training, our time and energy, for the benefit of all, without questioning what we’ll get in return.
This article is from the Spring 2019 Blue Mountain Journal.