My daughters are at an age where they are becoming more aware of the world around them. With world events being discussed at home and school, they are beginning to form opinions about themselves through this novel view that expands beyond the familiarity of parents, family and friends. One such world event has shaped their blossoming through its gravity. With the devastating earthquake in Nepal, the girls were shaken by the images on news media outlets. As it is with children in general, their kindness and concern were aroused and they began to ask what they could do to help. Having heard of a local organization founded by a dynamic doctor, they decided that they wanted to contribute to it and involve their friends in the effort. With some brainstorming, they came up with the idea to make this an art-based project. Under expert guidance by their martial arts mentor, they invited their friends and schoolmates to create art projects for an auction. The event raised a considerable amount of money for their first “service” project.
Through the whole process however, my concern was centered around their intention to serve. Two days after the event, the opportunity to explore the meaning of service arose. As it happens, it is when I am driving them around that I have their undivided attention. The following is the conversation that ensued:
Mom (M): So girls, how did you think the Art For Relief project went?
Daughter 1 (older daughter, D1): Good.
Daughter 2 (younger daughter, D2): Great, mom!
M: How did you feel when you found out how much money you raised?
D2: Really good! Now there is so much money for Detroit2Nepal (the organization they raised money for) to help kids in Nepal.
M: Yes, that is true. I’m very pleased with how much you care. Did you feel happy and responsible that you made it happen?
D1: Hmm… yes.. I suppose..?
M (laughing): There are no right or wrong answers! It is okay to feel fulfilled when you do something for others.
D1 (laughing): Ok then, I do feel fulfilled.
M: So, can either of you tell me what the purpose of service is?
D2: To think about others and their needs.
M: Exactly! Just for a moment, can you both sit still and see what all your thoughts are about? Who or what is the topic of most of your thoughts? When you are meditating and thoughts come up, who do these “talk about”?
D1 (after several moments of silence): About me.
D2: Yeah, about me.
M: Yes! If you can just observe, you will see that all day long (and even in dreams), everything that goes on in your mind is about you and how you feel, what you must do to feel a certain way, etc. So the whole purpose of doing something for others is to direct your thoughts to someone else for a change. But, this is pretty tricky. Even when people do great things for others, the thoughts can still be about themselves and how it makes “them” feel fulfilled and good. Although they have genuine concern for others, the main person they are loyal to is themselves. Can you understand this?
D1: Yeah! So, if I do a project just so that I can get into college, that would not be real service, right?
M: Exactly! Not “real” service. Can you think of some more examples of “not real” service?
D2: If I tell all my friends how much I am doing for others?
D1: If I want to feel better about myself compared to my friends?
M: Good job thinking of very good examples. So what would real service look like?
D1 (after very long moments of thinking): Where I do something for someone even when I don’t want to or don’t like it.
D2: If I do something for someone even when nobody will find out.
M (teary-eyed): Yes, you don’t need to do big service projects. Whenever you put aside your own self-interest and jump in, it is true service. When you do something so that the other benefits (whether you win or lose), it is true service. If I say, “I do selfless service”, would that be real service?
D1: No, because you are still thinking about yourself.
M: Good girl! We can talk about this more later, okay?
D2: Okay mom. Can you put on some music now?
And so it goes. What is service, really? The whole purport of karma yoga is about service. It is the remedy for obsessive self-referencing, the universal human affliction. All our thoughts refer to the “I”, its likes and dislikes, its preferences, its fears and pleasures, its beliefs and notions and so on. This self-referencing is reinforced by parents, teachers and society, fed by competitiveness and rivalry, and nurtured by insecurity and separation. In Vedanta, this notion of the self to be the body-mind is known as “ignorance”, since this identification is a result of not knowing our true nature. This ignorance is dissipated through knowledge of the true nature of the “I”, that is beyond the body-mind (Self, with a capital “S”). Karma yoga is one “path” to Self-knowledge, and begins with thinking about others so that the dualities of likes and dislikes can be mitigated. For a very long time, karma yoga is invariably tainted by self-interest – from feeling fulfilled to accruing “good karma”, from “doing good for society” to “spiritual attainment”, it is still about the “I”. Gradually, the self-referencing becomes more and more subtle, with many opportunities for self-deception. Eventually, karma yoga leads to exploration of the nature of the “I” through self-inquiry and other tools that cut through this self-deception.
True karma yoga begins with seeing through the “I” and that it does not exist the way it is thought to. The body-mind do not hold the “I”, but appear to it. The real “I” or Self is transcendent of body-mind-world and yet permeates and illumines all experience. In this dawning Self-knowledge, boundaries of separation blur and disappear as doing happens without self-interest. Service no longer makes sense as the old concept. Instead, the individual body-mind begins to be used in service of the whole. Individual concerns no longer plague decisions and actions; they merge into the flow of Life.
Selfless service does not happen through willing it, but by transcending the sense of “I” as the limited body-mind through Self-knowledge. Until then, service cannot be truly selfless, no matter how noble. As my daughters stated, selfless service is doing for others whether there is acknowledgment or not, whether it is recognized or not, whether it is liked or not, whether it makes us feel good or not.