THEOSOPHY, Vol. 87, Issue 6, September/October 1999
(Pages 261-266; Size: 11K)


[Article number (5) in this Department]

Theosophy promotes selfless service. Is there such a thing as doing too much for others and not enough for oneself?

The question of selfless service and sacrifice cuts right to the chase for students who are attempting to live in a way that exemplifies the principles of altruism and universal brotherhood. What is too much? Burdens are borne, it seems, as a test of our convictions, even to the point of loss and persecution. Religions have long provided guidance for followers who attempt to cultivate the discipline and ethical foundations needed to give a sense of direction and sustenance. Crushing defeat of one's convictions is surely too great a sacrifice, yet testing one's selfless devotion never left a broken martyr or made a hero who was unwilling to answer the challenge. But how many of us intend to be martyrs or heroes? Perhaps more relevant to the question is the example of the Mahatmas, who appear never to waste their efforts and, from what is told in HPB's time, selected carefully the work at hand. Several students delve into the complexity of selfless service, exploring various facets of inquiry into the question posed.


It may be more productive to look at the two aspects of the question separately than as if they have some reciprocal relationship.

Selfless service is the ideal of all spiritual traditions. We remember with admiration the great benefactors of humankind, the self-sacrificers, those who devote themselves to the good of others. Those with worldly notoriety, the rich and famous, some of whom seem to take more than they give are often the faded footnotes to history. The soul responds to the positive influence of those who uplift and carry forth the promise of the human spirit. When we do for others, we play in the same key as the great ones although probably not at the same pitch. It seems that, when our motive is to help in the true sense without a desire for personal reward, the action is beneficial to the doer as well as the receiver. Our interconnectedness and actual oneness on the spiritual plane makes it so. From this perspective, we can never do too much for others and not enough for ourselves.

Still the old adage holds true, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In many situations what may at first seem helpful can actually be a hindrance. There are critical crossroads in our lives when we must choose and act for ourselves, test our capabilities and convictions. These are times of initiation. If someone else intervenes, acts for us, tells us what to do, things may go well outwardly, but from the "soul side" we have lost a great opportunity and no growth or real progress is possible. Every parent knows that he or she must let the toddler take those first steps. It is painful to watch the child fall and struggle to get up again. The alternative is more painful. It becomes apparent that right motive linked with right knowledge of a situation allows us to help others successfully.

When we neglect our own well-being, when we abuse ourselves and rationalize it by saying or thinking, "I must do for others, I have no time to take care of myself," this seems either to be an excuse for not getting our own nature under control or our own blind spot to the fact that when we neglect our legitimate needs we are less fit to help others. The key principle to keep in mind is reflected in the Buddhist Great Middle Way. With that in mind, we don't become too self absorbed when taking responsibility for our own physical, psychological and spiritual well-being and don't neglect our maintenance, so to speak, when practicing the path of selfless service.


The Dharma of the 'Heart' is the embodiment of Bodhi (True, Divine Wisdom), the permanent and the everlasting.

To live to benefit Mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second.

Sama, the first of these virtues consists in obtaining perfect mastery over the mind (the seat of emotions and desires), and in forcing it to act in subordination to the intellect which had been strengthened by attaining Right knowledge of the real and the unreal (Right Philosophy).

Perfect indifference to the fruits of one's actions, both here and hereafter. (Renunciation of the fruits of actions.) See Robert Crosbie's The Friendly Philosopher, p. 80.

When we live to benefit humankind, we have an automatic obligation to fit ourselves for thought and action with an understanding of Sama as delineated above. Obviously, this is a work of infinite dimensions but, nevertheless, must be undertaken if one is sincere about entering the work of helping others.

Must we wait for total enlightenment before beginning to help others or can we begin here and now? When we help others, at the same time, we help ourselves -- is it a paradox? Theosophy provides us with three propositions which, when applied with understanding, can clarify this type of paradox. They are expressed as unity, law, and growth. If all is one life, there can be no thought or act which does not pulsate through the universe without touching every atom of life. If they are of a harmonious nature, the quality of life will be enriched by that higher and noble impulse; if of an inharmonious or selfish nature, the whole of life will be degraded in proportion. This is the law of life.

What again is our responsibility? To fit ourselves with "right philosophy" or that which helps us to set up causes for the benefit of the whole of life. Consider this from Lao-Tse (Tao Te King): "The Sage does not care to hoard. The more he uses for the benefit of others, the more he possesses himself. The more he gives to his fellow men, the more he has of his own."


There are three "selves." There is the personal self, which is the transient personality we possess for a single life. There is the individual self, which is the immortal soul that evolves through incarnation after incarnation. And there is the universal self, which is the infinite, boundless spirit that abides alike in all beings, from the lowest mineral to the highest deity.

Selflessness, or selfless service, occurs when we define ourselves as the universal self and act on that basis. The spark is the same as the fire. The drop is the same as the ocean. I am the same as you and everyone else. When I hurt others, I hurt myself. When I help others, I help myself. There is no distinction between the two. It is, therefore, impossible to do too much service for another and not enough for oneself, because self and other are the same.

If I fall into the trap of thinking I am acting too much for others and not enough for myself, then I am creating a boundary between myself and others. I am perceiving in error and I will act in error. I will harm others and, because those others are myself, I will harm myself as well.

Some say we must be cautious in our service to others or we can get hurt. This is the cowardly personality always seeking to protect itself. Some say that if we serve others too much we will be taken advantage of. This, too, is the craven personal self always worrying that it is being slighted in some way. Some say that if not used sparingly the well of selfless service will run dry. But this is a well that has no bottom, for it draws upon the infinite resources of the universe. The more generously you give, the deeper it grows.

Does this mean we have to become a "yes" person, always afraid of disagreeing with others? Does this mean we must become a doormat for others to walk on? Certainly not. The truly selfless person is quite capable of saying "no" whenever it is in the best interest of the whole. Look at Gandhi. In his supreme selflessness, he said "no" to the entire British empire.

We have been talking about true selfless service. There is, of course, false selfless service, which is nothing but selfishness masquerading as selflessness. It is the parent who gives up her career for her child and never tires reminding the child of her great sacrifice. It is the bus rider who offers his seat to another and then complains about his aching feet in order to gain admiration and sympathy. It is giving in order to receive. It is the expectation of a return for one's efforts. Of this kind of service, of course, there can indeed be too much. But this is not selfless service at all: it is selfish service. And so the principal remains: If one is truly selfless, it is impossible to give too much to others and not enough to oneself.

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(November/December 1999)
[Article number (6) in this Department]

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