Selfless Service – Cornerstone or Stumbling Block?

Selfless Service – Cornerstone or Stumbling Block?

When it comes to the practice of selfless service, known as Karma Yoga or seva (Sanskrit) in certain circles, there is still a lot of misconception about its premises, despite the fact that the practice is considered to be of foremost importance in many Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Well-known spiritual organizations in the West today utilize volunteering as an indispensable part of their enterprises, and international events such as the SAND (Science and Nonduality) Conference are almost entirely run on the good will of its volunteers ― which is not far from the concept of selfless service expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, as a Yoga in its own right.

But what is selfless service, and how does it fit into the work and context of spiritual unfoldment?

Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received… but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage…

― St. Francis of Assisi

selfless service karma yoga

Karma Yoga — The Yoga of Action

Karma Yoga is not equivalent with hard work. It is not about being busy from morning til night, thinking that we are doing great Karma Yoga this way. The attitude which we cultivate in our hearts is what is essential on this yogic path. We only perform true Karma Yoga when we are free from prejudices, immediate reactions to tasks, and the desire to follow our own agendas. When we perform actions while being steeped in the attitude of service and the contentment of the heart, these very actions won’t leave any trace, as we don’t cultivate negativity in the mind while acting, and thus break the cycle of conditioned action. The act of sweeping, pouring tea, chopping veggies or creating a Facebook post is not Karma Yoga in itself — the attitude behind the action will determine whether it turns into Karma Yoga or not. If we are sweeping, but feel that this is not the right job for us and we become miserable, then that has nothing to do with yoga. Sweeping becomes yoga when it is done spontaneously, as something that simply needs to be done — without emotions and thoughts attached to it.

Selfless service belongs to that which helps one to keep a healthy check on having authorship over our actions. It is a prerequisite on the path. It belongs to the path of Karma Yoga. Selfless service is the ground for helping one to be established in Witness Consciousness, and where one can practice one’s transparent attitude towards one’s involvement with activity. The one who is given to selfless service in a proper way, in time finds freedom from the binding influence of action…

There is nothing to achieve, there is only surrender to a life of service…

― Reshad Feild

There is a famous story from Milarepa, who was asked by his Guru Marpa, to build a stone hut on top of a mountain. To do this, Milarepa had to carry stones up there from the bottom of the mountain. He did that diligently, with great focus, and constructed the house. When the house was ready, Marpa said to him, “No, I don’t like the location of the house. The base of the mountain is much better. Carry the same rocks and reconstruct the house there…” It is interesting to ask ourselves, what we would have done in this situation… perhaps turned around and left the guru, who obviously doesn’t recognize and appreciate what we have been doing here? Milarepa, however, did not react to it. He said: “This is the mandate, I’m going to do it.” With the same feeling of sincerity, dedication and service, he continued to work on the given task. It was the sincere attitude of Karma Yoga that ultimately made Milarepa great.

selfless service karma yoga

In our time and age, it is quite rare that we are sent into the mountains to build a house from stones. Yet what seems like a rather extreme story or metaphor, is a great example of how Karma Yoga and devotion to the Master purifies the mind. For anything we do, we want to have a qualitative return! But if the mind is not rooted in that equilibrium, then it is always at the disposal and at the mercy of these expectations. That is why there are so many disappointments continuously, because that which we expect and put our happiness on the line for, does not come back… and then what are we left with? We’re left with nothing, because there is none of that cream — none of that layer, that richness and insulation of being already contented.

If only one can act from the place of contentment, then he or she can experience happiness from any hobbies or from moving mountains and changing the history of the planet. It makes no difference, because his or her status is unaffected; his or her status is already rooted in that state of contentment. He or she is wise enough — as the Tao says — to see that everything is already perfect, everything is in a state of equilibrium, everything is already in a state of perfection. And then one just acts because some tendencies, energies — yes, even ambitions — are running through our veins, but we don’t expect anything. We are free from the expectancy of how it will be performed, because by its very nature there is nothing we can add to that state of equilibrium. And action is performed then, for the sake of action — it is just as the Bhagavad Gita says: ‘Perform action for the sake of action, never for the sake of its fruits’ — and that’s why all of this changing of the world and everything… as soon as we start putting the cart in front of the horse and we perform action because this, this, this, and that, there is a tension in ourselves. And if the tension is in ourselves it is a tension in the world — we essentially create that tension because we perform action suddenly, not for the sake of action — but because we have a great expectation about how this action will be. But we have no control over it, that’s the trick!

The most difficult thing is to release the reins of control, because it doesn’t even belong to us. And it can only be seen in extremely expansive states of consciousness, when we are enraptured to the degree when this which sits here and thinks, “I am doing this,” or “I am not doing this,” is expanded, and we can see that it is all performed somehow. It is all happening here, without our doing anything much here. It is an extraordinary realization, because it makes us humble — that we were never actually in charge of anything! It was all done through that power to be…

The Spiritual Journey is not About ‘Me’

In spite of our fragility, our weaknesses and even our sins, we recognize the power of the divine presence in us that is come to heal us and to manifest the divine love by the ultimate service of the sacrifice of one’s life in the service of others…

— Father Thomas Keating

The basic principle we need to understand on our spiritual journey sooner or later is that this path is never about us — not about our individual awakening, process or spiritual well-being. A spiritually mature being recognizes that we do not work for our own benefit, but for the sake of service to our own Self, which is the whole of life.

The wish to be of service arises as natural, spontaneous impulse or even yearning on this path. It is a palpable expression of one’s love, devotion and gratitude for the teacher, when we realize the blessing that has been given to us — the tremendous gift of spiritual transmission that true disciples receive through their relationship with the authentic Guru. This very gift of transmission includes the obligation “to serve all of life, including themselves, the teacher, and all other sentient beings…”, as Mariana Caplan expresses in her book The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher.

The relationship between the inner teaching and the outer work is an essential aspect of the Sufi path, for it is the combination of the inner secrets and the ordinary everyday world that makes the path a dynamic living reality within the wayfarer. The most sublime and the most ordinary are fused together in the selfless service of the Sufi; the ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ are brought together and nothing is excluded. The full potential of the human being is in our belonging to both the world of spirit and the world of matter. In embracing these polarities the wayfarer can realize this potential…

— Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Who Am I (Serving)?

It is said that the opportunity to serve is a true privilege, because we cannot accomplish this journey without having relinquished the authorship over our actions. However, when the place and meaning of selfless service on the path and in one’s own evolution is not properly understood, it can easily become the ground for misunderstanding, frustration and disappointment. It is important to realize that we do not offer service for a person, for somebody. We offer it to the Divine, to the Self of all — we offer it to the very power alive and pulsating in the heart of an adept.

Selfless service is not something you do for the teacher personally. It is giving yourself to the very process — it is an indispensable part of sadhana (spiritual practice), offered in the spirit of non-doership to the Guru, who is a living embodiment of the eternal Principle of giving and receiving. Here Guru is literally both the teacher and the student as one indivisible whole. One makes the other. Just as the teacher makes the student, so the student makes the teacher — mutually supporting each other in the spirit of highest Truth.

This giving and receiving is the greatest teaching in disguise. There is no possibility for establishing a Heart-to-Heart connection without this selfless service, which has nothing to do with serving someone’s ambitions or ideals, nor is it a subservience to another’s will —  but an act of devotion, requiring psychological maturity, which sustains that Heart-to-Heart connection. Selfless service is the foundational ground to walk the Path of the Heart…

— Igor Kufayev

Selfless service is a spiritual work, the part where one enters into that completely different contract with a spiritual preceptor or organization, and begins to do one’s duty, essentially to test one’s spiritual prowess — what one can offer. This is very different from what one does as a volunteer based upon different premises; volunteering is, ‘Thank you, so grateful.’ When one steps into selfless service, there are perhaps a few thank you’s, but then the thank you’s stop. You work for your Self when you do selfless service…

— Igor Kufayev, Alaró, Mallorca, March 2018

Selfless Service: What it is, and what it isn’t

  • Selfless service is often confused with a certain “deal” or work-exchange: “When I do something for you, you have to do something for me.”
  • Selfless service is confused with volunteering: “Since I’m volunteering here, I can come and go as I wish.”
  • One believes that offering selfless service means that one works “for” the teacher.
  • One believes that offering selfless service means getting special treatment from the teacher.
  • Selfless service is not the invitation to follow one’s own agendas, belief systems and preferences, but a spiritual practice of surrendering to what is needed.
  • Selfless service has nothing to do with giving up the “I.” What is given up is the identification with those patterns that keep us bound to our belief in this or that special personality.
  • Selfless service has nothing to do with giving up one’s uniqueness. One’s unique skills and talents are put into service for the greater whole.

The Fruits of selfless Service

Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience…

— Father Thomas Merton

Many members of our Flowing Wakefulness Fellowship have been experiencing the joys and blessings of offering seva into this work firsthand ― as well as the challenges encountered in this practice. Unlike any other spiritual practice we follow for a longer period of time, seva helps us to mature and grow, to discover where our offerings might be coloured by selfish motives or are impeded by unresolved knots. In other words, seva is the field where the given spiritual teachings can be applied and perfected, where hearts are polished and invaluable lessons are learned. The following excerpts from team members — students of Igor — give voice to personal experiences with seva:

“I water a flower the way that cloud waters the flower. Can we say that the cloud performs seva? It gives its own particles to let the plant grow, it gives its own blood. It is all that it does, all that it knows, all that it is made for. Enormous beauty…”

– Ganapati Kubacky

“As I journey deeper into the mysterious dimensions of my spiritual process, there is a visceral yearning to offer myself in service. I feel that something is being born here, through Vamadeva and through our community that compels me to be a part of it and offer what I have to give. I literally want to fall at the feet of this magic and offer everything without question. The more I serve, the more I want to serve. And the more I serve, the more of my ‘issues’ come to the surface to be looked at and worked with. It’s a very interesting and wondrous process. It has not been free from challenges and I’m sure they have only just begun, but it feels like the right work. There is a grace in serving that is hard to describe, but I feel that I am being blessed through the offering of my love, attention and devotion…”

– Chloe Hedden

“As part of Team Flowing Wakefulness, I have been given the opportunity to serve Igor and the work that he carries. What began as a retreat kitchen volunteer somehow turned into content creating on the Facebook page, and most recently, assisting Igor at the Immersion – these roles have allowed the expression of my adoration for the teaching and the Teacher, opening up my heart to greater dimensions of thanksgiving. I can only see and say that it all has been an immeasurable blessing to me, to be able to facilitate the work in whatever way that I have been able to, and that I consider it to be a great privilege as well as treasure. I give thanks to this gift of service, for these reminders in the flesh, reminders of my connection to what I feel devotion towards…”

– Lakshman Kwon

“I am aware that I will never ever be able to give back to my teacher what I am receiving from him on so many different levels, but I have a strong wish in my heart to show him my love and deep gratitude (in the form of seva) for all that he is doing so selflessly. I have learned so much since I joined the Flowing Wakefulness team, and it is such a joy and fulfilling experience to be working in a great team of like-minded friends, who share the same path and also wish to support Igor’s work and his service to this growing community and to the world…”

– Prema Landbauer

May this sharing inspire further dialogue and contemplation on this important aspect of one’s spiritual journey.

With love and in service ~

Jai Guru Dev

Flowing Wakefulness Fellowship


Images: Courtesy of Flowing Wakefulness

1 thought on “Selfless Service – Cornerstone or Stumbling Block?”

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top