Today lets discuss the relationship we have to ideas like selflessness, self-sacrifice or selfless service. Ideas like self-sacrifice or selflessness have become associated for many people with letting yourself be stepped on or over run by others, of being a kind of dish rag, moping up others messes and not taking care of yourself. Being selfless for many has become a way of saying you’re the kind of person who doesn’t take care of yourself.
However being self-effacing and self-destructive is, in reality, not the same as being selfless and self-sacrificing. To do acts of service to another without wanting something for your self in return is to engage is selflessness. If you have to go out of your way a little to do this, or perhaps even a lot, you are engaging in self-sacrifice.
Most acts of self-sacrifice are a choice, a very powerful choice to give freely without expecting any return. These choices are not a result of being self-effacing and weak but, on the contrary, represent a powerful capacity to notice what is needed and give freely. People who on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs ego development stages have healthy ego development become ‘self actualizing’ and gain the ability to dedicate themselves to something greater than their personal wants and needs.
The yogic practice of Tapas, the third principle of the Niyamas, literally means fire. It involves burning away our small since of self in the fire of selfless love. This teaching burns the ego on the fires of selfless love and liberates us from identity with the small ego self. It helps us to see all beings as part of our own Self. When we care for the welfare of other beings and engage in selfless service, seva, and random acts of kindness, with no expectation of getting something in return, then we become self actualizing.
Our ego development expands from focus on I and mine, to focus on the well being of all. Selfishness fades from us, and many of the sorrows and fears that often accompany self-absorption in our personal problems diminish. We find instead that we are carried on the power of our dedication to the welfare of all beings and whatever form of service that manifests as. It becomes more important and rewarding to know that we have done something good that has helped the world than to indulge in personal pleasures.
The practice of Tapas brings meaning and an expanded since of self. The seeds of selfishness are burnt on the fires of selfless love. Then you grow, you become more. By surrendering and letting go, doing something kind for someone despite your personal pain, you become a part of something larger. You expand towards the limitless, towards the one unconditional love of the Divine. It is amazing the healing impact of getting over yourself and taking the time to notice and care for others. It is a big world, and each of us is only a small presence in a vast, cosmic garden. But when we get over ourselves and connect in selfless love to the whole of life and live in seva, we in fact heal our own being and become whole. Tapasis an important practice of Niyama that is stressed for moving into alignment with your Divine Self.
As a point of note, some people over the centuries have gotten a bit confused on this particular point and thought that Tapas meant to somehow impose some harsh discipline on your body, like whipping yourself or starving yourself to burn out impure thoughts. These kinds of self-effacing and self-destructive behaviors represent a misunderstanding of Tapas. Tapas does involve discipline, but not self destruction. If you harm your body or mind, you do harm to the sacred vehicles that have been given to your care. You violate Ahimsa. This is not Tapas.
Tapas is instead the discipline of selfless love, the cultivation of the ability to look beyond the small ego self and live a life in service to the greater Self of all beings. It’s cultivation is an essential part of moving towards Moksha, liberation.
The practices of cultivating purity of heart and mind, contentment and well being, and selfless service to the One Eternal Self in the many forms of living beings on this earth, are all part of developing an expanding awareness.
Next time we will explore Svadhyaya, the practice of study of the Self, Self-inquiry and Self-reflection. If you want to explore all of this in more depth, please read my book Living Love, the yoga and Yama and Niyama.
Maetreyii Ma: a teacher of yogic wisdom & practices