Work, Service & Selflessness From a Spiritual POV

Trying to sum up everything:

Work starts with your entry point in life.  What social class/location you were born into.  From there you need to do some inner work to discover your nature, personality, characteristics, knowledge, ability and capacity. These things will give you some direction. Then, just start with the work that is in front of you at that particular time. Once working, strive to be present and wisely fulfill your duty with your entire being. Knowing that every position is equally important. And with a sense of connection and selflessness for all of the Universe with no attachments to the results. Acting cheerfully out of love.  As you grow and expand in your work/worship to help others and the world, the specific jobs can shift and you can take on new ones.

Various nuggets of wisdom:

Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge. Pleasure and happiness come to an end. It is a mistake to suppose that pleasure is the goal; the cause of all the miseries we have in the world is that men foolishly think pleasure to be the ideal to strive for. All knowledge that the world has ever received comes from the mind; the infinite library of the universe is in your own mind. The external world is simply the suggestion, the occasion, which sets you to study your own mind, but the object of your study is always your own mind. 

Like fire in a piece of flint, knowledge exists in the mind; suggestion is the friction which brings it out. So with all our feelings and actions—our tears and our smiles, our joys and our griefs, our weeping and our laughter, our curses and our blessings, our praises and our blames—every one of these we may find, if we calmly study our own selves, to have been brought out from within ourselves by so many blows. The result is what we are; all these blows taken together are called Karma,—work, action. Every mental and physical blow that is given to the soul, by which, as it were, fire is struck from it, and by which its own power and knowledge are discovered, is Karma, this word being used in its widest sense; thus we are all doing Karma all the time. I am talking to you: that is Karma. You are listening: that is Karma. We breathe: that is Karma. We walk: Karma. Everything we do, physical or mental, is Karma, and it leaves its marks on us.

We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act

The Gita says that it is doing work with cleverness and as a science: by knowing how to work,. one can obtain the greatest results. You must remember that all work is simply to bring out the power of the mind which is already there, to wake up the soul. The power is inside every man, so is knowledge; the different works are like blows to bring them out, to cause these giants to wake up.

Man works with various motives; there cannot be work without motive. Some people want to get fame,and they work for fame. Others want money, and they work for money. Others want to have power, and they work for power. Others want to get to heaven, and they work for the same. Others want to leave a name when they die, as they do in China, where no man gets a title until he is dead; and that is a better way, after all, than with us.

Even the lowest forms of work are not to be despised. Let the man who knows no better, work for selfish ends, for name and fame; but everyone should always try to get towards higher and higher motives and to understand them. "To work we have the right, but not to the fruits thereof." Leave the fruits alone. Why care for results? If you wish to help a man, never think what that man's attitude should be towards you. If you want to do a great or a good work, do not trouble to think what the result will be.

The ideal man is he who, in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude, finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity finds the silence and solitude of the desert. He has learned the secret of restraint; he has controlled himself. He goes through the streets of a big city with all its traffic, and his mind is as calm as if he were in a cave, where not a sound could reach him; and he is intensely working all the time. That is the ideal of Karma-Yoga, and if you have attained to that you have really learned the secret of work.

But we have to begin from the beginning, to take up the works as they come to us and slowly make ourselves, more unselfish every day.

Our first duty is not to hate ourselves; because to advance we must have faith in ourselves first and then in God. He who has no faith in himself can never have faith in God.

Our duty is to encourage every one in his struggle to live up to his own highest ideal, and strive at the same time to make the ideal as near as possible to the truth.

The great duty of the householder is to earn a living, but he must take care that he does not do it by telling lies, or by cheating, or by robbing others; and he must remember that his life is for the service of God, and the poor.

Our duty to others means helping others; doing good to the world. Why should we do good to the world? Apparently to help the world, but really to help ourselves. We should always try to help the world, that should be the highest motive in us; but if we consider well, we find that the world does not require our help at all. This world was not made that you or I should come and help it. I once read a sermon in which was said:—"All this beautiful world is very good, because it gives us time and opportunity to help others." Apparently, this is a very beautiful sentiment, but is it not a blasphemy to say that the world needs our help? We cannot deny that there is much misery in it; to go out and help others is, therefore, the best thing we can do, although, in the long run, we shall find that helping others is only helping ourselves.

Work, but let not the action or the thought produce a deep impression on the mind; let the ripples come and go; let huge actions proceed from the muscles and the brain, but let them not make any deep impression on the soul.

Karma-Yoga means; even at the point of death to help any one, without asking questions. Be cheated millions of times and never ask a question, and never think of what you are doing. Never vaunt of your gifts to the poor or expect their gratitude, but rather be grateful to them for giving you the occasion of practising charity to them. Thus it is plain that to be an ideal householder is a much more difficult task than to be an ideal Sannyasin; the true life of work is indeed as hard as, if not harder than, the equally true life of renunciation.

Therefore, be "unattached;" let things work; let brain centres work; work incessantly, but let not a ripple conquer the mind. Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner; work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible. This world is not our habitation, it is only one of the many stages through which we are passing.

Krishna says: Look at Me, Arjuna! If I stop from work for one moment the whole universe will die. I have nothing to gain from work; I am the one Lord, but why do I work? Because I love the world. God is unattached because He loves; that real love makes us unattached. Wherever there is attachment, the clinging to the things of the world, you must know that it is all physical, attraction between sets of particles of matter; something that attracts two bodies nearer and nearer all the time, and if they cannot get near enough produces pain; but where there is real love it does not rest on physical attachment at all. Such lovers may be a thousand miles away from one another, but their love will be all the same; it does not die; and will never produce any painful reaction.

To attain this unattachment is almost a life-work, but as soon as we have reached this point we have attained the goal of love and become free; the bondage of nature falls from us, and we see nature as she is; she forges no more chains for us; we stand entirely free and take not the results of work into consideration; who then cares for what the results may be?

In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children—expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.

The whole gist of this teaching is that you should work like a master and not as a slave;work incessantly, but do not do slave's work. Do you not see how everybody works? Nobody can be altogether at rest; ninety-nine per cent. of mankind work like slaves, and the result is misery; it is all selfish work. Work through freedom! Work through love! The word 'love' is very difficult to understand; love never comes until there is freedom. There is no true love possible in the slave. If you buy a slave and tie him down in chains and make him work for you, he will work like a drudge, but there will be no love in him. So when we ourselves work for the things of the world as slaves, there can be no love in us, and our work is not true work. This is true of work done for relatives and friends, and is true of work done for our own selves. Selfish work is slave's work; and here is a test. Every act of love brings happiness; there is no act of love which does not bring peace and blessedness as its reaction.

Therefore the one point we ought to remember is that we should always try to see the duty of others through their own eyes, and never judge the customs of other peoples by our own standard. I am not the standard of the universe. I have to accommodate myself to the world, and not the world to me. So we see that environments change the nature of our duties, and doing the duty which is ours at any particular time is the best thing we can do in this world.

 He told me once the secret of work, "Let the end and the means be joined into one." When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. Thus, in the story, the Vyadha and the woman did their duty with cheerfulness and whole-heartedness; and the result was that they became illuminated; clearly showing that the right performance of the duties of any station in life, without attachment to results, leads us to the highest realization of the perfection of the soul.

It is the worker who is attached to results that grumbles about the nature of the duty which has fallen to his lot; to the unattached worker all duties are equally good, and form efficient instruments with which selfishness and sensuality may be killed, and the freedom of the soul secured. 

All good acts tend to make us pure and perfect. What can we do at best? Build a hospital, make roads, or erect charity asylums! We may organise a charity and collect two or three millions of dollars, build a hospital with one million, with the second give balls and drink champagne, and of the third let the officers steal half, and leave the rest finally to reach the poor; but what are all these? One mighty wind in five minutes can break all your buildings up. What shall we do then? One volcanic eruption may sweep away all our roads and hospitals and cities and buildings. Let us give up all this foolish talk of doing good to the world. It is not waiting for your or my help; yet we must work and constantly do good, because it is a blessing to ourselves. That is the only way we can become perfect.

So, always remember the instance of the curly tail of the dog whenever you have a tendency to become a fanatic. You need not worry or make yourself sleepless about the world; it will go on without you. When you have avoided fanaticism then alone will you work well. It is the level-headed man, the calm man, of good judgment and cool nerves, of great sympathy and love, who does good work and so does good to himself. The fanatic is foolish and has no sympathy; he can never straighten the world, nor himself become pure and perfect.

Firstly, we have to bear in mind that we are all debtors to the world and the world does not owe us anything. It is a great privilege for all of us to be allowed to do anything for the world. In helping the world we really help ourselves. The second point is that there is a God in this universe. It is not true that this universe is drifting and stands in need of help from you and me. God is ever present therein, He is undying and eternally active and infinitely watchful. When the whole universe sleeps He sleeps not; He is working incessantly; all the changes and manifestations of the world are His. Thirdly, we ought not to hate any one. This world will always continue to be a mixture of good and evil. Our duty is to sympathise with the weak and to love even the wrongdoer. The world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually. Fourthly, we ought not to be fanatics of any kind because fanaticism is opposed to love. You hear fanatics glibly saying, "I do not hate the sinner, I hate the sin;" but I am prepared to go any distance to see the face of that man who can really make a distinction between the sin and the sinner. It is easy to say so. If we can distinguish well between quality and substance we may become perfect men. It is not easy to do this. And further, the calmer we are and the less disturbed our nerves, the more shall we love and the better will our work be.

Are you unselfish? That is the question. If you are, you will be perfect without reading a single religious book, without going into a single church or temple.

 He works best who works without any motive, neither for money, nor for fame, nor for anything else; and when a man can do that, he will be a Buddha, and out of him will come the power to work in such a manner as will transform the world. This man represents the very highest ideal of Karma-Yoga.

Just as the universe is always in motion we should always be as well.  We should not avoid work. Just as the body would wither away and die if you never moved.  Perform your duties without concern for the results and for the higher good of all. You reap what you sow.

We must be careful not to engage in work in a selfish manner.  It must be done in a spiritual fashion.  Which evolves in the following way (gunas):

  1. tamas - darkeness, ignorance, inertia
  2. rajas - passion, activity, energy
  3. sattva - goodness, light, purity

In every man there are these three forces. Sometimes Tamas prevails; we become lazy; we cannot move; we are inactive, bound down by certain ideas or by mere dullness. At other times activity prevails and at still other times that calm balancing of both. Again, in different men, one of these forces is generally predominant. The characteristic of one man is inactivity, dullness and laziness; that of another, activity, power, manifestation of energy; and in still another we find the sweetness, calmness and gentleness, which are due to the balancing of both action and inaction. So in all creation—in animals, plants and men—we find the more or less typical manifestation of all these different forces.

These three properties of Prakriti’s gunas, which are distributed disproportionately in everyone and are never in equilibrium, decide the difference in one’s call of duty. If you are predominantly sattvic in nature, you will be fitted for one kind of work in this world; one type of participation will be expected from you in the scheme of things. If you are predominantly rajasic for some reason or the other, then you will be assigned some job, some work, some duty according to your particular temperament. But suppose you are basically unfit for other physical reasons, such as the preponderance of tamas, etc.; then, you will have to be taken care of in a different way altogether.

It's important to be detached and work from a sense of duty.  Not for personal gain or enjoyment.

Every work is equally good. We should not say, “Why should I do this kind of menial work? That person is doing better work.” There is no such thing as menial work and better work in this world. It is all a contribution from one’s own point of view for the total welfare of humanity. Every work is equally divine; every work is equally contributory to the welfare of one’s own benefit as well as others’. Work should not be compared

the concept of dignity of work, and the divinity that one can see in the performance of duty, is to be the guiding factor in one’s daily life; and there should be no complaint either in regard to placing oneself in a so-called inferior position or imagining that somebody else is in a higher position. There is no higher position or inferior position. Each one is fitted for something, and that must be done; and what we are not fitted for, that of course we cannot do. So, we should not complain.

All work is important.  There is no one thing that is better than another.  It is all apart of a larger system that is dependent on each smaller component.  If you take a wheel off a car the end result is that you cannot drive it.  The same goes for if you take the steering wheel off.  A steering wheel, or tire is equally important in the end goal of driving the car.   Our work is the same in the sense that all work is apart of the system of God .  Whether you're a doctor, or a construction worker building the hospital.. each is dependent on one another for the betterment of humanity.

Where are you starting from?

The Gita calls this your duty.  Just like in the game of cards.  If you get dealt a good hand of cards and play wisely; you have a good chance of winning the game.  If you get dealt a bad hand of cards you have to play the best you can and you can only hope for a small win.  Play either hand foolishly and your odds of losing go up.

The same goes for life.  The hand of cards we are initially handed is our birth into society.

In essence what this is trying to say is you have to accept the life you were given.  If you were born in a very low place it would be very hard for you to say become president.  Or, a smaller person trying to be in the NBA, or NFL.  It's just not in the your dharma.

The broad four conditions/circumstances of human society people are born into:

  1. Power
  2. Intelligence
  3. Wealth
  4. Labour

The four classes of society are blended together and suppose to support one another.

As time goes by your abilities can change your conditions/circumstances.  But each person should perform their duty to where they where they were placed in society.  Then, it's possible for someone to go higher.   

Here is what my path looks like:

  1. Not happy with current labor job and would like to jump into one of the other classes (power, intelligence, wealth)
  2. Accept that it is my duty to accept the place I was born into - labour
  3. Evolve into a higher place as my abilities and capacity grow

Where I feel I have struggled with is not accepting reality and wanting to jump from step 1, to step 3.   You may ask.. what's wrong with jumping to step 3?  Well I think you need to be in the correct place to move into a higher placement.  Part of that involves just loving what is your current reality.  Then, letting go of any expectations or attachments.  And doing your work in a spirit of selfless service.

"Our worship of God should be through the work that we do according to our ability and our concept of duty, performed in a totally unselfish manner"

I kinda think of accepting your duty as a foundation for future work to be built upon.  So as a construction worker.. maybe I would develop into building sustainable homes (wealth class) using the skills and abilities developed from construction work.  Relating it to relationships.  If someone is seeking happiness from their partner because they are unhappy.  They will never truly evolve even if that other person does fill that role.  They first need to become happy with themselves.  Then they will be 100% happy with that other person.

There is also something about letting go of something.  Have you ever wanted something really bad.  Then, when it didn't come let it go.  Only to find a little later after it was let go it comes into your life?  Maybe this is detachment at work?

If I tried to be the president (power class).  My knowledge and capacity would not be enough and would cause me great stress.  I need to stay out of trying to do other peoples work/duty.

You need to do some inner work, and be brutally honest with yourself of your current knowledge and capacity.  Which will give you your starting point in society.

Many people I read about today are unhappy with their current station in life.  Then try and jump to step 3, but have a hard time as well.  What most do at that point is then sell jumping to step 3 to others.  Without having really accomplished anything for themselves.  This is made very clear in the follow the passion crowd.  A person was an unhappy lawyer.  Then, he is writing books on following your passion and giving talks.  He is selling the dream but he is not living it.

"According to our nature, according to the predilection of our psyche, the inborn characteristic of our own personality will decide what kind of work we have to do and what duty is expected of us. Then we shall not have any kind of fear of sin because we are doing the best that we can—kurvan nāpnoti kilbiṣam." - swami-krishnananda

Now, the duty that you are expected to perform in the world is not something imposed upon you by a government, or a social mandate from outside. It is the law of your own nature expecting you to do what is necessary, under the very structure of your own individuality, or jivatva – your personality.

The way to live:

Viviktasevī laghvāśī (18.52): Always wanting to be alone to oneself, and not feeling happy in the midst of people. The more we are alone, the more we feel free and happy. That is the characteristic of a spiritual seeker in an advanced stage. Laghvāśī: Eating only as much as is necessary, and not eating like a glutton. Yatavākkāyamānasaḥ: Working only to the extent it is necessary to work. He does not work beyond his limit and become fatigued. He speaks only when it is necessary to speak, and does not speak unnecessarily. He also restrains the mind, and thinks only when it is necessary to think in a particular line. Otherwise, he does not think anything at all because of his inward spiritual approach. Dhyānayogaparo nityaṁ: Always intent on the supreme meditative mood on the ultimate goal of life. Vairāgyaṁ samupāśritaḥ: Totally renouncing all attachment to worldly involvements, all perishable objects—anything that is external, spatial and temporal—renouncing all these things by vairagya dharma.

The gift of knowledge is a far higher gift than that of food and clothes; it is even higher than giving life to a man, because the real life of man consists of knowledge; ignorance is death, knowledge is life.

The misery that I feel when I am hungry is satisfied by eating, but hunger returns; my misery can cease only when I am satisfied beyond all want. Then hunger will not make me miserable; no distress, no sorrow will be able to move me. So that help which tends to make us strong spiritually is the highest, next to it comes intellectual help, and after that physical help.

We may convert every house in the country into a charity asylum; we may fill the land with hospitals, but the misery of man will still continue to exist until man's character changes.

It is not actually the work that is the source of your satisfaction; it is the connection of this work with the consciousness of your identity with the whole cosmos. 

Yoga is harmony, and it is also expertness in action. Expertness means the ability to see unity in everything that you do, and in every position in which you are placed.

If you don't heed this advice that is offered:

If you insist on your own ahamkara and say, ‘I shall do this, and I shall not do that’—then you will be responsible for what follows.” You shall actually perish if you insist on your egoism and say “I shall do this, and I shall not do that” as Arjuna said in the beginning of the First Chapter. Atha cet tvam ahaṁkārān na śroṣyasi vinaṅkṣyasi: “If you do not listen to this good advice and insist on your egoism again and again—well, you will reach nothing finally.”

You have to be vigilant to see that your behaviour and action at any given moment of time is not out of context with the unity of purpose that is to be at the back of it. Otherwise, it will be a drab, desultory work which will please nobody – neither you, nor anyone else.

Even if people inwardly decide not to do anything, not to work at all, and maintain silence, it is not possible. As long as the body and mind—which are the properties of prakriti—are there, and because prakriti is always in a state of motion, it is not possible for any person to be inactive.

"fearlessness"—fear nothing. Fear is a sign of weakness. A man must go about his duties without taking notice of the sneers and the ridicule of the world.

we need not have to engage ourselves in any work later on. Just as rivers move, but they need not move after they reach the ocean, so too one has to work hard until the Universal Being is reached

Resources The Secret of Work