Selfish Service: the Dangers of Doing Good.

Via Chelsea Roff
on Jul 25, 2011
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Creative Commons License photo credit: babasteve

I hear a lot about seva, or selfless service, in the yoga circles I run in. And for a long time I’ve harbored a quiet skeptic within, grappling with questions about the true meaning of “selflessness” and whether my motivations to ‘serve’ are selfless at all. I’d like to open myself up a little bit here and share some unresolved questions I have ricocheting around in my mind. Please know that this article is not intended to criticize anyone engaged humanitarian, charity, or seva-related causes. It’s an invitation to join in a discussion I hope will help advance the way service is understood in the yoga world.

The Arrogance of Selflessness

For as long as I can remember I’ve been eager to “give back” to my community. I was the little girl begging mom to stop the car so I could give my granola bar to the homeless man and asking why he was on the street to begin with. But I’d be the last person to claim my acts of service are “selfless.” Quite the contrary, I’m realizing more and more over the past couple years that the reasons I feel driven to “serve” are extremely selfish. And I’m not just talking about that little old cliche “you get back more than you give”.

I’m starting to think that the very term “selfless service” is a misnomer, one that ever-so-subtly degrades the relationship between giver and receiver. And lately I’ve been grappling with the very uncomfortable possibility that my own well-meaning attempts at selfless service actually have the potential to do harm.

Creative Commons License photo credit: expertinfantry

See, when we “give” to someone under the false premise that we’re only in it for them, that we are handing them something from the moral high-ground of “selflessness”, we create a dangerously codependent power dynamic. All of a sudden we need the person we’re “serving” to validate my feelings of saintlihood and they need us for whatever good or service we’re providing — whether it be money, food, or yoga classes. I don’t mean to be harsh, but that’s not service. That’s ideological enslavement.

The notion that we can suddenly detach from our egoic longings to be needed or appreciated in order to engage in acts of “selfless service” doesn’t make logical or scientific sense. The ‘self’ is an integral part of who we are. It’s not just some esoteric concept; we are physiologically bound to our ‘self’ish inner narratives by the very flesh within our skulls. As long as we’re human beings with frontal lobes and cerebral cortexes, service is inevitably an act of selfishness — and I don’t think that’s something to be ashamed of. Our willingness to acknowledge our selves, to show up as a real person — with all our personal motivations, pitfalls, and desires — is what allows us to enter the relationship of service to begin with.

The Pitfalls of Sending Money

As privileged people (myself included) become more and more aware of the shamefully disproportionate gap between rich and poor (thanks, World Wide Web), we often experience a powerful and angst-provoking desire to help fellow human beings in dire circumstances. Usually the most immediate means we have do something about suffering is to simply send money. I don’t know about you, but pressing that donate button soothes the pangs of guilt I feel when I see pictures of starving children in Africa, makes me feel better when I realize my coffee was brewed from their blood, sweat, and tears.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex Reyes

I think it’s easy to get so wrapped up in our desire to end suffering that we fail to realistically evaluate whether our actions are really helping. And I’m by no means the only one raising a flag to the potential detriments of well-meaning service, though I may be one of the few to voice concerns about this in the yoga world. In a bold and incisive article called Why Foreign Aid is Hurting AfricaDambisa Moyo says:

“… evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, at increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest… Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

Moyo goes on to describe how large sums of governmental aid allow corrupt, ineffecient governments to stay in power. Even channeling money to small local organizations, she says, can create relationships of dependency, and when the money runs out projects often collapse and people are left in worse conditions than they started. She acknowledges that emergency funds are useful in the short term but “are at best band-aid solutions and can never be the catalyst for long-term economic development and meaningful reduction in poverty.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: oneVillage Initiative

I have to be honest, when I first stumbled upon this article a couple years ago I clicked away… I thought to myself: “No, what I’m doing is different.”  To me, Moyo seemed like an angry, extremist academic, and I felt there were much worse evils in the world to be attacking than those seeking to lift the 3rd world out of poverty. Most of all though, I didn’t want to believe that my longing to help could actually be doing harm.

But I’m a questioner, I’m a thinker, and my mind doesn’t let me off the hook that easy. The unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach didn’t go away, and over the past several months I’ve done a lot of re-thinking about what it means to truly serve another human being. I’ve considered what it’s felt like for me when I’ve been the beneficiary of service from others. And the common thread I keep coming back to is relationship. I’ve been given money, I’ve been given resources, but the material items never made a difference unless that relational element was there. Real, long-lasting, unconditional presence from another human being. That’s what’s served me. That’s what’s helped me lift myself out of the darkness.

My All-Too-Selfish Journey

I spent a good portion of last year fundraising for an organization in Africa I whole-heartedly believe in. My hope was to join them for several months, to conduct a scientific study on the benefits of yoga for women with HIV/AIDS, to learn about how the hell people in such dire poverty manage to find joy in the circumstances they’re in. But a few months ago I decided to put a hold on my fundraising… at least temporarily. The truth is, I still feel unsettled with these questions. I don’t know that a couple months is truly enough time to form the relationship I believe is at the heart of service.

What if my attempts at “service” were just re-establishing the oppressive dynamics (wealthy whites handing alms to poor blacks) that that put them into poverty to begin with?

Creative Commons License photo credit: John Steven Fernandez

I also started questioning my motives. Why was I so eager to go to Africa? Why travel hundreds of thousands of miles when there were people I could serve right in my own backyard? As I took a step back, I started to see myself as that naive little child handing the granola bar to the homeless man on the street, thinking I could make it all better with the token I just so happened to have in my hand. Who was I to think that I knew what those women wanted or needed… maybe yoga wasn’t what they needed at all? Most importantly, I realized that without maintaining an ongoing relationship with them, any positive impact I did have would be temporary at best.

So as fate would have it, the funding for my research didn’t come through and life forced me to take major pause. In the stillness, I’ve organically grown into building a much simpler model of service in my home community. It doesn’t require any major funding or complicated scientific studies; all I have to do is simply show up… share my time, my presence, and sometimes my skills as a yoga teacher with anyone who finds it valuable. For now, I’ve put my wish to go to go overseas and connect with my broader human family on hold until I can do so within a program that allows me to be there an extended period of time.

I’m realizing that the path of service I feel called toward is rooted in mutualistic, long-term relationships, and I have to own my own selfishness to step into that. Most importantly, I’ve realized that I have more to give than just money or scientific know-how. I have my (albeit very selfish) self.

Our Studio to Streets crew after teaching yoga at a local homeless shelter

I want to be clear, I’m not arguing that donating money is a bad thing. That model of service can be irrefutably valuable, especially in times of disaster or when immediate and temporary help is needed. There are organizations that use the fundraising model in an extremely mindful and intelligent way, building relationships with locals and constantly re-evaluating how their service lands. There are also organizations that actually establish themselves on the ground in the countries they’re serving — creating a foundation for the long-lasting relationships I am talking about.

But I would like to open a dialogue around the challenging issues I’ve brought up in this article — about the potential detriments of well-meaning service and whether selflessness exists at all.  Let’s hear what you think:

Do you think “selfless service” exists, or is it a misnomer we need to do away with altogether?

Have you ever see well-meaning attempts at service do harm? What went wrong, and how can we move toward something different?

via Yoga Modern


About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.


15 Responses to “Selfish Service: the Dangers of Doing Good.”

  1. Yogini5 says:

    You ever hear of the term "noblesse oblige". Well, that's what most of this is, made trendy and palatable to the target Lulu-clad, upper middle class yogoer …

    I remember once donating to a food drive in a yoga studio: thoughtfully-picked name-brand, nutrient-dense canned goods. No sooner did I do that then I was approached by the studio manager about how about signing up for a workshop later.

    I replied, "I feel prosperous, but not THAT prosperous" …

  2. Karen H says:

    Selfless and Selfish, to me, IS one in the same. Following the theory, that what we do/give unto our brethren, we do/give unto ourselves.
    And I do believe that charity starts at home. Reach out to the ones that are closest to you, the ones you take for granted… When you feel a harmful thing start to bubble in your mind, let it go without using it agianst anyone…that in itself IS charity. Then you set the example that our children, our friends, our co=-workers can follow. Namaste

  3. Yogini5 says:

    Many of the wealthy know exactly what you speak. That may be one reason they stay that way.

  4. Chelsea says:

    Amen to that!

  5. Angela says:

    If you were sitting down to lunch, and a starving child was sitting next to you would you think twice about sharing your lunch? Would you question your motives and choose not to share? I doubt it.
    The fact that we can all sit in front of our computers and ponder whether or not it is selfish or selfless to serve already put ourselves in a position of luxury, way ahead of most women in the world. In my opinion this necessitates an obligation. It's not about being on a moral high horse, or being above someone else. It's just a fact of life that we have been born into a country where as women we have been given an opportunity that so many women around the world would give anything for. Until women and children are no longer sold as slaves, and every child has access to an education and basic health care our work is not done.

  6. apoorva says:

    Here are some quotations from Mata Amritanandamayi Ma, or Amma, to ponder – she is a living example of the power of seva:
    (you may see more about her work at

    "To be able to see our own Self in every living thing with both our eyes open – that is Self-realization. We must see ourselves in others, and love and serve them. That is when spiritual practice achieves perfection."

    "In this age of selfishness, selfless service (Seva)is the only soap that truly purifies"

    "We should make sure that our spiritual practice is accompanied by selfless service. That would be like pouring milk into a clean vessel. On the other hand, spiritual practice without selfless service is like pouring milk into a dirty vessel."

    "The heart sends blood to every cell of the body, and in this way the cells are nourished. The same blood then flows back to the heart. If the flow is obstructed, the person will die. We need to learn this process of give and take from the heart. For the benefit of others, and also for ourselves, we should have the attitude of caring and sharing. We are all links in the chain of life. If one link is weakened, it will affect the strength of the whole chain."

  7. tanya lee markul says:

    Chelsea, I am a fan of your writing and the discussion you provoke! I have to agree with you on many points here. I have read in an EJ article (perhaps it was even one of yours) how sometimes when we help others we 'judge' them and end up placing them in a box where there isn't hope and where the potential for them no longer exists. Interesting thought. I am a true believer that we are here to serve each other (and in turn are serving ourselves), but I don't believe this can truly be done by simply sending a check in the mail. I am quite wary about this method.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  8. Coaracy says:

    Great article. If you love somebody, you give that someone independence. Any help that goes in this direction ( independence, self-sufficiency, etc…) is the real help. Just "Money and food" is just a way to make them dependent. Most people I know that "help" the poor are avoiding their own issues. First we have to make sure we take care of our own Self ( our body, our heart, our mind, our soul), then we should help/influence others to be independent. Namaste!

  9. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  10. harikirtana says:

    Chelsea, you’ve offered us an unusually insightful perspective on the problem of trying to be of service for the right reason in the right way with the right consciousness. I think that there is such a thing as selfless service, that the propensity for selfless service reflects the very nature of the self and, as yoga brings us closer to our true self, our propensity for such service becomes more prominent.

    However, I also think that our service rarely rises to the level of yoga, at least not as yoga is traditionally defined. Our tendency is to think that fulfilling the material desires of others without expecting a material reward for our selves is ‘karma yoga’ or selfless service. But if our service is based on a desire for people to experience worldly happiness and prosperity then our service is a form of extended selfishness; not quite selfless.

    Service of this kind is actually based on a dharmic, or righteous, value system where we’re still very much attached to worldly outcomes. By contrast, yogic values are characterized by progressive detachment from worldly life altogether. Most attempts at selfless service remain on the dharmic rather than yogic level and the contemporary yoga community tends to redefine yoga as dharma. But we actually rise to the level of karma yoga, or selfless service, when we engage in service as a matter of duty without any attachment to the results of our actions and with an understanding that both happiness and distress are two sides of the same coin called life in the material world.

    This is not to say that we should be indifferent to suffering. On the contrary, one symptom of a sadhu is the inability to tolerate the suffering of others. But a sadhu understands that the root cause of suffering will not be addressed by the pursuit of worldly remedies and works to alleviate the suffering of others with this idea in mind.

  11. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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