If you’ve ever wondered and searched with the greater population of the world for the true meaning of happiness, you’ve probably heard, at some point, that it’s some form of “seva”, or service to others.
Philosophies across generations and geography, from Hinduism to Christianity to self-help books will tell you that devotion to others is all it takes to escape the anxious emptiness of your life forever.
The idea is that individual “me” is meaningless: the “I” that I understand is an illusion, and the only way to connect with God or anything deeper is to give yourself completely to others.
On a particularly bad day, though, I discovered this conundrum: If individual “me” is meaningless, then why should I give any energy to anyone else, since everyone else’s individual selves must be meaningless too? There’s no meaning in serving meaninglessness. If we are all just cogs in some sort of incomprehensible meaningless universe machine, why even bother to live?
Okay, I was having a bad day. But it’s still a conundrum.
There are plenty of good days, but there are also days when I wonder why anyone wants to practice yoga with me since I must be the worst teacher on the planet (I think every yoga teacher goes through this regularly, especially if they care about what they are doing). There are days when I make the mistake of reading the comment section on the very public blogs I’ve published, and you know, haters gonna’ hate. There are days when this really bothers me.
So I was in class with one of my favourite teachers recently, and it was a full moon. Full moons are times to reflect on what you want to let go of in your life. My teacher laid us out in full prostration on our bellies, palms up, and asked, “What do you want to let go of?” Obvious answer, I thought to myself: “I want to let go of what other people think of me.” Then she said, “what do you want to cultivate in your life?” And I thought, “teaching, sharing, learning, support, community.”
And I hit another conundrum right there on the yoga studio floor. If what I base my life on involves other people, specifically teaching them and getting them to hire me, do workshops with me, listen to me, and read what I write; how can I help but care about what other people think of me? My life is organized around what other people think of me. Perhaps I’ve made a huge mistake.
Luckily though, a voice came to me, as one does—if you are lucky—on bad days. It was Reema Datta, a teacher who had visited Vancouver years earlier. “If you want something,” she said, “give it away.” She went on to explain that if you want more support in your life, support others. If you need more abundance in your life, be generous to others. If you want a class subbed out on New Year’s morning, take on someone else’s class who needs theirs subbed. It sounded like magic, and she explained it like magic.
In Hindu philosophy and in Christianity, the good deeds you perform in this life are rewarded in some far future place, like heaven or your next life. This woman was saying it could happen to you next week.
The whole idea of devoting my entire life to others or to God still didn’t quite sit right with me (Christian childhood hangover), but I thought I’d give it a try. Actually, it does sort of work like magic. I’ve had some uncanny experiences with getting stuck, offering to someone else what I hoped for myself without expecting that result and ta-da! Pounds of chocolate appear magically in my pantry every Sunday. I’m kidding, of course, about the chocolate, but I did get that New Year’s Day class subbed out.
I haven’t ruled out the possibility of magic here, but I finally figured out what the answer to my conundrum was. It was my definition of “people.”
This explanation might be well bolstered by a talk I saw recently by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who had a stroke that effectively short-circuited her entire left brain. Among her many fascinating insights (and I would really recommend watching her talk) is that one of the main differences between the left and the right brain is that the left brain is doing work all the time to define the difference between “you” and “me.”
The left brain is planning, devising, detailing, figuring out, remembering, talking, and ego-ing the place up like crazy. The right brain just experiences energy in this moment, right now, and doesn’t understand the difference between “me” and anything else; be it wall, puppy, phone, colleague, or stranger. The right brain doesn’t need a difference between “you” and “me.”
Again, I still haven’t ruled out the possibility of magic, but there’s an obvious, big-picture eco-science happening here. We often forget that we are inevitably, vitally, a part of the communities we live in. Everything we do affects everyone around us. We are animals in ecosystems, and we have this idea that we are somehow agents alone within them.
Your voice, your arguments, the food you eat, the people you hang out with, the businesses you support, and even your choice to sit at home and play video games affects other people. Whatever you have to give inevitably affects the world, and it inevitably affects you.
Think of it like peeing in a pool. When you do it, it’s not just the other kids that get pee on them. You get pee on you, too. The pee and the water are mixed together. And we are all in the same pool.
So when you want something, give it away.
Not because other people are more important or better than you. Because they are you. If you treat other people well, you’re creating an ecosystem where people treat people well. If you speak up for someone else’s rights, you are creating an ecosystem where people’s rights are valuable. If you get down on yourself for what’s said in internet comment sections, you’re creating an ecosystem where internet comment sections matter. If you serve others to the point of getting sick, you are creating an ecosystem in which people get sick from serving others. If you pee in a pool, well, you get peed on.
“You” are a complex form made up of all the stuff your left brain makes up about your individual self and everything your right brain interacts with, completely outside of all those definitions and details.
Conundrum solved, via peeing in a pool. I may think too much on bad days, but I’m creating an ecosystem in which peeing in a pool is a good metaphor. And I’m standing by that.
Editor: Andrea B.
[This article was first published in JC’s regular Spirituality and Health column: Downward Blog.]