Bhagavad Gita 3.25
saktāḥ karmaṇyavidvānso yathā kurvanti bhārat
kuryād vidvāns tathāsaktaśh cikīrṣhur loka-saṅgraham
“The unwise are attached to their actions, while the wise are unattached and act selflessly to benefit the world.”
Selfless service is a highly regarded practice in the yogic tradition. Seva, as it is called in Sanskrit, is a service which is performed without any expectation of result or award for performing it, often to benefit other beings or the world as a whole. Seva is often seen in ashrams or temples, where practitioners and devotees will perform duties for no exchange of money to honor the space or their teachers or the Divine. Performing these actions makes one feel purified, clear, and connected to all beings. But what happens back at home when the dishes need to be washed, the laundry needs to be done, and work has to be attended?
Though it might be alluring to sell everything, move to an ashram, and just perform seva, and it definitely has its benefits, the true yogic power comes when we can perform every action of our life as seva. Making dinner for 100 homeless people is not more virtuous or selfless than making dinner for your children or animal companions day in and day out. The difference exists in the heart and mind of the person performing the act. The person feeding the homeless with the underlying intention of receiving approval or accolades will not find the yogic bliss one seeks with seva. Making a healthy and compassionate dinner for one’s family with the simple intention of it being the right action in the moment without taking ownership of the action (“I am making dinner”), can free from the binding chords of selfishness and separateness.
You might find it surprising that seva is also not about performing rituals or acts of service while not asking for the culturally accepted form of exchange, such as money, goods, or any material gain. One who does not ask for a material exchange may still seek your respect, your admiration, your approval, or your love. Therefore, it is not purely selfless.
The yogin wants to be free from the action before it is even performed. To act without thinking of being the “doer” of the action is truly selfless service. When we realize this, every action can be selfless service. We realize that everything we do is an opportunity to give up our selfish motivations. In this way, our entire life is free from expectation and disappointment. We don’t expect our children to treat us a certain way just because we were so kind to them. Our kindness was a selfless service without expectation of certain results. If we want something in return for the love we give to those around us, then our love was not pure and freely given. If we feel a relationship is only draining love out of us, perhaps we are expecting too much in return, or maybe it is time for the nature of the relationship to change.
The unexpected gift of seva is that even the most mundane tasks become magical because we can be fully present with the action being performed, not worried that it will repeat a result that has happened in the past or anxious of whether or not it will produce the result we would like to see in the future. We perform the action perfectly, without even needing to think that we are the one doing it. This is called YOGA. Skill in action.
What better way to serve the world at large than to give up all selfish desires? No desire to be right, celebrated, or acknowledged for doing what is right in each moment is true seva. Start at home and see if you can live in harmony with those closest to you without wanting something from them in return. Serve all of those you meet without the need to be the “doer” of service, simply because there is no “I.” There is no separateness, there is only Oneness.