By Eckhart Tolle
Question: What is the role of being in service to others in one’s spiritual development?
ET: It can be a wonderful spiritual practice if it arises from the right place inside you. It can also be a strengthening of your ego, if it arises from a different place inside you. Jesus talked about that, when he talked about giving alms. He said, some people like to be seen when they give alms to the poor.
He said that those people are not going to get a ‘reward in heaven’ because they have their reward already. Of course, what their reward is, is that it is a feeding of their ego. Now, there are two ways of being “seen” when you give service. One needs to look at the motivation. There are two ways of being seen – one is to talk about it, more than is necessary – making sure that others see what you’re doing. Then you have your reward, which is the feeding of the ego. It makes you feel better about yourself, because it improves your self-image. That is still fine, it may help somebody so it’s a good thing to do. But it doesn’t really help you to become free.
There’s a self-image that some people need to feel that they are giving to others, and there’s this image of “I am giving”, that they are the “doer of good”, and you see yourself as sacrificing something when you give to another. It improves your ego, really. Ego is like an inner mirror, where you are not yourself – you have an image of yourself. You live through this mental image of yourself. This image of yourself is usually not satisfying, so every ego tries to improve the image of oneself, and it can do it in many ways. Then you have the image of me, the doer of the good deed, and that really strengthens the image.
Then there is another way of giving – when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. You don’t have the self image of yourself giving, but there is an outflow of energy in whatever form – and it’s not yours. You are not giving anything that is ‘yours’, because ultimately nothing is yours. You are giving energy, because that energy, in whatever form, comes from the Source of all energy. All energy derives from one source. You allow yourself to be a vehicle through which this energy flows out into the world. Then the sense of “me the doer” isn’t there. The sense of “the poor person that I am helping” isn’t there either – these are concepts. It’s simply the process that happens through you. That is the non-egoic way. To be of service, then, is a beautiful spiritual practice too…because the ego is out of the way. It dissolves through that, when you realize that you don’t own anything, ultimately, and the energy is not yours. It’s universal energy that comes through.
When you begin to live in that way, you are always in service to others. Even in ordinary situations that would not normally be recognized as service to others, because you recognize the ‘other’ in their essential Being, which is the greatest service that you can give somebody. The greatest service is to realize the essence, or the reality, of the other person. Everything else passes away, everything else is transitory. That recognition of the other as ‘God’, and as one with who you are, to see that – that is the greatest service you can give… it is the realization of who that person truly is beyond the form.
There are many social workers and therapists who after a number of years experience a burnout, because they are constantly trying to give and help, and then they can’t do it anymore. Whenever you help people, there needs to be a balance between the ‘doing’ and being rooted in Being. Otherwise, you will lose yourself in your service to others very quickly – then you are not being of service to others anymore.