“We only have the right to work, not to the fruits of our labor? My whole life I’ve assumed that doing good work is good, that hands that serve are better than lips that pray. If doing work with an eye to receiving the reward for our efforts is wrong, then why bother doing good work at all?”
I asked the question this week, really shaken by the idea that everything I had believed for so long was apparently wrong. According to the Gita, any work, whether good or bad, binds you to the cycle of birth and death, and keeps you coming back for more, either penance if you have done wrong, or pleasure if you have done right.
For someone who wants to break that cycle, this is far from welcome news. My non profit, my grant writing, my hopes of serving hundreds of at risk students across the country, even this blog, which I hoped would inspire and inform others who were seeking spiritual progress, all of these were begun with the goal of doing good. I cannot say that I began them with no thought of the results.
Certainly I desire the fruit of my labors, grant money, funding, publicity for the cause, donors, community support, school district involvement and most importantly the resulting student publications, motivation, self esteem and hope for hundreds of children. My rewards would be the success of the projects, increased student literacy, inspiration for others. I had poured myself into these projects for nearly a decade, and was gearing up to do so much more.
This new piece of information really knocked the wind out of my sails. Apparently the only way to remain unbound by any action is to let go of any thought of the outcome. How do we pour all our energy into a project without desiring success? It seems impossible. And why should I bother doing service if it would only keep me bound?
One of our members brought me down to earth very quickly. She reminded me that I was far from being a saint on the verge of self realization, whose good works would end up dragging me back from heaven’s door. “We all still have plenty of flaws,” she reminded me. “There are steps we still have to take to correct the mistakes we’ve made so far. The good works you do can help erase some of that bad karma and accumulate a positive balance in your account. It’s not till you have a clean slate that you need to worry about accumulating too much good.”
Very true. I was needlessly worrying about contaminating a purity of soul that I had not yet achieved. As we continued to read this week, we learned that human beings are designed for action. Inaction is wrong and against our nature. Our natures propel us to move and think and act. So we need to channel that energy toward doing good. We learned that truly great men spend every free moment doing everything in their power to help humanity. It makes sense that selfless action, one that requires no reward, is considered most noble.
Both from a selfish perspective and a selfless one, action without expectation is the least stressful, most productive and ironically the most rewarding. When we want something very badly, we begin to obsess over it, we worry about failure, we feel disappointment, we get frustrated and angry. When we aren’t as attached to the outcome, playing a game with friends rather than competitors for example, or volunteering rather than being paid for something, we are so much more carefree.
It is expectation that seems to mar our enjoyment. Take this blog for example. I started it so I could document our journey. It gave me immense pleasure to design the website, to find beautiful images to go with the essays, to reflect on what we had studied and encapsulate it in words. I shared it with my group, and then it occurred to me to share it with a wider audience. Why not allow those who couldn’t be part of this discussion to participate from afar? Some of our friends were abroad and there were discussion groups I was part of and facebook friends who might be interested. So I shared it via social media, and on wordpress.
The response was unexpectedly strong. Overnight, the blog had hundreds of views, over the next week, according to the site stats on wordpress, it had been seen by people in a dozen different countries. While initially my focus had been on sharing and writing and reflection, I gradually found myself checking the stats several times a day, found myself taking pleasure every time the numbers jumped or a new country popped up, and feeling disappointed when views were low. The blog had now gone from being a service and a pleasure to being by turns a source of pride, anxiety and unhappiness. What better example of how work done with expectation can lead us very quickly and inevitably to all the negative emotions that keep us bound?
To answer my own question then, it seems that any work we do, in the larger scope of things, is not really to benefit anyone but ourselves. The world can get along just fine without our miniscule contribution. It is really nothing more than an act of self purification, to work without thought of reward, to do our duty to family, friends and society, not because we desire the fruit of our labors, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons