little self/Big Self

336px-Ravi_Varma-Dattatreya“As long as we live our lives with a sense of acceptance, as long as we do our duty without any sense of attachment to the results, why do we need to consciously offer our work to God? Why do we need to say I am not the doer, You are the Doer?”

This was a question that came up today in class.

The Gita says that not only should we perform work without attachment, but to truly escape the bonds of karma, we need to offer that work to God as well, remembering that we are not the ones performing the action but that we are merely instruments of God’s work in the world.

So what is the difference? Isn’t the fact that we are releasing our attachment to the results of our work, evidence enough of our progress? Doesn’t that alone rid us of a tremendous amount of stress? Once you no longer worry whether you succeed or fail, but work only with a sense of dedication, then all the disappointments and brief elations of life seem to disappear and life becomes quiet, harmonious and peaceful.

For example, in the past I taught my classes with excitement and a strong sense of ownership. I researched all kinds of articles and printed them out for my students. I created exciting and engaging lesson plans and implemented them in class. Sometimes students would respond with interest and class would be amazing and I would come home floating on a euphoric cloud that I had aced the lesson.

Other times, my carefully designed activities would fall flat and I would be devastated that what I considered brilliant pedagogy had not been well received. “Pearls before swine,” I would mutter to myself. “Why do I even bother going to so much trouble for people who can’t even appreciate it?”

Since I’ve been practicing nishkama karma and letting go of the results, content merely to do my best and leave the results to God, I no longer fret and fume at perceived failures or go on an egotistical high when things go well. This is definitely a step forward.

However, while this attitude gets us to a more relaxed and calm way of living, it fails on its own to take us to the next level of spiritual progress.

While I am calmer now when faced with either success or failure, I still consider it my success or failure. I wrote the lesson plan, I created the activity, I did all that work, I was so eloquent, I just couldn’t get through to them. Or alternatively, my idea was perfect, I was so good at directing the conversation, I was able to get my students to think critically, I am a really good speaker.

The problem is that my ego is omnipresent here, taking all the credit, shouldering all the blame, and in both cases accumulating more and more karma by believing that this little self in this temporary body is solely responsible for all my actions. It’s only when I can release that sense of ego, when I can see my actions as prayerful acts of service to a higher being and a higher purpose, that I will really escape the bonds of karma.

Nowadays, when I set out to teach, I say “God I am merely an instrument to perform this work. You have given me both the work and the capability to do it. I will do it to the best of my ability knowing that I am not the doer at all. You are the teacher and the taught, and I am merely a vehicle to convey the knowledge. You speak through me, and teach through me.”

Amazing what such an attitude can do for one’s work ethic. While it may seem at first glance that removing ourselves from the equation would make us less inclined to put in too much effort, I find that I have become so much better at what I do. After all, doing anything less than my best would be incredibly disrespectful to my Maker.

Knowing that it isn’t just me, the fallible and mercurial little self that considers herself a professor with all kinds of great ideas, but God who is teaching, and remembering that my students are not just the various little selves who moan and complain about homework, or turn things in late, or fail to see the relevance of my lectures, but God who is being taught, is an incredibly humbling experience. It allows me to push my little ego aside and work doubly hard to deliver the lesson and to facilitate learning among my students. It enables me to consider my work as an offering, rather than something I do merely as a duty.

That, to answer our member’s question, is why I think we need to do more than merely work without expectation. We need to transform our work into constant worship, so that along with attachment, we can rid ourselves of our ego as well.

Image: Dattatreya, the Supreme Teacher. Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons.


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2 Responses to little self/Big Self

  1. Nice question and response too. Well written. There are so many factors at work, silently, that are helping me in my day to day activities including performing my obligatory duties. Impossible to comprehend. Just have to be grateful and continue the work. Thanks for this post. I need reminders from time to time. Pranaam

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