(This post was inspired by and in response to a post by Mark McElroy entitled “The Race for Last Place”. Click Here to read his post.)
I have been silently enjoying your posts on the Tao, but today I feel the motivation to pipe in.
I have observed in my years of studying different spiritual paths, that the more I learn and experience, the more I see the commonalities within them. You pointed this out yourself in an earlier post. All the major religions, and especially the main Mystical Traditions, are all giving “The Way” their own labels, and their own set of “pointers”. I only say that because my main study and perspective is Tantra Yoga as a path of non-duality, and that is the perspective that the rest of my sharing will be based upon, even though I will continue to honor “The Way” as one metaphor.
This idea of “selflessness” and “putting others first” is indeed very complicated.
For me, I have to remind myself when looking at this that the “Sages” have a different perspective from the get-go. Their Self-Identity is from a different vantage point than the average person who has not discovered “They Way”, or as Tantra might say, “the True Self.”
Tantra would explain the average person as being identified with the ego, or sense of individuality. Ego says “I am the person known as Jeff. I am the thoughts and feelings and desires that pass though the awareness of Jeff”.
But the Self-Realized Yogi or Sage, knower of “The Way”, sees beyond the limitations of the ego state. Some would even argue they have dissolved the ego. Either way, they have shifted their identity from the individual self as ego to the larger Self, of which Tantra says there is only truly One. “We are all One”. We are connected through “The Way”, or the permeating Consciousness that experiences, reveals and creates all things.
While the ego identified individual will base most of their happiness on the life circumstances they find themselves in (i.e. What they have or don’t have. Who likes or doesn’t like them, etc), the Self-Realized Sage finds complete balance, fulfillment and a deep inner joy that is based purely upon knowing the Truth of their Own Being.
The Nature of the Truth Self is joy and the Sages then experience that the outer world is not the source of happiness.
So, I suggest that when the sages “Place themselves last”, this means that they stop serving the individual ego of the person they were before knowing The Way, and begin to serve the larger Self, which is actually within All Beings. From this perspective, serving others has no “Selfish” motivation for gain by the original individual, but is instead understood as serving the Sacred Nature of Life, or the Consciousness that permeates all of Creation. In other words, serving others becomes experienced as literally and directly serving God, of which the Sage knows him or herself to be.
So, to work with the quote from Jesus (“So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16) ), when the Sage sets aside or dissolves his individual ego and lets it be “last” to be served, and instead places the large Self “first”, then the True Self or “They Way” is being served first. If the individual ego is served “first” then the Large Self, or God, is placed last in the order of importance.
This wisdom works for the Sages, because they experience the deeper Truth of it. There are many practices which attempt to work with this principle. “Service” is in fact one of the most widely used spiritual practices in the world. It can be beneficial, to use this practice as a way of deepening your spiritual path, but there must be a striving to connect with the deeper intention. There must be a level of surrender, and a sense of serving God, or “They Way” or whatever Higher Power someone relates to, and not just serving “individuals”. (Although, focusing on the suffering of others as a way to diminish awareness of your own suffering and increase gratitude is one Buddhist practice that can have benefits as well, and can deepen service as a spiritual practice.)
“Ego” serving “ego” does nothing more than create the very complicated scenarios that you described in your post. There must be a sense of serving the larger whole without the individual ego gaining or losing anything. That’s where the “selfless” part really comes in. To serve others without any thought of what you will get from it. Otherwise it slips into expectations, disappointments (I did all this for him/her and I got nothing back!) and pride (I am such a selfless and generous person! Yay me!).
If I look back over your examples, in each case there would very likely be “ego” engagement and needs being fulfilled or demanded. A sense of placing either one’s own individual needs first, or placing the needs of the other first. For each person, no matter how subtle or not so subtle, there was likely a hope for something in return, even if it was unconscious.
For the Sage, the Self-Realized knower of The Way, individual needs dissolved when ego identification ceased. They arrive at a place of Wholeness, in which they feel complete within their own Being. They are “In the world, but not of the world.” All of their needs are satisfied by the deeper experience of the Self. So, when they give or serve, it is from a place of fullness, because they have nothing else they need. They are just sharing out of the love that overwhelms their own hearts. They are unaffected by whether you like or don’t like what they offer. They do not care if you thank or praise them.
They approach their service with a sense of Compassion for those they serve. And they serve in ways that we often may not be able to understand. Serving by listening. Serving by smiling at us. Serving by being a beacon of Light in the darkness of experience.
Whereas the “ego” may think compassion to be the taking away of suffering through giving people what they seem to lack, or finding a way to end pain, the Sages know that the true suffering is caused by not knowing the True Self, or the Way. As the Buddha said something to the effect of “Enlightenment is the only True Healing.” (Enlightenment or knowing the True Self or The Way). Prior to that, some type of suffering is inevitable.
In the spirit of “The Way”, I also acknowledge that my words are just words at minimum, and at most they are well written “Way Pointers”. But, they are not “The Truth” in and of themselves. They are an expression of how I understand things, and the experiences that I have had in my own spiritual journey.
Loving the Tao posts, and thanks for letting me share.