The title of this blog might be a strange one for Christmas week, a time when many of us make a special effort to help those in need, donate money to charity, and volunteer our time to a deserving cause. Given the state of our world, you might argue that “stop saving the world” seems incongruent with what the world really needs today.
To better explore what I mean, we once again turn to Assagioli’s essay “Martha and Mary: The Active Life –The Contemplative Life.” This time we focus on his ideas about service. [i] Assagioli writes:
“If we examine our motives with all sincerity we often discover that the reasons for our preoccupation with helping others are not as pure and noble as we thought. We begin to realize that the shining alloy, mixed with gold, also contains the base metal of vanity, presumption, proselytism, and – most subtle and concealed of all – the desire to appease our conscience so that we will have some excuse for not undertaking the hard work of inner purification.”
Bang! These are strong, clear words that for most of us are difficult to hear. It is part of Assagioli’s explanation in his essay as to why we need to “collect our minds,” and stop running around “on our mission of improving others.” Personally, I have seen this kind of “service for the other” abused of in many different situations, by all kinds of people, most notably (and frighteningly) those of religious faith and in the “helping professions.”
The first thing to do whenever you feel compelled to help another, join a cause, or fight someone’s fight is to stop and ask yourself: “How does this serve me?” If the act is not serving your own personal and spiritual growth, then, in the long run, it is not going to help anybody else and will probably end up leaving you feeling frustrated or burnt out. I have witnessed this many times in countless contexts. As Tagore wrote in a poem, all we end up doing is “raising dust, but having no effect on the fertility of the land.”
After asking yourself “How does this serve me?” continue probing deeper with questions like:
Am I doing this …
- To ease my conscious?
- Because I feel victimized?
- To feel better about myself?
- To show how much knowledge I have on the subject?
- To swallow my own inner feelings of pain and betrayal?
- Because I need to feel needed?
- To avoid dealing with my own daily problems?
- To avoid acknowledging my own participation in what is wrong in this world?
(Despite our confused motives, I must admit watching amazed as God manages to stealthily find a way to work through our mess. Sometimes we unwittingly leave the Higher Self just enough space to mysteriously sneak in and perform a miracle or two.)
Nevertheless, the extent we can fully and consciously serve another is dependent on the quality of our actions, and that quality is reflected by our attitude, motivation, and desire to challenge and improve ourselves (not the other). It is important to reflect on the fact that Jesus did not heal everyone, the Buddha did not believe women could become enlightened, and Mother Teresa was often criticized that her work did nothing towards resolving the greater issues facing India.
Nevertheless, all great servants have spent hours meditating on the Higher Self with great conviction and Love. Assagioli is clear when he writes:
“Every passion brought under control, ever error corrected, means one less danger for everyone; every new light of wisdom that shines within us, every newly developed moral force, and every higher sentiment awakened within us will just as inevitably be a benefit for humanity as a whole.”
He then turns to the French mystic and modern saint, Élizabeth Leseur (1866–1914), quoting from her spiritual journal:
“Every soul that is lifted up will in turn lift up the world.”
So let’s take a break from saving the world, and start lifting up our souls! In his essay, Assagioli reminds us that our service to others and to the world must be “preceded by long periods of silence and apparent inaction, during which spiritual energies are awakened and powerfully concentrated – energies that can then burst forth and spread out irresistibly.”
Or in the ironic words of Frances de Sales:
“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”
Finally, In Assagioli’s archives, I found one of his rare notes that are dated, indicating that he was 38 years old when he wrote it. This note seems to be a reminder to himself of how best to serve others, through a synthesis of Martha and Maria energies, through a balancing of action and prayer.
Prima di ogni conferenza,
lezione, o altro lavoro
“caricarmi” di energie
fisiche, psichiche e spirituali.
Before every conference,
lesson, or other work
for the public,
“recharge” my energy
physically, psychically and spiritually.
10 June 1926
[i] Roberto Assagioli, Transpersonal Development, The Dimension Beyond Psychosynthesis. London: The Aquarian Press, 1993, pp. 234-249. (All quotes in this blog come from this article. In this case, I am especially focusing on pp. 242-243.)