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Selfless Action is a Practice

Selfless Action is a Practice

Saktah karmani-avidvamso/yatha kurvanti bharata/kuryad vidvans tatha-asaktas/cikirsur loka-samgraham

The unwise are attached to their actions, while the wise are unattached and act selflessly to benefit the world. 

(Bhagavad Gita 3.25)

It is no secret that humanity is in an age of darkness—the Kali Yuga according to Vedic scripture: global warming, environmental collapse, species extinction, animal exploitation, war, greed, fear, hatred, and violence are all part of the age in which we live. It can be overwhelming, and with so many global humanitarian and environmental issues to be addressed, it can be easy to give up hope or to not know where to begin in order to make a difference. We might think, “What good will my individual actions do? How can they possibly make a difference given the magnitude of the problems in the world?” We may be so overwhelmed that we choose inaction, thinking that our actions can’t possibly make a difference, and so we do nothing. Yet we remain fixated on our social media feeds and other news outlets, being depressed and shaking our heads over the suffering we feel helpless to alleviate.

In the ancient wisdom text the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that like many of us, the warrior Arjuna was also overwhelmed by the times in which he was living—and he wanted to choose inaction. But Krishna, in the form of Arjuna’s yoga teacher/friend/charioteer tells him that one who withdraws from action yet whose mind is still caught up in the action is a hypocrite (BG 3.6). Krishna teaches Arjuna the path of Karma Yoga, the yoga of selfless service. Karma Yoga is a technique for extracting ourselves from the turmoil of life by shifting our perspective on our actions, rather than choosing inaction as a coping mechanism.

In his translation of Bhagavad Gita 3.25, Swami Satchidananda says the unwise do things wanting some results for themselves, while a wise person acts “without attachment, and thus guides others on the path of selfless action” (“The Living Gita” p.45). Acting for one’s own benefit is selfish action, while acting for the benefit of others is selfless action. Thus, the intention behind our action is important. To bring consciousness to our actions, we must ask ourselves, “Why am I acting? What am I acting for?” We must also ask ourselves if we expect certain outcomes, rewards, or recognition for our action. Selfless action means letting go of expectation of desired results—acting without desiring the fruits of the action. It is acting for the benefit of others, not for our own benefit or gratification.

In his essay “Enlightened Anarchism,” Swami Nirmalananda says, “Seeing the thorny problems of the world and society, many sincere people want to spread one single thick carpet all over the world, which is an impossible task. It is enough if each one wears a pair of shoes so that he may be able to walk without being hurt by stones and thorns. By changing oneself, we can change the world.” He continues, “Action performed with a selfish motive, with a conditioned and confused mind creates only more confusion and reactions. With precision and clarity, we are able to live a clean-hearted and clear-minded life.”

Years ago during a beach clean-up in Costa Rica, I learned that even the smallest piece of plastic on the beach can be enough for a sea turtle to reject a nesting site, which is bad news for the dwindling sea turtle population. On my second trip to Costa Rica, I participated in two more beach clean-ups. The amount of trash we collected in a short time on a small section of beach was more than enough to fill all the trash bags we had been supplied with for the job. As I worked, I kept bringing to mind all marine life who are negatively affected by plastic pollution. It was a practice not to get caught up in thinking about how what we were collecting was such an insignificant amount, especially in comparison to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Consisting of two massive vortexes, it is a “soupy collection of marine debris—mostly plastics,” so large that it is impossible for scientists to accurately measure:  “The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.” 

On the beach in Costa Rica, I worked not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the plastic problem, one which, as a consumer in North America, I had of course contributed to. I vowed to reduce my use of plastics. I kept reminding myself on the beach that my intention was selfless action—I was picking up plastic for the benefit of the ocean people. My mind, however, really wanted to focus on the seemingly inconsequential impact of picking up so little trash given how much there is in oceans worldwide, and so I worked on shifting my perspective on my action, on letting go of the results. To act selflessly for the benefit of others, even seemingly small actions, is better than no action at all. As Krishna says, “The unwise are attached to their actions, while the wise are unattached and act selflessly to benefit the world.” (Bhagavad Gita 3.25)

If we all do what we can to reduce our consumption of plastics, those individual actions will add up. I remember in the early 1990s (when I was a college student at a small environmental studies/liberal arts school) washing out Ziplock baggies and letting them air dry on the dish rack in order to reuse them. Just last month at the studio, we switched over to using reusable plates, cups, cutlery, etc. for our Second Saturday Satsang vegan potlucks. There’s a sink in the conference room, and so we can quickly hand wash our dishes after we eat, and the landlord is kindly letting us store everything in the cabinets in the conference room. To cut back on paper waste, we’ll also be switching to cloth napkins for our potlucks, which I’ll bring home to wash each month. (I’ve been using cloth napkins at home for over 20 years now, and I have found it an easy way to go more green). Here’s a list of 30 ways to reduce plastic consumption in the home: 

This blog post reminds us: “Try your best: It’s best to take things one at a time to not become overwhelmed. This list will help you recognize where you can have the most eco-impact on your next shopping trip. Keep this list in mind when making choices for your future purchases and you can reduce the plastic waste in your home significantly.” Another good tip is to reuse plastic items you already have on hand as many times as you can rather than throwing them away after a single use. 

Many, many years ago, I saw a video of a small seahorse trapped in one of those little plastic rings that pull off a half gallon of oat milk when you open it, and to this day, I still clip those little rings with a pair of scissors before throwing them away. It might not make a big difference, but if it makes a difference to just one seahorse, it was worth it. It brings to mind the story of the young girl tossing starfish back into the sea. It all started when she was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference for that one!” The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved. 

Blessings & Love, 

Sharada Devi

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