Selfish Service: The Danger of Doing Good

Creative Commons License photo credit: babasteve

I hear a lot about seva, or selfless service, in the yoga circles I run in. And for a long time I’ve harbored a quiet skeptic within, grappling with questions about the true meaning of “selflessness” and whether my motivations to ‘serve’ are selfless at all. I’d like to open myself up a little bit here and share some unresolved questions I have ricocheting around in my mind. Please know that this article is not intended to criticize anyone engaged humanitarian, charity, or seva-related causes. It’s an invitation to join in a discussion I hope will help advance the way service is understood in the yoga world.

The Arrogance of Selflessness

For as long as I can remember I’ve been eager to “give back” to my community. I was the little girl begging mom to stop the car so I could give my granola bar to the homeless man and asking why he was on the street to begin with. But I’d be the last person to claim my acts of service are “selfless.” Quite the contrary, I’m realizing more and more over the past couple years that the reasons I feel driven to “serve” are extremely selfish. And I’m not just talking about that little old cliche “you get back more than you give”.

I’m starting to think that the very term “selfless service” is a misnomer, one that ever-so-subtly degrades the relationship between giver and receiver. And lately I’ve been grappling with the very uncomfortable possibility that my own well-meaning attempts at selfless service actually have the potential to do harm.

Creative Commons License photo credit: expertinfantry

See, when we “give” to someone under the false premise that we’re only in it for them, that we are handing them something from the moral high-ground of “selflessness”, we create a dangerously codependent power dynamic. All of a sudden we need the person we’re “serving” to validate my feelings of saintlihood and they need us for whatever good or service we’re providing — whether it be money, food, or yoga classes. I don’t mean to be harsh, but that’s not service. That’s ideological enslavement.

The notion that we can suddenly detach from our egoic longings to be need or appreciated in order to engage in acts of “selfless service” doesn’t make logical or scientific sense. The ‘self’ is an integral part of who we are. It’s not just some esoteric concept; we are physiologically bound to our ‘self’ish inner narratives by the very flesh within our skulls. As long as we’re human beings with frontal lobes and cerebral cortexes, service is inevitably an act of selfishness — and I don’t think that’s something to be ashamed of. Our willingness to acknowledge our selves, to show up as a real person — with all our personal motivations, pitfalls, and desires — is what allows us to enter the relationship of service to begin with.

The Pitfalls of Sending Money

As privileged people (myself included) become more and more aware of the shamefully disproportionate gap between rich and poor (thanks, World Wide Web), we often experience a powerful and angst-provoking need to help our fellow human beings. Usually the most immediate means we have do something about suffering is to simply send money. I don’t know about you, but pressing that donate button soothes the pangs of guilt I feel when I see pictures of starving children in Africa, makes me feel better when I realize my coffee was brewed from their blood, sweat, and tears.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex Reyes

I think it’s easy to get so wrapped up in our desire to end suffering that we fail to realistically evaluate whether our actions are really helping. And I’m by no means the only one raising a flag to the potential detriments of well-meaning service, though I may be one of the few to voice concerns about this in the yoga world. In a bold and incisive article called Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa, Dambisa Moyo says:

“… evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, at increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest… Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

Moyo goes on to describe how large sums of governmental aid allow corrupt, ineffecient governments to stay in power. Even channeling money to small local organizations, she says, can create relationships of dependency, and when the money runs out projects often collapse and people are left in worse conditions than they started. She acknowledges that emergency funds are useful in the short term but “are at best band-aid solutions and can never be the catalyst for long-term economic development and meaningful reduction in poverty.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: oneVillage Initiative

I have to be honest, when I first stumbled upon this article a couple years ago I clicked away… I thought to myself: “No, what I’m doing is different.”  To me, Moyo seemed like an angry, extremist academic, and I felt there were much worse evils in the world to be attacking than those seeking to lift the 3rd world out of poverty. Most of all though, I didn’t want to believe that my longing to help could actually be doing harm.

But I’m a questioner, I’m a thinker, and my mind doesn’t let me off the hook that easy. The unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach didn’t go away, and over the past several months I’ve done a lot of re-thinking about what it means to truly serve another human being. I’ve considered what it’s felt like for me when I’ve been the beneficiary of service from others. And the common thread I keep coming back to is relationship. I’ve been given money, I’ve been given resources, but the material items never made a difference unless that relational element was there. Real, long-lasting, unconditional presence from another human being. That’s what’s served me. That’s what’s helped me lift myself out of the darkness.

My All-Too-Selfish Journey

I spent a good portion of last year fundraising for an organization in Africa I whole-heartedly believe in. My hope was to join them for several months, to conduct a scientific study on the benefits of yoga for women with HIV/AIDS, to learn about how the hell people in such dire poverty manage to find joy in the circumstances they’re in. But a few months ago I decided to put a hold on my fundraising… at least temporarily. The truth is, I still feel unsettled with these questions. I don’t know that a couple months is truly enough time to form the relationship I believe is at the heart of service.

What if my attempts at “service” were just re-establishing the oppressive dynamics (wealthy whites handing alms to poor blacks) that that put them into poverty to begin with?

The Eye
Creative Commons License photo credit: John Steven Fernandez

I also started questioning my motives. Why was I so eager to go to Africa? Why travel hundreds of thousands of miles when there were people I could serve right in my own backyard? As I took a step back, I started to see myself as that naive little child handing the granola bar to the homeless man on the street, thinking I could make it all better with the token I just so happened to have in my hand. Who was I to think that I knew what those women wanted or needed… maybe yoga wasn’t what they needed at all? Most importantly, I realized that without maintaining an ongoing relationship with them, any positive impact I did have would be temporary at best.

So as fate would have it, the funding for my research didn’t come through and life forced me to take major pause. In the stillness, I’ve organically grown into building a much simpler model of service in my home community. It doesn’t require any major funding or complicated scientific studies; all I have to do is simply show up… share my time, my presence, and sometimes my skills as a yoga teacher with anyone who finds it valuable. For now, I’ve put my wish to go to go overseas and connect with my broader human family on hold until I can do so within a program that allows me to be there an extended period of time.

I’m realizing that the path of service I feel called toward is rooted in mutualistic, long-term relationships, and I have to acknowledge my own selfishness in order to step into that. Most importantly, I’ve realized that I have more to give than just money or scientific know-how. I choose to share my (albeit very selfish) self.

A group of us after teaching yoga at a local homeless shelter

I want to be clear, I’m not arguing that donating money is a bad thing. That model of service can be irrefutably valuable, especially in times of disaster or when immediate and temporary help is needed. There are organizations that use the fundraising model in an extremely mindful and intelligent way, building relationships with locals and constantly re-evaluating how their service lands. There are also organizations that actually establish themselves on the ground in the countries they’re serving — creating a foundation for the long-lasting relationships I am talking about.

But I would like to open a dialogue around the challenging issues I’ve brought up in this article — about when service does do harm and how our illusions of selflessness might perpetuate that.  Let’s hear what you think:

Do you think “selfless service” exists, or is it a misnomer we need to do away with altogether?

Can sending disembodied money to people in third world countries just re-establish the oppressive systems that put them in poverty to begin with?

Posted by:

- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

40 Responses

  • prettyhumanbeings says:

    Chelsea, this is a much needed discussion to have. Our constant chatter against the ego in the yoga community has at times led us to an unrealistic and unhealthy disavowal of the healthy, accurate functions of the ego. In fact, I think at times we abuse our ego in our efforts to hide it.
    The more I have participated in service, the less I believe in altruism. And that's not a fatalistic release of an ideal. I don't think there is a need for altruism. I think we DO need to release the shame of acting out of our Self-driven desires (like you so beautifully suggested). We underestimate the beauty of the things that our true Self wants, and disempower our potential in the process.

    • Chelsea says:

      You hit the nail on the head, Lauren. I still haven't figured out what I think about altruism. I've been wrestling with that question since my freshman year in college studying Psychology. A huge part of me WANTS to believe that people genuinely do act out of selflessness, but my more logical and pragmatic side says that's a pile of BS. lol

      I really like what you say about not needing altruism though… I've never thought about it before. We can be good, compassionate, loving human beings from a place rooted in connection to Self rather than selfishness in the more negative sense of the word (which may stem from a disconnection to Self, if you know what I mean). Huh. I guess I was trying to say that in this article, but the way you put it struck me an entirely different way. Thank you.

  • Bill says:

    I suppose a real question that comes to my mind is, did these people actually want or need our help?
    Remember that talk at the table when you didnt want to eat this or that on your plate, it went something like: You know there are starving kids in third world countries that just love to be eating that.
    That automatically sets up the whole were better than they are by simple subtraction they have less so we are more. Sounds like BS I know but then the ego kicks in and then we are off to save a planet or places in it that simply dont want/need OUR help.
    What arrogance it is to think that WE are the saviors.
    This may be a bit of a slap in someones face that has been wherever and done much in the regards of help , but we are all born in our own circumstance. That said it would be up to the indidual to decide for themselves if they need/ want help.
    Help is a mutually understood relationship, a wanter and a giver are needed., anything less is peresumed power overe the other.
    Just my 2 cents worth, thanks for the forum…

    • Chelsea says:

      Yes, Bill. You make a really good point. I think a lot of times we get so wrapped up in the wish to help that we fail to see the arrogance in that mentality. I recognized that in myself when I took a good hard look at my intentions to go to Africa. I still want to go, but I'm more honest with myself about the reasons now. I want to travel. I want to see how others live. I want to get help from THEM, learn about how they find joy what appear to me to be really challenging circumstances. If I help them somehow in the process, great.

      Your comment made me think of a favorite quote of mine:

      "if you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

      Thanks for sharing your two cents. :)

  • Bill says:

    would like to comment but i already posted and it didnt show and i cant recreate what i put on, so whats the point if you diont post it????????????????

  • Carol Horton says:

    Chelsea – This post raises so many important questions; I absolutely love it! I do think however that the selfless/selfish dichotomy just doesn't work – I'd suggest throwing the whole thing out in favor of expanding the meaning of the helping relationship.

    On a different note, I spent years analyzing the effects of various social programs and foundation initiatives and know for a fact that it's not at all easy (or common) to devise programs that are truly helpful. There's a lot of money wasted while a lot of "helping" egos are being boosted in the anti-poverty biz. That said, there are also incredible people out there doing amazing work that really does change people's lives for the better. But it's never easy and the need always so far outstrips the effectiveness of whatever support is given that it's painful to see. However, that also makes seeing whatever real good is being done all the more precious.

    • Chelsea says:

      Absolutely, Carol. I wonder if sometimes our measures of how much "good" we're doing through humanitarian aid programs are totally skewed… we tend to hear more about the dollars raised than the actual effects the programs we're funding are having. You can raise inordinate amounts of money, send it to third world countries, and actually do a world of HARM if that money ends up in the wrong hands or isn't used in effective ways. How many children have we helped get an education? How many job opportunities have we created? How many women have we empowered to take control of their sexual health? It's not just about the money. It's about connection, it's about empowerment, it's about life!

      As you say, there is indeed a great amount of good being done. I tried to highlight a few of the organizations I think embody "what works" near the end of my post. Hopefully, through conversations like these, we can expand and build upon what those groups are doing that make them so effective. But I think it's going to take a willingness on all our parts to look at what's falling short, and that's not always easy to do. In the yoga world, I think we tend to see seva through rose-colored lenses. This is where the value of the blogging community you've been writing about recently comes in. I really believe dialogues like this make a difference. They can shine a light both on what's working and what's not, and hopefully reach the leaders of organizations doing this work to make a change. :)

  • I know that there are often charity events around yoga which are intended for self promotion. If someone is the beneficiary of something useful then it doesn't matter that the intention of the promoter was to attract attention to their business. What does feel creepy is that they often pretend it's something else. Even if the event or funding is secret, the person donating feels good about themselves for doing it so it is about themselves. There is nothing wrong with that but our society has perpetuated a myth based on Christ's selflessness, that this is the righteous path. Therefore we get to feel guilty if it's about us and we become posers to avoid that. Too bad.

    As for bramacharya, over-spreading our charity which makes others weak, the U.S. has always promoted empire this way from missionaries to government policy to help or intervene in others countries, although it is clear we have our own selective agenda for doing that.

    Finally, we are often driven by natural compassion to help others and we do what we can. If we have the ability to go to another country and teach engineering or set up schools and clinics and then go away, leaving the people to run them, we have done a great service. And we can be joyful about that. We can admit we benefit by sharing their happiness. If your local humane society needs money to shelter and feed animals you can be sure you are not doing any harm by writing that check. That is just an example.

    Wonderful post. Hilary

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi Hillary,

      I'm a bit late in responding here– totally missed the last bit of comments on this post– but I did want to follow up on some of the points you made here.

      You draw a really interesting parallel between the idea of selfless service and the motivations underlying Christian missionary work. I'd never even thought about how missionary work is modeled from Christ's demonstration of "selflessness"… and to be honest it freaks me out a little bit that our modern interpretation of "seva" is so similar. I think often times we're unaware of how much our attitudes reflect the culture we grew up in… and for American yogis at least, Christianity wields a heavy influence. That doesn't have to be a bad thing… but if we're unaware of it, I think we become a little bit like slaves to our own social conditioning.

      In the outreach organization I run, I often tell our volunteers "just show up". That's it. We don't want your money, we don't want a pledge, we don't even want you to feel like you have to teach yoga or offer some supposedly valuable skill. Just showing up… with that natural compassion you mention… is a service in and of itself.

  • Angela says:

    Hey Chelsea, I saw that Lauren Znachko (@prttyhumanbeing) tweeted this article. She's a good source so I clicked on the link immediately and I'm really glad I did. I appreciate your perspective – it lines up strongly with the work I do with companies and their volunteer programs. (realizedworth.com) We teach that selfless service is objectification. The poor are not a problem to be solved. Poverty is; but the poor are people with equal value to you and I. Anyway, I just wanted to say how great it was to read such a thoughtful article on the concept. You go much deeper than I've ever bothered to before – is it cool if I refer people to this article when we cover the concept in workshops? Cheers! Angela

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi, Angela.
      I'm a bit late in responding here– somehow I didn't get notifications for the last group of comments on this post– but I did want to thank you for your comment and say yes… of course! I would be honored if you refer people here for your workshop. Also, please feel free to reach out to me anytime if you'd like to get something a little more interactive going with your workshop participants. I'd be happy to welcome them into this coversation as well.

      Your statement "the poor are not a problem to be solved" struck a huge chord in me. I think that seeing human beings as "troubled" or "at risk" or "poor" or "disabled" is part of what keeps our society so divided and unable to SERVE one another in the first place. Beautiful insight, and thank you for being here.

  • Jeet says:

    If we are talking solely about giving that is not service-oriented, then there is definitely a very high probability of veiled selfishness that comes into play. For instance, while I am quite appreciative of the work that missionaries do, I am not a big fan of the underlying effort to recruit and influence to a certain degree, however minimal it might be. However, if we talk about service, a la karma yoga, then it is possible to be selfless to a large degree, even if it might not be absolutely so. For instance, someone might derive pleasure out of just being nice to others, or just by helping someone out due to the sheer compulsion of their heart. These may be people (s)he might never run into ever again. In that case, it is definitely selfless. In that case, one is simply sharing the goodwill, and perhaps hoping (you could, by stretching your imagination quite a bit, call it 'not selfless' since there is a longing involved) that the recipient of this nice behavior will do the same for someone else if the opportunity presented itself.

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi Jeet,

      I'm a bit late in responding here– somehow I didn't get notifications for the last group of comments on this post– but I did want to respond to the very interesting point you made (even if Im a little tardy).

      I think there's a difference between deriving pleasure from being nice to others and seeking self-validation and gratification from raising money for charity. It seems to me the seva you're pointing to is more of the traditional sense of how seva was discussed in ancient texts, while the "seva" I see more of today is fundraising efforts that lack self-awareness and thought about long-term consequences.

      In some ways, I do think both acts are selfish (because yes, the person is doing a nice act at least in part because it makes them feel good)…. but I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that. It's okay to be selfish, and sometimes the selfishness is what allows us to tap into a sense of selflessness.

  • Lara says:

    Really good stuff, Chelsea! This article reminds me of my favorite quote by Lila (I've seen it spelled Lilla, too) Watson, an aboriginal activist: "If you have come to help me, please go away. But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together."

    So often, we mix up service with salvation – and often the populations we feel the most burning need to serve are not those who really need saving (I often think of the term 'at-risk' youth when talking about this). I know when I commit to karma yoga, it's more about creating space for love and compassion (and relationships) without weighing the impact of such against my expectations. I'm not always successful; more often than not I fail miserably and bump up against my ego, including disappointments and endless reminders of my own privilege. I do believe, however, that serving our fellow human beings and world while thinking critically about the models in which we do so is in fact yoga, a practice in which we will engage for a very long time. :)

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi Lara,

      Sorry for the tardiness in my response– I didn't get notifications for this last group of comments– but still wanted to reply, as this conversation is always relevant.

      First, I love that quote. I've actually got it hung up on my fridge right now. And we've posted it on the YM Facebook and Twitter pages a couple times. It reminds me of the South Africa concept of "Ubuntu"– roughly translated: I am because we are.

      "So often, we mix up service with salvation – and often the populations we feel the most burning need to serve are not those who really need saving."

      Wow. What a statement. I feel like it should be read by anyone interested in "activism", "service", and "outreach" in the yoga world. If only we could take a good, hard look at the "why" behind our wish to serve. I know for me, I've learned to notice the difference between anxious desire to do help and deep, heartfelt impulse to be present for someone who's suffering. It's a difficult distinction, but there's a quality I've learned to tune into…. one that comes from a very needy place in myself and another that arises from place where all my needs are met and I'm sharing from where my cup runneth over. I am a lot more effective "helper" (though not really that at all) when I'm sharing from a place of being fulfilled myself.

      I've been searching for the appropriate language to use as well, as the terms "at risk youth" and "disenfranchised people" and all the rest seem so overgeneralizing and dehumanizing to me. I've settled on "underserved populations" but even that doesn't feel right. How do we communicate that there are people who have special needs, who have faced circumstances different than those of us who come from more privileged backgrounds, without taking away from their humanity? At their essence, they're people… women, children, brothers and sisters… and all of us were "at-risk youth" at some point. It's sensitive territory for sure.

  • streetyoga says:

    I love that you ask those who are committed to social activism to explore the conflict of mindless fundraising versus long-term activism. Just last year I joined the team at Street Yoga to help expand our trainings to empower yoga teachers and caregivers to promote mindfulness and healing in at-risk youth. We have begun accepting requests to take our training modules internationally, and I think it is imperative to find the authenticity that allows our work to translate to healing and that long-lasting foundation for growth and transformation.

    Thank you for sharing this important issue and sparking the conversation! I look forward to reading the comments closely and continuing the dialogue. Namaste!

    -
    Alice Noyes
    Communications Manager http://www.streetyoga.org

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi Alice,

      Thanks so much for responding. I'm quite a bit tardy in my reply — somehow I didn't get notifications for the last group of comments on this post– but I did want to thank you for sharing in this conversation.

      I have been following the work of Street Yoga for a good while, and I'm very interested to hear about the challenges and questions that arise as you grow internationally. I think Street Yoga is one of the largest yoga service organizations that directly targets people in "our own backyard", and you guys were a huge inspiration for me personally in creating our new Dallas-Fort Worth community service organization Studio to Streets (www.studiotostreets.com). It's always a balancing act, I know, to expand your reach and stay true to your values and mission. I'm so glad you all are open to the dialogue.

      Best,
      Chelsea

  • The feeling we receive from helping others is the return right? Never until I started teacher training have I ever heard the term self-less service. We ABSOLUTELY get something in return. But the word 'selfish' has such a negative connotation, the knee-jerk reaction when reading this article might be to get defensive. So what, its not self-less? That's okay because the human connection is really all that matters, not money, or fame. Friendship and understanding, compassion and passion. That is what links us. When charities or fundraisers organize fun events or yoga classes and the community comes out and donates, there is an exchange of enjoyment to raise awareness and its donating time/service whatever to draw others to do the same, like a circle of love (life). As for thoughts on maybe "they" dont want our help. That will never stop me from doing what I feel is right in my heart. If I can share, I will. No second thoughts. No regrets.

    • Chelsea says:

      Amen, Amber! I'm way late in responding here, but definitely agree. I would say though that I think that many of those community fundraisers could use a little more awareness about (1) where the money is going and whether it's really helping the people and (2) whether fundraising is truly the best service we can provide. In my opinion, it's easy to get stuck in that model of service and not realize that a lot of times what people in our community isn't so much money but companionship, job skills, tools for emotional regulation, etc. Sometimes, they just need someone to hold their hand, smile, listen. That's not given with a giant check, that's given by being willing to show up and give our hearts and our time. I may be a little biased considering I run a service organization that makes those types of "service" our main focus, but I suppose I feel like the things that have served me most are not measured in dollars but by human connection. And I feel like we're starting to lose touch of that in many seva initiatives.

      That said, I do want to acknowledge that in times of severe emergency (e.g. earthquake in Haiti, famine in Somalia, etc) people need resources as well as human connection. In those times, I'm the first one to send my extra cash to The Red Cross, simply because it's not practical for me to get on a plane and "show up" yet I still want to help. There's no reason we can't embrace both models of service. I'm glad we have such an active community in DFW who care.

  • justthisbreath says:

    If you truly believe (as I do) that we are all in this together, then nothing can ever be truly selfless. As far as I'm concerned, that's fine. To me, the bigger question is how best to help. Many of the patients I work with are homeless; I pass homeless people on the street daily….I really don't know what is the best thing to do. My son works in homeless outreach….I think he was the one who told me that just handing money to people "honors their position as beggars" hence, keeping them in the same spot. I can't offer anyone a job though…and really, as I'm rushing for a train, I don't have time to buy anyone a sandwich. Sometimes, I feel like I HAVE to give money….it's not guilt, not anxiety…it just seems like in that particular moment, it might be helpful. Not in the long run, I know….just in that particular moment…

    • Chelsea says:

      I agree. I say that all the time in fact– there's nothing wrong with being selfish. In fact, I think a lot of times our greatest service to others is to be a little selfish. When we meet our own needs, we're much more available to be present to the needs of others.

      And wow… that phrase honors their position as beggars" is quite profound. I too often feel very conflicted when someone asks me for money… Fortunately, I usually don't carry cash on me and usually just offer to buy them some food instead. But in some ways, I suppose that too "honors their position as beggars". I've been known to sit down for a good twenty minutes with homeless people, just talking to them about their lives and how they got to be where they are. Perhaps we might be able to look at simple acts like that as a service in and of themselves? I have to remind myself often that I can't do everything but I can do something. And sometimes that something is just being present.

  • Jagger says:

    A friend of mine, an Yoga instructor, Gillian Black has recently been doing “Yoga in the Park” with some of the homeless youth I work with. I thought you woul appreciate her recent blog on her website. Cheers, Jagger Long-Youth Worker in Toronto, Canada
    http://www.gillianb.com/archives/512

    • Chelsea says:

      Thanks, Jagger. i really appreciate you pointing me to that. I have a friend– Davian Den Otter– who does similar things in Toronto as well. Definitely connect with her if you ever get the opportunity…. she's a great yoga teacher and is very involved in working with youth.

  • wendy says:

    This is a great post and you raise a multitude of complex issues, thank you.

    The point you raised about whether monetary donations simply reinforce the existing power structure present in developing communities has no simple answer. It is true that often the aid ends up financing a corrupt system and reinforcing the existing power structure if donated blindly. This is why it is incumbent upon the donor to do the research about the organizations to which you are contributing. Many organizations invest in capacity building on the local level which is one of the most important factors to identify when choosing which organization will receive your donation. This ensures that there isn't a band-aid solution and minimizes the "hand-out" mentality when the organization is investing in the local community to be involved, participate, and sustain the operation on some level.

    "Selfless service" is an interesting discussion as well. I am of the belief that it is a bit of a misnomer. When I perform an act of "selfless kindness", I am very much aware that I am left with a gift, an experience that has left me feeling richly reward. You raised the point about relationship, and this is valid. For me, there is always a dynamic where, on some level, I am left feeling humbled and privileged that the other individual has not only permitted me the privilege and opportunity to engage or initiate a selfless act, but the other individual has also opened themselves up to receive. The dynamic, in my view, is one of reciprocity. While I may not be seeking thanks, acknowledgment, or gratitude, I have gained from that experience on a personal level, and there fore I do not see it as selfless.

    • Chelsea says:

      I apologize for my tardy reply Wendy; I didn't get notifications for this last group of comments on the article.

      I think you hit the nail on the head in highlighting how important it is to research the organizations to which we're contributing. One organization i've been particularly interested in lately is Kiva– which uses microlending practices rather than a donation based model. When I do donate money now (and I don't often have a whole lot to spare), that's the model I've been drawn toward.

      The difficulty for me has arisen over the past few weeks with situations like the one in Somalia, where theres an emergency situation and lending someone money to start a business isn't going to do a lot of help. Capacity building, in that situation, just isn't quick enough. In that case, maybe we do need to be willing to give a bandaid? Some would say we just need to keep our focus on people in our local community, but I have to admit I have a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around that. Who's to say the people of Africa and Asia are not our brothers and sisters too? And when there's hundreds of thousands of people dying, how can I just turn away and "focus on my own backyard"?

      Challenging questions that I obviously have not quite figured out yet. I think it's wonderful we have online communities like the one at Yoga Modern to discuss the questions with others… maybe we won't reach an answer, but it SERVES me to know I'm not alone in the questions.

  • Misa Derhy says:

    Dear Chelsea, I agree with the most of what you wrote. I worked as volounteer for 4 years in the association taking care about children in indian slum near of Mumbai. And I went there not to serve, but to help somehow in order to be still able to live in Mumbai as spoiled expat wife, to face the kids on the street and all beggars of the each corner. I worked and I was buying my peace of soul and mind, and I was very clear about it. The thing is, it makes difference. For those kids and their families, it was not realy important if I m coming for selfess service or to pleqase my ego or to heal my consciousness. The enjoyed my presence, my time, the money and food I was bringing, and at the end…I helped them and they helped me.
    Then I realized that the service is about to do what is needed…without waiting for thanks, and approval, and gratefulness…bcs then it is nourishment of ego. So unless we are clear about, I was doing exactly same reflexion as you. And today I feel same: we can help just around the corner, no need to go far:) Thanks so much for your beautiful article, it touched my heart staight! ♥

    • dsunshine says:

      –Apple-Mail-85-628838965 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

    • Chelsea says:

      You've mentioned this experience to me before Misa, and I'm very intrigued to learn more. It sounds like those children taught you a lot while you were with them, and living in India for four years is something very few of us here in the US can even imagine experiencing. I hope to get the opportunity to do a long term program in another country like that some day– maybe in the Peace Corps if I ever get through the medical review– but in the mean time, I think you're right. There is so much to do right here around the corner.

      Thank you for sharing your story. Namaste.

  • feliciachavez says:

    Great topic. Much needed. Personally, I just know "something is wrong" when I'm viewing the giving-receiving equation as anything other than 50/50.

    As a person offering something, I can feel my fragile little ego shrink back, afraid the person will reject my gift, no matter who they are or what I'm offering. When they receive it and take it in, I light up, grateful at their graciousness. And when they light up at my offer, I do too. When they reject my offer, my little ego comes in to "save the day," telling me they are "ungrateful" and "don't deserve my help anyway." The drama gets comical.

    When I'm in a position to receive help, again, my fragile little ego shrinks back, feeling vulnerable and exposed…at some level "unworthy." But also again, when he or she is coming from a clean place of offering assistance, I can meet the person's offer with light, with presence, with receptivity and true gratefulness. Then, I can see how their giving to me and my receiving evens the playing field: we meet one another in a space of mutual humility and simple humanity. In that moment, we're divine connections for each other.

    Really, it becomes much more about meeting and being met, seeing and being seen, and only that, much more so than an exchange of some "thing." Even when one party–the giver or receiver–is not present, one person on either side of the equation can hold presence and and "vision" in the moment.

    Of course, it gets much more complicated with we're talking about money going to organizations and institutions that provide services, etc. That's why it's great to find ones that are made up of people with powerful self-reflection and open ears…

    • Chelsea says:

      Beautifully stated, Felicia. Especially "it becomes much more about being met, seing and being seen." That, to me, is what service is all about. Connection. Seeing yourself in the other. Simply showing up.

      I also think that sometimes we serve others by receiving. We often forget how good it feels to give, and when we're willing to be vulnerable and exposed like you talk about, we allow others the opportunity relish in the privilege of helping us. In fact, sometimes I think it's harder to be on the receiving end! But having the balance of both, in my opinion, is crucial.

      I'm intrigued by what you said about when one party isn't present though… what do you mean by hold the presence and vision in the moment? I kind of have a sense of what you're saying, but I'm not sure. What does that look like in practice?

  • IfeTogun says:

    I realize that I'm extremely late to this conversation but I've only recently started reading Yoga Modern. First, Chelsea, as always, excellent writing. Your writing has always been very honest and rooted in a desire to know rather than to simply say something.

    Since so many people have already addressed this question directly, I'd like to come at it from a different, much wider angle.

    My question is this: Is anything ever pure? In other words, is it possible to be altruistic without some small grain of greed; or good without an element of evil; or loving without some element of hate? How would you know?

    A thing can only be known (or recognized) in relation to its opposite, and if so, doesn't that make its opposite essential? And if the opposite is essential, then aren't the two things really the same thing in different clothing, so to speak?

    To bring it back to this conversation, isn't it inevitable that we must accept the "bads" of aid along with its goods because the "bads" are an invariable part of the "goods"?

    • Chelsea says:

      Hmmmm, Ife. I love your mind.

      To your first question: Is anything ever pure? Of course not. As with anything, service will inevitably encompass both the light and shadow aspects of our humanity. I don't mean to suggest that we must be completely "selfless" to be of service… I suppose what I wanted to do was point out that we seem to be hiding from the (as you so eloquently put it) "small grains of greed," pretending they're not there at all. I think we not only need to acknowledge their existence, but embrace those darker motivations. Otherwise, they're left to reek havoc in the muck of our subconscious. When we acknowledge that our service is not pure, I think we're much more accessible to connect with other human beings… because we're showing up fully, completely, as we are.

      Now, to the other question you ask… "are the bads an inevitable part of the goods"? Perhaps. But that does not mean we simply go "Ah, well. Humans are going to be greedy. That's just how we are." As we've talked about in conversations past, even though we know it's a show– that the forces of good and evil are in reality one and the same– we play the game anyway. We plunge into life full force, fight with all our heart for the good, and then laugh at ourselves when it's all over for getting so lost in the show (as Alan Watts would say). I can recognize that the greed will always be there, and still do my best to eliminate it's influence on how I connect with the people I'm serving. I probably won't succeed completely, but I can certainly make progress from where we started.

      On an unrelated not…. you being a Bikram teacher, I'm really curious about the role of 'seva' in that tradition. Did you all study that concept in teacher training? Are teachers and studio owners encouraged to bring "karma yoga" into their teaching/practice?

  • IfeTogun says:

    Absolutely. I don't think a night passed in training when Bikram didn't talk about Karma Yoga.