Self-transformation: from egoism to altruism in service
APR 2011  

Self-transformation: from egoism to altruism in service

A 'Conversation' with Annie Besant:
Her vision of service and stages of development

Annie Besant is the key player in a 'conversation' that explores some of the issues surrounding self-transformation or inner growth in the context of service. All of the words attributed to her are her own and have been extracted by Dorothy Bell from her teachings that appear in the compilation ‘Annie Besant… on Service, Duty and Sacrifice’.

Q: The Theosophical Order of Service that you founded, is defined as having a dual purpose of “uniting to be of service to all that suffers” while engaging in the inner work of purifying our intentions – our minds and emotions. Is there something you can say beyond this, in the bigger picture?

Annie Besant:
I speak of… the supreme duty… the universal law of life; for only by service is fullness of life made possible, to the service of man the whole of the universe today is yoked. For under the name of man, man past, present and future, man evolving up to the divine man, eternal, immortal, indestructible, that is the service to which every individual should be pledged, that the object of life, that the fashion of evolution….

Great is the philosophy which moulds the minds of men, great is science which gives light of knowledge to the world; but greater than all is religion which teaches man his duty, which inspires man with strength to accomplish it; greatest of all is that knowledge of the human soul which makes daily service the path of progress and finds in the lowest work the steps that lead to the highest achievement….

Q: You mentioned the path of progress, and I presume that means the inner work of purifying our minds and emotions on the journey that has been described as “from egoism to altruism”. In the context of service, are there identifiable stages of this journey?

Annie Besant:
First, men do action for self-gratification, there only progress in experience is gained; then they learn to do it as duty, and so they begin to practise Yoga in daily life; lastly they do it as a joyful sacrifice for which they ask nothing back, but give every power they possess for the accomplishment of the work. And in this way, union is accomplished.

We understand what is meant by purification when we notice these stages of self-gratification, of doing duty as duty, of giving everything as a free-will sacrifice. These are stages of the path of purification.

Q: So what you are really talking about involves different levels of thinking at different stages…

Annie Besant:
…in whatever life the man begins to think more of the common good than of his own individual gain… is a step towards the Path, and is preparing the man to set his feet thereon. There lies the difference between the man who is on the ordinary road of evolution, growing by his work or his study, and the man who, while growing, is growing with the object of Service, of lifting the world a little higher and not only of earning his livelihood therein.

Q: So the first big step, obviously, is moving out of being self-centred and self-serving in the ways of the world?

Annie Besant:
I am not speaking with any idea of looking down upon, or with contempt for, those who are merely walking in the ways of the world with the ordinary worldly objects. That is a part, and a necessary part, of evolution. How should man evolve his mind, how should man train his emotions, how should man develop even physically, unless he considers the ways of the world and makes efforts to succeed therein? It is well that a man should work for the fruit of action, well that men should struggle in order to succeed, well that men should be ambitious, should grasp after power and place, after fame, honour and success. Toys! Yes, they are toys; but they are the toys by which the children learn to walk, the prizes in life’s school by which the boys are stimulated to exertion, the crowns in the struggle of life by which strength and energy and future possibilities are developed.

Q: We are living and trying to serve in a world that appears to be preoccupied with toys: greed, the seeking of power and position by any means – and we tend to despair at the oppression and general condition of humanity that this produces… and we perhaps lose sight of the broader perspective…

Annie Besant:
Do not despise the common world of men, in which men are striving and struggling, making many a sin and even a crime, for all these are lessons in life’s school, all these are stages through which every man must pass… the fierce struggles among men develop the power of the will, the power of the mind, the power of the emotions, even the power of muscle and of nerve. In the world which springs from infinite Wisdom and infinite Love, there is no lesson in life that has not its purpose, and in all the prizes of the world – call them from the higher standpoint toys as you may – in all the fruits of action which in the higher life you are bidden to renounce and to cast aside; in every one of these God is hiding, in every one of them His attractiveness is the only power that allures, and, though they break into pieces when you have grasped them, although ambition turns to ashes when it is satisfied, although wealth becomes a burden when it is gathered, although pleasure becomes satiety after it has filled the cup of delight; still the breaking is another lesson…

Q: You are speaking from a broader perspective than that from which the average man or woman operates – and we spoke earlier about the journey from egoism to altruism. You mentioned the two stages along the path of purification following self-gratification – service as duty and then service as joyful, free-will sacrifice – which I would see as the expression of pure altruism. Could you spell this out a bit more and in particular, how the change or shift in thinking takes place?

Annie Besant:
… there is a larger consciousness than that which works in the brain and the nervous system, a larger consciousness than that which we call the waking consciousness in man… that consciousness may begin to unfold and grow by the full recognition of the Law of Duty, by the attempt to fulfil perfectly every obligation of life….

On to that loftier and sublimer region where the inner law takes the place of the law of outer obligation, where instead of duty… there is sacrifice, which is the outpouring of life, where everything is done gladly, everything is done willingly, in perfect self-surrender, where the man does not need to ask, “What have I to do? What is my duty?” but where he works because the Divine out-welling finds its channel in his life….

Q: The notion of duty and self-sacrifice to some external cause is perhaps more easily accepted in the East than in the West – the culture that cultivates the personality-ego… however, if one sees that it is a natural extension and expression of who we truly are, then perhaps that is a more useful way of seeing it. But that seems such a challenge to old ways of thinking….

Annie Besant:
The notion that our little life is a separate independent unit, fighting for its own hand against countless separate independent units, is a delusion of the most tormenting kind. So long as we thus see the world and life, peace broods far off on an inaccessible pinnacle….

The Law of Duty is the first truth which a man must obey, if he wishes to rise to the spiritual life… It (the Law of Duty) varies with each stage of evolution, though the principle is ever the same. It is progressive, as evolution is progressive. The duty of the savage is not the duty of the cultured and evolved man…. So that when we are studying the Law of Duty, we must begin by studying our own place on the great ladder of evolution, studying the circumstances around us that show our karma, by studying our own powers and capacities, and ascertaining our weaknesses. And out of this careful study we must find out the Law of Duty by which we must guide our steps….

Q: Generally speaking, how does this work at the everyday level of duty or service in action?

Annie Besant:
... To all and each one that we meet we owe a duty. No one who comes within the circle of our life, but we have a duty towards that person. The world is not ruled by chance; no fortuitous happenings come into the lives of men. Duties are obligations we owe to those around us; and within our circle is one to whom we owe a duty. What is the duty that we owe to each? It is the definite payment of those debts with which we are familiar in our studies; the duty of reverencing and obeying those who are superior to us, who are above us; the duty of being gentle and affectionate and helpful to those around us on our own level; the duty of protection, kindness, helpfulness and compassion to those below us. These are the universal duties….

Q: I could perform duties – as a wife or husband, son or daughter, boss or worker, teacher or student, even as a benefactor and humanitarian – for reasons that could be defined as self-serving – I am seeking a tax deduction; I am desperately seeking approval and acceptance from others or myself in ‘doing the right thing’; or having to be important and having status; or even needing to feel that I am a worthwhile person, perhaps arising from programmed emotional needs that might control me….

Annie Besant:
…those who work for duty do not cling to anything they do… failure of insight is failure in accomplishment. We must not be attached even to work of any particular description; always at work indeed, but with the soul free and ‘at attention’, ready….

The sternness to the lower self, spoken of above, is a condition of this helpful service, for only the one who has no cares for his own, who is for himself indifferent to pleasure and pain, is sufficiently free to give perfect sympathy to others. Needing nothing, he can give everything. With no love for himself, he becomes love incarnate to others....

To serve for the sake of service, and not for the pleasure we take in serving, is to take a distinct step forward…. When we have succeeded in dominating the personality… the next step is to do it as heartily and fully when this pleasure disappears and all the joy and light are clouded over. Otherwise, in serving the Holy Ones we may be serving self – serving for what we get from them, instead of for pure love’s sake.

So long as this subtle form of self-seeking prevails, we are in danger of falling away from service….
We have to bear in mind that all our actions are more or less the result of two factors, a desire for self-gratification, and a wish to benefit the world – and our constant effort should be to attenuate as far as is possible the former element, since it may not, till the germ of personality ceases to exist, be completely eliminated….

Q: And so, with self observation and self understanding, we somehow move out of the first stage or level of consciousness – of working for the fruit of action – into working for its own sake, and we are not invested in the outcome of our action….

Annie Besant:
…. As the spiritual life dawns, we recognise that all our actions are to be performed, not for some particular result, but because it is our duty to perform them. This is easily said, but how hard to accomplish! We need not change anything in our life to become spiritual, but we must change our attitude to life. We must cease to ask anything from it and give everything we do to it, because it is our duty.

Now that conception of life is the first great step towards the recognition of unity. If there is only one great Life, if each of us is only an expression of that Life, then all our activity is simply the working of that Life within us, and the results are reaped by the common Life and not by the separated self. This is what is meant in the Gita by giving up working for fruit – for the fruit is the ordinary result of action.

Q: This is such a huge step – to change our old patterns of perception and thinking away from the grooves that are well worn in the brain from birth, and even from other lives…. But then, HPB talked about the need for new brain paths to accommodate the ideas of Theosophy.

Annie Besant:
This advice is only for those who will to lead the spiritual life, for it is not advisable for people to give up working for the fruit of action until a more potent motive has arisen within them, one that spurs them into activity without a prize for the personal self. We must have activity, it is the way of evolution. Without activity we do not evolve; without effort and struggle, we float in the backwaters of life and make no progress along the river. Activity is the law of progress; as we exercise our selves, new life flows into us. For that reason it is written that one who is slothful and inactive has not even begun to turn to the spiritual life.

The motive for action for ordinary people is quite properly the enjoyment of the fruit. This is God’s way of leading the world along the path of evolution. Prizes are put before us. We strive after the prizes, and as we strive develop our powers. But when we seize the prize, it crumbles to pieces in our hands – always. If we look at human life, we see this continually repeated. You desire money….You strive for fame and win it…. You strive for power…. The same sequence is ever repeated.

But when the spirit begins to stir and to seek its own manifestation, then the prizes lose their attractive power. We see duty instead of fruit as motive. And then we work for duty’s sake, as part of the One Great Life, and we work with all the energy of those who work for fruit, perhaps even with more.

Q: You mentioned a key principle then – “when the spirit begins to stir and to seek its own manifestation” – this is the beginning of the rocky road in the mental battle between the inner Self and the “artificial” personality-self as HPB described it. And service to humanity can be Self-serving or self-serving… it sounds confusing.

Annie Besant:
But when we begin to live the life of Spirit, the life which recognises the One in the manifold forms, then there begins to dawn upon us the supreme spiritual truth, that sacrifice is not pain but joy, is not sorrow but delight, that that which to the flesh is painful is bliss to the Spirit, which is our true life. Then we see that the aspect of sacrifice that was sorrowful was an utter delusion, that keener than any pleasure that the world can give, more joyous than any joy that comes from wealth or position, more blissful than any bliss that the world can offer, is the bliss of the free Spirit, which, by pouring itself out, finds the union with the Self, and knows that it is living in many forms, flowing along many channels, instead of following the limitation of a single form….

Having risen to that great height where all selves are known as one, the different forms are all His own. He knows Himself in each. He can be joyous with the joyful, and feel sorrow with the sorrowful…. There is nothing but One Self, and nothing outside it either to fear or to challenge.

That is the true Peace, and that alone is Wisdom. To know the Self is alone the spiritual life, and that life is joy and peace…. The Law of Sacrifice, which is the Law of Life and the Law of Joy and the Law of Peace, is summed up in the Mahavakya, this great Word; “I am thou; thou art I.”

Q: With consciousness – or the mind – centred and operating at this level of spiritual perception, how would one see it in action in every day life?

Annie Besant:
How then shall we behave ourselves to our brother men? We see a man low, degraded, ignorant and foul. No special tie of kindred nor past karma binds us to him, nor does anything that we regard as obligation join our form to his. But, by the Law of Sacrifice, having realised the unity of the Self, when we see that outcast member of the human family, we see the Self in him, and the form vanishes, and we know that we are that man, and that man is our self; hence compassion takes the place of what in the man of the world is repulsion. Love takes the place of hatred, and tenderness replaces indifference, and the Sacrificer is marked in his attitude to those around him by this touch of divine compassion, which cannot see the repulsiveness of the outer form, but can only realise the beauty of the Self enshrined therein….

As he realises this, and knows that the only value of the body is to be a channel of the higher, to be an instrument of that life, he slowly and gradually rises above all thought, save the thought of unity, and feels himself a part of this great suffering world... and thus he realises unity, and sees through all differences the underlying One Self.

Only in this way can we live in the Eternal.

Q: And this is the final stage of self-transformation through service – into pure altruism?

Annie Besant:
…as long as service is consciously service of others, that is of others separated from our own self, there is still incompleteness in the ethics, there is still lack of spirituality in the soul…. While we are still consciously separate, altruism may rightly be regarded as the Law of Life, based on a common origin in the divine, based in the common training, the pilgrimage which every soul must tread; based also in common experience….

The spiritual man must lead a higher life than the life of altruism. He must lead the life of self-identification with all that lives and moves. There is no ‘other’ in this world; we are all one. Each is a separate form, but one Spirit moves and lives in all.

Q: That is very inspirational, but I am still not clear about where to start on this transformative path of service to the whole and being who I truly am?

Annie Besant:
To reach this power of service is a matter of self-training in daily life. First we need to recognise that the SELF in all is one, so that in each person with whom we come into contact, we shall ignore all that is unlovely in the outer casing, and recognise the SELF seated in the heart.

Q: So it is going beyond knowing the theory… it is being aware of how our perceptions have been conditioned since birth with the limited thought that we are all separate and independent. And to retrain our brain programming, daily, in how to ‘see’ – changing how we see…. Perhaps if I meditated in a cave for a few years, I could change my way of seeing and thinking….

Annie Besant:
It is only by living the teachings that a man may come to understand them….

The next thing is to realise – in feeling, not only in theory – that the SELF is endeavouring to express itself through the casings that obstruct it, and that the inner nature is altogether lovely, and is distorted by the envelopes that surround it. Then we should identify ourselves with that SELF – which is indeed our self in its essence, and cooperate with it in its warfare against the lower elements that stifle its expression.

And since we have to work through our own lower nature on our brother, the only way to effectually help is to see things as that brother sees them, with his limitations, his prejudices, his distorted vision; and thus seeing them, and being affected by them in our lower nature, help him in his way and not in ours, for thus only can real help be given.

Q: Even in the context of giving a helping hand, it is so difficult to make the right decisions, be detached from the poverty and suffering of billions of people in the world. It is just so overwhelming to try and put it all together…

Annie Besant:
Nor let us forget that the person who happens to be with us at any moment is the person given to us by the Master to serve at the moment…. We often miss this immediate duty by absorption in other work, failing to understand that the helping of the human soul sent to us is our work of the moment….

Peace to all Beings

Annie Besant
Annie Besant
1847 - 1933

Dorothy Bell
Dorothy Bell
(present day)

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