In several recent conversations, I’ve heard and contemplated the divide between spiritual orientations of “working on one’s self” and “being in service” to something greater than the self—deity, community, or human liberation as examples. This separation, to me, is unfortunate and unnecessary, although I recognize the value of certain critiques.
There is no doubt that many spiritualities today have become a commodified and defanged way to make one’s self “feel better” and enjoy “prosperity,” cut off from one’s larger relationships to systems of inequality, human suffering, or the costs of our prosperity to the environment. Much of the pop “New Thought” technologies, like The Secret, capitalize on what often look like ego-level wants and not soul-level desires: manifesting thinness and not a health in a body-affirming culture, manifesting material luxuries and not a life of gratitude and connection. Christian “prosperity” work often looks no different.
In response to this trend, I notice spiritual practitioners who seem to eschew work on the self as hubristic, indulgent, and a distraction from being in service to that which is greater than one’s ego wants. They make comments that make other people nervous, prioritizing service and the needs of divinity or the Earth above human needs. (Which is not a problem, really, as human needs may well fit neatly within the circle of these larger needs.) They are sincere and devoted practitioners, and yet sometimes one can glimpse the immense personal costs of their work. I think the danger of this approach is neglecting or minimizing one’s own needs and human worth. Humanity is one thread of existence rather than the apex of Creation, as Western theological thought once attested, but we matter in the web of existence, we are here for a purpose and we have our own worth and value. Being in integrity with ourselves helps us to be in service.
“Know thyself” is an injunction passed down from the Delphic maxims, and for me this is the basis of spiritual work, though it is not the end. If our purpose is service to something larger than ourselves, then we are like the chalice into which rich dark wine is poured. The wine is not of ourselves and not for ourselves, yet that does not mean the self is irrelevant. We must make our selves into a cup suitable for this work. We can recognize the filters and toxins through which the wine must pass into ourselves, and we can make ourselves conscious and cleansed so that the wine can move through with greater purity. We can learn to discern between good wine and bad wine. We can keep our vessels strong so the work continues. If our foundations are weak, or our boundaries cracked, then the influx of power and energy that comes from this divine wine may well further crack and break down the cup.
Stepping away from the analogy, to some extent I think we need to know and honor our basic needs, even our ego-level needs, to be of good service. If I am not aware of and addressing my needs for friendship, for love and acceptance, for intimacy, then I am in danger of meeting those needs covertly in ways that would be harmful. We can easily see this when we look to all the abuses of spiritual leaders and priests who cross boundaries and exploit their positions of power to get their needs met by students or laity.
When I think of working on the self, I think of going deeper and deeper, layer by layer, always finding new ways in which my biases and complexes inform and deform my perception. There is no end to this process, so I cannot wait until I’m “done” before I act, but I can begin building habits of thought and action that support me in doing the work of self and service. The more I work on self, the more I see how deep and wide the Self extends. If I see in myself only an atomized individual, disconnected from the world and my communities, then I am very limited. Self ripples out to larger and larger circles of being, including my family, my communities, my planet. Self and Other are interdependent, and caring for one supports caring for the other.
Yet even with this larger perspective, I remind myself that I am not the ocean but a drop. I am separate, that I might be in relationship. If I were the ocean, I would not be suited to the task of being in service. I am a cup that I might bear the holy wine.