Work and Service

Before enlightment: chop wood, carry water

After enlightment: chop wood, carry water

                                ~Zen Proverb

bee2 A common misconception is that an enlightened person simply drops out of everyday life and has no more need to engage in daily life activities, such as eating, maintaining household chores, or working.  It seems that there is an inherent conflict between spiritual life and worldly existence, but this may not be the case.   In Be As You Are: the Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, a seeker inquires about engagement in worldly life where they inquire, “Is it possible to enjoy Samadhi while busy in worldly work?”  Maharshi replies:

The feeling ‘I work’ is a hindrance.  Ask yourself ‘Who works?’  Remember who you are.  Then the work will not bind you, it will go on automatically.  Make no effort either to work or to renounce; it is your effort which is the bondage.  What is destined to happen will happen.  If you are destined not to work, work cannot be had even if you hunt for it.  If you are destined to work, you will not be able to avoid it and you will be forced to engage yourself in it.  So, leave it to the higher power; you cannot renounce or retain as you choose.

So what is work and service then?  As Maharshi reminds us, all is the Self, therefore, all is a modification of God, and the perceived separation from worldly life and a spiritual one is imaginary.  If engaged in worldly life tasks, such as a part-time job, service to the Self may still be engaged here though it may not be apparent to the untrained seeker.  The duty to work and make a living to sustain the body-mind may be there simply as a lesson of discipline for the ego, thus acting as a necessary tool for learning in order to eventually become free from this condition.  However, I am not stating that all activity is God-like, because anything that is done for purely selfish (egoic) motivations isn’t God.   The ego, paradoxically, is God and at the same time it isn’t; as it is there to teach us exactly what isn’t God through pain and suffering so that one can eventually become free from it.spider web 3 crop

So, going back to our proverbial enlightened person who continues chopping wood and carrying water: what is the deeper meaning here?  Why would one carry on in engaging in menial life activities after understanding something as profound as God?  What would be the point after the fear of death is gone in continuing to engage in activities that serve to maintain the body-mind?  Actually dis-engaging from these worldly activities would again be falsely perceiving one as a separate self, because as Maharshi puts it, not attending to work still means identifying with ego.  He explains that, “Attending to the Self means attending to work.  Because you identify with the body you think that the work is done by you.  But the body and its activities, including that work, are not apart from the Self.”  So neglecting work would be neglecting a part of oneself through the action of falsely identifying work as separate from the higher Self.  The key is to engage in work without preferences and without selfish motivations, not to avoid such activities an individual may dislike altogether, for our higher Self has no likes or dislikes.

So the difference now with our proverbial enlightened person is that while they may still engage in life activities, they are now happy doing this work, accepting it as God’s will and therefore work as well.  Without personal motivations and desires, work becomes duty and service to the Self.


Maharshi, Sri Ramana.  Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, edited by D. Godman.  London, England: Penguin Arkana, 1985.

A True Guru

 Getting enlightened is no easy task.

In line with this context, it is not something that can be achieved or obtained, like some intermediary goal.  You won’t find yourself satisfactorily analyzing  your present state of being while wistfully musing,  ‘Gosh, now that I’m enlightened, what should I do next?’  

But, just what is enlightenment anyways?   In Western contemporary society the concept of enlightenment has been diluted to refer to someone who is especially knowledgeable in mystical matters and who has had some sort of phenomenal, god-seeing experience.  The word ‘guru’ in particular, is thrown around carelessly to mean something of an expert along a broad range of various vocations.  Now, there are two fundamental problems with this hypothetical ‘enlightenment-getting’ situation.  Firstly, as any true guru would tell you, enlightenment is not something that can be achieved, like collecting ‘points’ on some spirituality club card.  Secondly, enlightenment cannot be limited to a personal experience, as it is something that transcends that which is perceiving that experience.  More simply put, it’s like this:  enlightenment cannot be ‘had’ or ‘achieved’, because there is no one there to  accrue this knowledge in the first place, as ‘you’ are only an illusionary contraction of energy, of which enlightenment, or happiness, is already the case!  Okay, so maybe that wasn’t as simply put as I intended, so I guess this is where the guru would come in. 

True enlightenment is emptying oneself of everything, including one’s own thoughts and beliefs, and it takes a lot of hard work and discipline to get there.   While the student of spirituality must arduously work on their own ego, real progress cannot be made without a true spiritual teacher to help them recognize where their limitations are.  The guru is there to help undo ‘you’ by freeing up this contraction of energy, which is ego, through real understanding.  However, progress can only go as far as to which the student is willing to work on themselves; the guru can only show the way.  As the old adage goes: You can bring the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.    

However, we are in the midst of the New Age where trickster gurus and charlatans exploit the world’s stage of spiritual seekers looking for a quick fix to end their suffering.  Our insatiable consumer-driven appetites in the western world wants to buy our way to happiness, so New Age leaders offer a whole array of methods and mantras to dissolve away our life’s fears and miseries in a relatively short period of time.  But, enlightenment cannot be sought after in such a way.  Real enlightenment is through the dissolution of the ego, or the illusionary self, and cannot be bought and sold on the New Age market. 

 So how does one tell that they are not getting falsely led away from the water?   A true guru will never tell you to follow him or her exclusively, to be submissive to them, or to lead you into their gift shop outside of their Ashram.   A true guru will not cause a student to become dependent on the him or her and their false methods and mantras.  Instead, a true spiritual teacher will ultimately help their students to become free of everything, including the guru themselves.  Therefore, they would seek to make teachers out their students, so they in turn can help others.  

Finding enlightenment is possible for anybody who is willing to work on themselves with a guru by critically and honestly analyzing one’s own ego. It is only through the guidance of a true guru that one can learn to drink from the purifying stream of Consciousness and not be falsely led astray. 

– May 2012

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