Originally printed in the January - February 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Dunningham-Chapotin, Diana. "An Infinity Within to Give." Quest 90.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY 2002):12-17.
by Diana Dunningham-Chapotin
There is an infinity in each one of us to give; we have to discover the mode of giving it.
—N. Sri Ram, Thoughts for Aspirants
When we are called to the path of service by the suffering around us, we soon discover that a seemingly inexhaustible source of love and energy is required. "Good causes" claim our attention on all sides. The good news, according to Theosophy, is that we have an inexhaustible source of love and energy within us. In fact, according to our literature, we have an infinite source of energy on which to draw.
Of course the tricky part is how to tap our limitless power to give and to love. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a simple esoteric formula that would magically release this supposed infinite power within us? Just think of all the situations that would be transformed, even little ones we've all experienced, like these:
You're standing in the street with an acquaintance who's rambling on because she's lonely. You know that, and so you're trying to be patient. But your mind strays to your watch. In fact it strays again and again. Is there a formula to tap into greater powers of understanding and patience?
A friend is really worked up about a certain injustice in society. And you agree with her on the issue. She has invited you to take a petition around your neighborhood. You don't mind asking your friends to sign but you feel shy about approaching strangers. Have you ever wanted to protest against something but felt afraid or reluctant to take the appropriate action?
Have you ever found yourself putting off visiting an elderly friend in a rest home? You say to yourself, I really must go this week.
You've been helping a friend for months over a relationship difficulty. You come to realize that no one's getting anywhere. No solutions are appearing to your friend's problem, there's no change in the attitude or behavior that may be contributing to it. You've put in weeks and begin to feel you are just keeping your friend company as a listening post. Do you continue in a seemingly useless activity?
Have you ever walked past a street beggar or bag lady, avoiding their gaze?
Have you ever been in a position of dependency on others, either for financial or health reasons, and felt vulnerable, helpless?
Have you ever nursed someone for an extended period—say a friend with cancer or an elderly relative—and got so tired that you wondered just how much longer you could go on?
Our feelings in all these, and other situations like them, are typical human responses—understandable ones, given the limitations we function under until we have tapped that infinity within ourselves, and have discovered the mode of giving it. All these situations involve giving, serving, and receiving, as well as the feelings we inevitably encounter in the process, feelings of powerlessness, cynicism, fatigue, boredom, embarrassment, resentment, impatience, and so on. All these situations require turning within, to deep inner resources.
As we experience such typical human responses, we have a great ally:Theosophy. How does it help us in all these situations? If someone were to ask you what connection Theosophy has to the work you do as service to others, you might reply that it is at the very heart of all your service activities, that it is pivotal. You might say that you are constantly trying to understand in the light of Theosophy all the situations in which you are lending a hand, so it affects the way you look upon and respond to them.
Whether we realize it or not, our underlying metaphysical assumptions influence our attitude toward everything. We are constantly faced with decisions in our lives: which charities we're going to donate to each year and how much we will give to each, what kind of volunteer work we'll sign up for and how much time we will give, whether to bring our aged parents to live with us, whether to go and live with our children when we're elderly ourselves, whether we should register as a conscientious objector when we're young, whether to adopt a child from an underprivileged family, whether to support the call for the forgiveness of the debt of developing countries or UN intervention in this or that war-torn country, or even what political party to vote for.We tend to make decisions like these, consciously or subconsciously, in the light of our philosophy of life.
The quality of our service to others, the depth of our giving, is directly influenced by our worldview. And the worldview of Theosophy sets giving in a very large context. Because Theosophy gives us a vast perspective on life and a deep insight into our own natures, it can revolutionize our motive for giving ourselves to others.
So what is truly Theosophical service and giving?
Theosophical servers look not just to the physical health and security or the psychological comfort of those they are helping, but also to their long-term growth and their spiritual welfare. They seek not just a quick fix, but a lasting benefit.
Theosophical servers do not go out and fight the government on social issues with a them-and-us, adversarial mentality; they seek consensus with all the love and intelligence of which they are capable.In supporting the interests of their nation, they try to avoid doing so at the expense of other nations. They try to keep in mind a global perspective.
Theosophical servers view the peaks and valleys of psychological experience in relation to the larger picture of cyclic evolution. They see the way we swing between pleasure and pain, sorrow and joy, attraction and repulsion, and rest and activity as a function of the polarity operating in the universe. They look at suffering in terms of the growth it can bring and the opportunities to exercise compassion it affords.
Theosophical servers consider themselves lucky to be engaged in an undertaking in which there are no obstacles. In the ordinary world, if you're booked on a flight to Singapore and the air controllers go on strike, you've got an obstacle. If you want to buy a property and a loan doesn't come through, you've got a problem. On the spiritual path, obstacles are opportunities for action that further our evolution and that of the whole world.
Our relationships with co-workers in the Society who seem to us to be "unbrotherly" may be the very terrain of evolutionary action. I used to think that personality hassles within the Society were time-wasting, annoying things, but maybe they are part of the process of growth and development that we should not resent, but look on as an opportunity for learning how to deal with both personality and hassling. Through them, we can learn how to transform obstacles into opportunities.
So Theosophy, through the spiritual perspective it provides, can deepen our giving. But what happens in the sort of nitty-gritty situations mentioned above? What is the quality of our giving in such cases? If there are no magical formulas to help us, are there not at least some special principles, insights, or practices that can release the will, wisdom, and love latent within every one of us?
Theosophical servers typically hold some convictions that directly affect their capacity to give. One of these is the conviction that every person is perfectible and will inevitably one day be self-actualized or self-realized.
Annie Besant composed an epigram, the first part of which was written in gold letters on the front wall of my old home Lodge in Auckland, New Zealand: "No soul that aspires can ever fail to rise; no heart that loves can ever be abandoned. Difficulties exist only in that overcoming them we may grow strong, and they only who have suffered are able to save."
The conviction that everyone is perfectible helps to broaden our power to give and to dissolve the selective, judgmental way we sometimes operate in our giving. This conviction stops us from subconsciously writing people off. The following story, "We Are Three, You Are Three," illustrates this point.
When the bishop's ship stopped at a remote island for a day, he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained to him that centuries before, they had been Christianized by missionaries. "We Christians!" they said, proudly pointing to one another.
The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord's Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.
"What do you say when you pray?'
"We lift eyes to heaven. We pray, 'We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.'" The bishop was dismayed at the primitive, even heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord's Prayer. The fishermen were poor learners, but they gave it all they had, and before the bishop sailed away the next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without afault.
Months later the bishop's ship happened to pass by those islands again and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pray, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in thought, he happened to look up and noticed a spot of light in the east.The light kept approaching the ship, and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight. When the figures were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends,the fishermen.
"Bishop!" they exclaimed. "We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry meet you."
"What is it you want?" asked the bishop, awe-struck.
"Bishop," they said, "we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, 'Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come . . ..' Then we forget. Please tell us prayer again."
"Go back to your homes, my friends," he said, "and each time you pray, say, 'We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!'"
It is easy to write people off, as the Bishop almost did. One of the problems at the beginning of this article was that we start to feel like a listening post while trying to help friends in distress. After trying for a while to help someone, we may catch ourselves deciding that they are too scarred by their experiences to go anywhere much further in this incarnation. But in arriving at that decision, we have lost sight of their perfectibility, which we need to keep before us as at all times if we are truly to help.
The more experience we have, the more opportunities we have to realize that every individual has some amazing qualities, no matter how damaged the individual may appear to us. Every person has some aspect we can work with, some qualities of value for others. And our presence, for however long or short a time, can be the very gift that person needs.
A growing realization of the preciousness of every individual can make us just a little more patient with the bore, with those who don't seem to be getting on top of their problems, with the elderly person who repeats the same stories endlessly. That realization can open the doors of the heart so wide that no one is excluded. From it, we can glimpse the fact that a hidden Life is indeed vibrant in every atom, that a hidden Light is shining in every creature, and that a hidden Love is embracing in Oneness not just those who are beautiful, grateful, and appealing but also those who are unattractive, irritating, and bothersome to help.
Rachel Naomi Remen ("In the Service of Life," Noetic Sciences Review, spring 1996) distinguishes between fixing, helping, and serving."Fixing," she says, "is a form of judgment." To "fix" a person is to see them as broken rather than inherently whole and perfect. "Helping," she says, "is based on inequality." To "help" is to use one's own strength in place of the lesser strength of those helped and so diminishes their self-esteem and incurs a debt. "Serving," on the other hand, "is mutual." "We don't serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves."Remen says, "If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise. Service, on the other hand is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. . . . Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred. . . . When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole."
Thus far we have been considering the "infinity in each one of us to give," which Sri Ram wrote of. His epigram has, however, a second part:"we have to discover the mode of giving it." That discovery comes from a realization of our unity with all other life. As we realize our oneness with others, we begin to tap into what seem like magical powers to comfort, protect, heal, uplift, and transform. What brings about that realization of unity?
Experiences in our lives sometimes come like bolts from the blue, evoking an awareness of unity, but more often than not the realization of oneness comes about imperceptibly. It is a process that starts withthe impulse to reach out to assist others in danger or difficulty. When we see someone on the verge of fainting, our arms go out automatically. When a child falls off its bicycle, we stop and pick it up. When we learn a neighbor is sick, we hang up the telephone with one hand as the other hand is reaching out for the soup pot.
Our impulse to serve others is not born of a desire to shine—not fundamentally. It is born of an underlying kinship, an urge to unity. Cynics might say that we are social animals and that our urge to reach out and help is a sort of herd instinct, an act of collective self-preservation. That is, in fact, probably how our evolutionary journey started, but it is not the essence of the instinct to reach out. We suffer from a sense of our own separateness, which enables us to recognize the pain of isolation in others. This is what makes us care.
In his book How Can I Help? Ram Dass tells about a person with special insight into our underlying kinship with other human beings. We might call the story "Christ, in all his distressing disguises." A woman is speaking:
In the early stages of my father's cancer, I found it very difficult to know how best to help. I lived a thousand miles away and would come for visits. It was hard seeing him going downhill, harder still feeling so clumsy, not sure what to do, not sure what to say.
Toward the end, I was called to come suddenly. He'd been slipping. I went straight from the airport to the hospital, then directly to the room he was listed in.
When I entered, I saw that I'd made a mistake. There was a very,very old man there, pale and hairless, thin, and breathing with great gasps, fast asleep, seemingly near death. So I turned to find my dad's room. Then I froze. I suddenly realized, "My God, that's him!" I hadn't recognized my own father! It was the single most shocking moment of my life.
Thank God he was asleep. All I could do was sit next to him and try to get past this image before he woke up and saw my shock. I had to look through him and find something beside this astonishing appearance of a father I could barely recognize physically.
By the time he awoke, I'd gotten part of the way. But we were still quite uncomfortable with each another. There was still this sense of distance. We both could feel it. It was very painful. We both were self-conscious . . . infrequent eye contact.
Several days later, I came into his room and found him asleep again. Again such a hard sight. So I sat and looked some more. Suddenly this thought came to me, words of Mother Teresa, describing lepers she cared for as "Christ in all his distressing disguises."
I never had any real relation to Christ at all, and I can't say thatI did at that moment. But what came through to me was a feeling for my father's identity as . . . like a child of God. That was who he really was, behind the "distressing disguise." And it was my real identity too, I felt. I felt a great bond with him which wasn't anything like I'd felt as father and daughter.
At that point he woke up and looked at me and said, "Hi." And I looked at him and said, "Hi."
For the remaining months of his life we were totally at peace and comfortable together. No more self-consciousness. No unfinished business. I usually seemed to know just what was needed. I could feed him, shave him, bathe him, hold him up to fix the pillow—all these very intimate things that had been so hard for me earlier.
In a way, this was my father's final gift to me: the chance to see him as something more than my father; the chance to see the common identity of spirit we both shared; the chance to see just how much that makes possible in the way of love and comfort. And I feel I can call on it now with anyone else.
Perhaps the bravest and most radical step we can take to release our infinite capacity to give is to be willing to face our own doubts, needs, and resistances—the inner barriers to the expression of our caring instincts. We can look at specific situations like those at the beginning of this article: when we sneak glances at our watch while someone is rambling on, when we begin to feel like adult babysitters for friends with endless problems, when we avoid meeting the gaze of a beggar or bag lady, when we are so exhausted from caring for someone with a terminal illness, that we wonder how much longer we can go on.
We need to own up to feelings of guilt, anxiety, discomfort, disappointment, and vulnerability. We also have to be willing to look for the deeper fears behind these spontaneous reactions: fears of loss of control, of being overwhelmed, of having our heart broken, and ultimately of extinction. This is the core of Theosophical service and the surest way to open the heart to its potential of limitless giving.
What does it mean to look behind our spontaneous reactions? Maybe when we grow impatient with someone who is going on and on about their problems, we're not being impatient just because we're busy people and they are being self-centered, but also because our subconscious mind is saying, "And what about me and my problems? Who cares about my problems?" Our impatience can actually be our own suppressed cry for love. Maybe when we keep putting off going to visit that friend bedridden and lonely in a rest home, it's not just because of the difficulty of masking our sadness for them and of making conversation.Maybe underneath we are being confronted with the terrifying specter of our own loss of control, our own potential helplessness, and above all our own abandonment.
How does the threat of heartbreak, of being overwhelmed and drowned with sadness by what we see around us affect our giving? It may mean that we are like oysters that open up and let in just so much pain, then snap shut. We help out on Monday and Friday afternoons; after that wecome home and close our front door.
We may drop a friend with terminal cancer, or a friend who has just lost a child, not only because we don't know what words to use to comfort her, but because deep and frightening questions are surfacing. Our philosophy of life, so logical, so beautiful, so metaphysically satisfying, which gives us a sense of security and optimism, is being attacked and undermined by notions of injustice and absurdity.
Everything we do is based on mixed motives. Accompanying genuine sympathy can be a need to avoid boredom, loneliness, or feelings of uselessness. Helping others may give us a good conscience, raise our self-esteem, and give us a measure of authority. But again, what is beneath such motives? Underlying and feeding surface motives can be afear of the terrible inner void.
Considering the deeper motives that underlie much of human behavior should not undermine our enthusiasm for serving others. We are not in the business of self-flagellation. We are not judging. An excessive concern about motives in service can take away our spontaneity and joy. If we wait for perfect purity of motive, we will become paralyzed. But just repeatedly observing, peeling away layers, and noting is the process that removes the barriers between others and us until we realize unity. Eventually there is no longer any sense of "helper" and "helped."We help by who we are, less than by what we do.
Service is really a journey of awakening. We know that we have an infinite power within to give and that every human being is perfectible.We can stride out boldly and joyfully on the path of service, looking fearlessly at the deeper, darker levels of our psyche and reaching gently to touch that special quiet center within. If the conviction of our Oneness is strong and the vision of it remains clear, it will be with us at all times so that only compassion fills our heart.
Diana Dunningham-Chapotin is a New Zealander by birth, an American by adoption, and a Francaise by residence (as she likes to be near her husband). She is International Secretary of the Theosophical Order ofService and edits its bulletin. This article is based on the Founders Address she delivered at the 2001 Convention of the Theosophical Society in America.