By Betty Bland
Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bland, Betty. "Viewpoint: Light as a Feather." Quest 95.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007):
On one particular morning, a startlingly large feather adorned my otherwise ordinary path of pebbles and weedy grass patches. Almost automatically, it found its way into my hand for further examination and contemplation. The feather was quite unremarkable except for its size—mostly black with indistinct striations of a brownish hue. For a feather to be so large, it must surely be essential for flying—either a large tail or wing feather.
Could the bird have been injured in a fight, perhaps protecting its nest? Or was it merely molting and had already grown a replacement? In either case, to try to catch the bird to return the lost item would be detrimental to all concerned. Once dislodged from its original location, its usefulness to the bird had ceased.
In being committed to helping a fellow human being, we might feel that we know just what they are missing and feel quite justified in attempting to place their seemingly missing feathers (or other qualities) just where we think they should go. Of course this is ridiculous for either a bird's feathers or a person's qualities.
Growth and healing can only be organic, arising from within. If we want to help another, we have to let go of our particular biases and tune into their circumstance and soul's essence. It might be called empathy, or a recognition of our essential unity with the other, but by whatever name, it is an essential quality for being able to benefit others.
Colonel Olcott recognized this when he immersed himself in improving the plight of the native born Buddhists in India, Sri Lanka, and other lands under the rule of European colonialists. He became one with them, working diligently to help them reclaim the religious tradition into which they were born and the dignity of their native culture. He expressed this empathy in the following statement in Volume II of Old Diary Leaves,:
The most difficult lesson for a white man in Asia to learn is, that the customs of his people and those of the dusky races are absolutely different, and that if he dreams of getting on well with the latter he must lay aside all prejudices and hereditary standards of manners, and be one with them, both in spirit and in external form. (382)
He recognized that he had to rid himself of his Western cultural prejudices in order to be in full harmony with the plights and needs of the people, and thus be able to render true assistance. With an understanding heart he was able to become one with them and work to help them from an inside perspective. Much to the amazement of the other colonists, the Colonel was accepted almost instantly into the homes and hearts of the native people.
This first step of fully empathizing is certainly an important one when trying to be of service, but there is another point of consideration that can be overlooked. In order to make a difference in the world, we, ourselves, must be whole—or at least be working in that direction. The feather also points to this important lesson. When helping another, we have to be careful not to pull out our own feathers in the process. If we damage ourselves, our usefulness to others is greatly diminished. A bird which has lost some of its feathers surely cannot fly as fast. In fact, birds are far more vulnerable during the molting season. To assure that we do not lose the feathers of our being, we always have to remember to nurture the core of our being. The basic principle underlying our beneficial effectiveness is an attitude of wholeness which grows out of an inner connection with our higher nature.
This wholeness results from recognizing and cultivating our own spiritual needs, taking into account all aspects of our lives, health, responsibilities, circumstance, and relationships. Each one of us has to discover the meaning of wholeness for ourselves as we explore the unity of all life and our place within that wholeness. We have to find the balance point in which we can be the cup that is never empty, always giving, but always filled again. HPB cautioned us to maintain this balance point in The Voice of the Silence:
Beware, lest in the care of Self thy Soul should lose her foothold on the soil of Deva-knowledge.Beware, lest in forgetting SELF, thy Soul lose o'er its trembling mind control, and forfeit thus the due fruition of its conquests.
The study and mediation that we Theosophists are exhorted to do is a part of that process of educating ourselves for more balanced and effective action. Action which springs from this center will be more useful and less tiring. In fact, when done well and in harmony with ourselves and our world, it can be energizing. This sounds easy, but it is a process of constant learning and readjustment. Service to others flows out of a concern for their well-being, but we can become so immersed in trying to help that we often forget our own needs. As I can attest, the self is an ingredient never to be forgotten or it will call attention to itself in most inconvenient ways. When one is fatigued, one cannot be as effective, and things can oft go awry.
We can, however, keep the goal before us, and at the very least, have the intention to nurture ourselves as we nurture others. Moreover, besides the usual physical needs, we also have a deep spiritual need for meaning and purpose. So it follows that performing action for the benefit of others completes the circle of a meaningful existence, which restores the soul.
When seen in this way, service can become the joy of living, not the drudgery. It can flow from a balanced heart full of understanding and compassion. There may be and most probably will be some sacrifices required along the way, but these are the sacrifices of lesser pleasures and self-centeredness. To unburden ourselves of these things brings a kind of lightness to life. As we learn to give from an inner abundance, we may discover that work performed in service can feel as light as a feather.