“While I had heard and read about selflessness, purity, and goodness, and while I thought I knew people who exemplified those golden qualities, actually I had not the faintest idea of the true meaning of a life lived for others, without any allowance made for oneself. I do not mean a life of martyrdom or penance but one of overflowing love…
Only when I came to know Swami Ashokananda did I see the ocean of selflessness for the first time…I did not pinpoint characteristics such as generosity, charitableness, and kindness. There were no overlays, good or bad; there was just a being whose only need and desire was to help others. He was not merely unselfish – there was just no self, no ego to affirm or efface. Out of that emptiness, that Buddhistic void, came a strength and a wisdom without shadows or doubts. This was true selflessness.” – Sister Gargi 
The spiritual life is not about self-gratification, nor is it about self-fulfillment. The spiritual life is about getting rid of our desires and ambitions. The spiritual life is about learning to want nothing for the lower self.
There is so much that we desire. It is a great struggle to rise above all the things that we want. It is very difficult for us to care only about giving and serving. It is so hard for us to forget about ourselves.
Yet this is what we need to do if we really want God; nothing less will do. As long as we have wishes for ourselves, we will not be able to fully serve. Our own cravings and desires will always get in the way. We will be conflicted and confused, even when it is God’s work that we are thinking about. We will be unable to distinguish between our will and God’s Will. It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we can discern clearly what is God’s Will and what is not.
In the blessing about teshuvah (“repentance” or “return”) in the shemonei esrai (the daily petitional prayer) we say:
“Cause us to return, our Father, to Your Torah; draw us near, our King, to Your service; and bring us back to You in whole-hearted repentance. Blessed are You Lord, who desires penitence.”
“Cause us to return, our Father, to Your Torah.” To return to God’s Torah means to return to His Word, His Will. It means putting aside our will for the sake of God’s Will. It means submerging our little self in God’s Big Self.
“Draw us near to Your service.” This line of the prayer is about desiring only to serve God. In this phrase, we are asking God to give us an active role in the Divine Plan. We are asking to be drawn into the overshadowing Presence of the Mind of God. We are asking to be linked in with all the souls on higher planes who are working to fulfill the Will of God upon earth. In order to be brought into the Divine Plan, we need to let go of all our own plans. We need to want nothing for the lower self.
“Bring us back to You in whole-hearted repentance.” How do we go about the process of repenting? We begin by feeling regret for all the wrongs that we have done because we have followed the prompting of our selfish desires and ambitions. Then, we recognize how often we have hurt others, even as we have tried to help them, because we have been working from ourselves instead of from God. Finally, we accept the futility of all actions that do not have the Will of God behind them. We understand that we can accomplish nothing without Divine Grace.
What then is “whole-hearted repentance”? “Whole-hearted repentance” is to want God with all of our heart. It is to want to be right in ourselves, to do good, to uplift, inspire and serve. Whole-hearted repentance is to know in the depth of our heart that all our plans and schemes mean nothing; to know that the only thing which really matters is to fulfill the Will of God.
How do we learn to want nothing for the lower self?
We begin by admitting that everything which we want, including our spiritual ambitions, are desires of the lower self. We enter the spiritual life because we want the thrill of the experience of God’s presence, or because we want to become great spiritual beings, or because we want to feel that we are good people who help others. Whatever our reasons may be for entering the spiritual life, the truth is that they are all selfish motivations of the lower self.
Yet, this is not entirely true. If it were true, then we would not have the impulse to serve. Underneath all the layers of egotistic fantasies is hidden a jewel of real spiritual aspiration. Under all the desires there is a spark of true goodwill.
We need to fan this spark by feeding it spiritual food. We do this by engaging in prayer and meditation, by spending time in the presence of spiritual teachers and in the company of spiritually minded people, by reading spiritual books, listening to uplifting music and looking at inspiring art, and by volunteering in selfless service.
At the same time that we feed our Higher Self, we need to also work on the impurities of the lower self through self-introspection and active efforts to transform ourselves. We need to eradicate our negative qualities and cultivate Divine attributes. We need to root out anger, hate, greed, lust, fear, timidity, ignorance, cynicism, bitterness and doubt. We need to develop humility, love, joy, generosity, hope, faith, courage, wisdom, equanimity, and inner tranquility.
At the heart of the process of teshuvah is the desire to do the Will of God. In the tradition, the desire to do God’s Will is referred to as kabalat ol malchut shamayim – taking on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. When we take on the yoke of Heaven, we are surrendering our lives to God. We offer all of our desires and ambitions at God’s feet and accept in their place whatever God wills for us.
There is also a second yoke that is spoken about in the tradition, kabalat ol hamitzvot – taking on the yoke of the mitzvot (commandments). When we take on the yoke of the mitzvot, we are accepting the path of the commandments as the way to serve God, the way to transform ourselves into fitting Divine vessels.
These two yokes, however, are not necessarily inseparable. We can live our life fulfilling all of the mitzvot and yet never ask ourselves what the Will of God is for us personally. We can live the “life of Torah” and still focus on the desires of the lower self. If we choose to do so, we will fulfill the ol hamitzvot (the yoke of the commandments), but we will not have fulfilled ol malchut shamayim (the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven).
In the blessing about teshuvah in the shemonei esrai, we say “bring us back to Your Torah.” The usual interpretation of this phrase is that we have strayed from the way of Torah, and in this prayer we ask God to help us better fulfill the mitzvot. But there is a deeper level on which we can understand this phrase.
The mitzvot are a vehicle to raise our consciousness. They are a series of spiritual disciplines through which we dedicate all the different aspects of our life to God. They are spiritual tools that induce us to ask throughout the day “what does God want now?” The mitzvot provide us with a method of gaining mastery over our desires until they no longer control our thoughts, words and deeds. If we practice the mitzvot according to these guidelines, then our own will gradually will merge into God’s Will and our teshuvah will become shelaimah – our return will be complete.
This is the higher meaning of the blessing in the shemonei esrai. We are asking God to return us to the place of full-hearted surrender where the whole of our life is given over to Divine service. The Sanskrit word yoga means to bind or unite. The English word yoke comes from the same linguistic root. By taking on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven we become united with our Lord.
Our Judaism, our life of Torah, needs to be an act of love for God. From this place of total devotion we enter into the true life of the Spirit. By wanting nothing for the lower self, we receive the light of the boundless, infinite Self.
The question is: do we have the courage and the perseverance to go through the long process of purification and self-transformation that is necessary to create a fitting vessel for God? Are we willing to look at ourselves and see our deep-seated selfishness? Do we care enough about humanity that we are ready to sacrifice our personal wants and desires for the sake of humankind?
copyright © 2013, by Yoel Glick
- Sister Gargi, A Disciple’s Journal, p. 133-4↵