Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day - What is self-sacrifice?

Yes, ok, so Memorial Day was just the other day! Well, I was a bit busy but that didn't stop me from thinking about it. Now if you think this piece is about soldiers sacrificing their lives, well, it's not. But the theme of Memorial Day made me think of this topic: self-sacrifice.

Students and devotees of the Bhagavad Gita (India's most beloved scripture) are aware that the theme of sacrifice appears throughout the "Gita." The term used (from Sanskrit) and (crudely) transliterated is yagya.

The idea of sacrifice went out with sinning and hair shirts just a few years ago. Nowadays nobody talks about sins (or wears hair shirts). We just look for our bliss: it's more fun, besides. Sinning is, like, so passe. Besides, I think we got that sinning bit all wrong. "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!"

We do seem to pay lip service to servicemen (and women) who have in fact sacrificed their lives or health (physical or mental) in wartime. How many go into battle to honor and serve their country and willing to give their lives for it is difficult to say. There are as many reasons to be in military service as there are soldiers and by no means all of them do so with honor, dignity or conscious intention. That's not a criticism, it's a fact. Think of all the soldiers  and sailors down through the ages that were "inducted" (perhaps against their will), or enlist for economic or social reasons, or, even, out of complete ignorance of what they are getting into! Well, anyway. I said I wasn't going to talk about that.

My point remains that self-sacrifice is about as popular as wanting to catch a cold. On the other hand:

Few question the instinct and rightness of self-discipline for recovery from addiction, losing weight, regaining one's health, saving for retirement, going to night school to get a degree, practicing meditation, exercising and any number of other obviously useful acts of personal self-discipline.

It has been well said by others more informed and intelligent than I that our society (America and others) inclines more to indulgence than delayed gratification. I just heard today repeated on National Public Radio the relatively well known study that documented that children who postponed for fifteen minutes having a marshmellow now so they could have two of them a little later did better as young adults in achieving their goals and happiness.

It is commonplace to bemoan excessive spending and lack of savings, and, an embedded sense of personal entitlement and on and on. And I guess I'm be-moaning along with the rest of them.

But this concept of yagya, self-sacrifice for a higher good, intrigued me since long ago when I first read of it in the Bhagavad Gita. Now, being raised Catholic, I was big into sin and into Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for our sins. And I knew the story of Abraham being tested by God by being asked to sacrifice Isaac, his son (in the end, he didn't have to: "Just testing you!" God said. "What, my intelligence?").

The Bhagavad Gita talks in terms of how all worthwhile things, including material life itself, is achieved by offering oneself in gratitude to a higher Source, to God. Krishna encourage us to see all things as coming from God and seek all fulfillment in attunement with God. Jesus put it this way: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."

In other words, understand that true happiness comes from living for a greater reality (by whatever name) than self-gratification. Rather than eat for pleasure alone, eat healthy and vitality giving foods for nourishment  (lest through a junk food diet it later "eats" you!) Sex enjoyment, too, becomes perverted the more we seek it for its own sake rather than as an expression of love, friendship and commitment (and as a means of bringing to earth through love, other souls). Rather than to see your work as merely for personal gain (income or status), see it as a service to God through your fellow man. Rather than to see the earth's bounty as ours for the taking, for exploitation, see our access to it and dominion over it as a gift from God to be stewarded and sustained for all generations to enjoy in harmony. And so on.

Yagya, then, means, among other things, to live in the consciousness that we are all One. Thus to behave selfishly is to be short-sighted and to seek ephemeral, sensory or egoic satisfactions at the expense of long-term happiness. Ice cream tastes good "going down" until, after a few years, it stays down (and around the stomach and arteries, so to speak).

In the happiness of others we find freedom from ego. What we give or share with others freely opens our heart and affirms our security in a larger reality. What we receive in return is a hundredfold.

Some would say self-sacrifice is also manifested in what so many bemoan as having disappeared: the good 'ol fashion work ethic. Well, all I will say is that willingness, generosity, a creative and noble spirit, an attitude of wanting to serve and to help others appeals to me more than a good "work ethic." How much of this term came with grim sacrifices which resulted in resentments?

It is only the ego, the small and selfish self, that balks at the expansive attitude of yagya. Think of yagya as an  investment: in our long term happiness and that of others. Only a hard hearted spirit can pretend to be happy at the expense of others, or in the face of their travails.

So you see, it IS BLISS that we are talking about. The difference is that sacrificing to avoid sin is how the ego sees it, but investing in one's happiness (by investing in the happiness of all, e.g.) is just good sense and an investment in BLISS.

Of course if you are watching carefully you might just see a rat scurry by. That rat is the ego perhaps getting a little smarter and going for what we used to call "enlightened self-interest." The golden rule requires no belief in heaven, in God, or bliss eternal. So, you are right, There's a catch and you caught me.

You see the rat of ego remains. So long as we think we are the doer, being good (for a change) instead of being selfish, it's still just us. We might indeed be happier and more self-satisfied, have more friends, and better health, but it's still just me and I am as mortal and frail as before. My selfishness has just gotten more refined. But, it IS an improvement.

To truly understand and reap the rewards of God's creation, it is ultimately for our own eternal satisfaction that we understand that the essence of yagya is to offer oneself into the higher Self of All. For when we say "We are One" this means, as Paramhansa Yogananda put it, "When this "I" shall die then will I know "Whom am I."  The more the sense of doership and separateness dissolves into the greater reality of an ever expanding awareness of self, the closer to real bliss we can come. One lifetime or many lifetimes, it doesn't make much difference because "living for God" is it's own reward and if we focus too much on measuring we defeat the purpose which is to go beyond all measure.

Yagya to you,

Nayaswami Hriman