My wife and I once stayed at her friend’s apartment. We knew that she was an avid collector of clothes, but we were amazed to find not only closets full of unused clothes – many with price tags still attached – but also boxes and boxes of unworn shoes.
As it turned out, my wife’s friend had a compulsion to find the perfect jacket or pair of shoes. She believed that if she were to succeed, her social image would be rightly aligned, and she would feel joy.
Unfortunately, when she got home her new clothes they never seemed quite right. And so she went on collecting in search of the perfect outfit.
At the time, I had thought our friend’s affliction to be odd and I had a hard time relating to it. I had, in fact, long since forgotten her, until recently, when I went to buy a new pair of walking shoes. I not only remembered her, but I also related to her condition.
The salesperson brought me the shoes I had selected in the size that I needed. I was in a hurry and was determined to step into the store, get the shoes, and get out without wasting time or money. But, within a second, my plan was spoiled when the salesperson appeared with two boxes in his hands, and asked: “Yellow or blue?” I answered, “Yel’ . . . no, Blue!” It was like my mind jackknifed when he gave me the choice of colors. I finally took the yellow shoes, but on the way home, I was thinking, “I should’ve taken the blue!”
I marveled at my own sense of anxiety over such a simple choice. Why did it matter so much whether I got yellow or blue? Why was I second guessing what I had just decided? Suddenly, I related to our compulsive friend.
As spiritual beings inhabiting material bodies, we struggle with material choices as long as we identify ourselves with our temporary material bodies.
In the Bhagavad-gétä 2.22, Krishna says, “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
In other words, our material bodies and the temporary circumstances of our lives are very much like the clothes and shoes in my friend’s apartment; and my sense of anxiety – or my second-guessing what colour of shoes to buy – arises when we try to find the perfect combination of things that will make us happy.
The fact is that discontent burns within us always as we search for fulfillment outside ourselves. A saint from antiquity once wrote:
“In this material world, every materialist desires to achieve happiness and diminish his distress, and therefore he acts accordingly. Actually, however, one is happy as long as one does not endeavor for happiness; as soon as one begins his activities for happiness, his conditions of distress begin.”
When we look for satisfaction in things, the gap between us and true happiness is wider than ever.
But closing that gap is easier than we think.
The secret is simple: selfless service. Dale Carnegie, in his book, How to stop worrying and start living, writes about how to come up from depths of one’s personal anxiety. “Think about doing something good for someone else,” he advises. The very moment you think of doing some selfless service, in that moment, you not only recover from anxiety, but you also grow.
By giving we grow and enjoy without limit.
What to speak of giving service to our divine source, a service that nourishes us from within, just as watering the root of a tree nourishes the whole tree. The Vedas, the books of ultimate wisdom, say that our divine source, the origin of everything, including ourselves, is personal. By giving service to that personal divine source, our service is not only perfectly aligned, but we also taste unlimited happiness.
Back in the days that I lived in a monastery, one day I was unusually hungry. When the lunch bell rang, I hurried to the mess hall with great enthusiasm to eat. However, as soon as I arrived, I noticed that one of the monks, whose turn it was to serve the lunch was missing. I knew it was my duty to fill in, taking the place of my colleague, who was probably too ill to attend to his service. But, I was so hungry!
Remembering the words of my guru, “selfless service satisfies the soul’s hunger,” I relented and took up my place to serve the lunch to the other monks. As soon as I made this decision, I sensed that I had done the right thing. Then, it was palpable that the more I served the other hungry monks, the more I not only forgot my hunger, but also the more my mind also felt satisfied; even joyful.
Such service is called bhakti-yoga, the yoga of love and gratitude.
The more we practice bhakti-yoga, the more our capacity to serve and taste tangible happiness grows.1