Should we volunteer? Should those of us who are not fully enlightened sages directly and deliberately attempt to be charitable to others?
I don’t know. Perhaps, perhaps not.
Actions may be evaluated in terms of either their whats, their hows, or both.
The rightness or wrongness of what is done is inseparable from its consequences. Since it’s impossible to know all an act’s consequences, it is impossible to know whether an act is right or wrong.
It is our human condition never to know whether what we are doing is right or not.
So, in terms of what you would do, should you volunteer? It’s impossible to know.
In fact, if you are like me, you have often thought you knew what you were doing when you didn’t. Experience can make that painfully obvious.
Let’s instead focus on the how. Getting the how right is the key to acting morally. Sages have repeatedly told us that.
Nisargadatta: “It is not what you live, but how you live that matters.”
John Daido Loori argues that there is a distinction between being a do-gooder and doing good. Doing good is manifesting true compassion, whereas being a do-gooder is merely using someone else for some egocentric purpose. Someone with “the subtlest hint of self-centeredness” is only a do-gooder.
Ideally, burning away egocentricity should be a necessary condition for volunteering. Otherwise, it would be nothing except being a do-gooder.
The secret to being a good volunteer is the same as the secret to being a good anything: get the ego out of the way and let Being flow through all relevant acts.
As a professor for over three decades, I had many students who volunteered who came to realize by examining their motives that they were only do-gooders. As a result, some quit volunteering until they became less egocentric.
Ramana Maharshi: “Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”
The first rule should be the healer’s credo: primum non nocere. First do no harm.
Using others to inflate your ego while thinking that you are selflessly serving them is a recipe for doing harm.
Doubt about your motives can undermine motivation. Such doubt can be beneficial. It’s a good idea to examine your motives before installing some pattern of behavior.
Will Durant: “One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.”
A problem is that few people are willing to do any serious self-examination.
William James: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
An even more serious problem is that, after serious self-examination, few people are willing to do the hard work of ego reduction.
Some degree of detachment should be a prerequisite for volunteering. Few seem to understand that all attachments are bad.
John Daido Loori: “It’s very easy to understand not attaching to things that are evil . . . But the same problem exists when we attach to good.”
Sengcan: “If you’re attached to anything, / you surely will go far astray.”
Detaching from ego is what permits identification with what used to appear to be other. Said another way, the more ego, the less genuine compassion.
Ghandi: “Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification . . . But the path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion.”
In other words, as he also said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
So, should you not then volunteer until you have achieved self-purification?
That’s what I used to think, but my position has softened. Now I would suggest that it would be wise for you to volunteer only after you are on the path of self-purification. In other words, it is not necessary to wait until you have completed that path but it’s a good idea to have made a good start down that path.
Maybe that’s only a rationalization: you decide. I base that suggestion on my own experience.
Over the last year or so I have been a volunteer at two different prisons. The work simply involves leading a self-selected group of inmates in sitting (meditating) and sitting with them regularly.
I make it clear to them that I am not a spiritual guru. I don’t teach theory; I teach practice. Mostly, I teach by showing.
Though I am on the path of self-purification, I have much farther to travel. Nevertheless, the inmates genuinely seem to appreciate my rather feeble efforts to help them help themselves.
It wasn’t that I avoided being a volunteer for so many years because I was too selfish and only interested in advancing my own cause.
It was because I realized that I was selfish that I avoided it!
Experience has shown me, however, that deliberately helping others help themselves may be alright even if you are selfish as long as you are regularly, preferably daily, working to decrease your attachment to ego.
So, if you are sitting daily or otherwise seriously working on yourself and a suitable opportunity to help others help themselves arises, why not test it?
You are likely to come away agreeing with Mike Rayburn: “It is impossible to give more than you receive.”