Selfless Sacrifice




Selfless Sacrifice

You can be completely selfish, completely selfless or any of the combinations in between. Life is a journey from being selfish to becoming selfless.

‘Act without expectation.’

—Lao Tzu

Harry had run down the steps, nearly forgetting to wear his shoes. I followed him down the marble stairs and across the courtyard, clutching his phone whose screen had cracked. The other monks looked on in confusion, as did the elderly guards. They had no idea of the news that Harry had just received. His wife was in hospital, and the doctor had called him to come. Can you imagine the thoughts that must have been going through his head? The pain caused by the thought of losing a loved one can often be just as hurtful as actually losing them.

  Harry unlocked the car from a distance. He flung open the door of his car, ignoring the man standing close by, selling fresh coconut water from his cart.

  ‘You don’t have to come, please. Thank you so much for all your time. I am sure you must have so much to do,’ Harry said across the car bonnet to me. It was more important to be there with Harry than to attend to what I had planned. Painful situations are easier to deal with when you have friends by your side to support you. Although I am a monk and have a lot of official duties, I like to be a friend to people I care about. That is a deeper, more personal connection.

  ‘I am sorry but I am coming with you, whether you like it or not,’ I said, opening the passenger door. We both sat down, seat belts clicked, and he reversed out on to the road not seeing if any other cars were coming. We had to get to the hospital fast.

  Although I had been sitting in the same seat for over three hours, the whole car seemed completely different. In fact, the same Mumbai that I was used to looked different. The mood in the car was tense, which also affected how I was perceiving the world. Our whole world view can change in just an instant, when we hear such life-changing news. How do we behave in those situations? How do friends behave in those situations when someone has found out something so upsetting?

  It was either sweat or tears, or a mixture of both that was running down Harry’s face as he scanned his mind for side roads to dodge the traffic that we were carelessly commuting through just minutes ago. As he tapped on the steering wheel, pressed his horn and repeatedly checked his phone for any sign of news, he blurted out, ‘What was wheel four?’

  I thought he was trying to be polite and carry on with our previous conversation.

  ‘Wheel four?’ I said. I was totally surprised. I was not even thinking about the wheels of the car at that moment. It was not a time for speaking about the essence of life—this was a moment of emergency. It was a time for him to drive fast and act, and for me to support him with my friendship. In times of great calamity, sometimes the right thing to do is to just be there. I wish I had some herbal tea. But I spoke. ‘Wheel four has to do with being selfless, and making a social contribution. But let’s talk about that another time. Let’s focus on reaching your wife—who I am sure is doing perfectly fine.’ He nodded in agreement and focused on the road. We were already zooming past Kemps Corner, ignoring any signals that were telling us to stop and obey the laws of the road. All we needed was a siren on top of our car.

  Thoughts travel faster than words and they are not always in the right order. In the same vein, I will present this wheel on selflessness quickly here. In a matter of ten minutes from Kemps Corner to the hospital, as we travelled at lightning speed, I thought of all these things. My training as a monk implies that the practice of selflessness is meant to be somewhat natural to me, but like most of us, I still have a long way to go.

  As Harry drove, I rested my hand on his shoulder in silent consolation and thought of how he at that moment was representing wheel four: to be selfless and to give back.

The Ice Cream, the Candle and the Oxygen Mask

Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world. It is the philosophical language of Hinduism and other faiths originating from it. Considered to be the language of the Gods, it sounds elegant and sophisticated and the script is called deva-nagri—from the city of the gods. If you want to call someone a donkey in Sanskrit, one of the words for it is vaishakanandan. How charming that sounds! The word for ice cream is interesting, too. It is dughda-sharkara-yukta-hima-ghana-gola-gattu. Or if you want to add a little flavour, mango ice cream is amra-dughda-sharkara-yukta-hima-ghana-gola-gattu. It takes practice to be able to speak Sanskrit for sure. I am a true fan of Sanskrit, but a bigger fan of ice cream. There is no dessert as delicious as ice cream, especially in the tropics. However, the ideology behind the ice cream is: enjoy your life before it melts. It symbolizes hedonism; to savour every moment of your life through personal enjoyment.

  On the other hand, the candle is symbolic of another ideology: to give light to others before it melts. Both ice creams and candles melt, but their reason for doing so are completely different. The candle is formed from wax. Its very essence is burnt just to give light for other people to see. This is the selfless nature of a candle.

  On the spectrum below where do you lie?

I am sure that you do not think of yourself as completely selfish. Nor can you put yourself down as completely selfless. We are all somewhere in between. Just because we cannot be candles fully, it does not mean we should simply remain selfish at the ice-cream end. The journey of life is moving from being an ice cream to being a candle. That is the purpose of everyone’s life at the core: to share, give and contribute to others.

  ‘But why have we discussed three wheels about ourselves first, then?’ you might ask. ‘If the purpose of life is to give to others, why have we discussed understanding ourselves, being happy at work and in our relationships? Does this not sound selfish?’

  To understand this we have to learn from the oxygen mask.

  A lot of stories in this book have been from my travels. Every flight has safety instructions that we all must follow. Some are about routine things like wearing a seat belt while others are for emergencies, which we hope that we never have to use, like wearing a life jacket or an oxygen mask.

  As the members of the cabin crew demonstrate the oxygen mask on the plane, the cabin supervisor makes an announcement, ‘If there is a lack of oxygen supply in the cabin, oxygen masks will drop down from the panel above your heads. To activate the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you sharply, place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head and breathe normally. Make sure that your mask is securely fastened before you help children, infants or others. ’ Does this last part not sound selfish? Surely we should be helping others before we help ourselves! However, it should be understood that unless we help ourselves and breathe in oxygen, we cannot be of any real help to others. We can only share wealth with others if we possess wealth. Similarly, we can love others only if we know what it feels like to be loved. We can only bring hope to others if we feel hope for ourselves. In conclusion, we can only give to others what we possess.

  If we try to help others without being satisfied and balanced in the first three wheels, we will not be able to give them something of value, and we could even experience ‘compassion fatigue’. Compassion fatigue is a state of stress experienced by those who help others to the extent that they start suffering because of their preoccupation with the suffering of others. It can be detrimental to care too much; caregivers who do not focus on self-care can develop destructive behaviours over time. Therefore, we need to be slightly selfish to start our journey on a sure footing in order to reach the stage where we can afford to be completely selfless without causing damage to our own well-being.

  I do believe it is possible to be completely selfless, but it is a journey, a process, and not a single event. It takes wisdom to know when we are being selfless and when we are simply causing harm to ourselves by being ‘overcaring’. The principle and practice of service involves being somewhere in the middle on the ice cream to candle spectrum: to be selfish yet selfless.

  My hand was still on Harry’s shoulder. We had become even closer in the last few hours. Remember, revealing the mind and allowing another person to reveal their mind to you breeds deep friendship. At that moment, Harry was displaying complete selflessness. His only thought was helping his wife. In the process, he had nearly forgotten his phone and shoes at the temple. The rage he had spoken with about his wife earlier seemed completely pacified. Sometimes it is in testing situations that we realize how much love we feel for someone.

  As we zoomed in and out of traffic, back along the shore, I turned to Harry and said, ‘Don’t worry, Harry. Everything is going to be fine. See how much love you have for your wife.’ He gave me half a smile in gratitude, and then focused his attention fully on the road again. I returned to my thoughts.


  • The philosophy of an ice cream is: Enjoy it before it melts.
  • The philosophy of a candle is: Give light to others before it melts.
  • In order to be happy, we should shift our attitude from being an ice cream to a candle, from being selfish to selfless. This is shown through service.
  • We must be wary of compassion fatigue. This means we must have all our wheels balanced as we try to help others. This is the principle of being selfishly selfless.




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