Nowadays it's the fashion to consider oneself first. In relationships we are urged to make others happy by making ourselves happy — by doing what we want. Our career, our interests, our personal ambitions and improvement are presented as priority number one. With the breakdown of traditional values throwing us increasingly on our own as a culture, the tendency is strong to cut our values to fit our personal habits — to justify our selfishness as normal and healthy, rather than strive toward a higher standard, even if we most often fail to reach it.
With the present mood of acceptance of self-centeredness, altruistic ideas no longer command universal lip service, let alone respect. We find sacrifice, for example, occasionally presented as a sign of weakness inviting exploitation, a lack of assertiveness, or a psychological ploy. Moreover, it has long been viewed as the long-suffering, unwilling submergence of our personal desires. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because we aren't aware of our selfless acts most of the time. We are conscious of doing the "right thing" mainly when we do it out of duty or fear of another's opinion rather than because we ourselves want to. At such times we resent having to behave up to a standard that is not yet natural to the everyday part of us. Yet sacrifice remains central to human evolution.
To understand human evolution we must ask: What is a human being? We are not our bodies or even our ever-changing minds and emotions. We are certainly not the ego that we spend so much time trying to protect and foster. Fundamentally we are spiritual beings, nascent divinities working from the animal kingdom to godhood by means of the human stage of development. As human beings, our consciousness is mainly focused on our personality or ego. This "us" we identify with so strongly is a temporary conglomeration of qualities pulled together around the more permanent, spiritual part of our being. When we die, our persona dissolves into its component parts, to be joined together in a different way as a "new" personality when we incarnate again on earth. Our present personality — Bill Smith, Joyce Jones — is a one-time phenomenon, never repeated. Concentrating our efforts and attention, therefore, primarily on the impermanent ranges of our being — the physical, psychic, emotional, or even lower mental — is like building with sand. While positive in themselves, at death these sheaths of consciousness disperse away, leaving their qualities and tendencies as raw material for building our future personalities.
Real human progress lies in transcending our present limitations by focusing more and more on what is beyond our temporary personality. The opposite course, concentrating on ourself, tends merely to build an ever thicker coating of self-centeredness around our present ego. This shell may show itself in many ways, from material greed to the desire for spiritual progress, all equally centered on the individual and his interests. Our human ego is the child of our spiritual self, and just as a child grows to be an adult, so in time the human ego, if successful, will grow to be a spiritual being. To do so, it needs the training and influence provided by the spiritual aspect of us. The evolution of our ego depends on its becoming translucent to the influence of the permanent self, building habits of character which in future incarnations will cause it to become itself a relatively permanent spiritual being. In this context we can see that sacrifice is not doing unpleasant but "virtuous" things — sacrifice literally means "to make sacred." We can make every aspect of our lives sacred by attempting to become increasingly the tool or vehicle for the sacred within us, allowing the divinity within to be the guiding element.
While we usually think of "sacrifice" in connection with our everyday self, in a very real sense it is the spiritual self that makes a sacrifice to be joined to the ordinary human part of us. Our whole being, in fact, can be looked on as a chain of sacrifice — the divine sacrificing itself for advancement of the spiritual, the spiritual for the human, the human for the animal, the animal for the plant, the plant for the mineral within us. And at the same time each of the less evolved aspects sacrifices itself for the use of the more advanced ones, forming their means of expression. Each aspect holds a helping hand to the part below and reaches up to the part above, learning and growing to a more advanced state of being, bathed from above in an atmosphere similar to the qualities in itself that are trying to unfold.
This aspect of sacrifice is reminiscent of perhaps the most appealing of mankind's symbols, the bodhisattva — a perfected human being reaching with one hand toward the god-world and toward mankind with the other. Giving up his own progress for the good of all, he reaches out to help his less evolved brothers, vowing: "Never will I seek or receive private individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone, but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world." The Christian concept of Christ giving himself so all mankind can be saved has a similar appeal. The bodhisattva realizes that we are all joined on a fundamental level, not only with each other, but with the earth and all on it. Yet more than an intellectual apprehension of spiritual oneness, at the heart of the bodhisattva is true compassion and fellow-feeling for all. It is not sentimentality or personal attachment, but an impersonal love that shines on all equally "like the light of the sun and moon." This universal feeling is the overriding motivation of the bodhisattva's being, which leads to his sacrificing his own development to help others.
The compassion and sacrifice these perfected humans imbody stirs the best in us, so that we want to emulate them. But to become more universal, we must cease to be our more limited self: we have to sacrifice the small in us to the great in us if we would become that greater self. As Jesus put it, he who would gain his life, spiritually, must lose it, personally; he who would save his life as an individual personality, will lose it spiritually. We have to choose whether we wish to travel toward spirit and universality or toward increasing self-centeredness and personality. If we want to grow, we must transform the qualities that limit us now, or no growth can take place. Contrariwise, if we hold tight to our personal ego and its self-centered qualities, our life will produce little of lasting significance and perhaps even retard our evolution as human beings.
The bodhisattva, having evolved almost beyond the human stage, has the spiritual insight and discrimination to see clearly in any given situation. Interpreting karma accurately, he can evaluate from the spiritual point of view what is truly in a being's best interest at a particular moment. Not having reached that level of development, our attempts at compassion and sacrifice often become mixed with our personal will, sometimes to the point of being counterproductive. How often when we believe we are trying to be helpful and think of others, our actual underlying attitude turns out to be: Let me help you the way I want to, or else! We are blinded by our preconceived ideas and by trying to inject our personal will into the situation. Our personal egos then get in the way of what we really want to do, keeping us from seeing the natural action (or inaction) that is called for. Of course, this is not to say we should stop trying! Rather, it underlines the importance of being open to people and events around us, of spontaneity, and of a little humor about ourselves in our efforts to become more as we would wish to be.
The consequences of sacrifice — acting selflessly upon the dictates of the highest within us — are immense for us as individuals. But this applies very directly to the national and international scene as well, for here we see the effects of narrow individualism and self-centeredness on the large scale. Global harmony depends on the widespread recognition of humanity as a unity and on a willingness to give and take for the common good. Yet nations will never sacrifice their absolute sovereignty to the good of all if individuals refuse to do so in their daily sphere of activity. In this respect, each of us can by our attitudes toward those around us influence for good the course of world affairs. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we have the choice of whether we will dedicate our efforts to helping others or to exalting ourselves. This is much more a question of attitude and motive than of the specific activities we undertake — we are declaring all the time by who we are whether we are treading the bodhisattva or the egocentric path of development. The force accumulated from the efforts of even a small percent of the human race to put the interests of mankind before themselves and their particular group would influence dramatically the thought-life of mankind. Such an embodiment of real sacrifice may perhaps provide the force needed to tip the balance in favor of a constructive path for civilization in the coming century.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1987; copyright © 1987 Theosophical University Press)