Altruism and Service on the Spiritual Path

Barbara Hebert – USA


Wonderful interview Erica Georgiades did some time ago with Barbara Hebert, click om the image to watch

In Volume XII of the Collected Writings, H.P. Blavatsky talks about altruism as a key component of being a theosophist. She writes:

He who does not practice altruism; he who is not prepared to share his last morsel with a weaker or poorer than himself; he who neglects to help his brother man, of whatever race, nation, or creed, whenever and wherever he meets suffering, and who turns a deaf ear to the cry of human misery; he who hears an innocent person slandered, whether a brother Theosophist or not, and does not undertake his defense as he would undertake his own––is no Theosophist.

In more recent times, Dorothy Bell, in her article “True Theosophical Service” expands on the importance and value of altruism. She writes:  

As a principle, altruism expresses the true root meaning of the words Theos and Brahma—the motion of expansion from within outwardly, which is also associated with the outbreathing of the Great Breath. It means giving unconditionally to the whole from within outwardly. It realizes the wholeness and unity of all. And every movement of that realization of wholeness is open and generous and all-embracing. It is compassion, love, gentleness, kindness, and the full expression of who we truly are.

If we act altruistically, we put the needs of the whole before the needs of the self. When we recognize “the wholeness and unity of all”, as Dorothy says, we realize that what happens to one person happens to all of us. We are the wrongly imprisoned, we are the hungry and thirsty, we are the abused and neglected, we are those living in war-torn places across the world, we are “the other.” We are called upon then to take action in alleviating the suffering of “the other” who is, in reality, ourselves.

There is a specific foundation upon which our actions occur: Love. N. Sri Ram, former international president of the TS refers to a specific type of love when he writes the following:

The love which deserves that name is impartial, non-possessive, wholly beneficent; in that love alone is to be discovered the force which will ultimately bring man to his freedom. Love is the only force which does not create or add to the complications of karma.

When we love another from this level, when we serve another from this perspective, we become one with that person without taking on their suffering but paradoxically suffering with him or her and alleviating it to whatever degree is possible.

What we are talking about here, on a very practical and physical level is “joining” with another person. One of the struggles we all face in this physical existence is that of division and separation. Many people tend to have a “me vs you” perspective; yet, for those who walk the spiritual path we are talking about a “me AND you” perspective. To investigate this a little further, we can look at the teachings of Martin Buber, a 20th century philosopher who is known for his writing on “I and Thou”.  Buber talks about the importance of being in true relationship with one another in the present moment, of seeing that individual as a person of unique value, a child of god, a brother or sister. In this way, according to Buber, we give that person the dignity and respect they deserve as we interact with them. This is contrasted with what Buber calls the I-It relationship where the other person is perceived as a thing that can provide us with something or do something for us. An example of this I-It relationship might be going to a restaurant and perceiving the wait person as someone who can bring food to the table in a timely manner and nothing more. The I-Thou component of this example would be to have a true, even if momentary relationship, with the wait person. Do we look them in the eye? Do we perceive them as a brother/sister, worthy of dignity and respect? Do we interact with them in this way?

In order to interact with others from this I-Thou perspective, we must have a sense of humility (that we are all One, connected at that very deep level) and feelings of Love, as enunciated by N. Sri Ram: “impartial, non-possessive, wholly beneficent”. If this is our perception, then we send this to the other person, seen and unseen, through our thoughts, words, and actions.

If we overlay theosophical teachings onto Buber’s I-Thou philosophy, we quickly recognize that it is another way of recognizing the innate unity of all and putting that recognition into practice on a daily basis. Therefore, one way to interact with others is to have an I-Thou relationship in whatever way is possible. Regardless of whatever may be going on with us, when we interact with another individual we focus on the present moment and truly connect with the other person.

Why is it useful to relate to someone in this way if they are not suffering? My personal perspective: everyone is suffering in some way, whether visible or not. All of us on this physical plane of existence are learning and growing—which is a polite way of saying that all of us are hurting and struggling in some way. The next time we go through the grocery line or order food in a restaurant or take a taxi somewhere, it may be helpful to experiment with being in the moment and perceiving the other person as unique, valuable, a brother/sister, a spark of the Divine. Make eye contact, truly respond to them and mean what you say. As we know, thoughts and feelings go beyond the physical interaction and impact those around us.

When we come into contact with another who is overtly suffering, we recognize that we are faced with decisions and choices: Do we help or not? For many, the answer is: We are driven to help someone who is suffering, it at all possible.

We help because we are committed to alleviating the suffering of all others. We do this by joining with the other person through the love described by N. Sri Ram “The love which deserves that name is impartial, non-possessive, wholly beneficent….” Other names for this type of Love might be God, Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, etc. Regardless of what we call it, when we act from this place of love (as much as we possibly can), then we are acting in service to the Highest. We are serving the other person who is a ray of the Highest.

It is pertinent here to talk about the way in which we help. Looking at the various definitions of “helping” words will help us to delineate the most effective and spiritually-oriented way of serving. The words that are typically used in this regard are: fixing (alleviating suffering may indicate to some that our role is to “fix” or correct the problem for another person), helping and serving. The differences require discernment on our part as well as some introspection. Because of the power of words and language, it is definitely worth our consideration.           

Diana Dunningham-Chapotin cites the article “In the Service of Life” by Rachel Naomi Remen published in the spring 1996 issue of Noetic Sciences Review. According to Dunningham-Chapotin, Remen distinguishes between fixing, helping, and serving. Remen writes:

Fixing is a form of judgment.” To "fix" a person is to see them as broken rather than inherently whole and perfect. "Helping” is based on inequality. To "help" is to use one's own strength in place of the lesser strength of those helped and so diminishes their self-esteem and incurs a debt. "Serving is mutual." "We don't serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves." Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred. . . . When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.

While our goal as theosophists is to serve, it is easy for us to fall into fixing or helping others because we want to alleviate suffering. However, if we attempt to fix or help another, per the descriptions given above, we are not really helping. Rather, we are continuing to be separative in our outlook, perceiving the other individual (consciously or unconsciously) as broken or unequal. Additionally, the thoughts and feelings that we send to the other person, based on our perceptions, are not helpful either.

Perceiving others as whole, sufficient, strong, capable, etc. is an important element in joining with another. Plus, we know that each of us encompasses all of these attributes. Every individual is whole—a ray of the Divine--even when we are struggling with a difficulty or an obstacle. Do we perceive a mountain climber as “less” when he/she struggles to surmount a difficult peak; or a runner as broken if he/she stumbles in the race? Of course not. We actually recognize their strength. We know they are capable of surmounting the difficulty with which they are faced. Therefore, it is important that as we seek to serve others, we see them as they ARE—sparks of the divine, just like us, whose higher self has placed obstacles on the path to facilitate growth and strength.

Once we know that fixing or helping is not a part of the path we follow, we must look to ourselves and our perceptions of the situation to make sure we are serving. How we implement our service to others requires our discernment, including rigorous self-awareness and vigilant self-observation. The spiritual path requires that we refine, not only our understanding of service but the actual acts of service so that they are grounded in unity and the love that N. Sri Ram says is “impartial, non-possessive, wholly beneficent”


Bell, Dorothy. “True Theosophical Service” Quest, November-December 2008.

Blavatsky, H.P. Collected Writings vol. XII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), p. 508.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Martino Publishing, 2010 (reprint of 1937 edition).

Dunningham-Chapotin, Diana. "An Infinity Within to Give." Quest January-February 2002.

Sri Ram, N. Thoughts for Aspirants. Theosophical Publishing House, 1950, Chapter 5.

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