If you’re going to relieve suffering, the root cause of the suffering is ignorance, and that ignorance has to do with the ignorance about your own separateness or your own entity-ness.
That’s what the Buddha said and I would suggest to most people that if you find something that needs help, and you help it, also work on yourself to make it a conscious act.
When you feed somebody, if I feed you and I think I’m me; you’re you and I’m feeding you, and that’s the plane of reality that I exist at, as I give you the food, I reinforce the sense in you. That you are you and I am me; that is, if I focus on the giving of the act, I increase the dualism between us, the separateness between us, even as I’m doing something that’s considered a kind act.
You must know that feeling when somebody gives you something and they are busy being the person that’s giving it, and then you are the person receiving it, it separates people. There’s another way, where I am giving you food but it’s God’s food and I am just the instrument through which the food is getting from here to there.
If I am living outside of the illusion of separateness, if I have worked on myself enough to have extricated myself from the illusion of a separate entity, so I am feeling like I am one with you, then there is a transfer of energy between us, in food or money or skills or whatever, it is the transfer of energy within an organism, rather than between organisms. So rather than the act separating, the act brings together.
There are many levels at which you relieve suffering; you relieve suffering at one level by giving food. You relieve suffering at another level by giving the food in such a way that is draws people out of the pain of their own separateness. This involves the idea of respect for the people you’re serving, and dignity and really seeing.
You must be driven to work on yourself all of the time, so that your acts of caring for other human beings are not toxic. If you want to help other people, I would say, just look around, check out the bulletin board at your local laundromat. It doesn’t matter where you plug into the system; the issue is the quality of the behavior when you plug into the system.
It’s not just doing the act, it’s the combination of doing the act with the exercise of using the act to see the ways in which you’re ripping off the act for your own psycho-dynamic needs. Without putting yourself down for it, just appreciating the humanity of it, but also getting to the next level of it, where you’re just doing it because you’re a part of the dance, and you’re on the side of the angels. Gandhi said, “When you surrender completely into God, you find yourself in the service of all that exists.”