Where does work on self take us? If it’s not about self-development, as you suggest, then what is it for?
This is a most important question. If I can rephrase it a little, I would say that we need to ask: what is our motive to work?
The great majority of humans only make efforts for their own interests, however they define them. They look out for number one, or perhaps their family, maybe their community. Even when they think they serve the interests of others, there is a definite something in it for them. These people are generally not attracted to the fourth way or any other genuine school unless it is presented as a path of self-development, in which case it is not genuine at all.
Those who are attracted to this work have no lack of motivation in the beginning. This work has a kind of romantic appeal; it is challenging, the ideas are unusual, and there is a sense of being involved in something special, quite unlike ordinary life. Many of us initially respond to the work idea that the world has order and meaning and that life on earth may have a purpose. However, these motivations are superficial and unreliable and they usually do not last for more than a year or two.
The romance dies when it becomes clear that this work is about struggle with self. Another motivation may then arise which we might call right action. Doing things in sleep gradually becomes distasteful while the gestures of conscious behaviour provide satisfaction. This does not mean engaging in continuous self-judgment. Rather, it is a quality of discernment that arises after the little voice in the head has stopped pretending to run the show. Discernment is to perceive precisely the quality of things as they are, what Buddhists call prajnaparamitra. It means relinquishing that which is false and loving that which has integrity, for its own sake.
Work on self is a process, not an end. One possible result is that you may prefer being present when presence is called for, and that you have remorse when you miss the mark. This is a hard path to follow and there are many disappointments but the motivation is to respond to life with being.
Being present opens you to influences from outside ordinary life. This is where you may begin to feel an attraction to the Work. What does this mean? To be in contact with the Work is to wish to be counted among those who work for the redemption of the earth, as the ancient Zoroastrians said. A focus on self is inevitably corrupting and it falls far short of the task given uniquely to our species on this planet, to care consciously for the gifts we have been given. This message is clear in many ancient texts including the Old Testament.
This does not mean some sort of super environmentalism that calls for collectivist action or a political response. It is primarily an inner response. If you work for redemption, you will probably not be moved to take sides in the conflicts that arise between humans.
Those who are able to wake up when faced with the needs of the redemptive Work must first see the reality of their sleep, their identifications, their automaticity and their lack of will. As the habits of sleep are seen and relinquished, it becomes possible to act in quite a different way. It becomes possible to serve. This is the aim of work on self.
Real service is not a matter of right intentions. It requires ableness to be. It requires being able to hold to a connection with the heavens while standing against the demands and enticements of the ordinary world. Self-importance is the enemy. Reliability is the aim. If you are reliable, you will be given a post. Can you hold the post you are given, no matter the cost?