Goals, action and intention all use our energy and help us fill our days, along with their shadows of anxiety, confusion and judgment. Every time we do anything, from putting butter on toast to signing a contract for a job, we choose how we will spend this moment and many to come, knowingly or innocent of our motives. Usually there are some indicators that help us act in what we believe to be our self interest, to take on work that is worthwhile because of our training, or the paycheck or other benefit, whatever it may be that we think we want or need. Perhaps it is the choice for taste over cholesterol level (butter on toast), or it can be social connection over isolation, or cleanliness over dirtiness, going to class or watching TV, there are many moments of choice that involve our energy and our identity and self concept in subtle and obvious ways.
It is hard to get away from the fact that self interest can be at the core of spiritual practice. In some ways it is an act on behalf of the self that drives a person towards some understanding greater than that of the first layer of self interest: those actions that take care of the basics of food, shelter, perhaps on behalf family and a wider layer of friends. Perhaps a connection to spiritual ideas can help further these more practical concerns, once a person believes that there may be something beyond the small isolated self to be considered. Self interest is definitely part of praying for a particular outcome or even giving donations of time or money to help promote the community in which one lives or to help lessen the suffering of those around us. We can use our energy to feel better about ourselves through helping others, and to feel better on behalf of others for having used our energy this way.
The next level of spiritual action could be turning one's life more fully over to spiritual practices from a deep desire to improve one's future condition as in "going to heaven" or improving "karma" for the next life. Some would say this is self-less behavior, but I see self-interest here too. Even in this matter it is a choice of how one uses the energy of this moment, and what manner of reward or outcome one expects or seeks. This seems to me to be connected to one's self concept as much as whether to eat toast or raw whole grains. We operate based on what we think is best or right or meets our criteria for usefulness, or offers us part of a goal we seek. This goal might be the betterment of living conditions for other living beings, or equitable means of resolving conflicts, or ensuring nutrition for malnourished infants, or helping a random passerby cross the street safely, or ending one's class on time. There is no hierarchy that makes one choice "better" other than how we see the choice and that, I think, is deeply colored by self interest and our ability to perceive who we are.
Spending one's life truly doing and being on behalf of others rather than just for one's self has a totally different impact in the world in the moment, and in its consequences. This might be more obvious in one endeavor than another, say changing laws or governments versus nurturing a student's meditation practice. Yet the expenditure of energy that helps one's own child with homework or a co-worker resolve a moral dilemma, or in cooking one's own food from unprocessed local foods rather than buying a processed cheese food product, is of the same temperament. Each of these small uses of energy serves the purpose of giving the self a clarity of purpose beyond selfishness even though the motive may be self interest. Perhaps it is a question of seeing the self in others, of recognizing that the self has an interest in the benefit to others.
Some people believe in heaven and hell, some believe in karma and the endless cycles of samskara; while some believe that all we have is this moment with no deeper consequence than that of this moment. In any of these belief systems, it makes sense to me to use the energy we have to actively take on self interest, while at the same time developing our ability to be aware of what we do and why we do it. This cultivation of awareness, developing the ability to perceive our self and our patterns, is the basic nature of yogic practice and meditation experiences. This is the path towards recognizing the self and its interests in the welfare and conditional nature impacting other living beings.
Yoga does not make me a better person nor put me in a realm outside of self interest. It is as if yoga gives me the purest intelligence, like that of a bee: honing in on the pollen, using everything I have in me to collect from this one and that one until I must rest in the coolness of the evening. The bee in me is doing what I have within me to do with all my energy, unflinchingly and without concern for the potential consequences of pollination and flowering, fruiting and feeding others. The bee in me is on the path, fully realizing my potential in the moment, doing what I can do in my present form.
So when I think about my teaching and find myself searching for motives, arranging and planning outcomes, I laugh and shrug it off. It is the energy of the bloom itself that draws the bee, the energy of the bee that brings the bloom. Letting go and seeing the dualities, I can feel my self interest in the benefits to my students -- whatever they are, and remain grateful to my students for my own practice. Will this get me points on the karmic scale? Who is doing the counting?