How Altruism Helps Us Escape the Prison of Self-Obsession

Image by Enver Rahmanov

Image by Enver Rahmanov

by Paul Garrigan

The Need for Altruism

Which do you think would be a better world to live in? One where we all looked out for one another or one where everyone is just out for themselves? If you favor the former type of world, a more caring and supportive environment, there are things you can do to make it a reality – you can begin by being the change you want to happen through the practice of altruism.

What is Altruism?

The word ‘altruism’ can be defined in many ways such as helping others, selfless regard for others, unselfish concern for others, or selflessness – it is the opposite of being selfish. It occurs when we at least temporarily put the needs of others before our own (e.g. we share our meal with a stranger).

There are two types of altruism – natural (innate) altruism like a mother taking care of her child and cultivated altruism where we develop this ability like a skill. It is the development of altruism as a skill that we will be focusing on here.

Benefits of Altruism

The Tibetan Monk, Matthieu Ricard describes altruism as an act of love. The more we practice it, the more loving we become, and the more love there exists in the world. Practicing altruism means we develop a loving relationship with life that is not dependent on the external conditions being a certain way.

Some of the benefits of altruism include:

• It means we develop a more positive relationship with reality
• It leaves us feeling energized and happy because altruism triggers the release of endorphins in the brain (this is often referred to as ‘helper’s high’)
• By focusing more on the problems of other people, we become less obsessed with our own difficulties
• A reduced focus on our own problems means less stress – less stress means improved mental and physical health
• It improves our relationships with others – kind people are just nicer to be around
• It means you develop a better attitude towards yourself
• Acting in a loving way to others will often mean they respond in a loving way (although not always)
• We can experience real pleasure from seeing happiness in others

Altruism for Self-Obsession

Spending too much time focused on our own story is a major cause of suffering because it means we become disconnected from reality. This happens because the only way the brain can keep the spotlight on our ego is by emphasizing a sense of separateness from the world around us – it does this by disputing reality (e.g. ‘this shouldn’t be happening to me’ or ‘that shouldn’t have happened to me’).

So long as we remain self-obsessed, we will never know real happiness. It is only by turning our attention outwards that we can begin to find real peace and serenity. One of the best ways to do this is by practicing altruism.

Mistakes We Can Make with Altruism

Altruism turns toxic if we allow it be corrupted by the ego. An example of this would be where we use it as a way to convince other people that we are a ‘good person’. Another example of corrupted altruism would be developing a ‘savior complex’ where we believe it is our mission to ‘save the world’.

True altruism is just an expression of love that expects nothing in return and is not serving some agenda (e.g. we want the person to adopt our beliefs or worldview) – it may even sometimes require we do things that may make us look like the ‘bad guy’.

Heart Practices to Help Us to Become Altruistic

Those of us who have been caught up in the self-obsession required to maintain an addiction usually need to develop the skill of altruism. The way to do this is to just practice acts of kindness whenever you can (e.g. share your stuff or volunteer your time to help somebody).

A great way to develop the willingness to perform acts of kindness or service would be the heart practices such as metta (loving-kindness) meditation and tonglen. These types of meditation open us up by reducing self-obsession and moving our attention outwards.

Hope Rehab has a charitable foundation that helps Thailand develop its 12 step treatment system for the public who need it. We travel around Thailand training Rehab workers in our 12 step methods.

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