A New Perspective on Selfishness
I remember years ago, visiting the National Gallery in London and coming across a picture called ‘The Ambassadors’ by Hans Holbein. It contains a hidden image of a skull that only becomes fully noticeable when you stand to the right-hand side of the canvas. This optical illusion reminds me of my own selfishness – it has always been there, but I only noticed it clearly when I viewed my life from a certain perspective.
It is only in recent years that I have been able to recognize the impact of selfishness in my own life. This self-centeredness has been there since my earliest memories. It has destroyed relationships, and it is one of the reasons I became addicted to alcohol. This ruthlessness in seeking my own happiness prevented me from achieving that happiness, and it got me into all types of trouble. It is a pity it took me so long to see this.
Prior to this recognition of my own self-centeredness, I only saw myself as a victim of circumstances. Sure, I had done some bad stuff, but ultimately, this was in response to the unfair things that had happened to me. I used to feel baffled and hurt because other people couldn’t see the nice guy behind my selfish behavior.
I suspect all of us can look at our lives from two perspectives. We can hold onto a story where we are purely the victim of circumstances, or our genes, and any bad decisions we have made is in response to this unfairness. There is also another perspective where our own selfishness has at least contributed to much of the bad stuff that has happened to us.
So, which perspective is correct? Are we the victims or the villains? My guess is the answer is somewhere in the middle. Practically speaking though, seeing ourselves as the victim just leaves us feeling powerless and at the mercy of fate. It is only if our own actions are contributing to our suffering that we can hope for a better future.
How Selfishness Ruins Everything
I remember one of my cousins at age 7 having a complete meltdown because he was denied a Curly Wurly. He threatened to run away, and even went so far as to pack his favorite toys in bag for the journey. He calmed down of course, and we were all able to laugh about it. My cousin’s hissy fit over a chocolate bar is now a fond memory, but selfishness usually isn’t cute like this. Here are some of the ways selfishness ruins everything:
- Selfishness tends to push people away – it is one of the least appealing character traits.
We can start to think of people in terms of what they can do for us rather than enjoying unconditional friendships.
Self-obsession means we are more prone to worry and mental health problems.
Selfishness may make it easier for us to fall into traps like addiction.
Our selfishness can mean we hurt others as we ruthlessly strive to satisfy our own needs.
Self-centeredness can damage our reputation and lead to loneliness.
It destroys families.
How Kindness Heals
I remember being in rehab during the nineties and being told by my counsellor that I was self-obsessed. I felt so angry at her for saying this, even though deep down I could see the truth in it. She managed to convince me to do some volunteer work with young people with severe learning difficulties. I experienced a profound joy and peace, as I focused my attention on someone else’s needs instead of my own. I started to be healed by the power of kindness.
One of the keys to reducing the impact of selfishness is to cultivate kindness (it is also important to begin uncovering the root of our selfishness through meditation, but we will deal with that below). Just because we have a history of selfish behavior in the past doesn’t mean we must continue along the same path. What we practice we become, and by practicing kindness we become kinder to ourselves as well as other people.
Some of the other ways kindness heals includes:
Kind-heartedness is a joyful way of being in the world.
Being kind to ourselves increases our ability to deal with hardship – we become more resilient.
Kindness is the most appealing human character trait.
It makes it easier to make friends and keep friends.
Kindness means we feel good about ourselves.
If we have a genuine kind-hearted attitude towards ourselves, it will not be possible to remain stuck in addiction.
Practicing kindness is good for our physical and mental health.
Kind-hearted people tend to sleep easier at night.
During my time working as a nurse, I got to witness many deaths. Some of these people died peacefully while others were fearful and overwhelmed. If I had to pick one characteristic for those who died peacefully, it would be their kind-heartedness. This seemed to make them fearless – even those who were in a lot of pain. I remember one beautiful old lady who right up to her last minute was focused on the well-being of her friends and family. It has left a lasting impression on me about the importance of kindness. So maybe another reason to do all we can to reduce selfishness is it can mean an easier death.
Suffering is Due to Selfishness
In Buddhism, it is understood that selfishness is a direct result of craving and clinging. The craving arises in response to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. These feeling tones (see our earlier post on the 5 aggregates) are triggered automatically by sense stimuli (e.g. seeing a chocolate bar). When we identify with these feeling (I want it, I don’t want it, or I’m not interested), it leads to selfishness in the form of greed, hatred, and delusion.
A Way Out of Selfishness
The mindfulness program at Hope provides a path away from selfishness to a more kinder way of being in the world. It involves cultivating wholesome qualities such as warm-heartedness, compassion, and friendliness, while at the same time removing the roots of self-obsession by developing insight. A great practice for cultivating kindness is metta (loving-kindness) meditation (this is similar to exercise 2 above).
Developing insight into selfishness goes right to the root of the problem. If we fail to do this, kindness can become another form of self-obsession – ‘I’m the kindest person ever!’ or ‘I’m so spiritual’. We remove the root of selfishness by developing insight into impersonal qualities of the 5 aggregates. We can then see for ourselves that craving is just something human brains do, and if we don’t identify with this process, the craving can’t lead to greed, hatred, and delusion.
We can begin developing insight into selfishness right from the beginning of our meditation practice. The greed, hatred, and delusion that is triggered by craving (see above) is initially observed in meditation as the 5 hindrances (doubt, desire, ill-will, restlessness, and dullness). We start to recognize these hindrances as they arise and gain the ability to relax and let go of them. We see for ourselves how these sources of selfishness are impersonal processes (i.e. we are not choosing them), and this lessens their ability to impact us as we go about our lives.
If we are sincere in our wish to find peace and happiness, we need to find a path that reduces our selfishness and increases kind-heartedness. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much which path we choose, so long as it accomplishes these two goals.
Was this post useful? Please help us by sharing it on social media.