Selfish and Self-less:

Last week end, I attended a talk on Vipasana meditation, by Dr. Paul R. Fleischman. He is a Psychiatrist, who has been introduced to this form of meditation many years ago. My Google search revealed that there are several forms of meditation. But researchers classify them into two specific categories: concentrative or focused on a specific object or theme, and non-concentrative, which is more observational in nature. We shall get into more details on types and techniques of meditation, in a future blog!
During his talk, Dr. Fleischman made an observation, with respect to “Selfishness”, which caught my attention. He said that Selfishness is looked at more positively in the one school of thought! We are generally familiar with the negative view on selfishness. He went on to say that in this school of thought, “selfishness” is considered as enriching one self, perhaps at the cost of others and hence it is a negative, and hence to be refrained from. He added that in the other school of thought, “selfishness” is seen as a stepping stone, to use the stronger self as a building block, for larger impact or accomplishment that enriches others. In other words, I have to be strong, to uplift, strengthen and support others. I have to be wise, so that I can help to spread the wisdom of knowledge. I have to be aware of myself and the signals I send out, so that I can fine tune them and direct them for their intended goal: the larger good of anything and any one around me. Such observation on the “self” is the essence of Vipasana meditation, according to Dr. Fleischman.
Now let us continue our thought process:
“Self” is like a two sided coin. On one side of the coin is the awareness of “who I am” and how to strengthen the “I”. Then there is the other side, which is everything external to it that can be supported and nurtured by the “I”! In every coin, one side has to always co-exist with the “other” side! The recognition of both the sides – the inner and its needs and the external and its needs – is the true knowledge of the “Self ”. The false notion that only one side exists and everything has to be done to protect that side exclusively and at all cost, ultimately leads to “Selfishness”!
In fact, if you think about it carefully, we are engaged in this balance all the time, almost implicitly. A child shows signs of happiness, by smiling back at the mother with her selfish smile of joy simply looking at her baby! A mother cooks the food with all her talents and skills, but finds her happiness, only when it is served to the family and is enjoyed by all. A house holder works hard and makes every effort to succeed at work, only to be sure that he/she is able to put the food on the table for the family to enjoy. One takes care of others, because he/she is a friend, parent or a sibling. In every one of these instances we see a strong self engaged in actions, intended for the larger “Self-less” benefit: for some one other than the self.
But, what happens if the child would smile only at the mother, but frowns at the site of any one else? What happens when the mother is eager to smile at her baby, but is ferocious at the sight of any other child? What happens, when the mother insists on cooking only for her family and cares not for those who are hungry and suffering next door? What happens when the family that enjoys the food, but cares not to think of the kind nature of the mother? What happens if the house holder finds every way – good, bad and otherwise – to get his way ahead, because he/she has to feed only his/her family, at any cost? What happens when one cares only for his/her parents or siblings, but such care and kindness is not extended to others (who are also the friend, parents or siblings of some one else)? Any one would not hesitate to describe each of the above as purely selfish acts and to be avoided.
Then, what is the difference? It is indeed natural to engage in any activity with a focus on the self. But, in due course such focus translates into an act of “Self – less ” nature. All activities, where “self ” becomes the sole focus in and of itself, regresses into “selfish” acts. To avoid this sole emphasis on one side of the coin requires a cultivated habit, that recognizes and nurtures the “self-less” nature with in as well as all around us. One may call that as an aspect of Spirituality in Practice.

B.G: Chapter 18
1. Lord Krishna! Please describe to me, what is “renunciation” and what is “Self – less”? How are they different?”
Lord Krishna:
2. “Renunciation” is the withdrawal from activities that arise as an outcome of desire or attachments. Renouncing the self intended benefits from any activity is described as “Self – less” nature.
7. One should not renounce or give up activities which a person is obliged to perform. Abandoning such activities in the name of renunciation is merely an evidence of passionate attachments to something else. It is indeed ignorance!
8. The work or activity which is perceived as an obligation to be carried out, but it is not performed for reasons of fear, sorrow or physical pain, is not self – less. It is indeed an evidence of turbulence and abandonment due to emotional reasons. In such cases of withdrawal, the person does not gain any rewards for such presumed self-less nature.
9. All activities which should be performed are carried out appropriately, because it is the right thing to do (and not for reasons of attachments or influences caused by desires) and while also being self – less (i.e) with out being focused on the results of such actions to the self, are described as tranquil pursuit of activities (of self-less nature).
10. The enlightened person, maintains a cautious and measured distance (renunciation) from inappropriate activities, but also remains vigilant (self – less) not to get blindly attached to the benefits or results of appropriate activities.

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2 Responses to Selfish and Self-less:

  1. jayanthi rangan says:

    I love the last paragraph which explains the selfless/selfish in a question form.

  2. PUSHPA MUDAN says:

    I want to thank you for the interpretation given. I remember the duty to perform certain actions without thinking about the outcome from watching the Bhagavadgita tape.

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