January 20

Selfish or Selfless

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Blog | No Comments

A friend wrote to me a while ago that I haven’t been “blogging” much, and that she doesn’t know what is going on with me because of that. I’m sure what she meant is that although I have been blogging, I haven’t been as transparent in the posts: I haven’t expressed what is going on with me in a personal manner. Right now I have a strong desire to articulate what is going on with me. As I begin to write this it is 6am and I grabbed the laptop to write because of the thoughts swirling in my head. (Of course when it is read it could be days or more later).

Lately I have been on a quest to be the most loving and compassionate person I can be. That has been my focus in meditation, and as much as possible in my daily life. Surely I slip from it regularly, but up until this week I rebounded and was highly motivated to be that. This morning I realized I have been hitting a wall.

This whole week, if not perhaps a little longer, I have been bouncing off of that wall. Earlier in the week, while driving my son to work around 5 am, a young man made some gesture at me. I stopped the car to engage in an unpleasant dialogue with him. My relationship has hit another rocky place and I have found it difficult to be loving, compassionate and understanding at this juncture. Generally I am having great difficulty returning to the loving compassionate way I was a couple of weeks ago.

Some of the reason may have occurred to me this morning: I’m feeling that this way of being is resulting in my feeling neglected and possibly taken advantage of. It seems my kids aren’t responding to this loving version of me. I repeat myself over and over, and their behavior, which I am addressing, shows very little if any change. The son who lives with me doesn’t respond to my requests for change. My cat still bites me. My partner, if I could be so bold as to use that term, apologizes but doesn’t make any discernible changes.

Now in the teachings of being a loving and compassionate person, there are no promises things will change. It is not the goal to use the techniques of loving kindness to get your needs met more effectively. In fact that is contrary to the actual goal of being selfless. I say this, as I want to be clear it is not a failing of the teaching: It is a part of us being human, and possibly our self-centered nature.

So there is the dilemma: the goal is to be selfless, and I felt that way, and felt good about it, when I was at the apex of my practice. But now, feeling slighted and believing my feelings have been largely ignored, what do I do?

Much of western therapy is designed to foster a “healthy” level of selfishness. As a therapist I often tell people they have to take care of themselves, make their needs a priority. This is typical in much of therapy. Many people put their needs secondary, and then feel badly about their lives. I cannot count the clients I have encouraged to make their needs a priority. And there is merit in this. But when is a level of selfishness healthy, and when does it become detrimental? Or, when does selflessness do the same, if it does?

A book I am reading currently challenges that with a Zen perspective of therapy. (Zen Therapy). This book suggests that true happiness lies in selflessness; overcoming our ego’s conditioning to have our desires met. The book does a good job of explaining a great deal of Buddhist belief and practice as it relates to happiness and a fulfilling life.

In more than one way I am torn at this moment. This blog entry is a reflection of my dilemma. Perhaps it is more generally the dilemma of being human, aspiring to be spiritual and loving, and yet being caught in the trap of getting your needs met. Like much of life there is a delicate balancing act of getting your needs met while diminishing your needs, of having a healthy level of selfishness while striving to be more giving. Should I even have some of these needs at all?

At times when we feel confused or hurt by what is going on in our lives we want to disappear, withdrawal from life, hide out maybe. Yet sometimes it is the opposite that is helpful. For example in times like these my mood is not conducive to conducting therapy or dealing with the needs of the students I am trying to educate. In some ways I feel like saying “what the hell do I know, look at me right now!” But in conjunction with the Buddhist principle of selflessness helping others is actually what will improve my mood. Ironic.

The only truth I have right now is that we are human. We move forward, and we slide back. At times we are needy, and at times we are obstinate. I wrote an article for the Psychology Today website that will appear in a few days about how we need to hear the same lessons multiple times to get back or stay on track. In likelihood I will try to make this entry less personal and use it for an article in the near future. But what I really want to do is climb to the top of a mountain and sit alone to figure this mystery out so my life is less impacted by whether I should be selfish or selfless.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at 5:47 PM and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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