Our personality comprises many different factors, some of them contradictory to each other. Sometimes we’re loving and other times we’re spiteful. At times we’re proud and reject advice; other times we’re inquisitive and eager to learn. We don’t have a fixed personality since our characteristics can change. By becoming more habituated to constructive attitudes and less accustomed to the harmful ones, our character can improve.
The disturbing attitudes aren’t an intrinsic part of us. They’re like clouds covering the vastness and clarity of the sky, and therefore they can change and vanish. Because they’re based on misinterpretations and projections, the disturbing attitudes can’t be sustained once we realize their falsity. Thus, as our wisdom and compassion increase, the disturbing attitudes diminish.
This doesn’t happen just by our wishing for it or praying for it. It happens when we’ve created the causes for it to occur. As we gradually subdue the disturbing attitudes in our daily life, a resultant peaceful state of mind naturally emerges. We’re responsible. We have control. The clear nature of our mind is always there, waiting to be revealed when the clouds of the disturbing attitudes are dispelled. This is our human beauty; this is our potential.
The Buddha said that our disturbing attitudes share two common factors: ignorance and selfishness. We don’t understand who we are or how we and other phenomena exist. This is ignorance. Out of ignorance, we put a disproportionate emphasis on me, I, my and mine. This self-cherishing attitude then proceeds to bring us many problems, even though it seemingly protects our well-being.
The philosophy of the self-cherishing mind is, “I’m the most important. My happiness is the most crucial, and my misery should be eliminated first.” This seems like a rather childish attitude, but when we check our own thoughts we may find that many of our actions are motivated by the attitude of “my happiness now is the most important.”
This is a habitual attitude we’ve had since birth (maybe even before!). Although babies don’t think in words, they cry for food not only because their stomachs are empty, but also because their minds are craving for “my happiness now.” Our society nurtures the selfish mind, teaching us to seek our own happiness at almost any cost. Although competition needn’t be selfish, it most often is, for how often do we rejoice when the other person or team is better than we are?
We’re taught to manipulate and cheat in order to get what we want, and as long as our dishonesty isn’t discovered it’s secretly condoned. The large number of government officials and corporate executives facing prosecution illustrates this. However, rather than gleefully pointing the fmger at them, we must look within ourselves to see if we act similarly.
As adults, we’re more deceptive than children, for we mask our selfish attitudes in polite manners and apparent consideration for others. But underneath, we value ourselves the most and others come second.
Some people believe that human beings are selfish by nature, that we and our selfishness are as inseparable as perfume and its scent. It seems this way because our selfish viewpoint has existed for a long time. In that sense, we may say it’s natural, because as babies we were self-centered and we’ll continue to be so until we make an effort to change.
However, this doesn’t mean selfishness is an inseparable part of us. Ifit were, how could some of the great religious leaders have cherished others more than themselves? How could a mother cherish her child more than herself? Why would people risk their lives to save others?
If we were inherently selfish, there would be no way to train ourselves in impartial love and compassion for all. However, such a method exists. Many people throughout the ages have succeeded in transforming their attitudes and actually cherish others more than themselves.
If selfishness were an intrinsic part of us, it also would mean the view of the selfish mind would be an accurate and beneficial way to relate to the world. But as we’ll see, it isn’t.
Selfishness can be decreased and finally removed from our mindstreams. First, we must recognize the disadvantages of the self-cherishing attitude. Being convinced that it’s the cause of all unsought problems, we’ll then investigate how it operates and eliminate it.
The self-cherishing thought seems to be our friend, looking out for our welfare, protecting us from harms and ensuring our happiness. But does it? Whenever there is conflict between two people, two groups or two countries, selfishness is present. One side is protecting its interests, thinking they’re the most critical, and the other is doing the same. Compromise and cooperation become difficult, as does forgiveness.
For example, in a family conflict, if we don’t get our way we’re unhappy. If we win we may temporarily be “happy,” but deep inside we aren’t pleased about what we said or did in order to get our way. Unbridled selfishness doesn’t make us a better and more respectable person, even though it may give us temporary power. When we cherish ourselves foremost, how can others completely trust us?
Another disadvantage of the selfish mind is that it makes our problems appear to be greater than they are. We have a small difficulty, but by contemplating it repeatedly, the problem grows and grows until we can think of nothing else. “My exam is so crucial!” “My boss is demanding too much!” Our preoccupation with small problems makes them take on enormous proportions with earth-shattering consequences. We complain, we can’t sleep, we may start drinking and taking drugs or even have a nervous breakdown. In short, the self-cherishing attitude is a magnet attracting problems to ourselves.
The “logic” of the selfish attitude
The primary tenet of the selfish mind is that we are the center of the universe, the most important one, whose happiness and miseries are the most cruciaL Why do I feel I’m the most important? “Because I’m me,” says the selfish attitude, “I’m not you.”
I feel I’m the center of the universe (although I’m much too discreet to say that publicly). But so do you, and so do many other people. Just feeling that our happiness is the most important doesn’t make it so.
What proof do we have that our happiness is the most important? Does my toothache hurt more than yours? Is my pleasure from eating greater than that of a beggar? When we examine it logically, can any of us say that the happiness or sorrow we experience is any more intense or important than others’?
We may feel that because we are the head of a family, the director of a company or a skilled and talented person we’re more important than others. Yes, we are, but only because we have more responsibility to serve and help others because of our position. However, that doesn’t mean that our happiness feels better and our pain worse than those of others. The Indian sage Shantideva says in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
When both myself and others
Are similar in that we wish to be happy,
What is so special about me?
Why do I strive for my happiness alone?
The rich and the poor, the intelligent and the average, the beautiful and the ugly all want to be happy and avoid any misery. We may have different ways in which we fInd happiness, but the fact of wanting happiness is common to us all. In this way, every being is equal. As Shantideva says:
Hence I should dispel the misery of others
Because it is suffering, just like my own,
And I should benefIt others
Because they are beings, just like myself.
It’s important to recognize that although all of us want happiness, we all have different ways of getting it. We like different things and have different cultural values and individual goals. It would be self-centered to think that because we value something, everyone else must also. Many misunderstandings arise cross-culturally and between generations because we assume that other people should value what we do. It’s extremely important to be aware ofand respect others’ likes and dislikes, whether they’re the same as ours or not.
This is a call to look beyond superfIcial similarities among people and focus on the deeper level. SuperfIcially, we may think, “You’re interested in chemistry. I find that boring, but ancient history is interesting,” or “You want your country to be more modern and I wish my country would slow down and get more in touch with nature.”
If we concentrate on these differences, we feel isolated from others. However, if we look deeper and see that on a very basic level we’re the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, we’ll feel very close to others. Feeling we have something in common with everyone, we’ll then be able to com-municate better with others. Shantideva queries:
In the same way as the hands and so forth
Are regarded as limbs of the body,
Likewise why are embodied beings
Not regarded as limbs of life?
When we step on a thorn, our hand reaches down and pulls the thorn from our foot. The hand doesn’t hesitate. It doesn’t think, “Why doesn’t the foot take care of itself? It’s so inconvenient for me to help it.” Why does the hand help the foot so easily? Because they’re seen as part of the same unit, our body.
Similarly, if we regard all beings as part of a unit-lifethen we won’t feel disturbed by helping others. We’ll be aiding another part of the larger unit of which we’re a part. Instead of conceiving of ourselves as independent people, we’ll understand that in fact we’re interdependent. Thus, we’ll help others as if we were helping ourselves.
In this way, we’ll render aid free of pride. When the hand helps the foot, it doesn’t think, “I’m so great! Look at me. I sacrifice so much for this foot. I hope the foot appreciates what I’m doing for it!” The hand just helps. There’s no condescension or pride.
Likewise, there’s no reason for us to boast of how much we do for others. If we habituate ourselves to the idea that we’re all part of one unit of life, helping others will be as simple as helping ourselves is now.
By repeatedly contemplating the equality of ourselves and others, we can eliminate selfishness from our mindstreams. When a light is turned on in a room, the darkness automatically vanishes. Similarly, when the false interpretations and preconceptions of our self-centered approach are exposed by deep understanding, the selfish attitude vanishes. By repeatedly familiarizing ourselves with an altruistic attitude, it will become as natural as selfishness is now.
Self-cherishing is a state of mind that is reflected in our actions. However, we can’t evaluate others’ degree of selfishness and altruism merely by their actions. For example, one person may flamboyantly give a thousand dollars to charity with the motivation to appear generous to her friends. Another person may humbly contribute five dollars to a charity with the sincere wish that others receive benefit. In fact, the latter person is the generous one, while the former is stingily seeking a good reputation.
Some people may feel guilty that they’re selfish. This is com-pletely unproductive. Self-reproach is a clever trick of the selfish mind, for it again puts the emphasis on “me” and “how bad I am.”
What is needed isn’t guilt but action. When we notice that we’re being selfish, we can remember that others want happiness as much as we do. We can try to feel how happy they would be if we helped them. Remembering the kindness all beings showed us in past and present lives, we’ll want to return their care. In this way, our selfish attitude will automatically diminish, while the wish to help others will increase.
Eliminating our selfishness doesn’t mean we give everyone everything they want. Altruism must be coupled with wisdom. To give an alcoholic a drink isn’t compassion. To allow a child to grow up without discipline isn’t benefiting him or her.
Nor does subduing self-cherishing entail always giving in to others and never defending our own views. When there’s a difference ofopinion between ourselves and others, it’s wise first to free our minds from anger and attachment. Ifwe stubbornly cling to our own view simply because it’s ours, we’re limiting ourselves. If we close-mindedly refuse to try out another’s idea, we can’t learn. But, when we clear our minds of all disturbing attitudes, we can look at the situation with a spacious perspective and seek the best solution for the most people. We still may favor our previous proposal, but our minds will be calm. Or, we may change our opinion.
Some people assert, “Ifwe weren’t selfish, we wouldn’t have any ambition in life and would be passive and without goals.” Although selfish motives may now drive our attempts to get good results on our exams, win a high position in a company or invent new devices, it doesn’t mean that we must necessarily abandon those activities ifwe free ourselves from the bonds of the self-cherishing thought.
Of course, we’ll give up some activities when we stop seeking our own benefit. For example, we’ll refrain from abusing and criticizing others. But other actions can still be pursued with another, more compassionate motivation. We can strive to do well in school in order to gain knowledge that can be used to benefit others. We can invent things or do business with the attitude of using our skills to serve others. We can abandon competition done with a self-centered attitude and replace it with doing our best in order to benefit others.
Although other people in the business world may continue to work with a selfish motivation, that doesn’t prevent us from changing ours. One Hong Kong executive told me from her experience that when we conduct business ethically and have genuine concern for our clients, suppliers and so on, they trust us. By having a good relationship with them, they continue to do business with us and refer others to us as well. If we are selfishly concerned with getting the most money and best deal for ourselves, it won’t be profitable in the long run. Her conclusion was that good ethics and concern for others improve business!
Diminishing our selfishness doesn’t mean we stop having the will to live or no longer defend ourselves when in danger. Killing others isn’t the only possible way of responding to danger. We’re humans and can use our intelligence and creativity to solve problems without resorting to violence.
With compassion for the person who is harming us, we can stop him because we don’t want him to reap the ill effects of his action and because we would like to prolong our life in order to serve others more. Although we may never have thought in this way before, it’s not an impractical or impossible way to think. By training our inind in the kind heart, it will grow within us.
The necessity of a kind heart
A kind heart is the essential cause of happiness. Being kind to others is the nicest thing we can do for ourselves. When we respect others and are considerate of their needs, opinions and wishes, hostility evaporates. It takes two people to fight, and if we refuse to be one of them, there is no quarrel.
Our loving-kindness can manifest in small deeds. For example, with consideration for our common environment, we’ll recycle our newspaper, glass and cans. When someone is in a hurry, we’ll let her go ahead of us in line. We won’t complain when our tax money is used to educate and find jobs for the poor.
In the long run, the more we help others, the happier we’ll be. We live in a world in which we’re dependent on each other, so the more others are happy, the more pleasant our environment will be. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “If you want to be selfish, then be wisely selfish. The best way to do that is to help others.”
When people are agitated, it’s often best not to respond im-mediately, but to wait until they have calmed down before dis-cussing the problem. In that way, there’s no danger that we’ll react to their anger with our own. In addition, when people are upset they generally aren’t able to listen and discuss, while if we let them settle down and approach them later, it’s often more fruitful.
Of course, each situation is different. If someone wants to talk about a problem and we condescendingly say, “Oh, you’re irrational now. I’m not going to talk to you,” it doesn’t help! A kind heart isn’t condescending, it’s skillful and caring.
I asked the participants in a workshop to role-playa conflict situation from their lives. The first time, they played the scene with two angry, stubborn people, each viewing the situation from their own self-centered perspective. The second time, they played it with one person being argumentative and the other listening and understanding his position. We were astounded at how different the two versions of the same event were!
With a kind heart we’ll be harmonious with people of other religious beliefs, for there’s nothing to be gained by quarreling with people of other religions. At work or with our family, there will be the possibility of resolving differences of opinion. People in the fields of communication and conflict resolution recognize the value of a kind heart to bring agreement. Therapists and family counselors emphasize the need for a kind heart to ease a person’s internal and external conflict.
A kind heart is the root of harmony and mutual respect. It prevents us from feeling estranged or fearful of others. It also protects us from becoming angry, attached, closed-minded, proud or jealous. When opportunities arise to help others we won’t lack courage or compassion. If political leaders had impartial minds and kind hearts, how different our world would be!
As all problems arise from the self-cherishing attitude, it would be wise for each of us, as individuals, to exert ourselves to subdue it. World peace doesn’t come from winning a war, nor can it be legislated. Peace comes through each person eliminating his or her own selfishness and developing a kind heart. This will certainly not come about tomorrow; however, we can each do our part beginning today. The beneficial result in our own lives will immediately be evident.