Selflessness as the mother of all virtues, how helping others is empowering you
Last year I kept thinking about the self and the ego and what those really are and how they matter in my work, my personal life and maybe also overall in the grand scheme of things.
It seems like a topic that was hot in 2019, and rightfully so. On the other hand, there seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion about what the ego actually is.
I approached this from different perspectives. Rationally, intuitively, spiritually. I’ve read a lot of articles and books that directly or indirectly covered it. It was also very very relevant to my work, as I started to teach and mentor people. Sometimes the ego is a complete blocker in the learning process, sometimes it’s a big driving force, either way, it plays an important role.
I intentionally avoided official definitions and over time I tried to define the ego for myself. I’ve looked inwards into my own behavioral patterns and I tried to rationalize it from a philosophical and evolutionary perspective.
I believe what we in these modern times famously call “The Ego” closely connects to a deeper biological principle of competition.
The (d)evolution of the Ego
There are two very significant patterns in the evolution of Life. It’s the patterns of competition and cooperation. Competition is older. It’s as old as life itself. Naturally, organisms tend to compete. Bacteria compete for sources of food, plants compete for light, animals compete for territory, predators compete for sources of prey, herbivores compete for food. There’s a competition between different species but also between individuals in the same species. Competition and the resulting natural selection is a driving force for evolution.
Besides competition, there’s also another principle that developed in life on Earth. It’s cooperation. It started with microorganisms that cooperated by forming colonies. A colony was more successful, more effective than a group of competing units. First colonies were simple and all the members pretty much had the same set of responsibilities. Later on, members started to specialize for even higher efficiency to the point where individuals couldn’t function on their own but only as part of a group. This is the beginning of multi-celled organisms. The cooperation is present on a cellular level.
Sometime later there started to appear cooperation on a higher level. Cooperation between whole organisms. As it goes, it started loosely. Plants cooperated to transform land and create more fertile conditions, predators formed larger groups to catch their prey together, herbivores gathered in herds for better protection. At first, these cooperations were very loose, either the cooperation was weak or it was temporary.
Later on, there was a new concept in cooperation. Some animals started to specialize in it to the point they were no longer able to function individually. Just like it happened on a cellular level, the cooperation led to specialization. Different members had different roles. A hierarchy between members appeared.
Mammals happened to be animals that developed the most cooperative behaviors. We often say they are social animals.
Mammals tend to form cooperative families and on a wider scale, they form cooperative herds and tribes. Especially cooperative behavior evolved in sea mammals, some rodents and also apes.
This leads us to humans. Humans yet again moved this principle to a higher level. Humans were able to move from small tribes to larger, incredibly more complex societies and cooperate on a much larger scale. In a tribe, cooperation is quite straightforward. A member of a tribe that brings prosperity to all the others is valued, gets to procreate, gets to decide. Behavior that leads to the prosperity of the whole tribe is easily identifiable and rewarding. Food was shared and everybody took care of everybody else. This works well in groups up to ~100 individuals but it doesn’t scale well past that.
Humans developed several tools to cooperate in larger groups. The law of reciprocity (I help you, you’ll help me in the future) scaled up via barter and then money. Related to the law of reciprocity is the law of hospitality (our house is your house). A crucial invention was religion. Religion inspired people to cooperate in larger groups via belief in the greater good (although often via subscribing to dogma).
The motivation to do greater good
As social animals, we have social reward systems hardwired in us. We are hardwired to enjoy helping each other and share with each other. We help others and do good deeds because it feels good. Relying completely on pure altruism, where good deeds would be done purely on principle, wouldn’t be emotionally sustainable (so far). Such altruism can too easily lead to depression or anxiety.
There’s a drive for selflessness and cooperation wired within us.
Ego, on the other hand, is the collection of old systems in your mind taking over and forcing you to behave selfishly. The old systems that think that in order to thrive, others have to suffer, that in order for you to rise up, others have to fall down.
Ego gets stronger when you progress in life (it’s addictive, you want to keep rising higher) and also when you get weaker (you’re afraid and you want to stop this no matter what even if it means drowning others).
You can see ego as something esoteric, as an ancient mean voice in your head or you can just see it as a collection of old neurological pathways. What is important is, that it is always waiting to take control of you.
Therefore it’s important to develop awareness against this. Whenever you feel like you’re moving forwards (higher) in life — you get a new job, you start a new relationship, buy a house, win an election, have a one night stand and such, the ego tends to be activated. At that moment you’re tempted to rise higher even for the expense of others. In other words, there’s a risk of becoming an arrogant jerk.
I don’t think the answer is avoiding success. What helps is being aware of this pattern. Just keep it in mind. Remind yourself of who you are and intentionally humble yourself. Seek nature, look at the stars and ground yourself. The hunger will be satiated, you’ll calm down and realize that true happiness is actually not in that endless rush for achievement. Be grateful for your successes in a selfless way. Think of how lucky you are and how great your life happened to develop, but don’t think how awesome you are.
In a similar way be aware of ego when your life gets worse. This is harder. When things get worse, ego again tends to get activated. And it also happens in a moment of weakness when your self-awareness is reduced. Fear might overwhelm you and you tend to become that animal trapped in a corner ready to scratch and bite. Just like the ego tends to tell you how awesome you are, at this moment the ego will protect you. You’re tempted to shift blame. See others around yourself as your enemy and pick fights with them, be it your boss, your partner or your parents. Being egotistical yourself you see the ego in them. You can become paranoid, thinking everything is turning against you.
In both of these cases, it’s again the principle of competition vs. cooperation. When you rise up, you tend to subscribe to competition, you want all success for yourself and leave others behind. When you fall down, your fear makes you think others around you are competing with you and will use your moment of weakness to get rid of you, instead of supporting you.
The contagious selfishness
These principles are always balancing each other. Both cooperation and competition are contagious. When a problem appears and fear is spreading around, selfish behavior is on the rise. One person sees another behave selfishly and starts to behave selfishly as well, dismissing their virtues. This creates a vicious cycle where people start to increasingly compete with each other.
But just like competitive behavior can spread, so too can cooperation. Seeing someone selfless, virtuous you too are inspired to improve.
It takes an individual to inspire a group to follow higher values and unite, which results in great strength and prosperity.
This happens on various levels — family, neighborhood, nation, whole humanity.
We see this pattern in history over and over again. It was Buddha, Jesus, MLK, Gandhi, Václav Havel and many others who managed to inspire people towards selflessness on a large scale. Some individuals can rise to selflessness even when everyone around acts selfishly. I believe It’s through the powers of spirituality and transcendence, listening to the inner voice instead of the external influences. Maybe this is a controlling mechanism that can save us in the time of the highest despair.
Make it about them
I’ve had to fight several personal blocks this year. I started teaching programming. It required a lot of public speaking and I had to face situations when things went south. I’ve faced some anxiety and nervousness and I had my uncertainties — What if I’m just not meant for this? What if I’m that introvert that’s not good for standing in front of people for half a day? What if I don’t have the right energy? Am I good enough?
These thoughts lead to anxiety and lower appeared self-confidence. I was thinking about my self. Later on, I shifted my mindset. Instead of my self, I made the actual goal — the work or the others the center of my focus. I created a vision of what needs to be achieved and I thought what needs to be done, I thought what the others really need, what would most help them and I tried to eradicate the idea of the self from my thinking. Anxiety was greatly reduced, I got more comfortable in front of people and I could reach the state of flow where my focus was crystal clear.
Besides teaching, I’ve also done a bit of theater this year. I signed up for a class of Portuguese theater and it was challenging because my Portuguese was by far the worst and that put me into the spotlight and it created a lot of embarrassing situations. After some time I managed to shift my mindset not to take these embarrassments personally and actually enjoy them. I managed to see that people often laughed because of me, but not necessarily at me.
After Portuguese theater, I moved on to improv theater which was interesting because it pretty much entirely was about reaching the state of flow. I am a natural overthinker so it’s been definitely challenging but again, when performing, what helped me the most was focus on others, avoid focusing on me, focus on the activity itself and thus reaching the state of flow. During a show, all I focused on was the audience and other actors and the goal of creating something interesting and entertaining. I intentionally stopped myself whenever I got stuck in my own head. This allowed me to relax and go all in and enjoy being in front of people.
I’ve kind of started to apply this principle elsewhere too. When I’d meet with friends I’d try to make it about them. Even If I was talking about myself, I’d often do it for the entertainment/benefit of others.
If I catch myself thinking too much about myself I make myself stop and direct my attention elsewhere. It is a long process, but over time, you can train yourself to shift your attention from your self to others and your environment and you’ll naturally become a better and happier person. So many blocks are tied to the self — insecurities and other irrational emotional reactions. There’s no self-doubt if there’s no self. You’re able to withdraw a lot of power if you’re doing the right thing.
Selflessness and self-care
It is true that with this approach to life there’s a danger of becoming the people pleaser, someone who puts the needs of others above their own and slowly starts to suffer and sink into a place where they cannot help themselves nor others. It is a real concern. But I believe that if the help and generosity come from a place of selflessness, this is not going to happen. If you help from a place of selflessness, your mind is clear and you know when to stop and you can see clearly where to invest your energy. If you’re helping others out of some compulsion or irk or habit, perhaps because you desperately seek validation, then take a step back and slow down. Helping others should be a fully conscious decision and it shouldn’t be too dependent on the subsequent gratification.
It is very difficult to talk about selflessness these times as everyone is very into self-care, self-love, and self-acceptance. But I think these concepts do not necessarily contradict selflessness. Yes, it’s a paradox. Indeed as it’s proclaimed, in order to love others, you have to love yourself, in order to spread happiness you have to be happy with yourself. So if your motivation to be happy is to spread the happiness forward, that is a selfless approach to self-care. I like the idea of “being your own best friend” because this shifts your mindset. It disables the egotistical patterns of thinking what you deserve and how you’ve been wronged, the self-pity, rumination and so on. You take care of your self just like you’d do it with someone else who’s really close to you. But you don’t spoil yourself and you move your focus elsewhere when the time is right.
Selflessness is a path that bears fruits over the long term. It is a path of empowering your family, your community or the whole society.
The ultimate virtue
Ego is jealousy, despise, insecurity, selfishness, deception and holding grudges. Ego is an old, silly ancient way of thinking that makes you compulsive, irrational and immoral. An egotistical person tends to have rapid mood swings of intense pleasure and suffering.
Selflessness is well-wishing, compassion, acceptance, patience, solidarity, honesty, forgiveness. A person with a limited ego has a stable mood, thinks clearly and experiences that special serene happiness and contentment.
The underlying pattern in most religions
The humans got more and more successful as they managed to cooperate in larger and larger groups. But our social reward systems are still not up to date for the scale of our cooperation. Helping a close one and making them smile makes you happy but donating to charity won’t if the gratitude is not directed back towards you.
Helping each other on a larger scale is complicated. One way the humans achieved to tackle this problem was to develop more specific belief systems. When I read Tao Te Ching, the foundational piece of Taoism, all I can think about is how it promotes greater cooperation via selflessness and limiting the Ego:
Let the Tao be present in your life
and you will become genuine.
Let it be present in your family
and your family will flourish.
Let it be present in your country
and your country will be an example
to all countries in the world.
Let it be present in the universe
and the universe will sing.
It also mentions how limiting your Ego will make you think clearly:
Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?
You have probably noticed how clouded your judgment can become when something is personal to you. You don’t think clearly when something connects to your past trauma, regrets or when something triggers your insecurities. All these things happen when your attention is directed towards your self. It’s when the Ego can take over.
Tao Te Ching is even more clear in later chapters:
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
We can see similar messages in other philosophies as well, be it the Love thy Neighbor of Christianity, the whole humanist movement, the astrology or memes being sent over the internet such as Be the change you wish to see in the world or that we are all One. In Buddhism, the spiritual practice towards enlightenment is a life long path of meditation, where the focus is shifted towards the present moment, away from the self, slowly weakening the Ego.
But I believe that, if you understand the concepts of cooperation and competition and how the Ego impacts our psyches, it’s possible to embrace selflessness without any dogma. Maybe it seems strange or not romantic enough without any story around it, but to me, the idea of selflessness in its purest form is very beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to argue against the possibility of any higher power, just to say this is possible even without it. Maybe as life kept evolving, it spontaneously figured out that cooperation is powerful and cooperation got more and more complex through the concept of selflessness and love. As we evolve towards greater unity and cooperation, we’ll naturally become more and more loving and conscious beings. And this happens on its own, without anyone’s design, that’s just how the Universe is. Isn’t that beautiful?