Selfishness and selflessness

To love, we need to liberate ourselves from our own empty self-image. [Painting: Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse]

Selfishness is the tendency to bring everything down to the preservation of an invented thing called an individual self.  Selflessness is the ability to see that the discrete individual does not exist.


When we feel anxious or depressed, we naturally put in place defensive mechanisms.  For example, when anxious, we may rely on repetitive rituals to give us a sense of continuity in the face of uncertainty.  These defensive mechanisms can be very good temporary plasters on the broken skin of our emotions.  But we can become so fearful of disruption that we develop, around the rituals, a philosophy that doesn’t belong to them.  We start to believe that we are defending a ‘self’, when really we started out to create peace.

This selfish philosophy, which ends up alienating others, can be seen in parts of the world where cultures hurt anyone who does not conduct their rituals in their way.  Of course, they do not see it as hurting others; in their own minds they are defending themselves.  But the result is the same.

In this way, individuals, groups and cultures become engrossed in a quest to deter any threats to the ‘self’.  Behaviours include:

  • Anger (the attempt to avoid the vulnerability of one’s own peace by interrupting other people’s peace)
  • Victimhood (the attempt to portray the self as powerless, in order to harness others’ attention and energy)
  • Breakdowns (the attempt to achieve non-function, to avoid the threat of discovery of the myth of self)

The last one needs some explaining.  I am not saying that an emotional breakdown is not a real thing, with real physical causes, that deserves real sympathy and medical attention.  But I am saying that our breakdowns are made worse by the accompanying destruction of self-image, and the terror that this can evoke.

When we are selfish, we can find ourselves one minute angry, another minute pleading powerlessness, and another minute breaking down entirely – with all these behaviours often happening within a single day.

Because these behaviours are so embarrassing to admit to ourselves, we are much better at seeing them in other people.  So if I ask you to notice these behaviours in others, you will see them everywhere; but if I ask you to notice them in yourself, you will feel insulted by me.


Eventually, we get tired of the endless cycle of defending something that doesn’t really exist.  As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle once said, “I cannot live with myself any longer.”  (You can hear him talk about it here.)

What happens when we drop the burden of intensely defending the ‘self’?  Isn’t it risky to do that?  Won’t we starve to death from lack of food, or get overcome and defeated by enemies?

Interestingly, no.  What happens when we drop the burden of defending the mythical self, is that we make space for just being.  The invented identity, which we mistakenly created as a mental by-product of our sense of threat, simply disappears into emptiness.  We become aware that we live in a world where countless people are constantly labelling themselves and others, but we do not have to believe the labels any longer.  We can rest at last.

Selflessness arises out of that adventure of release.  That is why some people call it liberation.  The need to be greedily attached to some things, painfully allergic to others, and confused by the rest, disappears.  We can simply sit, for the first time, without needing to resort to anger, victimhood or breakdown.

Many things can come out of selflessness.  You can see that it would be easier to help others, once we are released from our self-protectiveness.  And so it is: many charitable acts are born from selflessness.

Many people think that selfless people get left behind in the struggle for resources.  Well, yes, that can happen materially, if all you want is material things, and if everyone around you is embarked upon a non-cooperative, survivalist quest to ‘win’ resources.

But, equally, selfish people get left behind in the quest for peace.  When you are tired of the struggle for material things, you may wish to let go of the mythical ‘self’ for whom you are gathering it all.  We are as rich as the things we don’t need.  In other words, if we don’t need anything, then we are infinitely rich.