Becoming less self-focused

Reaching out to others, and becoming less selfish, can lead to happiness. Photo by Todd Rhines on Unsplash

There are a number of concepts in Buddhism (and many other religions) reflecting the need to stop being so self-focused.  One of them is the idea of  equalising (or exchanging) self and others’.  The theory is that we (and others) suffer when we are biased towards prioritising ourselves.  This is really another way of saying that selfishness causes enormous problems.

It’s very difficult to equalise self and others, because, from when we were young, we have been inclined to see ourselves as the centre of the universe.  In evolutionary terms, this is understandable, as individuals can often last longer in the wild if they prioritise themselves.

But the disadvantages of prioritising ourselves are numerous.  We tend to get angry when we don’t get our way.  This anger often shows itself in multiple aggressions, such as picking on others disproportionately and tactlessly.  Others then respond in self-defence, and before we know it a difficult argument has started, and everyone feels more isolated and depressed.

How can we train ourselves to regard other people as just as important as us?  If we can achieve this, then we will be inclined to set aside our own angry behaviour in favour of being kinder and more understanding.  This, in turn, can lead to others being less angry in return, and kinder back to us.  This creates peace.

There are several meditations that can help the mind to be less selfish.  See, for instance, the discussion by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron in this link

Here are nine ways of thinking which are worth trying.


To lose our selfishness, we can become better at empathising with others’ viewpoints, and better at realising, in our heart, that other people feel in just the same way as we do.  This makes us more patient and tolerant of others.  It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they say and do, but it does mean that we see them as like us, trying to be happy and avoid suffering.


Linked to the above, we can become better at realising that everyone wants to be happy, but just in slightly different ways and contexts.  Just because some people are rich and some poor, or some people are loud and some quiet, some black and some white, some left-wing and some right-wing, it doesn’t mean we have to show prejudice towards the suffering of one or the other.  We can train ourselves to accept everyone equally, whatever their appearance, tastes or behaviour.


In my therapeutic practice, it would be no good if I considered some types of suffering and illness more valid than others.  It’s better if I consider everyone as an individual, with their own issues and context.  Of course I may have specialisms, but I acknowledge that everyone wants to be free of whatever they are suffering from.


In our quest to be less selfish, it’s helpful if we train ourselves to see others as having helped us (regardless of whether or not they intended to).  If I drink a cup of coffee, I can remember the long chain of provision that has made this possible.  I can think of the soil, the fields, the farmers, the growers, the pickers, the transporters… thousands of people have been involved in bringing me the tiniest of things.  This makes me grateful, which makes me more inclined to reach outwards and see others as equally valuable.


Related to the above, we normally find it hard to remember how all others have helped us, but easy to remember how others have harmed us.  Blaming and resentment come naturally, because we are so prickly and self-defensive.  Resentment makes us tactless and unfair, and creates angry situations.


On our deathbed, is there any point in being selfish?  It is surely better to be at peace, and love the universe equally.  Starting an argument at the point of death would be quite silly.  Being aware that we all die in the end, can give us a strong sense of the futility of argument, and soften our behavioural prejudice against others.


Ultimately, nothing we see exists in the way we think it does.  Understanding this gives us a wisdom that makes it very difficult to be angry and selfish.  We can let go of people and possessions without clinging.  Understanding emptiness is one of the most powerful meditations for clearing suffering.  (You can read more about the concept here.)


When angry, we tend to think and say ‘You always…’, ‘You never…’.  We pretend things are set in stone.  But we know perfectly well that things change and develop.  If we remind ourselves of this, it helps us to understand that the appearance of relative importance changes all the time.  We can relax a bit, and be optimistic enough to believe that tomorrow things may look different.


Finally, in our meditations, we can understand that our mistake is to regard ourselves as ‘here’, and others as ‘there’.  We do this all the time.  It is the basis of national prejudice as well as personal selfishness.  But it’s a trick of the light.  It just happens that we are born seeing out of our own eyes.  This gives us the illusion that we are separate from others.

But if we examine this ‘separate self’ carefully, we will see that it’s not at all clear where we end and everything else begins.  For instance, is my breath part of me or not?  What about the gravity that keeps me upright?  The sun?  Without all of these things, I wouldn’t be here.  The separate self doesn’t really exist.  Our selfish, separated perspective is a delusion.


No one likes to think of themselves as selfish, and therefore we often resist encouragement to meditate in this way.  ‘Me?  Selfish?  How dare you?’ we think, and try to think up ways in which we are the hard-done-by ones, and other people might be deserving of criticism.   It feels easier. 
But, actually, we can only start with ourselves.  Trying to correct others all the time is crazy.  It starts arguments.  Better to focus on our own behaviour, and improve our own meditation practice.

As this poem says:

Today, I will learn you:
how you want to be happy;
how you are suffering;
how you have given so much;
how you are not to blame.

Today, I will forget me:
because I will die soon;
because life is emptiness;
because everything changes;
because there is no me or you.