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Esteemed Reader: On Selfishness 

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I've been teaching a meditation class to a group of 11-year-olds. Inasmuch as the children are energetic and rambunctious, they seem to have access to an equal quantity of stillness. They go from yelling and beating one another with meditation cushions to deep quiet in a matter of minutes. In this they show me the need to have a broad range of states, from dynamic to calm, and how it may be that access to deep meditation may be related to being able to access a well of exuberant energy.

After meditating, the children discuss what they have seen. They quickly identify qualities of their inner life, saying things like "it's so vast and peaceful, like a wide open space," and "even though my thoughts were loud, I could still follow my breath."

In one class, I suggested that when a person is born she is like a lump of dough, and our task in life is to knead ourselves, and then bake into a fresh loaf of bread. This is the role of meditation. Sitting and resisting the urge to move, watching thoughts and emotions without getting carried away by them, is like the heat that cooks us into a good loaf, and it can be done in life inasmuch as on the cushion. This inner work, I said, is the necessary task of nurturing and developing ourselves.

This last word got a rise out of one of the children.

"My parents tell me I'm selfish, and that I only think of myself," he said, "but I see there's a difference between paying attention to what I want and paying attention to what I am."

As a teacher its easy to imagine I am the one who's supposed to know things, but I am often surprised at the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of students, particularly children, who seem closer to essential wisdom.

The 11-year-old's insight has stayed with me. Like so many words in our language, selfishness has two completely opposite meanings. When we are focused on the contents of our minds and hearts, we are selfish in the ordinary sense. In this state we seek to impose wants and desires on others and on the world in general because we identify with them as ourselves. Conversely, when we place our focus on something beyond thoughts and feelings, like breath, not excluding wants and desires, but instead seeing these contents without getting caught by them, another kind of selfishness becomes possible.

In this latter state, we begin to see our impulses as separate objects in the same way as we see things and people outside ourselves. We identify "myself" not as what we think, feel, and want, but as consciousness—that in us which is fundamentally aware, and prior to all the functions of our inner life. It is in this state that our inner and outer life enjoy a level playing field, and it becomes possible to actually consider the needs of others, and the world in general. By becoming selfish in this truer sense, we actually become selfless.

From the New Age rhetoric about finding your bliss to the blistering conceit of corporatism, imperialism, and consequent violence played out in the geopolitical arena, we live in a time of shallow selfishness. Our collective identification with possessions— be they state of being, physical objects, abstractions like money, or adornments like diplomas, rewards, or positions—leads us along a path of destruction. Meanwhile the self we promote is a fiction, an idea of "me" that feels like a reality. It's dominance steers us to trade real value for abstraction, life for death.

The antidote is not a rejection of selfishness, but an expansion of consciousness to include a larger experience of self. The discernment is in seeing what is self—consciousness itself—and what is not self—everything else. With tastes of the freedom inherent in consciousness itself, comes the recognition that consciousness is not localized in "me"; that consciousness is non-local, pervading all beings and all things.

The ancient rishis of Indian Vedanta who created the Upanishads had some direct insight into the question of the self, and selfishness. This is from the Eesha Upanishad, translated to English by the Irish poet W B Yeats:

They that deny the Self, return after death to a godless birth, blind, enveloped in darkness.

The Self is one. Unmoving, it moves faster than the mind. The senses lag, but Self runs ahead. Unmoving, it outruns pursuit. Out of Self comes the breath that is the life of all things.

Unmoving, it moves; is far away, yet near; within all, outside all.

Of a certainty the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.

How can a wise man, knowing the unity of life, seeing all creatures in himself, be deluded or sorrowful?

The Self is everywhere, without a body, without a shape, whole, pure, wise, all knowing, far shining, self-depending, all transcending; in the eternal procession assigning to every period its proper duty.

Speaking of Meditation, Children

  • Jason Stern shares insights from teaching a children's meditation class.

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