Thinking About Altruism

The old guru stressed one pithy statement nearly every time he ended Dharma talks to our small group of practitioners because he taught it as a core principle of life. “Buddhas and bodhisattvas {those who aspire towards Buddhahood} are very wise. Throughout their lives they only want one thing in the world–ultimate happiness. They do this by cultivating compassion and altruism.”

By this repetition, the teacher knew that it is easy for us to slip into our default modes of thinking and behavior–selfishness and self-centeredness. Altruism is one of the best medicines to cure selfishness. Or is this how it really works?

Several years ago, during a televised interview of the Dalai Lama, something he said about altruism hit me like a ton of bricks. “Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the world might be the most selfish beings of all. That is, by cultivating altruism, they achieve ultimate happiness for themselves. By projecting and acting towards others in altruistic ways they achieve ultimate happiness for themselves. By wanting the best for others, they obtain the best for themselves.”

There is plenty to unpack from His Holiness’ statements. We understand that everybody is born selfish out of necessity. Hopefully we eventually grow up to learn that infantile selfishness must be left behind in order to get along with our family and peers. Most of us also learn that we must retain a small measure of selfishness so we do not become doormats to aggressive people. This is why we are frequently compelled to make choices between altruism and destructive selfishness. Do we take the money and run, or do we base our actions on ethics?

As it turns out, by wanting the best for others and thus obtaining the best for oneself, we can, in effect, give and take rewards at the same time. No guilt tripping or coercion are required when we help others in this manner. We can please others without being people pleasers.

This knowledge presents another question. For whose sake do we practice altruism? When we ponder this question deeply, we see that cultivating and practicing altruism is for everybody’s sake. Acting out of good character diminishes suffering. Doing good deeds for others without expecting anything in return is what makes us fully human. In the end others feel less suffering and we feel the joy of giving.

The practices of compassion and altruism are the roots of ethics and etiquette. So altruism is one of our fundamentally basic social impulses. Being altruistic brings us together and holds us together as a society in the most positive way.

At the end of the day, we can ask ourselves if we are cultivating compassion and altruism.

The Blue Jay of Happiness contemplates a statement from journalist, essayist David Rakoff. “Altruism is innate, but it’s not instinctual. Everybody’s wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Contemplation, Friendship, Politics, religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thinking About Altruism

  1. yogiamandeep says:

    Thank you for a beautiful post about altruism and compassion. Many blessings to you on your journey.

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