Spiritual Selfishness

Couple of questions raised by newfie931 to the previous post:

As we go through this process, do we forsake the possibility of being in a loving romantic relationship?

Another question is, to what extent is this radical turning inward, this focus on personal transformation, sustainable without ever having to fight others?

These are very important questions, which I struggle with every day.

My response comes down to the concept of spiritual selfishness.

The questions get their grip by a contrast we often draw between spirituality and everyday life. This contrast then gets drawn as spirituality as selflessness and everyday life as selfishness. As if spirituality means giving up our interests, while ordinary life means holding onto our interests. And so it becomes an issue – an often pressing, confusing issue – how spirituality can be compatible with our interests such romantic love or fighting someone who is mugging us.

The way out of this tension is to see that spirituality is about letting go of our ego interests for the sake of our deepest, most personal interests. The tension only gets going when we identify the ego – understood as the self in competition with other selves – as the deepest source of our interests/needs/desires. On this identification with the ego, I want always get understood as a relational, comparative thing: as in, I want what he has, or I want what I deserve and others are keeping from me, or I want what will make me respectable in others’ eyes. 

Call such comparative wanting ego selfishness. In contrast, spiritual selfishness is embracing one’s interests/needs/desires without making it comparative. In ego selfishness, the push for the wanting comes from a sense of where one feels one ought to be in a group hierarchy. In spiritual selfishness, the push for the wanting entirely from within oneself, altogether independent of a sense of where one ought to be in relation to others.

The irony is we normally think that ego selfishness consists of the (a) brute, (b) a-social and (b) deepest selfishness within us. As if the ego selfishness within is like a solitary animal roaming the savana. But all three assumptions are false.

Ego selfishness isn’t a brute part of us at all. It is a highly socially cultivated part of us. For example, I am walking on a spring day, and I see a beautiful girl. Hot, as we say. She looks like she walked out of a billboard. And I am drawn to her, to pay attention to her. How do we characterize this attention? We might say, “It’s the sex impulse. Biological.” But, simple phenomenology, some self-awareness to what I am feeling and thinking in the moment and to my own situation, shows this is incorrect.

If she was my girlfriend or wife, I feel drawn to her in one way. If I am single, I am drawn to her in another way. If I am in an unhappy marriage, I am drawn in another way. If I am in a happy marriage, yet a different way, or even maybe not much at all.

If I am single, and unhappy about it and resent it, I am drawn to her thinking about how she might be someone else’s girlfriend. How that guy gets to kiss her and hold her and talk to her. And why does he get to do that, while I don’t? Life is so unfair! How full his life must be to be with someone like her. And how full her life must be, to be like a model, and she seems rich. She lives in a world I don’t. Damn it all! I want that!

In the “I want that”, what is the that? It is not just sex, and not even mainly sex. The that is a whole social world and sphere, which one feels cut out of. Or not appropriately successful in. The sexual impulse itself becomes a marker for that insecurity, but the desire – the ego desire – is deeply socially mediated. The ego desire is, first and foremost, for recognition of the ego as a thriving self within a set social domain. That is what the ego wants.

Obviously, then, ego selfishness is also not a-social. It is extremely social. It is a mode of being social. A mode of wanting a certain place and recognition and status in society, be it one’s family or community or at work or the world at large. The ego impulse isn’t a bit of brute, individualistic force which comes just from within. It is fundamentally a force to be seen in certain ways in social groups one cares about.

The power of ego selfishness is that it seems like the deepest, personal desire we have. To the single person resentfully, or forlornly, looking at the happy couple, it feels like wanting to be like that – like them – is the deepest desire within him. I know this feeling, as I suspect everyone does in some way or other.

When I was in grad school, at a certain point my girlfriend (later my wife) broke up with me, and my thesis was going nowhere, and I wanted to drop out of grad school. Feeling alone without a relationship and without a career I was happy with, and feeling lost to both India and America, as if I was a nomad without a community, lost in the margins, I sat on a park bench, and watched happy, academic couples walk by, holding hands talking about balancing their work and their relationship, and where they would go to dinner with friends and the bars and concerts and vacations – and sitting on that park bench, I felt my deepest desires were being thwarted. Because it felt like my deepest desire was to be like them, to have what they have. And the pain of not having it – and why not, what was wrong with me, what is so misshapen and broken and ugly about me – made me despair, and I wanted to kill myself. Then I felt my deepest desire was what my ego wanted, and felt it needed. That the starvation of my ego – and my ego was starved, hungry, malnourished by not having what I felt I deserved – was the same as my starvation.

In my experience, this is how people normally walk around. Not as explicitly all the time as I felt on that park bench, but with that despair lurking in the background. As happened with me. Later, I got back together with my girlfriend, finished my thesis, got married, got an academic job. And yet the despair was lurking. Because the marriage and career I had seemed so … much less, so much more broken, so much more mediocre, than what They, the thriving, happy people, hadSo much less than what I wanted and needed, and – yes, most of all – deserved. This ego impulse of frustration came through in the fights I would have with my wife and my colleagues, the isolation and depression and self-stigmatizing I was prone to.

And mostly I felt stuck. After all, if the ego desires are the deepest impulses within me, and those desires seem thwarted, then what can one do but despair?

The reality – which only dawned on me slowly, later on – is that the problem with the ego selfishness isn’t the selfishness part, but the ego part. Because by caring so much about how I looked in the world of others, and whether I had what others had or not, and why they got to have a happy academic careers, whereas I was torn between worlds in a way which made me dis-identify with my academic situation – what all that meant was that, really, I wasn’t living my own life. 

The problem wasn’t that I was too selfish. It was that I wasn’t selfish enough. And not selfish in the right way. In a way that actually worked for me, and for my deepest needs/desires/goals.

I started to be happier when I realized that being truly, deeply, really happily selfish is a skill. That ego selfishness is actually a lower grade of selfishness. Ego selfishness is selfishness constantly seen through the gaze of the Other – a selfishness which gives all the power away to those who the ego wants to be recognized by, and then fights and screams and vents and complains that others have all the power, and constantly schemes and plans about how to take that power back in fits and starts, here and there, through this argument and that power struggle.

To see ego selfishness as a lower form of selfishness is to awaken to the spirit within oneself. To trust that spirit is to let It – whether in the form of God, or a Buddhist self-awareness – guide your desires/needs/goals. Knowing that being free of the constant comparison with others which is the foundation of ego selfishness, deeper parts of you and what you want and what you were always perhaps afraid to acknowledge and let grow within you can now grow freely and without obstacles. 

The deepest desire of the self – the core of selfishness – isn’t for things. Cars. mansions. Nor even for recognition. Fame. prestige. Or even knowledge. Cure for cancer. Solution to the trolley problem in ethics. Or even doing good. Helping the homeless. Being kind to a neighbor.

The deepest desire is, as for any living creature, for growth. And in humans, unlike most other animals, there is growth beyond physical growth. One can be fully physically mature, at 30, and still crave growth. One can even be on a physical decline, at 90, and still crave growth. There is a kind of growth which humans care for, which is for growth without limit. For limitless growth. Or, as we might say, growth into the infinite within us.

This growth is impossible as long as one identifies with the ego, and assumes that selfishness of the ego defines the parameters of growth and desire within oneself. We are meant to grow beyond the ego to fulfill our deepest desires.

Ego selfishness is wanting ice cream for every meal, as the only meal, because it tastes so good and isn’t that what life is all about? Spiritual selfishness is like wanting a nourishing, complete meal so that beyond the immediate satisfaction of taste, there is a deeper satisfaction to the body and soul.

Ego selfishness is listening to teen pop music, and thinking how free and self-realized this sixteen year old is fighting against adults to wear what he wants. Spiritual selfishness is like listening to Beethoven’s 9th, as one appreciates the expansion of the self into the infinite.

Ice cream isn’t bad. Life without it would be duller, especially on hot summer days. And teen pop isn’t bad. It gives hope and joy to millions. But that is not the same as flourishing into the deeper potential within us as humans.

Ego selfishness isn’t all bad. But it is confused, because it is prone to think of itself as the essence of selfishness, and thereby, the essence of life. Move beyond it to embrace spiritual selfishness, and it will incorporate all that is good in ego selfishness and help discard all that is bad and painful.

How this looks can differ from context to context, person to person. Sometimes you might fight the mugger, sometimes you might give him the money peacefully. Sometimes you might fight for romantic love, sometimes you might be ok without it. Spiritual selfishness isn’t about which way things turn out, in this or that instance. It is about how you are. Your being. Your mode of existence. Your growth. It makes the growth into the infinite – rather than the recognition of others – the focal point around which all else turns. That makes all the difference.

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