Some time ago, on this website, I came upon the interview with Bahram Elahi on altruism. One sentence in particular caught my attention: “Those who care about their process of perfection should include the practice of altruism in their spiritual program”.
Over the years that I had been “interested” in my perfection I had sensed that trying to help others was a practice that conformed to divine ethics. Only now, however, did I grasp the importance of this practice, expressed in the term “should”, and the notion of a “spiritual program”.
I decided to focus more deeply on the matter and at once was faced with two questions: why and how.
- Why is the practice of altruism so important for someone who strives to progress spiritually? What role does altruism play within the practice of ethics in general?
- How can we make altruism part of a program and put it into practice on a daily basis?
I had to consider the question at its origin, which brought me back to the practice of altruism: I had to practice altruism myself if I wanted to understand what it was really all about. So I proceeded—by trial and error I must admit.
After several months of practice I now wish to share my experience in the form of two articles. The first aims to help better understand what altruism is and how to put it into practice on a daily basis; the second examines the importance of practicing altruism as part of the approach of those who are concerned with their spiritual development.
Altruism: some elements of definition
At the beginning, practicing altruism seemed out of my reach. I thought of people such as doctors or volunteers who travel to far away places and dedicate their lives almost entirely to helping populations in need. Altruism for me was a form of heroism—I believed that to practice altruism was to give the shirt off your back, to make a considerable sacrifice. Yet if practicing altruism was at the heart of spirituality, it would have to be possible on a daily basis, for everyone, not only for “doctors without borders” or “mother Teresa”.
So I referred back to the definition given in the dictionary. There, I found that altruism was defined as a disposition to take interest in others or to dedicate oneself to them. Other sources mentioned a form of disinterested love for others, the desire for others to find happiness, and generosity without expectation of a return of favour.
These definitions helped me understand that my conception of altruism was narrow and close to caricature. From this initial reflection I drew three steps that I believed would lead to altruistic actions.
The first step: to be attentive to others, to listen to them
To be of service to someone, we must know what that person needs. It seems logical, but it is easier said than done, for it implies the ability to turn away from our own needs in order to perceive those of others.
When I started working on this point, I set up a program to observe myself on a daily basis. I noticed that I did very little for others and especially, that I only rarely thought about what people around me might actually need. This was my first issue.
Simply put, I noticed that I rarely wondered how others were feeling and how they really were doing. I am not referring to the customary morning greeting “How are you?” to which we quite certainly don’t expect a lengthy answer. No. The real goal was to inquire on the well-being of my family, colleagues and friends and grant them the time for real responses, even if this took time off my very tight schedule.
It took only a few weeks of observation to realize that there was very little space in my life for others, whether in my thoughts or in my free time.
I realized that the first thing to do in my approach to being useful to others, was to find a little more space for them in my life—to devote a little more time to them. This practice for me began with listening. I set up a series of very simple practical exercises such as taking the time to listen to people (without interrupting them) and taking real interest in what they were telling me (without, for example, trying to put in my own story that fit so well in the conversation).
What others are we talking about?
Ideally, we should be altruistic toward everyone, but my understanding is that this level of practice applies to those for whom altruism has already become a second nature. Let’s be realistic—at least as far as I am concerned—I am far from being a “mother Teresa” ready to dedicate myself to the entire human race.
I noticed, paradoxically, that it is easier to be of service to people who are not close relatives: giving to charities, helping the old lady next door carry her shopping up the flight of stairs, feeding the neighbour’s cat while she is away, helping friends move—all of this is after all quite easy. These are people who are part of our lives but to whom we want to make a good impression. We truly feel helpful, dedicated, and generally, these people show us recognition for our efforts and sacrifices. In short, these cases do not qualify for a real program of daily practice of altruism.
I have noticed that surprising as it may seem, those to whom it is a real challenge to be of service and dedicate ourselves in conformity with the virtue called “the love of others”, are those who are closest to us: our spouse, our children, our parents—those people with whom we live day in and day out. It is paradoxical because these are the people toward whom the emotional tie is the strongest, and so we should always want to make them happy… Except the truth is that it is much more difficult than it seems. It is more difficult—yes—but also more enriching in terms of the development of our willpower and of this quality of altruism: being attentive to the needs of our family and in particular forcing ourselves to do those little chores that may seem quite insignificant, that we know will be a relief for the other person, but that are for some strange reason so difficult to accomplish.
The second step: to want the best for others
To really want the best for others: there again, an attempt at sincere introspection is necessary to evaluate the type of thoughts we have toward others. Personally, I don’t know if it is an inherited trait of character, but I have noticed that I have a marked tendency to grumble within myself over things and to focus on negative traits in others rather than on positive ones, whether with my family—spouse, parents—or my colleagues.
It is in my opinion of the utmost importance, when setting out to practice altruism, to take the time to make this little personal assessment in order to become aware of our thoughts towards others and to subsequently begin to change them. To the extent that altruism is a mental disposition to love one’s fellow humans, to want what is best for them, it seems tantamount to develop positive thoughts toward them. It is indeed very hard to want the best for someone we cannot stand or toward whom we harbour negative thoughts.
My first efforts to improve on this point were then to try and see the good in people: to see their qualities and not focus so much on their faults. This simple exercise is—I believe—in itself already a form of altruism. Altruism is a kind intention before even being an action.
One could object and say that forcing oneself is not normal and that one cannot love everyone. Perhaps. But as I already mentioned, the practice of altruism applies first and foremost to our close family and relations (spouse, children, parents and friends, then colleagues, neighbours, etc.) and I have observed in myself that unfortunately I was not always very positive toward these people for whom I cared the most. This is why an inner adjustment is indispensable. The idea is to drive out those negative thoughts we cultivate on a daily basis, often without realizing it, and to replace them with kind thoughts.
One of the keys to progress on this point is to put oneself in others’ shoes and to want for them only what one would want for oneself. I have noticed that this practice of the golden rule does not apply to actions only, but to thoughts as well: would I want others to harbour negative thoughts about me? Of course not!
So I had to clean up my own backyard and try and work on my own thoughts and my own behaviours. To do this, I made use of two tools:
- First, whenever I felt offended or disturbed by someone’s behaviour and realized that I began to be overrun by negative thoughts toward this person, I resorted to autosuggestion with this sentence drawn from one of Ostad Elahi’s prayers: “it’s the deed that’s bad, not the doer”. This little inner prayer helped me distance myself from how I felt about others and even at times reverse the nature of my thoughts so that it became more positive and could even call to mind their qualities.
- Another point helped me in this practice: remembering that God loves everyone, just as He loves me, and that all human beings carry within them the divine imprint, which I tried to call to mind visually. I went so far as to try this technique in the subway, an environment that I generally consider quite hostile. When I looked at the other commuters as bearing this imprint, I had an almost physical sensation—the people literally looked differently in my eyes, they became likable and worthy of interest. You have to try it out for yourself to feel the effect.
The third step: to be selfless in your actions
By definition, an altruistic deed is done without expectation of anything in return. It is a gift and not an exchange. The altruist acts out of pure human duty, out of pure humanity, or for those who have faith, with the intention of seeking divine satisfaction. If we expect something in return, it is no longer truly altruism we are practicing.
To sum up, in order to truly be of service to someone, we must first focus on the other person’s needs and not on our own. We can then try and put ourselves in others’ shoes to find out what they really need, with the sole intention to do good. Thus we realise that altruism is first and foremost an inner disposition to want what is best for others; it is the process of developing love for our fellow human beings.
These weeks of experimentation and reflection have widened the scope of my practice. I have understood that those deeds that are great and remarkable by themselves, or merely manifest in some concrete way a devotion toward others, are truly altruistic on the condition that they are done without expecting anything in return. But the practice of altruism goes beyond such overt actions, for it is above all a state of mind, an inner disposition that consists in wanting what is best for others. It can be the mere intention to seek what is good for someone; it can also express itself in thousands of different ways: thinking or acting kindly toward others, helping someone materially, giving someone support, comforting someone, listening to others, but also defending their rights, etc.
To reach this goal and successfully undertake profound change, all we need now is to find a source of motivation.
- Altruism: finding sources of motivation
- Altruism: an interview with Bahram Elahi, M.D.
- The Good Samaritan
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