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A practical approach to altruism

By - Sep 27, 2011 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

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.


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24 comments

  1. mahin afshin Sep 27, 2011 12:33 pm 1

    Thanks your article is very encouraging towards humanity and practical progress.
    Beside it’s making our heart very warm and happy after each time we help some one. I always enjoy this reward as a simple self satisfaction too.

  2. Toronto Sep 27, 2011 3:58 pm 2

    I enjoyed reading this article very much and it opened my eyes even more toward this subject and set out new motivation and guideline for me to use the experience of this author to try and practice altruism in more depth. It helped me realize that over the past year what I have done wrong in expecting in return after practicing altruism and that also altriusm is the pure intention of wanting good for others and having positive thoughts towards them.

  3. Jimmy Sep 27, 2011 5:09 pm 3

    Altogether a very useful article, as I also incorrectly identified altruism with “saving the world” “feeding the poor” or “inventing a cure for cancer.” It was a good reminder that altruism often applies to those closest to us; those we tend to neglect the most since we are recipients of their unconditional love (e.g., parents, spouse, siblings, etc.) and/or do not feel self-gratified after helping. A few practical examples of altruism in practice (i.e., success as well as failed attempts) would be very helpful.

  4. PS Sep 27, 2011 6:39 pm 4

    Great practical article. I had the same experience when practicing altruism towards my own family and parents. It is really harder. For the past few weeks I started working on removing negative thoughts. I suddenly found out how much useless thoughts are circulating in my mind about others everyday. Seeing the divine imprint in others helped me a lot.

    Thanks

  5. Y.E Sep 27, 2011 9:54 pm 5

    The practical points that really stood out for me were what to do when disturbed by negative thoughts about others: 1- “it’s the deed that’s bad, not the doer” and 2- Remembering that God loves everyone, just as He loves me, and that all human beings carry within them the divine imprint, all of which requires self-suggestion.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Very helpful!

  6. lMarys Sep 27, 2011 10:12 pm 6

    Beautifully put. You have inspired me to practice this on my own. Ostad Elahi’s quote that was mentioned in the article is giving me a new perspective. We all bear the divine imprint and everywhere we look, we can see the imprint of God. Knowing that we are surrounded by God’s presence does give me a great sensation of happiness. I can’t wait to put this in practice and take lessons from it.

  7. wire Sep 28, 2011 2:18 pm 7

    I have always been confused as to why I treat my close family differently than those who I work with or interact with in a less intimate way? I think this is very important to nail down because I believe it comes from a source of pride. Perhaps because we are “comfortable” with our family/spouse, we think that we do not need to try to go the extra mile in altruism? I am not sure…what does the forum think??

  8. Nella Sep 28, 2011 10:28 pm 8

    I always thought that altruism was about helping strangers not the people that are closest to us. It is only now that I can see why it is easy to help others that we don’t know. In a way it boosts our ego because we don’t consider it a duty and its always very rewarding. On the other hand helping family members is more challenging since in most cases there is no recognition. This was really an eye opener for me.

  9. sp Sep 30, 2011 12:48 pm 9

    Altruism is a fascinating area and your article is most helpful. Perhaps there could be a follow up with actual examples of what you identified in a given situation and how you changed it in accordance with the principle of altruism. I also wonder if there is any understanding of how one classifies altruism that is clearly instinctive – eg mothers sacrifice for child which is also evident in animal kingdom. Therefore it seems that while humans also have instinctive altruism they also have the potential for a transcendent altruism that is above and beyond animal kingdom and natural instincts. There is a whole academic and scholarly discussion out there on altruism and some researchers have limited this quality only to a sort of evolutionary trait but of course while this may partly explain physiologically instinctive aspects of altruism to my mind it cannot account for the transcendent aspect. I don’t know if you have any views about these points.

  10. nell Sep 30, 2011 6:07 pm 10

    “It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”
    ― Mother Teresa
    I deeply thank God for this article. It seems I certainly needed this reminder and beautifully put experience in this stage of my life, which I have to take care of an elderly lady close to me in my house. If I remind myself the importance of practicing altruism, it will help me to take my situation as an opportunity not an obligation. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  11. charlie Oct 01, 2011 1:37 pm 11

    Thank you for this article. It made me analyse the reasons behind my actions a bit more objectively to find that I find it a real struggle to practise altruism when it is my duty to do so (ie: towards my parents, spouse etc). It has come at a time when I am facing situations where I have a choice between giving up my free time to ensure relatives and close family are cared for or to brush it under the carpet and let others deal with it. Also, reading SP’s comments reminded me that the fact that altruism does not come naturally and that I have to make an effort does not mean I cannot overcome the resistence. It has helped me to look at the struggle in a new light.

  12. red Oct 01, 2011 5:24 pm 12

    It is easy for me to thank someone not close to me who has done something for me – even if the task was so minute. On the other hand, it was difficult to thank my own spouse because I was afraid that if I thanked him, he would think he is doing me a favor and would stop helping me with certain tasks. Since reading this article, I’ve started to tell him how much I appreciate his help and, in turn, he appreciates my appreciation and helps me even more. This simple act of gratitude has brought us much closer to each other and has made us help each other and respect each other more.
    Thank you for opening our eyes to these little acts of altruism and bringing us closer to our loved ones.

  13. wire Oct 02, 2011 2:00 pm 13

    I personally think that when I am truly doing an altruistic act, I have a lot of resistance to do that act simply because I am not gaining anything out of it! It is those situations that, after reading this article, have made me realize the many opportunities that are there for me to be altruistic. My imperious self tries to talk me out of doing that act…

    The evolutionary concept of altruism, as I have understood it, still helps the genetic material survive or to help the entire population or colony to survive, and so that is the “intention”(i.e. instinct) of those animals to help others…

  14. Olga Oct 02, 2011 2:52 pm 14

    Thank you so much for this article. You have described your point of view very vividly and it has been very inspiring. I see that I have had the same kinds of questions as you did, but I kept them remaining as questions, while you explored to find out answers in testing the meaning, in this case the word altruism. I often try to help out friends by forcing them my brutal advice. I believe my intention is both causal and metacausal. Metacausal in the sense that I think that I do want the person I’m helping out to feel better but causal in that sense that I don’t want to put more time than I think is necessary for me to help out. So I give a short and brutally honest advice, instead of being patient and truly caring in the way that that person would like to be treated. Perhaps we focus too much on the result rather than the process when trying to be altruistic. Believing that the point is to solve someone else’s problem, instead of trying to be a piece of that person’s process. Generally I think it is a human trait to focus on the result while the path of perfection wants one to focus on one’s process. That, I believe will help me to better distinguish between the ego being indulged and the certifying conscience letting me know that I have done something good when trying to be altruistic.

  15. happi Oct 05, 2011 6:39 am 15

    Reading this article I recognized that one way to practice of altruism is to stop interrupting people. Talk less than the other person. Let the other person do a minimum of two thirds of the talking. Next, is comforting people. What comes to my mind is by avoiding anything that could possibly give the impression that I am putting myself above others.

  16. cb Nov 02, 2011 12:19 am 16

    Very eye opening. Thank you

  17. emmie Nov 04, 2011 12:27 pm 17

    Thank you for sharing your experiences on Altruism.
    Your insight on how it is so much easier in being altruistic or displaying random acts of kindness to strangers is a point that I too am experiencing as well. I have also set the task to work on being more altruistic (particularly towards my work colleagues) by focusing on the negative thoughts that I pop up during the day and auto-suggest a positive counter-thought instead. Though I think your suggestion of viewing each individual as carrying the divine imprint within them is an insightful approach. After reading that point, I thought of my colleagues as naturally containing this divine spark and thought that being anything but altruistic towards them would be unfathomable. It really struck a chord with me and I will try to implement this thought process into my routine.
    Thank you again for the recommendations.

  18. Juneone Nov 24, 2011 10:06 pm 18

    It is Thanksgiving, and I am so very thankful for this reminder. I have an apportunity to be kind to others today, and most of my thoughts have been on my personal comfort. I know that this is wrong, and am working against it. This article and my iPhone are my secret weapon aginst my imperious self today!

  19. DC Dec 08, 2011 7:07 pm 19

    Very helpful. I have had difficulties with having patience with my loved ones and this article gave me more motivation. We need to put our own needs/desires aside sometimes in order for someone else to get the benefit. In the long run we will also get the benefit…

  20. m.m Aug 10, 2012 11:25 pm 20

    Tonight,I was overwhelmed by negative thoughts about one of my close friend. I did not what to do or what to think . She had clearly implied that she did not want me to be around her. I could not fight with negative thought . I got up from bed and turned on my laptop . There it was. This article answered all the questions I had . Now I feel calm and peaceful..

  21. AS Aug 11, 2012 9:00 am 21

    Thank you for your experience. How do you practice altruism and distinguish between doing good and being taken advantage of? I think everyone can agree that helping others does have a reaction of releasing something in our brain that gives your soul the feeling that you are flying and the feeling is unimaginable. However I personally do not want to have been had. Where is the silver lining?

  22. isi Aug 16, 2012 11:13 pm 22

    “I did it for You, for Your satisfaction”. Seeking divine satisfaction is a great remedy against bitterness. I am aware that a corollary of practicing altruism —with close relatives for example— is ingratitude.

    A few days ago, I was expecting an excuse from someone very close to me. By taking the initiative to resolve the issue it unlocked the situation in an unexpected manner !

  23. Wire Aug 18, 2012 7:29 am 23

    @as

    I think it really depends on the situation, but I ask myself the following questions when I am trying to distinguish altruism from being taken advantage of:

    1. Am I forsaking the rights of others by doing this act?
    2. Will it bring harm to me in any way if I do this act?

    The answer to these questions is usually no, and so 99.9% of the time, I choose to do that act. It is precisely these acts that I feel that I am accomplishing something solely for God’s satisfaction…

  24. AS Aug 31, 2012 7:49 am 24

    Thank you Wire. Both your points are a great help.

    Thank you ISI. Any time I have tried the approach you described I either came out as a weak person and lost respect or it back fired in my face. I haven’t found the right way to that approach yet.

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