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Imaginary altruism, real selfishness

The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and to consider self only.” (Blaise Pascal , Pensées)

A number of annoying things have happened to me recently. There was that young man who shoved me as he was getting on the subway; that colleague who asked me to finish some of his work and then left the office for the day; and then those other colleagues who kept interrupting me while I was in the middle of an important task to ask me the same question over and over again—a question to which I did not have the answer… Those incidents occurred over a two-day period. They put me in a state of irritation and bad mood I had never experienced before.

In the evening, as I was recalling those incidents, I could feel this irritation overcome me almost physically. Some time later, as things cooled down, I was able to observe myself, the way a scientist would observe an unknown animal whose strange behaviour he was witnessing for the first time. How could such insignificant events affect me so much? I scrutinised myself for the next couple of days, but came up with nothing. Then I changed my angle: I had been trying until then to understand the effect of other people’s behaviour on me; but what if, instead, I studied the effect of my behaviour on others?

It was like a revelation: “Find the cause within!”. The first thing I realised was that that very passenger, grumbling and shoving me to get on the subway during rush hour, was in fact the victim, not the perpetrator. Because, most of the time, I am the one who tends to take up all the space by the doors without realising it. So the very thing that bothered me could easily be turned back against me. By shifting perspectives, “other people” suddenly became part of my reality. And I was stunned to discover the scope of my selfishness. I could literally sense the reality of this selfishness in me, this selfishness that Ostad Elahi defined as follows: “A selfish person only cares about himself; he wants everything for himself and has no regard for others.” (Words of Truth, 27, draft of the forthcoming English translation of Ostad Elahi’s oral teachings originally presented in the Persian book Bargozideh [all rights reserved])

Basically, I was becoming conscious of the implications of this simple fact: there are other people besides me.

Sure, I had already been aware of my selfish tendencies for a while. I knew I had to try and counter them in some way through altruism. But that knowledge was theoretical, I had kept it distant from my reality, which for a long time suited me just fine. Now I was suddenly confronted to my contradictions in a palpable way. For example, I tend to congratulate myself whenever I help someone, yet I am systematically late for my appointments, I don’t keep my office tidy even though I am sharing it, I don’t bother calling my friends or family to give them news and see how they are doing, etc. Imaginary altruism, selfish reality. So, I had identified selfish behaviours, now I had to track them down more systematically and examine their causes in me, to become truly conscious of how deeply selfish I really was. I needed to realise that deep down I only cared about myself, wanted everything for myself and had no regard for others.

  1. I began by looking for the part I played in the negative feelings others directed towards me, as reflected in their comments or criticisms, in their mood swings, sighs or even at times in some of their jokes. Of course, I did not consider that they were necessarily right or deny that they may also bear part of the blame. However, I set those considerations aside in order to focus on myself. This led me to discover some rather disgraceful personality traits. I mostly felt ashamed of myself, but at the same time, having unmasked these traits encouraged me to persevere. I was on the right track.
  2. Next, I focused on other people’s positive actions, which inspired me to behave likewise. This triggered in me a new kind of respect for those around me. I became aware of a host of kindnesses directed toward me that I had not noticed before, even at times from people I usually complained about. I was able to see the value of their actions, the efforts they had made and the good they had done for me.
  3. I tried really hard to put myself in others’ shoes. I realised that until then my understanding of this principle had been confined to projecting my own goals onto others. Yet, wanting for others what you want for yourself does not mean setting up your own desires and views as a norm applicable to all. I thought of Pascal and his perception of the “hateful” self: the self, he says, “is unjust in itself since it makes itself the centre of everything”. Even when it tries to save appearances by seeking to please others, it continues to behave as if it were at the centre of the universe. I then understood Ostad Elahi’s words better: “A perfect human is one who practices toward others that which he wants for himself, and defends others against that which he does not want for himself. This is easy to say, but extremely difficult to apply in practice. The more we are able to act in this manner, the more we have advanced in our humanity. We have to control ourselves 24 hours a day and act as our own judge.” (Words of Truth, 263)
  4. Finally, I proceeded to analyse samples of my thoughts the same way one would analyse blood samples. Just like the composition of my blood provides precise information about the health of my body, the composition of my thoughts was going to reflect the activity of my soul and its powers. By systematically analysing my thoughts (at set times, for example), according to a predefined protocol (see below my list of questions), I was able measure the quality of my soul, which was quite different from the picture I had of myself. Here are the questions that helped me interpret the quality of my “thought samples”:
    • To what extent do I let others speak and express their personal views in a conversation? Do I truly listen to them?
    • Do I give others a place in my thoughts? What kind of thoughts do I harbour toward them?
    • What is my intention when I do someone a favour? Do I feel frustrated when I do not get positive feedback, such as gratitude?
    • How involved am I when I do someone a favour? Do I fully invest myself in the deed?

This effort to detect and analyse my selfishness (and my illusions of altruism) led me quite naturally to look for ways to fight against these tendencies that I was witnessing in vivo. I progressively took on and experimented with several approaches:

  1. Autosuggestion: reminding myself regularly of the selfishness I have detected in myself, of how important it is to develop altruism and that in order to do so it is necessary to engage in a bitter fight against my selfishness. By adopting this “correct state of mind”, I became more inclined to pay attention to others and hence to act in a more altruistic way. Because evidently, and contrary to my prior delusions, in the heat of the moment, I do not spontaneously react in an altruistic manner.
  2. I practiced “stepping out of my ego” several times a day, that is, extracting myself from the daily hassle, by taking my mind out of the endless tide of preoccupations, annoyances, concerns or aspirations linked with my material life and my self-centered point of view. It is an intense psychological effort that enables you to momentarily suspend the tide, even if you inevitably get drawn back into it a moment later. What a delight, this breath, no matter how fleeting! In such instants, I suddenly become aware of other people, of their anxieties, the pressures weighing on them, their priorities, and also their rights, those rights that my imperious impulses urged me to carelessly trample. Paradoxically, in order to be truly attentive to others, I have to focus on myself and detect the impulses that drive me to trample their rights. I have to cultivate, deep within myself, a thirst for ethical behaviour.
  3. I entered the heart of the matter when I started addressing my behaviour toward close family and friends, in other words, those most exposed to the daily outbursts of my selfishness, and the daily contact with whom offers plenty of opportunity for efforts and experiments. Indeed, when I shed the polish of good manners and conventions that I keep up in society, it is often with the people I am closest to that I allow myself to “let down my guard” after having been under pressure all day at work. Then all I feel is my hunger, my fatigue, my desire to rest, and I become easily upset, moody, etc. Autosuggestion and the stepping-out-of-my-ego exercise are not sufficient to overcome these difficulties. To concretely develop an altruistic disposition, I had to define specific goals and adopt new types of behaviour. I often leave my shoes in the hallway, for example: why put them away if I am going to wear them again tomorrow? The two previous exercises helped me see how unpleasant this little untidiness of mine was to my family. So I decided to systematically put my shoes away as soon as I got home. Another example: I always sit at the end of the dinner table, where you can’t get up to serve others. Realising this, I decided to start sitting somewhere else at the table.

I was only at the beginning of my efforts though. In fact, after a few days of this practice, I had become… quite unbearable, to say the least! The slightest thing set me off, everyone upset me, and I felt like picking fights with everyone—all the more so as I had become hyper sensitive to what I perceived as the ungratefulness of the people around me and their inability to recognize the painful efforts involved by my new line of conduct. After giving it some thought, I realised that that was a reaction of my ego resisting my efforts. Being altruistic out of a sense of human duty and with no other goal than spiritual perfection is quite different from adopting some behaviour to obtain recognition or approval from others. One should not expect any instant gratification. Becoming aware of my selfishness and unmasking my imaginary altruism was a real blow to my self-esteem. The only way I was able to overcome my ego’s resistance was by firmly holding on to this perspective: I have to be altruistic and kind to others regardless of the immediate outcome, because deep down I am profoundly convinced that this is the path the Creator has opened up for me to perfect my soul and change the core of my being.

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  1. A. Mar 02, 2017 7:18 pm 1

    >”Do I give others a place in my thoughts? What kind of thoughts do I harbour toward them?”
    With three children, a wife and a mother (who has cancer and is a widow), I often get a lot of demands and find myself complaining and huffing and puffing in my thoughts – “enough, give me a break, I want some time for myself” – instead of being grateful that I can help others… I need to change that indeed. At the same time I can take more today than I did some years ago. So perhaps, the more we progress, the more is expected of us and we have to fight to expand our capacity.

  2. coco Mar 04, 2017 7:09 pm 2

    What a useful, practical article this is. I must confess I find ‘stepping out of my ego’ to be a challenge so it is motivating to see how important a role it plays in analyzing one’s thoughts and behavior here. The other thing that struck me in this article is the list of questions to ask oneself. Wow, did those questions strike a cord in me! In posing them to myself, I feel like a scalpel is opening up a diseased organ exposing the cancer. Next step, finding ways to put corrective measures into action.

    Thank you for these powerful tools.

  3. cr. Mar 05, 2017 9:16 am 3

    Thank you! I will try to take your precious pieces of advice.

  4. Linda Mar 07, 2017 5:17 pm 4

    Is it me or is this article way too complicated? I don’t know if we really have to dig so deep into everything? The door of the subway is as wide as four people. How much space would you inadvertently or purposely take to be on the way of the others leaving the train?

  5. V Mar 11, 2017 6:24 pm 5

    This example reminds me of many of my similar behaviors that I ignore on a daily basis simply because I’m in denial of my own flaws. It’s always about how others can do better so I won’t get annoyed or bothered by their wrongdoings! The subway door may be wide enough for 4 people to get through, however if it’s a full train, the one person’s location could/would make a difference to allow others access in or out! The author’s experience, focusing on “finding the cause within” opened my eyes to look within and find MANY things I can work on. Thank you!

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