February 11, 2014

It’s Not As Simple As Selfishness vs. Selflessness. ~ Charlie Birch


Do you tend to put other’s needs before your own? Perhaps you always put yourself first? How do you balance your needs with the needs of others?

A couple years back, I attended a full moon goddess party. Hippietastic I know! Anyway, the main event of the evening involved circling around the fire and making a declaration of our intention for change. As we took turns speaking  our declarations, I began to notice a theme: selfishness.

Although the manifestation of these declarations were inevitably influenced by those who spoke them, it seemed that all of us struggled with selfishness. Some of us, myself included, wanted to become more selfish and declared a commitment to do just that. In contrast, others wanted to be less selfish and declared a commitment to become more selfless.

I have thought about this many times over the past couple of years.

Selfish tends to get a bad wrap and I imagine most of you can imagine how selfish behavior can be harmful. But consider how selfishness can be of service to the greater good by creating a healthy consistent sense of self; the type of Self that will be of most service in the world.

On the other side of the cultural table, selflessness is mostly thought of as a good thing. But consider how selflessness can do harm to those around us. If people are really selfless, without a sense of self or a sense of self worth, we may not be grounded, may not be aware of what we bring to the table, we may be looking to others to form our identities for us, or we may be harming ourselves.

None of these serves the other person selfless behavior is attempting to serve.

I was struggling to understand this paradox. Should I be selfish or selfless? Should I be both? Do we need to wear both hats in order to find balance,  as is true with many polarities? My body knew the answer, but my mind failed to articulate this understanding accurately. So I went about my practice, hoping one day I could explain myself in a more satisfying way.

Then recently my mentor gifted me a copy of Conscious Business by Fred Koffman. Fantastic book. Finally, I was able to find the words that matched my sense experience of this paradox.

Koffman spoke about ego selfishness vs. essential integrity. Koffman described ego selfishness as “…the drive toward immediate satisfaction, without considering the long-term consequences of your actions on others—or even on yourself.” In contrast he explained, “essential integrity allows you to develop strength, inner peace, and self-confidence.” For the sake of comparison I’m calling this integrity selfishness.

Ego selfishness is literally that, the ego hijacking the system to execute its own agenda. However, since the ego is a very small part of the Self, in the grand scheme of things the behavior that results from this approach is really selfless.

Integrity selfishness is the manifestation of the whole Self guarding, cultivating and embodying its integrity regardless of what others think. Since our integrity is the embodiment of our morals, the guiding force that helps ensure we do no harm to ourselves, others and the planet, one can come to understand how this approach to life is both selfish and selfless. This way of being makes us selfish because we refuse to compromise integrity and value it above all else. At the same time this approach to life makes us selfless because social consciousness has become one of our personal needs.

I began to realize that the women that had been standing around that fire with me were using the same word, but were not talking about the same things. It’s not a matter of selfishness vs. selflessness. This was the wrong comparison.

It was about changing the captain of the ship that is the embodied Self.

The women who declared a commitment to being less selfish were really saying, “I am committed to integrating the needs of others and the planet into my sense of purpose, because I realize I am not separate from the world around me. Being a positive force in the world has become one of my needs. I will embody this truth, even if it means my ego won’t get what it wants all the time.”

The women who declared a commitment to be less selfish were really saying, “I am committed to cultivating and maintaining my integrity and accountability, even when it doesn’t suit the egos of those around me or goes against convention. I want to be of service to the greater good.”

In the end it all comes to what, why, when and how we compromise.

Next time you find yourself faced with a situation that requires compromise and forces you to answer the question, “To be selfish or not to be selfish?” consider who is driving the ship. Is it your ego or your integrity?

This will help you figure out if you are comprising integrity or denying your ego immediate gratification. From there, the right choice is up to you!

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Assistant Editor: Paige Vignola/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Image via: Adam Avitable on Flickr

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