How would you react if I called you selfish? Most of us would get quite defensive, and start listing off all the ways in which we’re altruistic, selfless. We might get sulky, we might get mad, but chances are we would get upset, to some extent at least.
But you don’t have to. Through practicing mindfulness, I have discovered that not only is selfishness something to be glad about, but it is in many ways the goal of this work.
Let’s start by looking at how we act when we are mindful. When we are being aware of how our mind and body responds to our thoughts and actions, we notice something very important: it feels a lot more comfortable to be kind than not. Typically (and I say typically because we all have our unmindful lapses), typically we find ourselves responding to situations more and more in ways that make us feel more comfortable.
This is where the selfishness begins. We begin to develop a desire for the feeling kindness bestows on us. Then we begin to seek that feeling at every opportunity.
It’s a little like the craving many experience with drugs, food, or whatever their particular addiction(s) may be, only it’s not. While satisfying the cravings of addiction and the desire for kindness both can result in the release of endorphins, the latter has a much deeper and more lasting impact. This is because the kindness high comes from intrinsic rewards, while our addictions are for extrinsic things.
This is a key point. The sense of lack that leads to addiction comes from within. You simply can’t fill it from without. So you get a quick high, but that is quickly replaced by the emptiness that led to you seeking it in the first place. Not only doesn’t it last, it actually magnifies the initial feelings that triggered it. Kindness, on the other hand, fulfills us from within.
Have you noticed what happens when you do something kind, and then you tell people about it? The sense of fulfillment starts being replaced by a sense of pride, humility is replaced by ego, and the insecurity starts up again: in short, in seeking external validation we lose the internal fulfillment that felt so complete.
And this is where we become completely selfish. Not only do we actively seek out opportunities to make ourselves feel good (through kindness), but then we keep it all to ourselves. It’s about as selfish as you could be.
So, be selfish. Do everything in your power to feel wonderful. And don’t—whatever you do—share what you did with anyone. And next time someone calls you selfish, you can consider it a wonderful compliment.
Selflessness. It really is the ultimate form of selfishness. Shhh.