What does it mean to live in the world selflessly? It is even possible? Desirable?
In spiritual circles, the term selflessness can mean different things, depending on the context. It can refer to living in service to others, the realization of “no self” similar to what Buddha realized or some other hybrid of those definitions or realizations.
Let’s start with Webster’s dictionary for a simple definition: selfless means “having no regard to self, unselfish.” In that definition, there is a reference to being unselfish.
Selfish is defined as “caring supremely or unduly for one’s self, regarding one’s own comfort, advantage, in disregard, or at the expense, of those of others.”
In Buddhism, the Visuddhimagga states:
“Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found.
The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there.
Nibbaana is, but not the man that enters it.
The path is, but no traveler on it is seen.
No doer of the deeds is found,
No being that may reap their fruits.
Empty phenomena roll on!
This is the only right view.”
The eight fold path in Buddhism refers to moral conduct, how one lives and acts in the world. It is not limited to a realization that one has while sitting in meditation, a realization merely of the unfindability or unreality of the self.
This is where modern nondual teachings often divorce themselves from the history of some of the great traditions, which were concerned with more than just a spiritual experience or realization. They focused on selflessness as referring to living in the world in a less selfish way.
Quite often, the reference to unselfishness is stripped away from the modern teachings, perhaps in part because of western culture’s infatuation with the idea of a one time, life-changing transformational fix, where one simply becomes fully enlightened or fully liberated in one fell swoop. In the rush to experience this realization of no self, much of the wisdom of this other meaning of selflessness gets left behind.
This is why we see teachers who claim, explicitly or implicitly, to be fully awakened while still being attached to their own image as a teacher or still attached to how they present themselves to others or even attached to fame, acknowledgment, attention, praise or some other worldly possession.
Head awakening is the term I use to refer to the initial phase of nondual awakening where one experiences an absence of self, either as a sudden experience or gradual realization. The focus is on how the self cannot be found when one looks. In finding the emptiness of that self, there can be a sense of “I’m done, this is it, the final realization.” And yet, because of how the mind and body (especially the body) hold tight to old conditioning, one is not truly done at all, unless one holds a very low standard in mind when it comes to selflessness.
I have personally experienced attachment to self-image, worldly attainment and material possessions both before and after my head awakening. I am not particularly ashamed of this because I find it to be a necessary aspect of “growing up” spiritually. The first true dawning of a head awakening merely revealed that, from within and while looking from awareness, the self is not there. But that is all that a head awakening really shows. It’s in the movement of life, the every day living as an individual on earth, where the rubber meets the road. To live selflessly, meaning to live in an unselfish way, is quite another endeavor completely. A head awakening is merely the door that may or may not lead one towards living such a life – it is by no means a guarantee.
The body has the final say. Even after a head awakening, the body stores everything surrounding selfishness – possession, control, greed, addiction, anxiety, trauma, desire, fear, all of it. To move through and leave behind these aspects of one’s self is a higher calling on the spiritual path. To use an admittedly sexist phrase, it is what separates the men from the boys.
Take, for example, the stomach, which I call the engine of ego. Like any engine, it is a driving force. It carries a pull towards earthly wants and desires, and a pull away from fearful threats. This combination of wants and fears acts as the driving force behind the ego really. This is where selfishness gets its fuel in large part. To have experienced a head awakening, while having a stomach that is clenched like a fist, is to be led around the world in a very awkward and divided way – seeing that there is no self and yet being pulled into the somatic experience of the self’s desires and fears at the same time. This can be terribly painful and confusing.
How does one live truly selflessly while the engine of the stomach is still yearning for the self’s desires and acting on the self’s fears? I submit that it is virtually impossible – a fool’s game.
Many teachings and programs that do not focus on nondual realization (including the 12 step program and many modern therapies) instead focus on cultivating a positive “selfless” self-image. They often fail for an entirely different reason. They are asking of human beings something that is quite impossible. They are suggesting falsely that one can live in the world in a truly selfless way without doing the hard work, the deep looking, the body and trauma work and without seeing that there is no self even as a head awakening. These positive self-help type teachings are proposing something they cannot bring about, because their aim misses the mark entirely. Living selflessly is not a mindset. It is not a switch that we can merely turn on or realize just be acting selflessly. There really is no “fake it until you make it.” The deeper selflessness does not truly come about through positive affirmations or only through selfless service. There has to be an internal transformation on every level of the body and mind, or else the body will pull the individual back into selfish motives. Even acting selflessly in the world can have selfish underpinnings, where one is helping others in order to gain something in return such as a positive self-image, praise, acknowledgement, attention, fame or love.
And so, just as many modern nondual teachings fail to go deep enough because they stop at a head awakening, many other modern spiritual and therapeutic teachings (including life coaching) do not go deep enough for entirely different reasons. They ignore true awakening altogether, in favor of an ego-based mindset or programming.
Where does that leave us? Are we left with half-baked notions of true selflessness as something unattainable, like a dream we are always chasing? I don’t believe so, not if we change how we examine the whole notion of self. There will be some who are not interested in going as deep as they can go. They will be content to stop somewhere along the way, at the stage of a nondual head awakening or within a positive self-help program. That is their right! But the calling to true selflessness will appear for some people. So the question is, “How?”
Here’s an exercise which may help:
Start by getting very quiet. Look from awareness out into the world. Notice that the world is made up of thoughts, emotions and sensations. Then begin to imagine the world without you. Whenever you see a want or fear that is truly ego-based, witness the thoughts and feelings around it. Let them be as they are until they naturally and effortlessly vanish. An ego-based want is any want where you are trying to get something personally in return. An ego-based fear is a fear that is not based on physical survival but rather on survival of a certain image you have of yourself in the mind. Let all of that vanish, each thought and emotion, one at a time. See what is left. Where does your attention go after all those fears and wants have vanished. Do you find yourself wanting to help others without anything in return? Do you find yourself at peace with life? If not, notice what is happening in your stomach. Notice the pull towards worldly things, attention, praise, acknowledgment. Let that pull be felt and let it vanish into space. What is left? When you get to the point where selfish wants and fears have subsided, open your eyes and start your day. Notice where those ego-based wants and fears return. And when they do, love them to death. This means let them come fully into awareness and dissolve naturally without effort. And then just live from that place. See where life takes you. It is likely to take you down a completely different path, with different values, perspectives and priorities. Do this every day of your life! Recognize that the fruits of living selflessly have nothing to do with you. You get nothing in return. This is what makes it selflessness.
I first began this practice when I left the teaching world and opened up the Kiloby Center. Many people come to the Kiloby Center without knowing who I am. They do not come to praise the teacher because they don’t see me as a teacher. In leaving behind the satsang world, I was left to question the remaining attachments to many different worldly possessions and self-images. Then I took a position with a company that works entirely within the addiction treatment field, a company that does not have my name on the front door. In that company, I am working within a team of people who do not recognize me as enlightened or as a teacher. More and more, I feel that I am working within the addiction treatment field without bolstering the name Scott Kiloby, without bolstering “me.” The deeper questions around selflessness naturally arise in this scenario. I encourage every teacher to leave behind the teaching world for a while and ask these important questions – do this important self-investigation. I encourage it for everyone, teacher or not. There is still work for me to do in this area. Selflessness is not a game of being done. It is an ongoing exploration.
Imagine living a life where you do not resign yourself just to some positive affirmations, programmed mindset or selfless service. Imagine a life where you do not consider a head awakening as the final realization. Imagine living a life where true selflessness is your aim. You get to watch yourself fall short of it over and over, which just shows you the ego-based wants and fears. They are all there to examine. But falling short does not have to be a game of fruitlessly seeking some future version of yourself. That would be yet another ego game. There is no seeking in this. There is only the pure creativity of living more and more without self. Doors naturally open in this way of being, doors that you never knew were there. Walls that you didn’t realize were creating division in your life break down. This is what allows your creativity to shine.
This is more than just a seeing also. It is not about having an experience on a meditation mat and then starting a blog or becoming a teacher or having others think that you are enlightened because of a fancy Facebook post. That’s the stuff of head awakening. It is much, much more humble than that. It calls upon you to go deeper into your own life, however that shows up. It is a living, in every sense. Not just a new mental perspective, but a perspective in which your entire body and mind is transformed, in which every relationship feels and looks different. In this living, you do not discard the notion of individuality. Your individuality shines forth even brighter than before. It is your selfishness that is increasingly missing. These are two different things altogether.
In this examination, you are not living in the spotlight. You are not getting anything in return. As your ego-based wants and fears increasingly vanish, you begin to feel more attuned to a deeper calling in life. You finally get to see what it is that you really want to do, how you really want to live, and where life truly pulls you. You finally begin to see what relationship is really like when you no longer desire love, acknowledgement or attention in return. You finally get to see what the world is really like without you. And it turns just perfectly without you – even more beautifully and fluidly then when you saw yourself at the center of it all.