The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Mahatma Gandh
Altruism – the giving to others without seeking anything in return – is definitely a means of finding ourselves and an opportunity to move beyond our egocentric actions and reactions. Many spiritual traditions echo this philosophy. In fact, having a generous nature is woven into the very core of our DNA. It is a natural thing for us to do. It brings many rewards and yet, should be done from a giving heart rather than the desire purely to receive those rewards.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors knew that altruism within the tribe promoted the passing on of genes. It also supported their reputation amongst other tribe members as it was important to be seen to be sharing the spoils of one’s labours and giving back what they themselves had received: if you give me some special roots to eat today, I must be seen to give you some special roots to eat tomorrow so I appear benevolent in the eyes of others. Since those early days, our willingness to help others has evolved considerably and we are now willing to help those far outside our tribe and who we do not even know.
I believe that much of our growth can come from a willingness to be altruistic and share the best of ourselves with others. It can be done as a daily practice that counters the self-focus of the ego and grows the ‘other’ focus of the unconditioned True Self. However, a word of caution here: there is a big difference between someone truly inspirational in their giving versus someone over-giving in ways that are detrimental to themselves and motivated by a subconscious desire to hide unresolved emotional pain and trauma. The former receives all the benefits of giving. The latter experiences caregiver burnout or compassion fatigue.
So how can altruism be used for our personal growth and enable us to find ‘ourselves’?
Here are my thoughts on ways that we can practice it in our daily lives:
- The giving of your attention. Giving others the gift of your focus, being with them 100% and fully listening to them is a precious offering that you can give. Even this takes regular practice as the mind wants to wander off, think about its own agenda and not give others all of your awareness. Mindful attention is a tool that fosters your growth and demonstrates courtesy, a characteristic of your unconditioned Self.
- The development of patience with others. We have a multitude of opportunities to practice this in our fast-paced lives when having to wait seems such a pressure. Offering others our patience, our tolerance or our non-judgement is a wonderful way to demonstrate our generous heart and it allows us to grow these qualities within our mind. This means that when our patience is profoundly tested, we already have strong patience muscles to cope with the waiting!
- The growth of our loving nature. As we foster a desire to offer loving kindness, compassion, help and support to others it grows our unconditioned nature. It, too, allows us to connect with others in a way that goes beyond the demands of the ego and our own self-interest. It enhances those qualities within us that we like to reserve purely for family and close friends. Offering those qualities on a regular basis, especially to people we do not know, is a powerful technique for growth and expands our circle of ‘us’.
- Personal daily practice. Every day that we take time out for some form of mental practice that trains our mind to have focus, concentration and quietude we are adding to the peace on the planet. Every opportunity we use to train our minds and transcend our negative emotional reactions, we are giving a gift to others. When we show up with good energy and positive intent we are being of service. Every interaction offers that possibility.
- Release the identification of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are tribal by nature. Our tendency is to identify ourselves with our own neighbourhood, town, country and those similar to us. From here, we often fear, dislike, de-humanise and attack those who are different. Being willing to transcend these ancient tribal instincts, we are gradually able to extend the web of us and include all humans and all sentient beings in our own tribe and offer our altruism to them. And we come to recognise that ultimately all that is hurting them is, in fact, hurting us.
To conclude, altruism can give us a multitude of opportunities for growth. Some very challenging to our ego. Yet being altruistic enables us to be less insular, more connected and develop a far greater sense of community. Whether you are giving of your time, your food, your personal goods, your energy or your money, it all serves to lighten our load and enable us to feel a sense of oneness with others. It is also worthwhile remembering that we must receive too. For our ability to receive completes the cycle of giving from others to us and allows them to feel the rewards of their generous heart.