Ten Paths to Selflessness

My latest for you is a short film to illustrate ten ways that selflessness can be experienced in normal, modern life:

The context follows:

Modern life increasingly celebrates “putting yourself out there,” competing for attention, getting noticed, and “making your mark”—in other words, it emphasizes selfishness. But even though this word has acquired a kind of social value that it never had before, most people don’t understand what selfishness really is.

Being selfish doesn’t necessarily mean denying others what they may need or want and instead giving it to yourself. That’s only the most obvious kind of selfishness. We also practice selfishness when our individual attention is on ourselves, yet we are devoted to making others notice us. In this sense, a person meditating privately at home isn’t being selfish, whereas someone at a party speaking of themselves is.

It is clear that times have changed, and most people are comfortable giving themselves the attention they would like others to bestow upon them.

But what is the opposite of selfishness? Most people might think that the opposite word is generosity—giving attention and energy to others rather than to oneself. But this, too, is a simplistic understanding of that word.

Being overly selfish can be very draining, but being overly generous, too, can take a lot from us. Is there a middle path?

Indeed, the path of selflessness is the way out of the self-other duality. But what is selflessness if it isn’t generosity?

Many ancient forms of meditation, particularly in Buddhism, define selflessness as the disappearance or absence of the self. We imagine ourselves present in every situation; in our minds and our thoughts, our interests are almost everywhere. We are “stuck” in our personal perception of the world and cannot imagine why others might see us differently than we see ourselves.

Selflessness in the Buddhist sense is the belief that the self doesn’t exist as something of actual substance; it is a thought created and projected onto the world. The Buddhists, as well as other philosophers, take selflessness seriously. The illusion of a “self” is, in their view, the cause of great suffering in the world. Because of this, both Buddhism and Hinduism strive to show that the world doesn’t contain a “self,” either yours or anyone else’s, and proof of this is presented in many meditative scriptures, known in Sanskrit as sutras. Selflessness is also tied to the concept of Emptiness (Śūnyatā, in Sanskrit), which doesn’t mean nothingness but rather a “something” that lacks inner substance—something that exists but is empty. Because of the emptiness of all things, they appear as interrelated to, and dependent upon, each other; nothing in our world has an ultimate, complete essence. And so, the same is true of ourselves, who experience the lack of self (anātman/anatta; an– means “non,” atman means “self”). That is why the practice of selflessness is important: it reveals to us the essence of our emptiness in the way that everything is also empty.

This is not as depressing as it sounds. Rather, it is the most liberating thought you can have. Meditating on the fact that you are an empty vessel frees you from the illusion that you must do certain tasks, or you must have certain kinds of experiences, or that you must be a certain kind of person. None of those beliefs apply to you.

And so it is that in Buddhism, the concept of selflessness (as mentioned, anatta or anātman in Sanskrit) is a fundamental principle. and why many quotes from Buddhist texts focus directly on the understanding of this concept:

  1. The Dhammapada (A collection of sayings of the Buddha)
    • “All phenomena are not-self” (Chapter 20, Verse 277). This succinctly captures the essence of Anatta, emphasizing that all things, including the self, are impermanent and devoid of an intrinsic, unchanging essence.
  2. The Anattalakkhana Sutta (The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic)
    • “Form is not-self… Feeling is not-self… Perception is not-self… Mental formations are not-self… Consciousness is not-self. If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lead to affliction.” This text is one of the earliest and most direct expositions on the concept of not-self.
  3. The Heart Sutra
    • “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form.” While not explicitly using the term ‘selflessness’, this famous Mahayana text delves into the concept of emptiness (Śūnyatā), which is closely related to the idea of no-self.
  4. The Diamond Sutra
    • “A bodhisattva should develop a mind which does not abide in anything.” This teaching encourages the practitioner to let go of attachments and concepts, including the concept of self.
  5. The Majjhima Nikaya (A collection of Buddhist scriptures)
    • “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, MN 22). This text contains many discourses that discuss the non-self characteristic of existence.
  6. The Samyutta Nikaya
    • “Just as a chariot is termed a chariot due to the aggregation of parts, so is the conventional ‘self’ designated by physical and mental aggregates.”

These texts and quotes reflect the Buddhist teaching that understanding and realizing the concept of not-self or selflessness is essential for liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

Finally, many people may believe that, to practice selflessness, they must abandon modern life and become monks or devotees to a temple. In fact, awareness of a non-self allows us to continue our lives as they are but makes it much easier to be generous, happy, and free.

Until next time.