Thinking Spiritually Outside the Self

One of the most difficult aspects of spiritual thinking, (thinking which reaches beyond the small, petty self) is grasping how that self is an illusion.

The real Self, with a capital “S”, is the whole world, for our skin is only a thin membrane connecting our inner “self” with our outer “Self”. Yet most of us live our lives basing decisions on that small, illusory sense of lonely, separate, finite existence. No spiritual practice is worth anything without this important premise in its teaching.

For now, I would like to explore how this idea affects our thinking about world problems. We, myself included, tend to be satisfied with accomplishing the tasks set before us to achieve our daily goals, ideally to obtain and maintain health, security, community, career, relaxation and some kind of spiritual practice.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself worn out after doing what’s necessary to maintain my life. I don’t like to face too many new tasks, or at least not ones which seem altruistic, reaching for some “unobtainable” or far distant goal. Yet we have no choice but to commit any extra time and resources to alleviating issues such as hunger, disease, genocide, or extreme poverty.

Of course, there are really no specific consequences to ignoring this truth. We can live our lives, as many do, striving only to better ourselves, regardless of how it affects others. Nothing really bad will happen to us, except we will be ignoring our most precious gift, our compassion, our conscience. After long enough, we forget what it feels like to feel for others. We can rationalize that it was just meant to be that way. Tough cookies. Perhaps this is why religion is still useful in a way. It keeps people guessing as to what their punishment will be if they don’t at least try to act toward some altruistic ideas.

We cannot claim to live fully conscious and ignore those issues on a daily basis. That would mean living in denial, a kind of zombie trance, an illusion of happiness. There’s a hollowness to this kind of living. Often, we try to fill this “hollow leg” with more things, more food, more business, new improved living, even a kind of endless searching for a spiritual practice which “fits” us.

Ultimately, the answer is simple. Take daily time to feel and nourish the deep pain of admitting how others suffer. This could be in the form of prayer or contemplation. There are specific practices in Buddhism which offer a structured building of compassion, starting with sending compassionate, loving thoughts to those you love, then to those you don’t love, then to strangers you know, and on to all sentient beings. It’s very healing.

Then, give what you can financially. Be really honest with yourself. Do you need that new CD? Can you spare that money for someone more needy?

When reading Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, I was amazed to find out that secular societies, particularly those from Northern Europe, give by far the most generous support toward relieving the suffering known to exist in so much of the world. Food for thought.

10 thoughts on “Thinking Spiritually Outside the Self

  1. I think that the further people get from suffering the easier they find it to look away. Not necessarily because they don’t care but perhaps because it’s painful to think about. We hate to think of where we could be. You are so right though we need to think about what we can do.

  2. recently i participated in a 10-day meditation workshop which taught the vipassana technique. this method has you survey your body focusing on the subtle sensations which naturally take place. at first, you have to concentrate really hard, part by part, just to feel a tingle here and there. but after getting the hand of it, you become completely absorbed by the vast field of extremely subtle sensations your body produces. when at a certain level, you are able to sweep through your body and feel waves of sensations like you’ve never felt come to life. the process is quite purifying and the benefits i personally gained were a subtler focus of everything in life, even when not meditating. if you’re interested, you can check out the technique more if you want at

    the best part is, workshops are completely free.

  3. Recently, I participated in a Buddhist reteat and found the central paradox to be that self-centered meditation could lead to a state of selflessness, of genuine altruism as ego borders erode. It’s all sense, and it makes everything feel, smell, taste, sound better.

    I enjoy your blog.

  4. Sandy, thanks for the good comment. It’s true how paradoxical it is that “selfish” meditation can lead to selflessness. I think many folks do not understand that fact. They want to meditate to gain something else, like balance and control of their lives in order to succeed at personal goals. And, as you also pointed out, focusing on the moment helps gain better contact with the flood of information coming from the senses. Thanks for stopping by…


  5. very much enjoyed reading here…as a poet, I found it enlightening and enriching; I spent a pleasant while just following your links…thank you…

  6. the awkward epiphany

    “recently i participated in a 10-day meditation workshop which taught the vipassana technique.”

    I’ve been their to. I’ve done it 4 times now. I had to dig threw lots of unpleasantness but it sure does clear you out. I get alot less angery now. The things that used to really make me angery now are like what ever why get angery about that (I still get angery. It’s just that their are certain things that I don’t get angery about things that shouldn’t really make me angery).

    “Perhaps this is why religion is still useful in a way. It keeps people guessing as to what their punishment will be if they don’t at least try to act toward some altruistic ideas.”

    I think that when religions portray a punishment for not being altruistic they are getting off line. I don’t agree with the whole sin concept and godly punishment. I’m more inclined towards the notion that you good actions benifit you (not in the afterlife right now) just not necisarily in a tangible fashion. For example building compassion. It may seem that building compassion doesn’t benifit you but I think that it does spiritualy if not in dollars and cents. On a bit of a tangent I believe that this world is an illusion. So dollars and cents are an illusion. Gaining or losing dollars and cents is an illusion and ultimatly of little consequence. However you are real (not your body a part of you Typicaly called soul) compassion and honesty and intergrity … are all assets to you soul. As intangible as they may seem. As you build these qualities within yourself you are enrichend. So qualities of goodness enrichen you money does not. So the benifit I see from religion is that they encourage you to develop these qualities.

  7. added

    I just found this on a buddhist site

    If you truly care about your welfare, then develop your inner goodness

    At Savatthi. As he was sitting to one side, King Pasenadi Kosala said to the Blessed One: “Just now, lord, while I was alone in seclusion, this train of thought arose in my awareness: ‘Who are dear to themselves, and who are not dear to themselves?’ Then it occurred to me: ‘Those who engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct are not dear to themselves. Even though they may say, “We are dear to ourselves,” still they aren’t dear to themselves. Why is that? Of their own accord, they act toward themselves as an enemy would act toward an enemy; thus they aren’t dear to themselves. But those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct are dear to themselves. Even though they may say, “We aren’t dear to ourselves,” still they are dear to themselves. Why is that? Of their own accord, they act toward themselves as a dear one would act toward a dear one; thus they are dear to themselves.'”

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