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Understanding Healthy and Unhealthy Selfishness


In studying classical texts of yoga, Buddhism and other spiritually-based religions, I often come upon the terms 'selflessness' & ‘selfishness’.  Yet I don’t feel most of us understand what this means.  So often we misinterpret selfishness as it being unhealthy to focus on oneself.  That we must always put others first in order to be ‘spiritual’.  In order to be ‘good enough’ for a good life.  This is a misconception of the topic of selfishness. 


Focus on oneself is not only ok, it is a required part of living a spiritual life.  If we do not focus on ourselves and take care of our own needs, we become weak, needy and this type of energy drains life from those around us.  To be focused on oneself in a healthy way is to take responsibility for taking care of ourselves is part of living a conscious life.  If this is called selfishness than this form of selfishness is healthy for it reminds us of our duty to take care of our own lives first rather than burden others to take care of our needs. 


When we do this, when we truly take care of ourselves without expectations from others, we get to BE HAPPY NOW, and we know we are getting our needs met because we are meeting them!  We get to get that massage, take that trip, purchase that amazing meal and take a day off because we choose to do it for ourselves and our inner child says 'yeah! I'm taken care of!".  This then allows us to shine our light on our world without angst, waiting or expectation - is there anything more honoring of Spirit than that?


I'm not saying we don't ask for help when we need it.  That is a part of being human and healthy as well (and perhaps a topic for another article as I know I am not always good at that one).  I am saying that we need to determine what our needs are and how to meet them in healthy ways rather than expecting others can do that for us. 


So what do the classical sutras mean when they say to practice selflessness?  I believe at least part of what this means is that to be truly content with one’s life we need to let go of expectation that others will fulfill us in any way.  We need to stop being selfish in the frame that we believe others owe us anything.  We need to stop doing things expecting a return and do things for their own sake because we decide to do them.  If we instead are selfish in an unhealthy way, we begin to expect that others will somehow fulfill our needs and when they don’t, our emotions erupt and happiness fades for us as well as those we get upset with.


Imagine a spouse who takes care of her partner expecting a thank you.  The partner never says thank you and the spouse is forever waiting for it.  Maybe the partner doesn’t know how to say it, or maybe the partner doesn’t want to say it, it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the spouse is stuck in unhappiness thinking they should be recognized in a specific way for their efforts, expecting a return for their hard work.  This person could stay unhappy forever through these expectations if they choose to be.


What if instead the spouse did what felt honest and non-reactive, what came from their heart, without expectation of something in return?  Then they could enjoy the process AND the pleasant surprise if they were recognized for the efforts.  They could also ask for what they needed instead of anticipating that their partner would just know.   We all know mind-reading never works in relationships.


So what is the conclusion here?  First, practice healthy selfishness by taking care of yourself and being clear on your needs in non-judgmental ways.  Second, do your work in the world from your heart, instead of coming from the place of expecting a reward from others for what you do.  Third, if you follow these two points, your joy will expand and your heart will guide you freely to your dharma.


Enjoy the light!


Much love,




Next month I'll be exploring happiness and true joy in oneself and one's life. ;)  If you want to learn more about how to practice happiness in daily life, see our schedule of joy and happiness classes in the fall!






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