“One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self. In brief, this is dharma. Anything else is succumbing to desire.”— MAHĀBHĀRATA 13.114.8 (CRITICAL EDITION)
It’s ironic that the fictional character Joey from friends, who everyone laughed at for being a bit slow, was also the character to come out with one of the most profound statements of the entire show when he argued with Phoebe that,
“There is no such thing as a truly self-less good deed.”
I agree with him.
Whether you’d care to admit it almost every action we make is motivated on some level by selfish intent. Even a charitable act is motivated on some level by your desire to feel good.
That’s not to say there is anything wrong with this – in fact, quite the opposite – it’s just something to be aware of. After all, if we weren’t motivated on some level by a desire to feel good, or to avoid feeling bad, then why would we do anything? We need something to motivate us. For that reason there has to be an element of self-interest behind our actions.
Anyway, why do I bring this up?
I heard the expression intelligent self-interest mentioned on a podcast a while back. This got me thinking about what this means and how we can make our self-interests more intelligent.
When I dug a little deeper I came to understand, although they are described/defined somewhat differently by various articles on the subject we can, broadly speaking, look at self-interest on three different levels.
Those are unintelligent (or stupid as I like to think of it), intelligent and enlightened self-interest.
This post is going to define each and look at how we can cultivate the latter two.
What is unintelligent self-interest?
Unintelligent self-interest is the personal interest of an individual that, if pursued, hurts others and/or themselves.
Some obvious examples of unintelligent-interest include binge watching NETFLIX, drug abuse, smoking, mindlessly scrolling on social media, etc.
You know, all the things you shouldn’t be doing that every blogger and his dog bang on about everyday. (All the things I’ve done before, and in some cases still do…)
These are unintelligent forms of self interest because they satisfy a desire at the expense of our longer term health and happiness.
We also tend to think because I’m only doing these things to myself that’s ok. I’m not hurting anyone else.
But that’s wrong.
What hurts you ultimately hurts others. By not working to resolve past trauma or avoiding negative emotions instead of doing what you ought to, you can trust me when I tell you this, not only does this hurt yourself it also hurts those around you.
How then can we make our self-interests more intelligent and what does it mean?
What is intelligent self interest?
Intelligent self-interest is still about acting in ways that suit you, however, it also considers the ways in which it helps others.
It is about thinking of the other person while acting for yourself, i.e. you’re not acting without regard for others.
Some obvious examples of intelligent self-interest include meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, plentiful sleep, etc.
You know, all the things you should do that every blogger and his dog bang on about everyday.
These are intelligent forms of self interest because you’re acting in a way that not only benefits your own longer term health and happiness, it also benefits others.
After all, a happier and healthier you is a happier and healthier world. Further, you cannot look after others without first looking after yourself.
One of the problems that proponents of such activities have is the way in which they frame their motivations. They talk on and on about the benefits they have for you. How meditation, exercise and a balanced diet helps you.
Often they over emphasise the benefits these activities have for you without considering the larger reasons beyond the immediate.
If you want to make mediation a habit, as an example, it’s far better to consider how taking the time to cultivate mindfulness is of benefit to your family and friends, as well as yourself.
One way to do this is by asking yourself the following question:
I believe one of the major reasons our motivations stall is because we don’t feel we’re good enough (fear) and so give up far too easily. This is a problem many of us have when focusing solely on ourselves. If you take the focus away from yourself and instead remind yourself of the other people in your life for whom you’re doing these things (love), you’re far more likely to stick with it.
At least I know I am.
Instead of beating ourselves up for not being good enough and metaphorically whipping ourselves to do something about it, why not focus on feeling good about doing the things that ultimately help others too?
It’s a win win.
This brings us to the final level on the self-interest scale that I made up. The question I have is how can we act in enlightened self-interest that helps others? How can we see that helping others does in fact help ourselves? Let’s first explore what it means.
What is enlightened self-interest?
Enlightened self-interest is acting for others without expecting anything in return.
Some obvious examples of enlightened self-interest include donating to charity, volunteer work, saving someones life, etc.
You know, all the things every blogger and his dog probably should be going on about everyday but don’t.
These are acts done from the goodness of ones hearts. They aren’t done in expectation of gaining anything personally.
I would make a point that this is very different to acting out of a sense of responsibility or obligation – because you think it’s the right thing to do.
It’s far deeper than that.
Enlightened self-interest understands that although no obvious attributable gain for oneself has been made, a bit like the beautiful philosophical idea of karma, what comes around goes around.
People who act in enlightened self-interest understand we are all part of the same world. That by hurting another you’re ultimately hurting yourself.
This is why it’s heavily related to the Golden rule: To treat others as you would like others to treat you.
Or, to put it as a question, one can ask themselves,
How would I want others to help me if I were in their position?
This isn’t rocket science of course.
If you look deeply enough, you’ll find how you treat others is how you treat yourself. Kindness to others extends inwards as well as out. The same is as true for anger or hatred. You give fuel to those feelings within yourself by acting on them.
Enlightened self-interests come about as a by-product of truly wanting to help this world, as you would like it to be for you. By thinking in terms of how your actions will affect others we can, bit by bit, develop enlightened self-interest naturally. It’s simply a matter of acting in the interests of your heart.
(As always I welcome ALL comments and ideas on this blog. If you have anything to add or any other suggestions about how develop more intelligent self-interest I’d love to hear from you in the comments sections below)