Selflessness. Free from suffering. Free from the continuous dissatisfying aspects of life. These are the things you end up hearing about when deeply exploring meditation and mindfulness. Selflessness is an advanced and confusing topic. So, what’s so great about selflessness and what do we mean by selflessness?
The great thing about selflessness is you realize there’s not as much at stake in life as you thought there was. As the phrase goes, you don’t take things personally. On a related note, there’s a good Psychology Today article, “Don’t Take It Personally.” The common thought with the phrase “don’t take it personally” is that you are not the intended target. Someone is not zeroing in on trying to hurt you..this time.
Even with keeping things in perspective with the “don’t take everything personally” frame of mind, there are still some things that could be taken personally. If you don’t know how to loosen up, you are an easy target for your enemies and careless people. To spell it out, that target’s name is Y. O. U., Your Own Universe, your self.
“I want to live and don’t want to get rid of myself!”, you might exclaim. Don’t panic. I understand. We’re not talking about your destruction. There’s more than one concept of self and you’ll get a small flavor of it here.
What’s so Great about Selflessness?
For the sake of discussion and to move things forward, pretend you’re like Casper, the friendly ghost. Just like a sentient cloud, pretend the thing that is really you, your consciousness, cannot be hurt no matter what.
However like Casper the ghost, you can interact with things when you need to and have an impact on the world. That’s really useful, right? You can make a difference and you have nothing to lose.
Steve Jobs tried to get across this notion of “nothing to lose” in his Stanford commencement address. You can checkout the text of what he said in the Stanford news article ‘You’ve got to find what you love,’ Jobs says. A sample is available in the video Steve Jobs talking about Big Choices in life – Stanford Speech 2005 as shown here:
Thanks, Mr. Steve Jobs. Although potentially grim, that’s helpful. However, we can do even better than that. It’s time to describe what we mean by selflessness.
What is Selflessness?
If you want to go deep into this, there is a podcast episode to listen to called The Path and the Goal, A Conversation with Joseph Goldstein. If you jump straight into it on YouTube (“Waking Up with Sam Harris #4 — The Path and the Goal” (1:15:50), you will hear a remarkable conversation between two friends who are highly experienced meditators, Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein. Sam has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. Joseph Goldstein is a meditator instructor, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, and helped bring meditation into the USA in the 1970s.
Sam Harris lays out the concept of a meditator (he uses the term yogi) trying to continuously take note of everything around him or her. The meditator notices when they get lost in thought and then goes back to observing phenomenon aka all-the-things.
There are a couple of insightful lines plus followup discussion about one hour and 17 minutes into it. Here’s a quote of Sam Harris from the podcast:
Consciousness actually isn’t harmed by whatever crappy experience you were just having dualistically a moment ago before you were mindful. The moment you actually pay attention, there’s just consciousness and the energy of its expression.
That is so powerful! It’s the secret to how one can thoughtfully respond to events as opposed to thoughtlessly reacting.
He goes on to point out that mindfulness is the “remedy” to suffering. In this context, suffering is also sometimes known as the dissatisfying aspects of life. The sensation of being angry, feeling ill, or sadness doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have the same kind of impact when one is in a state of selflessness.
Joseph Goldstein supports that mindfulness can help one get into that selflessness state. Sam’s further reality check with Joseph and using the experience of sadness helps to explain further (1:18:43):
..if you are being mindful of sadness say and in that moment sadness is still a problem, that’s not mindfulness. Mindfulness contains its own equanimity. If you’re going to spend two seconds of truly being mindful, those are going to be two seconds of relief from the suffering.
Joseph Goldstein absolutely agrees. With that said, they go on about how not to attain selflessness. I encourage you to listen to the podcast past the quote to truly understand. The whole two hours of the podcast is also definitely worth it. However, how to obtain the state of selflessness is out of the scope of this article.
Taking a step back, this is advanced stuff. If you are just starting out, this is just a glimpse into what’s possible by having a serious commitment to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Experiences such as selflessness are real. The scientific causes of these experiences and their impact on the brain are being studied.
Scientists are continuously uncovering interesting things about the effects of mindfulness on the human brain such as this 2017 article titled Buddhist researchers seek to reveal link between heart, mind and my blog post from a couple years earlier titled Meditation Yields a Better Brain.
So we’ve given you a glimpse into selflessness and why one might care. Regardless of your feelings about selflessness, there’s no doubt that mindfulness meditation can improve your life and the lives of those you interact with. I wish you well on your journey.