Lord knows it is nice to live in a kinder, gentler world -- a world in which people take others into consideration and are not consumed by a me-first attitude. And lord knows there are spiritual persuasions that insist unremittingly on letting altruistic actions be the measure of whatever it is that constitutes a spiritual life. "Never mind asking who God is," they seem to say. "Just act in accordance with his/her/its tenets and all will be well. Just don't be selfish."
As I say, it's a hell of a lot nicer to live in a nice world than a nasty one. Don't-be-selfish feels good and wins socio-ethical approval ... assuming anyone travels in those circles.
But, I would say, there is a fly in this ointment. Feeling good and winning social or ethical approval is not the same as being at peace. Times of peace are times when nothing needs improving or revision or correction. From afar, such a state may seem magical or foolhardy to those imbued with a don't-be-selfish imperative. And yet a search for such a peace may linger and whisper at the edges of this life, begging quietly to be heard and realized.
What might it be like to live in a world that was not premised on push-back or consolation or virtue or endless concern for others? Those who take don't-be-selfish as a touchstone might call such a world selfish or against god's will or naughty. And they can be pretty insistent ... and still peace beckons: Why should I have to drop dead in order to find a little unfettered peace? Why should I accede to the much-applauded-but-unproven premise that not being selfish is the way to a selfless peace?
It's a risky business, I grant, but my view is that a world premised on others cannot provide peace. Altruism as a push-back against selfishness results in endless push-back ... which is not the same as peace.
The only option when it comes to peace is to turn the flashlight around -- to investigate not just what is without, but what more tellingly is within. The only way out of selfishness -- or what Buddhists might call ego -- is in. And this suggestion itself takes nerve -- not least because it has all the trappings of a profound selfishness. Is goodness or virtue or the rule of law really enough when it comes to peace? Only an investigation within can answer that question.
My Zen teacher once said, "Without ego, nothing gets done." The search for selfless peace involves doing things and so, assuming anyone might agree with my teacher, peace requires a use of selfishness. Like the martial artist, individuals employ the power of the enemy as a means of attaining victory. The investigation begins within ... selfishly investigating selfishness... my selfishness.
And perhaps the first thing anyone might notice about selfishness is that it relies for its meaning on others. Without other things or people or events, selfishness has no meaning. As a corollary or further descriptive, selfishness implies separation. I do nice things for you; you do nice things for me -- and this separation creates a foundation for altruism and self-centeredness. We validate each other for better or worse.
But wait! Whether imagined or true, does a time when nothing needs improving or revision or correction require validation? Validation, like altruism, requires separation and the question probably needs to be asked, "Is separation true?" If a world filled with separations -- however kindly intended -- doesn't provide an unquestioned peace, perhaps separation could use some investigation.
It may seem unendingly complicated and insoluble: Investigation requires separation and yet what is sought is not divisible. What a clusterfuck! Maybe it would be easier to just act the part of the humble altruist.
Still, once started on the investigative road, there is no turning back short of conceding defeat, believing in a god who knows best without knowing who or what that god might be.
Without ego, nothing gets done and at first the goal, however badly defined, draws the investigator forward. Years and years may pass. Criticisms and failures may mount. Deeper and deeper the rabbit hole seems to go. The effort is so enormous that there is hardly any energy left over for anything so lofty as a "goal." Bit by bit the effort is the effort because it is the effort ... that's all. Validation and separation just take too much damned energy. Screw unquestioned peace! This is what I do, that's all. The rabbit hole leads the way.
Without ego, nothing gets done. Where at first the ego seemed to pose the challenge, now, a little at a time, it is the "nothing gets done" that seems to find a footing. Now, instead of helping little old ladies to carry their groceries because it was the unselfish thing to do, you carry the groceries without recourse to a "because." It's just what you do and what you do accords with the "nothing" that gets done. Nothing ethereal or mystical -- it's just circumstances and action and the composition of the moment. To call it selfless or selfish would be like trying to piss into the wind ... don't blame me if you get piss on your shoes.
The little old lady says, "thank you."
You say, "you're welcome."
Could anything be more peaceful than that? Does anything need improving or revision or correction? Where can selfishness or selflessness enter? Where can anything as useless as separation or oneness stand?
Leave the altruism to the lightweights.