VIRTUE AND SELF – PART III – SELFLESSNESS

“Unless the mind be trained to selflessness and infinite compassion, one is apt to fall into the error of seeking liberation for self alone.” – Gampopa

 

 

After self-discipline, the next component of self-mastery is selflessness (or unselfishness) meaning the unconcern for or de-emphasis of the needs, wealth, or fame for oneself. Of course its opposite is selfishness, seemingly derived from the instinctual drive of life to comply with the first command of evolution – survival of the individual.  Self-preservation in nonhuman animals is mitigated by natural checks that kick in once needs for survival are satisfied. Obviously human history and our own personal experience reveal that such limits are not innate to our species. We alone engage in gluttony to the point of obesity or kill for reasons other than survival. However, ironically, we alone of species have sufficient intelligence to transcend mere instincts when they conflict with reason.

Like self-discipline, selflessness is recognized as essential to self-mastery by most ancient thinkers, although it appears most fully developed in Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism. There are three basic parts: (1) humility, (2) caritas or love and caring for others, and (3) deference to deity or the ultimate. We will investigate these individually and reference some articulate proponents.

HUMILITY

Humility is the internally directed portion of selflessness wherein one overcomes the illusion of one’s own greatness and importance by embracing one’s finitude and limited significance. Humility offers four powerful values for a meaningful life. First it creates an openness to the knowledge and wisdom of others. Consider Charles Caleb Colton’s view: “The greatest friend of truth is Time, her greatest enemy is Prejudice, and her constant companion is Humility.” Hebrew scholars are even more direct: “Who is wise? He who learns from all men.”1 Learning and intellectual growth it seems are dependent on a rational humility with regard to one’s own limited knowledge.

Three other values of humility derive from is its role in removing oneself psychologically from the center or existence. It allows us to participate in something greater than ourselves as Kathryn Hulme observes when she writes: “You must never lose the awareness that in yourself you are nothing, you are only an instrument. An instrument is nothing until it is lifted.”2 This non-centrality of ego is also fundamental to virtue as pointed out by the Cure D’Arts: “Take away humility, and all the virtues disappear.” Last  suppression of the ego turns out being necessary for spirituality especially as a counterbalance to the sin of pride.

These four values of humility – openness, uncentering, virtue, and spirituality are formulated with particular beauty in the East in the words of Lao Tze:

        “He who knows honor and yet keeps to humility

         Will become a valley that receives all the world into it.”3

Humility then is a strength worthy of our ceaseless cultivation.

(continued next post)

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VIRTUE AND SELF – PART II – SELF-DISCIPLINE (continued)

CONTROL OF THINKING

My last post on November 13, 2020 began our discussion on the three parts of self-discipline by examining the conquest of instincts, emotions, and desire. The second part is the need to control one’s thoughts.

The oversized human brain is an entity of ceaseless thinking, especially repetitive, rambling, and often negative thoughts. In addition humans alone of animals can translate these thoughts into speech. The ancients perceived that thoughts and speech required control, again an incredible psychological insight in a prescientific age.

Perhaps of all the ancient sages, Buddha most emphasizes the importance of mastering one’s thoughts and speech, even integrating these into his eight-fold path. While Buddha left no written record, his disciples retained his teachings through an oral tradition, although with some discrepancies. The orthodox from of Buddhism known as Theravada seems to provide the best presentation of Buddha’s eight-fold path. Right thinking and speech are in fact further expanded to right views, right speech, right endeavors, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Briefly right views are knowledge of dharma or Buddha’s four noble truths and other teachings.2 Right speech means abstaining from lying, slanderous or harsh speech, or frivolous chatter. Right endeavor includes (1) preventing unskilled mental states from arising and eliminating those that happen to arise, and (2) causing skilled mental states to arise and maintaining and increasing them after they arise. Right mindfulness means abiding with contemplation of the body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, and mental states as mental states. Right concentration involves the four jhana or meditations.3 Obviously further study and practice will be needed for readers interested in adopting the Buddhist program.

Thus control of thought and speech are the key second item integral to self-discipline, a fact recognized not only by Buddha who developed it explicitly, but by most ancient sages. For example, the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations (Book 4:33) writes, “So where should a man direct his endeavor? Here only – a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies…”

 

 

EQUANIMITY

As instincts, emotions, desires, and negative thoughts are brought under control the self acquires increasing equanimity, and poise. Unconcern for bodily whims, fleeting passions, and trivial social turbulence combined with the control of thought and the development of concentration in purpose leads to mindful calm -‘a luminous mind’ – the great secret of the Eastern philosophers. The last factor in equanimity is the elimination of fear and anxiety, which results from a correct understanding of reality, exemplified by Epicurus who teaches us not to fear the gods or death. In this way the wise person comes to a state called ataraxia or serenity of the soul. The luminous mind and ataraxia represents the highest accomplishment in self-discipline which overflow into another component of the meaningful life, contentment.

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1See posts on this website category Suffering on asceticism dated 4/1/20 – 4/6/20 and 4/ 27/20 – 5/6/20.

2Note the use of the word dharma is different in Buddhism than in Hinduism where it refers to the traditional life of the Hindu.

3Zaehner, R.C., Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions. Barnes &Noble Books, New York, 1997. ISBN0-76070-712-X,  pages 284-288.

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VIRTUE AND SELF – PART II – SELF-DISCIPLINE

 “The mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

 

 

The first of the five components of self-mastery is self-discipline, arguably the most basic element in the mastery of the self. It is logically first as one must have sufficient discipline to undertake the other elements of the virtuous self while also confronting the turbulent changes of daily living. The subparts of self-discipline include: (1) control of instincts, emotions, and desires, (2) right speech and thoughts, and (3) development of equanimity, poise, and mindfulness.

CONTROL OF INSTINCT AND PASSIONS

Most philosophical and religious traditions recognize that humans intrinsically have instincts, desires, and emotions that arise unconsciously or subconsciously and need restraining. Of these three, instincts seem the most natural, serving to preserve the self in order to propagate the species. For other animals then instinct serves and assures their main function. However homo sapiens can transcend this limited formula of function = survival for reproduction – although paradoxically only by suppressing, at least in part, the very instincts that permit nature’s implicit goal for living things. Non-instinctual desires and emotions are more subtle, perhaps affecting other species, but heightened in humans. This likely is the result of the biology of a more complex brain and from the multifaceted relationships arising from our prolonged dependence in childhood and continuing interdependence in adulthood essential for group survival.

This seems obvious now, but take a step back and consider the spiritual depth required to see behind the veil of human nature in a prescientific world. Ancient sages grasped directly the destabilizing effect of uncontrolled drives and passion, and the importance of conquering these as a prelude to a fully meaningful existence. Many great thinkers come to the same remedy; control of instincts and desires requires withdrawal and self-denial, usually in the form of a conscious ascetic practice.1 Epictetus offers a Stoic example when he says “Fast, drink water only, abstain altogether from desire, that thou mayest hereafter conform thy desire to reason.”

(to be continued November 23)

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