Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's Not About You

All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for oneself. –Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

I teach in a professional school. On the first day of class, I tell my students, “Until now, your education has been about you, enriching your life, broadening your horizons. Beginning today, it is not about you anymore. It is about the people you will serve with the knowledge you gain here. Everything you learn here is learned for the purpose of helping someone else. Your responsibility to them begins today and requires you to do your best now, because someone someday will be depending on you.”

In spite of this hopefully motivating wisdom I impart to my students, I often live my own life as if it is all about me. Those are not my happiest times. I’m thinking back now to a very difficult time I was going through some years ago. A significant relationship was ending badly, very badly. Naturally, this was entirely the other person’s fault. I was consumed by hate and vengeance, and furiously self-righteous as the victim I perceived myself to be. As the rancorous disentanglement proceeded, I obsessed about each detail, going over everything again and again, fueling my soul’s turmoil. Worse, I made all my friends listen to every detail, yes, again and again.

Finally, one day I realized that I was stuck. I was not moving on or healing or processing or anything. I was saying the same things over and over. I was so bored with myself. Goodness knows, my patient friends must have been bored for ages. I knew I needed to get unstuck, but my grip on my misery was so rigid I could not pry my claws out of it.

About that time I saw an announcement about a volunteer opportunity which involved helping other people by becoming a trained spiritual companion. Not a therapist or a minister, but a person trained to “walk beside” a person who was having difficulty. I signed up and went through the training. I learned that the care relationship was not about me, but about the person needing my attention. I learned to put myself aside and listen to someone else. Really listen. After the training was complete, I had care receivers. The time I spent helping someone else was time I was not spending thinking about my own problems. What a relief! Amazingly, the more I helped other people, the smaller my own problems became. I was happier both because I wasn’t wallowing in self pity, and also because I was being of service to others.

It doesn’t require a time investment as large as the training I underwent. All it takes is a willingness to put yourself aside just long enough to do something nice for someone else. You will both be happier–double benefit!

If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion. –The Dalai Lama

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