Enlightenment – The Selfish Path to Selflessness

Most of the time those on the path to enlightenment are looked upon with a mixture of reverence and expectation. Reverence because most view this path as one of a higher spiritual calling. Expectation because at least anecdotally “enlightened” people tend to give back, support and encourage the best in others.


But that is the end result that is popularized. Is the path to enlightenment really altruistic, or is it a selfish journey? I want to put everyone on the same set of definitions for this conversation before continuing.


Selfish: (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal benefit, profit or pleasure. I would add for one’s own advancement (intellectual, spiritual, etc.) to this as well.

Enlightened: (of a person) having more awareness of intellectual or spiritual knowledge or insight; spiritually aware.


This line of thought came to me as I was trying to find some quiet time for a little meditation. Although I really wanted to just sit and meditate for a bit, I was being interrupted over and over and over again. It was quite frustrating and the act of trying to continue to carve out the time right then was working against the very goal of centering myself and cleaning out some accumulated “gunk” from the previous week.


I started thinking about the people (Buddha for example) that completely left their lives in order to go off and do what they needed to do to attain spiritual enlightenment. I think I understand why. He (Buddha) needed to be selfish. He needed to put his work on himself above the needs of his family. As I understand it, he didn’t abandon them to fend for themselves. He left them well off and secure, but still, he chose to put his needs above staying with his family, which by definition, is a selfish act.


This leads me to two relevant questions. First, was Buddha truly selfish in his choice to turn away from his family while he attained enlightenment? And second, could Buddha have obtained the same level of enlightenment without leaving his family?


Was Buddha (or any other enlightened person) selfish?

My first reaction is yes, they are selfish when they are on the path to enlightenment. In my own training (and I am *far* from enlightened) and teaching I can feel/tell the difference in levels of distraction. Single or unattached people have the option to commit more time and effort to their own training. The result of that is they can devote more time to moving along their path with fewer distractions.


Again, from my own practice, those times when I am on my own and can truly focus on my training, I’m more relaxed and open to identifying steps I want to take or finding patterns I may want to change. And most important, I have the time to just sit and do the inner work. In observing others, I notice that those who have fewer obligations have more freedom to work on themselves.


But day to day, I don’t have that luxury. There is work, dinner, lunches, breakfasts, pets, homework, bills and so many other things that require attention. I fully realize that it is my choice to prioritize those other things higher than my training (most of the time). I also realize that choosing the opposite will have consequences. If I don’t pay my bills, things like the heat and gas get cut off. Not going to work means no paycheck, etc.

Office chaos

This leads to my second question which is can enlightenment be achieved without detaching from family and friends. In my training I have practiced detachment at various times for a number of reasons with the support of my family. During those times, when I detach and focus solely on me, knowing I don’t have to worry about anything else, are some of the best times for exploration.


During those times, I am free to do whatever “work” or “cleaning” I need to support and grow my personal and spiritual self. I both relish those times and I am supremely thankful for them. But as a family man, I’m not free do to this all the time. During those times when I choose family or work obligations over my own concerns, my progress (for lack of a better word) is slowed considerably.


As I go through classes and workshops for yoga and meditation, I notice that this ‘selfishness’ is actually promoted and encouraged. The idea of allowing everyone “to be on their own path” and not interfere is prevalent in these disciplines. And again I look at that perspective and ask, is that not selfish. Each person is on their own path without regard to others. I don’t see this as being done out of malice in any way, but it is still (by definition) selfish. So yes, I do believe that Buddha was selfish for going off to become enlightened.


Beyond the question of selfishness, is there another way?

While it’s definitely more difficult to make progress in my practice, I still make progress. I believe it’s possible to move towards spiritual enlightenment, even when dealing with family, work and all the other stressors and distractions in our lives. I think there are some additional challenges to staying connected and engaged, but I think it’s possible to be on that path.


Another way to look at it (the one I’m opting for) is that I get to put into practice the principles I study. Sometimes even when I don’t really want to. Those that don’t have these types of attachments can spend dedicated time working through their accumulated gunk while minimizing the accumulation of new gunk. Those with the attachments have the additional challenge of dealing with the day to day accumulation of stuff from daily life. Buddha didn’t have to deal with rush hour traffic, a teething baby at 3am or a teenager flinging attitude.


Image courtesy of garryknight.

Image courtesy of garryknight.

In some ways this makes the process more challenging. But in other ways, I see advantages. I get to stay grounded and put what I work through into practical practice. Now this may not be the most efficient way, and it certainly has its drawbacks, but it also offers another path that doesn’t require a shaved head and seclusion in a cave. We can stay connected to and ideally offer inspiration and support to those we care about most.


Could Buddha (or any other enlightened person) have gotten where they were without first being selfish? I don’t know. But with the support of other like-minded people, I’d like to believe it is possible. Think of it this way, instead of being hands off and allowing everyone to wander around on their own path, perhaps we take the time to help out our fellow travelers. Spending a little time with those who are just beginning or who have reached a plateau and may be struggling in their daily lives, could be the act of compassion and inspiration that keeps them, and you, on the path.

Photo courtesy of Paul Davis

Photo courtesy of Paul Davis


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