Compassion and Altruism

I’m on my psychiatry rotation in medical school, which is mostly concerned with identifying constellations of symptoms of severe mental illness in order to make a diagnosis and prescribe medication. Additionally, here and there, we apply snippets of psychodynamic theory in order to better understand our patients. “Psychodynamic” is the term we use to describe the theories of personality and behavior that find their origins in the work of Sigmund Freud, and have subsequently spent the past 100 years being modified, re-imagined, extended, divided, etc. The modern Western medical student works with only a few of the most basic and easily understood concepts of psychodynamics, as they are largely considered to be outside the realm of modern medicine.

One aspect of this theory which I find very much in line with my discoveries through meditation is the idea of defense mechanisms. Our minds protect themselves from truths they don’t like, and they do this in various ways. One example is projection: if you have negative thoughts or feelings about someone, but you perceive yourself as a good person who thinks well of others, your subconscious mind tricks you into projecting those thoughts and feelings onto the other person. This person has negative thoughts or feelings about me, I can tell!

There is a list of interesting and compelling defense mechanisms and I’m not going to go through it here (see Wikipedia if you want a quick run-down). However, it is interesting to note that this list is usually divided into categories of goodness. The higher-level defense mechanisms are called “mature,” and are considered to be healthy ways of dealing with the world. It is the goal of most therapists to get their patients to the point where they are applying these mechanisms. And the most virtuous of all, at the very top of this list, is altruism. By serving others, one avoids negative personal feelings.

It looks ridiculous as soon as you write it. I stopped here and almost didn’t write anything else. Any meditator will understand immediately that such a technique may be somewhat beneficial to others and to oneself, but is really quite weak. Yet, upon further thought, is this not the mistaken idea most Westerners have about helping others? Is this how you used to think before you started meditating? Is it possible that the great majority of people have a terrible misconception about what it means to act for the benefit of others?

I’ve never forgotten a certain episode of Friends, in which Pheobe tries to convince Joey that she can perform a completely selfless act. Whenever she does something nice for someone, Joey points out that it made her feel good about herself and was therefore actually selfish. In response, Pheobe embarks on an absurd quest to help someone else in a way that will make her miserable. I love this episode, because it really addresses the misconception most people have of altruistic behavior. When you see altruism as a mere defense mechanism, your worldview is shattered. The next obvious question is, then, why should I do anything nice for anyone? In the show, Joey ends up getting the last laugh, and the question is left hanging for the viewer to answer.

Compassion, of course, is different from altruism. It arises as a result of seeing reality as it is, not protecting oneself from it. The altruistic person can still judge others, see the world in terms of worthy victims and unworthy aggressors, feel superior in their sacrifices. The compassionate person does not judge, applies compassion equally to all people, and has no ego that gets puffed up. Sacrifices are understood not to be sacrifices, but benefits. Selfishness and selflessness are understood to be the same thing, and therefore irrelevant. Is the altruistic person really helping people? Hiding from reality, not understanding themselves, not becoming liberated, can they really expect to help liberate others from their suffering? Of course not. They may lighten suffering temporarily, but cannot do so skillfully, and cannot alleviate it. There are people out there in the world, highly regarded by society, who put the needs of others above their own. They consider their life’s calling to be helping people in some way. They may even consider this to be the meaning of life, and those who admire them may convince themselves of the same. But this is only a defense mechanism. This is not reality. Right understanding will reveal that sacrifice is not sacrifice, and the giving over of oneself is also selfish. These paradoxes can only be understood through the honest search for truth. Only through observation can we come to experience true compassion instead of mere altruism. By placing truth first, by seeing reality as it is, we also end up giving the most benefit to ourselves and others.

One thought on “Compassion and Altruism

  1. Hello my friend, I love this post. Thank you so much for sharing such important insights. I too believe that only through clear seeing and understanding can one become a compassionate being and I feel that when that happens distinctions between “me” and “them” disappear. Helping me becomes helping others and helping others becomes helping my self.

    Honest search for truth!

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