The Middle Way Between Self-Centered and Do-Gooder

The Middle Way Between Self-Centered and Do-Gooder

Most Zen teachers I know will readily admit to you that when they offer a teaching, it’s usually something that they need to remember as much as anyone. With that disclaimer, then, I can write this post without sounding like I’m criticizing everyone else for being self-centered while I’m so nobly free of self concern!

The Buddhist path, from the beginning, has been called the Middle Way. What that means is we try to avoid extremes, which are generally paired and dualistic, such as asceticism versus sensual indulgence, ceaseless striving versus complacent laziness, or being too caught up in concepts versus being too caught up in rejecting all concepts.

When it comes to self-centeredness, the extremes are:

  1. Being so consumed with our own individual lives and experience that self-centered matters take up the vast majority of our time and energy.
  2. Being so determined to prove we don’t care at all about ourselves but only about others, we become a do-gooder – which means our efforts to help are often less beneficial than we’d like to think, and we exhaust ourselves (usually becoming bitter and resentful at some level, despite our intentions).

Now, when we devote ourselves to Zen training, we understand that we need to do a fair amount of internal work. We need to turn the light to shine within, and learn to see through our delusions. We need to work with the precepts in order to live in a less harmful, more compassionate way. This part of our practice is described by the first two pure precepts: cease from harmful action, and do only good. Sometimes this work seems pretty endless. It’s easy to get pretty wrapped up in ourselves – our efforts, struggles, flaws, suffering, and insights, not to mention our daily responsibilities, joys, and challenges.

But then there’s that third pure precept: do good for others. Plus our bodhisattva vow to free all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha Way. How do we enact this part of our practice in order to avoid the first extreme of self-centeredness, but without going to the other extreme of being an oblivious do-gooder?

If you’re anything like me, when you think of doing good for others, you think of additional activities and responsibilities you should add to your life in order to do more stuff that’s explicitly focused on helping others. That’s certainly an important part of this effort, but when our lives are already so busy, there’s only so much stuff you can add. But maybe we overlook some important things when we immediately fixate on literal service?

Maybe our to-do list doesn’t have to get longer. Maybe, instead, we can recognize in what ways our daily life and practice can be done on behalf of others, instead of just for ourselves? When we show up at Sangha practice, it’s not just about what we’re getting out of it; our presence supports and strengthens others, and the Sangha as a whole. When we sit zazen, we’re not just relieving our own stress and making our life more manageable, we’re also touching a great mystery the world desperately needs in order to heal. When we eat well or exercise, we’re not just doing it because we fear ill-health and death, but because other people love and value us and our life brightens theirs. When we read a book or take a course that challenges our views in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we aren’t just educating ourselves, we’re freeing other beings from the negative results of our ignorance.

I think it matters, though, that we consciously include benefiting others in our intention as we go about these various activities and practices. In an open-handed, non-self-centered way, of course. (It’s not about You going around helping all Those Poor People.) Still, including others in your motivation shifts the whole dynamic; activity and results are engaged in a completely different, brighter way than when it’s all about you.

It also matters that you interact with others so they have a chance to experience benefit from what you do. What’s important is to share ourselves. After all, that’s one of our precepts as well: Do not be mean (stingy) with Dharma or wealth; share understanding, give freely of self. Many of us neglect to do this generously because we suffer from low self-esteem and assume no one really wants what we have to share, or that we don’t have anything of value to share. Both of these assumptions are terribly untrue and damaging, and if you feel this way, learning to share yourself and challenge these assumptions needs to be a big part of your practice.

Others of us refrain from sharing ourselves because we’re afraid we’ll be diminished by doing so, and won’t have enough resources left to maintain our health and sanity. But maybe, if we think we’ve had that experience in the past, we weren’t sharing in quite the right way? I’ll leave you with that question, and some words from Zen master Dogen’s essay “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance:”

“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[1]


  1. Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo (Kindle Location 10262). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
Why Your (Real) Happiness Benefits Others

Why Your (Real) Happiness Benefits Others

Throughout my teen years and into young adulthood, I felt miserable about the state of the world. You probably wouldn’t have known it if you’d talked to me: I appeared fairly cheerful and well-adjusted because that’s a strong natural part of my character. Underneath, however, I carried an existential angst that threatened to pull me into neurosis and despair.

“How can I enjoy my good fortune,” I wondered, “while so much of the world is going to hell?” Was I supposed to distract myself with the pleasures of my own life while ignoring widespread starvation, oppression, injustice, extinctions, resource depletion, and environmental degradation? Contentment seemed like folly given the preposterous possibility we would destroy the entire planet with nuclear weapons within a day.

I was led to Buddhist practice by my pervasive sadness about the world and my sense of being powerless against the juggernauts of greed, hate, and delusion. Buddhism seemed to promise a way to gain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world was. I hoped to achieve an “enlightened” view of the world that would let me see how things like injustice, starvation, and mass extinction weren’t that big a deal. I hoped to gain a transcendent view of the world which would put all the misery into perspective and make sense of everything.

Fortunately, after many years of practice, I did learn to access a certain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world is. But I didn’t achieve it the way I expected, by somehow escaping the pain of empathy or the conundrum of responsibility.

Instead, I realized at some point that my real happiness would benefit the world.

What Real Happiness Is

At this point I need to clarify what real happiness is, by first explaining what it’s not. Real happiness does not result from the successful pursuit of self-interest, pleasure, power, material wealth, or stimulating experiences. Real happiness is not getting everything you want, although that’s very nice. That’s just conditional happiness, which doesn’t particularly benefit the world except that others don’t need to worry about taking care of you.

Real happiness is deciding to be appreciative and content in the midst of your life, just as it is – and in the midst of the world, just as it is. Real happiness is refusing to postpone the kind of satisfaction you usually associate with achieving all of your dreams. Real happiness is embodiment and direct experience, free from the filters of expectations and self-concern. When we embrace real happiness, we wake up to miracle of life.

In the Soto Zen scripture on the Buddhist precepts, the Kyojukaimon, it describes the treasure of sangha, or community, as “they who release their suffering and embrace all beings.” Isn’t this remarkable? It doesn’t say, “they who transcend their suffering,” or “they who manage to make their suffering disappear.” The sangha jewel is made up of people who quit holding on to their suffering – which of course implies that we are in charge of our suffering! This passage suggests we can learn how to let our suffering go, and thereby benefit others.

These Buddhist teachings about releasing suffering and attaining peace of mind can be easily misunderstood. It may sound like we’re saying, “Suffering isn’t real, so you can just put it out of your mind, achieve internal peace, and that’s good enough.” We’re not saying that at all. That’s actually an anti-Buddhist way of looking at spiritual practice. The Buddhist way is not selfish. It’s about direct experience… and when you actually let go of your suffering and embrace all beings, the result is not what you think.

How Real Happiness Benefits Others

When we practice real happiness, we wake up. We notice everything – and not just what we can see and hear in our immediate environment. We notice the state of the world, and the state of our heart. We recognize calls to respond, and then our best response naturally arises. We recognize what’s ours to do, and we’re free to do it because we’re not caught up in our own misery, or in pursuing conditional happiness.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

“Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse…

“We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”

It is not necessarily easy to be happy in this real way, at least not until you learn, for yourself, what it really means. Once you know, and once you build familiarity with the practice, all you have to do is bring together body, mind, and heart in once place and trust your awareness. The miraculous, inherently precious nature of our existence is immediately apparent if we just drop all of our concepts about the way life is or should be.

The ability to touch this way of real happiness does not in any way absolve us of responsibility to relieve suffering in the world. It also doesn’t cripple our empathy, or wrap us in a cocoon of cold detachment (things I used to be afraid would happen!). That’s because the way of real happiness is in touch with reality, and in reality, we’re not separate from any other beings, or from the universe itself. In reality we’re embodied human beings with thoughts and emotions. We have time and energy, and we inevitably have to make choices about how to spend them. We can fritter our time and energy away, dedicate ourselves to pursuing comfort or pleasure, or work to benefit self and other in a real way.

The Actual Practice of Real Happiness

I remember walking down the street one afternoon, in the early years of my Buddhist practice, and suddenly realizing my misery and guilt wasn’t doing anyone any good. I thought, “What if I dropped it?” Because of years of practice, I was actually capable of doing that – although it was only for a minute or two. When I “released my suffering,” my world instantly expanded. Instead of feeling like I was wearing blinders that kept me focused on the abstract issue of how I should respond to the sad state of the world, I noticed the trees, sidewalk, birds, flowers, and the crisp, cool air. I noticed my body, walking, breathing, and ready to get to work. I noticed people, and it occurred to me I was available to listen to them in a way I never had been before. I felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. Since that moment, I have understood that my real happiness actually benefits others.

You can recognize the benefit of real happiness from the other side, too – just think of the rare people you encounter who seem to be delighted to be just who they are, doing just what they’re doing. Even if they’re only stocking vegetables in the supermarket, you feel energized, strengthened, inspired, and encouraged when you encounter them. Your burdens feel a little lighter, and your aspirations awakened.

The fact that little daily encounters can let others benefit from your real happiness does not let you off the hook of the bodhisattva vow, of course. We vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha way. Only you know if you’re doing your best at honoring those vows. However, don’t postpone your real happiness until you’ve achieved your ideal of bodhisattvahood. That would make sense if real happiness were a reward you have to earn, rather than a practice that’s accessible to you at any moment.

Zazen as Practicing Great Ease and Joy

Zazen as Practicing Great Ease and Joy


Bodhisattva in the posture of “royal ease.”

Sometimes, when I find zazen challenging or dull, I engage it as a practice of trying to be completely joyful and at ease in this moment – just the way life is right now: in this body, with these aches, bad habits, and unfinished projects, in this moment’s confusing world that is so beautiful and terrible at the same time.

This approach contrasts with practicing zazen in order to achieve joy and ease. When I’m meditating in order to obtain a result (such as relief from stress, greater perspective on my life, a deeper sense of compassion, or spiritual insight), I keep making an effort to let go of discriminative thinking and return my attention to the present moment. I make this effort because it is a tried and true method of obtaining the results I want, even though I don’t really understand why it works. At times this effort is enough, but at other times zazen starts to feel kind of mechanical and boring.

That’s when I change things up. Fortunately, there are many different ways to approach zazen, because my body-mind finds ways to resist any particular one after a while. It seems to me all the different approaches – concentration, koans, metta – ultimately lead to the same place, which is something we can experience but not very accurately describe.

I think Zen master Dogen would approve of engaging zazen as practicing great ease and joy. In his Shobogenzo fascicle “Zazen-gi,” or “Rules for Zazen,” he states, “Zazen is not learning to do concentration. It is the dharma gate of great ease and joy.”[1]

Note that Dogen says “the dharma gate OF great ease and joy,” not “the dharma gate TO great ease and joy.” Now, I realize that Dogen wrote in Japanese, and that language isn’t nearly as fussy about prepositional relationships as English is. Still, respected translators have chosen “of” instead of “to.”

I interpret this to mean the dharma gate IS great ease and joy, and this resonates with my personal experience. When I sit and practice feeling joy and ease in my life just as it is, my body-mind starts to settle.  All my habitual thinking dies down because there is less compulsion to leap mentally out of the present moment. I access a sense of stability, patience, and peace.

Now, the key is that my ability to practice ease and joy is not dependent on conditions, the way I usually assume it is. When I sit ease-and-joy zazen, I notice where I am not completely joyful and at ease. I notice where I am worried, or anticipating things, or holding dissatisfaction. I notice a voice inside me that suggests I can’t be at ease “until…” I notice a resistance to taking joy in life just as it is “because…” Then I try to let those things go, just as I have learned to let go of discriminative thoughts. My myriad reasons to postpone sincere satisfaction and peace of mind have no inherent reality; if I stop giving them energy, they pass away.

This is nothing other than the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha: our experience can be utterly transformed by changing our own minds. Conditions certainly affect and influence us, but the inevitable challenges of life do not preclude great ease and joy.

Another Buddhist teaching highlighted by ease-and-joy zazen, at least for me, is the teaching that enlightenment is essentially understanding or embracing impermanence. Subjectively, I experience this as never, ever reaching a point of rest or resolution. The vast majority of things going on in my life and in the world are either in process or inevitably fated to change. Without realizing it, much of the time I live in anticipation of elusive point of completion and perfection where I will have earned my ease and joy. When I sit zazen, I wake up to the fact that this point will never come, so I had better give up making my peace of mind contingent on achieving it.

I like ease-and-joy zazen for a couple of reasons. First, it’s direct. It’s simply practicing enlightenment without any methods or shortcuts. It may sound hard, but the methods and apparent shortcuts aren’t easy either. Second, it appeals to my heart by identifying the essence of my longing, rather than highlighting mind-states or insights along the way that will theoretically lead to ease and joy. Finally, in the moments when I feel greater ease and joy in my life right-here, right now – well, let’s just say those are moments of my life in which I am awake.

Of course, next week I might be using a different approach to zazen, but I still think this one’s pretty neat.


[1] Translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, New York, 1985.

Photo by Wonderlane

Changing Reality With Positive Thinking

Much of the time we observe the world around us and pass judgement on it. Something we observe may appear good, bad or neutral, but we usually feel like we are simply drawing a conclusion from the data of our experience. We may qualify our judgement by acknowledging it is “just” our opinion or preference, but usually we have a sense that we can’t do much about our opinions and preferences. We either like something, or we don’t. We believe people can usually be trusted, or we don’t. We are convinced the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, or we aren’t.

When someone suggests the “power of positive thinking,” we may think it is something we are supposed to do in our minds to make ourselves feel better. We may think it involves choosing to take a “positive spin on things” rather than listening to our discriminating wisdom when it says something is amiss. Correspondingly, we usually figure that this effort to draw positive conclusions instead of negative ones doesn’t change the reality outside of us, except when we interact differently with that reality because of our new, positive attitude (which, of course, is no small thing).

The Buddhist view on the relationship between positive mind-states and reality is different. Buddhism acknowledges the effect of positive mind-states on our subjective experience; it is more pleasant and less stressful, for example, to feel relaxed than it is to feel angry. When we feel grateful, our chests feel warm and energy flows through us, but when we feel suspicious and stingy, our chests feel tight and our body feels tense. So there’s a good argument for cultivating positive feelings over negative ones if you can. But feeling good isn’t all there is to it.

In the Buddhist view, when we are able to consciously transform the way we relate to an experience, we can change the very nature of that experience. This is because “reality” doesn’t have the hard edges we usually think it does. For me there is no reality “out there,” separate from my mind; I will never be able to perceive a thing without the involvement of my mind. And what is the use of any reality “out there” that can’t ever be perceived? In a sense, reality is born as we perceive it. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean nothing exists except what sentient beings have perceived, as if only the subjective is real. Rather, it is that reality arises in the encounter between subject and object.

This may seem overly philosophical, so here is a concrete example. Say a woman butts in front of me in line at the grocery store. She’s busy talking on her cell phone and clearly in a big hurry, and takes the opportunity of a few extra, ambiguous feet of space to nudge her cart into the line in front of me. It is possible she just didn’t notice me, but that hardly seems like a good excuse. My first reaction is to get angry and defensive, and to curse the woman’s selfishness and self-absorption. My own self-concern arises, and I press my cart in a little closer, to guard against any other people who might want to get ahead of me. 

Then I try the Buddhist exercise of imagining that each person I encounter has, in a previous life, been a kind, nurturing mother to me. And I recall the Buddhist teaching that all beings just want to be happy and avoid suffering (even if they go about seeking what they want in ignorant or destructive ways). Now I notice how anxious and tense the woman in the grocery line is. I know what it feels like to be in a hurry and overwhelmed, and I have no difficulty imagining that in certain circumstances I would at least be tempted to act like she just has. I feel a certain connection with her, and certainly some compassion for her. After all, is it likely she would be so pushy if she was spiritually at peace? Some of my anger and tension dissipate.

Now, what is reality in this example? A selfish, pushy woman butted in front of me? A suffering sentient being, just like me, acted out the age-old drama of seeking happiness and avoiding suffering? Is “reality” only the objective observation that a woman pushed her cart into a few feet of space in front of me in a line? Or all of the above? Reality turns out to be fairly flexible, or at least full of possibilities. 

Fortunately, Buddhist mind training does not involve denying or suppressing experiences or reactions we might categorize as “negative.” I don’t have pretend that it isn’t rude to butt in front of someone at a grocery store. I don’t even have to pretend I don’t care about someone butting in front of me. Without turning away from any aspect of our experience (internal or external), we have some options about how to relate to that experience. We can follow trains of thought that take us deeper into emotions like anger or despair, or we can get creative and apply some other techniques and tools.

Another example of a technique aimed at “positive thinking” is to give something away when you are feeling a sense of lack. It’s best if you give exactly the kind of thing you feel you are lacking, such as paying some personal attention to someone else if you are feeling rather unappreciated by the people in your life. Your generosity will probably be appreciated and will generate some connection and warmth, which might be nourishing for you. For a moment you step out of a sense of powerlessness, waiting for the attention of others, and into a position of strength, where you have something valuable to offer others. This is not a panacea for relationship problems (if there is a real issue to be addressed it will still be there after your act of kindness), but it could get you into a better space for dealing with problems. Or it could jar you out of a neurotic, pessimistic habit of mind that is primarily about your skewed interpretation of the actions of others.

I will close with the Buddha’s own words on this very challenging Buddhist practice of positive thinking, from the Dhammapada:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

“‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

“For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love – this is an old rule.” (translation by Max Müller)

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