Select Page

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.