Thursday, May 23, 2024

What is "Selflessness"


Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D. PhD 

Selflessness is the tendency to ignore one's own needs and interests and serve others.  Some describe selflessness as the way to greater spiritual awareness. Many religions teach selflessness. In Buddhism, selflessness is elucidated as anattā. Long-term Buddhist meditation practice aims at the realization of a "selfless" mode of awareness where identification with a static sense of self is replaced by identification with the phenomenon of experiencing itself (Dor-Ziderman et al.,2013). However, the Buddhist concept of "selflessness" is often perceived by Westerners as a recommendation for the dissolution of their ego (Michalon, 2001).

In the West, the self is perceived as an enduring entity (Michalon, 2001).  Freud described the self as a by-product of ego development. For Carl Jung self was a product of individuation. Freud extensively wrote about the selfish motives of human behavior. 

A self-centered person is often preoccupied with oneself and one's affairs. This is also known as egocentrism. Egocentrics are unable to understand or assume any perspective other than their own (Anderman & Anderman, 2009).  According to Baron and Hanna (1990), depressed individuals show higher levels of egocentrism. In addition, egocentrism has a negative effect on interpersonal relationships (Yamamoto et al., 2008).

Self is not a fixed or static phenomenon.   It is subject to constant change. Self is transient, evanescent, and inconstant.  There is no permanent or unchanging self. Everything arises out of nothing, comes out of the void, and returns to the void. This is not nihilism. It is the actuality and the real nature of the self.

Meditation is a journey toward selflessness. Meditation can untangle the sense of self. Self comes into being and dissolves. Self is an illusory belief. The meditator realizes the emptiness associated with self. This process helps to perceive the world without identification and without ego barriers. In meditation, the meditator enters a hypo-egoic state (Leary et al., 2006). Meditation breaks ego boundaries. 

Selflessness is not mealy a concept. Neuropsychologists have found brain changes during the process of selflessness. According to Dor-Ziderman and colleagues (2013), the experience of selflessness is linked to the attenuation of beta-band activity in the right inferior parietal lobule.

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