Selfishness in a Time of Crisis
At the time of writing, the UK had just gone into semi-lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. Now, at the time of publication, global confirmed cases have exceeded 1.2 million, non-essential travel in many countries is banned, and global financial markets are in meltdown. We are in the middle of a pandemic, an unprecedented event in most of our lifetimes. By the time you read this, who knows where we’ll be?
I have witnessed a variety of responses to this situation—on social media, among my friends and Buddhist colleagues, and in my psychotherapy practice. People seem to tend toward one of two extremes, or flip between the two—denial (“it’s not as bad as everyone’s saying,” “I’ll be safe,” “I’m going to carry on as normal”) or hysteria (panic-buyers are clearing out supermarkets, experiencing overwhelming anxiety, compulsively checking the news every 10 minutes). I recognize both of these responses in myself as well.
I’ve also witnessed a lot of selfishness. I just watched a video of a young mother in tears because she couldn’t afford the few huge packs of diapers that were left on the shelves after panic buying, and was worried about how she’d care for her baby. I’ve heard reports of Buddhist sanghas discussing how to “look after their own,” without any energy for talking about helping the broader local community. I have noticed selfishness moving through me too—the buzz I receive from watching the dramatic news unfold.
At times like these, my Pure Land Buddhist practice is supremely helpful. We have only three tenets in Amida Shu, the school of Buddhism to which I belong. The first is that we are bombu—a Japanese word meaning foolish beings of wayward passions. The second is that there is such a thing as a buddha, embodying qualities of limitless wisdom and compassion. The third is that we can take refuge in Amida Buddha, in our case primarily by saying the name of the Buddha, and that the Buddha will accept us just as we are.
The longer I live, the more true the first of these dogmas seems to me. I notice bombu nature in others, and I notice it in myself. We are often like corks, helplessly bobbing around in the currents of our greed, hatred, and delusion. Sometimes we are all too aware of our selfishness, such as when we find ourselves stockpiling more chocolate than we will need for many months, emptying the shelf of every single bar. Sometimes our selfishness is more sneaky, like when we tell ourselves that we are staying in our home to protect the more vulnerable people in our community from being infected, whereas we are actually more worried about catching it ourselves.
It is a relief for me to hear the first tenet, as it gives me permission to be bombu and for others to be bombu too. I feel less alone and I feel less of an awful person. If we ended here, however, this would be a dispiriting spiritual paradigm. Our selfishness runs deep; what can we do about it? Luckily, the second and third tenets help—first by reminding us how it is to look at this selfishness through the eyes of a buddha.
When Amida Buddha watches us being selfish, he gets it. He sees that we are stockpiling food because we are afraid that we won’t be able to feed our families, or because we use food as a comfort and we can’t imagine staying psychologically stable without it. He sees that we indulge in our compulsions as a way of distancing ourselves from old emotions that threaten to flood and overwhelm us. He sees that we hide from our fragility, our impermanence, in a myriad of creative ways—many of them resulting in trouble for us or for others. He sees the depths of our wounds, and he understands why we do what we do, even when we ourselves don’t. He smiles wryly and fondly at our exploits. He accepts us. He loves us.
I have been trying to see those acting selfishly during this time through the eyes of a buddha. It’s not always easy. If it was, I’d be a buddha already. I find myself condemning people’s behavior, feeling outraged, thinking that I’d never do such a terrible thing, writing them off. I also feel that way about my own behavior some of the time. There is a part of me that is convinced that I am the most awful and selfish person ever to walk on the planet, and when I notice myself being selfish this is the final confirmation, and it feels terrible. It is very helpful for me to take refuge in a buddha that sees and accepts me exactly as I am. When I can’t manage it myself, he does. Even if I can’t feel the truth of it, I know that it is true—like the sun behind dark clouds.
When I come into contact with this truth, something magical happens. I see others with tenderness, and I stop berating them and begin to offer them patience, warmth, and understanding. They sense that I have stopped judging them and they often find themselves more able to reflect on their own behavior, or to be more honest with me about their struggles. They change. The same thing happens with my own selfishness—I trust that Amida Buddha understands and so I can approach these selfish parts of me with more curiosity, and as I learn about them I also find self-compassion welling up. These selfish parts begin to relax and, again, change happens.
What can we, as Buddhists, do when we witness the selfishness of others, or when we recognize our own selfishness? We can trust that the Buddha will accept us and these people exactly as we are. This doesn’t mean that he will approve of our behavior—he’d also rather that we were kind to each other—but he sees why we’re not able to be more generous in that moment. We can experiment with seeing ourselves and other people through a buddha’s eyes. This is an advanced practice!
We can also trust, as our refuge deepens and as our faith grows, that we will be able to make sense of more and more of other people’s “bad behavior”—behavior that usually leads us to judge them, push them away, or polarize our view of them. This steadiness will be of great value to others in our community as we move forward into uncertain and frightening times. We can hold our ground, being held by the Buddha, and be conduits for the Buddha’s love.
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Let there Be Loss
Buddhistdoor View: Remembering the Basics of Buddhist Practice as we Imagine our Future
Buddhistdoor View: Steady as She Goes – Compassionate Responses to Global Panics
Buddhistdoor View: Embracing Fear and Uncertainty