What is the relationship between self-interest, self-giving, low ethics, and high ethics? To better understand these concepts, we’ll take the help of an interview with Mother Teresa, a video of the Dalai Lama, and an animation by R.O Blechman. Also a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Sri Chinmoy.
I previously quoted Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni, who writes:
Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.
Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao
I find this passage helpful in understanding the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. This is not merely unethical, but often reflects an underlying cruelty, arrogance, and self-will.
Not all attacks on bona fide spiritual teachers come from avowed secularists. In some cases, the attacks are structured as “spirituality lite” vs. “spirituality proper.” Sometimes the attackers correspond to Hua-Ching Ni’s description above — people who just want to use some limited technique to achieve a temporary “high” without actually living the spiritual life; or people whose sense of spirituality is a sort of airheaded social butterfly concept. They like to gossip on Facebook about spiritual topics, but resent any implication that the spiritual quest might entail commitment, self-sacrifice, and loyalty — at least if one hopes to achieve anything meaningful and lasting.
It often takes a discerning eye to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. It’s natural for beginners in spirituality to say What can spirituality do for me? What can I get out of it? As people become more advanced, if they are fortunate then a sea-change occurs and they ask What can I give back? How can I make my whole life a reflection of the truths I have begun to glimpse? It is at this juncture or cusp that some people turn back from their spiritual journey, realizing that they don’t want to lead a life of self-giving. They’re content merely to have glimpsed the truth, and then to return to largely secular preoccupations with career and worldly relationships. In some cases, they may even become hostile to their former spiritual teacher or spiritual community. This is a sort of negative ego reaction to the implicit requirement for self-giving that every spiritual seeker sooner or later recognizes.
If you recognize that spirituality is about self-giving, yet you end your spiritual journey in response to something selfish and limited in your nature, you may easily come to resent and even hate people who “man up” or “woman up” to the challenge and proceed to make their lives all about self-giving. So, one often stumbles upon people who have returned to worldly life, and who mercilessly ridicule those who try to remain faithful to essential spiritual principles and to lead their lives by them. This is an example of low ethics attacking high ethics.
Low ethics does not mean no ethics. Low ethics means the lowest common denominator of ethics from which egoism and base self-interest have not yet been rooted out and still exercise a corrupting influence. Society is struggling to progress and does have some ethics, but these ethics are often muddied by greed and ambition, so they are not reliable. Society as a whole sends extremely mixed messages about what is ethical, and merely by doing everything that society asks one cannot progress very far. So, if one is a spiritual seeker, one tries to please society and live by its rules and laws according to what is required and reasonable; but one also looks to some spiritual teaching and practice in order to gain insight into higher ethics. The highest ethics is to see the truth, and to act in perfect harmony with the truth.
The persecution of Socrates and of Christ was not done by people with no ethics, but by people with low ethics. This is worth pondering for what it can tell us about present day conflicts.
Low ethics are rules-based, rigid, inflexible, and judgemental. High ethics are flexible, compassionate, based on seeing the truth of life and understanding the struggles of each individual soul.
Low ethics says: “Let us maintain the status quo at any cost, for surely we are good people, our political leaders are good, and what we have achieved makes this the best of possible worlds.” High ethics says: “Let us not be afraid to change, for we are not as good as we hope to be, our political leaders are flawed, and what we have achieved is only a beginning, not an ending. We have not truly understood or addressed the problem of suffering, and for this we need more insight and higher ethics.”
Higher ethics brings with it insight and an imperative for change. Low ethics wants to sweep society’s problems under the rug, and to ensure that today’s flawed leaders are still in power tomorrow. Low ethics sees change based on insight and higher ethics as threatening to the status quo, and to the interests and ambitions of people who have staked their claim on low ethics.
Although low ethics frequently tries to destroy high ethics, high ethics only wants to transform low ethics. High ethics says to low ethics: “Alright, I admit that you have a little light. But please try to become better and to embody more light.”
Just as light dispels darkness, high ethics reveals the limitations of low ethics. It cannot help but do so. In a human way, you can say that high ethics “shows up” low ethics. This is why people of low ethics often torture people with high ethics — because they fear being shown up.
In cartoonist R.O. Blechman’s animated retelling of the Nativity story, much wisdom is imparted through images alone:
We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out. He arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto.
If low ethics is synonymous with self-interest, and high ethics is synonymous with self-giving, then the existence of people who lead their lives based on self-giving is a real thorn in the side to people who have opted to follow the path of self-interest. Sometimes we see an obsession on the part of self-interested people with proving that they’re really more ethical than people who have mastered the art of self-giving. This topic dovetails with our earlier discussions of “invalidation ideologies” and “inverted narratives.” Sometimes, in order to feel better about their own lives, people of low ethics create myths about people with high ethics as a way of attacking, shaming, and slandering them, and as a means of invalidating the notion that a life of self-giving reflects higher ethics and greater wisdom.
Much of the modus operandi of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) involves scaring the living daylights out of the general public about minority spiritual groups. One way this is done is by pointing to people who’ve learned to get by with very little and portraying them as dupes or slaves who’ve been deprived of all the worldly pleasures they could otherwise enjoy. This is a type of “fear marketing” of anti-cult ideology in which the false claim is made that spiritual leaders will rob the common people of their material possessions and leave them with nothing. But of course, only a small percentage of people adopt a lifestyle based on self-giving, and they do so willingly because they find some wisdom in it. This poses no threat to the common people.
The high ethics of Mother Teresa and the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet show up the low ethics inherent in the materialist POV. In a December, 1989 interview, Mother Teresa answered these questions about poverty:
Q: Is materialism in the West [a] serious problem?
A: I don’t know. I have so many things to think about. Take our congregation: we have very little, so we have nothing to be preoccupied with. The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have, the more free you are. Poverty for us is a freedom. It is not a mortification, a penance. It is joyful freedom. There is no television here, no this, no that. This is the only fan in the whole house. It doesn’t matter how hot it is, and it is for the guests. But we are perfectly happy.
Q: How do you find rich people then?
A: I find the rich much poorer. Sometimes they are more lonely inside. They are never satisfied. They always need something more. I don’t say all of them are like that. Everybody is not the same. I find that poverty hard to remove. The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.
Q: There has been some criticism of the very severe regimen under which you and your sisters live.
A: We choose that. That is the difference between us and the poor. Because that will bring us closer to our poor people. How can we be truthful to them if we lead a different life? What language will I speak to them?
Q: What is the most joyful place that you have ever visited?
A: Kalighat. When the people die in peace, in the love of God, it is a wonderful thing. To see our poor people happy together with their families, these are beautiful things. The joy of the poor people is so clean, so clear. The real poor know what is joy.
Q: There are people who would say it is an illusion to think of the poor as joyous, that they must be given housing, raised up.
A: The material is not the only thing that gives joy. Something greater than that, the deep sense of peace in the heart. They are content. That is the great difference between the rich and the poor.
— Mother Teresa, Time magazine
In his 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama, documentary filmmaker Rick Ray reaches similar conclusions based on an interview with His Holiness, and on travelling around India:
It seems that both Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, who are Nobel Peace Laureates, agree that to be able to live with very little and still be content is the mark of someone who is inwardly rich. By living with less one is able to give more, and so realize more of one’s human potential.
In contrasting high ethics with low ethics, I’m not suggesting some Manichean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Society is mixed, and human nature is mixed. The message of spiritual figures who exemplify high ethics is not that everyone else is bad and must give up all their material possessions. Rather, the message is that we can all be a little bit better, try not to live so selfishly, try to give a little more and take a little less. Many people in society are receptive to this message, and this is why spiritual figures are often praised even by secular leaders. Psychologists too recommend selfless service as an aid to personal development.
Spiritual figures are not saying that the material should be ignored, but rather that material prosperity alone cannot satisfy our innermost longings. We also need spiritual progress along with material progress.
Self-giving is not a binary concept — it’s a noble ideal which people can gradually make practical. It doesn’t demand that people live without TV or air conditioning as some nuns choose to do. It says, “Start from where you are, and try to get by with a little less, so that you can experience more joy and share more joy with others.”
If you act in a self-giving manner, this will help you develop the insight that we are all connected, all interdependent. In this way, self-giving is not just a solution to the personal problem of egoism, but can also help solve global problems like the destruction of the environment.
Trying to become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.
You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.
Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.
The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.
I’m wandering a bit while moving toward my destination, but perhaps some of these stops along the way will make the journey more fruitful. If time and resources permit, I’ll continue this series. I’d like to discuss how self-interest colours the information we receive every day, and how some of it is junk info with no truth value. UPDATE: Please see “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources.”
I’ll end with a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Indian-American spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy. I think this video shows that self-giving is not so scary after all! Self-giving is like a universal language which allows people from different spiritual traditions to converse together and understand one another. In their shared smiles and shared prayers is a growing recognition that they worship the same God, who is infinitely self-giving.