Friday, March 29, 2024

Replacing Self with Others

I attended my first meditation week long retreat and had a transformative experience (New Kadampa Tradition Mountain Retreat, Williams AZ, founder Kelsang Gyatso). Like many others, I was grappling with balancing work, family, and personal life. Despite being in a much better position than countless individuals worldwide, the elusive concept of work-life balance remained a challenge for me.

The week long meditation retreat transformed the way I thought, specifically it introduced the idea of how to reframing my approach to the world. One of the primary teachings was the idea of replacing self for others. This means to put my attention on the needs of others instead of putting that attention on myself. This shift in focus has begun to transform my approach to daily challenges.

Object of Attention: Replacing Self for Others

The concept of "Replacing Self for Others" marks a major shift in the way I/we think.  The more attention/concentration we put on an object, the more our mind and bodies channel our energy around that object. So much of the way I thought prior to the Meditation Retreat was about what I needed to do to achieve my personal goals. Take, for instance, my aspiration to advance from Associate to Full Professor. This goal required me to align research, education, and other activities to satisfy the criteria for promotion—a pursuit that was inherently self-centric and a significant source of stress, given the pressure to publish papers and secure grants. However, the retreat inspired me to view my goals through a new lens, focusing on how I could serve others, particularly my students, trainees, and colleagues. Instead of seeing promotion as an end goal, I began to consider how I could contribute to the advancement of those around me. This shift in perspective transformed my approach: aiding my students and trainees in their career paths, with publication efforts emerging as a natural outcome rather than the sole aim. This reorientation not only redefined my objectives but also imbued me with a renewed sense of purpose and energy.

Both goals (#1 full professor vs #2 helping others) achieved similar outcomes, but tapped into very different sources of energy. The energy source that came from Helping Others (#2) was positive, self-energizing force rather than stress/burden from the former (#1). When we frame our efforts and goals towards helping others, the source of energy transforms into something much more powerful and limitless. A mind shifting statement that I read during that one week meditation retreat is the idea that when we are in the service of others, we will never be lonely. This concept suggests that when our thoughts and energies are invested in helping others, feelings of isolation become untenable. Loneliness, along with other feelings such as sadness, depression, and burnout, stems from a self-focused perspective. Redirecting our attention outward effectively dispels these sentiments, anchoring us in a mindset geared towards communal support and connection. It's a very simple idea but execution is much harder. Yet with small practices that I've been able to do in reframing my efforts, the benefits that I've reaped have been tremendous. I'm no longer worried about all the things that I have to do and get done as part of my obligations / commitments. Now I think about what can I do to help those that I can help and how can I do that. Through the latter lens, I become liberated and my ideas are more free flowing and my efforts become more natural.

It's crucial to understand that prioritizing the well-being of others doesn't mean neglecting our own. A fundamental aspect of Buddhist philosophy is the harmonious balance between Compassion and Wisdom. Compassion motivates us to serve others, a hallmark of a fulfilling life. Yet, this must be tempered with Wisdom, recognizing that not all acts of service hold the same weight in terms of importance or impact. Distinguishing between what is essential and what is not allows us to channel our efforts effectively. Taking care of our bodies, health, and overall well-being is imperative. It is only by ensuring our own health and happiness—mentally, physically, and spiritually—that we can genuinely support others. The idea isn't to forsake self-care in favor of altruism; rather, it's to understand that the most effective way to assist others is by maintaining our well-being. This approach not only maximizes our capacity to contribute positively to the lives of others but also enriches our own experience.

If you want to read more, a good starting point is Kelsang Gyatso How To Transform Your Life. You can get a free pdf version online. I got the Kindle version, and used the "Text to Voice" function on my phone to have my phone read the book to me (audiobook version).

Acknowledgement: ChatGPT helped provided edits to the contents.

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