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selfishThere is a common belief that human beings are designed to be selfish beings; we all are born as self¬ish beings and we continue to live as selfish beings unless we are trained to behave otherwise. If this is true and if we are designed to be selfish, selfishness should be rooted in our inner reality. If so, selfishness should exist within us as a permanent characteristic. If it appears only transiently it cannot be considered as a part of our design. Likewise, this characteristic would be sustained within us independent of external factors. If selfishness is expressed only in the presence of certain objects or under certain circumstances, it cannot be considered as a part of our design. Furthermore, if it is a part of our design it would contribute to our survival and growth. If detrimental to our survival and growth, it cannot be considered as a part of the design. These arguments suggest the following three criteria to critically assess the validity of the belief that we are designed to be selfish:

(1) Is our selfishness permanent?
(2) Does it sustain independent of external factors
(3) Does it contribute to our survival and growth?

Is ‘I’, or self, a permanent entity within a person? As stated by Hanson and Mendius (2009, p 211), a neuropsychologist and a neurologist, our everyday feeling of being a unified self is a thought-created illusion. In the brain, every manifestation of the self is impermanent. Being a creation of our thoughts, the self is continually constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed.

For instance, when we are experiencing pain or pleasure, or when we are challenged or threatened, we feel our sense of ‘I’ strongly. When we are in a state of tranquility however, the presence of I is not strongly felt. Thus, the self is not a permanent entity within us. What is permanent is our inner reality, our state of awareness, or consciousness. The state of awareness exists even when self is non-existent, but self cannot exist without the state of awareness. Some point out, with the support of scientific evidence, that our consciousness continues to exist even after death and is hence immortal (Lipton, 2005; Lommel, 2010). Hence, our true essence is not ‘I’ or self, but the consciousness, our state of awareness.

As already mentioned, our sense of ‘I’ emerges in the consciousness and gains strength only when our thoughts are aroused. Arousal of thoughts cannot occur and self-sustain without external interferences, either from the material world or from the memory. Technically speaking, in the absence of external factors, thoughts do not arise, and without thoughts, there cannot be self. It is a common understanding in contemplative traditions that the sense of ‘I’ disappears from the consciousness when the mind calms through meditation. As self-centredness, greed and other related mental formations such as hatred, envy and anger emerge in relation to certain external factors and have no independent existence, these characteristics are not part of our design. Does selfishness contribute to our survival and growth? Some philosophers and scientists have said ‘yes’. For instance, according to some evolutionary theorists, those who carry ‘self-centred’ genes have a greater chance to survive and breed than those who carry “selfless” genes. For economists, it is selfishness, not selflessness, that motivates economic growth and therefore self-centred people have a better chance of survival than others.

However, there are convincing counter arguments. Transpersonal psychologists identify selflessness, altruism and selfless love as human qualities that emerge as we grow psychospiritually. Abraham Maslow (1987), in his motivation theory, and Whit¬more (1997), in his three-stage model of evolutionary progression, describe self-centredness and greed for material wealth as symptoms of the lower levels of our psychological growth. These characteristics gradually diminish as selflessness and love emerge. It is also evident that selflessness and cooperative behaviour contributes more to the survival of human beings than self-centredness and greed.

Sober (2002), a philosopher, noted that selfless and altruist people prosper when they group together and cooperate, whereas when self-centred and greedy people group together, they fight among themselves and slowly disappear. Scherwitz (1983), based on his nine – year research study involving almost 13,000 people, points out that self-focused people are more likely to develop coronary heart disease. It is also a well-observed fact self-centred and greedy people experience stress and are more likely to be subjected to depression and similar psychological problems than selfless and altruistic people.

In light of these evidences, it can be concluded that our sense of ‘I’, self-centredness and greed do more harm to us than good. Thus selfishness fails to meet all three criteria; it does not exist within us permanently, it has no independent existence, and it does more harm than good. Selfishness must have encroached into our consciousness from various external sources and therefore is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. If there are certain qualities we are designed to possess, they are the qualities of our inner reality, the qualities of being, of the universal consciousness.

This question is discussed in details with the support of scientific evidence from quantum physics, neuroscience, transpersonal psychology and scientific studies on consciousness and near-death experience in my new book ‘SPIRITUALITY DEMYSTIFIED: Understanding Spirituality in Rational Terms’.

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