Many parents (and other adults) worry that they are raising children who are selfish and wonder how they can teach them selflessness. One common issue, though, is that hardly anyone agrees as to what is considered selfish versus selfless. After all, this topic can be quite subjective and everyone has various opinions, especially when one factors in cultural, generational, and personal differences. Examining the wisdom of the ancient practice of yoga can provide some insights.
One of the best things about yoga is that there are no hard and fast rules that you have to obey, but there are clear guidelines and advisories for anyone to take away. Yoga offers abundant stories of wisdom, as well as relatable tips to make your life a little better. One such book of insight and knowledge is considered to be the foremost book in yogic living, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Sutras, like notes that one takes in a school setting or at a work conference, are threads of knowledge compiled by students of the great sages. In the Sutras, Patanjali lays out the groundwork for yoga and what it means to be a practitioner. It is one of the best books to read to understand all that is yoga, but also to test if some teachings resonate on a personal level.
According to Patanjali, being selfless involves a number of things. Most remarkably, we are selfless when we abstain from things that cause pain, to ourselves and others. Selfishness is the behavior that inflicts and involves suffering and pain, and most importantly serves no one. It does not improve situations or lives. The pain is not just physical or solely the act of being mean – it is a pattern of thought that does nothing BUT cause pain, even if unintentional or unrealized. On the other hand, selflessness is that pattern of thought and behavior that is painless. It does serve to make things, situations, and people better. It unifies and protects. It participates not in self-accolades but in self-care and self-awareness.
With that in mind, it becomes clear that selfishness is not the nature of thinking of oneself and forgoing others. It is deeper and more nuanced than that. Selfishness is when behavior becomes painful…even to the self! As parents and teachers, this is relief! To know that taking a moment for oneself to practice, read, or soak in a tub is not selfish! As kids, this is a relief! To know that you can verbalize when you need something and begin speaking your truth is not selfish! That said, we also know that we need to be cognizant of how our behavior affects others and act accordingly so as not to cause pain to them, because that ultimately causes pain to us, too.
Steer your children and students into thinking about cause and effect. Teach them about consequences and expectations for natural ramifications so that they can better anticipate if something will be painful or painless to themselves and to their neighbors. When we begin this thought process, we inherently become the person that exemplifies what selflessness is, like demonstrating gratitude, building charitableness, taking turns, listening, and vowing to abstain from harm to ourselves and others.