You can hear a lot about selflessness in psychological and spiritual circles “just do what is needed for the other person” or “selflessness means putting your own feelings aside”.
There is a danger in all of this that we disappear. Not in the good way that the ‘extinguishing’ of nirvana implies, but that we hide ourselves away deep in the shadow because we don’t fit the image of spiritual behaviour that is vaunted in our communities.
We feel something negative, and quickly supress it and lock it away.
In Sunday school we used to sing, “Envy, jealousy, malice, pride – they must never in my heart abide.” I was having all of these feelings. There was no permission to feel them – so away they went. Slowly, I got smaller and smaller. But this was the smallness of a black hole, massively dense.
Where do these dangerous ideals come from? I think spiritually mature people often do put their own feelings to one side, they genuinely let go of resentment, if it arises at all. Dwelling in faith and gratitude they look like these descriptions of saints that are given to us.
I’m just not sure pretending to be a saint really works.
It doesn’t work for the person pretending because all of that supressed stuff has to come out sometime, somewhere. And it doesn’t work for the people around them because real spiritual maturity and personal growth comes out of being in relationship with a real person.
A person who is at ease with themselves has access to all sorts of responses and reactions, they can be creative, spontaneous and lively, and they retain their own character. A person who is at ease with themselves can be genuinely adaptable and flexible. A person who is at ease with themselves accepts encounter and conflict and difference as part of the complex pattern of life.
We might call such a person fully alive.
Being in relationship to a person who is fully alive allows us to find our own edges, and to experience joy and playfulness. It is the perfect condition for becoming fully alive ourselves.
In my spiritual practice, I call people who are fully alive Buddhas. In my therapy practice, I would say the more fully alive the therapist, the better, and also that therapy is relational: in a good therapy session both the client and the therapist become more fully alive.