To be happy, an inspirational poster says, you must forget yourself. But it is advice that seems to contradict common sense and some of the teachings of modern psychology. Self-fulfillment and self-actualization are popular pursuits these days. It makes sense to assume that the more we fulfill our needs and develop our talents, the happier we will be.There is some older wisdom, however, which says the opposite: the way to happiness is not through the self but around it. Despite their irreconcilable differences, most of the world's major religions agree that self is a barrier to an experience of joy and peace. It is a burden which prevents us from experiencing God directly.
Why should this be? Why should self be a barrier to joy? Self is a barrier because its longings, doubts, fears and worries interfere with our capacity to live in the present. Only in the present can genuine, lasting happiness be found. The past is over and done with; the future can never be completely secure despite our plans and efforts. Moreover, self as the seat of our desires, hopes and ambitions is a potential source of unhappiness. The more we want, the more we make ourselves vulnerable to frustration. By contrast, the less we want, the more content we can be with life and the more we can live the present.
Evidence that self can be a burden can be supplied by the fact that many of us seek to forget ourselves in both healthy and unhealthy ways. We usually find the experience pleasurable or even exhilarating.
Consider the challenge of sports. The thrill of downhill skiing, for example, entails this temporary absence of self-awareness. The skier is completely absorbed in what he is doing at the moment and so forgets himself. He has to concentrate on the trail ahead of him because of the potential presence of ice, moguls, rocks and other skiers.
While skiing gracefully - or not so gracefully - down the slope, the skier is one with the snow and mountain. Despite the expense, cold, inconvenience and risk, skiing is exhilarating because he is conscious only of the moment, the trail, the wind and the sky., Gone are worries about Monday's important business meeting orlast Friday's missed opportunity.
I Consider, also, the attraction to drugs and alcohol. Their use would appear to be based upon a desire to reduce or numb the sense of self. When we lose our inhibitions under the influence of alcohol, and act in ways we would not normally behave, we subdue our sense of self and act with less self-consciousness.
The apparent contradiction between the teachings of modern self psychology with its emphasis on self-fulfillment and religion with its emphasis on self denial can be resolved by admitting that self and its needs are important for our happiness and sense of well being We would die if our physical needs were not met and be unhappy if our psychological needs went unfulfilled.
But once our basic physical and emotional needs have been satisfied, we are in a better position to forget ourselves. Once we have found a certain level of contentment, we are ready to fully commit ourselves to larger goals. Need satisfaction can become the springboard to self forgetting.
"The true value of a human being," Albert Einstein once wrote, "is determined primarily by the measure and sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self."
# # # # #