If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.*
In these first few weeks of the new year, email inboxes, social network pages, and newspaper supplements are awash with good advice for self-improvement, usually covering diet, exercise, sleep, relationships and patterns of thinking. I notice, with a sense of cautious hope that the environment features more liberally than usual: “Avoid anything single use,” “Explore flight-free holiday options,” “Let bugs live,” the captions go. In a Guardian article on how to have more fun in 2020, one line jumps out at me: an exhortation to ask ourselves “Who does this help?”**
The wellbeing entrepreneur Nataly Kogan asserts that it is not possible to be a happy human being without an awareness of the “the bigger why.” She recommends viewing your to-do-list, particularly tasks you find mundane or frustrating—“through the lens of Who does this help?” It can increase motivation, lift your mood and improve your ability to manage stress. And little gestures, she says, such as pulling out a chair for a colleague at work, or enquiring after their wellbeing, releases oxytocin in both, giver and receiver and greatly improves job satisfaction.
We are seeing a flood of recent research corroborating the ancient wisdom that happiness, meaning and altruism are intrinsically connected. I do find that hope-giving, as it seems that people who experience reactivity against any overtly religious nudging towards “being less selfish,” show openness towards the idea of generosity when it is underpinned by research.
I am inspired to conduct a little action-research myself. Rather than asking “Who does this help,” however, I am enquiring into “How” others are served, since I am always interested in the detail, variety and beauty of values. So I will ask myself the question ‘How does this serve others’, in relationship to various kinds of actions I perform over a 24-hour period and journal my observations. Looking over the list, the actions seem to fall into certain categories.
Firstly, the most obvious one: directly doing things for others. My four-year-old “buddha-daughter” (equivalent of goddaughter) Willow has been longing for an Elsa doll and I pop over to her house to present her with one I found at a recent swap party. I was thinking of her then, when I spotted it among the medley of clothes, books and other toys, which definitely released some oxytocin, and more of it sweetens my blood stream as I play with her. She wants to be partly Elsa and partly Peter Rabbit and instructs me to be partly reindeer and partly Mr. McGregor. The game is of clear mutual delight and benefit, until it comes to the point when my natural play span is exhausted, whereas she could go on for another few hours. I remember my research question and naming the needs that are being met for her, namely fun, creativity, to matter and be loved, allows me to keep going wholeheartedly for a while longer, chasing Elsa Rabbit away from that carrot bed.
There are other activities in this category: cooking a meal for my husband, Larry and me; asking the electrician who is re-wiring our new home after his family and ringing my mum to tell her I am going away for a week’s retreat. Connecting in this way, caring, taking an interest, and letting people know they matter to me brings relaxation and openness into the relational fields, and taking this in consciously enhances the softening effect.
Secondly: chores. I am halfway through taking dry clothes from the pulley when I remember to ask myself how this serves others. It isn’t a big deal at all, just folding up Larry's and my clothes, but it does contribute order and caring to our lives, and it means he has more time for other things. With that conscious acknowledgement a small inner change takes place, a brightening in the heart region and my movements become a little more graceful, less goal-oriented. I enjoy the shades and juxtaposing textures of our blue, white and grey clothes, taking my time. Much of mindfulness training consists in getting out of auto pilot and enjoying the present moment through the senses. But it can sometimes seem that it is all about “me and my” experience. I am discovering that the orientation towards benefits for others seems to have the same, de-habituating effect.
Part of getting ready to go away is stripping the bed and getting a load of linen and bath towels into the washing machine for a slightly hotter cycle. I remember my question as I unbutton the duvet cover, and again, something shifts and softens internally and I slow down. I admire the quality of the buttons, covered with sage-green, slightly shiny cotton material and sewed on in a way that ensures easy and repeated handling. With the next button the original question “Who is this helping?” returns, but with a difference. It dawns on me, with a shaft of clarity, that it really doesn’t matter who I am doing this for, whose cover this is. Whether it is mine, Larry’s, or a stranger’s are totally irrelevant distinctions; there is just open, loving awareness combined with attention to detail.
Thirdly: when something gets in the way. As I approach the washing machine with my arms full of dirty linen, I notice that Larry has already filled most of the drum with his own clothes for a low temperature wash. My spiritual realisation of non-duality experiences a little tremor of small-self upset; an almost imperceptible setting of the jaw; a familiar frown, giving way quite readily however, when recalling the question. Who is being served indeed, and the ‘how’ of the question fills the kitchen with a glow.
Fourthly: selfcare. I stand in the bay window and tap my body, down the inner arms, up the outer arms, following the meridian lines in Chinese medicine. How does doing qigong serve others? A fierce south-westerly wind pushes against the window panes and needles its way in through minute gaps in the frame. Spreading my arms, I breathe it in, letting them flow back, fingertips facing, I breathe out. Inhaling I take the world within me; exhaling I give myself to the world. Empty, I experience abundance; formless, I fulfil the form.** Who knows how this might be serving others?
Fifthly: indulgence. Really, how does it serve others to drink red wine and eat cheese on oatcakes one hour before going to bed? Now my stern inner critic steps onto the stage with gusto and demands answers: “And do you not think spending so much time sitting on your cushion meditating, doing yoga, reading books, playing the piano, not to mention watching things on Netflix IS RATHER SELFISH, given the state of the world?” When I was a little girl of two and a half, I had two younger sisters who needed our parents more than me and I had to be reasonable, be the big girl who could look after herself. ‘Don’t be so selfish’ was the difficult to hear message I grew up with and even now, after many conversations between us, the inner critic hangs onto this infantile parental voice. But it is getting a little gentler, as his good intentions are recognised: wanting me to be loved and respected, and be part of the tribe. Basically, wanting me to enjoy life, so he and I surrender to savouring my late evening snack.
Sixthly: music. While making porridge I listen to classical music on the radio, Stravinsky most likely. My koan again. Well, if I look after myself well, nourish the body with wholesome food and replenishing movement, the social being in me with loving relationships, the soul with beauty then I will be a better resource for others. But there is too much going on right now; the violin is struggling against the spinning of the washing machine and the hissing of the gas flame. I turn the music off and decide I don’t need anything extra right now. Right now, less is more in serving others.
Seventh: this piece of writing. While composing this article I imagine others, you, receiving encouragement and inspiration from it. There is no doubt about the effectiveness of this approach; it allows ease, flow and great enjoyment of the writing process. Actually, I think I will continue with this research. This focus on benefits for others is a marvellous mindfulness bell, chiming with insight and compassion. Perhaps you may give a go too, for 24 hours? Let me know how you get on: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The Dalai Lama, From The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living (Riverhead Books 2009)
** "The joy audit: how to have more fun in 2020", the Guardian 1 Jan 2020
*** Adapted from a poem by Lama Govinda