Western culture has become very cozy with selfishness and self-centeredness, even to the point of making them a virtue. We always hear admonitions like “Take care of yourself first,” or “Just tell yourself that you deserve it.” In contrast to our self-absorbed, Western approach to life, Zen Buddhist and psychiatrist Barry Magid writes,
“Zen, on the other hand, is more likely [than psychoanalysis] to directly confront and challenge the old patterns or organizing principles that constitute our self-centeredness. The difficulties inherent in Zen practice (the emotional and physical stress of long hours of sitting), and the conceptual quandaries that arise by having our usual frame of reference radically challenged by the seeming incomprehensibility of a nondualist, nonessentialist perspective as encapsulated in koans, all combine to undermine preexisting modes of organizing and mastering experience.” (Buddhadharma, Winter 2007, 51)
According to Magid, our self-centeredness must be challenged. This is achieved by challenging our basic perceptions of reality—in particular, our deluded dualistic thinking, through which we erroneously perceive a distinction between the observer (us) and what we observe. In this, Zen requires us to take an incredible leap of faith, by denying everything we see and experience, which suggests that there is a real distinction between us and the rest of the world. This leads to a schizoid existence. On the one hand, the Zen Buddhist clothes, eats, and bathes himself; yet on the other hand, he denies the reality of both these needs and his body. However, Magid maintains that this leap is necessary if self-centeredness is to be shattered.
How does Zen break “reality’s” hold on us and, as a result, our self-centeredness? By use of the koan—an unsolvable riddle—which is intended to frustrate our self-centered, logical thinking! Magid explains that the “central part of Zen training” is a matter of “deliberately placing difficulty in the path of the student”:
“One’s self-image and self-importance, along with ones usual modes of knowing, may be threatened or undermined in the face of a seemingly unsolvable koan…optimal response may sometimes take the form of a difficulty that challenges or disrupts old patterns of organization.” (51)
On the one hand, this sounds similar to what our Lord does for us. He disciplines us to uncover our opposition and enmity to Himself and then to conform us into the image of His Son (Deut. 8:2-3; 1 Peter 4:12, 17; Heb. 12:5-12). However, the koan and the philosophy behind it constitute a denial of reason and reality. In contrast to this, Christ takes away the unreal (our rationalizations and denial) to replace it with the real (regret over sin and its antidote). He weans us from self-reliance to the liberty of God-reliance (2 Cor. 1:8-9).
He doesn’t require us to deny our senses but to affirm what we already know in the pit of our gut—that there is something terribly wrong with us and that we stand guilty and shamed before our Creator and Redeemer. The process might hurt, but it doesn’t require us to lobotomize our brains and to deny our experiences. He enlightens us by showing us our sins and then dignifies us by forgiving and cleansing us from them.
I used to depend upon being liked. One day, some of my fellow 12 year-old friends requested I loan them my brother’s bicycle so that their friend would have a way to get home. There was just one catch—my compliant, nine-year-old brother would have to run behind the other bicycles in order to retrieve his own bicycle afterwards. Shamefully, I agreed.
My needs for approval had trumped my conscience. Instead, I had to confess my responsibility and guilt. However, God didn’t require me to believe that my needs and moral failures were merely illusions and to suppress or transcend them. Rather, He satisfied them. By granting me His love and approval, He has enabled me to rise up above the opinions of others.
This has a profound impact upon our understanding of the needs of others. Because God has affirmed and dignified me despite my weaknesses, needs and sins, I can and must affirm others. If I deny large chunks of my experience and believe that through my efforts I have transcended them, I will expect the same of others and will look down on them when they fall short.
God’s love and affirmation is the ultimate answer to self-centeredness. Methadone can replace heroin addiction, but only at a tremendous price. We must be centered on something. Becoming centered upon my Savior has freed me from self-centeredness. I had foolishly loaned the bike at the expense of my brother because I depended upon being liked. However, as I grew in the assurance that God profoundly loved me, I became increasingly free from my need to be loved by others. Freedom from my demanding needs then allowed me to more unselfishly consider how to love others. If we are assured that He provides for us so perfectly, we need not focus so exclusively upon ourselves.
Altruism doesn’t depend upon the eradication of personhood, but rather its affirmation. If I can’t affirm my own personhood, how can I affirm the personhood of others? If I deny my own needs, I must deny that of others. Rather than the denial our needs, it is the assurance of God’s satisfaction of our needs that best counters self-centeredness.