Mindfulness of Self-Dealing

Photo by Stefan Spassov

Self-dealing is taking advantage of one’s position to act in one’s own interests regardless of the interests of others. When we have the upper hand in a situation – when we find ourselves in a place of power financially, culturally or systemically – do we consider others? Do human beings have an ethical duty to other beings? Are there advantages to building relationships of trust and confidence in one another and to caring for one another?

Our current situation, the pandemic of 2020, highlights the fool’s errand in self-dealing. We’re discovering in real time that we have to rely on one another to do the right thing. In his article for the Atlantic How the Pandemic Will End, writer Ed Yong said, “Pandemics are democratizing experiences. People whose privilege and power would normally shield them from a crisis are facing quarantines, testing positive, and losing loved ones.” Even something as mundane as toilet paper has been revealed as a great equalizer. Those who have the means to hoard for themselves exacerbate a universal problem. Governors have deemed toilet paper factories “essential” during stay at home mandates, but the workers who make this staple are some of the most vulnerable among us because of our meritocratic priorities and values.

Knott, John F. (1918) War Cartoons

You’ve heard the saying, “What comes around, goes around”. It references the universal truth that actions have consequences, and since we’re inseparable from other beings and our environment, the ripple effects of what we think, say and do come back around to us one way or another. The poor chap in the cartoon pictured here doesn’t seem to realize what he’s just done. His illusion of safety or of victory will soon be shattered by the painful consequences of his actions.

Self-dealing isn’t always willful. Sometimes we inadvertently take advantage of people due to simple mindlessness – we aren’t aware of our motivations or we’re ruled by our emotions – basically, we haven’t made the space to consider the consequences of our actions for others. The anxiety many of us are experiencing during these extraordinary times can cause us to act in harmful ways when we’re running on autopilot. A friend recently introduced me to the term “anxiety binding“. This describes the way in which our own worries and fears leak out into our relationships. In a misguided attempt to avoid discomfort or get relief, we can fall into a pattern of pulling others into our anxious stories by:

  1. Taking inappropriate control: giving unasked for advice, doing all the talking and failing to listen, taking over, micromanaging, doing things for others when doing for themselves would benefit them, making ourselves extremely busy, or over-focusing on others. This way of being feels aggressive, intrusive or invalidating to others in our lives and is an unskillful use of our energies.
  2. Abdicating responsibility: failing to follow through on promises or obligations, checking/numbing out, failing to contribute, avoiding important interactions or situations, asking questions we could easily find answers to with a little consideration, asking again and again even after receiving an answer (excessive reassurance seeking), or being the perpetual grasshopper rather than the ant. This way of being puts undue burden on others in our lives and limits our potential for doing good in the world. 

Self-dealing can also make us vulnerable to hypocrisy – engaging in behavior that violates our stated morals and ethical principles, or saying and doing things we’ve been critical of others for. We can see this very clearly in the political arena when candidates and leaders take a moral stance or castigate their opponents for certain actions when it benefits them and then reverse their stance when it gets in the way of their quest for power or victory.

Even when we know we’re self-dealing, the strong emotions that accompany grasping and aversion can thwart our best efforts. For example, in certain ball sports such as soccer, a goal defender may score against their own team in their effort to protect their team’s interests. Called an “own-goal”, this often happens due to miscalculation or unskillful reactivity amidst feelings of desperation – and this mindlessness sometimes even allows the opposing team to use the defender as a pawn. It brings to mind the saying, “cut off your nose to spite your face.” Since the human family cohabitates the Earth upon which we all depend for our very survival, when we do things that seem to advance our own self-interests, but harm others or the planet, we also harm ourselves.

Fortunately, a dedicated mindfulness practice can help us be more aware of our potentially harmful habits and patterns. We awaken to our deep interconnection with others and the planet we live on. This makes the dissonance of self-dealing much harder to tolerate in ourselves. We naturally begin to relate to the world in a way that is in alignment with our highest values and serves the greater good.

This is the test we have been waiting for.
We know how to do this.

We have a choice.
Epidemics, like earthquakes, tornadoes and floods,
are part of the cycle of life on planet Earth.
How will we respond?
With greed, hatred, fear and ignorance?
This only brings more suffering.
Or with generosity, clarity, steadiness and love?
This is the time for love….

It is time to be the medicine, the uplifting music, the lamp in the darkness.
Burst out with love. Be a carrier of hope.
If there is a funeral, send them off with a song.

Trust your dignity and goodness.
Where others hoard…..help.
Where others deceive……stand up for truth.
Where others are overwhelmed or uncaring…..be kind and respectful.

When you worry about your parents, your children, your beloveds,
let your heart open to share in everyone’s care for their parents, their children and their loved ones.
This is the great heart of compassion.

Time to renew your vow.
Sit quietly again and ask your heart: what is my best intention, my most noble aspiration for this difficult time?
Your heart will answer.
Let this vow become your North Star.
Whenever you feel lost, remember and it will remind you what matters.

The world awaits your compassionate heart.
Let’s join in this great task together.

– a riff on Jack Kornfield


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