The Path of the Altruist

Selfless love is the best guarantee of a fulfilled and meaningful life. An essay in five acts. 

By Guus van Holland

I

I am passing a flower stall when I think, Why not? My wife and I have had a terrible row. Although the dust has settled, I can still feel the pain that I put her through. I can also feel my own hurt racing through my body. I want love to prevail again. I love her, and I want to show her that. Would a bunch of tulips help? Yes, yellow ones, the color of forgiveness and unity. I buy a big bunch.

But on my way home, I feel ambivalent. Am I really doing this to relieve her pain? Or—and this is why I am always of two minds the moment I want to give someone something—am I perhaps doing it for myself? Am I doing it to ease my own pain? To soften her toward me?

For heaven’s sake! Am I doing it again? Am I putting myself first again? Is it all about me again?

I’m afraid so. The point is, of course, that I no longer want her to be mad at me. Why do I not put her first? Surely I can simply reaffirm my love? Simply give my love. Just do it, just be generous. For once think only about her. About her and about others.

Something like that.

These are constant dilemmas. I am surely not the only person affected by them. I know very few people who give for purely altruistic reasons. They do exist, of course,
the Florence Nightingales and Mother Teresas who give without asking anything in return. The volunteer nurses and social workers who neglect their own needs in favor of their fellow human beings without getting anything in return. Who give a part of themselves—their love and consolation, their compassion—simply out of love for others. Neighborly love. Not opening an account. Never asking for repayment.

I wish I were like that, not always thinking, Look at how good I am. And not always thinking of myself first, not always hearing myself talk—about myself—but sometimes listening to other people and being interested in what others have to say.

It is a very difficult balancing act, altruism—or, in other words, selflessness. The word was coined in the 19th century by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who defined it as “elimination of selfish desires and egocentricity.” And: “a life devoted to the well-being of others.”

II

The cover reads, Altruism: The Power of Compassion. The author is Matthieu Ricard, a 68-year-old French Buddhist monk. Egocentricity is the biggest problem of our time, he claims. Everything revolves around the ego, around the self, around self-satisfaction, and in particular around possessions. Not because people are born that way, but because it is instilled in them by their parents and by those around them. If you want to keep up in this tough world, it is your duty as an individual to stand up for yourself.

Ricard defines altruism (or compassion) as the desire to stimulate the happiness of others and relieve their suffering. To sympathize with the suffering of others. After years of research—and through discussions with thinkers, scientists, economists, and others—he concluded that altruism is the key to solving the social, economic, and ecological crises of our times.

According to Ricard, we should meet the challenge of presenting altruism at schools as an invaluable instrument children can use to realize their natural potential for friendliness and cooperation. We must not be afraid to declare that economic principles should not be dictated only by the voice of reason and pure self-interest, but that the economy should also be organized around caring. How can we turn the tide in the Anthropocene epoch, this era in which our planet is in danger of being fundamentally damaged by human mismanagement?

Ricard thinks that altruistic love is the best guarantee for a fulfilled and meaningful life, a life in which we work toward the happiness of others and try to relieve their suffering. He quotes with approval the famous German doctor Albert Schweitzer: “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

In his book, Ricard addresses the same experiences, and particularly confrontations with oneself, that I’ve been going through. For about three years now, I have very seriously and passionately been learning to be a Buddhist. Now that I am meditating and contemplating on a daily basis, I am aware of where I’ve been going wrong. Primarily,
I have been busy with myself and have often been oblivious to what others do, how others lead their lives and how they suffer. And that hurts.

I must read this book.

I had learned about Matthieu Ricard before. He wrote The Monk and the Philosopher. In that book he engaged in a dialogue with his father, Jean-François Revel, a famous phi-losopher. It concerns subjects such as the differences in how neighborly love is perceived in the West and in the East, educational systems and upbringing. Ricard writes: “The word compassion in the Western world frequently suggests a patronizing kind of pity, a form of commiseration that expresses a detached attitude towards the one who is suffering. Whereas the Tibetan word nyingje, which is translated as compassion, literally means ‘the master of the heart,’ in other words he who should rule our thoughts. That is something quite different from what we experience in the West.”

His recent book goes further than that. It appeals to me. I really would like to help others without thinking of myself. It will not hurt that ego of mine—and, indeed, that of others—to be not quite so big. At almost 900 pages, this book should contain enough learning material for a lifetime.

Ricard is also like a mentor on the subject of our personal walk of life. When he was 25 years old, he traveled to the Himalayas. He had come into contact with Eastern wisdom, which was a somewhat unlikely development. He lived in opulence and had intellectual and artistic parents, with lots of acquaintances of equal persuasion, who taught him a great deal. And he was making a career for himself. He had a doctorate in molecular biology, and in that capacity he worked at the Pasteur Institute with François Jacob, Nobel Prize winner for medicine.

But something was bothering him. There is something, but what? I recognize that nagging feeling. But Ricard did not simply accept it. In the Himalayas, thanks to Buddhist masters, meditation for hours on end, and study, he arrived at new insights. He has lived in the Himalayas for 40 years now, in the Shechen Monastery at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. He regularly acts as an interpreter for the Dalai Lama. At the moment he is traveling around the world to propagate his mission.

To the disappointment of his father, who died in 2006, Ricard abandoned molecular biology after his departure from the West, despite his proven talents. In The Monk and the Philosopher, he recalled how he had become aware of different priorities. “I increasingly felt that I was not making full use of the opportunities offered in an individual’s lifetime, that life was slipping through my fingers day by day.”

In addition to his teaching, Ricard manages a foundation that provides aid to some 25,000 children, and donates $1 million per year to needy schools, hospitals, monasteries and philosophical institutes in Tibet, India and Nepal. The money comes from sales of his books and from worldwide sponsorships and lectures. “Without those years of isolation, during which I trained my mind,” he said in an interview in a Dutch newspaper, “I could never have done that.”

In the Himalayas—where he spent five years in isolated meditation—Ricard met people who were on the whole far less concerned with themselves. Not only masters, but also “ordinary mortals.” Self-congratulation and vanity are quite rare among traditional peoples. He saw a form of friendliness that was far removed from the antisocial behavior of Paris—that urban way people have of showing ourselves off. Our selves. With our egos.

What if we could learn to behave like that here in the West? What if we let our personalities recede into the background? If we eliminate our egocentricity and lead lives devoted to the welfare of others?

It is a hell of a job to let go of our egos. For a start, you will have to be bold enough to question the premise that people are not egoists by nature. You will have to assert that, on the contrary, we are built for collaboration, because collaboration leads to better results than working by yourself. By doing something together, you create solidarity, you make friends. Without friends you are alone, right? Man is a social animal.

III

At one time, Eddy Merckx was a gifted racing cyclist. He could win whenever he wanted to, and that was what he did, for almost 20 years. He begrudged other cyclists any victories, because for Merckx there was only one who counted: Eddy Merckx. It was all about him, the favored supertalent. Ergo, his ego. Merckx distanced himself from others. He avoided journalists and never took notice of others. We all knew that the best racing cyclist ever was an incorrigible egoist. Hence his nickname: the Cannibal.

But a completely different Eddy Merckx came to the fore in a retrospective on his life broadcast by the Belgian television channel Canvas last year. After physical deterioration, sickness and heart operations, the Belgian, now 69, told how, as a prosperous builder of racing bicycles, he made a point of employing the men who had “obligingly” supported him during his career as a successful cyclist. Those men had fallen into a black hole after their sporting careers ended. Without a bicycle, a purpose or a leader, their lives had become pointless, hopeless and out of control.

Merckx recognized the suffering. The black hole into which he fell after his career ended was immeasurably deep. “A cyclist who has stopped is the loneliest man in the world.” The unbeatable sportsman who had been living in a cocoon for years, who had hidden his emotions and remained silent because he did not trust the outside world (opponents, teammates, journalists, supporters), turned out to be a sensitive man after all. Eddy Merckx loved people, but he had never been allowed to show it. Because, he said, “If you want to be a champion, you must also be a champion at blocking and masking your own self.”

Now that he could dispose of his mask, a different picture emerged. Others had wanted to benefit from his success. Others had made him a god, and that was exactly why Merckx kept his distance and unerringly cycled on, toward his next victory. It was not that he had not wanted to help people who found themselves in dire straits, gasping for breath or in need of money. It was not that he had not wanted to be altruistic, but by being so he would have ceded his reign as the top cyclist. He would have shortchanged his ego. A winner never shows his vulnerability.

What can we learn from this? Eddy Merckx was not the egoistic sportsman, gloating about his talents and triumphs. He was a modest man who didn’t know any better and just did what he had to do as an athlete: win. Only after his career ended did the Belgian realize that his triumphs were not all of his own making. Only then did he express his gratitude to the people who had made his successes possible: his parents and managers, who had protected him against the “hostile” outside world; his teammates, who had “kept him out of the wind”; and his “water carriers,” who had looked after him. Only then was Merckx in a position to show his human side, and he went on to help those men who had always accused him of being cool and aloof, but who were now stuck in their black holes. Now that Merckx had nothing to lose anymore, he could afford to be humble and focus on other people.

Eddy Merckx was numbed by success. He had started to believe that he was a god: the perfect man who won everything and therefore had the world in the palm of his hand. He had once been unable to believe that he had others to thank for those triumphs; but later in life, Merckx understood that he also felt an urge to help others. He was no longer the epicenter. He saw how others suffered, possibly because he recognized himself in their suffering: not being able to be who you really are, because you are being lived. Time for a change, he thought. I am going to help others. Eddy Merckx became a human being among human beings.

In sports, a particularly competitive world, many champions come to this conclusion over time. Michael Jordan, the best basketball player ever, was taught by his coach that he would get even better once he showed some consideration for his less talented fellow players. The coach in question, Phil Jackson, had found his inspiration in Zen Buddhism. He confronted Jordan with his ego. However good you are, you should always ask for help and offer help. Because only in collaboration with others will you achieve improvement.

Jackson had his players read the fairy tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, about the quest for the “savior,” born out of necessity. On their way, three kinds of seekers meet: a scarecrow who wants a brain, a tin man who desires a heart, a cowardly lion who hopes that the Wizard can give him more courage. They all have their limitations, but together they form an effective team. As time goes by, they become loyal allies. The “I” makes room for the “we.”

Jordan and his teammates also meditated in a real shrine, with glowing incense and sage. They were taught to contemplate the power of doing things together and helping others by effacing yourself, letting go of your ego. In this way they learned to understand one another, the gods and their followers. Playing together. The altruism sparked by Jackson led to record levels of triumph.

Is it strange that I use the world of sports as an example? During my 35 years as a sports reporter, I have learned that the ego of the athlete gets bigger as successes accumulate. Until an overgrown ego leads to overestimation. I saw people who did not make it to the top get depressed. They had always put themselves first—again because those around them (parents, family, friends) urged them to do so: You can do it. You are the best. We recognize the phenomenon as soon as we find ourselves watching from the sidelines as involved parties. Those directly involved want only one thing: He must win.

Although team spirit in sports captures the imagination, in the end it is about winning. Those who play on a team not only want to be better than their opponents; they also want to be better than their teammates, because if they are not, they are out of the game. Sports is the ideal platform for constantly congratulating yourself while downgrading others, for the sake of the pride and for the glory of your own ego.

Sports are supposed to be a reflection of society. The ego of the winner gets a boost; the loser feels banished. Is that also the way we think outside the stadium? Are we, in our everyday lives, also busy stroking our egos and avoiding any damage to our self-image? Or do we, for instance, also say hello to a homeless person? Do we wonder why he has no home and no work? Indeed, do we consider offering our help and possessions, our money?

IV

In the cultural center De Nieuwe Liefde (The New Love), in Amsterdam, Matthieu Ricard delivered his speech and engaged in a debate dressed in a burgundy-colored habit. He could well be considered a strange customer, one who raises suspicions. It requires a readiness to be open to “new” insights—even more so coming from someone who has been living far from the “civilized” world for dozens of years.

When I saw him, my curiosity prevailed over my fears. An ordinary man. He wore sneakers, did not smile all the time and did not see the world through rose-colored lenses. He was realistic, full of conviction in his need to share his experiences.

From the audience—some 250 people—a question was asked about psychopaths and sociopaths, those deranged members of a confusing society who no longer have any feelings of empathy. Or dictators, people without a conscience. How do you deal with them? How can you help them?

Ricard’s answer: “No one asks you to love your enemies or psychopaths. You do not wish them success murdering other people. The question is: What can I do to get through to them, to get some understanding of what makes them tick? What are their inner needs? I could have spent 24 hours with Saddam Hussein and listened to him, gone along for as long as possible, like a judoka, and then ever so briefly tried to get him to follow a different track: a question about love. Whom do you love? Once you notice he’s picking something up, continue listening. It requires patience and, most of all, love. Certainly not hostility. I think it is possible to help psychopaths, people who lack empathy. Listen to them. Show them your love, time and time again. And who knows…”

Empathy is different from altruism. Empathy goes beyond altruism. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of others, hoping to get to understand them better. Ricard’s reaction to a remark made by Roman Krznaric, the English sociologist and philosopher, serves as an example. Together with Alain de Botton, Krznaric founded the School of Life, an international network of centers to develop emotional intelligence. Onstage in Amsterdam, Krznaric, who wrote a book called Empathy, confronted Ricard with his insights on the subject.

Consider, said Krznaric, how an apparently emotionless man will look in a different, more humane setting—playing hide-and-seek with his 3-year-old son, for example, or singing a song for his elderly mother to cheer her up. This is a different type of interaction, and it is likely that he, too, will soften. According to Krznaric.

Nevertheless, empathy sucks you dry. According to Ricard, when you continually empathize with the sick, trying to feel what they feel, this can lead to burnout. “As a doctor or a nurse, you cannot with impunity suffer along with the patient all day long. Maximum commitment, maximum distance. Giving warmth can do a lot in the course of time. If the one who suffers feels your warmth, this can relieve the pain.”

Ricard’s insights are based on neurological tests by the German Tania Singer, director of social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig. From brain scans carried out by Singer on Ricard, it became clear that altruistic (sympathizing) thoughts set off reactions in the brain that are different from those set off by empathic (identifying) thoughts. As Singer indicated this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos (where Ricard also spoke on the subject of altruism), “The lack of compassion is arguably the cause of humankind’s biggest failures.”

I have learned to recognize it myself. I once tried to put myself in the place of a suffering, sick fellow human being. What is he feeling now? I went along. I thought I could feel his pain, his desperation, his hope. I buried myself in that other human being. It helped neither one of us in the least. It exhausted me. I became confused, which caused the other person to become even more confused. Because I was not that other person. It was not my pain.

Altruism can make you feel happy, without feelings of pride or a boosted ego. Give the other individual room to think what he is thinking. Do not put him (the psychopath, sociopath, or dictator) under pressure. Gently try to persuade him of the fact that you want to understand his needs—as Ricard said of his imaginary meeting with Saddam Hussein. Give love. Listen with love. Give him, as a fellow human being, what love you have to give, and do not expect a gift in return for the love you have shown him.

One good turn deserves another: it is the trap for someone who thinks he is behaving altruistically. That means you are giving while quietly hoping, sometimes unconsciously, to receive something in return. Or simply because it flatters your ego: Look at me being good. Is everyone noticing how good I am?

Take my relationship with Facebook. Sometimes I share a message about people in need, or about a Buddhist wanting to spread altruism. Why do I do that? To help others? To make them think? Or do I perhaps want to show that I am anxious to help others or that I have something to say again? Am I not just fishing for compliments?

V

If it is true that altruism is in our nature, then it is soon repressed. Conditioning does its job. We obey our parents and teachers. In his book, Ricard refers to a study among children aged 6 to 9 who were taken to a hospital to visit another child. Ask the child two weeks later if he wants to come along again and there is a 70 percent likelihood that he will say yes. But if, after the first visit, you have given the child a reward—a sweet, a chance to play iPhone games—then the likelihood that the child will want to come along again is, surprisingly enough, much smaller. Ricard’s conclusion: “Children are prepared to come along to offer consolation or help, but not because they are given a lollipop.”

Between 2 and 5 years of age, a child will spontaneously cooperate with others, according to Ricard. Only later does the realization dawn that not everyone is nice and helpful. And the child will proceed to protect himself against those kinds of people. From the age of 12 or 13, feelings of empathy will expand again and the child will begin to feel affinity with, for example, children of the same age in poorer countries.

At least that is the way it goes in the Western world. In traditional societies like those in the Himalayas, Ricard explains, everyone feels involved with others. “There, you do not need to tell a 10-year-old boy to take care of his 3-year-old sister,” Ricard says. “That happens spontaneously.”

Can we do that, too?

The good news is: behavior can be changed. The brain is flexible. On various occasions, Ricard has undergone brain scans. Sometimes he was asked to think altruistically, other times empathically. These two ways of thinking generated different results in different parts of the brain. Something simply happened in the brain. In the case of Ricard, and particularly in the case of monks who had been meditating and contemplating for many hours a day from a very young age, changes in the brain were observed. In the brains of people who never meditated, no changes were observed, unless they frequently indulged in altruism. Brain cells interconnect through training; synapses find one another through “practice,” as it is called in Buddhism. In short: you really can change through meditation.

In the course of his presentation, Ricard used graphics to show how children can change. If you ask them to give a present to another child, initially the present will be given to a friend. After 10 minutes’ daily meditation and contemplation (thinking about others as fellow human beings) for a couple of weeks, children will quite deliberately give the present to the ugliest or nastiest kid in class.

In 2011, Martin Scorsese made a documentary about George Harrison. It is well known that the former Beatle practiced meditation for years. In the turret of his house in England, he meditated every day in the early morning. He also spent long sessions with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. At one point, Harrison gave away many of his possessions. Even his wife—he “gave” her to his best friend, Eric Clapton. “Just go,” Clapton recalls his friend saying. “You do not belong to me, I have seen that; you belong to Eric, my best friend.” Was Harrison an altruist thanks to meditation and contemplation?

And then there is me, trying to please my wife with a bunch of flowers…

Meditation can mean: clearing the mind, generating tranquillity in your thoughts, perceiving thoughts and letting them go again. During meditation, you can also repeat mantras—for example, the wish for others to be free of suffering, for others to experience happiness, for others to act on the basis of their fundamental goodness. That is what is called practice. If you cannot skate, you can learn how to skate through lots of practice. During his visit to the Netherlands in February, Ricard walked through freezing-cold Amsterdam in his shirtsleeves. He said: “I have trained my body to withstand the cold.”

I can practice how to think differently. That is risky. I can already hear people saying, You have lost your way, you are no longer the one I know. But hopefully I am on the right path. I am going to believe in fundamental goodness. In the idea that everyone wants to believe in his own goodness. That everyone is in pursuit of happiness in his own way. That everyone is altruistic and not egoistic by nature. That all people do indeed want to help one another.

In the conclusion of his presentation at De Nieuwe Liefde, Matthieu Ricard quoted from his book the words of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who, more than 2,000 years ago, wrote: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”

For me, that is a mantra for whenever the dilemma of giving away is bothering me again.   

Solution News Source

The Path of the Altruist

Selfless love is the best guarantee of a fulfilled and meaningful life. An essay in five acts. 

By Guus van Holland

I

I am passing a flower stall when I think, Why not? My wife and I have had a terrible row. Although the dust has settled, I can still feel the pain that I put her through. I can also feel my own hurt racing through my body. I want love to prevail again. I love her, and I want to show her that. Would a bunch of tulips help? Yes, yellow ones, the color of forgiveness and unity. I buy a big bunch.

But on my way home, I feel ambivalent. Am I really doing this to relieve her pain? Or—and this is why I am always of two minds the moment I want to give someone something—am I perhaps doing it for myself? Am I doing it to ease my own pain? To soften her toward me?

For heaven’s sake! Am I doing it again? Am I putting myself first again? Is it all about me again?

I’m afraid so. The point is, of course, that I no longer want her to be mad at me. Why do I not put her first? Surely I can simply reaffirm my love? Simply give my love. Just do it, just be generous. For once think only about her. About her and about others.

Something like that.

These are constant dilemmas. I am surely not the only person affected by them. I know very few people who give for purely altruistic reasons. They do exist, of course,
the Florence Nightingales and Mother Teresas who give without asking anything in return. The volunteer nurses and social workers who neglect their own needs in favor of their fellow human beings without getting anything in return. Who give a part of themselves—their love and consolation, their compassion—simply out of love for others. Neighborly love. Not opening an account. Never asking for repayment.

I wish I were like that, not always thinking, Look at how good I am. And not always thinking of myself first, not always hearing myself talk—about myself—but sometimes listening to other people and being interested in what others have to say.

It is a very difficult balancing act, altruism—or, in other words, selflessness. The word was coined in the 19th century by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who defined it as “elimination of selfish desires and egocentricity.” And: “a life devoted to the well-being of others.”

II

The cover reads, Altruism: The Power of Compassion. The author is Matthieu Ricard, a 68-year-old French Buddhist monk. Egocentricity is the biggest problem of our time, he claims. Everything revolves around the ego, around the self, around self-satisfaction, and in particular around possessions. Not because people are born that way, but because it is instilled in them by their parents and by those around them. If you want to keep up in this tough world, it is your duty as an individual to stand up for yourself.

Ricard defines altruism (or compassion) as the desire to stimulate the happiness of others and relieve their suffering. To sympathize with the suffering of others. After years of research—and through discussions with thinkers, scientists, economists, and others—he concluded that altruism is the key to solving the social, economic, and ecological crises of our times.

According to Ricard, we should meet the challenge of presenting altruism at schools as an invaluable instrument children can use to realize their natural potential for friendliness and cooperation. We must not be afraid to declare that economic principles should not be dictated only by the voice of reason and pure self-interest, but that the economy should also be organized around caring. How can we turn the tide in the Anthropocene epoch, this era in which our planet is in danger of being fundamentally damaged by human mismanagement?

Ricard thinks that altruistic love is the best guarantee for a fulfilled and meaningful life, a life in which we work toward the happiness of others and try to relieve their suffering. He quotes with approval the famous German doctor Albert Schweitzer: “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

In his book, Ricard addresses the same experiences, and particularly confrontations with oneself, that I’ve been going through. For about three years now, I have very seriously and passionately been learning to be a Buddhist. Now that I am meditating and contemplating on a daily basis, I am aware of where I’ve been going wrong. Primarily,
I have been busy with myself and have often been oblivious to what others do, how others lead their lives and how they suffer. And that hurts.

I must read this book.

I had learned about Matthieu Ricard before. He wrote The Monk and the Philosopher. In that book he engaged in a dialogue with his father, Jean-François Revel, a famous phi-losopher. It concerns subjects such as the differences in how neighborly love is perceived in the West and in the East, educational systems and upbringing. Ricard writes: “The word compassion in the Western world frequently suggests a patronizing kind of pity, a form of commiseration that expresses a detached attitude towards the one who is suffering. Whereas the Tibetan word nyingje, which is translated as compassion, literally means ‘the master of the heart,’ in other words he who should rule our thoughts. That is something quite different from what we experience in the West.”

His recent book goes further than that. It appeals to me. I really would like to help others without thinking of myself. It will not hurt that ego of mine—and, indeed, that of others—to be not quite so big. At almost 900 pages, this book should contain enough learning material for a lifetime.

Ricard is also like a mentor on the subject of our personal walk of life. When he was 25 years old, he traveled to the Himalayas. He had come into contact with Eastern wisdom, which was a somewhat unlikely development. He lived in opulence and had intellectual and artistic parents, with lots of acquaintances of equal persuasion, who taught him a great deal. And he was making a career for himself. He had a doctorate in molecular biology, and in that capacity he worked at the Pasteur Institute with François Jacob, Nobel Prize winner for medicine.

But something was bothering him. There is something, but what? I recognize that nagging feeling. But Ricard did not simply accept it. In the Himalayas, thanks to Buddhist masters, meditation for hours on end, and study, he arrived at new insights. He has lived in the Himalayas for 40 years now, in the Shechen Monastery at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. He regularly acts as an interpreter for the Dalai Lama. At the moment he is traveling around the world to propagate his mission.

To the disappointment of his father, who died in 2006, Ricard abandoned molecular biology after his departure from the West, despite his proven talents. In The Monk and the Philosopher, he recalled how he had become aware of different priorities. “I increasingly felt that I was not making full use of the opportunities offered in an individual’s lifetime, that life was slipping through my fingers day by day.”

In addition to his teaching, Ricard manages a foundation that provides aid to some 25,000 children, and donates $1 million per year to needy schools, hospitals, monasteries and philosophical institutes in Tibet, India and Nepal. The money comes from sales of his books and from worldwide sponsorships and lectures. “Without those years of isolation, during which I trained my mind,” he said in an interview in a Dutch newspaper, “I could never have done that.”

In the Himalayas—where he spent five years in isolated meditation—Ricard met people who were on the whole far less concerned with themselves. Not only masters, but also “ordinary mortals.” Self-congratulation and vanity are quite rare among traditional peoples. He saw a form of friendliness that was far removed from the antisocial behavior of Paris—that urban way people have of showing ourselves off. Our selves. With our egos.

What if we could learn to behave like that here in the West? What if we let our personalities recede into the background? If we eliminate our egocentricity and lead lives devoted to the welfare of others?

It is a hell of a job to let go of our egos. For a start, you will have to be bold enough to question the premise that people are not egoists by nature. You will have to assert that, on the contrary, we are built for collaboration, because collaboration leads to better results than working by yourself. By doing something together, you create solidarity, you make friends. Without friends you are alone, right? Man is a social animal.

III

At one time, Eddy Merckx was a gifted racing cyclist. He could win whenever he wanted to, and that was what he did, for almost 20 years. He begrudged other cyclists any victories, because for Merckx there was only one who counted: Eddy Merckx. It was all about him, the favored supertalent. Ergo, his ego. Merckx distanced himself from others. He avoided journalists and never took notice of others. We all knew that the best racing cyclist ever was an incorrigible egoist. Hence his nickname: the Cannibal.

But a completely different Eddy Merckx came to the fore in a retrospective on his life broadcast by the Belgian television channel Canvas last year. After physical deterioration, sickness and heart operations, the Belgian, now 69, told how, as a prosperous builder of racing bicycles, he made a point of employing the men who had “obligingly” supported him during his career as a successful cyclist. Those men had fallen into a black hole after their sporting careers ended. Without a bicycle, a purpose or a leader, their lives had become pointless, hopeless and out of control.

Merckx recognized the suffering. The black hole into which he fell after his career ended was immeasurably deep. “A cyclist who has stopped is the loneliest man in the world.” The unbeatable sportsman who had been living in a cocoon for years, who had hidden his emotions and remained silent because he did not trust the outside world (opponents, teammates, journalists, supporters), turned out to be a sensitive man after all. Eddy Merckx loved people, but he had never been allowed to show it. Because, he said, “If you want to be a champion, you must also be a champion at blocking and masking your own self.”

Now that he could dispose of his mask, a different picture emerged. Others had wanted to benefit from his success. Others had made him a god, and that was exactly why Merckx kept his distance and unerringly cycled on, toward his next victory. It was not that he had not wanted to help people who found themselves in dire straits, gasping for breath or in need of money. It was not that he had not wanted to be altruistic, but by being so he would have ceded his reign as the top cyclist. He would have shortchanged his ego. A winner never shows his vulnerability.

What can we learn from this? Eddy Merckx was not the egoistic sportsman, gloating about his talents and triumphs. He was a modest man who didn’t know any better and just did what he had to do as an athlete: win. Only after his career ended did the Belgian realize that his triumphs were not all of his own making. Only then did he express his gratitude to the people who had made his successes possible: his parents and managers, who had protected him against the “hostile” outside world; his teammates, who had “kept him out of the wind”; and his “water carriers,” who had looked after him. Only then was Merckx in a position to show his human side, and he went on to help those men who had always accused him of being cool and aloof, but who were now stuck in their black holes. Now that Merckx had nothing to lose anymore, he could afford to be humble and focus on other people.

Eddy Merckx was numbed by success. He had started to believe that he was a god: the perfect man who won everything and therefore had the world in the palm of his hand. He had once been unable to believe that he had others to thank for those triumphs; but later in life, Merckx understood that he also felt an urge to help others. He was no longer the epicenter. He saw how others suffered, possibly because he recognized himself in their suffering: not being able to be who you really are, because you are being lived. Time for a change, he thought. I am going to help others. Eddy Merckx became a human being among human beings.

In sports, a particularly competitive world, many champions come to this conclusion over time. Michael Jordan, the best basketball player ever, was taught by his coach that he would get even better once he showed some consideration for his less talented fellow players. The coach in question, Phil Jackson, had found his inspiration in Zen Buddhism. He confronted Jordan with his ego. However good you are, you should always ask for help and offer help. Because only in collaboration with others will you achieve improvement.

Jackson had his players read the fairy tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, about the quest for the “savior,” born out of necessity. On their way, three kinds of seekers meet: a scarecrow who wants a brain, a tin man who desires a heart, a cowardly lion who hopes that the Wizard can give him more courage. They all have their limitations, but together they form an effective team. As time goes by, they become loyal allies. The “I” makes room for the “we.”

Jordan and his teammates also meditated in a real shrine, with glowing incense and sage. They were taught to contemplate the power of doing things together and helping others by effacing yourself, letting go of your ego. In this way they learned to understand one another, the gods and their followers. Playing together. The altruism sparked by Jackson led to record levels of triumph.

Is it strange that I use the world of sports as an example? During my 35 years as a sports reporter, I have learned that the ego of the athlete gets bigger as successes accumulate. Until an overgrown ego leads to overestimation. I saw people who did not make it to the top get depressed. They had always put themselves first—again because those around them (parents, family, friends) urged them to do so: You can do it. You are the best. We recognize the phenomenon as soon as we find ourselves watching from the sidelines as involved parties. Those directly involved want only one thing: He must win.

Although team spirit in sports captures the imagination, in the end it is about winning. Those who play on a team not only want to be better than their opponents; they also want to be better than their teammates, because if they are not, they are out of the game. Sports is the ideal platform for constantly congratulating yourself while downgrading others, for the sake of the pride and for the glory of your own ego.

Sports are supposed to be a reflection of society. The ego of the winner gets a boost; the loser feels banished. Is that also the way we think outside the stadium? Are we, in our everyday lives, also busy stroking our egos and avoiding any damage to our self-image? Or do we, for instance, also say hello to a homeless person? Do we wonder why he has no home and no work? Indeed, do we consider offering our help and possessions, our money?

IV

In the cultural center De Nieuwe Liefde (The New Love), in Amsterdam, Matthieu Ricard delivered his speech and engaged in a debate dressed in a burgundy-colored habit. He could well be considered a strange customer, one who raises suspicions. It requires a readiness to be open to “new” insights—even more so coming from someone who has been living far from the “civilized” world for dozens of years.

When I saw him, my curiosity prevailed over my fears. An ordinary man. He wore sneakers, did not smile all the time and did not see the world through rose-colored lenses. He was realistic, full of conviction in his need to share his experiences.

From the audience—some 250 people—a question was asked about psychopaths and sociopaths, those deranged members of a confusing society who no longer have any feelings of empathy. Or dictators, people without a conscience. How do you deal with them? How can you help them?

Ricard’s answer: “No one asks you to love your enemies or psychopaths. You do not wish them success murdering other people. The question is: What can I do to get through to them, to get some understanding of what makes them tick? What are their inner needs? I could have spent 24 hours with Saddam Hussein and listened to him, gone along for as long as possible, like a judoka, and then ever so briefly tried to get him to follow a different track: a question about love. Whom do you love? Once you notice he’s picking something up, continue listening. It requires patience and, most of all, love. Certainly not hostility. I think it is possible to help psychopaths, people who lack empathy. Listen to them. Show them your love, time and time again. And who knows…”

Empathy is different from altruism. Empathy goes beyond altruism. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of others, hoping to get to understand them better. Ricard’s reaction to a remark made by Roman Krznaric, the English sociologist and philosopher, serves as an example. Together with Alain de Botton, Krznaric founded the School of Life, an international network of centers to develop emotional intelligence. Onstage in Amsterdam, Krznaric, who wrote a book called Empathy, confronted Ricard with his insights on the subject.

Consider, said Krznaric, how an apparently emotionless man will look in a different, more humane setting—playing hide-and-seek with his 3-year-old son, for example, or singing a song for his elderly mother to cheer her up. This is a different type of interaction, and it is likely that he, too, will soften. According to Krznaric.

Nevertheless, empathy sucks you dry. According to Ricard, when you continually empathize with the sick, trying to feel what they feel, this can lead to burnout. “As a doctor or a nurse, you cannot with impunity suffer along with the patient all day long. Maximum commitment, maximum distance. Giving warmth can do a lot in the course of time. If the one who suffers feels your warmth, this can relieve the pain.”

Ricard’s insights are based on neurological tests by the German Tania Singer, director of social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig. From brain scans carried out by Singer on Ricard, it became clear that altruistic (sympathizing) thoughts set off reactions in the brain that are different from those set off by empathic (identifying) thoughts. As Singer indicated this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos (where Ricard also spoke on the subject of altruism), “The lack of compassion is arguably the cause of humankind’s biggest failures.”

I have learned to recognize it myself. I once tried to put myself in the place of a suffering, sick fellow human being. What is he feeling now? I went along. I thought I could feel his pain, his desperation, his hope. I buried myself in that other human being. It helped neither one of us in the least. It exhausted me. I became confused, which caused the other person to become even more confused. Because I was not that other person. It was not my pain.

Altruism can make you feel happy, without feelings of pride or a boosted ego. Give the other individual room to think what he is thinking. Do not put him (the psychopath, sociopath, or dictator) under pressure. Gently try to persuade him of the fact that you want to understand his needs—as Ricard said of his imaginary meeting with Saddam Hussein. Give love. Listen with love. Give him, as a fellow human being, what love you have to give, and do not expect a gift in return for the love you have shown him.

One good turn deserves another: it is the trap for someone who thinks he is behaving altruistically. That means you are giving while quietly hoping, sometimes unconsciously, to receive something in return. Or simply because it flatters your ego: Look at me being good. Is everyone noticing how good I am?

Take my relationship with Facebook. Sometimes I share a message about people in need, or about a Buddhist wanting to spread altruism. Why do I do that? To help others? To make them think? Or do I perhaps want to show that I am anxious to help others or that I have something to say again? Am I not just fishing for compliments?

V

If it is true that altruism is in our nature, then it is soon repressed. Conditioning does its job. We obey our parents and teachers. In his book, Ricard refers to a study among children aged 6 to 9 who were taken to a hospital to visit another child. Ask the child two weeks later if he wants to come along again and there is a 70 percent likelihood that he will say yes. But if, after the first visit, you have given the child a reward—a sweet, a chance to play iPhone games—then the likelihood that the child will want to come along again is, surprisingly enough, much smaller. Ricard’s conclusion: “Children are prepared to come along to offer consolation or help, but not because they are given a lollipop.”

Between 2 and 5 years of age, a child will spontaneously cooperate with others, according to Ricard. Only later does the realization dawn that not everyone is nice and helpful. And the child will proceed to protect himself against those kinds of people. From the age of 12 or 13, feelings of empathy will expand again and the child will begin to feel affinity with, for example, children of the same age in poorer countries.

At least that is the way it goes in the Western world. In traditional societies like those in the Himalayas, Ricard explains, everyone feels involved with others. “There, you do not need to tell a 10-year-old boy to take care of his 3-year-old sister,” Ricard says. “That happens spontaneously.”

Can we do that, too?

The good news is: behavior can be changed. The brain is flexible. On various occasions, Ricard has undergone brain scans. Sometimes he was asked to think altruistically, other times empathically. These two ways of thinking generated different results in different parts of the brain. Something simply happened in the brain. In the case of Ricard, and particularly in the case of monks who had been meditating and contemplating for many hours a day from a very young age, changes in the brain were observed. In the brains of people who never meditated, no changes were observed, unless they frequently indulged in altruism. Brain cells interconnect through training; synapses find one another through “practice,” as it is called in Buddhism. In short: you really can change through meditation.

In the course of his presentation, Ricard used graphics to show how children can change. If you ask them to give a present to another child, initially the present will be given to a friend. After 10 minutes’ daily meditation and contemplation (thinking about others as fellow human beings) for a couple of weeks, children will quite deliberately give the present to the ugliest or nastiest kid in class.

In 2011, Martin Scorsese made a documentary about George Harrison. It is well known that the former Beatle practiced meditation for years. In the turret of his house in England, he meditated every day in the early morning. He also spent long sessions with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. At one point, Harrison gave away many of his possessions. Even his wife—he “gave” her to his best friend, Eric Clapton. “Just go,” Clapton recalls his friend saying. “You do not belong to me, I have seen that; you belong to Eric, my best friend.” Was Harrison an altruist thanks to meditation and contemplation?

And then there is me, trying to please my wife with a bunch of flowers…

Meditation can mean: clearing the mind, generating tranquillity in your thoughts, perceiving thoughts and letting them go again. During meditation, you can also repeat mantras—for example, the wish for others to be free of suffering, for others to experience happiness, for others to act on the basis of their fundamental goodness. That is what is called practice. If you cannot skate, you can learn how to skate through lots of practice. During his visit to the Netherlands in February, Ricard walked through freezing-cold Amsterdam in his shirtsleeves. He said: “I have trained my body to withstand the cold.”

I can practice how to think differently. That is risky. I can already hear people saying, You have lost your way, you are no longer the one I know. But hopefully I am on the right path. I am going to believe in fundamental goodness. In the idea that everyone wants to believe in his own goodness. That everyone is in pursuit of happiness in his own way. That everyone is altruistic and not egoistic by nature. That all people do indeed want to help one another.

In the conclusion of his presentation at De Nieuwe Liefde, Matthieu Ricard quoted from his book the words of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who, more than 2,000 years ago, wrote: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”

For me, that is a mantra for whenever the dilemma of giving away is bothering me again.   

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