Wisely Selfish

In my last entry, I used a phrase that I stumbled across a few years ago while I was traveling in Northern India – “wisely selfish”. This phrase, coined by the Dalai Lama, refers to an ancient teaching that suggests that, “one’s own self-interest and wishes are fulfilled as a byproduct of actually (caring) for other sentient beings”. Or as the fifteenth-century Buddhist master Tsongkhapa states, “The more the practitioner engages in activities and thoughts that are focused and directed toward the fulfillment of others’ well-being, the fulfillment or realization of his or her own aspiration will come as a byproduct without having to make a separate effort.”

When I first heard the“wsiely selfish” teachings, a deep part of me immediately resonated with them. But another part of me, the little girl conditioned to believe that anything “selfish” was inherently bad, was skeptical. It sounded too good to be true. So for the last few years I have used my massage practice, my classroom and my travels to consciously explore and question the truth of this semantically troubling relationship described by His Holiness and his predecessors.

In that time, I have found, and directly experienced, many examples that support the “wisely selfish” doctrine; and at this point I consider myself a firm believer. In fact, I have really come to appreciate this teaching as a guiding principle in my life. But the silly, and in some ways magical, thing about it, is that no matter how strongly I believe that when I enter into a relationship with the intention of helping or teaching another that I will be helped and taught in return, I am always pleasantly surprised when I actually am, and by the ways and the magnitude in which my efforts are re-paid.

For example…

In October, I went to London to visit Sophie, my friend and former student from the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy, who is now there working at a unique charity called Kids Company.

Kids Company was founded in 1996 “in order to provide practical, emotional, and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children and young people.

“Many of the 13,500 children reached by Kids Company’s services have experienced severe and multiple trauma. Often they are ‘lone children’ living in chronic deprivation, with little or no support from the adults in their family; and many have been forced into drug running, gangs or prostitution as the only means of survival in their depleted communities.”

Before Sophie graduated from CRSMT, she told me that she had accepted a new position at Kids Company and that she would be in charge of recruiting and coordinating volunteers who would then provide complimentary therapies such as acupuncture and massage therapy to Kids Company members. I was very inspired by Kids Company’s mission and Sophie’s contribution; so, being “wisely selfish”, I asked if I might “lend a hand” the next time I was in the neighborhood (which happened to be a few days after the Thai Yoga Massage Retreat ended in Scotland).

With the hope of empowering Kids Company members with practical knowledge and skills to help them connect deeply to themselves, and create compassionate connections between themselves and the people in their community, we designed a mini-workshop that focused on relaxation techniques (breath-work, intuitive movement, yoga) and basic massage sequences. We chose to teach traditional Thai Massage techniques on the feet and hands, Shiatsu techniques on the back and Swedish techniques on the head, neck and face. This allowed the students to remain fully clothed during the entire workshop, thereby avoiding potential issues related to physical intimacy. And it exposed them to a variety of different philosophies and approaches to health and healing from cultures across the globe, highlighting the fact that all human beings need to feel connected.

Due to the limited teaching space, and the sensitive and unpredictable nature of exposing students to experiences that might fall outside of their comfort zone, we limited the class to four women. The brave souls that showed up were between the ages of 21 and 34. Three of them were mothers of Kids Company Members. Three of them were immigrants from Jamaica, Guyana and Uganda. All of them had received at least one massage from Sophie at the Heart Yard, and they were all eager to learn about techniques that had the potential to help them stay healthy physically, emotionally and spiritually.

When the workshop began, they were strangers to each other. Their body language suggested a mix of curiosity and apprehension, and their voices expressed a subtle blend of defensiveness and vulnerability. After a few movement exercises their postures and facial expressions softened; and when they described their perceptions of energy moving through their bodies, the tone and strength of their voices shifted, replacing any hint of fear or defensiveness with a sense of calm and child-like wonder.

When we began practicing massage techniques with partners, they demonstrated a natural sensitivity and awareness beyond what I typically see in most beginning massage students. They remained highly present and seemed very comfortable taking what they had been shown and creatively, intuitively, exploring the themes and principles in their own way. At the end of the first day, Sophie and I were amazed by the clarity and wisdom of the insights that they openly shared, such as:

“I got in touch with my body and remembered how to breathe.”

“I sit with sensations and watch them shift.”

“I am feeling the impact of cultivating positive energy.”

“I feel calmer. I can deal with things differently, in a more positive way.”

“I am aware of myself, of my environment, of the give and take, totally absorbed.”

“I will teach friends what I learned, so we can help each other.”

“I respect my body more.”

“I learned to appreciate my feet.”

“Its about not being scared to experience yourself, not being afraid of other bodies…its about being human, your history doesn’t matter.”

On day two, the women again exceeded our expectations and their courage and creativity left us humbled.

At the conclusion of the workshop we gathered for the usual closing circle, but this closing circle was different. As I passed out the certificates of completion, the women’s eyes widened; and tears began to fall. Soon the tears made way for wide smiles, big hugs and animated discussions about where this symbol of success would be displayed in their homes.

I was unexpectedly moved. In our days together the women had behaved in such a dignified manner and demonstrated so much sensitivity, compassion and intelligence, that on some level I remained unaware of the true magnitude of their achievement. When they shared with me that their lives had been so disrupted that this was the first time that they had held a certificate with their name on it and had felt the deep joy of accomplishment, I finally understood the depth of the fears that they had faced and the number of obstacles that they had overcome to simply show up for the workshop, let alone participate so fully; so successfully. I lost it.

As our tears dried, the conversation shifted to the future. Two students announced that they saw massage therapy as their new career. And the mothers in the group all expressed a desire to share this new knowledge with their kids in an effort to develop the kind of relationship that they had longed for as children.

When I left that day, I saw one of the mothers playing with her young son. She seemed to be holding him more tenderly and talking to him more patiently. It was a beautiful image of hope, strength and love.

I thank Kid’s Company for creating The Heart Yard, a therapeutic space where these women felt safe and comfortable enough to take a risk and try something new. I applaud them for seeing the value in complimentary therapies and their potential to break the cycle of poverty and violence on many levels. I am also grateful to Sophie for being a wonderful partner and host.

But most of all, I thank Janet, Nadine, Melissa and Deveika for teaching me invaluable lessons about courage, compassion, non-judgement, and joy; and for giving me enough validation and inspiration to keep me fulfilled for a long time to come. My mind is now closer than ever to being able to let go of labels like “giver and receiver”, “teacher and student”, and truly see the non-dual nature of these types of relationships; closer than ever to truly understanding what it means to be wisely selfish.

A couple weeks ago one of our students was interviewed by the BBC. Please take a minute to listen to Janet’s story and if you feel moved, please consider making a donation to Kid’s Company.

To learn more about Kids Company check out this recent article.