Altruism | Does Enlightenment Mean Doing Good or Just Being Good?

Enlightenment Means Being Altruistic

Altruism and Living a Good Life

One of the more interesting debates in the spiritual landscape is whether or not Enlightenment stops at “being”, or if living a truly enlightened life, includes “doing”.  In other words, can the enlightened life be defined as simply being in the state of Oneness, with no trace of the ego, or should the definition of an enlightened life include doing good and being altruistic?

Is focusing on “being” enough?  Is it ok to stumble upon the state of non-duality or the One Self and then retire to the mountains to rejoice in this discovery?  Or is it incumbent upon those who have discovered this great Truth to then be of service to others?

In the article, the 5 Principles of Living a Good Life, I detailed the 5 principles I follow, which I feel are key to enlightenment and living an awakened and good life.  These 5 principles are the following…

  1. Being Relaxed: Going with the flow.
  2. Witnessing: Being mindful of your thoughts, feelings and actions.
  3. Affection: Being kind and loving.
  4. Honesty: In all things, actions included.
  5. Courage: This is needed to face the horror of your inward state and go beyond.

The above 5 principles were not forged overnight, but they came forth after being on the spiritual path for many years.  Although in the list above I included affection, I did not specifically say that doing good or altruism was a necessary part of the process.  In other words affection can be taken as more passive in nature, while going out there and doing good is more active in nature.

To this list and article, I received a very interested response from my friend Steve Cohen.  He is indicating that the “doing” should be made a part of leading an enlightened life and altruism should be added to the list of 5 principles that are essential for enlightened living.

Of course, I am all for altruism and doing good flows naturally when your heart is full of love and compassion.  The enlightened, free of the burden of self centered desires are loving and giving, and in this state goodness flows from them, but is it ok for them to just reside in “being” and not engage consciously and actively in “doing”?  That is the question being put forth.

Here are Steve’s very insightful thoughts on this subject:

I wanted to share a few thoughts on living an enlightened life, which have been bubbling inside since I read the yoga sutras a few years ago and started to focus on the spiritual journey.  My thoughts didn’t crystallize into something I could articulate until I read your 5 Principles For Living an Enlightened and Good Life article and subsequent meditation.

I was also at the same time preparing a teaching for a monthly service that I lead  and my focus this month is on seeking  balance between “being” and ” doing” using analogies from the Joseph story in the bible.  During recent meditations a realization flowed through that all of the originally articulated enlightenment principles  are “being” focused.

I wanted to suggest an additional essential principle for leading an enlightened and good life that focuses on “doing”.

Altruism.  For this purpose, I define altruism as taking actions with the primary intent of benefiting someone other than oneself.  I believe that part of living an enlightened and good life is coming to the realization that we are all part of the whole and then acting for the benefit of the whole (including another Self in the whole) rather than simply for the benefit of your Self. If enlightenment is defined as awakening to the realization of non- dualism and to the fact that we are each one with others and with divine nature, then it seems to me that altruism is a logical and essential result of this enlightened realization.

I also favor the word integrity over honesty as a more nuanced word for enlightened living.  To me, integrity encompasses honesty of thought and consistent follow through in actions; however, I think this is just word choice preference and we mean something similar in how we use these words.

I guess at some level of enlightenment it is all being focused being in the present with “what is”, but something in my gut tells me that an even higher level of consciousness would be to be doing from that place of enlightened being in the present and that would truly be the epitome of an enlightened and good life.  The journey continues.

Obviously, one can’t encompass all of life in 5 words, but I thought you might be interested in considering these observations.

I continue to very much enjoying your course materials and appreciate the work you have undertaken to compile them.

Steve Cohen

Summary of Altruism and Enlightened Living:

So what do you think?  Is is sufficient to be enlightened, and live your life in love, peace and harmony, in just “Being”, or is it essential to go out there and do good and be altruistic?  If the world is all an illusion, a dream and just a game, is it really important to bother with it at all?  Or, since suffering is real for those who are not enlightened, is it the responsibility of the enlightened to go out there and be of service to others, and help alleviate their pain?

Would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

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11 replies
  1. Shashi Reddy
    Shashi Reddy says:

    I have always believed that when “good” is done, it’s done without being noticed, because a true good person doesn’t do something to be/look “good”, he does it without knowing, naturally, like breathing, without any contemplation. “Doing good”, for it’s own sake, is commendable and better than not doing it at all. But for a true good person, it’s his natural life state, and he can’t be anything else. So he doesn’t think he is doing any favors/good deeds for anyone by being his natural self, hence, he doesn’t expect anything in return. Not even recognition by others or by himself. It’s part of him to be in service to life 24/7, especially the “present”, giving it all his attention, respecting every moment. Just “Being Good” is the epitome of spiritual awareness.
    I think the definitions of “Doing Good”,or “Service”, are some of the most misunderstood terms. I have given up trying to make my friends understand the meaning of “service/doing good”. Some of them think that voluntary work for a few hours each year is service to mankind. I have even had someone argue with me that she does one good thing (like a giving change to the homeless man on the street corner) a day to do her part as being a good person (I know her to be ruthless in every aspect of her life to achieve a higher status in society).
    In my opinion, “Doing good” is preliminary in spiritual enlightenment and it must progress to “Being Good”. If you make/force yourself or others to “Doing Good”, then it becomes counterproductive and interferes with spiritual enlightenment.

    Reply
  2. Denise
    Denise says:

    Hi Anmol,
    Nice topic ;)
    I think that ‘doing’/ ‘giving’ is a natural state of a higher consciousness (we can call it enlightemenment). For example, The nature of Satgurus (true/truth) Gurus is to constantly give. Consciousness flows from them continually, which is to give, for us, for the learner, the disciple, for anyone that is ready to accept. So they are passively ‘doing’ – acting for humanity. They might just be sitting there – ‘only being’ according to our eyes, but they are ‘doing good’ for humanity. By just acknowledging their higher consciousness we receive abundant knowledge from them. True Gurus live for the disciple’s progress and they themselves cherish and keep ascending from that. They are one if nature, so they are not doing as we can see at the physical level, they are at the soul level – giving unconditionally consciousness (doing good).
    I follow a meditation where we were told that if we wanted to progress spiritually we should do spiritual work (spread the meditation in this case). I decided to do that and my spiritual progress has rocketed. Now it is the work I most enjoy. When the time comes for me to go to one of my meditation groups to share this knowledge I feel a surge of energy and my soul rejoices in happiness. So yes, I strongly believe we are one and here to serve. To help other souls wake up. If we are able to recognize the subtleness in the ways we feel, how our soul feels when we do good towards others, then we would know for sure it is part of our spiritual growth and part of this natural process into higher consciousness. It is the law of nature, the law of the soul. Once you progress through spiritual work you become more inclined to give, to do; and when you do, it is like ’emptying your vessel’, and then consciousness flows right back in ya! And… even more than what you gave in the first place.

    I strongly believe you cannot force things, or start ‘doing good’ against your will. If at this stage of your life you want to be by yourself, with yourself it is ok, there is no right or wrong. The spiritual path takes you through many different stages that at points you will want to be alone, observe yourself, maybe be in isolationg for a while, so we can’t compare one person to another. There are many many stages of spiritual growth that doing good comes naturally, if not in this life it will in another!… But, you’ve got to want to do it.
    I never did this work at the beginning of my meditation practice, and no one asked me to, nor pressured me. Once I had heard more of my Guru’s speaches I realized the key to spiritual progress, the Guru-Energies work on earth through spiritual work, and those doing spiritual work. That is their role and mission in life. One day I decided I wanted to live fully by the truth, honour my soul, etc so I took on Guru-karya (Guru-work). Now I want to share this more and more, and the more I do it the more I feel I understand myself and go inwards. So I think it is part of the parcel. But one needs to let it come naturally, not force it at all. There is no right or wrong. Just the right or not so right time for something. Love to all.Thanks Anmol for sharing so much with us.

    Reply
  3. Mandeep
    Mandeep says:

    The feeling of Being is so subtle and fulfilling that anything that manifests in that state is unison with love.
    Doing an great action has to be understood deeply. The fact we feel it is a “great action”, our subtle ego has created a reference against that “greatness” and we simply feel good…because deeply its Egos satisfaction.
    But being and true actions are never separate. They are ONE and one leads to another and vice-versa.
    In-fact, when you perform a truly great action, there is no separation of that action from your being “Being”, and when you are being “Being”..your actions are projection of that “Being”…
    and to a 3rd person who doesn’t understand this process, it looks 2 separate things.
    Actually they are ONE.

    Reply
  4. Karen Koontz
    Karen Koontz says:

    I think there’s a balance — maybe a little of both? But, who really KNOWS ALL THE ANSWERS? Certainly I do not have the answers. one do not.

    Reply
  5. Anmol Mehta
    Anmol Mehta says:

    This response is from Pat, which I think is very insightful and would also like to share with all of you.

    Namastee Anmol:

    My opinion is that each of us must find our own way. For each of us is different, had different life experiences and circumstances. Personally I have found the most peace, joy, love, compassion and harmony by studying and practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga Practice particularly the Yama’s and Niyama’s. Through years of reading lots of spiritual books, tapes, movies, DVD’s I feel I grow more each day and I have lots more growing to do. My family and life experiences have taught me that it is essential to do good, help people, and be kind. I would create much suffering for myself and others if I did not live by these principles. I have moments of enlightenment, moments of just “Being”, moments of love, peace and harmony. I also have moments of frustration, anger, disappointment, as moments when my ego takes over. I’m still human.

    Blessings

    Pat

    Reply
  6. Anmol Mehta
    Anmol Mehta says:

    Dear Mark,

    Great guidance and advice on where one’s awareness ought to be and how selfless behavior can take us beyond our narrow, self-centered focus.

    Thanks for contributing.

    Best,
    Anmol

    Reply
  7. Anmol Mehta
    Anmol Mehta says:

    Hi Ashley,

    Great point. I remember making this point a long time back when I was taking a Buddhism course back in college. For an enlightened person, the appropriate response takes place for the given challenge of the moment. A discussion along those lines, regarding right action and the such.

    Thanks for contributing.

    Best,
    Anmol

    Reply
  8. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Hey Anmol,

    I think unless you are enlightened it is somewhat pointless to speculate on what an enlightened person “should” be doing. I don’t mean that in a snotty way, I just mean almost all of us are presumably not enlightened and when we speculate on what an enlightened person does, we are just projecting our own images of how we think an enlightened person should act based on our own conditioning. See what I’m saying? It’s a good topic.

    Reply
  9. Mark C. Brown
    Mark C. Brown says:

    The purpose of any self-less behavior is to get you to begin to look past the (your) self. When stuck on the self, further progress in terms of en-lightenment, that is, becoming lighter by way of shedding the elements of the self (identity, biases, etc.) is bogged down. It is beneficial to all humans that we treat each other well.There can be no successful community without it. But, that is more about adaptation in life than it is about actually moving consciousness forward. So, be good; it won’t hurt. But more importantly, pay attention to everything that arises, including altruistic inclinations, and let them take their course without allowing them to attach and weigh you down. Namaste.

    Reply

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