Doing Self Better: Pitfalls of Unlivable Spiritual Ideals. ~ Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, Joel Kramer & Dr. Diana Alstad

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‘Holy Fire’ by Alex Grey (1987)

Pitfalls of Unlivable Spiritual Ideals.

Eliminating selfish behaviors is an important part of most religious ethics.

Many religions assume that when human beings are left to themselves, they will be destructively egotistical—even evil. In the face of this, spiritual and religious teachings traditionally prescribe selflessness.

In Ethics for a New Millennium, for example, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, recommends that we put the other first as an antidote to the narcissism that haunts our world. In a similar vein, “we are accustomed in the Judeo-Christian tradition to believe that we should renounce the ego, sacrifice it, forsake it,” psychoanalyst Ann Ulanov writes in The Wisdom of the Psyche. “Anything less is thought to be selfish, if not downright evil.”

Many people believe that to be self-centered is sinful and to be self-less is virtuous.

However, while self-centeredness is implicated in many of the world’s problems—including monumental greed and corruption and heart-breaking cruelty—trying to eliminate it completely is not only unrealistic, but destructive.

Self-centeredness is actually necessary and healthy for a person’s development.

Concern with the self is indispensable for intimacy and creative living, and central to artistic achievements and scientific discoveries, as I (JR) suggest in The Art of Flourishing. And there are unacknowledged costs to religious/spiritual attempts to eradicate or renounce self-centeredness because it is an irreducible part of being human, as Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad illuminate in depth in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

In spiritual matters, as in real estate, hardly anyone trades down.

The attempt among many spiritual practitioners to be selfless appears to be a wonderful cure for narcissism, but that very striving to do away with self-centeredness is actually self-interested. We do it partly because we think we’ll derive some personal benefit from it in the form of spiritual advancement or feeling better.

Moreover, striving to be selfless is actually unhealthy for those people who all too easily put themselves last as a matter of course, or have trouble considering their own needs—a phenomenon I (JR) witness on a daily basis in my psychotherapy practice.

Trying to completely eliminate self-centered behavior often leads to greater self-deprivation and self-preoccupation.

Just like concern for others, self-concern, self-protection, and self-esteem are indispensable for survival. They can’t—and shouldn’t—be purged. Rather, they must be balanced with care, altruism, and the needs of those who are dependent on us.

We call this simultaneous attention to and respect for ourselves, and that which is outside us, doing self better.

Painting by Alex Grey

We do self better when we embrace, instead of attempting to renounce, eliminate, or even minimize, our essential humanness, which includes the evolutionary need for self-protection and valuing and investing in ourselves.

Then we can respond to our self-concern with awareness and wisdom—taking care of ourselves while remaining responsive to the world beyond us. From this perspective, altruism and self-care when done awarely, complement each other, enabling us to be open to others without forsaking ourselves.

Doing self better means being able to expand beyond—and periodically escape from—the suffocating grip of a conditioned, congealed, and cramped sense of self and connect with a fuller range of life.

Many of us are trapped in a narrow identity.

We search for our True Self—as if we have a singular essence—and deny our multidimensionality. We are also weighed down by our comparisons with others and our attempts to heal our injured pride and justify our ultimate worth.

We are more than who we think we are, or try to be.

It is possible to slip through the cracks of our habitual self and be less defensive and more receptive to the richness of existence. We can be open to the moment without a sense of time; un-self-conscious yet acutely aware; passionately engaged in living. Then we greet life with fewer preconceptions and agendas, avoidances and compulsive fixations.

When we do self better—cherish and nurture ourselves, empathize with and care for others (including those outside of our circle of family and friends), and relate to life more fluidly and less self-consciously—the experience of self is a home, not a battleground.

Not only do we flourish, but we contribute to the enrichment of the world.

(Adapted from Dr. Rubin’s blog on Psychology Today)

The creator of meditative psychotherapy, Dr. Jeffrey Rubin is considered one of the leading integrators of the Eastern meditative and Western psychotherapeutic traditions. The author of the critically acclaimed The Art of Flourishing, Psychotherapy and Buddhism, The Good Life, and A Psychoanalysis for Our Time, he has taught at various universities, psychoanalytic institutes, and Buddhist and yoga centers.  You can see more about his work at Also, you can read about his work in the NYT Magazine here.

Joel Kramer is the author of The Passionate Mind and a pioneering innovator of modern yoga. His evolutionary approach is foundational for many teachers and trainings. He was a resident teacher at Esalen and did graduate work in philosophy and psychology.


Diana Alstad did her Ph.D. at Yale and taught the first Women’s Studies at Yale and Duke. By extending Kramer’s yogic approach to the social arena, she created a yoga of relationship, which they continue to develop and teach.

Life partners since 1974, they live near San Francisco. Believing the real battle is for people’s minds, their work offers new perspectives on the human condition, our challenges and possibilities. They talk on social issues, values, evolution, spirituality, and yoga. They coauthored The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness (2009) and The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (1993; e-book 2012) and have taught at Esalen, Omega, Hollyhock, YogaWorks and other centers.

Visit for video and podcast interviews and their articles. Their Facebook page is Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad.


Editor: Elysha Anderson

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anonymous Aug 20, 2012 9:48am

[…] Doing Self Better: Pitfalls of Unlivable Spiritual Ideals. ~ Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, Joel Kramer & Dr… […]

anonymous Aug 19, 2012 1:07pm

Rubin, Kramer and Alstad describe a very freeing way to frame one's sense of self that is non-judgmental. Their short piece is accessible and clearly expressed and a joy to read! I felt an internal sigh of relief at this refreshing and uplifting way of looking at myself. Thank you Diana, Joel and Jeffrey.

    anonymous Aug 21, 2012 1:42pm

    Very glad our piece resonated and was helpful, Marie.

anonymous Aug 17, 2012 3:45pm

Thank you for this fine article. You three capture in a nutshell the ideas I just re-viewed in the documentary video called "Passionate Minds." I was very impressed with your articulate comments and revolutionary ideas.

    anonymous Aug 18, 2012 11:13am

    Thank you! Perhaps parts of Passionate Minds (our 72-min Dvd) should be posted on YouTube – or somewhere – someday.

anonymous Aug 17, 2012 11:49am

I have personally benefitted from all three authors' work on how trying to live up to impossible ideals can create a 'divided self' and can lead to self-sabotaging, often addictive, behaviors. How much more productive — and joyful! — to view self-care as the basis of care for others … a way of interpreting the Golden Rule as an 'is' statement rather than a 'should' statement. Thank you all for your concise presentation of a complex subject!

    anonymous Aug 18, 2012 11:10am

    Thanks for your incisive statement. We're glad our ideas have been relevant to your life.

anonymous Aug 17, 2012 10:27am

Thanks for the reminder of what it means to have a balanced self. For me it's become very simple after years of trying to leverage basic feelings of guilt in order to improve. In my study and practice of Buddhism, it come down to this: Be kind to all. And "all" includes me.

It's been very freeing.

anonymous Aug 17, 2012 9:02am

Great post. I have seen a lot of narcissistic tendencies in myself and in many folks on the spiritual path, always arguing about one teaching is better than others. It's much more useful to look at how our unique personality – physiology and psychology affect our way of learning and how our practice shapes or changes our views. Without seeing them we are all just dreaming we are going on a journey somewhere more spiritual than where we are.

    anonymous Aug 17, 2012 10:27am

    I guess "arguing" is kind of a tipoff, isn't it? !

anonymous Aug 17, 2012 4:49am

You have a very basic misconception of Tibetan Buddhism. To alleviate suffering and ignorance is the goal of the Dalai Lama and through poor translation and ease of conversation and intellectualism the goal has been reduced to a cold intellectual selflessness. Only through practice of the Mahayana and Vajrayana can one realize the immense fullness of the Buddha's teachings. The fullness inherent in all of us which includes all of the ilusions of a seperate self but inclusive of everything and not exclusive of anything.

    anonymous Aug 17, 2012 8:51am

    Our article was not about Tibetan Buddhism, but a particular spiritual ideal that has harmful psychological consequences.

    anonymous Aug 17, 2012 8:52am

    "ONLY through the practice of the Mahayana and Vajrayana can one realize the immense fullness of the Buddha's teaching." This sounds more anorexic than full. Don't think the Buddha would agree with you.

Bob Weisenberg Aug 16, 2012 8:40pm

Excellent article. Thanks to all.

Bob W. Associate Publisher
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Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

    anonymous Aug 16, 2012 10:09pm

    Thanks Bob.
    Glad it resonated and thanks for the opportunity of sharing our thinking with your community.

    anonymous Aug 17, 2012 12:03am

    Thanks for encouraging us to post on elephant journal, Bob!