Let the milk of loving flow into you
In order to grow and thrive, a tree needs water, sunlight, and nutrients from soil.
Would you ever think to call a tree “selfish” for fighting to meet its needs?
Would you look at a struggling tree, dry and drooping from lack of water, and call it a “victim” for crying out for water?
The thought is absurd, nonsensical even.
And yet, strangely, this is what we do with ourselves and other people all the time.
Let me explain.
We have undeniable needs
All human beings have universal core needs that must be met in order for us to be healthy and happy. These include physical, emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual needs.
We all need food, water, air, and shelter.
We all have a need to feel safe and secure. To love and be loved. To belong. To be valued and validated. To be understood.
We all need meaning, purpose, and challenge in our lives.
We all need peace, beauty, harmony, and communion.
(See this list of core human needs from the Center for Nonviolent Communication.)
These basic needs are good and wholesome. When they don’t get met, we feel discontent, frustrated, anxious, sad, and unhealthy.
We suffer. And when we suffer, we create and deepen suffering for others.
The less our needs get met, the less we have to give other people. We cannot give what we don’t have.
The less love we feel, the less love we give. The less empathy we feel from others, the less empathy we extend to others.
Suppressing and perverting our needs
Trees, flowers, dogs, fish — all living things other than human beings — are driven by instinct to meet their needs. They feel no shame in meeting them, nor do they shame each other for seeking the fulfillment of their needs.
Human beings are also driven by instinct to get our needs met. But our expanded consciousness also gives us the ability to suppress our needs. We shame and criticize ourselves and others for seeking to meet our needs.
We have suppressed our needs all throughout history, using a wide range of rationales and techniques.
Ascetics deny their needs in search of spiritual enlightenment. The Buddha himself suffered through a period of ascetic denial, to the point of physical exhaustion and near-death, before discovering what he called the “Middle Way.”
Early Christians, in an effort to draw closer to Christ by understanding His suffering, used a practice called “self-flagellation” and other forms of “mortification of the flesh.”
There are countless psychological mechanisms we use to deny and suppress our needs.
And when we’re not suppressing our needs, our ego is hijacking and perverting them into counterfeits.
Hedonism, greed, revenge, and addictions are all counterfeits of core needs. The more we pursue counterfeits, the less in tune we are with base needs.
We take drugs to ease the pain of not feeling accepted. But the core need is never met, and in fact the pain only worsens.
We engage in promiscuity in the name of sexual needs. But what we don’t understand is that the core need is emotional connection and love.
Two common & particularly damaging forms of suppression
Of all the ways we deny, suppress, and pervert our needs, there are two that are particularly damaging — because they appear to be valid and good.
The two most common styles of suppression are:
1. “Don’t be a victim.”
This brand of suppression comes from the boot camp version of the personal development/motivation world.
We’re taught to “grow up,” “man up,” and “be tough.” Life doesn’t always conform to our expectations. Crying is for sissies. Stop whining and get to work.
2. “Don’t be selfish.”
This brand of suppression comes from religious teachings.
We’re taught to “serve selflessly” and to sacrifice to help others. Subconsciously, we receive the message that pursuing our needs is selfish. Thus, we judge and shame ourselves for not being more “pure” and “righteous” when we focus on our needs. (Mothers in particular are susceptible to this type of thinking.)
When we fall prey to these counterfeits, we’re either playing the role of the repressed hero, or the depressed martyr. We’re either suffering behind an inauthentic mask, or suffering under the burden of resentment.
These two forms of needs suppression are prevalent and hard to recognize because there is truth in them.
It is true that victim mentality only keeps us stuck and disempowered.
It is true that sacrifice, when understood and practiced purely and rightly, can lead to the highest levels of happiness and fulfillment.
Unfortunately, these two common styles are but incomplete, perverted, counterfeit forms of the truth.
True heroes and saints are happy and fulfilled, not depressed and empty.
The most skillful way to overcome victimhood and selfishness
There’s nothing heroic, enlightened, or unselfish about suppressing needs, especially when done unconsciously.
Growing up and maturing doesn’t mean having less needs — it means accepting the responsibility to meet them for ourselves.
Conscious, voluntary sacrifice is fundamentally different than suppression. It is, in fact, a skillful way to get our most important core needs met: love, connection, and meaning.
Selflessness isn’t about suppressing our needs, but rather about differentiating between counterfeit, damaging needs and true, wholesome needs. It’s not about putting our true needs on the altar, but rather our ego.
Even in the transcendence of ego and connecting to our true, divine self, our core needs remain.
In fact, the more connected we become to our true nature, the more in tune we get with our true needs, and the more skillful we become at meeting them.
The best way, then, to stop being a selfish victim is to learn how to consciously and skillfully get our needs met.
The more we fulfill our needs, the more love, compassion, and care we have to give others. The more our needs are satisfied, the less we complain about the unfairness of life and the injustices we’ve suffered.
The ancient Sufi mystic poet Rumi wrote,
God created the child, that is, your wanting,
So that it might cry out, so that milk might come.
Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent
With your pain. Lament! And let the milk
Of loving flow into you.
Our needs are not evidence of selfishness or victimhood. They are evidence of life yearning to live, goodness yearning to manifest.
Our needs are not something to suppress, but rather something to acknowledge and embrace.
Meeting our needs is not a selfish act, but a loving act. It does not justify selfishness, but rather fosters health and wholeness.
For as the renowned Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches,
“When we are well, our wellness spills onto others. And when we are unwell, that too spills onto others. Be well.”