Helping is Fine /// But Maybe It’s an Outdated Term Signifying a Subtle Egoism

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Yesterday a commenter responded to our critique of “saving Africa with yoga” with a simple, and presumably snarky, question: Who did you help today? [emphasis added]. Luckily for me, the question happened to be asked on a day when I actually did just get finished “helping” another person. But, man, was that a close one! Dodged a bullet there.

Truth be told, I think the word “help” is one of those words that’s gonna eventually be weeded out for other more nuanced phrasing. Like “server” for “waiter” and “multi-passenger auto-systems conveyor” for “bus driver.” Eventually, instead of saying “I helped someone,” we’ll end up saying, “I helped provide the environment for another person’s growth,” or “I co-created with my animal companion a space for healing.” And, you know what? I’m fine with that. The more we come to understand the symbiotic relationship we share with one another, the more phrases like “I helped him” will seem almost egotistical. “Oh you helped him, did you? And, what was his role? Passive receptacle of your transcendental wisdom?! Fuck you, fascist!”

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This guy has opinions on the way you live your life.

Then again, I’ve been around this I’m-American-and-I-have-no-idea-where-to-put-myself neo-spiritual scene long enough to find myself already cringing when I hear newbs fresh outta Oberlin’s “Difference 101” referring to their Contact Improv class as “a circle for skill-sharing one’s knowledge base with student-teacher co-facilitators.” You know the deal. The same people who at twenty-six years old refer to that little four-year-old girl they nanny for as their “friend.”

I still think contact improvisation is the greatest.

I still think contact improvisation is the greatest.

Ah, but I digress. What I really want to relay is this wonderful quote on helping others by Naropa University and Shambhala Training (not Shambhala Buddhism) founder, Chogyam Trungpa, from (once again) The Myth of Freedom:

“The idea of helping each other is more subtle than we might think. Generally, when we try to help other people, we make a nuisance of ourselves, make demands upon them. The reason we make a nuisance of ourselves to other people is that we cannot stand ourselves. We want to burst out into something, to make it known that we are desperate. So we extend ourselves and step out into someone else’s territory without permission. We want to make a big deal of ourselves, no matter if the other person wants to accept us or not. We do not really want to expose our basic character, but we want to dominate the situation around us. We march straight through another person’s territory, disregarding the proper conditions for entering it. There might be signs saying Keep off the grass, no trespassing. But each time we see these signs, they make us more aggressive, more revolutionary. We just push ourselves into the other person’s territory, like a tank going through a wall. We are not only committing vandalism to someone else’s territory, but we are disrupting our own territory as well—it is inward vandalism too.  It is being a nuisance to ourselves as well as to others.

“If we learn to not make a nuisance of ourselves and then to open ourselves to other people, then we are ready for…selfless help. Usually when we help someone we are looking for something in return. We might say to our children, ‘I want you to be happy, therefore I’m putting all my energy into you,’ which implies that, ‘I want you to be happy because I want you to provide me with entertainment: bring me happiness, because I want to be happy.”

Eh, but what does he know? He slept with his students. So, we should probably “boycott” him, right?

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PS: I should say that I also don’t think people need to become enlightened beings before they can lend a helping hand. I think some people take Trungpa’s words above to suggest that you shouldn’t offer yourself to others unless you’ve purified your intentions. I don’t think that’s his thing. I say: 1. Check yourself. 2. Don’t be a dick. 3. Support if you can and in ways people in need suggest. But, be sure to get #s 1 and 2 down.

19 comments

  1. Deffo. I was going to say on the previous post related to this one that intention is a pretty loose basis for justifying some action that’s not actually “helpful” or appropriate. I think intentions need to be formed with some sort of broader knowledge behind them, so that they’re not entirely originating from a person’s “feelings” or “opinions” which are usually flawed and annoying. If there’s a basis of knowledge that has some objectivity beyond one man or woman’s loose intention then that these intentions can stand up on their own, regardless of fleeting or inaccurate appraisals made by people who usually just want to control situations and other people (maybe in an effort to avoid having to control themselves) and make themselves look good (read: get an ego boost).
    “Purifying your intentions” is right on.
    Just a thought…

  2. Garuda

    Yeah Right on!. Screw my neighbor. The one I have never met. Let his chihuahua get run over. Why would I care to step in and help out? Let me examine my intentions while Chuy mindlessly ambles into a drive time death.
    Sorry Old Lady who went down the embankment after going head on. You will have to wait for a first responder because I needed to examine my boundaries and yours before I may act.
    The first thing my emergency training gave me was the human aspect. The first and most important thing one can do when responding is to let the person know that they are not alone.
    Luckily last summer, a bee gave me the gift of Being Receptive. I was stung on the leg, in 10 minutes I was deeply in anaphalactic shock and my lungs were closing down. My wife, without giving it a second inquiry poured me into the car and got me to the ER. Thank God,for my Wife, those Doctors, and the maker of Epi-pens. All of them conspired to keep my worthless ass alive. There is a debt to pay here, and I choose to pay it forward. Some may like it and some may not. C’est La vie

    • I still think yoga rocks.

      There’s a difference between an emergency responder and longer term response. Immediate care to an emergency should be provided freely. However, take a look at what happens in disaster recovery situations after the initial crisis has passed and in addition to the respectful, competent and thorough responders that know how to give of themselves in ways that do not strip agency from those they partner with, you also find get the disaster tourists feeding off the pain of others in the guise of “helping”.

      Rule #1: Don’t be a jerk. Do no harm.
      Rule #2: Check – do you really have anything constructive do provide?
      Rule #3: Check – do they really want it?
      Rule #4: Check – Be honest with yourself about why you want to do this.

      • Garuda

        I guess when my friend Joe was deciding to hang himself (a very real concept of life and death) while I contemplated an abstract idea of life and death, an emergency was strictly between his ears. Well, a widow and two orphaned children later I am here thinking what Joe could have used was a Jerky friend to rattle his cage. You know the type. The one who calls him at 5 in the morning just to tell him that he is not alone whether or not he wants me to there for him. Being honest with myself about why I would step into a situation that is none of my business, in a non emergency situation, insistently helping a brother through a bump in the road? The honesty is that Joe is gone, his kids are orphaned and his wife is widowed. Tell me more about emergent situations please. Sometimes empathy doesnt need justification.\

        • I still think yoga rocks.

          Dude. No one’s disagreeing with you about crisis situations.

          The point is there is a difference between an emergent crisis and long term recovery situations, and judgment is necessary. This article was about long term recovery situations.

          “Tell me more about emergent situations please” ? Using your friend’s tragedy as a device to show yours is bigger is just cheesy, yo. If you respected the guy and his family so much, maybe you wouldn’t trot out his pain just because you want people to think you have credibility.

          Anyway, empathy may not need justification but actions most certainly do.

          Rule #1: Do no harm. Why is this so difficult to understand?

  3. New official translation of sanskrit word ahimsa: Don’t be a dick.

    • Yoga Whelp

      No fucking way. Not with yoga weighing in at just 18% male, according to the latest market research, with an even lower percentage in the yoga teacher corps.

      “Dick” is a mild, but still highly gendered slur. In this age of yogic balance, and political correctness we really need a fair and balanced representation in our language. So, I propose a friendly amendment:

      “Don’t be a dick or a bitch.”

      Deal?

      Really, I’m only trying to help….

      • Garuda

        What did Betty White say?: “Why do they say it takes balls? Balls are delicate. They should have said It takes a vagina. Those things take a pounding”

      • In sticking with the theme of the past two posts, I typically let the ladies do the lady-specific shit checking. I got enough work dealing with male bullshit. If ladies want some support in telling other ladies where they can put it, I’m more or less happy to do so. In the meantime, if I gotta gender slap, I’ll focus me efforts on the ones I know best.

    • Yoga Whelp

      I am trying to become a full-fledged dick-bitch actually. It’s kind of a Shiva and Shakti thing. The two genders have so much to teach each other. I’m so excited. Just like the White and Brown peoples of the world. If only we state our deepest intention and commit ourselves to help….

  4. Like everything else in life, it boils down to intention.
    Some people have a genuine calling towards service, other people can’t be bothered. Some people think that by “helping” others, they’ll get a boost to their profile or get karma points in the afterlife. Add to the mix things like culture and ideas like “saving face” and it easily gets to be one hot mess.
    I learned the hard way that there are some cultures you should never ask for street directions. Even if they don’t know the location, in order to appear helpful, some people will pretend they know where they’re going and end up taking you on a wild goose chase. Sometimes being “helpful” ends up being a huge headache.

  5. Dyspeptic Skeptic

    Too late to boycott Chögyam Trungpa. He died at 48. A 40k/yr cocaine habit along with Seconal and copious amounts of booze and smoking has a tendency to shorten your life, no matter how adept you are at meditating.

  6. The moment already came

    Ooh, this post pets so many of my peeves!

    1) I love when the Babarazzi misuse then / than. This drives me crazy in other writing, but I find it so sweet and endearing here. Most of the post digs into the weight and nuance of language and labels and I get all paranoid about calling a bus driver a bus driver even though s/he is driving a fucking bus, and Baba busts out a “Than again,” and it’s like a little reminder for me to chill the hell out.

    2) Also, regarding affixing your own oxygen mask before helping others. I have heard this statement crazy often in yoga classes, it’s like everyone’s been chewing on the same paint chips. It’s a fine metaphor–if your life is fire and plummeting in free-fall from 35,000 feet. And even then, a strange choice coming from the “yoga community,” because if any of those same teachers were to crash and burn on the steps of ashram, saying “My life is falling apart, I’m dying and none of my playlists sound groovy anymore,” you know what they’d do? They’d pat you on the head and say, “You need help? That’s cool. Scrub the floor. Chop the vegetables. You can’t help yourself? No bigs, help someone else. That’ll do it.”

    • Ugh, you know I actually caught that way early this morning, but I think in my sleepy stupor messed it up again or had no idea what I was looking at! Gonna fix.

      Also, I hear you on the other points. I think the piece is more about the culture of making exotic “help” and aide, looking for ways to combine “retreats” with unsustainable solutions, rather than just getting to know your Mexican busboy.

      • The moment already came

        Hear ya. I was responding more to the creepy airline photo of people nonchalantly putting themselves on life support and the disturbing excuses not to be uncomfortable I hear so often elsewhere, less to the content of the piece, to which I principally have to say, “True dat.”

        Also, I was being sincere when I wrote that I love your (very rare) grammar foibles. It’s like an imperfection that makes a friend so much more endearing. I’ll miss seeing it now and than.

        And sorry my avatar-doohickey keeps changing. I can’t remember what fake email address I use here while we all play dress-up.

  7. Yoga Whelp

    It’s part of the pathology of our times that yoga’s public calisthenic exhibitionism and the confessional narcissism that typically attends it is considered the utmost expression of “presence” and “authenticity.” It’s even worse that publicly exporting that exhibitionist narcissism abroad as part of an ever widening spectacle of self is presented as the zenith of personal and collective “service.”

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