How can one “take on the suffering of the world” or practice “for the sake of all beings” without also inflating their own sense of self-importance? As profound as these practices are, they also seem like fodder for the ego.
As an antidote to the sense of arrogance that may arise when we think “I am doing something so selfless, aren’t I great?”, we can practice giving rise to gratitude for the opportunity to serve. In particular, we are grateful for all the causes and conditions that make it possible for us to practice and to help other beings through our practice. Some of these causes and conditions include the fact that our health, family and financial situations are not so desperate that we cannot think of anyone else, the opportunity to study with good teachers who inspire us to practice for the sake of all beings, and the direct and indirect supports we get from so many other people who make our own study and practice possible. In this way, we realize that we can practice for the sake of all beings not because we are inherently better than others, but rather because numerous causes and conditions have come together to make it possible for us to practice this way. Part of our practice is remembering to be grateful for this and to understand that practicing for all beings is merely a way to repay everyone who supports and loves us in their own ways.
We can also remind ourselves that while we attempt to help others to alleviate their suffering, whether or not we are successful, in that moment we alleviate our own suffering as we cease to obsess over our own difficulties. Instead of thinking that we are such great people to be helping others or taking on their suffering, we should thank all beings for allowing us to attempt to play this role. Just because we want to help does not mean that others have to allow us to help them. The fact that our friends, loved ones and strangers allow us to be there for them, retreatants show up for retreats and practice under our guidance, and practitioners attend our talks or seek our advice should be appreciated as their generosity to let us into their lives and their wisdom to recognize the value of the Dharma. Without other beings who are willing to open their hearts to receive what we can offer, we would not have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Dharma by offering ourselves. With this attitude, we are less likely to give rise to a sense of ego-feeding self-importance.
It is gratifying to see people’s sufferings lessened in part because of our effort. We may experience good feelings that can be encouraging and inspiring and these are useful for sustaining our practice on the Path. If we maintain a clear awareness of what arises in our mind moment after moment, with patience and diligence, we are likely to catch the moments when these good feelings start to turn into a sense of self-importance. In these moments, if we practice remembering to be grateful for the opportunity to serve and for all the causes and conditions that make it possible for us to practice in this capacity, the sense of self-importance will dissolve on its own. But, we are only human, so patience/endurance is important, as it can be enticing to let those pleasant sensations associated with thoughts like “I am so selfless” to grow into a full-blown belief of self-importance. We need forbearance to let go of this self-aggrandizing chain of thoughts. Diligence is also important. Just because thoughts of self-importance did not arise in the last moment, it does not mean that we no longer need to be vigilant this moment, or the next.