In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character wakes up every morning in the same exact place, at the same exact time, always having to repeat the same day—Groundhog Day. No matter what he experiences, he still wakes up having to repeat the day. No matter what he does, he can’t get what he wants, which in this case is the sexual conquest of his female colleague. Although he tries all of the other classic strategies of escape, nothing works; he still wakes up the next day to the same mess.

In the meantime, another part of him is growing. He starts moving from just trying to fulfill his own desires to doing things for other people. For example, every day he saves the same child from falling out of the same tree at the same time. He even starts using his once ego-driven accomplishments, such as playing the piano, to entertain others, not just to serve himself. Finally, not through purposeful effort or even awareness, he becomes more and more life-centered, less and less self-centered. And in typical Hollywood fashion, he gets the girl. However, his real success lies in breaking free from the repeating patterns of his personality.

One of the themes of practice is the gradual movement from a self-centered life to a more life-centered one. But what about our efforts to become more life-centered—doing good deeds, serving others, dedicating our efforts to good causes?  There’s nothing wrong with making these efforts, but they won’t necessarily lead us to a less self-oriented life. Why? Because we can do these things without really dealing with our “self.” Often our efforts, even for a good cause, are made in the service of our desires for comfort, security,and appreciation. Such efforts are still self-centered because we’re trying to make life conform to our picture of how it ought to be. It’s only by seeing through this self—the self that creates and sustains our repeating patterns—that we can move toward a more life-centered way of living.

Frequently, our natural impulse to do good deeds is confused with other motives. This is not surprising, considering how often we’re given the message, especially in our early years, that to do good means to be good. In being told we’re good when we’re helpful, we receive the praise we crave. Yet once we confuse helpful behavior with our own needs, we’re locked into a pattern that undermines our genuine desire to do good.

Frequently, our natural impulse to do good deeds is confused with other motives.

When I was six years old, I lived in an apartment house on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My father owned a retail store about two miles down the boardwalk. During the tourist season, he would work fourteen hours a day. Since he couldn’t come home for supper, every night my mother would make him a hot meal and put it in a brown paper bag. My job was to carry this bag in the basket of my tricycle and deliver it to my father while it was still hot. I can still see myself—a very earnest little boy single-mindedly speeding down the boardwalk on my tricycle so that my father could have a hot supper. There’s no doubt that I felt a natural desire to do good. But somewhere along the line, perhaps from repeatedly being praised as a “good boy,” my natural desire to do good became enmeshed with getting my father’s approval and love.

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