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.

We all have our own version of this syndrome because when we’re children we have a biological imperative to maintain the approval and love of our caregivers, whatever it takes. The problem arises when, as adults, we’re still living out of the same old pictures—particularly of how we should be—without awareness of what’s behind our need to help. Do we need to be seen as a helper? Do we need to feel and believe that we are, in fact, a helper? Do we need to see people as benefiting from our help? Or do we serve in order to be seen as a worthy person? Are we helping out of a sense of “should”? Can we see how attached we are to our self-image, our identity? Who would be we without it? What hole are we trying to fill with it? How are we trying to avoid the insecurity of groundlessness?

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When our cover identity starts breaking down because the hole isn’t being filled—for example, when we don’t get the recognition that we want or the results that we hope for—we react emotionally, with some form of disappointment or anxiety. This reaction is an infallible practice reminder that we’re still attached in some way. We’ve gone from being a helper to experiencing the core hole of helplessness. But we must reside in and practice with this helplessness in order to become free.

Most of our life is spent using behavioral strategies to cover or avoid our pain—the deep sense of basic alienation that takes the form of feeling worthless, hopeless, or fundamentally flawed in some way. When our strategy is to help, when we need to be helpful, this requires that we need to find people who seem helpless, or situations that seem to call for help. It’s true that we may also have a genuine desire to help—one that isn’t based on our needs—but whenever we feel an urgency or longing to help, it’s often rooted in the fear of facing our own unhealed pain. If our basic fear is that we’ll always be alone, what better way to avoid it than to find someone who needs us? If we have an underlying feeling of worthlessness, how better to prove that we’re worthy than by doing good deeds? If we’re trying to avoid the feeling of being fundamentally powerless or ineffectual, doesn’t it make sense to take on the identity of someone who can affect people and outcomes positively through service?

The “helper” syndrome I’m describing is not outwardly harmful. What makes it dangerous is its potential to keep us blind to what is really going on. Yet it’s easy to see how this lack of awareness, multiplied throughout our society, could lead to the social and political chaos that we live in. Failure to work with our inner turmoil—our need for power, our self-centered desire to possess, our fear-based greed and need to control—results in hatred, aggression, and intolerance. This is the source of all conflicts and wars. Without inner understanding, individuals as well as societies will continue to flounder. This is why it is so important for each of us to come back again and again to the practice of awareness.

Failure to work with our inner turmoil—our need for power, our self-centered desire to possess, our fear-based greed and need to control—results in hatred, aggression, and intolerance.

We first must recognize that we’re using our identity to live a life based primarily on finding some measure of comfort and security. But we also have to experience the core pain out of which this drive arises. The more we can learn to reside in this core pain, the more we connect with our innate compassion. Interestingly, this experience may not manifest as what we conventionally consider compassion. There is one story of a seeker who, upon clearly seeing the truth—where he was no longer defined and confined by his self-images—became a cab driver. Like a white bird in the snow, he was able to give himself to others simply through his own presence, his being. There was nothing special about his situation.

The question is: Where in our life do we do good, at least in part, to subtly solidify the self? Where do we get in our own way? Where do we use even our identity as a spiritual seeker, or the comfort of being part of something bigger, to cover the anxious quiver of being?

In a way, we all keep waking up to the same repeating day, living our hazy notion of life—often clouded by our unending confusion and anxiety. Simply doing good deeds, or even being a devoted meditator, doesn’t mean anything without the painful honesty that’s required to look at what we’re doing. We must take our heads out of the ground and look at all of the ways we get in our own way—fooling ourselves and obstructing the possibility of living a more open and genuine life.

Excerpted from At Home in the Muddy Water, © 2003 by Ezra Bayda. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.

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