The Invisible Ego Behind Conservation and Philanthropy

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

Growing up, I was taught not to waste food, water or much of anything else. I was taught that when the world is suffering from poverty, it did not behoove us to throw away even a morsel of food. The same went for things we owned. Everything was reused. Old clothes became wash rags. Old newspapers were recycled. Electronic items were stored in the hope they would be of use some day. When nothing is thrown away, you learn to find happiness with very little (however affluent or not you may be). Everything was used until its full value had been extracted. People like us have been praised for our focus on conservation. We are grateful for what we have been given and ask no more.

On the other hand, I know many friends and acquaintances who have a ‘giving mindset’. They purchase new things to upgrade their lifestyle and give away previously cherished items. These could include old clothes (similar to the Salvation Army concept), old vehicles, gadgets and the like. People bless them for their generosity. My friends are grateful enough to give away what they no longer need.

While there is nothing wrong with either of these approaches, I am sometimes troubled by the unconscious pattern behind these actions.


Conservationists — Receiving with gratitude:

Conservationists live lives of gratitude- they feel themselves blessed to receive. They maximize the utility of all that comes into their lives. But by throwing little away, newness eludes their lives. When they purchase new stuff, old stuff remains and accumulates. You can’t move easily into the future if your past weighs you down.

However, at some point, every item loses its value and has to be thrown away. Conservationists cope with loss by delaying it.

The Conservationist’s Invisible Ego:

Conservationists try to live above the laws of nature — they cope with loss by delaying it.

All discarded food and water ends up in the trash, which is then fed on by stray dogs and insects, and later by microorganisms that decompose it into the soil. This is ashes to ashes, and dust to dust in the truest sense, and we are part of this cycle.

Becoming attached to ‘what is’ prevents Conservationists from experiencing the new. They cling to life so gratefully that it loses all purpose and meaning.

The Conservationist’s Path to Enlightenment:

This is best illustrated by the following story:

A Zen master named Gisan asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath. The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw on to the ground the little that was left over.

“You dunce!” the master scolded him. “Why didn’t you give the rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste even one drop of water in this temple?”

The young student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.

Reference: 122 Zen Koans


Philanthropists — Giving out of gratitude:

Philanthropists also live lives of gratitude. They feel blessed with enough to give away and derive satisfaction from alleviating the suffering of others. They consider themselves loving, caring and compassionate. Seeing others happy makes them glow inside.

The Philanthropist’s Invisible Ego:

Philanthropists don’t delay death, they delegate it. They hate to destroy or discard items, so they assign this task a recycler or second hand purchaser who takes on this burden and hides it from the previous owner’s eyes.

Becoming dependent on others’ happiness to justify their actions, they fail to notice the egoistic self-admiration that fuels their giving. Living in an illusion of selflessness, they do not spot the self-interest hidden within.

The Philanthropist’s Path to Enlightenment:

This is best illustrated by the following story:

While Seietsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umeza Seibei a merchant of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.

Seisetsu said: “All right. I will take it.”

Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.

“In that sack are five hundred ryo,” hinted Umeza.

“You told me that before,” replied Seisetsu.

“Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money,” said Umezu.

“Do you want me to thank you for it?” asked Seisetsi.

“You ought to,” replied Umeza.

“Why should I?” inquired Seisetsu. “The giver should be thankful.”

Reference: 122 Zen Koans


We compete with nature everyday, trying to utilize our minds and bodies to the fullest before we are forced to let go. On the other hand, we sacrifice our needs for others in the hope that we are seen as better people. Which group do I fall into? Possibly both — at different times and in different areas of my life.

In a world where conservation is celebrated and philanthropy is eulogized, it might serve us well to be honest with ourselves. It has become fashionable to use social media is used to shame those who do not meet society’s standards of sustainable and selfless behavior. But rather than finding others as selfish, I find it useful to hold up a mirror to see how (unconsciously) false I myself may have become.

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