Every wisdom teaching calls upon us to behave toward others with love, compassion, generosity, kindness and other familiar virtues. Piece of cake, right? The standards held up to us are pretty high: Jesus and Buddha, for instance, and a host of ancient prophets and sages, not to mention saintly moderns like Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. But even if the bar is set a bit lower for us ordinary folk, the criteria by which we measure ourselves can be pretty tough to live up to. We know what we want to be, but our desires, needs and human frailties seem to get the better of us. All of which raises certain questions: How good do we have to be? How good can we be? How tough should we be on ourselves? And why bother in the first place?
Let's dispense with the last question first. In some theologies, doing good on Earth is basically a premium on afterlife insurance. But even if you have more immediate benefits in mind, virtue has its rewards. Whatever spiritual path you choose, it is likely to include some kind of reap-what-you-sow justice system, whether through a judging deity or the intricate machinations of karma. Somehow, some way, maybe in a minute, maybe in the distant future, you will reap the rewards of right action and suffer the consequences of wrong action.
If that's too metaphysical for you, consider a more pragmatic view: Every time you do something kind or generous or thoughtful, you expand. You leave the confines of your ego and connect to something beyond yourself, even if it’s only the proverbial old lady you help cross the street. Feeling compassion opens the heart; to act with compassion you have to draw on your inner goodness. That alone makes doing good a spiritual practice. Plus, each small deposit of decency yields spiritual returns, such as greater harmony in your surroundings, the gratitude and respect of others and guilt-free inner peace. Seen from the opposite end of the spectrum, the equation reads like this: playing fast and loose with ethical standards leads to guilt, messy predicaments, the disdain of others and heavy karmic debt—all spiritual impediments.
For these and other reasons, certain theologies hold that the way to salvation is through good works and righteous behavior. In others, however, the equation is flipped: spiritual awakening leads to compassionate right action and a higher moral sense. Which is correct? The evidence points both ways: doing good enhances spiritual growth; spiritual growth enhances the ability to do good. Most seekers find that sharing their spiritual bounty comes rather naturally as they advance on the path. The reverence, love and compassion within pours forth more readily, like water from a tilting pitcher. That's why a complete path includes inner practices such as meditation and prayer and sacred action such as service and charity. Without the former, your capacity for the latter is limited.
Now for the inevitable caveat about balance. If, in the name of doing good, you go to extremes, you can deny your own needs and end up a suffering martyr, not a saint. On the other hand, if you put all your attention on self-improvement, you can become cavalier about your behavior to the detriment of the very inner growth you’re striving for. Wherever there is a choice, therefore, it is incumbent upon us to aim for the kindest, most compassionate, least harmful action one can muster without holding ourselves to impossible standards, for "The world contains no man so righteous that he can do right always and never do wrong" (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
True, there are times when it's hard to know the difference between doing good and being a sucker or a codependent. But when we look into our hearts, we usually know the right thing to do. It's in the translation from thought to action that things get tricky. The ego, with its insatiable desires and fears, steps in like a left foot hitting the brake, forcing us to move toward goodness in fits and starts. We know we can be kinder and more generous, but...maybe next time. The answer to the ego's resistance is often as simple as the advice Miles Davis gave to the young John Coltrane. As the saxophonist in Davis’s band, Coltrane started to play long, ecstatic improvisations. Davis told the prodigy to cool it. Coltrane said he couldn’t help it; the creative rush was so intoxicating that he lost all sense of time. Miles responded, "Just put down the horn, man."
Most of the time we know the rules of the road. We just have to put down our soloist egos and play nice with the rest of the band. Oddly enough, we often find that being selfless serves the self.