Secure Your Mask Before Helping Others

oxygen-maskI’m on retreat right now and can’t post. Here’s a rerun of an article I wrote for Suicide Girls dated August 8, 2011

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A few people have responded to my blog by comparing me to this or that teacher and saying those guys are much better because they encourage their followers to help others. One reader advised me to get over myself and, “learn to live for others.” It’s good advice, to be sure. But what exactly does it mean?

One of the complaints often lodged against Zen is that it’s a selfish philosophy and practice. Spiritual teachers of other schools are always talking about how we should give to others, help those in need, lend a hand to our brothers and so on. But when you take a look at Zen literature there’s not a whole lot of that. Oh, Dogen Zenji talks a bit about compassion and sometimes you hear the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s words on kindness, chanted at Zen temples in America. Although elsewhere in the world this chant is more associated with the Theravada school than with Zen.

Zen, on the other hand, tends to seem self-centered. Rather than hearing a lot about how we should be of service to others, the standard canonical texts of Zen appear to focus on what we need to do to improve our own situation and state of mind. They do sometimes make reference to helping others and saving all beings. But these references are almost always a bit abstract. They say we need to help others, but don’t go very deeply into how that might be done. This focus on the self is ironic considering that Zen is often portrayed as a practice aimed at eradicating the self.

But have you ever glanced up randomly when you’re on an airplane ignoring the flight attendants safety instructions? When they tell you how to use those oxygen masks they say that you should first secure your own mask before helping others. There’s a good reason for this. If the plane is losing oxygen you’re going to be too woozy to be of service to anyone else until you first get your own stuff together. This is the way it is in life as well.

It sounds really sweet when someone tells you that you ought to be selflessly serving those less fortunate than you. It’s a beautiful and highly attractive idea. There’s no better way to make yourself seem really holy than to advocate selflessness. Religious leaders have known for centuries that the best way to cultivate a devoted following who’ll gratefully fill up the collection plate is to spread the word that a truly holy person gives to others until it hurts.

It’s always comforting to be told that the source of the world’s troubles is out there, in other people, in our surroundings and circumstances and not in ourselves. Much of what passes for religion these days takes as its underlying unstated assumption and starting point that we ourselves are OK. It’s those other people that need fixing, not us. It’s painful when that assumption is challenged. I understand that because it was painful to me when I first came across the supposedly selfish aspects of Zen.

The underlying problem is the same as the problem with the emergency oxygen masks on airplanes. In our usual condition we are far too woozy to be of much service to anyone else. When our own condition is all messed up our attempts to be helpful are more likely to make things worse than to improve them.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do anything when we see someone is in trouble. We always have to act from the state we’re in at this moment. It’s our duty to do what we can with what we have.

One of the greatest and most useful lessons I’ve learned from Zen practice is how not to help. Zen teachers are often seen as cold. Lots of times in this practice when you go to your teacher in times of distress, instead of being met with warm hugs and reassuring words you’re given the cold shoulder. You’re told to take care of the problem yourself. This seems mean, heartless, even cruel.

But as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe noticed sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind (in the right measure). The best way to be truly helpful is often to leave things be. I used to find this all the time when I worked for Tsuburaya Productions. It was often best to allow a bad scheme to fail and then fix it. Jumping into the fray and try to fix things before they broke often was the worst idea. Because then the same thing just kept happening over and over. People learn best from their own mistakes and learn nothing when you fix things for them.

This is not always easy. We want to help. Our self-image is tied up in being a good person and a good person is a helpful person. It damages our ego when we have to let things be instead of jumping in to fix them. Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is to not be helpful. People resent it. They label you as a bad person. Because they don’t want to have to deal with their own shit, they want someone else to deal with it for them. They want Superman to rush in and save the day after they’ve messed things up.

On the other hand it’s important to be of service, to “learn to live for others.” We are not independent objects. We are part of an intimately connected network of sentient and non-sentient beings that stretches all the way to the end of the universe. We never really live just for ourselves, even when we try to do so. To try and live for yourself just causes pain. Not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

The problem is not whether we should live for others or not. The problem is how we should live for others. If our efforts to help end up doing more harm than good, then we aren’t truly living for others any more than the most selfish cad among us lives for himself. We’re just feeding our own egos, establishing a clearer and more fixed self image as a good person.

It’s important to discover how to truly help. And sometimes that means not helping.

I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!



September 27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 1-DAY RETREAT

October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova

November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT

April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”


All of these events will still happen each week while I’m away.

Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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Help me secure my “oxygen mask” of … oh forget it! Your donations are important. I appreciate your on-going support!


18 Responses

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  1. Kyla
    Kyla September 26, 2015 at 3:44 am |

    I found this very insightful. I know in my work in community service I was a worse worker when I hadn’t done too much work on myself. Also, I had to learn just how little in peoples lives I could control. Really, I could control very little. The clients weren’t waiting around to hear my advice and be told what to do, how to help themselves like I originally thought they were.
    Also, in social work, you see a lot of martyrs, people addicted to martyrdom. Working when they are not getting paid, never spending Christmas at home, working when they have the worst flu in the world and not caring if they spread it around. And then talking about it like this is how social work should be.
    I don’t believe it at all. I’m a better worker when I’m physically, mentally and spiritually healthy. Not that there aren’t times when you go beyond the call of duty, but that’s different than the idea of having to sacrifice yourself to ‘help’ others. Often that leads to helping no one, least of all yourself.

  2. Kyla
    Kyla September 26, 2015 at 4:05 am |

    I think the discipline required to make myself sit every day, whether I’m up for it or not at that moment is how people should also approach self-care; it’s a must not a luxury. And self-care takes not being lazy as much as anything else does.

  3. A beginner in Texas
    A beginner in Texas September 26, 2015 at 4:33 am |

    I wouldn’t worry overly much about those who complain about you not being like other teachers.

    Their bags are definitely not inflating. Despite the safety lecture I don’t think there is any oxygen flowing for them.

    If you sounded like Deepak Chopra or the Dalai Lama then why would you need to say anything at all? Some people, myself among them, require a Brad Warner to learn the first and most fundamental lesson. Sit down and shut up!

    Until you start to do that part then all the rest of this is not much different from a religion.

  4. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 26, 2015 at 5:18 am |

    I don’t think you have to be cruel to be kind. Consider how we handle dying…

  5. Dog Star
    Dog Star September 26, 2015 at 6:51 am |

    Great metaphor. Good, common sense often proves elusive. You have a wonderful way of distilling it to its essence. Thanks, Brad.

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 26, 2015 at 9:33 am |

    Thanks, Mumbles:

    Over Zen Hospice’s nearly 30 years, we’ve learned much more from our residents in subtle detail. Little things aren’t so little. Take Janette. She finds it harder to breathe one day to the next due to ALS. Well, guess what? She wants to start smoking again — and French cigarettes, if you please. Not out of some self-destructive bent, but to feel her lungs filled while she has them. Priorities change. Or Kate — she just wants to know her dog Austin is lying at the foot of her bed, his cold muzzle against her dry skin, instead of more chemotherapy coursing through her veins — she’s done that. Sensuous, aesthetic gratification, where in a moment, in an instant, we are rewarded for just being. So much of it comes down to loving our time by way of the senses, by way of the body — the very thing doing the living and the dying.

    (B. J. Miller, “What really matters at the end of life”)

    Interesting stuff on the last comment thread about feeling fascial connections, and the notion that studying martial arts might be useful for that.

    I’ve written a lot about reciprocal innervation, something John Upledger described in one of his books (which I’ve since lost). Here’s my description of John Upledger’s description (from “The Mudra of Zen”):

    Upledger experienced the phenomena of reciprocal innervation personally, as he lay on the surface of a dense solution of salt water in an isolation chamber. When he felt his relaxation was complete, he noticed a slight motion from side to side in his pelvis and legs. From his medical training, he knew that the motion he felt was caused by reciprocal innervation: when the pelvis and legs moved to the left, ligaments on the right side of the torso were stretched, and nerve impulses generated by the ligaments caused muscles on the right to contract; the contraction on the right reversed the direction of movement and relieved the ligaments on the right, yet when the lower body crossed to the right the ligaments on the left began to stretch, until nerve impulses from the ligaments on the left caused the muscles on the left to contract. Upledger watched his lower body shift slowly from side to side as he relaxed completely.

    Seems clear to me that a completely relaxed upright posture depends on reciprocal innervation in all three planes, and a lot of my writing is devoted to describing the particular muscles involved. My big leap forward was applying Upledger’s notion of a tiny pressure added to the cranial-sacral rhythm to equalibrioception and proprioception in the singularity of where I am; in my imagination, I become my own cranial-sacral therapist, opening the joints and stretching the fascia and ligaments through simply being where I am.

    On the dance floor, it’s a lot of fun, and I guess you could say that for me there’s a tie-in with the martial arts, in that I learned to dance in the midst of people slamming at Mabuhay Gardens. That others affect the place where I am, is nowhere more apparent than on a crowded dance floor.

    A little harder to bring it home on the cushion, and in fact I now rely on the comprehension of breathing in and breathing out that Gautama spoke of to do the heavy lifting. Can’t rely on anything for long, but I’m betting that his “way of life, the best of ways” is close to a second skin, once I really get intimate with my own body and mind.

    How does my being happy help anyone; well, as they used to say in Texas:

  7. Fred
    Fred September 26, 2015 at 2:47 pm |

    Harper spent $750 million of Canadian taxpayer’s money on ads for his bogus Canadian economic plan. That money could have pulled a lot of people out of the gutter, and it would have been recycled through the real economy.

    The Hungry Ghosts are the guys in Vancouver putting the needles in their arms to numb out from the pain and despair of life.

    Some times we change the chemistry of our brains and rationalize it as spiritual growth. I know I have.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles September 27, 2015 at 7:13 am |

      I once used a whole bottle of Uncle Jemima on my paakes before I realized it wasn’t Aunt Jemima! But then it was too late…

      1. Mark Foote
        Mark Foote September 27, 2015 at 10:53 am |

        The comment thread is behaving strangely, placing things in novel locations; end of days, for the thread?

        1. Cygni
          Cygni September 27, 2015 at 4:35 pm |

          Feels more like Groundhog Day.

  8. Cygni
    Cygni September 26, 2015 at 4:54 pm |

    Anyone planning on checking the Supermoon eclipse out tomorrow night, first one since the year I was born. Not only are eclipses great times for altering your brain chemistry, they are also super times to generate merit and practice meditation, on account of the effects to your subtle body. They are also very beautiful.
    Maybe im just trolling…


  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 26, 2015 at 6:38 pm |

    Neil Young said he spoke to a first-nations woman in Alberta, who told him she saw a family of bears attempt to cross one of the petro-lakes there- the bears didn’t make it.

    Was it here that I read about the Harper governments’ decimation of environmental agencies in Canada, and repudiation of the findings of Canadian scientific bodies? I think there are a number of Republicans dying to do the same thing here in the U.S.A.

    Enjoyed that Saturday Night Uncle Jemima skit, though.

    I cleaned up my comment about B. J. Miller’s Ted talk, and posted it to my blog, here.

    It’s not like the comprehension of the long or short of inhalation or exhalation is the first thing that comes up for me; it’s more like:

    The empty hand grasps the hoe handle
    Walking along, I ride the ox
    The ox crosses the wooden bridge
    The bridge is flowing, the water is still

    How long or short now, the wind that is everwhere?

  10. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 26, 2015 at 8:36 pm |

    OK, It’s Saturday night. I’m drinking stout looking forward to tomorrow night’s eclipse, listening to Grinderman featuring Robert Fripp. Why not? Help yourself…

  11. Zafu
    Zafu September 27, 2015 at 12:04 am |

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I was just about to click the donate button.

  12. Zafu
    Zafu September 27, 2015 at 3:10 pm |

    In our usual condition we are far too woozy to be of much service to anyone else. When our own condition is all messed up our attempts to be helpful are more likely to make things worse than to improve them.
    ~ Brand Warmer

    The underlying premise assumes there’s an ‘unusual’ condition where a person can be non-woozy (wise, right?) enough to be effectively helpful. Though not explicitly stated, the implication is that zen practice will lead to this unusual condition.

    The funny thing is that only a person with this unusual condition, a person with their air supply mask firmly in place, would be non-woozy (wise) enough to know that zen practice leads to this condition. Otherwise it’s just religious belief.

    Has Brad with his zen mastery attained this condition? If he had there would be no problem acknowledging it. But he will not acknowledge it. So what we have here is common religious belief.

    One of the complaints often lodged against Zen is that it’s a selfish philosophy and practice.

    Some religions are simply more selfish than others, just like some cultures are more selfish than others, or some people are more selfish than others. You don’t need to try rationalizing away this simple fact. Is your self-image tied up with zen being a selfless religion?

    You mentioned that it was painful when you first came across the “supposedly selfish aspects of Zen.” That you say “supposedly” suggests that you still can’t accept the fact. Why is it painful?

  13. jason farrow
    jason farrow September 27, 2015 at 3:11 pm |

    Sometimes ppl want to promote themselves through using other people(as opposed to two ppl working collectively for the same goal.)

    And other times ppl want to utilize you to download their problems onto you. Even innocently without the intent to harm.

    I bet as a zen teacher, a very public teacher, you get confronted with that a lot.

    1. Zafu
      Zafu September 27, 2015 at 3:54 pm |

      Hmm, in the last post Brad says that Deepak Chopra has shitty books, and one shitty tweet I guess. And in the post before that he calls Ken Wilber an idiot.

      1. Mark Foote
        Mark Foote September 27, 2015 at 9:03 pm |

        I know Brad got a little testy after the OM session; maybe there were some attractive women at that Finnish sauna retreat, and Ken Wilbur took the hit.

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