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Feeding the Flame – Strengthening the Unselfish Gene

December 4th, 2008

Our instincts are powerful motivators and the cause of much human behaviour and misbehaviour. When outer circumstances become difficult we have a tendency to regress to instinctual behaviour. A classic example is the way in which communities of different ethnic groups live peacefully side by side until war comes and suddenly neighbour starts fighting neighbour.

Traditionally psychologists have talked about ‘The Four Effs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproducing, but I believe there is a fifth instinct which, to keep to the mnemonic, we can name the ‘flame within’ that longs to help, heal, nurture and protect, or ‘fostering’ which longs to nourish and serve. Some might see it as a feminine instinct – and the flame that of the goddess Brighid.

Although most of the stories emerging out of war-torn regions are of conflict, we also hear of certain people who don’t respond in that way – who act not out of fear or aggression but out of love and a desire to make the world a better place. They are operating from the Fifth Instinct – the desire to serve, to be of use, to give to the world.

Why do so many people want to be healers? Why do so many people pay huge sums to become Reiki Masters or therapists? We can be cynical and say it is their ego that wants feeding, or that they are misguidedly trying to find healing themselves (‘Physician Heal Thyself’) but I believe the deepest reason is that they have awoken to this Fifth Instinct – they want to give, to be of service.

This is why most religions place an emphasis on service, expressed as ‘charity’ in Christianity, and as ‘seva’ in the Dharmic religions. A spirituality’s job is to help us feed this fifth instinct – to fan this flame within.

8 Responses to “Feeding the Flame – Strengthening the Unselfish Gene”

  1. I love this, Philip. Actual flame keeping has been a part of my spiritual practice for about five years now, intially through Ord Brighideach and latterly through the Priestesses of Brighde group via the Goddess Temple in Glastonbury. I very much associate the qualities that you connect to the ‘flame within’ with the Goddess Brighid – she has been a very important part of my journey so far. Tending her flame both individually and as a part of a wider group of flame keepers, for me, is a way of trying to embody those qualities that you write of (a tough job sometimes!), and also a way of focusing them out into the world. I like to think of all our individual flames as a collective hearth; a place of warmth, connection, inspiration and spiritual nourishment. I also like to think of this collective hearth linked to the fire at the centre of the earth, with all of the planet’s life encircling its warmth and energy, fed by its extraordinary power, feeling the strength in interconnection. For me it is a flame of transformation and healing; of responsible creativity, that can bring about positive and needed change, or at the very least, holding a vision of the possibility of such.

    I think the term ‘fostering’ is a beautiful way of describing humanity’s natural instinct to help and heal. I hate the way our instincts are usually framed as such negative, self serving functions (boo to the ‘selfish gene’!), we are so much more than this. I physically light my Brighid flame daily so that I might keep that glow burning within me – I quite often fall short but I think that it’s important to try.

  2. The fifth instinct can also be understood as compassion. Moving beyond our dualistic perception of right and wrong, our fault or their fault, compassion flows from a heart that is free from fear and knows the power of love. Not of course sentimental love, compassion is not at all sentimental, it is fierce and fearless. Maria speaks of the fire at the centre of the earth and the hearth fire, we can also think of the fire of kundalini, all of them life affirming. As Philip suggests it could be seen as a feminine instinct, but if we do label it as such it should be known as the feminine instinct within all of us, men as well as women. Compassion is the fiery passionate instinct that flows from the heart and motivates human beings to want to be of service to others.

  3. Yes, the Light is everywhere, within and without us. We do have the instinct of tending it, how can it be that so many of us are afraid of letting it show?

  4. I’m wary of the using the word “instinct” in regards to human behaviour. It has a very specific meaning in biology, i.e. unlearned behaviour. Behaviour that is coded into the animal in some way, so that a spider doesn’t have to learn how to weave a web, it just knows what to do, and certain birds that build elaborate nests, or fly migratory routes. I’m not sure I know what would constitute an instinct in human behaviour, as there are such wide variations from culture to culture and indeed from individual to individual. But if you took this word away, I’d agree with much of what you say as common cultural aspirations, if you like.

  5. We get locked into a mistaken and limiting belief about who we really are. Our ego-selves are very much a part of us, but not the whole of us. That part of ourself that instinctually wants to help is much freer and more dynamic than small everday person we normally appear to be. To grow beyond the limitations of the ego-self, listening to the voice of our soul and gradually allowing that part of us to be free to be in the world is the journey we take when we begin on our spiritual quest. For in truth we are searching for ourselves. We look for the methods to unite our inner and outer world, our ego-self with our soul-self, and through that union, union with All that is. When we hear the voice of our soul-self longing to be born in the world, but we are still trying to accommodate the limited ideas about who we are and how we should behave, and of course the ideas of others around us, whom we may shock if we change too much, it’s like living life with the brakes on. We know there is so much more we can give, but are afraid to, don’t know how to; we think, what if I’m wrong, what if it’s just ego, what if I mislead someone? But the need to help, to be of service, just doesn’t go away. And so we need to pay attention to the voice of our soul, foster a stronger relationship, allow it to shine in the world. There are many ways to help do this, such as meditation, connection with the natural world, the loving support of wise friends and teachers. What ever we do we will need courage and commitment and the knowledge that without doubt the world needs the help of wise and compassionate human beings.

  6. In response to the “wary of the use of the word instinct.”
    Instinct is the first response to a situation. Example: I was riding a horse along the tracks, and I got into a bad situation where there was a very deep ditch on the right side, with american wire fencing, and the tracks on the left. I had to go about 1/2 mile before I got to an intersection where I would ride on the road. A train came along! I had nowhere to go, and a fast moving groaning monster(the train) is just a bit more than a horse can handle! I knew what his instinct would be. Get away! tangle in the fence, or try to outrun the train…not good either way. I could control him best by staying on, so I held the reins tight and kept speaking to him and petting his neck. At one point I had to holler “easy!” over and over again because the train was so loud. He ran in place giving him the sensation he was running, but he stayed in the same position, trying very hard to trust me. He did nervously, and we survived. His instinct was survival, but he overrode that with trust. We as humans have this survival instinct also, but we can usually think things through to come out with the best action. Sometimes there is not time for thinking, then our survival mode automatically kicks in.
    Another instinct we as humans have is compassion. When you witness an accident, the first instinct is to help. Sometimes the second kicks in too fast which is “I don’t want to see blood, or I don’t want to get sued”, but the first is to help. To be of service. The only thing that changes this is our thinking too much. Our natural instinct is to serve. Human behaviour is adjusted only by our culture, not by our original natural instinct.

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