Sunday, September 22, 2019

Are we Becoming Less Compassionate, Less Fully Human?

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive” - Dalai Lama.
Love behaves like a separate being in the psyche, acting from within and enabling us to look beyond ourselves at our fellow human beings – people who can be valued and cherished, rather than used” - Robert Johnson, Psychologist
“Fundamentally being compassionate or caring for others is actually our default mode and that often times especially in modern society, we get distracted from who we really are” – Dr James Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery

“What are we if we don’t try to help others? We’re nothing. Nothing at all” – Henry Marsh, Brain surgeon

We have come a long way in the last 600 million years!

Humanity 1.01 in a nutshell:
“It is possible that the first creatures with a nervous system were entirely unconscious. Still, over 600 million years, the simple network linking sensory and motor systems grew more complex, and developed a headquarters – a rudimentary brain – at the top of the spinal cord. This brain evolved further from the bottom up, first thickening the brainstem, next acquiring subcortical structures such as the amygdala and basal ganglia, and then growing a cortex that now includes the prefrontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. Somewhere along the way, the survival of animals was increased by evolving capacities to become aware of their internal states and external environment. Perhaps the ancient jellyfish had no awareness, but the goldfish in a pond are clearly aware of the gardener’s shadow as they rise to be fed, and a cat shows heightened awareness of a nearby dog. In humans and other animals, awareness, attention, sleep, and waking all depend upon underlying neural structures and activities; consciousness is largely if not entirely a natural process.  (Panksepp 2005).

Rick Hansen continues the story: “Love is woven into your day because it's woven into your DNA: as our ancestors evolved over the last several million years, many scientists believe that love, broadly defined, has been the primary driving force behind the evolution of the brain. Bands of early humans that were particularly good at understanding and caring for each other out-competed less cooperative and loving bands, and thereby passed on the genes of empathy, bonding, friendship, altruism, romance, compassion, and kindness - the genes, in a word, of love”. (Hansen, Rick. 2013)

Aborigine elder Bob Randall explains that, “Kanyini is the principle of connectedness through caring and responsibility that underpins Aboriginal life … ​Only we can be responsible for our kurunpa, our soul.  It is affected by our thoughts and actions. If it is weakened for example because we have ignored our responsibility towards a family member in need, then that will affect us physically. We feel a sickness of spirit. All this comes from tjukurrpa, which is the bigger consciousness of something that was and is the way to live, the way to live in harmony with all things”. (Hogan, M & Randall, R. 2006)

But have we started going backwards in the last few years?

Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty”. Does that still hold? What are the things that threaten our feeling and demonstration of compassion?

My ‘market research of one’ tells me that more and more people are being caught up in the ‘me first, look after number one’ mind-set. They are joining the stampede to build their personal brand, make money, often in abrasive, bitter, angry, sometimes outrageous ways – and this drive is fuelled by populist politicians and on social media. We are bombarded with fake news, by denials, naming and blaming, fear mongering, stereotyping, ‘us and them’ thinking. This amounts to an assault on our basic impulse to be empathic.  (In South Africa, when farmers and foreign nationals are murdered, looted and attacked and when femicide assumes epidemic proportions, when leadership remains corrupt, fuels aggressive and violent behaviour or remains silent on critical issues, we may well ask, ‘Where has compassion and respect for the dignity of the other gone?’)
It may be that the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the super-fast, complex, high-tech and uncertain transformation of society that is upon us, will exacerbate the trend towards reduced compassion. It may also be that diminishing resources (water, food, clean air) will put more focus on survival and ‘us versus them’ conflict, and void engagement with emotions and virtues like compassion. Will we see a greater emergence of the bystander effect, a crossing to the other side of the street when confronted by someone else in distress?  Will the new meaning of ‘friend’ shift from social media to ‘real life’? (Has compassion become for many an emoji with a sad face or tears?)   Is more disconnection occurring? Are potential macro events likely to even further erode human compassion (Is a break-up of the United Nations such a far-fetched thought? Will trade and other wars escalate and effectively separate peoples?
Is compassion being watered down by corporates claiming moral high ground for selfish motive - under the guise of an espoused virtue. A response to a LinkedIn post caught my eye recently: The other function of this virtue signalling sinecure is the cynical use of conspicuous compassion”. (The Guardian. 2019)

Sara Konrath is Assistant Research Professor at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan. With a primary focus on the costs and benefits of empathy and related traits (e.g. emotional intelligence, narcissism) and behaviors (e.g. helping, caregiving).  Her studies indicate that we may be becoming less considerate, less inclined to be empathic, and less likely to relate to other’s feelings and viewpoints. “While this rate of decline appeared to be relatively stable between 1979 and 1999, it nearly tripled after the year 2000”. (Weikle, B)

What about the (distant?) possibilities (helpful or harmful) of communicating telepathically,
thanks to brain-computer interfaces …. that’s the gist of a new report about neural implant technology by the Royal Society, a UK scientific organization … ‘Not only thoughts, but sensory experiences, could be communicated from brain to brain,’ the report reads. ‘Someone on holiday could beam a ‘neural postcard’ of what they are seeing, hearing or tasting into the mind of a friend back home’. (Robitski, D. 2019)
A vehicle for scientific telepathic compassion! (Certainly, the case for an influential body to work effectively and urgently in the ethics-in-artificial-intelligence arena is becoming stronger by the day)

Can we reclaim our essential humanity and compassion?

It is not a question of whether we can reclaim, rather that we must reclaim compassion.
Instigated by author Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion, and unveiled in 2009, the Charter for Compassion exhorts all peoples and religions to embrace the core virtue of compassion. It recognises that “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world … Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity”. (Charter of Compassion. 2009).

We are whole persons (physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual) and being fully human means not denying any part of ourselves. Compassion is a ‘spiritual’ (not religious) virtue. It is most often accompanied by empathy, unconditional love and a desire to come alongside, support, sooth and comfort another being who is experiencing pain or suffering (or self for that matter). It is not something that can be taught intellectually. Rather it is a matter of the heart, learned as we are exposed to parenting, conditioning and experiences; and it results or issues from what Leonard Cohen termed “a revelation of the heart”. Maria Popova relates a wonderful example of this from Mark Twain’s life. (Popova, M. 2014)
In ‘slow motion’ we can trace a progression from indifference to sympathy/pity to empathy to compassion to an ethical action of love. See it happening in this story:

In 1944 the mother of the poet Yevtushenko travelled from Siberia to Moscow, where she witnessed a procession of 20, 000 German prisoners of war marching through the streets. The generals strutted at their head, oozing contempt, determined to show that they still considered themselves superior. “The bastards smell of perfume’, someone shouted. The crowd yelled its hatred. The women waved their clenched fists in anger, and the police had great difficulty in holding them back. But when the Russians saw how pitifully thin and ragged the ordinary German soldiers were, dirty, battered and completely miserable, many of them hobbling on crutches, the street became silent. Suddenly, an elderly woman broke through the cordon and held out a crust of bread to one of the soldiers. Then from every side, other woman copied her, giving food, cigarettes, whatever they had with them. ‘The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people”’.

So, how do we nurture soft hearts?

The essence of Prayer is attention, and the essence of Compassion is attention – thus compassion is a form of prayer. This fits with an overall awareness that we are all a part of the web of life, totally and deeply interconnected.  Naturally mindful Zorba the Greek said it well: 

“It’s beyond me. Everything seems to have a soul – wood, stones, the wine we drink and the earth we tread on. Everything, boss, absolutely everything!” (Kazantzakis, N. 1961)

We can be thus aware during even the busiest of days. And mindfulness does have power to foster self and other compassion, entrench beliefs and thought processes, help the embodiment and ‘hard-wiring’ of a compassionate mind-set; which reinforces ‘just doing it’.

Emotional intelligence and the ability to understand and relate to self and others rests on developing awareness.

Jung’s idea of individuation (becoming whole) is not individualisation, which begets loneliness and depression through disconnection. It is about brave adherence to inner work to discover and work with those parts of ourselves we subdue, hide (‘good’ and ‘bad’). So that we can overcome negative power in the form of fears, biases; and release a latent, inherent acceptance, love and compassion – for self and for others – letting go of existing protective mechanisms, limiting beliefs, biases, anything that holds us back or weighs us down - in order to adapt and develop - without fear of backlash or adverse consequence. And become integrated, authentic, real – present rather than egoic.  

I want to emphasize that the shadow is not inherently evil or wrong; it varies from culture to culture. In the United States today, white dominant culture prizes competition, urgency, individualism, niceness (or avoidance of conflict), and logic. Other values and ways of being, such as cooperation, appropriate self-care, community, and vulnerability, are often seen as inferior. We cause so much harm and lose so much possibility by fearing our differences. By reclaiming our shadow we can tap into greater compassion and creativity”. (Rohr, R. 2019) 

Without inner work, and owning our shadow side, we are nothing.

Meditation, reflection, journaling are practices that we might employ. Specifically, with respect to compassion, Japanese naikan reflection is helpful.
When mulling over relationship difficulties, events that have caused distance and friction, the Jewish practice of midrash can be effectively utilised to encourage reframing, active imagination, and plumbing of the depths of each story and uncover new truth and possibility, explore numerous facets of the same story from different angles and viewpoints. (McKenna, M and Cowan, T. 1997)
McKenna, Megan and Cowan, Tony (1997) Keepers of the Story Orbis Books, pg 66.

Of course, developing compassion for self (leading to compassion for other) has undeniable value. (Germer, C & Neff, K. 2019). We should also recognise that separation, non-connection can foster distrust, verbal and even physical violence. In the same way that crowds, organisations, groups can lead to a fragmentation of conscience, breakdown of ethical behaviour – so they can influence and facilitate positive, virtuous behaviour and thinking.  Revisit the Yevtushenko story above.
Compassion doesn't belong to the individual, it is an emergent property of the whole".  Compassion is not an individual, superior, ‘helping’, self-serving attribute or property, but equalises us. It can be seen as a non-dualistic dynamic shared between ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’. Cynthia Bourgeault refers to this as “effortless compassion”.  (Bourgeault, C. 2017)

Watch this wonderful, wise, and humble explanation:

And if we can learn to be open to receiving compassion from others when in pain, we are simultaneously equipping ourselves to extend compassion towards ourselves and others.

Practice precedes competence. Behaviour can beget attitude. Doing assists being. Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor with a chronic illness who understands patients, can put herself in their shoes:

"Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin". (Remen, R. 1996)

Spiritual Care teacher Kirsten DeLeo on coming alongside another:  

“Accompaniment is a beautiful word and not much used these days. It speaks directly to what we do when we care for someone nearing the end of life. The Greek word for comforter is paraclete, which means “the one who walks alongside”. Caring for another means we accompany them, we walk by their side. Walking alongside the dying on their journey, we are fully present for them and also fully present to ourselves”. Her wisdom applies in any context, not only the dying process. (DeLeo, K. 2015)

In our day-to-day interactions, mindful listening is a powerful combination of unfiltered, focused, unconditional-acceptance based on valuing the other. A compassionate practice.
Just-do- it presupposes that continual learning and growth allow one over time to just-do-it-better!  
So for example, when anger is triggered, we can more naturally bring into play:

·         Emotional intelligence to identify and accept it
·         Realise as a fruit of inner work that strong emotional reactions are often prompted by our own shadow
·         Put oneself in the other person’s shoes
·         Shift our emotional focus away from any person involved (and putting the focus of our moral outrage/ righteous anger on the issue)
·         Apply nonviolent communication when we engage (focusing on both parties needs and requests) and not lapsing into naming and blaming or intellectual debating of the issue. This is in recognition that we are all part of the web of life, connected at a deep level and that we simply do not know the other’s soul intentions and needs
·         Uncover through naikan reflection that we all invoke anger in others

… and thus bring about a transformation of the anger (or despair, pain, frustration …..) into compassion

Neuroscience and positive psychology offer much. Practitioners sometimes have a tendency to reduce ‘heart’ matters to formulae and use these to promote individual ‘growth’ based on dubious motives. ‘Science’ is sometimes highly specialised and ‘narrow’, and not always holistic and unbiased.
Take kissing, reduced to chemical and ‘scientific’ analysis:

Evolutionary biologists suggest that erotic kissing is a so-called relic gesture, passed down through cultures from these early practices of the mother’s deep kissing and the infant’s searching tongue movements. What happens to our hormones when we kiss?
Anthropologist, Helen Fisher says that when we partake in mouth-to-mouth kissing, we share saliva which has testosterone in it which enhances our sex-drive. Kissing also stimulates the brain hormones, dopamine and oxytocin– both of which promote bonding and attachment in human beings”. (Thompson, S. 2018) 

In similar fashion, compassion may be reduced to the formulaic:
Empathy + Benevolence + Urge to Act = Compassion
Of course it is interesting (and maybe impressive)  to note that when compassion is being demonstrated our vagus nerve comes into play, the heart rate increases, certain regions of the brain are activated, and oxytocin is released …. But none of that adds to or reduces our capacity for compassion.

And Eastern and Ancient practices are sometimes hijacked and commoditised (deliberately or unwittingly) to serve Western outcomes and lucrative markets.  Think about Purpose (Williams, G. 2016), Meaningful engagement, Mindfulness, …

Prof of Management Ronald: “As mindfulness has increasingly pervaded every aspect of contemporary society, so have misunderstandings about what it is, whom it helps, and how it affects the mind and brain. At a practical level, the misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology can potentially lead to people being harmed, cheated disappointed, and/or disaffected”. (Purser, R.E. 2019)   Fr John Maine: “Learning to meditate is not just a matter of mastering a technique. It is much more learning to appreciate and respond directly to the depths of your own nature, not human nature in general, but your own in particular”. (Main, J.) Meditation is more about subduing the ego in stillness and silence, than about developing achievement skills!

Perhaps we can recover our humanity and innate compassion best by relying more on nurturing our heart-minds? (Tafler, A. 2019)

Contemplate Vincent Willem van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan (In the Public Domain)


Bourgeault, Cynthia (2017)  The Heart of Compassion  2017 Festival of Faiths

Buscaglia  Leo (1972) Love: what life is all about Fawcett Columbine

Charter for Compassion (2009)

DeLeo, Kirsten (2015) The Bone at the Heart: Care for the Dying - the Contemplative Approach Wise Brain Bulletin Issue 9.2  April 2015

Germer, Christopher & Neff, Kristin (2019) Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals 1st Edition, The Guilford Press

Hansen, Rick (2013) Trust in Love  Just One Thing Newsletter, 17 July

Hogan, Melanie and Randall, Bob (Producers) (2006) Kanyini (Film)

Kazantzakis, Nikos (1995) Zorba the Greek Faber & Faber

Main, John, Fr   John Main and the Practice of Christian Meditation

McKenna, Megan and Cowan, Tony (1997) Keepers of the Story Orbis Books, pg 66.

Panksepp, Jaak (2005) Affective Consciousness: Core Emotional Feelings in Animals and Humans Consciousness & Cognition 14, no. 1 (2005): 30–80. Cited in Neurodharma: Practicing with the 
Brain in Mind   © 2013 Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Popova, Maria (2014) Brain Pickings: Mark Twain on Racism, how Religion is Used to Justify Injustics, and What His Mother Taught Him About Compassion 24th October, 2014; citing The Biography of Mark twain

Purser, Ronald (2019) McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality   Repeater Books, UK 

Remen, Rachel Naomi MD  (1996) Kitchen Table Wisdom The Berkley Publishing Group (Penguin)

Robitski, Dan (2019) Scientists: Brain Implants Could Essentially Make Us Telepathic  Futurism 10th September, 2019

Rohr, Richard (2019) The Universal Christ: how a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe SPCK & Convergent Books
Rohr, Richard (2019) Meditation: Nodding to the Shadow Center for Action and Contemplation 11th September, 20129

Tafler, Afshan (2019) How Your Heart May Be Your Wisest Brain  Unyte Health Inc. Blog

The Guardian (2019)  Australians reject Coalition attacks on businesses promoting social issues: New survey finds almost 80% support CEOs having a say, but more than half believe when they do, it is out of self-interest   16th September, 2019 

(Owen E. comment on LinkedIn post by Graham Allsopp on 16th September, 2019)

See also:

Thompson, Sylvia (2018) Science of kissing: why a kiss is not just a kiss. The evolutionary origins and physiology behind mouth to mouth kissing   Irish Times Tue, Feb 13, 2018, 07:01

Tyson,  Neil DeGrasse (2014) Explains Why The Cosmos Shouldn't Make You Feel Small (interview with WBUR News/NPR) February 27, 2014 

Weikle, Brandie How to cultivate compassion  Reader’s Digest

Williams, Graham (2016) Corporate Stampede to Purpose

Zeldin, Theodore (1998) An Intimate History of Humanity   Vintage

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