Thursday, March 10, 2011

Connecting with Compassion

My last two posts were about a negative view and a positive view of choice and behavior. I find that I am extraordinarily drawn to the negative view. It seems to have quite a hold over me. I find myself feeling beaten down by the idea that there is some innate badness at my core that spoils any "good" I might do and makes my every action "bad." Therefore, it is best that I find an isolated niche in this world where I can do as little harm as possible. As fear-based, as life-destroying, as nuts as this view is, I find it quite gripping.

Now, let us apply Karen Armstrong's idea about the neocortex to this. I discussed Karen Armstrong's idea about the neocortex in my previous post.

First, I would like to consider the progression of creation. We have non-animate entities: the mineral kingdom, if you will. We have the elements: earth, air, fire, water. I think of rocks, particularly - very much there, enduring, being. All four elements are beautiful, all are powerful. This speaks of something important at the heart of God - beauty, power, endurance, being - and the capacity to support and provide a home for life.

Then, we have the non-sentient life forms: one-celled organisms, plants, insects. And we have life-forms where I am not sure how sentient the creatures are: reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds. Here, I would add to the heart of God abundance, diversity, proliferation, and more beauty - a sort of divine extravagance.

Hmmmm - God is creative, extravagant, beautiful, and joyful.

Next, we arrive at the mammals, particularly the higher intelligent mammals: horses, whales, dogs, cats, chimpanzees, and others. These animals, it seems, do not have the capacity of self-reflection, but do they perhaps have the beginnings of compassion? I know that rhesus monkeys who are deprived of food and made to see that they will receive food as a reward for giving a painful electric shock to another rhesus monkey, will refuse to give the shock (especially if they have previously experienced such a shock) even though this means enduring hunger. These monkeys will refuse to cause pain to another monkey, even though this means that they won't be fed. Here we can add to the heart of God love and loyalty.

And then we arrive at human beings with our neocortex - self-reflection, reason, compassion. Karen Armstrong says that the precarious situation of today's world comes from the use of our reasoning powers (our neocortex) in the service of our selfish survival instincts (our hypothalamus). This gives us weapons of mass destruction (created with the reasoning power of our neocortex) to use in keeping ourselves on top (a survival goal of our hypothalamus). Nonetheless, we also have the capacity to align ourselves consciously with the compassionate heart of God.

God - compassionate, creative, extravagant, beautiful, joyful.

SO - here is a solution to my impulse toward the innate badness view. The solution is to acknowledge the impulse, to recognize it, to stand aside from it, and to choose something else. To choose compassion for myself. To choose to act for good in the world, knowing that I make a difference, whether that difference is immediately apparent or not. Every compassionate thought, word, or act makes a difference.

Choices and Our Brains: A Positive View

In my last post, I wrote about a view which would say that some people are innately bad so that even their "good" choices become "bad" by virtue of their innate bad nature. In this post, I will present a much more positive view as expressed by Karen Armstrong in her latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

First, I would like to mention that Karen has studied the religions of the world, and has found at the core of each an understanding that the heart of God or the Transcendent or the Universe is compassion. Karen has so many wonderful and right-on things to say about compassion.

Let me begin with Karen's definition of compassion. I will quote her definition from page 9 below, with the addition of bullet points to make the elements of compassion stand out:

But "compassion" derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning "to suffer, undergo, or experience." So "compassion" means

  • "to endure [something] with another person,"
  • to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes,
  • to feel her pain as though it were our own,
  • and to enter generously into his point of view.

Karen explains that compassion is natural to human beings. We feel good when we behave compassionately, and life flows more smoothly and positively when we treat each other with compassion.

Karen also explains the uneasy co-existence of two parts of our brain:

  • The hypothalamus (a very ancient part of our brain located at its base and stemming from our reptilian ancestors)
  • The neocortex (a more recently evolved area of the brain)

Karen says that the hypothalamus is concerned with feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing - in other words, with survival. It is ruthlessly selfish. It strongly pulls us to consider ourselves and our own safety and well-being first. It also evolved to handle conditions of scarcity, so the hypothalamus will prompt us to continue hoarding even when we already have more than enough.

The neocortex, on the other hand, says Karen, allows us to reason, to think about the world and ourselves, to stand aside from and consider the instinctive reactions of our hypothalamus, to make choices about our behavior. The neocortex allows us to align ourselves consciously with the Heart of God, of the Transcendent, of the Universe - which is a Heart of Compassion.

What this means, says Karen Armstrong, is that we have a choice: to behave at the level of our hypothalamus, that is, instinctively and selfishly with concern for our own survival, or to behave at the level of our neocortex, that is, compassionately. Karen stresses that the pull of our survival-oriented hypothalamus is strong, so we would do well not to castigate ourselves for our feelings of fear and anger and our impulses to selfish behavior, but rather to accept them with compassion for ourselves, realizing from whence they stem. We do not, however, have to choose selfish behavior. We can calmly acknowledge selfish impulses, stand aside from them, and choose compassionate behavior.

In other words, IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF BEING INNATELY BAD. It is a question of choosing instinctive and selfish behavior associated with the hypothalamus, or choosing conscious and compassionate behavior associated with the neocortex. This is very hopeful!