Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society

For twelve Sundays Nalandabodhi Connecticut is offering a book discussion group on H. H. Karmapa’s book Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society. Below is a summary of the fifth chapter and a list of contemplations related to this chapter that will be the basis of our online discussion of this chapter on Sunday June 21th at 10:30 a.m. For more information, go to Events on this website.

Chapter 5

FROM EMPATHY TO COURAGEOUS COMPASSION

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We have many positive qualities within us – qualities like empathy, courage, and wisdom. We might call these qualities the values of interdependence

Actively cultivating these qualities helps us go beyond a theoretical understanding of interdependence, to begin actually feeling ourselves to be profoundly interconnected.

Our inner world evolves in conjunction with our outer world. It shapes our interpretations and emotional responses to what we see around us, suggests possible courses of action based on those interpretations and our own aims, and produces the intentions to carry them out. This in turn changes our external circumstances, and from there the cycles of mutual impact continue.

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We are generally much more aware of the impact our outer circumstances have on our inner states and tend to grossly underestimate the effect of our inner world on the outer world.

(Krysha NOTE: We are very aware of how the world is happening to us, but not so aware of how we are happening to the world.)

The world inside our hearts and minds is made of different “material” than the physical world. Perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and intentions form part of the composition of our inner world, and so do all our other affective and cognitive capacities. These capacities are not physical, but they have the power to reshape the world.

WALKING A MILE TOWARD A COMMON GOAL

Empathy plays a powerful role in moving the awareness of interdependence from our heads to our hearts and from there into compassionate action. The interconnections that link us to others are not solely physical. We are profoundly connected emotionally to others, as well, and our capacity for empathy is a palpable sign of that emotional connectedness.

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Empathy reveals on an affective level what ignorance and egocentrism deny.

Empathy enables us to reach across differences and connect as equals. It does so by cutting straight through the walls that we build up around us and allowing us to touch the core of our equality: the ability to experience pain and joy.

Empathy takes us along a direct route to that ground. It lets us actually feel what equality has told us to be true: that we are all equal in terms of our search for happiness and to avoid suffering, even as the particulars of our experiences vary at any given moment.

This function of empathy is captured. By an expression from the indigenous peoples of the Americas that speaks of walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

We should…try to experience their situations from their perspective rather than our own.

We stand inside their shoes and see their lives from the inside, not merely observing it from the outside.

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On the basis of the empathy that arises… we can see a manifestation of the same basic wish that we share with them.

CONNECTED RIGHT FROM BIRTH

Empathy allows us to become aware of others’ situations and problems on an emotional level.

Studies of interaction among infants and very small children have shown that humans respond empathetically to others’ suffering from the very start of our lives.

Our own observations from our experience suggest that empathy is a natural human response. We wince when we see others injured…when we hear laughter, we can find ourselves smiling even if we did not hear the joke.

This ability to connect with the inner condition of others does not appear to be something humans need to be taught…Babies are apparently moved by others’ pain even before they learn to speak.

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Empathy can be thought of as hard-wired into our brains.

Although we are born with this inner quality of empathy, it can become less accessible to us over time. Indeed, nurture often seems actually to be diminishing our natural capacity.

But it is far more common – and of greater concern – that our empathy becomes impaired in the normal course of our upbringing. I believe it is time we asked ourselves collectively what we are doing in the socialization process that ends up diminishing the empathetic responses we observe so much more readily in children than in adults.

NO SOCIAL HEALTH WITHOUT IT

I think we can consider a lack of empathy to be a kind of disease as well.

There can be no social health unless empathy is made a central value.

I think apathy kills more than any other single disease. We turn our backs on many people in pain, rather than extending a hand or offering a world of comfort, out of failure to empathize.

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On a broader societal level, many situations of violence, oppression, and sheer neglect are allowed to continue because our empathy is underdeveloped or even switched off…we could call it empathy impairment.

When we are constantly linked externally but cannot connect from the heart, remaining emotionally unaware of the experiences of others, we lose our basis to create a healthy global society. (NOTE: shift from a barter economy to the use of money – less personal connection).

Given the extent of our connectedness, we need to care about the consequences of our words and actions on others. Empathy both keeps us concerned and helps us understand the experiences that our actions create in others.

Empathy impairment is a particularly dangerous disease in leaders who are in a position to make a difference in social policy or practices. The US president Barack Obama has spoken of the urgent need for empathy in society, and points out how harmful it is to the entire country when its government is lacking in this essential quality. I think the public should make this one of the main qualifications that they require of any politician seeking their vote.

Actually, since there are scientific means to measure empathetic responses neurologically, I have a proposal. I am half joking of course, but imagine if, before a country holds political elections, candidates were required to undergo a neurological study to determine their level of empathy.

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Or we could ask:

Do they disregard or deny the feelings of others? Are they able to connect on a human basis with those who are different from them? Do they only engage with others who further their own political aims? Do they care about the consequences of their decisions on others? By asking such questions, we could make empathy a criterion for serving as a political leader.

HOW EMPATHY CAN BE IMPAIRED

Like all other aptitudes we are born with, empathy can be reinforced or weakened.

CONTEMPLATE:

  • How might empathy be weakened?

  • What outer environments weaken empathy?

  • What inner environments or conditions weaken empathy?

We can intentionally provide better inner conditions for our own empathy to flourish.

As the studies show, we all start out with the capacity for empathy, if we live in environments where it is a distinct disadvantage to be sensitive and caring, the growth of our empathy and compassion can become stunted.

We can ask how our global society fares in this regard. People are constantly pitted against one another, as competition and greed are stimulated and celebrated.

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From school age onward, social dynamics are set up that encourage us to see ourselves in a race to be the one to win prizes and praise that cannot be shared.

This creates contexts in which not only is there no space for empathy; it is actively impeded. If we wish to nurture empathy as an important quality for creating a sustainable interdependent world, we may need to rethink many of our educational and social practices.

Question: What do we do about empathy that has already been weakened?

  1. Recognize how much is lost when our empathy is diminished.

  2. Explore strategies for bringing our empathy up to full strength.

CONTEMPLATE

  • How might empathy be reinforced?

  • What kind of environments reinforce empathy?

  • What inner environments or conditions reinforce empathy?

  • What actions of body or speech might enhance empathy?

We don’t need to start from ground zero, since empathy is inherently present in all of us. Therefore, our task is more a matter of developing something that has been underdeveloped, or restoring something that has become weak or restricted.

Our natural capacity for empathy seems to decline as we age.

We can take Hitler as an instance of someone whose empathy was profoundly restricted in scope.

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Hitler was known to have displayed great tenderness and empathy toward certain dogs.

The challenge is to train such people to broaden or transfer the feelings of tenderness and care that they are able to feel toward certain people or animals to other beings as well. Actually, we could all benefit from such training.

This is where training in compassion and loving kindness can come in. (discussed in third section of book).

Note: this training proceeds by

  1. strengthening the existing basis of empathy or compassion that we already have.

  2. Extending it outward so as to be increasingly inclusive and increasingly intense.

Actually, until the moment when we have an unbearable, unconditional response to the suffering of all beings without exception, our empathy has not yet reached the limits of how far it can grow.

OUR BACKSTAGE PASS

Inner and outer conditions are continually interacting to shape our actions, and thus to shape our world. For that reason, we also need to consider the internal conditions that lead people to act and react in certain ways.

When it comes to people’s actions, motivation is a key aspect of the context. Motivation arises from within and guides an external course of action. We must find ways to look beyond people’s visible conduct and gain a sense of the inner states and emotions that motivate that conduct.

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When our mind and heart are open, we can better listen to what our empathy tells us. This helps us understand what is going on inside others, motivating them to act as they do.

There is always an unseen background. Each person has within them an inner emotional world, where things have been evolving and are decided long before they are revealed to the public. Things never simply burst forth for no reason and with no impelling force whatsoever. Empathy can serve as a backstage pass, giving us access to the reasons and the forces impelling others’ actions.

We see what was going on inside a person, leading them to act as they did.

We can only bring about lasting changes in behavior by recognizing and addressing the inner and outer conditions that lead to it.

IN THE MOST CHALLENGING CASES

One of the Boston bombers had expressed on social media that he felt friendless. He did not fit in and felt socially isolated.

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We hear of sociopaths who were so starved for affection in their childhood that they have become cruel and callous, apparently losing their ability to empathize. They are unable to feel the pain that their victims feel, and they inflict pain on others or even kill them.

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Angulimala who killed 999 people and made a necklace of their finger bones.  Rather than trying to counter Angulimala’s murderous actions by force, the Buddha challenged him to stop himself. What the Buddha recognized that others could not was that Angulimala had the potential for change. This is only possible when we connect on a level that is beyond their external conduct.

Just looking at Anulimala’s behavior, it would be easy to consider him a lost cause, or even a monster. Yet the Buddha was able to turn him around completely.

No person is beyond the reach of our understanding if we are able to extend ourselves toward them. But we must learn to look beyond their words and deeds to see the inner conditions that led to them.

CONDEMN THE BEHAVIOR, NOT THE PERSON

Death of Osama Bin Laden. I did not feel quite the way I most often do when I hear of someone’s death. I simply thought, “Oh, I see. He is dead.” People in the USA were dancing in the streets.

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I had the thought that by dancing like this at the death of one enemy, in that very moment they were giving birth to many new enemies. This is how  cycles of hatred and harm are perpetuated.

The belief that our enemies are utterly unlike us is a significant problem. It is a major part of how enemies are created in the first place – and it is a part that we ourselves can change.

(George Takaki’s book: Strangers from a Different Shore about Japanese internment camps – use of nicknames to dehumanize your enemies).

We can condemn their behavior, but we should not dismiss the person.

Take into account all the factors affecting the over time. There is more to a person than just the particular action that we are witnessing and disliking. If we are willing to look, we can always find another aspect of them that we are able to connect to and work with.

The term terrorists, is applied nowadays to all sorts of groups, and this becomes an excuse to spy on, attack, or imprison people, and otherwise limit their freedoms.

If we do not address the causes and conditions that five rise to terrorism but only seek to stop each new manifestation of it, we will never uproot terrorism. Killing terrorists will never end terrorism.

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The longer term challenge is to understand why people came to take such extreme positions in the first place.

Even if we do not accept that their reasons justify their actions, we still need to determine what their reasons are.

It is the reality that we are interdependent that makes it imperative that we not only look for ways to halt each new terrorist act but also to identify the causes and conditions that give rise to such violence.

By shifting even one of the causes and necessary conditions, we can and will change the end result. For that to happen, we must acknowledge and understand them.

BEFORE CASTING THE FIRST STONE

When we analyze the forces that motivate harmful behavior, we find a fairly familiar set of dark emotions, such as anger, jealousy, and greed.

We need to understand our negative inner conditions so we can reduce them and base our connections with others on our positive qualities instead.

We fall prey to disturbing emotions that can overtake us and influence our judgement, our decisions, and our behavior. We can become totally controlled by disturbing emotions such as anger.

(NOTE: It is often said that the mind is the king. It determines the actions of body and speech.

The state of our mind determines how we see the world and how we react or respond. A mind permeated by a disturbing emotion will see the world through that lens and actions will be permeated by that disturbing emotion as well.)

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In the moment of rage, we say we were not in our right mind. In a sense we were impaired like a person who is temporarily insane or whose empathy is completely switched off.

If we were looking for the actual source of the violent behavior we see in the world, the blame should be laid squarely on the disturbing emotions that were present at the time of the action, not simply on the person as a whole. We do not usually approach anger and violence from this viewpoint.

Learning how to break a situation down into its constituent conditions and parts is necessary in order to see how things can be changed. It allows us to isolate, denounce, and eliminate the causes of the destructive behavior rather than rejecting or eliminating the person as a whole. WE all fall prey to destructive emotions such as anger, at different moments and to different degrees.

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Therefore we need to improve our skills at reducing the emotion of anger individually and as a society.

No one in their right mind actually seeks out pain and problems, yet we see people harming others or themselves and clearly not making any progress toward securing their own happiness and well-being…We are observing someone even more deserving of our compassion…They have become enslaved to their own disturbing emotions and lack true freedom. Even as we develop strategies for reducing negative conditions, we can also be actively working toward greater empathy for those who feel such harmful emotions.

In our quest to enhance our own empathy, we don’t work only with those who deserve our pity. We can also work with people who are seemingly better off than us. Rather than fixating on differences, we can recollect the shared aspiration that we all have.

The resources that we all have in abundance are our inner resources, and these are what we can develop boundlessly to yield the happiness we yearn for. When we are focusing solely on material resources as a means of securing happiness, chances are we will not actually experience happiness.

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FROM EMPATHY TO COMPASSION

Empathy does not require you to condone what others do or excuse it. It just gives you some understanding of what they are undergoing. With empathy, subject and object are distinct. By contrast, compassion brings you closer. Compassion goes deeper than empathy and involves you further.

With compassion, you feel as if that distance disappears, and you imagine that you actually are the other person…You and they almost become one person. You can feel the other’s suffering and wish for them to be free of it.

Compassion is therefore more engaged and much more active than empathy alone…You might pass someone on the street and feel some empathy, but compassion stops you in your tracks. It draws you in and much more readily translates into action…Where there is compassion, there is much more energy to act.

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Although empathy can give us the awareness or understanding of what the other is undergoing, the other somehow remains other. Compassion enters straight into your heart…We are almost one person with them.

ENDING SPECTATOR COMPASSION

During the Boston Marathon bombing, I say images of a young man with both legs blown off, his bones protruding, being assisted by an older man in a cowboy hat. When we watch the images…that compassion is a sort of spectator compassion. It is wholly unlike the compassion of the man in the cowboy hat. He was so totally focused on saving the younger man’s life that there was no space for any sense of his own personal distress.

When you are completely connected to another’s situation and feel as if you were in their place, you direct all your energy toward finding some solution….anything and everything you can possibly do to protect his life and ease his pain. Your thoughts and feelings are so completely directed toward addressing and ending that suffering that you only experience the wish to free him from suffering. You do not actually experience suffering.

Spectator compassion is a kind of knowing without really feeling. Real compassion connects with the living experience and wants to move with the person, to bring them out of suffering and up to the final goal of happiness.

I think if your empathy with someone you see suffering overwhelms you with suffering yourself, this is a sign that you have not fully come over to the other’s place. You are still a spectator of someone else’s pain. Your empathy has not gone far enough.

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Once you connect completely on the level of feelings, that distress goes away.

In HHK book, The Heart is Noble, the focus of our compassion should not be narrowly aimed at the suffering itself but must take in the person who is suffering…When we are connecting with the person in their pain, we do not even consider this option of giving up and abandoning them in that state.

COURAGE IS THE ROOT OF COMPASSION

The element of courage is essential for strengthening our empathy…Compassion does not leave you feeling overwhelmed or impotent in the face of the suffering you see. Courage is the root of compassion.

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It is not the case that when you feel compassion you only see suffering and pain and cannot see anything beyond that. Rather, you have the imagination to see the other as free and happy and you keep that aim in mind.

With compassion, the result – happiness – is present before you, like a finish line. In a race, you might be tired physically, but you are sustained by your determination not to stop until you have reached your final goal. You are sustained by joy at the prospect of attaining that goal.

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