|Source: Hartwig HKD|
A number of social change mechanisms (notably Nonviolent Communication) assume, when no violence is present in our hearts, that compassion is a natural state. This assumption is challenged often by many (especially economists) who contend that our base nature is competitive, nasty, and self-serving. Which is it? Are we naturally compassionate, or are we naturally selfish?
Before proceeding, it is worth defining what compassion is. With the work passion being held within it, there is a temptation to think that compassion is about acting with a strong or intense desire, ie. with passion. Passion has indeed come to mean a strong, intense desire, but the root of the word is a little different. Passion derives from the Latin word pati meaning to suffer. When the Latin word com (meaning together) is added we discover that compassion means “to suffer together.” From this shared suffering we act to alleviate that suffering.
Recognising the pain and suffering of another human being is, in part, one of the evolutionary instincts that has enabled humans to survive and flourish in the world. Far from the Social Darwinian assertion of the “survival of the fittest” espoused by apologists for neoliberalism and military interventions, Darwin actually claimed that
“… communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”1Research over the past few decades strongly suggests that our brains are wired for compassion. Dacher Keltner asserts that compassion is
“… an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brain.”2Psychology, almost since it’s inception tended to focus on the “negative” aspects of the brain. The more “positive” aspects of our thoughts, emotions and feelings (e.g. happiness, empathy, gratitude, and compassion) have only more recently received attention from the psychology or neurosciences fields. Dacher Keltner is one such psychologist who studies these “positive” aspects. In his paper, The Compassionate Instinct, Keltner notes that
“Recent neuroscience studies suggest that positive emotions are less heritable – that is, less determined by our DNA – than negative emotions. Other studies indicate that the brain structures involved in positive emotions like compassion are more ‘plastic’ – subject to changes brought about by environmental input.”This is important, because it notes that compassion is something that we can cultivate, something that we can enhance.
Hence, compassion is something that we evolved, and by doing so, enabled us to evolve. Without compassion, we human beings, may not be here at all.
But What Of Those Who Are Not Compassionate?
Debates about compassion can lead us into the age-old argument about good and evil. But what of those like Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, or Pol Pot ask those who dispute the innateness of compassion. They showed no sense of compassion.
How could we describe such examples? The term “psychopath” comes to mind. Perhaps, as Charles Eisenstein, notes “psychopath becomes the scientifically sanctioned term for wicked person.”
Psychopathy has the advantage of having been studied longer than have many of the “positive” aspects of the brain mentioned above.
Some recent research3 on psychopaths, whilst acknowledging that psychopaths often do not act in a compassionate manner, notes that psychopaths do have “empathy” (closely related to compassion) but that the switch in their brain is set to the “off” position. (For most people “on” is the default position for the compassion switch in the brain.) However, it is possible for psychopaths to have this switched to “on.”
This research suggests that the notion that there are some who are not capable of showing compassion, and are out-and-out evil doers, is a baseless assumption.
Innate Or Not?
Innate or not, the research suggests strongly that compassion can be enhanced, developed, cultivated. For some, it seems, compassion may possibly even be “switched on.” If, as Keltner attests, compassion is one of the aspects of the brain that is highly plastic, then cultivating it is indeed possible and highly desirable.
Aside from the research about the evolutionary benefits of compassion there has been considerable research into how compassion enhances our well-being. Studies have linked compassion to greater happiness, lower levels of depression and anxiety, lower cellular inflammation (linked to cancer), and greater self-esteem. One study suggested that compassion increases our sense of connection with others and hence leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.
Innate or not, it certainly seems advisable to cultivate our compassion. Keltner advises forms of meditation, derived mainly from Buddhist practices. The exact form seems to be irrelevant, the meditation itself is what is important.
Buddhism does seem to be a useful source to tap into, as compassion is strongly emphasised in that tradition. One of the timeless maxims of Buddhism is the following:
“For the bird of enlightenment to fly, it must have two wings: the wing of wisdom and the wing of compassion.”Noting the connection to our individual well-being, the Dalai Lama counsels that
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”In our current world compassion is of greater need than perhaps it ever has been. In our community development work, or our social justice advocacy it is our compassion that will have the greatest benefit. Compassion is also the greatest gift that we can help bring about within the communities or society in which we work.
Note. I thoroughly recommend watching Dacher Keltner's TedX talk on compassion.
1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter IV
2. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct, accessed 7 March 2016.
3. Harma Meffert, Valeria Gazzola, Johan A. den Boer, Arnold A. J. Bartels, Christian Keysers, Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy, in Brain: The Journal of Neurology, July 2013