Friday, January 29, 2010

Manifesto - Compassion Is My Spiritual Path

compassion.jpg compassion image by kenzo3_bucket

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
~ Dalai Lama

I could post dozens more quotes on the value and virtue of compassion. Over the past several years, compassion has become a hot topic. On the one hand, we have Karen Armstrong's Charter For Compassion, which is built on the compassionate core of the all the world's great religions and has become an important and well-organized effort to make compassion a tool in alleviating suffering wherever it is found; on the other hand, we have conservative thoughts such as these:
Compassion is contempt with a human face.
John McCarthy

Compassion is no substitute for justice.
Rush Limbaugh
If we had a third hand, we might also recognize an even more recent effort to teach people to be compassionate with themselves - Pema Chodron is perhaps the leading Buddhist teacher in this regard (see any of her books), but you can also find a lot of contemporary psychologists teaching self-compassion, which is very cool as someone going into that field.

I've been reading quite a bit about compassion lately, most recently The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions by Christopher Germer, and right now, The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness by Marc Ian Barasch. Both of these are essentially personal growth type books, not dharma texts or real psychology. I also have been reading The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh (editors of Greater Good magazine), which presents some of the science of compassion.

Relational Spirituality, Not Integral Spirituality

What got me thinking about compassion as a spiritual path, which fits with the Buddhist path I was already following, was this post at the P2P Foundation Blog, which was actually a re-post of some work by John Heron. In particular, there was this section critical of Ken Wilber that made me start to question my own version of spirituality. This is a little long, but I think it is a cogent criticism.

The Fallacy of Non-dual Individualism

Wilber has given an account of human spirituality in terms of lines and levels of development (Wilber: 2000a, 2000b, 2002). Theses lines and levels become an incoherent tangle because of an untenable status afforded to the non-dual and the path of individual meditation. Let me explain.

The lines are relatively independent kinds of human development, and the levels are stages of development through which the lines proceed. So the different lines all go through the same levels. Wilber defines spirituality in five different ways, but two of them are key ones in his system: spirituality as the highest levels of any line, and spirituality as a separate line itself. He thinks these two definitions are mutually compatible components of his integral psychology.

But in the way that he deploys them, they lead to very serious difficulties. Wilber needs spirituality as a separate line, to explain how it is that people can be spiritually lop-sided. The various human lines he mentions include psychosexuality, socio-emotional capacity, communicative competence, creativity and many more. The independent spiritual line is primarily contemplative/meditative. Wilber acknowledges that someone can be highly developed on this line, that is, competent at subtle, causal and non-dual awareness and still be spiritually undeveloped in other crucial lines of development, including psychosexual, emotional or interpersonal skills?. This imbalance he characterizes as One Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds them? (2000b: 131) One Taste refers to the non-dual state.

Wilber evaluates the non-dual state as the highest estate imaginable (2000b: 130). Yet at the same time he believes it can co-exist with a complete absence of spirituality at the top end of the interpersonal line and of other lines absolutely central to human development. This admission immediately dethrones the non-dual state from the supremacy he claims for it, and makes it appear as dissociated and quasi-pathological.

This dethroning also means that the highest estate imaginable is really the integration of all the different facets of human spirituality to be found at the top end of all the relatively independent lines. Furthermore, it cannot be the business of just one of those independent lines to define in advance by what stages all the other lines will reach their top ends. But Wilber tries to promote just that kind of business.

In his system, the separate contemplative line, which can become so dissociated from the development of other lines, is at the same time the sole source for deriving the higher transpersonal levels (psychic, subtle, causal, non-dual) through which all the other lines must proceed. But how can a contemplative line, which by definition is independent of the other lines, be a valid source for categories that prescribe the higher levels of these lines in which it has no competence? Indeed the relative independence, or dissociation, of the contemplative line calls in question the validity of the levels it claims to establish and whether indeed the levels are spiritual when they are the product of such a non-integral, separate line. The claims this line makes improperly and prematurely assume that the nature of the spiritual can finally be determined by the exercise of the skills of separatist contemplation, when the potential for developing spiritual skills on other relatively independent lines has not so far been fully explored by the human race.

Thus Wilber tries to argue that the basic categories for integrating all the lines in higher unfoldment have been uncovered on a single line that has no experience whatsoever of such multi-line integration. The way out of this tangle is gently and radically to propose that the contemplative line is not a spirituality line, that spirituality is not about states, however remarkable and extraordinary, that people get into by a lifetime of individual meditation.

Heron's critique of Wilber is only partially correct in my opinion - he is wrong about the rejection of Wilber's lines and states approach. There is ample evidence in the cases of Adi Da (and here), Carlos Castaneda, and Andrew Cohen, as well as others, as to what can happen when people have a state (temporary) experience - not a stage (permanent) acquisition - of non-duality and begin to think they are enlightened and then teach from that assumption. They sound convincing and gain followers quickly.

However, as often as not (and generally, it does happen eventually), these gurus end up acting from their under developed stages in the psychosexual or psychosocial lines (among other lines), and become abusive gurus. On this regard, Wilber is correct, although as Heron points out, calling a state experience enlightenment is certainly to diminish the extraordinary experience and achievement of nonduality.

On the other hand, Wilber has a very disturbing tendency to associate with abusive gurus, including Adi Da (whom he later, sort of, renounced), Andrew Cohen, and most recently, Marc Gafni - both of whom are part of Wilber's Integral Institute.

The fact that Wilber associates with these men suggests that he really has no real understanding of the relational element of spirituality and teaching. No matter what these people know or have achieved in their spiritual line of development, the complete and total lack of interpersonal morality and ethics disqualifies them as teachers. And by extension, Wilber also becomes suspect as a teacher.

Relational Spirituality - John Heron

Heron's approach to spirituality is more integral, to me, than is Wilber's. He bases it in the relationships between people, rather than in an isolated meditation practice.

Relational spirituality

A more convincing account of spirituality is that it is about multi-line integral development explored by persons in relation. This is because many basic developmental lines, e.g. those to do with gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, morality, to name but a few, unfold through engagement with other people. A person cannot develop these lines on their own, but through mutual co-inquiry. The spirituality that is the highest development of these lines can only be achieved through relational forms of practice that unveil the spirituality implicit in them (Heron 1998, 2005).

In short, the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a spiritual person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of spiritual traditions that are oppression-prone (Heron, 1998; Kramer and Alstad, 1993; Trimondi and Trimondi, 2003). If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating relations between people, then a new era of participative religion opens up and calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of traditional spiritual maps and routes.

Certainly there are important individualistic developmental lines that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative development, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-line integration and consummation. I propose one possible model of such collegially applied spirituality with at least eight distinguishing characteristics.
I am in full agreement with this concept, although it is only recently that I have come to this awareness. He goes on to outline exactly what this interpersonal spiritual model might look like:

(1) It is developmentally holistic, involving diverse major lines of human development; the holism is both within each line and as between the lines. Prime value is put on relational lines, such as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, peer communion, morality, human ecology, supported by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.

(2) It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a fully embodied and vitalized expression of spirit. Spirituality is found not just at the top end of a developmental line, but also in the ground, the living root of its embodied form, in the relational heart of its current level of unfolding, and in the transcendent awareness embracing it.

(3) It is epistemologically holistic, embracing many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant form and process, by conceptualizing, by practising. Such holistic knowing is intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic and political.

(4) It is ontologically holistic, open to the manifest as nature, culture and the subtle, and to spirit as immanent life, the situational present, and transcendent mind. It sees our relational, social process in this present situation as the immediate locus of the unfolding integration of immanent and transcendent spirit (Heron, 1998, 2004, 2005).

(5) It is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.

(6) It embraces peer-to-peer relations and participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a radical discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego.

(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice.

(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence. More on this later on.
I like this. And as near as I can tell, compassion is an ideal practice for this model of spirituality. At least in the Buddhist approach, compassion is the nearest thing to a relational spiritual path, and it is my path.

Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
Frederick Buechner

Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy.
Chogyam Trungpa

This last quote from Trungpa Rinpoche suggests the view I used to hold - that people are just a necessary annoyance. Somehow, over years of therapy, personal growth, and Buddhist practice, I no longer hold that misanthropic view. Certainly, I am often disappointed in my fellow human beings, frustrated by their non-caring for others, and hurt by their cruelty. But I know that this is not who we were meant to be in our lives - these are the acts of wounded, hurt, suffering people.

My response is no longer disgust (most days), but compassion (on my best days). I still have a long way to go on this path, as I'm sure most of us do, but I have taken the Bodhisattva Vows and I do my imperfect best to honor those vows.
May I be a guard for all those who are protector-less,
A guide for those who journey on the road,
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

~ Shantideva
The more simple statement of the vows is this:
May I assist all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, and may I be the last one to attain Buddhahood when all sentient beings have attained Buddhahood, as did Avalokiteshvara.

Some Science

This all sounds good, but is there any science behind this stuff? Well, yes, actually there is. No less an institution than Stanford is on the case, having launched a research center in the School of Medicine:


... also known as the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, is an innovative initiative of the Stanford School of Medicine within the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences that will employ the highest standards of scientific inquiry to investigate compassion and altruism.

OUR MISSION: To undertake a rigorous scientific study of the neural, mental and social bases of compassion and altruistic behavior that draws from a wide spectrum of disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, economics and contemplative traditions.

To explore ways in which compassion and altruism can be cultivated within an individual as well as within the society on the basis of testable cognitive and affective training exercises.
There is some good research on compassion and altruism going on at Stanford (see this page), but there are other people looking at these topics as well.

For example, "cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states" (Lutz et all, 2008). They used brain scans that revealed that the brain circuits activated in detecting emotions and feelings in others changed substantially in subjects who had the most extensive practice in compassion meditation.

Another study (
Raison, et all, 2008) suggests that doing a specific form of compassion meditation, lojong, can reduce physical and emotional reactions to stress. So, not only are we helping others in leading a compassionate life, but we are also benefiting our own health.

Other research (de Waal, 2010) suggests an evolutionary source of empathy, as does a study (Rodrigues et al, 2009) looking at the evolutionary origins of oxytocin.

Idiot Compassion

Some people misunderstand compassion as simply being nice to everyone. But that is not true compassion - it is what Chogyam Trungpa called idiot compassion. Here is Pema Chodron talking about what this means:
Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.
Too many of us are not willing to see others suffer or to be confrontational when necessary. Idiot compassion - as noted by Pema Chodron, enabling - is most obvious in situations where one is in relationship with an addict. To be sure, idiot compassion is born out of love, but it is immature love. It is a form of love that is afraid of loss. A more mature love can accept loss as a consequence of acting from true compassion.

Conclusion - More from the Dalai Lama

Anyway, I want to conclude with a little more from the Dalai Lama, whose compassion is palpable in his conduct and words. This comes from Compassion and the Individual.
Some of my friends have told me that, while love and compassion are marvelous and good, they are not really very relevant. Our world, they say, is not a place where such beliefs have much influence or power. They claim that anger and hatred are so much a part of human nature that humanity will always be dominated by them. I do not agree.

We humans have existed in our present form for about a hundred-thousand years. I believe that if during this time the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our overall population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that love and compassion predominate in the world. And this is why unpleasant events are news, compassionate activities are so much part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored.

So far I have been discussing mainly the mental benefits of compassion, but it contributes to good physical health as well, According to my personal experience, mental stability and physical well-being are directly related. Without question, anger and agitation make us more susceptible to illness. On the other hand, if the mind is tranquil and occupied with positive thoughts, the body will not easily fall prey to disease.

But of course it is also true that we all have an innate self-centeredness that inhibits our love for others. So, since we desire the true happiness that is brought about by only a calm mind, and since such peace of mind is brought about by only a compassionate attitude, how can we develop this? Obviously, it is not enough for us simply to think about how nice compassion is! We need to make a concerted effort to develop it; we must use all the events of our daily life to transform our thoughts and behavior.

First of all, we must be clear about what we mean by compassion. Many forms of compassionate feeling are mixed with desire and attachment. For instance, the love parents feel of their child is often strongly associated with their own emotional needs, so it is not fully compassionate. Again, in marriage, the love between husband and wife - particularly at the beginning, when each partner still may not know the other's deeper character very well - depends more on attachment than genuine love. Our desire can be so strong that the person to whom we are attached appears to be good, when in fact he or she is very negative. In addition, we have a tendency to exaggerate small positive qualities. Thus when one partner's attitude changes, the other partner is often disappointed and his or her attitude changes too. This is an indication that love has been motivated more by personal need than by genuine care for the other individual.

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.

Of course, developing this kind of compassion is not at all easy! As a start, let us consider the following facts:

Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems. Nor is this wish selective; it applies equally to all. As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively.

Let me emphasize that it is within your power, given patience and time, to develop this kind of compassion. Of course, our self-centeredness, our distinctive attachment to the feeling of an independent, self-existent ego works fundamentally to inhibit our compassion. Indeed, true compassion can be experienced only when this type of self-grasping is eliminated. But this does not mean that we cannot start and make progress now.

How can we start
We should begin by removing the greatest hindrances to compassion: anger and hatred. As we all know, these are extremely powerful emotions and they can overwhelm our entire mind. Nevertheless, they can be controlled. If, however, they are not, these negative emotions will plague us - with no extra effort on their part! - and impede our quest for the happiness of a loving mind.

So as a start, it is useful to investigate whether or not anger is of value. Sometimes, when we are discouraged by a difficult situation, anger does seem helpful, appearing to bring with it more energy, confidence and determination.

Here, though, we must examine our mental state carefully. While itis true that anger brings extra energy, if we explore the nature of this energy, we discover that it is blind: we cannot be sure whether its result will be positive or negative. This is because anger eclipses the best part of our brain: its rationality. So the energy of anger is almost always unreliable. It can cause an immense amount of destructive, unfortunate behavior. Moreover, if anger increases to the extreme, one becomes like a mad person, acting in ways that are as damaging to oneself as they are to others.

It is possible, however, to develop an equally forceful but far more controlled energy with which to handle difficult situations.

This controlled energy comes not only from a compassionate attitude, but also from reason and patience. These are the most powerful antidotes to anger. Unfortunately, many people misjudge these qualities as signs of weakness. I believe the opposite to be true: that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature gentle, peaceful and soft, but it is very powerful. It is those who easily lose their patience who are insecure and unstable. Thus, to me, the arousal of anger is a direct sign of weakness.

So, when a problem first arises, try to remain humble and maintain a sincere attitude and be concerned that the outcome is fair. Of course, others may try to take advantage of you, and if your remaining detached only encourages unjust aggression, adopt a strong stand, This, however, should be done with compassion, and if it is necessary to express your views and take strong countermeasures, do so without anger or ill-intent.

You should realize that even though your opponents appear to be harming you, in the end, their destructive activity will damage only themselves. In order to check your own selfish impulse to retaliate, you should recall your desire to practice compassion and assume responsibility for helping prevent the other person from suffering the consequences of his or her acts.

Thus, because the measures you employ have been calmly chosen, they will be more effective, more accurate and more forceful. Retaliation based on the blind energy of anger seldom hits the target.
One great place to start is with tonglen meditation, for which one need not be a Buddhist. For more on this practice, see these additional posts from Pema Chodron:

Tonglen Instructions
The Three Stages of Tonglen
On-the-Spot Tonglen Practice

References (not otherwise linked):

de Waal, F. (2010, Jan.) The Evolution of Empathy. Greater Good;

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J, (2004) A Revisionary Perspective on Human Spirituality,

Heron, J, (2005) Papers on the Inquiry Group,

Kramer, J. and Alstad, D. (1993) The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley: Frog Ltd.

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T. & Davidson, R.J. (2008) Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE; 3 (3): e1897 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

Raison, C.L. et al. Emory University (2008). Compassion Meditation May Improve Physical And Emotional Responses To Psychological Stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from­ /releases/2008/10/081007172902.htm

Rodrigues, S., Saslowc, L, Garciac, N., Johna, O. & Keltnerc, D. (2009) Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. PNAS December 15, 2009 vol. 106 no. 50 21437-21441

Trimondi, V. and Trimondi, V. (2003) The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism,

Wilber, K. (2000a) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000b) One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2002) An outline of integral psychology. Shambhala website.

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