Monday, December 2, 2013

John's Profound Question



"What is the source of compassion?"

One reader of this blog recently posed this question to me. Let’s explore his provocative question together. How does compassion manifest itself and from where does it arise? It seems to me that its basis is a gift of our mammalian heritage.

All mammals have awareness of and empathy with others of their kind. This is true especially of our close relative, the chimpanzee, but it is also true of elephants and dolphins. Neurologically we know that the mammalian brain’s mirror neurons allow one organism to literally experience what he/she sees happening to someone else. We warm blooded mammals have evolved to care about each other and to express affection for each other.

With human beings this capacity is both deepened and broadened. We feel each other’s suffering and desire to help another relieve her/his suffering. We know what our own suffering is like and we want to relieve it. In like manner we want to help others relieve their suffering because we know what it is like when it is our own.

But with us our compassion extends far beyond our own species. We also experience compassion for other animal species and for the Earth’s plants, water, air, soil and minerals. This I believe is because we are essentially Earthlings and children of the evolving cosmos. Someone has said that we are a star's way of looking at a star. I would add that we are a star's way of loving a star.

Compassion arises from our basic nature of empathy, care and love, our basic goodness. This is one reason why we are shocked when someone harms another person. It is not expected; it is shocking and is not our usual way of being. We are communal beings. We love to be with others of our kind and to care for each other. The source of compassion is nothing more nor less than our very being. Compassion, then, is ontological as well as biological and sociological. We are the heart, eyes and hands of compassion itself.

But why then, you ask, do you and I harm others if our basic nature is compassion? Why is there violence, warfare, poverty and injustice in human society? One answer is that our basic goodness becomes obscured and distorted by negative emotions of fear, anger, hatred, greed, ignorance, jealousy and pride. Our attachment to what we mistakenly see as our separate self or ego poisons our mind and heart and creates confusion and harmful behavior.

This is why we must continually practice letting go of self attachment and practice cherishing others. We must wake up again and again from the nightmare of our confused mind to our true nature of interdependence. We must train our mind to follow its deepest impulse which is compassion and not be overtaken by negative emotions.


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