by Cedar Barstow, M.Ed., C.H.T.
“We need an ethic of compassion more desperately than ever before.” —Karen Armstrong, reflecting on the unanimous agreement of religious faiths on the primacy of compassion
“We are not here to save the world, we are here to love and serve the world and in that love and in that service, the world may or may not be saved.” —Gurumai
“The final piece of reaching for authentic power is releasing your own to a higher form of wisdom.” —Gary Zukov
“Pain and suffering, they are a mystery. Kindness and love, they are a mystery. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering.” —Barbara Kingsolver
Weaving ethics with soul work and with world service is a natural outgrowth of understanding ethics as right use of the power of love and the power of influence.
• The development of skillfulness and wisdom in the benevolent use of power combined with the force of love requires personal and relationship work at the level of soul.
• One of the characteristics of health and well-being is altruistic desire and action.
• Clients, as their well-being improves, may need guidance and support in putting their compassion and benevolence into action in the world.
• The growth and expression of compassion is as primary as self-esteem in happiness and health.
Adding to her statement above, Karen Armstrong says: “The early prophets did not preach the discipline of empathy because it sounded edifying, but because experience showed that it worked. They discovered that greed and selfishness were the cause of our personal misery. When we gave them up, we were happier. Egotism imprisoned us in an inferior version of ourselves and impeded our enlightenment.” Fascinatingly, recent research by Moll and Jordan Grafman who are neuroscientists at the National Institute of Health, (from an article by Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, May 28, 2007) has shown that taking action in the best interests of others is coded in the brain. In a study in which they scanned the “brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves,” the results showed that “when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges, but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.” There is a surviving and thriving impulse and advantage for those who develop and use their capacities for social intelligence. This social intelligence is accessed through the social engagement nervous system.
Compassion, not selectively for those who are similar—for that is easy—but for those who are different, even ‘enemies,’ is what brings, not only greater happiness and spiritual development, but also peaceful relations and the sustaining prosperity that comes from mutual aid. Compassion for all simply works better than aggression. Right use of power comes from compassion for all, rather than from fearful aggression.
Because it feels good, because it makes us happier, because it improves relationships, because it makes the world a better place—for all these reasons, we need to support the soul development of compassion for all, including ourselves.
Personal story: My psychotherapy client sat down, took a moment and said, “I don’t think there’s anything to work on today.” “Maybe so. Why don’t you take a little time quietly with yourself and see if your unconscious offers something up to us out of the inner space you create, and if not, you could just leave for today.” After about 5 minutes, Margie said, “There is something kind of peeking out. It’s an impulse to do something to help on a world level.” “That sounds like health. You’ve been healing and empowering yourself. The desire for altruism is an organic thing. What’s it like when you experience this impulse peeking out?” “It’s like I feel like a child…very small, looking up at all these big, powerful people in high government positions.” “Overwhelmed and insignificant?” “Yes, and very naïve. Like, I’ve been in such a small little world, isolated. I guess I’ve been trying to keep my life manageable and safe.” “So you’re scared when you open up to a larger world.” “Yes, and then I have all these questions….How do I find reliable sources of information…I’m so uninformed. How do I not get overwhelmed by all the pain and disasters? How do I find some way to help that would be effective and not too painful or draining?” “Lots of good questions.” “Too big, I can’t sustain this impulse…it just goes away. How can we help our clients and ourselves channel the natural impulse for altruism?
Ethical use of power begins in empathy and altruistic pleasure. We are born with a basic moral compass, based in empathy and the natural desire to take action on behalf of others. This is most obvious in the outpouring of care for a family member or a situation in which one is directly involved. Simple moral decisions activate a straightforward brain response. The Snyders (Martha, Ross, and Mary Helen in The Young Child as Person) have spent a lifetime studying young children as persons. They have consistently found that children have an inborn pre-disposition for justice and caring. “Unless they have been dehumanized by adults….children reveal the capacity to be empathically attuned to each other, to co-create a ‘justice culture,’ to support fairness, safety and the restoration of relationship, and to be naturally interested in what works for the well-being of all.” This is what we would expect from our brain wiring.
Of course, when this brain wiring in the frontal lobes is damaged or inoperative, people suffer from a complete lack of empathy and conscience, clinically labeled psychopathy. (Robert Hercz, internet article Psychopaths Among Us.) While not all who meet the definition of psychopath are violent, they live with a lack of the normal empathy and conscience that guides behavior. Dr. Robert Hare has done research on the nature of psychopathy and developed an instrument called the Psychopathy Checklist which is used to measure psychopathy. Using this instrument, he estimates that 1% of Canadians, exhibit psychopathic behavior. Most of these people are not violent, but about 20% of the inmates in Canadian prisons satisfy the Hare definition of a psychopath and they are responsible for over half of all violent crime. When in leadership positions, and they are there, these people are particularly difficult if not impossible to deal with.
Our brains are hard-wired for empathic responses toward the well-being of others. There is global agreement about basic human rights, in theory at least, elucidated in detail in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are virtues common to descriptions of what qualities are important to being a good person in the core teachings of major world religions. Linda Kavelin and Dan Popov (The Family Virtues Guide) identified 52 of these through studying the texts of the world’s great religions. Karen Armstrong (author of The Spiral Staircase, Knopf, 2004) recently proposed the creation of a Contract for Compassion to be signed by the leaders of world religions.” Global agreement on top values of honesty, responsibility, respect, and fairness exists.” (Rushworth Kidder, Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations with Men and Women of Conscience) Clear situations where there is a choice to alleviate suffering, like picking up a hurt child, giving money to support victims of a fire, sharing food with someone who is hungry, activate a straightforward brain response.
Other situations are more complex and activate competing brain center activity, like abortion, euthanasia, population control, use of global resources. Here’s where the life-long process of moral and ethical development goes deeper. Our frame for ethical behavior must include and yet transcend rules and guidelines, crime and punishment, and the unending stream of violence for violence in the name of justice. We must take the more difficult route of discerning and serving the common good, using strength as needed and always with compassion, and refining and empowering the processes of resolution and repair when harm is caused.