Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Warmth, Compassion, and Empathy

Some of my summer reading this year 'The Art of Happiness' Coauthored by Psychiatrist Howard Cutler and THE Dalai Lama. My friend thought it would be up my alley because (if only as the cheerleading coach) I'm always encouraging people to be positive at the school where I teach.

Needless to say I don't agree with Mr. Lama on everything. I'm a pretty orthodox monotheist, I'm not sure whether he believes in sort of a universal god-energy thing as a Buddhist or maybe if he's a polytheist from the ancient Indian tradition that Buddhism sprang from. He believes that we need to perform on the "field of merit" in order to effect our next reincarnation, I believe that it is Jesus' merit and sacrifice on the cross which secured me eternal relationship with God Himself.

But those distinctions were givens before I ever started reading. The new difference I discovered was that Dalai believes that people are by nature warm and compassionate and all we have to do is to relearn what society has driven out of us. Me, I lean more toward Thomas Hobbes' contention that people are naturally selfish, brutish and in continual conflict. This may come as a surprise to those who know me because I really hate Hobbes, I think he was a jerk that perpetuated social stratification and his writings are used as an excuse for oligarchy and tyranny. Usually I prefer my archaic British political philosophers on the John Locke side, but I digress.

I don't think you have to harp on the doctrine of original sin forever and a day, all you have to do is look around to see that human beings tend to be selfish, sort-sighted and underdeveloped in the being-thy-brother's-keeper department. If they weren't we wouldn't have terrorism, a war on terrorism, irresponsibility in avoiding safety regulations leading to dead miners and ecological disasters, malfeasance and malpractice in the financial sector, politicians being... well, politicians, pedophile priests, cover-ups, divorce, racism, bullying, or extreme partisanship.

Be that all as it may- I actually like this book for the most part, and all differences aside, I think the exiled leader of Tibet is a smart guy with some very valuable ideas. I totally agree with him that we are put on this Earth to be in nurturing relationships with each other. I absolutely love that he thinks that we can choose to be happy and content by being disciplined and deliberate about certain things like appreciating what we have rather than desiring what others have or constantly trying to accumulate more material things, status and power. And I really appreciate his thinking about how we should seek to find what is good and valuable in everyone, consider everyone an equal worthy of kindness and dignity, and that we can give attention, affinity and affection with everyone to some degree if we intentionally practice empathy and warmth.

"I look at any human being from a more positive angle... This attitude immediately creates a feeling of affinity, a kind of connectedness." (Art of Happiness p.68) "My basic belief is that you first need to realize the usefulness of compassion...That's the key factor. Once you accept that the fact that compassion is not something childish or sentimental, once you realize that compassion is something really worthwhile, realize it's deeper value, then you immediately develop an attraction towards it, a willingness to cultivate it."
"And once you encourage the thought of compassion in your mind, once that thought becomes active, then your attitude towards others changes automatically. If you approach others with the thought of compassion, that will automatically reduce fear and allow openness with other people."
To me, that sounds a lot like "perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18)," If you genuinely "love your neighbor" as Jesus commanded, then everyone becomes not just your neighbor, but your brother. Good advice whether if comes from a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Methodist, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Buddhist.

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