Lesson 21 — Opening the Heart
Is it possible to develop a compassionate concern about every person, the rest of life on earth, and about the whole process and all its expressions? I’m convinced that it is, and will discuss three of the many possible ways of working our way to that place of caring and compassion.
One way to develop a compassionate attitude toward people is through coming to appreciate the lawfulness of the universe and the human decision-making process. There are reasons why things happen, and deeply understanding this enables us to see that no matter how unskillful a person’s actions are, at the moment of decision that person is doing the best they can.
We live in a lawful universe. At any given instant a certain situation exists, and that situation interacts with the laws of nature – and sometimes with the decision-making systems of people and animals — to produce a new situation in the next instant. What happens does not have just one single cause. Instead, multiple elements in each situation together dictate what will happen. Any single “cause” that we might identify is linked to other causal factors in the situation, and each of those has causes of its own. What we have are countless chains of cause and effect that go all the way back to the beginning of our universe fifteen billion years ago. The effects of chance and randomness in forging some of the links in those chains do nothing to change this picture. There is no single cause for anything. Things happen exactly as they happen at this moment because a near infinitude of other things happened exactly as they happened at times in the past, and resulted in the present multifaceted situation.
Our individual brains and our decision-making capabilities came out of this complex causal matrix, and as much as we might like to think of ourselves as self-made and independent-minded, we are in fact, universe made. Each person’s actions are determined by a complex decision-making system that is itself the result of a multitude of causal influences. The residual effects of these influences now determine how decisions will be made and what they will be.
Helping to form this system and determine how it operates are
- the genes we ended up with after billions of years of biological evolution,
- our local and global cultures,
- the family we grew up in,
- the schools we attended,
- the friends we hung out with,
- the TV and movies we have watched, and
- the books, magazines, and newspapers we have read.
These and other influences helped form the individualized decision-making systems that decide what we will do and what we won’t do in various circumstances. It is these brain-based systems that decide, out of zillions of possibilities, the particular actions we take – and in concert with many things that we have no control over, the lives we end up living.
Essential to the decision-making process are what we call our values. Human decision-making involves a whole hierarchy of these values, and one thing we can be sure of is that your value hierarchy will be different from mine. Even if you and I agree on broad general principles, we will disagree on details. And even in the extremely unlikely event that we had exactly the same list of values, my decision-making system would probably not rank their relative importance in the same way that yours would. Because of this, in identical situations you and I would often make different decisions.
So just how does this work in real life? Feeding the birds is one of my values, but it ordinarily has a much lower priority than feeding myself. Thus, if I’m down to my last dollar I’m much more likely to buy myself a hamburger than to spend it on bird seed. Down to your last dollar, something else might happen. Feeding the birds might not be on your list at all, and perhaps you don’t eat meat. In some way not yet understood in detail, both our present situation and the hierarchy of values that each of us has internalized are taken into account. Then, out of the myriad of possible actions, our decision-making process decides to take one of them — or perhaps decides to do nothing.
One of the things we can deduce from this decision-making reality is that everyone is doing the best they can, or more precisely, everyone is doing the only they can. A person has made a decision. Perhaps if he or she had possessed a little more information, or slightly different information, the decision made might have been very different. But at the instant of decision, the decision itself could not have been anything other than what it was.
We may not understand why a particular decision was made, nor understand how it could possibly have been the optimum choice of any conceivable decision-making system. But just because we don’t understand the rationale does not mean that there was none. At some deeper level, beyond our understanding, everything that happens makes sense. The combined personal/cosmic system took into account everything pertaining to that situation — including the design and programming of the human brain that made the decision. And out of the whole matrix of interrelated elements came a decision and a happening that was the logical consequence of all those elements and their relationship.
If, as this indicates, everyone is doing the best or the “only” they can, how then can we feel anything other that compassion for everyone? I’m not saying that we should tell the rapist or the drive-by killer that we’re so sorry about their problem, and let them run free. Destructive people can’t be allowed to continue to destroy; it’s as simple as that. But at the same time we must realize that some combination of influences came together to form the decision-making systems that got these people to do what they did. We can then try to figure out what those influences were, and do our best to see that others are not subjected to them.
Let’s assume that this sort of analysis brings us to a rational understanding that people are doing the best they can, but toward many people we still don’t feel compassionate. What can we do about that?
One possibility is to start extending caring feelings to others, and to do this repeatedly. Buddhists call the extending of good wishes to others lovingkindness meditation. You simply sit comfortably in a quiet place and extend wishes for happiness and well-being to yourself and others. You begin with the easiest situation. If you like yourself, then you start by wishing yourself happiness and well being. In Asian cultures, this is where almost everyone starts. In North America, however, many people find wishing themselves happiness more difficult than wishing others happiness. In this case, start with a person that you admire a great deal and leave yourself till later — perhaps even till last.
When wishing happiness and well-being to this first person has a comfortable feel to it, you then extend the same sort of good wishes to other “easy” people — people who you admire — one person at a time.
When, after some practice, doing this for people you like feels right and comfortable, you are encouraged to start selecting various “difficult” people — people who have hurt you, perhaps, or other people to whom sending good wishes is not so easy. You move into this “difficult” area only to the extent that you are drawn to do so. But most people find that as they practice wishing people the best that life has to offer, they are eventually able to extend their circle of care and concern to difficult people, and ultimately to everyone.
As I see this practice, whether or not your good wishes do these other people any good is beside the point. The object is to do YOU some good — to help you feel more connected with others – more understanding, more compassionate.
On a related matter, what is your typical reaction when someone tells you about an award they just received, or a trip they are about to take to a wonderful place, or some other piece of personal good fortune? Is it a twinge of envy? Or is it genuine excitement for them, and a feeling of gladness on their behalf? We all know what envy is, but this other state of mind has a name, too. It’s called sympathetic joy, and it’s envy’s opposite. Again, if our tendency is to feel envy at the good fortunate of others, we can work to change that situation by practicing sympathetic joy.
Another way to arrive at a place of universal compassionate concern is to come to understand what oneness means, and to start to feel the connectedness that already exists among all forms of life, and between life forms and the rest of the universal process. This approach was advocated by the mystics and spiritual teachers of ancient times. The challenge is to see through the temporary realm of form and appearance to the enduring realm of Being that supports form and appearance, and is their source.
“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed in form.” That is what our high school physics teachers told us, and they were right. I think that the enduring substrate of the universe which the ancients called Being is the same enduring reality that we today call energy — or more correctly, energy in concert with the laws by which it functions. What the ancients called form we today call information: patterns of difference in some medium of expression. Energy interpenetrates everything in the physical would and allows it to exist. Energy is the medium, or carrier, or beingness of the entire universe. Information gives form to the energy. Every thing is an informational elaboration of energy. In fact, we can look at all existence as information-patterned energy. The information constantly changes in response to the dictates of the laws of nature, and human and animal decision making, but the stuff that lasts — the energy itself — never changes. Energy just is.
Most of us have trouble seeing reality this way because our sense of what is real and not real is so very strongly influenced by our sense of vision. Vision misleads us in two ways. First, it tells us things that are not true. Vision tells us that the world is full of solid, separate things, even though so-called solids are more than 99.9 percent empty space, and even though visual boundaries may not be boundaries at all from other perspectives. For instance, vision reinforces the belief that we are independent people, separate from everything else. This just isn’t true. (Think about our intimate connection with the atmosphere, for instance.) This thingness problem is compounded by our subject-verb-object language which tends to reinforce vision’s chopped-up slant on reality.
The second problem with vision is that it fails to reveal to us some important things that are true. Vision does not reveal to us either the underlying oneness, or the labyrinth of connections and links between various aspects of the process. Energy is real, all would agree, but it is not a thing, and it is not visible. And as for those interconnections, most are not visually obvious. Think again about our connection with the atmosphere; if it ceased to exist, we’d die in a real hurry. But because air is transparent, vision (our primary tool for making sense of the world around us) fails to report its presence. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” seems to be literally true.
The way evolution works, any new chance-created features that help a species survive and reproduce tend to be passed on genetically to future generations. We human beings inherited a way of seeing that helped us to survive in the circumstances we faced a hundred thousand years ago. And the human visual system continues to help us deal effectively with a multitude of everyday situations. But when we try to comprehend reality-writ-large, vision misleads us badly in the ways just mentioned.
“How could evolution have let this happen?” you ask. “Isn’t evolution constantly refining and improving?”
Evolution tends to weed out errors in a living being’s understanding of reality if those errors have a strong negative impact on survival or reproduction. But evolution can also promote and maintain errors in understanding if those errors enhance survival and reproduction.
In my book TOWARD WISDOM I take the position that the strong sense of personal identity that almost every human being possesses is just such an error. From a rational, scientific perspective we are not independent beings, we are subsystems of a much larger system that includes at least the sun, geological earth, atmosphere, and biosphere. That is hard-nosed scientific fact. From a strictly rational perspective it makes more sense to identify with the system-as-a-whole than with this highly-dependent subsystem of the whole called a human being.
If we could see the world through the perceptual systems of a frog or a lobster or an insect, we would no doubt be appalled at the more distorted and limited view of reality that these creatures have compared with ours. Yet these species have been around for a long time — much longer than human beings. Their perceptual and cognitive data processing systems meet their survival and reproduction needs, and so have continued to exist, despite failing to “tell it like it is” according to some objective standard of truth.
Our brain-mind systems were designed for survival and reproduction in a hunter-gatherer environment — an environment that was often characterized by scarcity, low or no technology, and by multiple dangers to life. Picture two of our ancestors 20,000 years ago. Let’s imagine that the first person happened to have a visual system and brain that allowed her to see the larger pattern of connections, and which induced her to identify with the system-as-a-whole rather than with body and mind contents. And let’s imagine that the second person had normal vision and a brain that made sense of things in the usual personal-identity way. In the world that then existed, which perspective would have had greater survival value? I strongly suspect it would have been the personal perspective. In a world of limited resources and immediate dangers, person-centered concern has survival value, whereas concern about the whole does not. Evolution selected out and passed on a mentality that viewed things erroneously because that erroneous view gave the human being who possessed it a distinct survival and reproduction advantage under the difficult conditions that then existed.
That environment existed from the time humans first evolved until agriculture began about 7000 years ago. Geneticists would tell us that our genes have not changed much in the past 7000 years. It is the human situation that has changed. Only with the arrival of the industrial revolution did the personal-identity error start to become counterproductive, and only during our present century — when human powers were expanded immensely by technology — did it become a danger to species survival.
As many others have pointed out, the pursuit of personal comfort and pleasure by billions of technology-controlling, person-centered minds fast depletes global resources and mucks up the global environment. Today the situation is very different from that of 100,000 years ago, and in our present circumstances it is identification with the whole that has survival value. Continuing to identify as persons threatens to destroy us all.
To summarize, there is only one enduring reality. It is the oneness that the mystics spoke about, and that oneness is our deepest, truest identity. In ancient times it was called Being. Today we have other names for it. Physically, we call it energy. Mentally, we call it awareness. In one or both of these guises it is present within and around us. In the physical world energy acquires various forms — various informational moldings or shapings. In our brains there is a patterned firing of neurons, and those neuronal energy discharges modulate awareness to create that other kind of informational pattern we call mind content.
The task is to see through the informational modulations of matter and mind to the enduring reality that underlies, supports, and “carries” those modulations. In seeing through the busyness of informational appearances — seeing through everything we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and think — we can apprehend this fundamental oneness, and recognize it as our deepest, truest nature. If we cultivate this alternative perspective and succeed in making it our own, we find that the differentiation between self and other retreats from its usual dominant position. Instead of being up front, always in our face, the you/me difference recedes into the background. Remaining in the foreground is only the situation, and whatever the wisdom within prompts us to do about the situation. Compassion is present because everything is included in this expanded sense of self, and because we see that every person and other aspect of the process is universe doing its best — no matter how unskillful or immoral that best may be according to some standard of behavior.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
“Is it possible to develop a compassionate concern about every person, the rest of life on earth, and about the whole process and all its expressions?”. This is the whole issue of this final chapter. Cop answers “yes” and describes three ways of developing such a compassionate attitude: one way via the mind, one via the feelings, one via the spirit. Do you share his desire to develop compassionate concern? If so, do the ways he advocates seem good to you?
With regard to the mental way, can you accept it that “no matter how unskilful a person’s actions are, at the moment of decision that person is doing the best they can”?
How does that affect your idea of responsibility and accountability for one’s actions? What of “crime” and “punishment”?
When Cop says, “At some deeper level, beyond our understanding, everything that happens makes sense” (110) is this different language for saying, “In the mind of God, everything that happens is good?”
With regard to the feeling way to enter into compassionate concern, how does the Buddhist notion of lovingkindness sit with you as a technique for extending your circle of care and concern and connecting you better to the well-being of others?
Do you know the feeling of sympathetic joy, “envy’s opposite”? Describe occasions and circumstances.
With regard to the spiritual or mystical way, have you ever entered “the enduring realm of Being” in your consciousness? What was the experience like? What did it reveal about the interconnectedness of everything, taking you beyond the illusion “that we are independent people, separate from everything else”?
Do you agree that at this point in our evolution on Earth our customary person-centered concern is counter productive and that now “identification with the whole has survival value”? How would that determination change the way you choose to live, your lifestyle, your ambitions, your modus vivendi?
“The task is to see through the informational modulations of matter and mind to the enduring reality that underlies, supports, and “carries” those modulations. . . . [To] apprehend this fundamental oneness, and recognize it as our deepest, truest nature..”
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.