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The Compassionate Life

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By the author of the international bestseller Remarkable Recovery

• A profound and deeply personal meditation on arguably the most important question there is: How can we be kinder to each other and create a more compassionate world?

• Written in a friendly, often humorous style and filled with stories of people who demonstrate the meaning and the practice of compassion

With a keen balance of hope and skepticism, Marc Barasch sets out on a journey to the heart of compassion, discovering its power to change who we are and the society we have become. He describes encounters with empathetic apes, and with Buddhist monks whose brain scans prove the power of compassion practice; with a man who donated a kidney to a stranger and another who forgave his daughter’s murderer; with teenage Palestinian and Israeli girls trying to wage peace; even with astronomers trying to send a missive to E.T. that we’re not only clever but kind.

With unfailing curiosity, Barasch poses vital questions: What can we learn from exceptionally empathetic people? Can we increase our compassion quotient with practice? How do we open our hearts to those who do us harm? What if the great driving force of our evolution were actually “survival of the kindest”? He comes up with challenging, ultimately inspiring answers. Drawing on science and spirituality, history and popular culture, button-down business and a high sense of fun, he creates a smart, provocative argument that a simple shift in consciousness changes “pretty much everything.”
The Compassionate Life was originally published in Hardcover as Field Notes on the Compassionate Life.

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1. The Circle of Compassion

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If one completes the journey to one’s own heart,
one will find oneself in the heart of everyone else.

—Father Thomas Keating

WHEN I WAS IN MY TWENTIES, MY BUDDHIST TEACHER tricked me into taking a vow of universal compassion. Using some spiritual sleight of hand, he made it appear that I could aspire to a tender concern for everybody, even putting their welfare before my own.

Fat chance, I thought. But in his wily way, he framed this vow—the bodhisattva’s promise to live for others—as a case of enlightened self-interest. It was not, he told me, a matter of wearing a one-size-fits-all hair shirt. I was taking the vow for my own good. It would give me some leverage to pry loose, finger by finger, the claustrophobic monkey-grip of ego, would give the heart a little breathing room. By treating others generously, I might find them responding in kind. I felt I was being made privy to an ancient secret: To attain your own human potential, be mindful of everyone else’s.

At some point in my vow ceremony, a casual affair held in a rocky field, it did seem as if my vision suddenly cleared. I glimpsed, like a sky swept clean of clouds, everyone’s innate okayness. Years later I still marvel at the spiritual chutzpah of the liturgy: However innumerable are beings, I vow to save them all. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I’d planted myself in a millennia-old tradition that claims you can love all without preconditions, exclusionary clauses, or bottom lines, that says life isn’t quid pro quo but quid pro bono.

 

2. Roots, Branches, and the Clear Blue Sky

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Therefore I say, grant reason to any animal with social and
sexual instincts, and yet with passion, he must have conscience.

—Charles Darwin

SOMETIMES WHEN THE WORLD SEEMS A LOVELORN PLACE, I contemplate a snapshot over my desk of two bonobo apes hugging and kissing with lush abandon, and I perk right up. I’m inspired by these fellow primates whose social life is, in the words of one zoologist, “ruled by compassion.” They are, I like to think, a reminder not only of where we come from but of what sort of creature we are at heart.

It isn’t the usual picture of our evolutionary heritage. The official family portrait that science hangs over the mantelpiece depicts us as brainy, aggression-prone apes driven by selfish instincts and constrained (at best) by a thin thread of culture. It’s only lately that some scientists are stressing the more benign traits we share with higher primates: conciliation, nurturance, our flair for alliance— and especially empathy. More than superior smarts and a talent for predation, it may be our ability to sense what others are feeling that has put us on evolution’s fast track—and will be the saving grace that keeps our stock rolling.

 

3. Empathy: You in Me, Me in You

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See yourself in others
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

—The Buddha

IONCE SPENT A DAY SHADOWING THE DALAI LAMA. IT WAS ONE of his early visits to the United States, and I was covering him for the local paper, but that was just my alibi. I wanted to take his measure, to see for myself what this incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the deity of compassion, was really like when the rubber sandals met the road.

He struck me as bright and curious—an exceptionally nice man—but a living Buddha? Yet as the day wore on, it crept up on me: His caring never seemed to waver. He emanated a steady warmth without gaps, moods, or slipups. I watched him meet with the mayor of Denver, a stogie-chomping old pol whose small talk inched dutifully over the official terrain of tourism and molybdenum mining. The Dalai Lama stood listening, duck-footed, hands folded, eyebrows cocked, his trademark smile hovering somewhere near delight. Hizzoner presented His Holiness with a picture book of the state’s Rocky Mountain wonders, the sort you’d pick up at an airport gift shop. The Dalai Lama accepted happily, sitting down to leaf through it with what appeared to be genuine interest. When he came upon a color plate of a bighorn sheep, he told the mayor warmly, “We have this kind in our mountains, too!”

 

4. Street Retreat: The Debt of Love

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We’re all in the gutter,
only some of us are looking at the stars.

—Oscar Wilde

LAST SUMMER I SAW AN IMMENSELY FAT WOMAN—350 POUNDS at least—struggling to step onto a Manhattan bus. Wheezing with effort, perspiring through her floral print dress, she couldn’t hoist her foot onto the platform. Her knee, encased in layers of flesh, wouldn’t bend. The driver, with an exasperated sigh, bolted from his seat to try to shoehorn her through the door.

The passengers gaped and craned, their expressions ranging from embarrassment to scorn to a sort of horrified fascination. As schedules unraveled and tempers frayed, the irritation grew more audible. The thought flashed through my mind as it did through nearly everyone’s: How could anyone allow herself to get so obese? Then I saw the expression on the woman’s face: mortification. And my heart broke—for all her hard days and for all my hard thoughts.

Why was my first response not compassion but a series of assessments that went off like a string of mental firecrackers before I even knew I’d lit the match? My judgment was so fused with my perception as to be inseparable: She became what I beheld. I was painfully aware of my mind—the mind itself—as a difference engine, cranking out the petty distinctions that keep people apart. And I wished I could dismantle the whole stupid contraption once and for all.

 

5. The Good Eye

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Whenever catching sight of others
Look on them with an open, loving heart.

—Patrul Rinpoche

THE GREAT NINETEENTH-CENTURY JEWISH MYSTIC LEVI Yitzchok, the Rabbi of Berditchev, was known throughout Europe as the Master of the Good Eye. It was said that he could see nothing of people’s sins, only their virtues. He’d roust the local drunk from his stupor on High Holy Days, seat him at the head of the table, and respectfully ask for his wisdom. He’d noodge a man who’d publicly flouted the Sabbath by praising him as the only one in the village who wasn’t a hypocrite. He extended his caring to all, whether powerful or impoverished, scholarly or simple, righteous or reprobate.

The rabbi’s inspiration was a Talmud passage that calls for everyone to be weighed “on the scales of merit” (zechut, from the Hebrew zach or “purity”). The meaning of zechut, explains one scholar, is “to intentionally focus on what is most pure in each person—to see their highest and holiest potential.” It is a reminder that compassion is not just a gift but a path. The Good Eye is a shift of perception, a transformative art that takes some practice.

 

6. Heart Science, Heart’s Mystery

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I will take the stony heart out...
and give them a heart of flesh.

—Ezekiel

Man will become better when you show him what he is like.

—Anton Chekhov

WHAT IS THE HEART, BUT A SPRING?” ASKED SEVENTEENTH-century materialist Thomas Hobbes. He wasn’t waxing poetic about upwelling waters of gladness or a season of tender buds but making a case for the heart as a gearworks—a mechanism that, however marvelously constructed by that intelligence he called the “Artificer,” was as devoid of sensibility as a clock.

This view has held sway for centuries, though it’s deeply at odds with our felt experience. When psychologist Carl Jung, on one of his perennial quests, visited Chief Mountain Lake of the Taos Pueblo, the tribal elder told him he judged the whites to be quite mad.

“They say they think with their heads,” the chief said.

“Of course,” said Jung. “What do you think with?”

Mountain Lake pointed to his heart: “We think here.”

I’ve always taken this idea—the wisdom of the heart and all—to be a metaphor albeit a charming one. But in cultures the world over, it takes on a peculiarly literal cast. Among the Sufis, the physical heart is a container for al-aql, the intellect, and al-fouad, a second, “sensitive” heart that can see into the hearts of others. Aristotle claimed that the heart was responsible for “the power of perception and the soul’s ability to nourish itself.” In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the heart not only is a human being’s emotional core but is identified with the mind. Similarly, the Japanese have two heart words: shinzu, the physical organ, and kokoro, “the mind of the heart.”

 

7. The Giveaway

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Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.

—Shantideva

HAROLD MINTZ IS A BIG, SWEET GALOOT. HE INSISTS ON picking me up at the train station so I don’t get entangled in the color-coded sailor’s knot of the Washington, D.C., subway grid. When I slide into the front seat of his car, he gives me a broad smile and punches my arm, like I’m the buddy he was out shooting hoops with last weekend. He’s a large-boned man, six foot five; with his walrus moustache and thin gold earring, he could be a hip off-duty fireman, the kind who’d tell you a knock-knock joke while resuscitating you from smoke inhalation. When his wife calls on the cell phone (”Yep, got him, honey!”), his ringer trills a few upbeat bars of “Zippity Doo Dah.”

The forty-six-year-old sales VP is as gregarious as a golden retriever and just as convinced the world means him well. He knows why I’m here: a field trip to observe, in its native habitat, the rare Altruistus americanus. I’ve got the wrong guy, Harold says as we pull up to his tidy brick Georgian.

 

8. The Altruist

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If there is any kindness I can show,
or any good thing I can do to any fellow being,
let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it,
as I shall not pass this way again.

—William Penn

IF THERE’S A FACET OF HUMAN NATURE THAT, WHEN YOU HOLD it up to the light, shines bright enough to blind you, it’s altruism. A selfless deed, witnessed up close, is like a lamp blazing up from darkness before your pupils can adjust. We’re a little bedazzled by people who don’t seem to be out for themselves, who do good unto others without stopping to consider if others will do good unto them. We each know ourselves to be capable of selflessness. We’ll lay aside our needs—even our lives—for our nearest and dearest. But beyond the charmed circle, we tend to parcel love out, weighing who deserves what (while placing a subtle thumb on the scale of What’s in it for me?). Altruists seem to have inscribed in their very bones the great writ of all faiths: Love the stranger. They don’t give themselves just to family and very best friends but to pretty much anyone who asks, sometimes till it hurts.

 

9. The Elixir of Forgiveness

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I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

—William Blake

MY EX-PARTNER HAD BEEN MY ENEMY FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS, give or take a few yellowing calendar pages. He was, so far as I could tell, my worst (and maybe only) enemy, an arch villain in a business saga of trust betrayed, idealism tarnished, and labors lost (mine). I’ll spare you the details, but they would rate a turgid Victorian subtitle, say, “Wherein I Am Utterly Ruined.” The man’s perfidy had swept me and my family into a whirlwind of trouble, sickened me body and soul, and plunged me into a dungeon of debt. Worse, it had broken my heart.

We’d set out to create a company whose mission statement was peace, love, and understanding. The business plan was progressive to the nth degree: flattened hierarchies and stakeholder employees, with yoga breaks and maternity leaves for all. I’d given it my all and everything, shouldering the day-to-day and the night-to-night of what grew into a dysfunctional, teetering multimillion-dollar business. Dazzled by the venture’s endlessly spun potential, bamboozled by the partner’s charming-boy fecklessness, I’d stayed on until he’d taken the best and left the rest.

 

10. Loving the Monster

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What shall we make of our darkness?

—Blaise Pascal

IT’S A FOUR-HOUR DRIVE FROM ATLANTA TO THE TELFAIR STATE Prison down a lonesome stretch of I-75, which slices through central Georgia like a straight-razor cut. I put the tuner on scan and, just as I pass the Pinetucky Church of God, catch a burst of pure southern gothic, some ballad about a dying preacher who “a-laid his bloodstained Bible right in that hooker’s hand.” In the staticky desert of rural bandwidth, where the choice is either Black Sabbath oldies or the Good Book’s greatest hits, I’ll take a good sermon, where the story of Mary and Joseph at the inn becomes “the Bethlehem Motel Six refused to take their credit card!” I play a mental game, slugging in my own translations for the more overwrought scripture thumping. When the preacher shouts, “Friends, I wouldn’t live a day without Jesus,” I think, without compassion, for what else was he, and amen to that. “Repent!” becomes take a frank and fearless inventory, and I try: The truth is, I’m more than a little nervous: I’m on my way to meet a stone cold killer.

 

11. A Little Peace of the Heart

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He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth;
he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in
sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

—Psalm 46: 8–10

WHEN I WAS IN THE THIRD GRADE, MY YOUNGER SISTER broke my favorite toy. I yelled at her, she screamed back, and then, to my surprise, she launched herself at me in a fury, scratching me hard on the arm. My reaction was blind, unthinking; I raked my own nails down her forearm, making furrows that, to my shock, began to ooze blood. I was punished, but nothing cut so deeply as the guilt I’d felt at her pain.

I’ve wondered from time to time what happened in this primitive, instinctual tit for tat, a variant of any playground fight. Some kid pinches you, and you pinch them back: There, now you know how it feels! The word revenge doesn’t quite cover it; in an odd way, it’s more like enforced empathy, a need to make others feel, firsthand and in rough proportion, the suffering they caused us.

It’s not such a leap from the dynamics of schoolyard rivalry to the logic of clan warfare: Here’s what it felt like when you dishonored my family, terrified my child, killed my brother. Carried to its extreme, it is the twisted reasoning of warfare itself: This is what it is like to have your church destroyed, your crops burned, your city ruined. See how you like it.

 

12. The Beloved Community

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Grandfather
Look at our brokenness.
We know that we are the ones
Who are the divide
And we are the ones
Who must come back together.

—Ojibway prayer

The end is the creation of the Beloved Community...
It is this love that will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

I CAME TO NEW YORK A FEW DAYS AFTER 9/11, INTO A STRICKEN city of the walking wounded. A charnel breeze, burnt and bitter, blew through the ghost town of Tribeca, making the lungs and the heart ache. Like everyone, I couldn’t sleep; I’d snap on CNN at three in the morning, nod off with it still murmuring. Below my window, ad hoc choirs of passersby serenaded firemen at the stationhouse next door, its bricks festooned with Missing posters, homemade floral wreaths, and kids’ crayon drawings of skyscrapers blooming with flame and cherry ladder trucks zooming to the rescue. I watched friends straggle back toward faith or lose it.

U2’s bittersweet ode to love, loss, and bravery, “Beautiful Day,”was on the airwaves. Beneath tragedy’s skin, there were invisible sinews of tenderness. Even my most tough-minded friends seemed surprised at how catastrophe had catalyzed a sense of mutual belonging, had reawakened—on the street, in offices, cabs, and elevators—some instinct to be better, to love more. Despite the news testifying to an ineradicable streak of human brutishness, you could feel what anthropologist Stephen Gould called“the victorious weight of innumerable little kindnesses.” It became impossible to relegate compassion to mere sentiment, to a poignant lump in the throat or a one-off act of charity. It was as basic as air.

 

13. All My Relations

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We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Truly, universally, relations stop nowhere.

—Henry James

I RECENTLY SAW A LOCAL NEWS STORY ABOUT A BOY WHO became lost in the Colorado woods in the dead of winter. As hypothermia set in, he saw emerging ghostlike out of the swirling snow two large elk. Feebly, he threw stones at them, shouting until his voice gave way, then lost consciousness. Early the next morning, he awoke to find himself sandwiched between the two great beasts, which had laid their warm bodies next to his through what would have been a fatal, freezing night.

Or so he told the search team when he staggered into a clearing and was rescued. They were skeptical—hallucinations are a side effect of extreme duress—until he led them back to his sleeping spot. There, in the snow, they saw the concavities made by two enormous animals, the imprint of a small boy in between.

Why would the animals bother? Why not just curl up with each other for some languorous elk-frolic through the wintry night? (Three’s a crowd, and besides, in these parts people shoot them.) There are a million stories of our fellow creatures being kind to us for no good reason—from dogs who, with no rescue training and at risk to their own lives, rush into the flames of burning buildings to drag strangers to safety; or dolphins who nose drowning swimmers to the surface, wait for human help to arrive, then take off with an errant tip of a flipper. There are inexplicable ways compassion radiates through the world, some spirit of sympathy drawn toward any distress like white cells to a pathogen. When William Wordsworth spoke of "a motion and a spirit that...rolls through all things,” he was talking about the systole and diastole of some universal heartbeat.

 

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