14 Chapters
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2. Roots, Branches, and the Clear Blue Sky

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

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.

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11. A Little Peace of the Heart

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

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.

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1. The Circle of Compassion

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

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.

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3. Empathy: You in Me, Me in You

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

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!”

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4. Street Retreat: The Debt of Love

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

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.

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