Daring Altruism

posted in: Dharma Topics | 0

Dear Still Water Friends,

For me, one of the qualities of a really good spiritual teacher is that he or she is able to cut through the complexities of an important issue or question and lead us to an understanding that both intellectually informs us and clarifies what it is that we can do, in our personal lives and as actors in the larger world.

As I watched a recent TED talk by Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan monk-activist trained as a biologist, I said to my self, this is a really good teaching. Ricard cogently describes the multiple threats to life as we know it on our planet and concludes,

… however complex politically, economically, scientifically the question of the environment is, it simply boils down to a question of altruism versus selfishness. …

one of the main challenges of our times is to reconcile three time scales: the short term of the economy, … the midterm of the quality of life, … and the long term of the environment. When the environmentalists speak with economists, it’s like a schizophrenic dialogue, completely incoherent. They don’t speak the same language. … It seems to me, there’s only one concept that can reconcile those three time scales. It is simply having more consideration for others.

Ricard distinguishes altruism from empathy. Altruism "is the wish: May others be happy and find the cause of happiness." Empathy, in contrast, is the knowing, through cognitive or affective resonance, that someone is joyful or suffering. Empathy alone is not enough. If we are merely empathetic, great suffering may overwhelm or immobilize us. Altruism — loving-kindness — allows us to acknowledge the suffering and respond with warmth and wisdom. Altruism and empathy are related, but different, and they arise from different brain networks.

It is possible to teach altruism, to children as well as adults. We can all learn to enlarge our altruism, and we and the planet would be better for it. Global culture must change as well. Ricard recommends that we enhance cooperation, create sustainable harmony, and reinvent economics so that it includes reducing inequality and caring about the environment.

This Thursday evening we will watch Ricard’s TED talk and focus our sharing on altruism: When and how do we experience it? What can we do in our daily lives, our work, and our advocacy to encourage it?

You are invited to join us. (And if you can’t be with us, the TED talk is available online.)

In addition, you are invited to join us this Thursday for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.

A related excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh on Changing Ourselves, Changing the World, is below.

Please note also that in the month of February, Still Water is offering two special practice opportunities:

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Changing Ourselves, Changing the World

by Thich Nhat Hanh from The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology

Buddhist monks are like psychotherapists in that we tend to look at the problem from the viewpoint of mental health. Meditation aims at creating harmony and equilibrium in the life of the individual. Buddhist meditation deals with both the body and the mind, using breathing as a tool to calm and harmonize the whole human being. As in any therapeutic practice, the patient is placed in an environment that favors the restoration of harmony. Usually psychotherapists spend their time observing and then advising their patient. However, I know of some, who, like monks, observe themselves first, recognizing the need to first free themselves from the fears, anxieties, and despair that exist in each of us. Many therapists seem to think they themselves have no mental problems, but the monk recognizes in himself his susceptibility to fears and anxieties, and to the mental illness caused by the inhumanity of our existing social and economic systems.

Buddhist practitioners believe that the interconnected nature of the individual, society, and the physical environment will reveal itself to us as we recover and we will gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear, and the dispersion of our mind. Among the three domains –individual, society, nature – it is the individual who begins to effect change. But in order to effect change, the individual must be whole. Since this requires an environment favorable to healing, the individual must seek a lifestyle that is free from destructiveness. Our efforts to change ourselves and to change the environment are both necessary, but one can’t happen without the other. We know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals aren’t in a state of equilibrium. Our mental health requires that the effort for us to recover our humanness should be given priority.

Restoring mental health does not mean simply adjusting oneself to the modern world of rapid economic growth. The world is sick, and adapting to an unwell environment cannot bring real health. Many people who need psychotherapy are really victims of modern life which separates us from each other and from the rest of the human family.