Saturday, July 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 18, 2020 - The Physics of Compassion

About what or whom do you feel compassionate? Compassion literally means to “
co-suffer,” which sounds a lot like empathy, when you think about it. Different from empathy, however, though still closely related, compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of another. Empathy is the ability to perceiveBy and sometimes even feel another’s suffering. But where empathy feels, compassion acts. It must.

One important facet of compassion is in how it differs from the concept known as altruism. Altruism as a concept is a bit of a fabrication, actually, of 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte. He was looking to create a word that could serve as a good opposite to the word egoism, which is itself a word to describe those who only think of themselves. But the opposite of thinking only of oneself can’t be about thinking of everyone but oneself. Because there‘s actually never a time when we don’t think of ourselves. We’re always aware of how we fit into a situation and how we will either be benefited or harmed. Even when we’re doing something for someone else. And we’re constantly striving to feel good. That is our permanent inner directive, feeling good. When we do good deeds, we feel good. That’s a benefit. And it’s one which can’t be discounted.

When M. Comte created the concept of altruism he was mistaken. His concept does not exist. Not that goodness doesn’t exist, but I mean to say altruism, as it’s creator intended it and as it’s defined, does not. And his word has only served to muddy the waters and make compassionate action seem even harder to accomplish because it mistakenly gives us the impression that we’re not supposed to benefit in any way, even to feel good. We are to be selfless. That’s the advice. That’s the standard being set with regard to serving others. That bar is not just too high, it’s a fantasy.

And knowing that, knowing that a false ideal has been placed into our moral universe, we can let it go. Because we matter in the equation of our service to others. If we are to co-suffer we should also have earned the right to be co-inspired, co-joyful, and co-relieved by helping another. That is the only way compassion functions. Compassion is a co-experience with a personal benefit we can’t separate from the whole. Good! By the philosopher’s ideal, any time you take pleasure from helping another person, you’re no longer being an altruist. Which amounts to a judgment against you feeling good. “He’s not really an altruist, he liked it.“

Let’s release that. Even if you don’t consciously think that way, it is in there. This idea is written into the mission statements of thousands of nonprofits and community service organizations. Because even though we don’t realize it, that unrealistic human aspiration subtly impacts our ability to be of genuine service to the world. And whether or not you’re a religious person makes no difference to whether or not you’re influenced by the larger society who tells you that you should only give without wanting and serve without needing. I think there’s a backlash to that. I fear it only has the ability to infect a culture with the belief that since they can’t live up to these lofty ideals they might as well grab what they can for themselves regardless of how it might impact others. For what’s the point in caring about others if we’re not allowed to care about ourselves? Why, don’t we count?

The fact is, we do. We count very much. The sacred advice they’re alluding to in their desire to accomplish selfless good in the world is a caution to make sure that what you do for your own state of goodness should never impinge upon the state of goodness of another. But as well, the actions you take to feel good can also, if not careful, follow the old aphoristic idea that ‘weakness is merely strength in excess.’ We can do so much of a good thing that it becomes harmful to us. That’s true for everything from potato chips to philanthropy. That’s where the advice to be selfless comes from: Our fear that if we give permission to feel good, no real good will come of it. We will just overdo it and mess it up. But that’s a lie. Even if a well-intentioned one. Don’t buy it.

Because science has now repeatedly shown us that doing good for others is extremely beneficial to our selves. There are endless scientific studies showing evidence of the health benefits of compassionate action such as reducing the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus nerve, it makes us more resilient to stress and strengthens our immune systems, it increases our ability to socialize, and countries who make it a habit to help their most vulnerable are statistically proven to be the happiest. Shouldn’t that matter? It would almost seem that some have concluded God’s only happy when we aren’t. Does that make sense?

Still, we should check our motivations. It’s always important to know why we are doing something and for whom we are doing it. Because sometimes we’re playing at compassion and using it as a smokescreen (even from ourselves) to support behavior that harms us. When we put others before ourselves, harm occurs. When we put ourselves before others, harm occurs. When we make ourselves equal to others, compassion occurs.

I think one of the most astonishing observations I found in my research on this topic was in the tactics shown to cultivate compassion in ourselves and others. We can actually make more compassion in the world by modeling it. Because compassionate action is a learned behavior. And research shows it’s contagious. Did you know that if you tap your finger at the same time as a stranger it increases compassionate behavior in ourselves? How does that happen? I don’t know how they proved it, but it aligns with the other things we’ve learned about engaging in group activities and how they impact our mental state. Doing things with and for others changes us in profound and positive ways.

And though we can’t see or taste compassion, and we definitely don’t understand it, we can still use it. We can’t see the wind, but we can see the leaves moving within it. We can use our observation of the leaves to conclude that there is power moving them. A force we might choose to participate in ourselves. We can take what we learn from the leaves and then build a sail for our boat. The leaves show us that the wind has physics. Even if we don’t always understand it.

Through science we can see that compassion, too, has physics. It has replicable outcomes and predictable opportunities for taking the best advantage of what compassion has to offer as a life practice. We may not fully understand this wind, but we can allow it to be at our back, guiding our forward movement to occur with greater ease and purpose. We can take the oars out of the water for a while and just allow the momentum of the wind to carry us where it wishes us to go. Be free within it.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Practicing Life - Saturday, July 11, 2020 - Accomplishing Forgiveness

Whose bright idea was it to forgive and forget? It’s been an idiom of the english language for over 600 years, yet is it really good advice? I ask because when we’re being recommended to forgive, forget seems to be the very next word we all think of.

Yet, I think forgetting is only in the best interest of the person who has done the wrong in the first place. I’m sure they’d love for you to forget what they did. I’m guessing it was a guilty party who first invented the phrase to get themselves off the hook. Not so fast. Remembering is accountability. For instance, we should definitely remember US Confederate history. That’s not the same thing as honoring it. We have special places for things we want to make sure we don’t forget. They’re not the same places we put things we wish to honor. We will have to forgive our past in order to come to terms with it. But we won’t accomplish it by forgetting. Some history just needs its proper place and context.

Just as there’s a difference between remembering and honoring, there’s a difference between forgetting and forgiving. Forgiving is about letting go of the anger, resentment, and hurt we experience as a result of someone else’s actions and no longer allowing those emotions to have power over us. It’s not letting them off the hook. It’s about letting go of the poisonous after-effects of our experience. They no longer serve a purpose except to hold us back. 

Our continued emotional hold on our pain only helps them keep winning every time our hurt is remembered afresh. As long as we don’t forgive, their knife is still in the wound, doing its damage. Only they don’t have to do anything except to go on with their lives. We’re the ones now holding the knife in place. You can take it out now. 

It’s time to heal. Which can’t happen fully if we forget about what hurt us in the first place. We can’t learn from our trials if we forget about them. Remembering while forgiving is the key, as well as the hardest thing of all to do.

It’s easy to maintain forgiveness when we’ve forgotten the hurt. Sadly, that’s how history repeats itself when we brush our past under the carpet. But we can separate the two. We can work through and heal the emotional pain while retaining the historical fact. This is the basis of all trauma therapy. 

It’s understandable to say something like, “Well, I’ll never forgive them for what they did as long as I live.” Forgiving is not condoning. You can forgive someone whom you still plan to prosecute. But it will be easier to create solutions that will actually change things for the better, rather than just perpetuating the old cycles of vengeance. This is the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice. One just punishes, the other wants to know why it happened and take steps to heal the original wound so it never happens again. One silences a bell to the universe, the other rings it.

We don’t forgive for the purpose of allowzing the wrongdoing an opportunity to repeat itself. Sometimes that means forgiving someone strictly for our own sake, but not continuing the relationship, because trust is gone. Forgiving doesn’t always mean getting together again. Sometimes it’s just closure. 

Forgiveness itself is not something we just do once in a while, it’s a life practice. It stems from the practice of nonresistance. For as you may remember, non-resistance is a platform of allowing that gives us permission to see those who have trespassed against us in a more human light. Non-resistance is a preparation for forgiveness. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’ we forgivingly might say when realizing that, had the shoe been on the other foot, we might’ve done the same thing.

When someone’s harmed us, either deliberately or accidentally, we undergo a chemical and emotional stress protocol in our bodies. Depending on whether or not the person who harmed us is remorseful, and has perhaps validated our experience with genuine apology, we’re able to achieve a sense of peace about what’s happened and can move on.

But this doesn’t typically happen. Especially with more serious offenses. It isn’t often we get the kind of validation and remorse we truly need from those who’ve harmed us. We usually have to forgive those who aren’t actually asking for our forgiveness and who probably have no interest in validating our negative experience with them. 

Our inner peace isn’t handed to us on a silver platter, we have to work for it. That’s where life practices come in. Dharmas. They guide us toward right actions we might otherwise only be able to manage under the most perfect circumstances. And life is rarely, if ever, perfect. We need tools. We need practice.

Notice the difference between anger and rage. Anger is motivating, sometimes even productive. Rage is only destructive. If you feel rage, even rightfully so, it means the situation has moved you into a state of reduced effectiveness toward your goal. You’ve allowed it to go too far. Take steps to correct it. 

As an exercise toward this, try to see the humanity in your opponent and be allowing of the existence of their fear. Pray for them. This will offset the balance in your brain chemistry and downshift your rage back to a more effective, and less personally damaging, regular old anger. Your actions will reflect your higher presence of mind and they may even affect how your opponent responds. Is consciousness at work here, too? What do you think?

The practice of forgiveness on a daily basis for ourselves as well as others begins, as all things do, in small ways. Notice your feelings. Don’t judge them, just notice them. Passively observe them as if you had a mini stenographer sitting on your shoulder taking notes. See if you notice a pattern in the types of things which upset you most. If you see a pattern, there may be something in you which is being triggered by things having nothing to do with the present situation. Be curious about them.

Make sure you understand your triggers and not let them negatively impact the present. Sometimes we’re more hostile than we mean, or than the moment required. Was our outburst all for the person who just upset us? Or was some of the excess leftovers from the past? That’s when the rubber really hits the road in the life practice of forgiveness. We have to open up the cans of worms we’ve been avoiding. There’s always a stack of old things waiting to be let go. Chip away at the pile one thing at a time. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it goes, once you start.

Notice what you do when you get mad. This is so important. If you’re a person who brags about how no one wants to get on your bad side, or if you take pride in holding onto grudges, you may have some work to do in this area. If you believe that no one can be trusted, and that you trust no one as a matter of principle, you definitely have some forgiveness work to do. And it won’t be easy. But it will change your life. Start small. Avoid revenge at all costs, even if it means swallowing your pride. Don’t worry, you won’t choke on it.

Choose to see the dignity and humanity in those who’ve hurt you and treat them as such. They will still be accountable for their own actions, but you will no longer be a victim of theirs.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Practicing Life - Saturday, July 4, 2020 - The Impact of Consciousness

Life is complicated. Right now we face so many challenges. Our perceived ability to control our world continues to slip through our fingers every day. But we are still designed for joy and for community. And we are agile enough to survive this. We’re incredibly creative and adaptable. And though we sometimes use that adaptability and agility to further dig ourselves into a hole, we, for the most part, usually take two steps forward for every one step back. The long game is to our advantage. Have courage. 

Perhaps, it would be worthwhile to consider that there is more to us than what we appear. The greater consciousness of humanity—meaning what the majority of us are thinking or praying about at any one given time—has been shown to play a part in how things unfold. Including the ways which appear to be beyond our ability to intervene. Mysteriousness. Is consciousness at work in places we don’t readily assume? Does our consciousness affect things? Things like the planet, perhaps? We’re made of the exact same materials. Just how deeply does our divine spark reach? Just what might we be able to affect by all of us collectively directing our conscious thought toward the same idea? 

While several different faiths have a similar idea to this, in Christianity, Jesus is quoted as saying, “When two or more gather in my name, I am in the midst of them.” It’s an interesting statement. And I’ve heard a few interpretations for it, including its usage in prayerful conflict mediation or to align its references to the Old Testament law recommending two to three witnesses in conflict resolution. Interesting to me that both of these explanations involve the repairing of relationship. 

But there is perhaps a more esoteric thought to have about why it might be that if at least two or more gather together in the spirit of the same idea, surprising things can occur. It may be for the same reason that it’s good Old Testament advice to have 2 to 3 witnesses on hand when trying to resolve conflict. They’re not just there to witness, they are there to add their consciousness to the proceedings. 

In 1993, a national group of trained meditators created an experiment with the intention to decrease the crime rate in Washington DC. They predicted they’d be able to reduce it by over 20% and prepared to catalog the data empirically. Before the project began, the Chief of Police said the only thing that would create a 20% drop in crime would be 20 inches of snow. The study occurred in summer of that year, but it didn’t snow. The crime rate began to drop immediately after the project began and continued to steadily drop until the end of it. Crime went down 23.3% below the time series prediction for that period of the year. Look that experiment up for yourself. Was consciousness there? If so, what does it imply about our capacity to affect physical reality on the level of our consciousness? What did those meditators affect and how? 

This points to an idea that when a group of people choose to direct their thoughts toward a particular idea or reality or solution, stuff happens. Just how much is our consciousness capable of doing? 

Let’s then consider for a moment what consciousness itself might be. The primary definition of the word consciousness says only that it’s about our awareness of our own surroundings. That we know a tree is over there and a house is over there and we know are standing in between them is, by definition, “consciousness.” The origins for the word ‘conscious,’ though, are about special knowledge, really. Holders of a secret. And also an inner awareness of self, not just our surrounding environment. In the late 16th century, though, the word ‘conscious’ came to mean an awareness of our own personal wrongdoing. In other words, self-conscious. It meant shame. 

But we can also use the word consciousness to describe the part of ourselves which is larger than our physical bodies. The part of ourselves which is plugged into the divine. The part which is permanent and eternal and, true to the contemporary definition, utterly aware of its surroundings and its place within the universe. The part which is aware and self-aware but leaves the shame part to us humans. Shame is one of many classrooms of the human experience. It’s appropriateness lies in the overcoming of it. 

Back to consciousness, though. Does our consciousness have physics? In other words, are there rules to it? If we were smart enough, could we measure it? Could we invent a device to see consciousness? If we did, what would we conclude from empirically proving our consciousness exists? What might it change and us and how we more deliberately use consciousness as a tool of advancement?

I believe that when two or more gather in the name of something greater than themselves, magic happens. I think when a certain saturation point of our individual minds gather together around a single thought, the thought itself can hear it. On the quantum physics level, it seems that when we gather we have a greater capacity to collapse a waveform around a particular potential into the reality we ultimately experience. I think I sounded very fancy there. 

But that’s the quantum physics way of saying that our expectations are often realized on the quantum level where our thought is provable to affect reality. You can look that up too. I think whatever it is that makes that happen we could safely refer to as consciousness. 

It could be thought of as a magic wand, of a sort. One that we’re not particularly sure how it works, or just how much power it has. And for which we probably should get a little bit of education. But it’s a power nonetheless. And one that we own for ourselves to do with as we wish. Make an assumption that how you feel and the thoughts you project manage to accomplish something beyond your understanding. Create communities of those who wish to conduct their thoughts in the same direction with you for mutual benefit. May your divine spark, along with the divine sparks of others, together light a fire storm of compassion and resolution for our world. Amen.