Does compassion need to evolve?
Do "compassion" and "heart", themselves, need
to evolve to embrace the complexity of our times?
World New Mind (also a downloadable
pdf), Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich point out that our
nervous systems have not evolved very much in 10,000 years, while
our societies have evolved tremendously. Human consciousness and
technology has crafted human-made environments -- unprecedented
on planet earth -- which fill the world in which most of us now
live. This world is dramatically different from the nature-made
world we occupied before the dawn of civilization.
this, we have barely noticed that our internal wiring is still
pretty much the same as it was in prehistoric times. Our cognitive
capacities have not caught up with the times, and much of our
reptilian and mammalian instincts are quite intact. As individual
organisms, our brains and senses have barely evolved, even as
our collective systems -- our science, education, statistics,
media, computers, engineering, and all the rest -- have vastly
extended our capacities to perceive, reflect, and act.
as never before to transform the face of the earth, as individuals
and collectives we still respond most readily to immediate, visible
threats and opportunities. We are dangerously slow to comprehend
pervasive, potent, but invisible or long-term threats and opportunities
we face -- from climate change and the fragility of global economic
systems to the vastness of human potential and the possibility
of a world beyond war.
me, this one fact changes the entire calculus of the heart as
a guide to improve life on earth. My HEART tells me to take time
to talk with the homeless man who accosts me. But the larger system,
which cranks out homeless people like it cranks out cars, is quite
invisible to my heart. With luck, it is visible to my mind and
my mind paints a big picture filled with thousands of homeless
people getting cranked out, at which point my heart says NO! and
I turn from the homeless man and take action to change the system.
an old activist story about babies in a river. Imagine that you're
walking by the river and see a baby floating rapidly by, drowning.
You leap in and as you are pulling that baby ashore, you see two
more. You swim after them, bumping into several more. Over and
over you perform this heart-warming act of courageous compassion.
But soon you get exhausted, realize you aren't succeeding, and
shift into a higher gear. At that point you become either a charitable
person or an activist. If you are a charitable person, you recruit
more people to pull babies out of the river. If you are an activist,
you run upstream to find out who or what is throwing babies in
come to believe that the vast majority of degradation, suffering,
and destruction of both people and nature are due not to cruelty
and greed, nor anger and conflict, nor bad luck and karma. Rather,
they are due to human-made systems that colonize and exploit life
to feed the profit, power, knowledge, personal pleasures, etc.,
of those to whom the system grants privileges, even as they, too,
are often degraded in various ways. So I find it tragic how much
attention is paid to alleviate the suffering of individuals in
front of our noses, while these systems (which could be changed
if our attention were turned to them) crank out a hundred
more suffering individuals and degrade the sacred body of life
on which we all depend.
desperately need a new vision of compassion, a new practice of
the heart, which encompasses this phenomenon. It will necessarily
involve our being informed about the workings of those otherwise
invisible systems. It will increase our consciousness of our role
in these systems, and of the role of other people, technologies,
stories, institutions, processes, and structures which make up
those systems. Without this new vision and capacity, I fear our
hearts are not prepared for the twenty-first century, and are
certainly dubious guides for how to invest our energies (time,
thought, caring, money) in trying to make the world a more decent
say this in full recognition of the tragic challenge presented
by this fact of life. Sometimes I hate it, and cry out against
it. I feel degraded when I turn away from the homeless man to
address the systems that create homelessness. I hate turning away
from nature to do my work on a computer. It feels inhuman, unnatural.
But it also feels like the most compassionate thing I can do under
our bizaare circumstances. It is part of the confusion of these
times, trying to care well, when caring is so booby trapped. Robert
Theobald said it well, noting that what is most wrong with modern
systems is that they make it so difficult to effectively care.
Perhaps the challenge we experience here is the sensation of stretching
demanded of us as we evolve into a more whole humanity in which
heart-based compassion and system-based compassion merge into
one higher form of insight and engagement.
we aren't there yet. And at our current stage of development,
I challenge us all to honestly ask whether "love" and
"compassion" are, themselves, adequate to motivate and
guide our vital life-affirming work in the twenty-first century.
I challenge us all to reframe what we mean by love and compassion,
for this new era. For without understanding the factors discussed
in this essay, love and compassion are more likely to provide
artificial legs for the children who step in land mines, shelters
for the battered women, advertisements for the blue whale, charity
for those displaced by violent storms. And as we act out of our
deep loving kindness, global economics and its addictive culture
and corrosive politics and media continue to move deeper into
the heart of all Life, starving, alienating, and blowing up more
children, eroding more relationships and communities, destroying
the habitats of more animals slipping away forever into extinction,
killing vast oceans which were the Source of Life, and sickening
the once-stable global climate which was the womb of our civilization
so many millennia ago.
can our hearts mature into this bigger sensibility of service,
that seems so abstract and yet is so urgently needed?
For a personal articulation of this in real life, see the
of Tom Atlee's closing statement
the First Story Field Conference in the big tent at Shambhala
Mountain Center high in the Colorado mountains, August 2007
Or read the
Conscious Evolutionary Agentry
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