Sep 8, 2011

Teaching Compassion and Empathy

When I grow up I want to be fearless like Joan Halifax.

She is a Zen Roshi, anthropologist, ecologist, writer, teacher, LSD researcher, scholar of the US Library of Congress and the only woman and Buddhist on the Advisory Council of the Tony Blair Foundation. Joan Halifax is described in her TED profile as "a driving force of socially engaged Buddhism." Her activism involves helping the sick and dying. In this TED Talk she describes the true meaning of compassion and empathy.

Her talk was enlightening and emotional in many ways. But aside from her clear description of what compassion truly is, here are my highlights, paraphrased:

Compassion is an inherent human quality. We are all born compassionate, but it has to be aroused.

Compassion has three enemies—Pity, Moral Outrage and Fear. To which my mind clicked… 1) Pity—Many people think compassion IS pity. This is what some dogmatic institutions lead us to believe. 2) Moral Outrage—This is why dogma is dangerous. 3) Fear—Which is why the most enlightened people are the least worried about outcome, mistakes, failure and loss. Which is why I aspire to be fearless like Joan Halifax.

Those who cultivate compassion feel suffering more, but they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is resilience. True compassion does not drain us, it enlivens us. It compels us to act.

Neuroscientists have seen how cultivating compassion is not just good for others and humanity in general. Compassion is good for our health. It enhances neural integration—hooking up all parts of the brain and making it work better. It also enhances the immune system. 

And now the highlight of my highlights is this… she asks, "If compassion is so good for us why don't we train our children in compassion?"

The next big query is, and there's already a long thread about it on TED: Exactly how do we train our children in compassion? I have my own thoughts, but it’s a great question to throw out there. Think about it. I'd love to hear your ideas.


Cely said...

Compassion is a trait the world badly needs... Loved this post, thanks Nona! Would love to attend one of those TED conferences...

Nona said...

You're welcome Cely : ) As she said, the survival of our species and the planet depends on compassion. Badly needed. No time to waste!

Barni said...

Fearless is different from courageous. You are one of the most courageous people I know!

Nona said...

Courageous, me? Maybe more than I used to be. Thanks for noticing! Haha : ) But still not enough.

I don't mean fearless in a reckless and careless way. In Zen Buddhism (and I hate to be a preachy nerd about it, but) to be fearless is the ultimate goal. Buddha was fearless because he was truly aware of how everything in this world is fleeting. He could lose anything and not lose himself. It's not living life carelessly or not being conscious of consequences or not feeling pain or sadness or empathy... just fearless and accepting of anything bad that can happen - particularly things we do not have control over. But also... taking charge of what we can control. Taking action but not over reacting to things that may get in the way.

In the Serenity Prayer ("God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference..." ) the term is courage. A Buddhist and Christian difference in terminology, I suppose... but the same essence : )