On Compassion

Dov Michaeli

Posted 5/12/13 on The Doctor Weighs In

For Joel Klepper, who can do it all

My friend’s son, Joel Klepper, a student at the University of Oregon, sent his father a summary of a talk by the Dalai Lama at the university. I am not going to quote the whole report, brilliant as it is. But a few choice paragraphs illuminate the thought-provoking talk of this awe-inspiring religious leader. Here is the Dalai Lama on religion and compassion:

“He started by pointing out that all of the world’s major religions have compassion and love as their defining message, and pointed to the many people that all of the major religious traditions have produced who have used it as inspiration to devote their lives to compassion and the good of humanity. He was careful to differentiate between religion and religious institutions, saying it was the latter that was susceptible to corruption, and therefore it is the institutions that drive people away, but that generally that people don’t tend to have a problem with most core tenets, but that also as human understanding advances, it is critical that religion adapt itself, and not become mired in tradition or dogma when they clash with reality. Throughout, he was big on practicality and realism”.

The most surprising to me was the broad-mindedness of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism:

“Then (and this is where it got really interesting to me), he went on to address compassion to people who “aren’t interested” in religion, noting that of the 7 billion people on this planet, as many as 1 billion may be formally non-believers. He said that secularism is just as much a valid part of the human experience as religion, and that non-believers are also known to devote their lives to compassion and service to humanity, just as religious people do”. Would that leaders of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) be as open, as inclusive, as compassionate, as this towering personality.

The Dalai Lama knows his Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology as well:

“He talked about how we are social animals, and that none of us could have survived our infancy without parental love and care, and how it is a vital part of humanity that we all crave, along with many other mammals. Therefore, he said, and he stressed this point, compassion is a biological function, that is deeper than any religious belief. Religion acts as a support for compassionate thought and action, but is by no means necessary for them”.

Indeed. Compassion, a more robust manifestation of empathy, is hard-wired in our brain. We even possess unique neurons, called “mirror cells”, that make us feel what other people feel. Isn’t that the very definition of ‘empathy’? These cells are critical to our very survival. They probably evolved so as to gauge the intentions of members of the small band, or the approaching stranger. Is he menacing? Is he friendly? Is his smile a sign of friendship or a ruse? This capacity to gauge the intentions of a potential adversary then broadened to serve the more ‘humane’ capacity to empathize, and to have compassion.

By “human” I am  not referring to Homo sapiens only. There is archeological evidence that other human species, such as Homo neanderthalis, and Homo erectus cared for their old and infirm. Skeletons of individuals who had suffered severe injuries and crippling diseases survived to their 60′s indicate mutual help and compassion. Without it they wouldn’t have survived in their harsh environment.

The endocrine system was recruited to the task of enhancing empathy and compassion as well. The hormone prolactin regulates milk production. But it doubles as the “love” hormone, instilling a warm and fuzzy feeling, so important in forming a bond between mother and infant. And from there, a broadened range of empathy for other humans is not hard to comprehend.

Ask people who do charity work and almost invariably you they’d tell you that is “makes me feel good.” Indeed. And we know why: because it activated the brain dopaminergic reward system.

What would a human being be in the absence of empathy? They run the gamut from run-of-the-mill narcissistic sociopaths, to serial killers, mass murderers, and some of the worst tyrants in human history.

All these biological systems geared for a common purpose: empathy, charity, compassion. Why? Because of its survival value. Many humans, some of them politicians and religious leaders, have forgotten this lesson. the Dalai Lama hasn’t.

Thank you, Joel, for telling us.

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