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Does compassion need to evolve?

by Tom Atlee

Do "compassion" and "heart", themselves, need to evolve to embrace the complexity of our times?

In New 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. 

Despite 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. 

Empowered 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. 

For 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.

There's 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 the river.

I've 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.

We 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 place.

I 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.

But 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.

How 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 video of Tom Atlee's closing statement to the First Story Field Conference in the big tent at Shambhala Mountain Center high in the Colorado mountains, August 2007. Or read the transcript.

See also

Conscious Evolution

Conscious Evolutionary Agentry



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