Sunday, November 17, 2013

Towards a theory of compassion training

I have always been impressed by the analysis of the human psyche in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (in addition to his seminal work The Wealth of Nations), the following quotation strikes my heart and intellect each time I read it. In this article, I explore a question: Can our compassion be trained? Before that let's us read Adam Smith again first:

"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance."

(This is my second time quotation of this passage in this blog, the firs one is at The anatomy of human compassion)

Recently I read in the internet about an academic research on meditation's ability to shape or cultivate human compassion. The testing situation, unknown to the subjects (half of them gone through a period of meditation training), involved a subject sitting in a waiting room and there came in a person with crutches. The question was: Will our subject give his seat to the person with crutches? The results showed that a significantly larger number of those who had undergone prior meditation training gave away their seats. The researcher concluded that meditation training did work towards more compassion.

Assuming that the piece of research demonstrated extrapolatable results, my question is why. Let us look at what the highest level of meditation practitioners do. In Tibetan Buddhism, according to his Holiness the Dalai Lama, the fastest way to become a high-level compassionate monk is through the practice of Deity Yoga, i.e. deep meditation with the visualization of one's chosen Deity. The slower way is through studying of Sutras, observing discipline, and changing one's mind rationally. In the fast route, after achieving the deepest level of mediation, every day, the monk still has to do deep meditation approaching the the meditative state of new death experience, an essential maintenance process.

Another clue. Writings from various deep meditation are abound with an experience of a deep meditation's psychology being fused up with other people, and so much so sometimes fused up with the entire universal existence. At one with Tao, as Taoist texts said. (Whether or not this is a higher level of reality is a metaphysical question and is beyond the scope of what I am interested here).

What does this kind of experience, of Tibetan monks and other deep meditators, mean in terms of training effectiveness, for compassion training? It means that, based on Adam Smith's analysis, far away people not related to us become blood-related to us, our neighbors become our sons and daughters, and love thy neighbors as thyself becomes possible, as a psychological reality, it has becomes the most natural thing to do, without stress and without "inner civil war".

In short, our neighbors become ourselves. Being religious people, these deep meditators come to believe they have found (or indeed they have) a higher level of reality. Yet it still has to be based on or come to terms with our genetically determined psychology. In other words, meditation cannot (and do not need to) change our psychological make-up that has evolved through evolution. It only need to, and indeed it can, "fool" it. From another perspective, we can choose to become compassionate, not by our logical thinking, not by forcing ourselves to be so, but by training, compassion training of the deep meditation kind. Religious people choose the deepest end of a total personality overhaul. For more humble mortals, which include the majority of us, our aim can be more modest. Some meditation training is all we need. We can train ourselves to become just a little bit more compassionate, for the benefit of those around us. And our modern world certainly needs more compassion from its dwellers who can make their own conscious choice.

PS:  The cultivation of supernatural powers of Taoism and Buddhism is also related to this psychological (and metaphysical) concept of At one with Tao, the analysis of such cultivation I shall leave for some other day.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...