compassion and happiness review

a bunch of ted talks kept me off the streets. so did the rain. i stayed in and sought compassion, expressed in the golden rule. these ted talks, besides giving me an idea of compassion, gave me an idea of the presenters themselves.

the golden rule, core of all the major religions and philosophies, is about doing the right thing, not about believing the right thing. believing comes from doing. the right thing to do is to act compassionately, for yourself, your kids, your tribe, others, those you dislike, all life. theistically, compassion brings you to the divinity; atheistically, to nirvana says the buddha.

‘why?’ asks theologian karen armstrong, in her humble prize-acceptance speech. why does compassion bring you to the divinity, to nirvana? she says it’s because ‘we dethrone ourselves as the centre of the world, and we put another person there.’ when we get rid of ego, then we can approach others (even the source of all if you believe in one). ‘this struggle to find compassion in some of these rather rebarbative [and ancient] texts is a good dress rehearsal for doing the same in ordinary life.’ in our era, compassion is lost in ‘the abuse of religion for nefarious gains.’ it has been replaced by (sometimes selfish) requirement of belief. but armstrong has had the privilege of travelling all over the world and everywhere there is a yearning for change: ‘our situation is so serious at the moment that any ideology that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other’ fails. politics, she notes, is a religious matter, a profound, moral matter. but why wait for our elected representatives? people from churches and synagogues and mosques are talking to each other. and that is only possible through compassion.

armstrong mentions belief, credo, and ren. belief‘ and ‘credo’ (a statement of religious belief) have changed meaning over the centuries. belief comes from ‘leubh’ meaning to care, desire, like, love. belief used to mean “trust in god” (whereas faith meant “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty”). but belief had by the 16th century become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true,” from the religious use in the sense of “things held to be true as a matter of religious doctrine”.

ren‘ (仁) is chinese for ‘human heartedness’, the confucian virtue denoting the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when being altruistic, exemplified by an adult’s protective feelings for children, and considered the inward expression of confucian ideals.

bob thurman talks about this serious subject with humour. he touches on interconnectedness, ego, self and other, suffering, joy, fear, boredom, technology, paradox–you know, the same old stuff ;-). he says that the beatles got it right in the sixties with ‘i me me me mine‘–too bad many of us forgot; we’re stuck with mick jagger singing ‘i can’t get no satisfaction’. you achieve compassion–the removal of one’s boundaries–through art, meditation, knowledge. you might think compassion opens you up to more misery–and it does–but the paradox is that ‘you can see the deeper nature of life…. we suddenly become interested in all the other beings. we see ourselves differently. it’s totally strange. it’s totally strange.’ he let’s us in on a little secret: ‘the key to compassion is that it’s more fun.’ and another: ‘the human being is compassion because what is the brain is for?’

matthieu ricard, former molecular biologist, now tibetan buddhist monk, is also funny, and uses analogies well. he starts his talk, the habits of happiness, though, with gorgeous photos he took. what are the habits of happiness? first of all, what is ‘happiness’? it’s not just ‘pleasure’ (which is transient). ricard calls it ‘well-being’, which he defines (in english, no less, though his native tongue is most likely french) as ‘a deep sense of serenity and fulfilment,’ a state that underlies all our joys and sorrows (which still happen). our outward control ‘is limited, temporary, and often illusory.’ inwards, he asks, ‘isn’t it the mind which translates the outer world into happiness and suffering?’ the key is to avoid negative states, and encourage positive ones. is it possible to change, or is our nature immutable? thoughts and feelings change, they come and go; but consciousness [posited in the mind] itself doesn’t change. it stays, like a mirror, reflecting those changing emotions but itself remaining unchanged. so we train the mind (called mind-training‘) to choose positive mental states rather than negative ones (because two opposite states cannot happen at the same time); rather than deal with each particular emotion, a general antidote is to recognize that negative obsession reinforces negative behaviour–so stop going back there! rather, look at the general emotion positively and repeatedly and the particular responses will get smaller and eventually appear only fleetingly. ‘mind-training matters. this is not a luxury. this is not a vitamin for the soul.’ but mind-training takes time. we take time to learn in school, and we take time to jog and in other ways maintain or better our physical condition, ‘yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most.’

in grade six i learned mens sana in corpore sano–a sound mind in a sound body. but what then? or what to do when the body deteriorates, as it will? two things are suggested here, care for yourself (happiness) and care for others (compassion).

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