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Compassion

More than just a feeling


 

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What is Compassion ?

But why is this important ?

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Compassion versus Projection

 

An example - Hitler revisited

     

 

 What is Compassion?

Compassion is putting yourself in the other's place, feeling the other's need, the other's pain, knowing that he or she could have been you. "There but for the grace of God go I."

So what, if "God" doesn't exist any more! That just means we thank the cosmic dice instead [or congratulate ourselves on our choice of parents], because "me" being here now is simply what it is like to be the Universe observing itself out of these eyes instead of those eyes over there and this experience of being "me" depends entirely on the current particulars of this body, its brain, its mind and its history.......... all of which could have been totally different.

This dependence on this unique set of particulars makes me what I am, and realising this fact lets me see that he and she over there do what they do, experience what they do and suffer as they do because of what has gone before. Their choices are limited by what they know, what they believe and by their resources.

But why is this important? Navigate page

Answer #1: Because compassion is an expression of our connectedness. When we deny our instinctive compassionate response to the needs of others we are supressing our ability to identify ourselves with them, our common humanity. This diminishes us. It is not a manifestation of strength as some would have us believe but a form of amputation.

Answer #2: Because compassion is not just feeling it is also action. For example it may be easy enough for me to recognise that my knowledge and ability to do something are far greater than that of someone who comes to my office for help. For anyone else the book keeping problem that stumps her may be trivial. She, who probably left school at 14, may be struggling to see that the simple act of listing and clearly labeling receipts from different types of payment on separate pages of an account book, for her partner who drives a tow truck, allows someone else to understand where all the figures come from and draw up a correct trading statement.

I have a choice: I could just tell her to go away and pay a bookkeeper to do the work for her or I can choose to spend a little time suggesting that she use separate pages of her account book and explaining why this is useful. The first action may save me time and, provided she goes away, should allow me to move on to something more interesting, more in keeping with my self-image as someone who deals with important things and people of higher status than her. This would be a manifestation of arrogance: it sustains a false self image in me by creating or reinforcing a construction of difference between her and me ["I am not that kind of ignorant person"] at the same time as it deprives her of an opportunity to learn new skills and empower herself. Choosing the second option is a manifestation of compassion: it recognises our common humanity, it meets her real needs of the moment thus reducing her worries and opens up opportunities for her so she is empowered to deal more competently with the financial affairs of her partner and herself. Whilst it may seem trivial, it is possible that her learning how to do this relatively simple accounting task will improve her self image so she feels confident to tackle bigger things and who knows where that might lead?!

I loose nothing by choosing the second option in fact I gain by reinforcing my feel for social reality, my sense of connectedness, and I can feel good about myself because I have provided a real service for someone in need.

There are those who cynically disparage compassion as false sentimentality and do-goodism, and as "unnatural" because "not rational" in the dog-eat-dog world they assert is "reality". I believe they are wrong on all accounts. Below I explain why the feelings of compassion are as real as anything else. [The fact that people are sometimes deluded or not totally honest with themselves is no reason to assume all people are always wrong.] I examine elsewhere how our mutual interdependence makes acts of kindness and ethical decision making extremely important in maintaining and improving the fabric of our society.

One aspect of the paradox of our being is that we assume that others
see as we do:
"..It's a reddish brown..",
hear as we do:
"..The irritating screech of a finger-nail dragged across the blackboard..",
and feel much as we do:
"..I watched and squirmed with embarrassment.." yet we have no convincing way to prove that my experience of colour, sound and emotion is the same as anybody else's. Some philosophers regard this as a "Hard Problem" of consciousness and doubt that we can ever solve it, but the approach I have adopted [our
subjective experience is what it is like to be the model of self .... etc.] allows us to accept that our experiences of colour, sound, emotion and so forth ARE very much alike. The physical and biological systems are VERY similar so the lower level structures of the self-models are similar THEREFORE the experience IS similar, just as common sense says it ought to be. The fact that some people do see things differently - such as my friend Dong who sees "pink" on my computer screen where I see grey - only serves to confirm the basic truth of this proposition because the "colour blindness" of Dong and others can be explained by observable differences in eye structure [e.g. only two kinds of cone cells instead of the normal three].

So what does this mean? It means that the empathy and sympathy we feel - if we let our selves - are not false. They are authentic and integral components of our experience and identity as human beings on Earth and as members of our families and societies.

The psychologist Susan Blackmore and others assert that our culture is what has arisen as a result of humans evolving the capacity to imitate others. I believe she is correct, it is certainly a very useful theory. I believe also that our capacity for compassion has come from the same source. What this means is that our brains have the capacity not only to model the physical behaviours of others and map our own bodies into the same behavoural sequences but to emulate the emotional reactions of others also.

I think most of us, most of the time, like to think that we are doing the best we can, but what does that mean? "Under the circumstances" that is what. Certainly we like to blame circumstances when we don't achieve what we set out to do but we like to blame ourselves when things turn out right!

Compassion versus Projection Navigate page

Compassion is the cure for unconscious projection.

Unconscious projection is the process of ascribing to other people [and things or symbols] features of our own selves which really exist but which we do not wish to acknowledge. Put another way, unconscious projection is one of the characteristic features of mainstream religion of any denomination as well as other types of practice such as sport which share many characteristics of religions. It relies heavily on enforcing distinctions between "them and us" [despite the teachings of people like Jesus of Nazareth] with "them" being defined in terms of beliefs and behaviours that we deny about ourselves.

Compassion on the other hand involves seeing oneself in the other and accepting that "There, but for a shake of the cosmic dice, go I!". This requires a recognition that all the features of the other person which one doesn't like are all things which could easily belong to oneself also and in fact probably do. From this we can see that the absence of compassion is a reasonable indicator of unconscious projection occurring which in turn indicates that rational thinking is almost certainly being unconsciously subverted by emotion. This is important because it shows why the appearance of a "tough" approach to decision making is no guarantee of wise judgement.

 

 An example - Hitler revisited Navigate page

I wrote the previous paragraph early in the morning of Tuesday 2 January 2001. Later that day, at a newsagent's shop near my work, I spoke with a woman called Pat from the organisation I work for. We had not met for quite some time so exchanged pleasantaries and chat which included her asking me where I now live which I told her about. In discussing some of the reasons for moving I happened to mention that my wife, who is usually home all day looking after the children, had been unhappy about some of the people - youths and young men usually - who used to wander up and down the streets of Bassendean which was the suburb we lived in previously.

Now these people were Aborigine youths who really would have been far better off at work somewhere. There was good reason to be suspicious of their intentions as they swaggered up and down the middle of the streets because burglaries and attempted break-ins were happening - in broad daylight - as well as various other things. Let's just say we were not living in terror by any means but my wife was becoming increasingly unsure about our nine year old daughter walking up the street to the local library or her favourite haunt, the second hand book shop, which was not much further away either.

I happened to mention some of this, and to say that this was not so much the case where we now are but that in some other areas I commute through there are quite often young aborigine people wandering around holding to their faces paper bags or the silver plastic inner bags from wine "casks" as they are called and that these kids are also holding spray cans so it is fairly clear they are sniffing the fumes of the propellants and solvents which they have sprayed into the bags in order to achieve a high. This practice is quite common and, if you think about it, a great cause for concern because the hydrocarbon propellants and the vapour of the solvents or paints are all toxic and must be causing irreversable damage to the kids' bodies. I mentioned to Pat that these kids were slowly killing themselves. I was stunned when she said:
"Well, good thing too. Good riddance. The sooner they kill themselves off the better." As we parted she continued:
"It's not popular to say this but most people will agree with it - they shouldn't have stopped with Tasmania!"

This is a reference to the fact that all of the full blood indigenous people of Tasmania were killed off following contact with white settlers, dying from diseases such as colds, flu, and other things to which they simply had no immunities, or dying from diseases to which they lost their resistance because of starvation resulting from them being driven off their hunting grounds or malnutrician resulting from incarceration in penal settlements, or they were simply murdered by shooting or poisoning.

What Pat was proposing, and obviously will continue to propose, is genocide. I did not stop to ask her whether she realised that what she was advocating was precisely the "solution" proposed by Adolf Hitler. He demonised Jews, Gypsies, dark-skinned people, homosexuals, and communists to name but some.

to be continued

 

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