The Importance of Compassion without Buddhism

| December 11, 2011 | 4 Comments

One of the many things I like about the company I’m currently working for is that our CEO uses the following words repeatedly in his All Hands meetings: Mindful, Awareness, Compassion. He speaks of communicating with each other through compassion, being mindful to the needs of others, and staying aware of our cultural needs within the company, and the greater community outside of the company. All of this is spoken without mention of Buddha or Buddhism, and is completely secular.

Let’s face it, compassion, mindfulness, and meditation weren’t invented or owned by Buddha. What happens if we teach mindfulness, meditation, and compassion without a goal of “enlightenment” , without an Eightfold Path, without mention of Buddha, and insert them into society in completely secular ways?

While some Buddhists may consider this watered-down Buddhism, or ignore it entirely, I think the best gift Buddhists can give the world is their understanding of compassion, mindfulness, not self, and meditation in a secular way. And it’s happening whether we like it or not.

I was excited when I received a note from my manager that Facebook was hosting a day of talks on Compassion Research. As I listened to these talks, particularly the one with elementary and middle school teachers, I enjoyed how much simpler the concepts can be when not enshrouded in foreign culture and religious language. I was particularly taken by one teacher who said she teaches her students compassion first by explaining how to be aware of one’s own emotions through mindfulness, then having discussions on how to beneficially express emotions, and lastly how to recognize the emotions of others and be compassionate towards them. It was a beautiful three step process!

Educators and health professionals can take these concepts we focus on so heavily in Buddhism, add their own expertise, and put it to use in their professions in ways that can’t happen when the focus is always what Buddha taught. Additionally, I was impressed by the scientific side, as an evolutionary biologist explained why humans may have developed compassion in the first place, and using examples from other animals who display empathy for one another. To top that was a psychologist explaining how we benefit ourselves by being more compassionate. All of this was discussed with the idea of an empathetic community in mind, so that everyone can benefit.

I found it fascinating to hear these concepts spoken of in the context of classrooms, businesses, and in the laboratory. All refereed to simple ways in clear language we can teach ourselves and children how to be more mindful, compassionate, and empathetic towards others.

While these folks may not benefit from other aspects of the Buddhist path, the world would be a much better place if each person increased mindfulness of themselves, developed empathy towards others, and expressed compassion in their daily lives.

I’ve also been intrigued with the developments in neuroscience regarding the lack of a static self, no driver to be found. In Buddhism, this topic can be very confusing, and for some people frightening. I’ve read some books that seem to suggest I didn’t even exist, while others suggested the self is an illusion but did a poor job in explaining how that is. To read these interpretations could make one’s head spin.

Susan Blackmore worded this succinctly for me when she refereed to “the mentally constructed self.” Then as I went through  my day, I could see how my thoughts built this feeling of “me”, emotions created a feeling of “me”, thoughts justified an existence of “me”, and this is an ongoing process, a changing one at that! Susan talks about this briefly in her interview with Ted in Skepticism, Meditation, and Consciousness. Psychology and neuroscience are studying this phenomena of self building, and seeing the benefits to understanding these processes in therapy.

Mindfulness and meditation, too, is now often in the news, either under scientific study, or being recommended by health and women’s magazines, various sites, etc. I hear rumblings of Buddhists over this, as though meditation is exclusive to Buddhism or somehow sacred. But what an awesome tool mindfulness is to get into the hands of mental health therapists, who can now teach their clients how to empower themselves with a direct understanding of their own minds and experiences. Mark Knicklebine talks about how he has benefited from mindfulness in a group environment outside of Buddhism in Meditation Only?

One place we’ve really needed to see compassion emerge is in the area of business and technology, and it is! I’m really excited about the upcoming conference Ted and I are going to Wisdom 2.0: Exploring Living with Awareness and Compassion in the Technology Age. It’s awesome to see companies like Google sponsoring this event, and to see that many of the speakers are from technology giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Paypal. It’s great to see the industry embracing the need for compassion and wisdom in our daily work lives and the technologies we produce.

I’m not suggesting that any of you drop Buddhism. We learn much from those who travel the path, study the suttas, and bring us fresh, secular look at a very old religion. But I do think it’s really important that we share what we learn in a completely secular manner, without Buddhism, in schools, businesses, society in general.

Interesting, the Dalai Lama has come out with the book I listed above: Beyond Religion. I’m going to read that, while wondering if his people can also move beyond religion:-)

 

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Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (4)

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  1. stoky says:

    I think this is an interesting topic, especially for the time we live in.

    For example, there quite a lot things are changing in the economy right now. With the financial crisis going on (especially in Europe) a lot of people think we should change the direction we’re moving to.

    Additionally, the internet has changed a lot of things. E.g. there are new ways to fund your project now and most of these include a stronger connection between producers and their customers/fans.

    Maybe this could be a topic also covered by the podcast?

    • stoky says:

      P.S.: I didn’t want to suggest “the economy” or “the internet” as a topic, but more in general something like “Buddhist values put into practice (without Buddhism)”

  2. JRichardMarra says:

    I very much enjoyed your article, especially as it sketches some significant scientific results in the scientific areas of human evolution, cognition, and neuroscience.

    Although I am not a professional scientist or philosopher, I have formal training in both fields. Those interests and that training led me to think about how the philosophy and practice of Buddhism reflects what evolutionary scientists explain as the psychological needs satisfied by what Stephen J. Gould hypothesizes as the evolutionary “spandrel” that is manifest in human religious thinking and activity. For example, Terror Management Theory identifies an existential threat of death as an anxiety-producing psychological state that incites people to defend their “self”-esteem and justify how they see that self within a larger and comforting worldview. Other theories concerning coalitional psychology, error detection mechanisms, unconscious (threat) vigilance, and uncertainty management each offers threads of thought based on the evolutionary psychological perspective that, I think, are relevant to Buddhist concerns. These would include how and why we: 1) can effectively interact with others in ways that reduce conflict (the Buddhist sila), 2) make sure, as much as we can, that we understand situations in a reasonable and factual manner (mindfulness and insight), 3) see others as threats and may not feel compassion toward them (metta bhavana), and 4) deal with a chaotic world of change (impermanence).

    My take on secular Buddhism is deeply informed by a belief that Buddhism satisfies profound human concerns that emerge from what science instructs us about our bodies and our minds, and how they have arrived in their current biological systemic form, and what the nature of that system is.

    Thank you for sharing.

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