An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: Religion scholar Karen Armstrong is asking the world to write a Charter for Compassion, based on her premise that compassion is central to all religions. Do you agree? If so, what has gone wrong?
Compassion is universally revered and universally ignored. The situation is primal. It has existed as far back as Buddha and Christ, and long before them. In a sense we may feel disadvantaged compared to our ancestors -- for them, drawing your hand back from an enemy meant laying down a spear or mace. For us, it means laying down a nuclear arsenal. But despite that gap in destructive power, the essential problem remains the same: whether human nature can be changed, and if so, on how large a scale.
The teaching and preaching of compassion has done some good, perhaps. Most people are happy that Christ and Buddha lived, even if they give little thought to them, much less to the age-old concept of Daya, the original Sanskrit word for sympathy that later evolved into compassion. I feel more secure starting there, because sympathy is as natural to human beings as aggression.
It turns out that the brain is extremely variable when it comes to sympathy. Functional MRIs taken inside a New Mexico prison (the only program of its type) show that inmates who score high on tests for psychopathic tendencies also have distorted brain function. Psychopaths possess the least innate sympathy imaginable; they have no conscience; they can commit acts of terrible cruelty without feeling a shred of the pain they are inflicting. Their polar opposites are a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks who were also studied with MRI scans at the Univ. of Wisconsin. Having meditated on compassion for many years, the monks exhibited the highest level of gamma waves ever seen in the laboratory, as well as heightened function in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with positive feelings such as happiness. Gamma waves are thought to link the brain into a whole and are linked to consciousness itself.
Can a psychopath's brain be turned into a compassionate brain? No one knows (the psychiatric profession has largely given up changing psychopaths either through drugs or conventional couch therapy). But at least we know that the brain is malleable enough that meditating on compassion produces changes that are real. Thinking that you are compassionate doesn't do the job, but practicing compassion inwardly does.
Which leads me to believe that compassion isn't a mood, a moral teaching, an ethical obligation, or a social ideal. It's a subtle activity of the brain, prompted by desire and will. You have to desire to be compassionate and possess the will to train your brain to fulfill your desire. I'm not implying that the brain does the work. It merely adapts to your intention. The brain learns new skills by forming neural networks, actual connections between brain cells. If you think of compassion as a skill, like learning to play the violin or walking a tightrope, then the brain must also learn this skill by developing a special neural network.
I don't mean to sound inhumane. Compassion has been a spiritual ideal for centuries. But it has also been a frustrating failure for centuries. We can turn that around by being realistic. If a child playing video games creates a new neural network in a matter of weeks, why not apply this knowledge to spiritual skills? The process is quite basic:
1. Be genuinely interested.
2. Pursue what interests you.
3. Keep practicing until you see improvement.
4. Stick with your practice until you see permanent change.
Step 1 requires inspiration. To be interested in compassion isn't an ordinary thing in our society, even among mature, psychologically developed people. Step 2 requires turning inward, because the inner landscape is the country of compassion. Step 3 requires discipline, since you must go inside over and over, renewing your dedication in the face of old conditioning that tempts you to turn away from compassion in pursuit of the ego's constant demands. Step 4 requires patience, because there are many inner forces -- and outer ones, too -- that defeat compassion.
If you can adjust to these conditions, it's entirely possible to become compassionate by developing a compassionate brain. I call this process "subtle action," which means doing at the level of awareness. It was through subtle action, leading to self-transformation, that Buddha and Christ unshakably established compassion in themselves. They didn't realize, perhaps, that they had to transform their brains at the same time. The two go together, however. At the very least, to be compassionate while not changing the brain can only be a temporary achievement, not permanent change. Because we were all born with the capacity to sympathize, our brains await their next instruction, to expand this capacity to the level of compassion.