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Survival Of The Selfless?

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I'm reading two books--both advance copies--which are providing some insight into our current situation. The first, The Compassionate Instinct, edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh and Jeremy Adam Smith, is subtitled "The Science of Human Goodness."

The collection of essays by various scientists includes not only a great deal of research information but also a good deal of story-telling and personal anecdotes challenging the old survivalist assumption that we humans are hard-wired for self-interest. The newest studies of primates are now telling us a different story--that such qualities as empathy, forgiveness, community, cooperation and trust are as much a part of the survival imperative as the ones that have commonly been accepted: competition, aggression, the urge to dominance and so forth.

The book is divided into three parts, the first examining "The Scientific Roots of Human Goodness"; the second, "How to Cultivate Goodness in Relationships with Friends, Family, Coworkers and Neighbors"; and the third, "How to Cultivate Goodness in Society and Politics." Heaven knows, these qualities and practices are needed if our species is to survive the near-disaster it has brought upon itself, and it is encouraging to know that the scientific community is beginning to promulgate a rational undergirding for them.

Perhaps--who knows--we can use some of this research to our mutual benefit. Who knew, for example, as research has revealed, that in combat situations--at least until recently--the majority of soldiers fired their weapons into the air rather than targeting the enemy? The revulsion for killing a follow human being was so powerful, so innate, that many went through the motions without actually following orders to kill. A hopeful discovery. But of course, once discovered, the finding resulted in the development of new training techniques to overcome the "natural" instinct." The kill rate in our recent wars has significantly increased.

Still, "The Compassionate Instinct" is a worthwhile read, and one that suggests that what we are discovering about ourselves as a species may, just conceivably, help us to redirect our sense of who we are and where we're going with this fragile planet of ours. The question remains as to whether we have yet "hit bottom," to revert to the language of addiction--and we all seem to be addicts, don't we? We're addicted to our fossil fuels, to our comforts and conveniences, to the kinds of food we eat, to our "rights"... To paraphrase yet another great writer, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, we must change our lives. ("Du musst dein Leben aendern.")

I had a lot of trouble with the second book, the third in "The Art of Happiness" series by the Dalai Lama and the psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler.

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World purports to be "written by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D." I say "purports to be" because it's not, and that's the difficulty I have. It's really a book written by Howard C. Cutler M.D., based on his interviews with the Dalai Lama. It's the third in "The Art of Happiness" series. I reviewed the first for the Los Angeles Times about ten years ago, and I had the same discomfort with that book as I have with this.

The preponderant bulk of the book is written by Dr. Cutler. True, he includes ample quotations from the Dalai Lama, but His Holiness's actual words occupy, at a guess, no more than a tenth of the book. Otherwise, it's Dr. Cutler's gloss on the Dalai Lama's words, or Dr. Cutler's leading questions, which can go on for literally pages. At times, it's Dr. Cutler putting words in the Dalai Lama's mouth. All of which is intensely distracting, for this reader, from an otherwise useful and interesting book.

That said, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World has much to recommend it, and it would have been a simple matter to have labeled it differently, and accurately, as a book by Howard C. Cutler MD based on interviews with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The wisdom of the Buddha and of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has much to teach a world that is beset by troubles today: war and violence, disease and hunger are the prevalent conditions in too many parts of the small planet which is increasingly overpopulated by our species. Through our human attachments to our own needs and greed, we are despoiling our environment and depleting our resources at an alarming rate, and creating the conditions for as yet unimaginable suffering and grief. That the Dalai Lama is able to smile and nod and spread compassion, as he does, despite this monumental mess is certainly worth Dr. Cutler's efforts to understand the fundamentals of his beliefs and practices.

And it's not too complicated. The Dalai Lama--if I may be so bold, as Dr. Cutler is, to be speaking for him!--believes in the fundamental goodness of his fellow human beings. He believes that all conflict and violence can be attributed not to some evil gene in the human species but rather to ignorance and the misperception of reality. He believes that if we were to see things clearly, without the narrowing of vision and the distortion brought about by our delusory thinking, we would all get along because it is in our interest to do so. That if we were able to listen to each other with compassion, to truly put ourselves in place of those we oppose or hate, then such abominations as racism, religious intolerance and extremist nationalism would be seen for what they are--distortions of reality rather than truths about our human nature.

The skeptics will regard these arguments as pollyanna-ish nonsense. There is in the contemporary world an ingrained, deeply inherited belief to the contrary: that the human species is by nature violent, aggressive, competitive, protective of its territory, rejective of the "other." And yet, as Dr. Cutler points out--and this is really the thesis of his book--there is an ample and growing body of scientific research that supports the Dalai Lama's position, a view that is amply supported by The Compassionate Instinct.

The multi-million year hard-wiring of the human brain is not exclusively geared, it now turns out, to the aggressive qualities long thought to have been essential to the "survival of the fittest." More recent studies of human behavior, and of the behavior of our cousins, the primates, are revealing that survival skills also required such qualities as compassion, mutual understanding and collaboration, even selflessness.

It's no coincidence, surely, that these two books should appear at a moment when we badly need to reappraise the way we share this planet, as a species, with our own and others; and when we are stand poised on the brink of the global disaster that could so easily be caused by the delusions of ignorance, mutual suspicion, fear, and greed.

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