What “the religions failed to do” but you can

Part of my work is changing how people relate to each other in the workplace, and that’s led me to do more research on empathy and compassion. That has included work by Christians like Karen Armstrong and Buddhists like Pema Chödrön, and also by neuroscientists like Dr. Dan Siegel.

What’s striking to me is how much overlap there is between them - not just about what compassion is and why it’s important, but what to do next and who should do it.

The Pope’s TED talk

Just this week, the Pope delivered his first TED talk, “Why the only future worth building includes everyone.” Speaking from The Vatican, he referenced our inherent interconnectedness, and the need for us to develop our sense of compassion.

“The future is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others. Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone's existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions…
None of us is an island, an autonomous and independent "I," separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone. We don’t think about it often, but everything is connected, and we need to restore our connections to a healthy state.”

The Dalai Lama and two kinds of compassion

But how do we develop our sense of compassion and truly embrace our interconnectedness? Despite the timeless wisdom of the Pope’s message, it seems we’ve made little advance in changing how we relate to each other. What should we actually do?

I recently came across some inspiring answers to these questions in a fascinating audio series featuring a neurobiologist and a Buddhist monk. (I’m grateful to my good friend Amir Bakhtiar, founder of Fearless Inventory, for introducing me to this.) Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain and Mindsight, described a discussion he and three other scientists had with the Dalai Lama about the science of compassion.

“We have a real tough situation here. Because, the human brain has evolved to figure out who is in your in group and who is in your out group. When you’re under threat, these circuits of the brain that determine in-group out-group status are heightened and we know that the people in the out group are treated with more hostility, and the people in the in-group are treated with more kindness.
Can you give us some advice? You’re asking us to make the world a more compassionate place, but we’ve inherited this neurocircuitry that makes these huge populations very likely to kill each other.” 

The Dalai Lama responded:

“There are two kinds of compassion. One is the kind you get from being loved by your mother. When you have a secure attachment, you can love people you’re friends with, you can love your family, you can love people in a maybe slightly extended circle. But love is not enough. 
There’s a second kind of compassion you do not get from being loved by your parents. This kind you only get by mental training that allows you to even love your enemy. Our species is going to require a mental training that allows us to give both kinds of compassion.” 

What “the religions failed to do” but you can

This “mental training” - a systematic practice of mindfulness and compassion training that, literally, changes your brain’s structure and function - can “give you the possibility to rise above your inherited, evolutionarily beneficial fight-flight-freeze responses…that gets you to push away people not like you.”

Then Dr. Siegel described how the Dalai Lama paused, looked at the four scientists, and said something that changed his life. 

“We in the religions have failed to make this a more compassionate world. You in science must find a secular ethic to guide this world to become a more compassionate place.” 

After thousands of years of people preaching for more compassion, we still haven’t made the progress we must make. The Pope, in his talk, encouraged us not to rely solely on institutions for such a change.

“Through the darkness of today's conflicts, each and every one of us can become a bright candle, a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around.
A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another "you," and another "you," and it turns into an "us." And so, does hope begin when we have an "us?" No. Hope began with one "you." When there is an "us," there begins a revolution.”

I want to be a part of that revolution, working to find that “secular ethic” that can enable more of us to rise above our biology and change how we relate to each other. I think we can create a method that helps more practice empathy and compassion in their everyday working lives, and that Working Out Loud Circles are an early attempt at that. 

What do you think? If you have any recommendations for further research, or other ideas or suggestions, please leave a comment or send me email. Thank you.

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaA month ago, I saw an extraordinary post about a way to change your air travel experience, and it included a line I kept thinking about:

“Arrive early and move through the airport like the Dalai Lama. You are in no rush. All obstacles are taken in stride, patiently, with a smile.”

That image stuck with me. Imagine, no striving or manufactured complications. No irritation at the foibles of others, at the inhumane systems, or at the unpredictable nature of things. You could still travel far but you could be, well, cool about it.

I began thinking: That’s what I want my life to be like! 

3 quotes in my office that are all from the same book

As the universe would have it, around that time I’d just finished reading a book a dear friend had given me for my birthday called Cathedral of the Wild. It's written by Boyd Varty and it’s about the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. The reserve is about the size of Switzerland and the Varty family has gradually returned it to its natural state over the last 40 years.

The book is a memoir filled with stories of the people and animals at Londolozi. But it’s also about Boyd’s internal struggles and personal growth, and those are the lines from the book I remembered. When I’d finished reading, I did something I never do: I printed out three quotes and taped them to my office desk.

“Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome.”


“It’s only got the power I give it.”


“Tsama hansie. Put down all you have been carrying.”

Operating instructions for a right life

In many ways, Lonodolozi was idyllic, a restored garden of Eden. But a years-long investor lawsuit related to one of the family’s ambitious projects made it feel like like their work and dreams were unraveling. Worse, the close-knit family started to come apart too.

The first quote was from a spiritual master in an Indian ashram where Boyd went seeking advice. The second was from his father speaking in reaction to the many calls from lawyers. The last was what the local Shangaan people would tell Boyd when he was a boy when he was tired after a long day.

They could be dismissed as just quotes, and even Boyd remembers snarling about the pithy wisdom from the ashram master. “I could have gotten that from a fortune cookie.” But by the end of the book, at the ripe old age of 29, Boyd sees the wisdom underlying these quotes as “the only operating instructions we will ever need for a right life.”

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

Years ago I would have dismissed ideas like these as New Age fluff, but that was simply the result of ignorance and a closed mind. Now, I take comfort in life’s operating instructions every day.

When I’m trying to do good work and people, management systems, or bad luck deal me a setback, I think Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome. All I can do is to persevere doing what I think is right.

When a person acts in a way that makes me angry or upset, I think It’s only got the power I give it. Mostly, my reactions to the barbs of everyday life are bigger problems than the barbs themselves. I need to recognize an issue without making it bigger than it is.

When I’m finished working, I think Put down all you have been carrying. There are times to focus on what needs to be done and there are times to tsama hansie - to restore, recharge, and just enjoy the moment.

Life, like airports, can be nasty and brutish. Or you can choose how you approach things and utterly change the experience.