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.