Love thy neighbour, for he is me

Who wants to care for people if care has become institutionalized? While modern society leaves little room for random kindness, there’s good news: Everyone can learn the basics of altruism. Ode goes back to the Samaritan, because receiving is inherent in giving.

Tijn Touber| June 2007 issue
Two thousand years ago on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a lonely traveller was attacked. No one—not even the priest who happened by—extended a hand to help the man. But just before he lost consciousness he saw a friendly face hovering over him and felt two strong arms lift him up and put him on a donkey. When he woke up the following day, he was at an inn; his wounds were dressed, his thirst quenched. His benefactor had moved on, but had paid the man’s medical and hotel bills.
“Who is this man who spontaneously took pity on me?” asked the traveller.
The innkeeper smiled. “His name is Samaritan.”
What we’ve known for 2,000 years has now been scientifically proven. Samaritans are rare. But here’s the good news: Altruism can be learned. Of course Samaritans are scarce because—according to the research—they come from strong, loving families. People who grow up in difficult circumstances lose the natural ability to empathize deeply with others. Unfortunately, this applies to most of us. Divorce, stress, sternness, abuse and our daily doses of television cause us to lose our trust and innocence at a young age. But thankfully some of us turn out to be real Samaritans later in life. It appears that for a lot of people, healing a difficult childhood—and the lack of self-love that comes with it—involves learning to care for others. Initially, it can be easier than caring for ourselves and helps us indirectly restore our own self-love.
A good example of the healing that can come from such a path is Sammy, a prisoner in an Amsterdam jail. His father was a violent alcoholic and his mother had no time for her son. After years of escaping into drugs and crime, Sammy is once again behind bars. But this time, he is determined, will be his last. When I met Sammy, he was just getting over the drug-withdrawal symptoms. I taught him to meditate and look at himself differently. Over the course of a few months I saw him change from an irresponsible bully into a nice guy. He began cooking little dishes from his native Suriname for the other prisoners and took on the responsibility of cleaning the common areas. Ultimately he became the point of contact for the guards during mediation sessions between prisoners and prison staff. Sammy had found himself again; so much so that he was able to give to others.
George Bernard Shaw put it this way: “Caring for the world is what remains after caring for yourself.” Altruists are there for others because they are largely complete within themselves. They consider the problems of others more important than their own because they’ve conquered their own difficulties. An altruist has broken out of his own small world of worries and therefore commands a view of the greater whole.
Creating the space to allow others into your heart means letting go of old issues. Buddhists call this “the little death”—letting go of the ego that you must allow to die to reach enlightenment. What dies is the “little me,” the ego constantly working to satisfy its own limited needs. This “little me” continually tries to control situations and people because it is afraid to lose control. Therefore, spiritual growth is inevitably linked to killing off all the false personalities with which we have identified. This feels like dying, like a living death. It is like falling into a black hole. Everything we held onto, all we thought we were, suddenly appears to be illusion. So who am I? What am I? And why am I?
Those who dare suffer this death will be reborn. Life is giving. Life is receiving. In short, life is being connected. The measure of spiritual growth, therefore, is not how at home you look in a saffron-coloured robe or how many hours you can sit in a lotus position. Spiritual growth is characterized by the capacity to allow others into your heart. Yes, loving others as you love yourself. He who has, gives. Unconditionally. The sun doesn’t think about whom it will shine on today. The sun shines because it is in its nature to shine. Being a “sun” results in what biologists call the “overflow factor”: you have so much to give that it expands beyond your immediate environment. Nowadays some people call this overflow “feeling the Christ consciousness.” But I believe it is simply in our natures. Everyone naturally wants to give, everyone wants to serve, but most of us are too busy surviving.
Those who take the cynical stance that people don’t have the capacity to give unconditionally and always want something in return should look at the scientific evidence in favour of altruism. In one study, a group of people with an elevated ability to empathize was denied the opportunity to exhibit that natural helping behaviour. Instead, someone else helped people who appeared in need. It turned out these empathetic people were just as happy that the needy individual was helped by others. They apparently had a legitimate desire to see the victim relieved of his suffering, not just to feel like saviours by doing it themselves.
Research also indicates that people who are geared toward service are much healthier than those who are not. Allan Luks studied 3,300 people who do volunteer work every day and described his findings in the 2001 book The Healing Power of Doing Good. Daily volunteers were 10 times likelier to report good health than people who only volunteered once a year. It also emerged that it is important that the work involve personal contact. Simply donating money doesn’t contribute to what Luks termed “the helpers’ high.” Luks discovered that doing good not only leads to better health and more vitality, but is a good pain reliever. In fact, Dr. Robert Benson of Harvard Medical School in Boston discovered that do-gooders experience the opposite of stress: “If we do good, we apparently relax. Metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all grow calmer. And tension, depression and anger decrease.”
You can, of course, go too far in caring for others. The Institute of HeartMath, a non-profit organization in the U.S. well-known for its research, sees too much care as one of the greatest sources of modern illness. Our concern for others not only becomes a burden to us, but to those we care for. Instead of helping someone, we create stress. The institute has developed a method we can use to care for others without getting burned out. This “Cut-Thru” method teaches us to reach “higher heart qualities” such as compassion and sympathy, and research shows that people who practise it produce 100 percent more DHEA—a hormone that counteracts the aging process—and 23 percent less cortisol—the “stress hormone.” Cut-Thru is about breaking out of victim-based thoughts like “I always have to be there for everyone and no one takes me into account” and reaching deeper feelings.
A beautiful example of compassion is described in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. When the young architect Howard Roark visits sculptor Steven Mallory in his studio, the latter is upset. He has lost all hope along with his ideals. When Mallory sees that Roark’s idealism is intact, he bursts into tears. But then: “After a while Mallory sat up. He looked at Roark and saw the calmest, kindest face—a face without a hint of pity. It did not look like the countenance of men who watch the agony of another with a secret pleasure, uplifted by the sight of a beggar who needs their compassion; it did not bear the cast of the hungry soul that feeds upon another’s humiliation. Roark’s face seemed tired, drawn at the temples, as if he had just taken a beating. But his eyes were serene and they looked at Mallory quietly, a hard, clean glance of understanding—and respect.”
Loving thy neighbour is not the same as suffering with him. Compassion means remaining above the pain—detached from the pain—so we can stay positive and constructive in the face of painful situations. At a young age, we learn not to hurt others, but one lesson we don’t automatically get is not to take on others’ grief.
We can always add something positive under any circumstances, even the most bizarre ones. This was recently demonstrated by an Amsterdam policeman. Together with a colleague, the officer—who had been meditating every day for years—had to disarm a dangerous man. Along with a gun, the man was also carrying a knife, which he had used to cut himself. He had sliced through the tendons in his fingers. The officers managed to overpower him and take him to the hospital. The staff tried to give the man an anaesthetic and he went wild with fear. It took three men sitting on him to allow the nurse to do her job. When the policeman was leaving the hospital a couple of hours later, the injured man called to the officer, gave him a piercing look and said, “I’ll never forget your eyes.” A simple act of humanity is all it takes: a look, a smile, a pose, a gesture.
Former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, founder of the Altruistic Spirit Program at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, calls this “the gift of recognition.” Says Mitchell: “Altruistically minded people always have a tremendous respect for the dignity of every individual. I have the impression that this is what causes people’s lives to change.” Since 1987, the Altruistic Spirit Program has granted an annual Temple Award for Creative Altruism to ordinary people who spot problems and do something about them. Journalist-turned-activist Nicolien de Kroon is a classic example. When she was watching the news one evening back in 1991 and realized war was imminent in the Persian Gulf, she decided to take action. She flew to Geneva to ask those involved to consider the children, if nothing else. When the Gulf War broke out several months later, she flew to Washington, D.C., to speak to U.S. President George H.W. Bush personally. When Nicolien decided she couldn’t expect much of these “aging gentlemen,” she got to work herself. Since then, she has transported over 3,000 tons—120 truckloads—of clothing, food, medicine and “lots of stuffed animals” to children in war zones like Kurdistan, the former Yugoslavia and the Chechen Republic, often singlehandedly.
Everyone thinks what she’s doing is wonderful but few join in. We care about our neighbours, we feel for those poor children, but…
In 1964, an incident occurred that prompted a flood of research into what came to be known as “the bystander effect.” Thirty-eight people in a respectable New York neighbourhood glimpsed the violence as young Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered by a man who repeatedly stabbed her with a knife. No one intervened. By the time someone finally called the police, Genovese was dead. The research indicated that people felt unsure about how to react. Everyone was waiting for someone else to make a move. If you got involved, they thought, maybe you’d meet with the same fate. The safest approach was to wait and see how everyone else responded. And apparently, the more people involved, the smaller the chance that someone would step in. Evidence of this came later with an experiment in which people sitting in a waiting room clearly heard a woman on the other side of a door fall, hurt herself and cry for help. Seventy percent of those in the room went to help. But when people were waiting with strangers, who knew they were participating in a scientific experiment, only 7 percent came to the woman’s aid.
According to Thomas Hurley, also of the Altruistic Spirit Program, altruists generally know when they have reached their goal and it’s time to let go. Hurley attributes this to their spiritual practises: “They have something to fall back on.” For altruists, service is a way of life. If they were to become dependent on the results of their services, they would lose their spiritual foundation and thus their integrity. They would no longer be altruistic servants because they would want something from those they were serving. Real service involves letting go of the outcome. It is known that Mahatma Gandhi regularly spent days in silence for this very reason—to the great dismay of the English negotiators. Gandhi knew he would lose his non-violent battle if he lost his own non-violence. Charitable souls like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa and Jesus Christ also worked all their lives to keep their spiritual reserves intact. They didn’t allow themselves to be led astray by the limited rewards of fame, wealth or comfort. Each of them was open-minded enough to continue seeing the biggest possible picture. As a result, they maintained access to one of the best-kept secrets in human history: Receiving is inherent in giving.
Practising compassion
Compassion can be practised anywhere: at airports, on beaches or in shops, whenever we are together with other people. Try this five-step exercise around friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person.
With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:
Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”
Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”
Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”
Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”
Source: Resurfacing: Techniques for Exploring Consciousness by Harry Palmer

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