Below is an excerpt from author and researcher Dr. Paul Ekman’s new book ‘Moving Toward Global Compassion’ which was published in March by the Paul Ekman Group. Dr. Ekman’s research, among many things, has laid the foundation for our understanding of microexpressions—involuntary facial expressions that are difficult to conceal and show themselves in high stakes situations. Moving Toward Global Compassion, is in somewhat of a different vein, and addresses the importance of empathy and altruism in our modern world.
How Can Global Compassion be increased?
In industrial societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was possible to focus solely on one’s own welfare, accumulating material wealth without regard for its impact on others—the rugged individualist, capitalist worldview. The political judgments of many today are that such a worldview is no longer viable, that we do live in a global village, and that the Buddhist concept of interdependence is literally true in terms of how we individually choose to treat our environment. Those who warn about global warming and impending shortages in food, water, and energy argue that the adjustments in lifestyle and use of resources necessary to avoid disaster require a compassionate concern for every human being’s welfare—global compassion.
The Abrahamic religions urge global compassion, but it is not certain that such teachings play a role in creating stranger compassion. Certainly they do not do so for most people; and those who do exhibit global compassion might be so predisposed, drawn to religious teachings because they support their compassionate inclinations, not because they create those inclinations. It is unlikely that religious training, as it is presently practiced, will increase global compassion.
Even if research were to support the role of genetics in predisposing some people toward global compassion, it is not obvious how that finding could help those who want to increase the frequency of this behavior. It would be helpful to discover whether there are certain life experiences that occur in most people who exhibit global compassion, pointing toward what is required to activate a genetic predisposition, if indeed there is such a predisposition in all people.
There are now many different approaches to cultivating compassion, many of which are being evaluated through research. Admittedly, I only know about some of this work, for there is a lot of it worldwide, but I believe the focus is primarily on proximal compassionate feelings, much less on actions, and very little on distal compassion. Recent research suggests that loving-kindness contemplative practice generates different neural circuits than contemplative practices focused on empathy, but did not examine differences between the two in the likelihood of compassionate actions. This research needs a control for demand characteristics, which I described earlier on page 77, and also for unwitting experiment bias.
It is much too early to know which focus (distal or proximal, feelings or actions) and which approach to increasing whatever is focused on will be most successful. The most successful approach for cultivating global compassion may vary with the focus, the circumstances, and the individuals addressed. I think it likely that efforts focused on actions to prevent suffering (distal actions) will be most successful, across various people, if it occurs in late childhood and adolescence. Distal not proximal compassion is likely to be more educable by traditional means, since distal compassion is probably determined more by cognition, by values, judgments, forecasting, and so forth, than is proximal compassion.
Earlier I proposed that there are three quite different positive consequences that an individual might experience after engaging in a compassionate action (perhaps just from the compassionate feelings, even if not acted upon). First is what I termed compassion joy (CJ), a unique type of enjoyment that feels good, is consciously felt, intrinsically rewarding, and to my knowledge, little studied to date. That this occurs needs documentation, not simply my suggestion, but if I am right, then efforts to cultivate global compassion should make use of the consequence of feeling good about having acted compassionately, motivating further compassionate behavior by providing the opportunity to so engage again and again. Quite separate is the enhancement of self-image that can occur from having acted compassionately. And still separate from that is the enhancement in how others regard the person who acts compassionately if what they do is known by others.
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