Stumbling toward Purpose
Mind the Change and Change the Mind

Moving from Empathy to Altruistic Action

You know when you are thinking about something, then you seem surrounded by that idea. It appears everywhere. That's what is happening with me and the concept of altruism. It is emerging, at least in my worldview, as a trending solution for what ails us. I mean everything that ails us. I know, hang onto your hats and let me finish! :) We all know that in our hearts that caring for one another, unconditionally, is not only right but essential if we are to thrive. We all want to foster a sense of community with others. As Jeremy Rifkin says, a meaningful life comes from belonging not belongings!

No one we know is not empathetic or not compassionate--at least that is what we tell each other!

I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and interview Matthieu Ricard, the respected scientist and Buddhist monk. His latest book Altruism, asserts that social change needs to start with each one of us. That if we each invoke the power of love and genuine care for one another we will change ourselves and the world around us. 

    To do this, we must cultivate altruism on an individual level, for that is where everything begins. Altruism shows us what is good to do, but also how one should be, and what qualities and virtues one should cultivate. Starting with a kindly motivation, altruism should be integrated into our everyday lives, and should reflect the unique quality of every being and every situation. We should promote altruism on the level of society through education, through institutions that respect the rights of every individual, and through political and economic systems that allow everyone to flourish without sacrificing the good of future generations.

Altruism is not just being good and doing nice things from time to time. It is a state of mind that grows and develops and is only strong when our self-centered individuality is secondary. You cannot be truly altruisitic if you are thinking about WIIFM (What’s in it for me)

Prior to meeting Ricard I confused the concepts of empathy, compassion and altruism. Ricard set me straight. While we need all of these perspectives and insights, we really need to adopt an altruistic lifestyle. An action oriented lifestyle of helping others without expectation.

Empathy is an act of humanity where we connect and relate with another. Empathy can lead to compassion and altruism but it can easily lead to distress, burnout and avoidance of action. Empathetic distress caused by the overwhelming dimensions of suffering can make us view suffering: abstractly, as disembodied needs, as nameless and faceless non-human objects and therefore not real. Ironically, empathy can push us towards greater isolation and selfishness. We do this to protect ourselves. And that leads to more concern for self—the enemy of compassion.

In fact new research from Paul Bloom and Richard Davidson contends that empathy alone can lead to less compassion. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain." This research shows that empathy for victims can create hate and anger

Reading Altruism and my time with Ricard shifted my views and assumptions in many ways. This is a book of philosophy and great stories. But this is also an in-depth book of scientific proof. Only a scientist Buddhist monk could write this. Here's what I learned:

  • Empathy is a vital human lens through which we examine ourselves and others. We need to feel for others and resonate with their circumstances. But empathy can be a step toward compassion and altruism. It is inadequate and even dangerous if it does not evolve into compassion and altruism. Change and action are not assured by feeling for others. So empathy can easily lead to isolation, burnout and empathetic distress. 
  • Compassion is the ability to see everyone as equals and worthy of our care, love and unconditional support. That we are all interconnected to each other. That our fates are tied together. And compassion alone is also inadequate without action.
  • Altruism is the unconditional assistance of "others". Altruism is relieving suffering without expectation. True altruism is not driven by an “ROI”, reciprocity, a quid pro quo, and/or personal gain.
  • Altruism is the antidote to empathetic burnout or fatigue. Helping others unconditionally—people we know or don’t know, feed our sense of purpose and gives us a physical and measurable neural lift. Altruism offsets the burden of need and the weight of guilt, and the stress from being unresponsive.
  • Mindfulness meditation are good if you want to rest and empty your mind. But what do we do with an empty mind before it gets re-filled with the congestion of life? Mindfulness and meditation have to have a purpose, a focus. Meditation focused on compassion fills your mind and shifts your brain toward positive action and behavior. As Matthieu warned us, a great sniper needs to be mindful. He needs to be present, breathe calmly, and reach a state of serenity before he kills people.
  • Purposeful meditation can change your mind and lead to physical as well as spiritual growth. At any age and at any stage, you can learn altruism and meditation is the path.
  • We have to see ourselves less as individuals and more interconnected to fates and destinies of all people and living things, including our environment and planet. Individualism is great for talent and competitiveness, but it undermines our compassion and altruism. Ricard 2

What I learned from Ricard is we have to add intentions, purpose, and then action to our feelings. We deceive ourselves that sympathy, empathy, compassion make us altruistic. In the end altruism is about action. Yes we should feel for others and resonate with their suffering (empathy and sympathy). Yes, we should want to alleviate the suffering (compassion). But without action these are selfish, self-medicating, self-absorbing thoughts that fall short of altruism.

Hate, ignorance, anger, indifference, neglect, are heavy burdens we suffer that dissipate when you are altruistic and express compassionate love. We relieve our own suffering through acts of altruism.

Ricard discussed the amazing work he is doing with school children, about 100,000 involved in compassionate meditation. It is having fantastic results. Calming our kids to focus on themselves and others. One of the stories he shared involved elementary school students, referred to as the “stickers test.”

On two occasions, at they gave each of the students a certain number of stickers they adore so much, along with four envelopes containing respectively a photo of their best friend, their least favorite child, an unknown child, and a visibly ill child wearing a bandage on his forehead. They asked each child to distribute the stickers in the four envelopes. They gave almost all of their stickers to their best friend, and very few to the others. After ten weeks of meditation and practicing benevolence, the students were asked to distribute the stickers in the same envelopes.  The students gave an almost equal number of stickers to the four groups of children: they no longer made any distinction between their favorite classmate and the one they liked least.

It has changed the way I talk and teach mentoring and networking. Mentoring and networking can be selfish pursuits of manipulation and self-serving activities without compassion and alrtruism. While I have been trying to counter self-centeredness with interconnectedness, I realize that I never explicitly embedded positive care, love and authentic regard for one another in my teachings. I assumed it was there. That was wrong.

We are not that far from becoming truly altruistic. But it requires us to train, learn and continue to evolve. Ricard really gave me new thoughts that help me understand my own shortcomings and growth opportunities.

Empathy is not enough. Mindfulness is insufficient. Inaction and apathy are self-destructive. We have to become more connected, compassionate and altruistic if we want to save the world and ourselves.

Thanks for reading. John

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