Compassion: The Ultimate Moral Choice?

In 1837, the Royal Danish Society sponsored an essay contest, asking participants to tackle the following question:

Are the source and foundation of morals to be looked for in an idea of morality lying immediately in consciousness (or conscience) and in the analysis of the other fundamental moral concepts springing from that idea, or are they to be looked for in a different ground of knowledge?

Two years later, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer replied with what became a well-known work, ‘On the Basis of Morality.’ In that succinct text the reliable curmudgeon replied that compassion should be seen as the basis of morality. Schopenhauer showed little of it in 1940, when the Society denied him the prize—all the more painful being that he was the only entrant.

Schopenhauer was not known for expressing emotions well, save to animals, especially dogs, which he regarded highly. His treatise on compassion was analytical, though his overall idea hinted at heartfelt expression as a means for creating moral architecture. Unfortunately he assigned compassion and other emotions to the murky domain of metaphysics, prescribing to the common assumption at the time that Eastern philosophies are steeped in mysticism—a habit that sometimes persists today.

Nothing could be clearer than the Eastern notion of compassion, especially as discussed in Buddhism. There is suffering in the world; a lot of this suffering is caused by our inability to experience life as it really is (not the way we think it should be); you can overcome suffering by coming to terms with the planet’s harsh and unpredictable nature; when practicing the eight steps of the noble path, including right action and right speech, compassion becomes the driving force of your humanity.

There are no metaphysics, gods or afterlives in this practice (though others would add them as the centuries progressed). When they are discussed, the abstract idealism is not nearly as relevant as the integrity one displays when living compassionately. Altruism might be one reason for our ethical evolution—you look out for me, I’ll do the same for you—but empathy and it’s next step, compassion, are both important markers in staking out moral territory.

It should be of little surprise that Buddhist monks, most famously the Dalai Lama, were first to sign up for brain scans when researchers began taking interest in meditation’s effects on our brain. Fueled by the work of neuroscientist Richard J Davidson, research on meditation’s benefits has shown changes in brain chemistry as well as evidence of neuroplasticity.

Davidson has long advocated compassion as the highest form of mental discipline. He discovered that people who meditate specifically on compassion create different neural pathways than those who meditate on other topics. Cultivating compassion, he has found, makes a person more empathetic, nurturing and kind.

His brains scans revealed significant activity in the insula, a region of the brain that plays a role in regulation of our body’s homeostasis—including motor control, self-awareness and perception—as well as our emotional response. Davidson also discovered this form of meditation increases activity in our temporal parietal juncture, an area that processes empathy and the ability to perceive the mental and emotional states of others.

In his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Davidson posited that we have six emotional states (though some researchers, including Estonian-born neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, believes we have seven, including ‘Play’). Social Intuition, according to Davidson, is our ability to understand nonverbal cues from other people. For example,

Maybe you have had a friend grab you as you’re dashing out the door in a rush, and he begins jabbering away about a long and complicated experience he wants your advice on—while the whole time you’re inching toward your car and checking your watch. And still he won’t let you go.

Meditating on compassion helps develop sensitivity to the needs and desires of others, as well as increasing our awareness of ourselves, what Davidson dubs the Self-Awareness state. Both of these dimensions help create less volatile reactions to emotional situations and affords us a more positive outlook on life in general.

Perhaps Schopenhauer was onto something, prize money or no. Of course, one needs to actually practice it to strengthen those neural connections. Being accused of pushing his landlady down the stairs would not have helped the grumpy philosopher reach the pinnacle of an ethical lifestyle.

What we can learn from the applied mechanics of such practices of mindfulness meditation on compassion and Buddhism is that our moral attitude is developed by discipline and not simply by believing in it. You have to focus your mental powers, and subsequently (and perhaps more importantly) our actions, into the reality you wish to create before any true change can occur. As research shows, the benefits are worth it. 

Image: mack2happy/

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