In this era of resource hoarding and consumption overshoot in which corporations are enjoying greater rights than humans and living beings are treated as capital or commodities, it may seem trite to wish for a polity of compassion. Yet the short-term gratification of indifference, self-dealing and expressions of hostility have come with very high costs and an accelerating trajectory toward self-destruction. Mindfulness can help us expand our perspective so that we might make more compassionate choices about the ways we govern society, how we relate to each other and how we inhabit our planet home.
Taking a Long Term View
A more expansive way of making decisions about how we live together may include a perspective of longtermism, which is an ethical stance giving priority to improving the long-term future. This means we would have to expand our focus beyond our immediate personal needs and desires and consider generations not yet born in the decisions we make. We’d have to ask ourselves how our choices might impact those who come after us and make laws and regulations that reflect this broader concern.
Though it may sound revolutionary to think about people that don’t even exist yet in our “me first, right now” culture, there is precedent for this perspective. The seven generations principle is an indigenous value of considering the welfare of people seven generations into the future when making decisions. Tȟašúŋke Witkó (Crazy Horse), the Oglala Lakota Leader who was murdered in 1877 by a bayonet-wielding military guard, was quoted as saying, “Upon suffering, beyond suffering, the red nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world; a world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations; a world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will become one circle again.”
In the Buddhist tradition from which modern mindfulness emerged, there is a concept of rebirth (different from reincarnation) providing a connection between this life, the past, and future existence. Soto Zen Priest Norman Fischer wrote, “The classical metaphor is of an acorn. An acorn becomes an oak tree. When the oak tree is here, the acorn is not, and no part of the acorn can be found in the oak tree. One simply has succeeded the other, just as one moment and one life succeeds the previous moment or life.” Yet the soil has been impacted by the tree and other causes and conditions that came before it. In this view, the past plays a role in our current circumstances and our actions in this short lifetime have very important consequences for the future through a causal continuum.
“Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless.” – Goethe
Time is a conceptual boundary in many ways. When there are mistakes in our past, we’d like to think that time somehow separates and insulates us from them. Yet the experiences of our ancestors have consequences for us. We inherit the ripple effects of their choices and experiences, for better or worse – but we can learn from them if we are open to the possibility. Our ancestors ways become our truths by default, except for the few who make it a choice by thinking critically about what we would like to inherit and what might need healing. It’s important that we recognize our beliefs and choices will impact future generations, like a long and unbroken chain connecting us across time. Policies that acknowledge the past, honor the present, and consider the wellbeing of the future will help ensure this chain is a lifeline rather than a life sentence.
A compassionate approach to governing society must include an acknowledgment of our profound interconnection. The boundaries that divide up countries, territories and states may be even more conceptual than those of time. In the US, there is a faction of us that likes to believe these imaginary lines keep everything we want in and everything we don’t want out. We like to think that what happens within a certain set of boundaries is of no consequence to our neighbors. But this is wishful thinking. We live in a global society and what happens on one side of the world has ripple effects that impact us all. We share a planet with limited resources, breathing the same air, eating each others’ imported foods, and drinking and bathing in water that is repurposed through the Earth’s water cycle.
The boundaries between our bodies are also mostly theoretical. According to Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, we have approximately 1 atom in our body from every breath that every human has ever taken. He wrote, “Every time you breathe in, you’re breathing atoms of air that were once inside another human being. Every time you take a drink of water, you’re drinking water that was once inside another human being. And every bite of food you take consists of atoms that were inside another person. We all share the same planet, the same biosphere, and — at a fundamental level — even the same atoms. At an atomic level, we’re all incredibly deeply connected.”
Even the boundary between what we think of as human and non-human is blurrier than we might prefer. Our own bodies are more non-human than human. We are made up of a complex interplay of dynamic beings and elements that we can’t live long without. When astronauts leave Earth for six months or more, their time away permanently ages their bones by 10 years, increases DNA mutations that lead to heart disease and cancer, and creates alterations in the microbiome that decrease immunity (as demonstrated by skin rashes and a reactivation of latent viruses). We are the Earth and it is us – and as the title of a book by Bill McKibben states, There Is No Planet B. Creating policies from an embodied recognition of our interdependence will help us recalibrate our importance in the web of existence and protect the delicate balance of conditions needed for our survival.
Letting Facts Inform Feelings
A polity of compassion must allow facts to inform our gut feelings. Much of the ire and division we are experiencing in the world today is based on strong feelings rather than facts. Unexamined fear and aversion exerts a powerful influence over our behavior, causing us to contract, other, and lash out. Yet when we look at all the available objective evidence, the conclusion is clear: reinforcement is more powerful than punishment, inclusion creates better outcomes than exclusion, generosity is more beneficial than austerity, nonviolence is more effective than violence, and compassion is more conducive to our wellbeing than contempt.
We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. – Dalai Lama
Most of us have seen the research on the deleterious effects of anger and hatred on our health. We know about the superiority of praise over corporal punishment when caring for children and pets. But did you know that nonviolent civil resistance is actually significantly more effective in creating lasting change than violence (about twice as much)? Also, isolation and exclusion as punishment in prisons and schools is not only ineffective, but also has harmful consequences for health and future functioning. These findings fly in the face of our baser instinct to fight and punish when we feel under threat, but it turns out our instincts are not always to our collective advantage.
I feel much compassion and understanding for folks who resort to harmful means in reaction to pain and desperation. Doing whatever is necessary to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger is reflexive. Yet many harmful acts are committed out of unexamined assumptions, anger or self-dealing rather than for true self-preservation. Either way, the research tells us the odds are better when we choose a compassionate response over one that does harm to another. This again is ancient wisdom. As the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi once said, “There are no others.”
Contrary to our baser instincts, generosity is also more effective than austerity during times of hardship. When we’re feeling a sense of lack, its very tempting to contract and clamp down. We now know the consequences of the austerity measures much of Europe enacted during the last financial crisis: increased suicide, infectious disease and mental illness, and a prolonging of economic suffering. In the US where a Keynesian approach was adopted, the economy recovered more quickly and continued to steadily improve.
Providing for those who are in need can have powerfully beneficial long-term consequences. Bynner and Despotidou’s 2000 research on 11,400 young adults taking part in the National Child Development Study, which provided savings accounts for some of the poorest children, revealed that having even very modest savings at age 23 had a wide range of beneficial economic, social and health effects 10 years later. They were were less likely to experience marital breakdown and they were more likely to be anti-racist and to trust the political system. Children of families who received cash payouts attained higher levels of education in their young adulthood and a lower incidence of criminality for minor offenses.
Without science, we wouldn’t have the information we need to be able to respond effectively in many situations – and without patience and humility, we tend to cling stubbornly to misguided gut feelings. Transcending our baser instincts and allowing new evidence to change our assumptions will help us create policies that are more relevant, humane and inclusive.
Respecting the Relationship Between Cause and Effect
A compassionate approach to governance must acknowledge the complexity of cause and effect. We’re wired to prioritize actions that promise immediate results, which causes us to fall into short-termism and ignore the importance of the means in the end we are seeking. As Gandhi famously said, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree… As the means so the end.”
A USA Today/IPSOS poll in August of 2022 found that 90% of Republican voters polled said Donald Trump, who has a long history of unethical behavior as a business person and as a politician, “is willing to use all tools at his disposal to get things done” (with “things” boiling down primarily to economic concerns). The phrase “willing to do whatever it takes” is widely seen as proof of toughness, shrewdness and strength, but as with everything, an extreme or unexamined version of this view can and has caused serious problems for society. Does an America First at any cost approach pay off? In addition to its disregard of interdependence and the problematic historical significance of this slogan, it ignores the inevitable traces of the means that will be imprinted within our desired end.
Doesn’t it seem like its paying off for people when they harm others in order to improve their own life circumstances? Not when we consider how important it is for most of us to see ourselves as good people. Living ethically means our behavior must generally be in alignment with our higher values. Because of the neuroplasticity of the human brain, what we do shapes who we are to some extent. There’s some evidence that a culture of competition and a feeling of being successful can actually cause us to be act more unethically and less empathetically. A number of studies have shown that higher social class is associated with greater frequency of unethical behavior and diminished neural responses to others’ pain. Perhaps this is because these factors contribute to a climate that normalizes unethical behavior, which can be contagious and very powerful. According to a national survey of more than 14,500 employees across industries, nearly one in four people indicated they felt pressured to do things they know are wrong.
Fortunately, research is beginning to show that unethical acts, such as stealing, lying, rule breaking and cheating and ethical acts, such as volunteering, donating, helping and following rules, are not correlated with increased wealth. However, unethical acts are correlated with significantly lower wealth, especially as we age. It seems that crime actually does not pay – harming others really does ultimately cause harm to the perpetrator. It seems the arc of the universe does bend toward justice. And social conditioning is not just about discrete choices. It affects the overall zeitgeist we are creating in our minds and as a society. Our behavior can be contagious and it can come back around to burn or benefit us.
According to systems theory, perspective is the deepest level at which we can create needed social change. All of these shifts involve an evolution and expansion of our more primal ways thinking and being. They include caring beyond the boundaries of the small self, time, and space, resisting reactivity and misguided urges triggered by our evolutionary instinct for self-dealing, and recognizing our role in a vast web of connection through which our choices and actions reverberate (and come back to us). Mindfulness can be a useful practice for expanding our views and cultivating a more compassionate approach to co-creating and governing a thriving, sustainable world.
What is the eternal and ultimate problem of a free society?
It is the problem of the individual who thinks that one [person] cannot possibly make a difference in the destiny of that society.
It is the problem of the individual who doesn’t really understand the nature of a free society or what is required to make it work.
It is the problem of the individual who has no comprehension of the multiplying power of single but sovereign units.
It is the problem of the individual who regards the act of pulling a single lever in a voting booth in numerical terms rather than historical terms.
It is the problem of the individual who has no real awareness of the millions of bricks that had to be put into place, one by one, over many centuries, in order for [them] to dwell in the penthouse of freedom. Nor [do they] see any special obligation to those who continue building the structure or to those who will have to live in it after [them], for better or worse.
It is the problem of the individual who recognizes no direct relationship between [one]self and the decisions made by government in [one’s] name. Therefore, [they feel] no special obligation to dig hard for the information necessary to an understanding of the issues leading to those decisions.
In short, freedom’s main problem is the problem of the individual who takes [one]self lightly historically.
– Norman Cousins, World Peace Advocate
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