Reflections on the Entanglement of Principled Compassion, Morality, and Mind

1,272 total words    

5 minutes of reading

I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics.

—Dr. Albert Schweitzer

As I contemplated this question, I found further questions flowed forth: What role does compassion play at the intersection of mind and morality? Are mind and morality connected through principled compassion? What is compassion? And why would one modify the word “compassion” with the word “principled”?

 Years ago, at a Mind and Life meeting in Dharamsala, India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama opined obliquely on the nexus of compassion and morality, saying, “Compassion is not religious business; it is human business. It is not a luxury; it is essential for our own peace and mental stability. It is essential for human survival.”

With this statement His Holiness gave voice to the feelings of many, uplifting our capacity for compassion as one of the most powerful processes of being fully human and of having moral character. And yet, in our world today, there seems to be an ever-increasing deficit of what we know of as compassion. This deficit seems to be primed by a number of factors including our idea of what it means to care and our diminishing capacity for feeling the suffering of others in an increasingly technological world.

Just as an electron microscope pierces through the skin of an atom, we might want to look through the skins we have laid over compassion to see what is beneath. What is this entangled process that disentangles suffering? Like water that is made up of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom that are bonded to each other, compassion seems to be comprised of bundled processes. I began to see this one spring, years ago, when I was fortunate to be appointed as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

In late winter, I left Santa Fe and went to Washington. Daily, I took a bus from a quiet neighborhood in DC to the Library. In the early mornings, the bus was mostly filled with people from Ethiopia who were on their way to better parts of town to clean houses. In the afternoon, I rode the bus back with secretaries of every hue, their faces dulled by long hours in closed offices.

These long rides through DC every day afforded me time to reflect on the questions I would be exploring in the vast trove of our nation’s library. On the way to my office in the Jefferson Building, I walked past the Supreme Court, often lined with protestors holding signs proclaiming injustice. In these minutes of transit between the bus stop and the Library, I was invited to wonder about the relationship between compassion and justice, compassion and ethics, compassion and morality. I began to sense that compassion was a process that could be characterized as principled or honorable, upright, and courageous. From this vantage point, I realized that compassion was a powerful expression of moral character. I found myself agreeing with the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who said: “Compassion is the basis of all morality.”

Cherry blossoms blooming with the White House in the background. While sitting in the Library, I asked myself: if compassion is not just a kind of singularity, what elements are important as features of compassion? To begin with, compassion seems to have four main attributes: the capacity to attend to the experience of others, to feel concern for others, to sense what will serve others, and possibly to be of service to others.

On these long bus rides to the Library of Congress, I would explore compassion as a granular process. As the cherry trees pushed blossoms out of their warming limbs, I saw that compassion would not be possible without some key features being engaged. It was on one of those long bus rides that I said to myself one morning: compassion is made of non-compassion elements. However, these elements are not static. They are dynamic processes that interact with each other and unfold in a context, which is dynamic as well.

Compassion arises in a mind and body that are embedded in a field of lived experience (environmental, social, cultural, and relational). This is what neuroscientist Francisco Varela, psychologist Eleanor Rosch, and philosopher Evan Thompson have termed enaction. Evan Thompson has written extensively about the enactive view of mind, which posits all living beings to be fundamentally sense-making creatures. These beings enact or bring forth meaning in their intimate interactions with their environments. [1] “A living organism enacts the world it lives in; its embodied action in the world constitutes its perception and thereby grounds its cognition.”[2]

Engaging the concept of enaction, principled compassion can be considered an emergent process in a dynamic adaptive relationship between mind, body, and the environment. These domains are reciprocal, asymmetrical, and engender sense-making. A subject who is compassionate enacts the world he or she is part of, and this world reflects social, ethical, and political values.

If we are to enact compassion, what internal features must be aligned? The features that came to me that spring in DC are the following: our capacity for immersive, stable attention and prosociaility. Other key features presented themselves, including the importance of intentionality as primed by the awareness of our interconnectedness with all beings and things, and the deep responsibility our species has to end suffering whenever and wherever possible.

Another feature relates to our capacity for insight and our ability to have a metacognitive perspective, that is, an awareness of our own thoughts. We are embodied creatures, so the braided streams of enactive and ethical embodiment are essential. Our lived experience in the context of the world within and around us is important because this is where we manifest ethical action, compassionate action, and principled compassion.

In considering this view of compassion as an interdependent, woven process in the wider weave of the world, one can follow the thread of one process and discover all the other aspects to which it is bound. For the purpose of this deliberation, we can choose to look through the lens of our intentionality. In doing this, intention is based in our ethics. Thus, principled compassion could be considered to be the foundation of moral character, and cannot be separated from moral sensitivity. Principled compassion can be viewed and lived as central to our human experience. I believe, as do others, that principled compassion is essential for personal, moral, social, and environmental health and is a core path to and manifestation of human resilience, robustness, and moral character.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.” Merton’s profoundly moral and enactive perspective points to a vision of all of life as interdependent, entangled, and embedded. This vision orients one toward action that is fundamentally unselfish and selfless. This is “principled compassion”; compassion with a clear moral foundation based on courage, love, and positive regard for and respect of all beings and things.

[1] Evan Thompson, “Look Again: Consciousness and Mental Imagery,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 6 (2007): 137-170.; Evan Thompson and Mog Stapleton, “Making sense of sense-making: reflections on enactive and extended theories,” Topoi 28 (2009): 23–30, doi: 10.1007/s11245-008-9043-2.

[2] Francisco J. Varela, Evan T. Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991).

Image Credit

“Cherry Blossom DC 2014” by S. Pakhrin. (CC BY 2.0)

  • Joan Halifax

    Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Scroll to Top