Living the Golden Rule Starts with Empathy…

If we were to explore where empathy comes from, we would discover that it emerges from understanding; putting oneself in another’s shoes. I was not surprised by a new CNN/ORC poll released this week that reports more white Americans believe in the color blindness of police and the justice system than do non-white Americans. It’s disheartening given the overwhelming evidence of bias against people of color.

mark_pirtleThese data suggest that the majority of us still resist broadening our “in-group” to include others of different races and socioeconomic classes. The fact is that most of us reserve our compassion for only those like us. I wonder how this can be when other polls report the majority of people identify themselves as religious, and all of the world’s major religious traditions hold compassion at their core.

There’s a simple explanation for this contradiction. Collectively, we’ve been conditioned by a social Darwinistic dogma that pits us against each other. Ironically, those most antagonistic to Darwinian evolution in schools most embrace the survival of the fittest perspective in their social, economic and political activities. As a result, a person’s values may not align with his/her thoughts, speech, and actions.

The holidays offer us all an opportunity to reflect on this misalignment. Some may dispute this, but I believe the spirit of the holidays is about connection–renewing our spiritual connection to ourselves, our family, friends, neighbors, and more broadly all beings and the planet as a whole. There’s so much we need to fix, and we won’t be able to make progress if we keep our compassion reserved for our narrow in-group.

The challenge then for us going forward is to try to align our hearts and minds more accurately with the compassion-based teachings of our wisdom traditions. If you are one who does not claim a religion or spiritual tradition, you can participate by analyzing this fact. The enjoyments in your life are dependent on others, therefore, the happiness of others also depends on you! So let’s all do as the Dalai Lama suggests, and ‘be wisely selfish.’ Meaning, be kind and help others because it’s good for us.

Should you feel moved to take up this “compassion challenge” for 2015, may I suggest a wonderful book to help you get started: 12-Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong.

Wishing you a healthy and happy holiday and New Year!


PS: If you’re interested in taking up meditation and a mindfulness practice, we’re offering a holiday discount on our 13-month program for stress relief. The program comes with a lifetime membership to our online forum. The forum is where you can ask questions, get support, interact with others, meditate with me, receive teachings and participate in retreats and more. The discount runs until midnight on December 31st. Call 520-981-9911 or email and mention this “Peace2015” in the subject line.

1 thought on “Living the Golden Rule Starts with Empathy…”

  1. Mark:
    A few thoughts to add to your post –first, we’re basically wired for cooperation, prosocial behavior (i.e. altruism) because in the period of evolutionary adaptations, we lived in very small and isolated groups of hunter gatherer tribes –we rarely had contact with “out-group” members. So the human brain is fundamentally wired for altruism and cooperation, needed to hold our social groups together. Without our basically altruistic and cooperative motivations, we could not live in tightly knit social group and we would not survive. Second –in human evolution, groups with high percent of altruists out-competed groups with lower percent of altruists –the cooperators were more successful on the level of the group. This lead to that fundamental altruism I mention above, its based on our evolved capacity and highly complex system for empathy and from empathy we get altruism.

    While altruism towards the in-group is wired in (an evolved function so to speak), altruism towards the out-group has plasticity, may be learned. We (in my lab, the Emotion, Personality & Altruism Research Group (EPARG), URL: used to think that proneness to high empathy and compassionate altruism was a heritable personality trait or factor. Then we did a very large (over 2400 people) study of contemplative practitioners compared to a non-practicing sample. We found that while all the traditions were similar in compassionate altruism towards family and friends, several of the traditions were significantly higher in compassionate altruism extended toward strangers –these included the Tibetan Buddhism and practitioners of Centering Prayer. In both traditions there is an emphasis on helping all, or helping all “sentient beings” rather than ones own happiness or well-being. We concluded from this that compassionate altruism toward strangers is a learned application of our basic altruistic nature. This means we can all learn to extend compassion and altruism to strangers, or the “out-group.” Clearly in our increasingly global society, it is enormously important to train ourselves and our children to connect one’s own well being to the well being of all sentient beings.


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