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From crisis to compassion

By Caryn Cridland - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Our world is increasing in crises by the day. Some countries are at war, others are in significant debt, stock markets are crashing, and riots are breaking out in unlikely cities. Famine, fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis are only adding to the insecurities of modern life. Have we reached the crisis point necessary for global social change? If so, what do we need to do to bring about this much needed change?

The answer is simple. It lies within us and we have research to prove it. Forget competition. Let us embrace the new wave – compassion.

More than ever we need to move beyond competitive values to compassionate values to find our way out of crises.


Competition is important to human existence. There is no denying this, just ask Darwin, Marx or Freud. Nor is there any doubt that competitive values have got us to where we are now. Technology is moving at an unprecedented rapid rate due to the race between Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Nokia and the like. Bio-medically we now have nanotechnology that can perform operations we never thought possible. And despite all the benefits of competition, the world over, we find ourselves in extreme crises. Today we suffer the consequences of out-of-control competition, and greed, and of societies based on these types of competitive values.

What is clear is that competitive values have got us here, but they cannot get us out of here. Only with increased dialogue, understanding, responsibility, sharing, and kindness, will our world recover from where we are now. It is too late, and too futile, to point fingers and lay blame. We must work together to find solutions, and place all human beings' welfare above all. This is not negotiable. For too long we have gotten away with depleting the earth of its beauty and resources, and treating other people in ways we would not treat our loved ones. We need to change our focus now.

Is there a compassionate neuron?

Throughout time there have been many theories and assertions that brand us as innately selfish and competitive beings. Aptly summed up by Latin playwright, Plautus in his comic play, Asinaria: "Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit", translated "One man to another is a wolf, not a man, when he doesn't know what sort he is".

If our nature is innately selfish and uncaring, how can we explain unsolicited and voluntary acts of helping strangers? Stories that have unfolded following world crises, such as 911, the Boxing Day tsunami, Japan's earthquake, and so on, provide more than enough evidence of how innately compassionate human beings are, even in competitive societies.

These stories add weight to the opinions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and neuroscientist, Marco Iacoboni, MD PhD, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA, who together, argue that human beings are innately compassionate. It is a significant point in human history when a leading spiritual leader holds the hand of a leading neuroscientist in agreement that we are innately compassionate beings. The Happiness and Its Causes Conference audience in Brisbane this year were privileged to witness this event.


The Dalai Lama defines compassion as "a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering." His Holiness says, "It is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other."

There are four levels of compassion. The first level is the love and compassion we feel towards loved ones, such as a mother feels for her child. The second is the kind of compassion we feel towards people we know, workmates or people at the local shop. The third is the kind we feel for strangers. The fourth is the kind we feel for difficult people, those who have harmed or wronged us.

The first level of compassion, at least, is innate or biological. We do not need to force it. It occurs naturally. The fourth is learned. We need to train ourselves to feel compassion for those who have harmed or wronged us. The two in between probably depend on the individual – as to where biology ends and learning begins.

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About the Author

Caryn Cridland is a Psychologist, Lawyer, Mediator, Leadership Consultant and qualified Yoga Teacher. She is the Managing Director of Mindful Mediation, a specialist workplace mediation, facilitation, coaching, and training consultancy that provides services to leading organisations.

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