Compassion is deeply rooted in our biology. Human beings are conceived in love. We are carried in our mother's bodies. And for the first days of our lives, we are nurtured by mother's milk. How is it, then, that we become exploitative, selfish and unhappy?
That question was raised by the Dalai Lama when he spoke recently at Santa Clara University. I was fortunate to attend that event, which began with the 78-year-old monk recalling the nurturing love of his own mother. He argued that compassion grows from the experience of maternal love.
In one of his writings, the Dalai Lama suggests we should learn "to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all." The idea of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism may help. If a stranger may have once been my mother or my child, I might view that stranger differently. In another place, the Dalai Lama writes that he tries to treat each person he meets as if she were an old friend.
Religious metaphysics aside, there is no denying that we are social animals. We possess a basic tendency toward community and cooperation. But the seeds of compassion are fragile. They must be nurtured and can easily be destroyed. The Dalai Lama suggested that our mode of life promotes selfishness, which increases anxiety and undermines community.
Indeed, the Dalai Lama's presentation was surrounded by the stresses of modern life. The Bay Area traffic was difficult. The audience had to endure long lines and security searches before entering the building. Police roamed the hall. Protesters gathered outside. The political situation in Tibet remains complicated. Before his visit to California, the Dalai Lama met with President Barack Obama. The meeting outraged the Chinese government.
The Dalai Lama's message is a deceptively simple antidote to all of that turmoil. On Thursday he delivered a prayer in the U.S. Congress, where he said: "Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow." Easier said than done in the U.S. Congress!
At his Santa Clara speech he said that compassion reduces stress, produces inner peace, builds trust and engenders happiness. Selfishness destroys relationships, breeds anger and leaves us lonely. He indicated that much of this has been confirmed by medical science. Indeed, some studies show that smiling can decrease anxiety and that happiness is contagious. Compassion is linked to health and longevity.
When we concern ourselves with the happiness of others we become happier. When we give happiness, we get it in return. When we ignore others, we suffer more. There is a paradox here: To get what you want, you have to give it away. But by giving happiness, your attitude changes so that you no longer selfishly desire your own happiness. You find happiness when you are no longer obsessed with it.
It is easy to dismiss this, along with the idea of reincarnation, as silly, superficial and superstitious. Some horrors cannot be cured with love. The causes of unhappiness are biological, social and political. Compassion is important. But it needs to be organized and mobilized.
Compassion cannot eradicate traffic jams, security queues and war. Hardness and cynicism are coping strategies in a broken world. Most of the time, we live quite far from the nurturing simplicity of mother's love; and some people, like the Dalai Lama, live in permanent exile.
But strategic cynicism should not undermine imagination and hope. Love is difficult to imagine before it happens. I never imagined the transformative power of love until my own children were born. My desire for their happiness is strange and unexpected. I am happy when they are happy. I suffer when they suffer. How odd! But here is a kernel of hope.
The Dalai Lama's focus on maternal love is a reminder that each of us can discover a capacity for care that was previously unimagined. What if we could learn to love all of our neighbors as we love our own children? What if we could see strangers as relatives and old friends? A story about reincarnation may help. Or we may simply need to remember that each of was loved and that each is worthy of love. And we might thank our mothers for that.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.