Compassion and the Shadow
by John Stanley & David Loy
Time & Tide by Vic Nicholas
We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger. And we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man ... far too little. His psyche should be studied -- because we are the origin of all coming evil.
Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.
The Dalai Lama
Humans are wired for empathy, love and cooperation. Because we are psychological animals, however, one recurring factor undermines many of our actions. Our "shadow," as C.G. Jung called the repressed (hidden and often projected) aspect of the personality, tends to assume a life of its own because it is composed of the parts of myself I don't acknowledge and therefore can't integrate into my conscious life. What makes this shadow even more problematic is that it isn't only an individual matter. Our shadows can fuse together, as often happens in wartime, for example, when the enemy comes to symbolize everything evil and despicable about our human nature.
Cognitive neuroscience has discovered that the human brain possesses mirror neurons that automatically enable us to share and enact the experiences of others. Looking at someone else eat a juicy piece of fruit on a hot day, I "virtually" experience those flavours and textures, as well as the refreshment of the person eating it. Looking at television footage of tsunami survivors stirs a deep emotional identification with their devastated choices. Mirror neurons are one of the main drivers of empathy, an automated response over which we have limited control. We may choose or fail to act on empathy, but except for a small percentage of us -- those we call psychopaths -- nobody is immune to another's situation. It has even been suggested that mirror neurons may save the human species because they might inspire an emerging pattern of compassionate response to the on-going global cascade of extreme weather disasters, high-tech accidents and geophysical events such as earthquakes.
On our digitally connected planet, we now easily share information without geographical limitation through the Internet, mobile phones and other social media tools. As climate chaos disasters unfold, we might witness a sustained rise in collective compassion, leading to genuine international cooperation and unity of the human species. The invigoration of democracy and social justice in the Middle East might be an early example of this trend.
But there's also our shadow. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out that humans are sometimes called the "Machiavellian primate" because of our ability to "read minds" in order to predict other peoples' behaviour and then outsmart them. Indeed, apes and humans may be so good at reading others' intentions because we share a specialized brain module that helps us understand others' motivations and anticipate their behaviour. Does that give us insight into how our "mental environment" has become a vast network of infotainment empires (such as the aptly named News Corporation) focused on collective manipulation? And how did mass advertising become the greatest unregulated social engineering experiment in human history?
The Buddha said little about evil per se but he had a lot to say about the three "roots of evil": greed, ill will and delusion. Today they have become institutionalized: our economic system institutionalizes greed, militarism is institutionalized ill will and our powerful media mega-corporations institutionalize delusion. They are the main ways our collective shadow operates today.
We cannot yet know whether the wave of natural disasters that has begun to change the face of the Earth will drive us to a social tipping point that prioritizes collective compassion. Could it unify the environmental and social justice movements? Primatologist Frans de Waal asks why natural selection designed our brains so that we are so much in tune with our fellow beings as to feel distress and pleasure along with them. If exploitation of others were all that matters, evolution would never have gotten into the empathy business.
We have choices to make. High-tech social manipulation is failing humanity. It restricts us to an economic model based on perpetual growth -- essentially a global Ponzi scheme that robs our children and grandchildren in order to feed its pathological greed. To look clearly and deeply at this collective shadow requires the inner focus, courage and strength of sustained meditation. It is a spiritual task that Buddhists and others can no longer avoid.
The shadow can overwhelm us when the conscious mind is shocked or confused. This can happen collectively, providing the context for "disaster capitalism" as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Jung referred to the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, stating that if Jekyll (the conscious personality) fails to identify the shadow, it will become its slave -- subject to compulsions it cannot understand, its capacity to act paralyzed. In just such a manner, surely, do we collectively ignore the loudly ringing alarm bells of climate science, population biology, oceanography and resource depletion.
Nowadays, contemplative practices are needed to clarify our values, so that we may communicate them effectively. Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is the only thing left that can make a human future possible. As the Dalai Lama points out, such love is not a mere luxury. It is fundamental to the continued survival of our species.