Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 11

Returning to Compassion

As a lover of science in general and psychology in particular I am not too put off by Professor Paul Gilbert's scientific analysis of compassion, but having a Buddhist bent to my spirituality it does jar occasionally.  I can readily understand how a scientific and almost reductionist (yet not quite) description of the virtue of compassion as in this quotation which follows might put some more spiritually attuned readers off: "Compassion arises from the balance of the three emotion systems." (The Compassionate Mind, p. 202) He is here arguing that compassion arises from the balance and interplay of three basic emotion systems: (i) The Defense System of Threat and Self-Protection, (ii) The Highs-Seeking System and (iii) Calming/Soothing System.   This essentially works through the care-giving social mentality that orients us to focus on alleviating distress and promoting the flourishing of the individual.  All of this is accompanied by the release of natural hormones in the brain such as the opiates and and oxytocin.  Now, there's science for you.

Another fact that helps me accept the above is that when I had to spend some seven weeks many years ago in a psychiatric hospital after a bout of depression, I remember thinking the frightening thought that I was a chemical reality, rather than a more personal "I" with feelings.  This probably hits at a core philosophical area - namely philosophy of mind - which would deal with questions such as what is the relationship between mind and brain.  Obviously while the former (a reality we believe exists but cannot prove, an essentially metaphysical reality, then!) somehow inheres or lives in the latter.  Yet there are still other scientists who would argue that the mind also exists in other groups of nerves within the body too - after all we do have a whole nervous system that springs from the brain, so this, too, is eminently possible!  Other areas relevant to this debate would be the nature of what we call consciousness.  Can this exist beyond the locus of the physicality of the brain?  Then, a legion of other epistemological and metaphysical questions will also emerge.  However, these questions are beyond the scope of this wee post here.


The Compassionate smile says it all
The above introduction was by way of re-introducing Professor Gilbert's timely book The Compassionate mind after the longer than expected interlude on Carl Gustave Jung.  To balance out the science of my opening paragraphs I should like to take a few quotations from the Dalai Lama on what he as a Tibetan Buddhist considers compassion to be:


  • " I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed."

  • " Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them."

  • " Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive."

  • " Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human “brain” with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human “heart” with compassion. This is what the real role of religion is."
In chapter six of his book Professor Paul Gilbert argues that our capacity for imagination and fantasy can be used to stimulate different brain systems.  This is the principle on which training our minds in compassion is based, because we can learn to understand how imagery that evokes compassionate scenes, and thinking based on such imagery, can both stimulate the contentment/soothing system.  In fairness to Gilbert he does, in this chapter, look at some Buddhist and other spiritual views of compassion before looking at it from a more Western, scientific perspective.  For the less theoretical reader, this chapter is the last in the book which deals with the science behind compassion (that is, science in the Western sense of the term).

The Power of the Imagination

Lamp on my windowsill, February 2010
I have written much in these pages about the nature, role and uses of the imagination from many perspectives, the literary, especially poetic/dramatic as discussed and expounded by the quintessential philosopher of the British Romantic Movement in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from the artistic/literary perspective of the pre-Romantic William Blake and also from the perspective of both psychoanalysis and especially its healing use by Carl Gustave Jung in his analytical psychology.  (See the appropriate label on the right side of this blog if you wish to check these entries out.)  I have long been convinced of the healing power of the imagination and have written widely here and elsewhere about it.  This is the topic with which Gilbert begins this present chapter.

He argues that that the imagination is one of the most important qualities of our "new brain/mind" (presumably he's here referring to the cortical brain or cortical layer of the same).  This, he informs us, is that which has essentially allowed us to develop science and culture.  In other words imagination is the driving power behind civilization.  There are few that would disagree with this contention.

However, Gilbert does enter a caveat, and an important one at that, viz., that a certain type of imagination can lead to trouble, that is where we allow some fantasies to become so unrealistic that we can imagine dangers that do not exist and desires that are impossible to fulfill.  Here, I personally like to differentiate between imagination and fantasy, the latter which I see as being completely impossible while the former is more possible if not probable.  Another distinction I like is that between fiction and fantasy, the former which while imaginary is more realistic and consequently quite believable and probably, whereas the latter is quite impossible and often frightening.  Hence the healing imagery of the imagination which has been used very effectively in cancer research by the great Dr Bernie Siegel (long a hero of mine in this area: See his web page here: Siegel) and others.  One does need the guidance of a good therapist in the use of healing imagery before one can set out using it on one's own, I feel.  If one is neurotic in tendency it is hard to use visualization in a healing and positive way.

Researchers believe that it was the evolution of our ability to imagine in creative ways that give us the advantages that led to our becoming the dominant species on this wonderful, if at times tragic, planet of blue spinning about our sun.  As Gilbert almost needlessly points out, but the point is educative in its striking contrast:


Bees, birds, and beavers will build the same types of living quarters (hives, nests and dams) for generation after generation... because they are primarily reliant on the knowledge stored in their genes that tell them "how to"... but humans have gone from mud huts to skyscrapers, from stick fires to central heating, from walking on the savannah to flying to the moon.  The evolution of the mind that can "imagine" and go beyond what is "there" has had a phenomenal impact on the face of the Earth.  We are approaching a technology through which we will even be able to change our genes.  (Op. cit., p. 208)

To be continued

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