We are living in a time where the divisions among and between individuals and communities have not only been exposed, but harnessed and exacerbated. Divisive rhetoric and action, by its nature, inhibits and deters connection. For as different as each of us may be, as it is often said, we are more similar than we are different – we are all living a human existence with certain needs and desires that, although they may appear and sound different from person to person or culture to culture, share a universal essence. Further, similarity is a flexible perception – new group identities can be quickly created based upon shared experiences or goals.1 Perhaps you’ve experienced this when coming together with a group of people you’ve never met before and participating in a team-building activity. Within a few minutes or a few hours, based upon a shared goal, you’ve created connections with people who, not too long prior, were strangers. This is not to erase or deny the differences in our lived experiences, but rather to encourage an inquiry into when and how highlighting our differences is helpful, and when it is detrimental.
Compassion, Empathy, and Altruism
What does this have to do with compassion? First, it is important to define our terms. Compassion has many definitions and interpretations. In his article “Compassion and altruism: how our minds determine who is worthy of help”, David DeSteno (2015) defines it as: “a feeling arising from the witnessing of another individual’s suffering that subsequently motivates an effort to help.”2 Thus, compassion is inherent to altruistic action. This differs from empathy, which is the “vicarious experience of another’s emotions,”3 without an associated desire to help. In fact, empathy and compassion are associated with the activation of different areas in the brain. Empathy as a passive experience activates areas of the brain associated with negative affect. Meanwhile, compassion, as an active experience, activates brain regions associated with positive affect such that it is positively reinforcing and encourages pro-social engagement.4
Compassion motivates choices and behaviors to ease the suffering of others, and these choices are rooted in the likelihood that these actions will be reciprocated. The perception of this likelihood is increased among those determined to be similar. Thus, by expanding the circle of those with whom we find similarity, we are able to extend compassion to those previously deemed ‘different’ or ‘other.’
So then, how do we harness the malleable nature of similarity to increase and encourage more compassionate interactions in our communities? What practices serve to transform delineations of the ingroup and outgroup to as to build rapport between previously opposing groups? How do we expand manifestations of compassion to a global level to yield peace? Questions such as these are necessarily multi and transdisciplinary, requiring an integrative approach to uncover insights that will support peace, from the individual to the international. Peace ReWire offers precisely such an approach, engaging research that bridges neuroscience, spirituality, and peacebuilding, and translating this knowledge to support and inspire inner and group transformation.
Building Trust and Extending Compassion through Ritual
Drawing upon existing research, and positing new avenues for inquiry, Peace ReWire has offered valuable insights regarding possible means by which to facilitate social bonding in a way that supports peace and coexistence, rather than separation and violence. There is particularly fruitful possibility in the use of ritual to build trust between groups, establish determinations of similarity, and thus extend compassion. The value of such insights, and associated tools for practice, are evident from the intra-communal level to the international. This is exemplified in the activities of Sri Lankan Sarvodaya Movement. In 2006, Sarvodaya hosted a three day peace event in Trincomalee, one of the worst affected areas by the decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka. This event brought together Muslims, Tamils, and Sinhalese communities to dialogue, march, and meditate on peace, justice, and harmony. The collective experiences facilitated by Sarvodaya serve to rebuild trust between communities and prevent the spread of violence.
Transcending the perceived separateness among and between humans, and all beings, to extend compassion across seeming difference – this defies the divisive political rhetoric pervading the media and the moment. Compassion practice is, indeed, equally (if not more) important when interacting on social media or just watching through the flow of information that constantly bombard us. The temptation may be strong to either withdraw or develop negative feelings. Deliberate practice of compassion, especially when it is hard, seems today more essential than ever. Cultivating a path of compassion is a truly subversive, radical, and necessary means of moving toward greater peace in our communities and in our world.
1 David DeSteno, “Compassion and Altruism: How Our Minds Determine Who Is Worthy of Help,” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 3 (2015): 81, doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.02.002.
2 Ibid, 80.
3 Jennifer L. Goetz, Dacher Keltner, and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, “Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review,” Psychological Bulletin 136, no. 3 (May 2010): 352, doi:10.1037/a0018807.
4 Dara Ghahremani, Mike Niconchuk, Béatrice Pouligny, and Dan Rothbart, Research Initiative: The Role of Compassion Under High Stress, 2018, Peace ReWire.