Reflections on Compassion & Social Healing:
Judith Thompson has been engaged in projects promoting social healing for over twenty years, working primarily with survivors of war and political violence. As part of her doctoral research for the Union Institute, she recently convened a three day dialogue hosted by the Center that brought together 25 people from all over the world to explore the question, "How does compassion arise in the process of social healing?" In 1984, Thompson co-founded Children of War, Inc., an award-winning international youth leadership organization that supported the vision and leadership of young activists from 22 war-torn countries. Thompson has also helped to develop social healing programs in Israel/Palestine and Cambodia and, for the past few years, has worked closely with indigenous elders from North, Central, and South America who are seeking to support worldwide social and ecological healing through their traditional ceremonies. She is currently co-producing a film entitled "From Victims to Visionaries" about those victims of violence who chose not to take revenge and what motivates that choice. Thompson is a longtime board member of the Center for Psychology and Social Change affiliated with Cambridge Hospital, co-chairs the Spirit and Human Rights initiative funded by the Fetzer Institute, and is on the Advisory Board of One by One, Inc., an organization dedicated to bringing second-generation Holocaust survivors together for dialogue and healing. Ms. Thompson was recipient of the Bunting Peace Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies and the International Peace Prize of the Dolores Kohl Education Foundation. Patti Marxsen interviewed Thompson following the seminar she convened at Center on Compassion and Social Healing in September of 2002.
PM: What is compassion and what distinguishes it from empathy, caring, love, and other good feelings?
JT: While there are some differences in how various religions and cultures understand "compassion," the definition I like the most is "to suffer with, coupled with a desire to relieve suffering," and I think it's a good one for several reasons.
Empathy has been described as both a cognitive awareness of another's internal states and an affective response. It can refer to any aspect of another's experience. We can have empathic distress or joy. You can empath any kind of experience or feeling. I think empathy is important to cultivate for social healing. But I think compassion, at its best, points to a more mature state of awareness. It has an element of deeper wisdom in it. And, it is tied solely to suffering which makes it a crucial component of the work we need to be doing. Our tendency to avoid the suffering of other's, or even our own, has led us into the false illusion that we are separate from each other when the truth is that we are all interconnected. This fact has been affirmed through both spiritual and scientific sources. Seeing into and experiencing this truth is, I think, a necessary prerequisite for us to evolve socially.
PM: You mentioned religions and cultures. How do those variables play into the meaning of compassion?
JT: It's true that my own definition of compassion is informed by a Buddhist perspective and my own Buddhist practice. From the Buddhist perspective, compassion is the state from which all action should arise. The Dalai Lama says that "compassion is the supreme emotion with a cognitive dimension." That cognitive dimension includes insight and understanding about the roots of suffering.
The Buddha's central teaching came from his personal insight into the nature of suffering and the possibility of freedom from suffering. From the Buddhist perspective, the truth of suffering is the first Noble Truth. This is not a negative or pessimistic statement about the inevitability of a sorrowful life. Rather it is a wise understanding of the fact that we all suffer from our mind's habits of craving and aversion. Of course he goes on to teach about the ways to freedom from suffering. And compassion is an important aspect of that way to freedom. Upon beginning to follow the eightfold path through your own contemplative practice and embrace of ethical precepts, you begin to see how reality works. That, in it's own way, induces a compassionate state of being because it's almost as if you are sitting back looking at the planet through a very long lens. This particular perspective really allows us to relate to someone because we actually see into the fact that suffering for them is caused by clinging and by aversion, which is just as it is for us.
From the Buddhist perspective, there is no solid sense of self. It's not that we don't have an ego or an identity, but the ego itself is impermanent and always changing. There's no solidity to the "I." When you develop this insight, compassion arises because you come to possess a deep sense of the human condition. You see what it is that actually unites everybody in a common bond of suffering.
PM: We often use the word compassion as an equivalent of "feeling sorry for" as in "I feel compassion for," or "I feel sorry for" poor people. But what you are describing places the person who is "feeling sorry" much closer to the person who suffers.
JT: "Feeling sorry for someone" is not compassion, it's pity. Again, in the Buddhist tradition pity is seen as compassion's "near enemy." The "near enemy" of compassion means it looks a little bit like it but, distinctly, is not the same thing at all.
PM: Pity seems to uphold that sense of separation between us.
JT: Yes, it's a patronizing perspective. It conveys a sense of, "I am fortunate enough to be in a position to feel sorry for you," whereas compassion really comes out of an awareness that we are all connected and all suffering. There's a fundamental awareness of the nature of reality as interconnectedness, which is to say that we all arise out of the same ground of being. We are all subject to the same forms of suffering, which are delusions. When you see into that, it gives you an equal footing with all beings. There is no one above the other. Everyone born has the same tendencies of mind to crave or to push away or to be deluded. This is a very Buddhist interpretation.
PM: It almost sounds as if you have to have a Buddhist perspective to achieve the deep sense of compassion you are describing.
JT: No, I don't think so. Christians have a very deep perspective about compassion—that through compassion our humanity grows to it's fullest. A quote from the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart has always been one of my favorites: "And those who follow compassion find life for themselves, justice for their neighbor and glory for God." This social aspect of compassion is quite well developed in Christian and Jewish teaching. What I like about this quote is that, for me, it links compassion to life itself which I take to be affirmative of the sense of interconnection. Meaning: when we align with compassion we align with the truth of reality and thus allow "the true" and "the real" to become alive in us in a new way. Secondly, the connection of compassion to justice is again crucial. In my own research, I am hoping to more fully explore this. My own experience has shown me that when enemies allow themselves to share the vulnerabilities and sorrows of "the other" —or when we as bystanders truly feel compassion —we align ourselves with the path of justice which is to "make right" our relationships; to re-establish a covenant with "the other."
I'm sure that all religions have an interpretation of compassion, but I'm just not as familiar with them. I guess what I am trying to get at is the distinction between compassion and empathy. Compassion, regardless of what religious or cultural perspective you begin with, includes an aspect of moral reasoning and wisdom that informs who we are as human beings.
PM: It sounds as if our Western modern and postmodern culture, with its scientific mindset and cult of individualism, is not the ideal environment in which to nurture compassion. Do you think the kind of wisdom you are describing was more accessible to people in earlier ages? Is the lack of compassion in our world an historical problem?
JT: That's a good question. I'm not a cultural historian, but I certainly think that modern, Western culture isn't a particularly compassionate culture. Especially now when our national myths are encouraging a sense of separation between ourselves and others, based mostly on a continuation of the notion of "manifest destiny," compassion becomes all the more important, and thinking about how to foster it should be high on our agenda for social transformation.
PM: These ideas you are talking about—this desire to really understand compassion—has led you into some very interesting research as part of your doctoral work for the Union Institute. As part of that research, we just had approximately 25 people here for a two-and-a-half day seminar, which was followed by a public discussion forum with representatives from that group. What was your objective in bringing these remarkable people together? And how did the over-arching idea of doing research on compassion come about?
JT: I've always been interested in compassion. I suppose this has come partly from my own observation and experience of working in settings where a great deal of compassion was felt and expressed among and between victims of violence, and in some cases victims and perpetrators. These experiences convinced me that compassion can transform a situation of entrenched enmity, hopelessness or despair and open us to new perspectives on what's possible. As a researcher, there are many ways of going about exploring this topic.
I have been partial to dialogue for a long time and have been doing dialogue work with the Fetzer Institute and others for some time. What I like about doing things in a dialogic manner or with a group is that the subject matter comes alive in a different way. I could have interviewed a lot of these people individually, which was an option. But to bring them all together helps in a kind of co-informing process that I think really reveals knowledge at a different level. This is the essence of "participatory knowing," shared knowledge or shared truth created through processes of group dialogue and exploration.
If it had been just me engaging in individual conversations with all these different people, I would have been the hub of the wheel of possibility and the meaning would have been interpreted through me because qualitative research is interpretive research. I would have used their narratives but I would have translated those narratives through my own lens. By bringing everyone together, what I hoped would happen—and I think did—is it becomes what you would call an interpretive community or a discourse community, which is another way to describe "participatory knowing." Exploring something like this within a community makes a lot more sense to me. I also am convinced that one gets to unwind things a bit more when you bring people from other cultures together—face-to-face— so that you really are enriching the field of knowing. Someone from South Africa might see it in one way and someone from Thailand is going to see it in a different way. Then you are going to find out what are the commonalties and particularities in the way that we see and experience things. That not only engages us together in the process of knowing, but in the process of interpreting, too. Because as people respond to each other, a thread of interpretation is occurring there.
When I first set out to do this research, I was just going to do individual interviews with a lot of people. I thought that I might bring them together at one point, but that was not the initial concept for the research. Quite frankly, it was a conversation with Ginny Straus [Center Executive Director Virginia Straus Benson] that solidified the idea of bringing them all together for me. Her support made the difference and, I think, led us into a much more meaningful process.
PM: There are quite a few unknowns when you bring people together from other cultures in one room who are sharing their pain and interpreting one another's pain. Did you have any sense of risk in approaching it that way?
JT: You're right, there can be risks. But I wasn't too concerned about that because I've done it before. Also, I could sense by the way that they responded to the preliminary invitation that the central question of compassion and social healing was something that mattered to them. If the question of compassion and social healing matters to people, it's likely that they are going to be people who are going to be motivated by similar visions, regardless of their differences. It was an amazingly congenial, patient, and giving group.
PM: On the first day, all participants were seated in a circle and we went around the circle and heard stories. Some of those stories were very powerful and moving because people were completely open about what they had endured in their lives. We had representatives from Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Middle East, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Southeast Asia, South Africa, Hitler's Germany, and the United States. Nearly everyone had lost family members, witnessed violence, or experienced violence and injustice personally. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what the symbolism of the circle means and why the telling of stories is so important.
JT: The form creates space. My experience with circles is that they offer a safe environment and invite a lot more intimacy and sharing than other forms and structures. Communities from ancient times have come together in circles as a reflection of what a community is. The whole vision of people sitting around a campfire or being in circle goes back historically. What I also like about the circle is that it completely disrupts any sense of hierarchy. Everyone is facing everyone else. No one is behind anybody else. No one is in the center. So from the get-go, it is a statement of the fact that we all come to the experience as equals, as people who are sharing this space in authentic and deep ways. I think that's what's valuable about circles.
PM: We should point out that in the center of the circle you placed a cloth and you lit a candle. As people spoke, they put mementos and symbols of their lives on that cloth. What did that process signify?
JT: This was a way to create a "we." Because compassion is about building a bridge between the "I" and the "we," this circle and what I call the "table of shared meaning" —or the "cloth of shared meaning" —was a way of bringing that concept to life. Each object or memento that was placed in the center said that "This comes from 'I,' but I place it together with all of these things so that this cloth becomes the repository of our 'we,' of our community which is forming right now." The request was to bring something that spoke to the nature of the question of compassion and social healing. People brought things that really had a depth of meaning: photographs, poems, T-shirts, art objects, and so forth. The fact that each one of the objects spoke to a story from the person also meant that it was a way of painting a picture of the story itself, of evoking the emotions that came with the stories. The circle and the altar that we built were symbolic ways of saying that while we may be individuals, we are also a "we" and, at this point, we are honoring the wholeness of what our community is about.
PM: The atmosphere was right for the stories and the stories really are the essence of what we learned from these people. Why is it so important for people who've suffered to tell their stories?
JT: The story is something that belongs to you. It's very personal because it's the narrative of your lived experience, of your suffering. From a trauma healing perspective, we know that telling the story is a way of to begin to empty out the trauma. Beyond that, as I mentioned earlier, I believe that the knowledge we all embody, that we all have, is knowledge that comes through lived experience. In our stories we are telling how or what we are feeling, or what our thoughts say about our lived experience. This is the place to start. Then you can reflect on it. You can make it a bit more abstract or you can start to conceptualize it based on what you are hearing. But the idea is that nothing is closer to the truth than our lived experience. You can't simply theorize about suffering or compassion; it doesn't ring true if it's not really true to the lived experience of people.
PM: One of the ways in which you elicited dialogue about the stories was with carefully-constructed dyads where two people, often on opposing sides of a conflict, would talk with each other in the full presence of the group. Their conversation was followed by feedback or, as you say, interpretation. What did you hope to accomplish with this process around dyads?
JT: With the dyads that contained people from the opposite sides of a conflict, the idea was simply to be able to hear from them how they felt compassion was—or wasn't—an element in their progress towards embracing the "other." Interestingly, we saw a number of different dyads in which people were at different stages of their experience. You had the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor and a former member of Hitler Youth, for example. Their experience and their feelings related to an historical event that was quite a ways in the past, but still very alive within themselves. From Northern Ireland we had a Protestant and a Catholic, and from the Middle East we had an Israeli and Palestinian. All of these people, regardless of the timeframe of the conflict they came from, were committed to listening, to embracing the other.
PM: It seems, though, that time or distance from conflict helps. I think it was our Northern Irish participant who spoke about how important it was to let go of trying to establish the dates of particular incidents of injustice, of repeating timelines of offenses and so forth. I think he was saying that if you can take a larger perspective, you can get closer to deep understanding. But also, that it takes time to achieve that kind of perspective.
JT: I think that there are many variables that have an impact of achieving that "larger perspective" that can range from what kind of family you grew up or how much community support you had. I think all of those things matter in terms of how any one particular individual copes with suffering and loss. However, there are a few things I found to be important, both with children of war and with other survivors that I have worked with, including those we've interviewed for the film called From Victims to Visionaries which is being produced by Cambridge Documentary Films and is based on the same idea. One is telling the story. The other is having allies on the path of healing. It might be a social worker or a psychologist, a good friend, or numbers of people. It really doesn't matter who it is, as long as there is a sense of connectedness to a person or people over time that are walking that path with you.
PM: It's probably important to say that for these particular people that you brought together in dialogue, the goal of embracing the other has been important for many reasons. All of these people had a mature level of awareness and a desire to do that and many are engaged in it as their life's work. So, in a sense, we had some extraordinary people here.
JT: Yes. They were extraordinary but not necessarily rare because there are so many people doing this work. I also wanted to create discussions based not on dyads of differing perspectives, but in a kind of panel format. We did this by bringing the former chief investigator of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission together with the former chaplain of the African National Congress, who was also the victim of a letter bomb in 1990. They are both on the same side of the issues, but bring different perspectives to the table. In another case, we had an African-American woman and a Native American woman, both of whom work to overcome injustice within our own society. All of these formats helped us to understand what allows compassion to arise in the midst of suffering.
PM: In the dyads that brought together victims from so-called perpetrator groups, the nature of the victim/perpetrator relationship became an important part of the discussion. Father Michael Lapsley of South Africa, who lost both hands and the sight of one eye in a letter bomb attack, spoke of the process of moving from victim to survivor to victor. What has to happen for that to happen?
JT: In addition to finding the space to tell the story and building the kind of connection I mentioned above, another element, which is not necessarily true for all people, is "survivor mission." Survivor mission points to how one uses the experience to actually help others. Arn Chorn-Pond of Cambodia and Father Michael Lapsley are both good examples of this. These people have become a social healers. Perhaps two-thirds of our participants fall into that category. They are people who have first-hand experience of the vicissitudes of war and of violence and have made a choice to use their wounds as an aspect of deeper wisdom in a way to teach others. I really think that's the step that brings you from being a survivor to a victor. There may be other elements to that as well. If you were to listen to someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, you would say that forgiveness is part of that. I'm not sure if it is or not.
PM: It's interesting to note that Father Lapsley has not "put forgiveness on the table," as he reminded us, even though he feels no bitterness or desire for revenge.
JT: That's right. But what he has done is he has taken his wounds and he has done something quite wonderful with them. He's created the Institute for the Healing of Memories. He's teaching other people. He is inspiring other people. That is what makes him a victor.
PM: Several people agreed that the perpetrator needs the victim in order to achieve liberation. They also pointed out that the victim, in effect, has the power to grant or withhold that liberation. Can you elaborate on that dynamic?
JT: This is a delicate thing and there are strong and differing opinions about it. I think some opinions relate to the capacity of the victim to grant or withhold forgiveness. But, this is premised on the idea that the perpetrator has sought forgiveness.
There is another dimension of this that I am even more intrigued with. There's a famous letter from James Baldwin to his nephew where he is telling his nephew that he has to accept white people, to "accept them with love." Baldwin says in this letter that "We cannot be free until they are free."
One aspect of this is that when you are oppressed, you are not only privy to your reality of victimization but you know the perpetrator's reality quite well because you are oppressed by it. Perpetrators generally only know the reality which extends from their own power, but don't know the reality of those they oppress. They can become enlightened by understanding the reality of the other; they can become humanized. This may come from listening to the story of the "other" or by some other way in which the stereotyping of "the other" shifts. For example, Nelson Mandela's demeanor was such that eventually his captors had to acknowledge the power and dignity of his person. They could not dehumanize him any more.
PM: That sounds like holding the victim responsible.
JT: It's not about holding the victim responsible, but rather finding ways for the perpetrator to come into relationship with "the other" in ways which humanize both. It is just the case that those who have social power over others rarely take the first step in humanizing the situation. Justifying their control is too dependent on maintaining myths about "the other." Certainly there can be renegades from within this dominant group who help in this process too, but it still comes from their own embrace of the humanness of the oppressed group and conveying that to the dominant group. I think compassion has a lot to do with this and is one of the reasons I'm exploring it. Compassion opens us up to the deeper aspect of what that means to teach the perpetrator and remain open to his or her humanity.
PM: Some people in the seminar, such as our Northern Irish participant who had forgiven the British soldier who blinded him long ago, was very clear and matter-of-fact about granting forgiveness. Others, like Father Lapsley, had not yet forgiven anyone. His reasoning was that he didn't know who to forgive and if he did know who, he would first want to know if they are still making letter bombs. What do you think forgiveness means and does compassion play a role in it? Do you have to be compassionate to forgive?
JT: It's difficult to develop generalizations about forgiveness. And I am speaking a little abstractly because I believe that until you are tested on something for yourself, you don't really know. Forgiveness is one of those things that is so completely personal. If you really feel compassion for the "other," then forgiveness becomes a more organic and natural step. But based on what I have heard from others, you can move into a process of forgiveness and not necessarily feel compassion.
For example, Everett Worthington who is one of the key figures in the theory of forgiveness lost his mother to a brutal murder and he has tracked his own process and studied it with others. One of the growing understandings about forgiveness that he would support is that it is as much, if not more, for the victim as it is for the perpetrator. Forgiveness says, "I am not going to live carrying this around any longer." That's a little different from compassion because it's not necessarily engaged in understanding or feeling what the suffering of the other might be that led to him or her to become a perpetrator. It's about relieving oneself of a terrible burden and, certainly, it is about having compassion for oneself which important too!
That's the tricky thing about the victim/perpetrator cycle, as we know. How does it end? Victims and perpetrators are recycling all the time. Former victims become perpetrators and then they become victims all over again, and on it goes. In a sense, the absence of forgiveness points to a process of unhealed wounding. But still, I think forgiveness is personal; I think it is cultural; I think it is something that is born out of a person's deep faith. The danger of speculating on what it is or how one gets there is that it can seem to create sort of mandates that one ought to forgive. Forgiveness can be a moral requisite. It can be an ethical position, which is fine. It doesn't make it less important. It's very important. But it may not have much to do with compassion or be grounded in a deeper understanding of the humanity of the "other."
PM: Are you suggesting that it may not get us any closer to social healing?
JT: No. That's not what I'm trying to say. I think forgiveness is very important for social healing. It's just different from compassion, though they can be related. Forgiveness is a profound commitment to stop the cycle of revenge and few things could be more important than that, especially now.
PM: Another aspect of the conversation was the nature of evil. Is it autonomous or is it embodied? Maybe you could offer us a quick definition of evil...
JT: First of all I will admit to having trouble with the word "evil." I've never really used it in my own vocabulary, partly because there seems to be a common definition of it that I don't agree with. Evil is most often defined as some autonomous force and I don't believe in that.
PM: Does this view relate to Buddhism?
JT: Even before I really understood Buddhism, I didn't believe in autonomous evil. Here again this is one of those concepts, which I defy anybody to claim they really understand because nobody does. People have been trying to figure it out forever and it's one of those things that we can't quite explain. I certainly believe that there are individuals and, perhaps, societies that have turned away so much from their own goodness, but I don't believe this necessarily means they are evil. In a sense, individuals and societies choose to act, but understanding what led up to their dehumanization, what brought them to the point where they could choose to do something evil, is the question.
PM: Maybe that's the definition of evil: dehumanization. I am thinking along with you here because I agree that it's very difficult to define, and yet we hear about it all the time, particularly when someone wants to make us feel safe. The concept of evil seems to be a way of separating us from people who would harm us, people like Saddam Hussein.
JT: That's a good example. Could Hussein be a sociopath? Could he be crazy? Of course, he could be, but those conditions are very different from evil, and this idea of evil is outside what I call the healing paradigm. The healing paradigm is a paradigm within which we look at things as having been polluted, tainted, or drawn away from a state of natural goodness.
By natural goodness, I don't mean some kind of naive assumption that we are all entering into life with a "clean slate," as there are obviously genetic predispositions which account for various behavior, the nature/nurture argument. But, I think the concept of autonomous evil leads one into theological, not psychological territory. From the psychological perspective, there are explanations about why people "become bad." And those explanations then beg solutions. From a theological perspective, autonomous evil connotes a force which we can't really explain. It's a compelling concept in the face of mass atrocity, but agreement with it leads to notions like "the axis of evil" which don't really get us anywhere. "Autonomous" implies that it's truly outside of us, something independent of us, and that doesn't fit my own notion of who we are as creators of our own social experience.
From within the healing paradigm, we look for the roots causes which led to aberrant behavior. This isn't a way of excusing anyone. Clearly, you do have to have norms and laws and hold people accountable for those things and name wrong behavior where you see it. But a compassionate person looks beyond the wrongdoing into where the roots of it are. I suspect that the roots of what we call "evil" are deeply entrenched in the various ways in which individuals get harmed or even societies get harmed. Those harms create distortions, intense fear, defensiveness, and cruelty.
PM: It sounds as if we're back to the problem or process of dehumanization.
JT: Yes, ultimately, the harmful effects of how we are forced to live result in a kind of dehumanization. What matters around defining this as autonomous evil—and I think this was the key point that came up in the seminar when we really got into this—is the inevitable conclusion that autonomous evil cannot be healed. It cannot be redeemed. It cannot be changed. If that is true then what do we do with it? That posits a particular position around our relationship to it, which means that we either eradicate it or we try to confine and control it. Either way, it's a set up for more dehumanization and killing and genocide.
PM: One of our participants who works with families of murder victims said that "Everyone has the capacity for transformation and redemption." But, as you say, that only works if one rejects the concept of autonomous, unredeemable evil.
JT: Exactly. If you can look at it as something that is redeemable, there are many more possibilities for healing, even though the person may not be redeemed in this lifetime. When we talk about this, we always go to great extremes like Hitler or, now, Hussein, and then try to define what the extremities are about. One then has to turn to the questions of criminal justice: What is justice? How is justice wrought? To believe that there is not autonomous evil does not mean that you ought not to punish someone or lock someone up or even realize that someone is beyond rehabilitation. But no matter what religious tradition you are a part of, there is an essential premise that people are redeemable, that love and goodness must prevail. I am one of those people who look at the world in that way. I really do believe that people are redeemable.
PM: Does that belief in the humanity of others mean that compassion really can interrupt the cycle of violence and retaliation and if so, how does it do that?
JT: This question is essential to my research and I will let you know my findings when I complete the research. But I think that the answer is "yes." And I think the "how" of it has to do with rebuilding relationships and communities. Compassion has that particular fiber, that linkage, which basically says that even though we hurt each other, I know that you and I are one, not in some great mystical sense but in the sense of shared suffering. Whatever it is that can bring people into that moment of awareness of shared loss, of shared sorrow, is extraordinarily important in turning things around.
An important question that I am asking myself is "How does that momentary awareness get sustained over time?" In other words, in social healing programs and processes that are being done on the ground, we have to be thinking about the ways in which groups are continuing to come together to create a shared life, whether it's rebuilding houses together or dialogue or whatever. When people move from a place of holding rigidity around their suffering and remaining isolated in their dehumanization or hatred for the other, when they move from that place to the open place of meeting the other and experiencing common humanity, that's a very liberating shift. In fact, it's a very joyful shift. In the midst of terrible suffering, people do find great joy in experiencing their common humanity.
PM: There is an article by Olga Botcharova entitled "Implementation of Track Two Diplomacy: Developing a Model of Forgiveness." For her, the connecting point and the turning point occurs when people share their grief.
JT: I would say that that moment of sharing that grief is a moment of compassion for each other.
PM: Sulak Sivaraksa said something during the seminar that was amusing but is also profound. He said, "It's easy to love humanity. It's loving those around you that is so difficult." Why do you think that is so true?
JT: Well, let's face it, humanity is a concept, a wonderful concept. I think our love for humanity is a statement of our understanding of common humanity. But you don't have shared history with humanity. You don't have entanglements with humanity. Humanity hasn't seen all your shadow material, those parts of ourselves that operate unconsciously that we are not always aware of. The shadow material tends to be the holding tanks for our unresolved pain and our unhealed wounds.
PM: Several participants had been harmed, victimized, or traumatized as children and part of the discussion focused on the ways in which this unfinished business of adults is carried by children. What lessons about compassion and social healing have you gleaned from your work—this seminar and your long experience with Children of War— that might spare future generations the kind of deep suffering that exists in the world today?
JT: From my work with young people, I would say I've learned the value of compassion. If children who have suffered aren't afforded the support and opportunity to heal from those wounds, it is likely that they will live out the impact of those wounds. I think that's the most important thing—understanding how absolutely crucial it is for young people who have been harmed to have some support in going through the healing process. That's the most likely way to break the cycle.
However, it's important to say that if you don't catch them as young people and have a chance to go through that healing process, you can still do it as an adult and it's still crucial. Understanding the value of healing and, in fact, understanding that our cultures and futures are built upon our children, is a fundamental awareness. Children are harmed in so many different ways, not just in armed conflicts and wars. Healthy children will produce healthy societies.
PM: One phrase that came up more than once was "collective responsibility." In a way, this awareness of children points to our collective responsibility as adults to resolve our problems now and not pass them on.
JT: That's one of the beautiful things about the indigenous worldview; making decisions that are going to affect the seventh generation.
PM: For some participants in their personal lives and in their work, the best examples of compassion were women and often mothers. How does gender play into the process of compassion and social healing?
JT: I think it plays into it in a big way but I would emphasize gender conditioning, not gender. I really don't think that women have any more natural capacity towards compassion than men do, but I do think that universal patriarchal conditioning has created many of the problems we have in the world. We also have to overcome this dichotomization between women as compassionate and men as the aggressors.
PM: That's harmful to men as well as women, isn't it?
JT: That's right. We all know very, very compassionate men. But because of male conditioning everywhere in the world, men are moved towards separating themselves from their feelings and many of them suffer from an underdeveloped emotional intelligence, even though there have always been wonderful parents in the world who are out there mitigating against that. But it's difficult when the universal and dominant social values are working against you. I tend to adhere to the Riane Eisler partnership model of gender. I think societies can be built around a partnership model.
PM: It's my understanding that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has benefited greatly by having women involved in the process. And in another interview on this Web site, Randall Forsberg points out that when women are at the negotiating table, not only does the process change because of the skills that women bring, but the men behave differently. There seems to be a unique role that women play. Do you agree with that view?
JT: I would say women's ways of being are more informed by connectivity, by the value of the connected self. Men are trained to be autonomous, to be competitive. Women certainly take on those traits when they are trying to succeed within a male culture. But, in reality, women are more collegial, more collaborative, and they care deeply about connectivity and relationship and community in a way that men have been conditioned away from. Again, I want to emphasize cultural conditioning. I don't believe it's intrinsic. And I do think that all people are capable of being compassionate.
PM: Many religious traditions were represented by the seminar participants. How does religious identity help or hinder compassion?
JT: It helps insofar as all religions have embedded in their traditions, in their precepts if you will, norms which lean toward compassion. But I do think that a complete answer to this question falls somewhat along the lines of difference between liberal religion and fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalism obviously finds selective interpretations of scripture which reinforce separation between self and "other." These beliefs are very problematic because they simply encourage another form of ideology that affirms the domination, dehumanization, or demonization of the other.
PM: One aspect of your work, particularly with indigenous elders, has to do with exploring how the natural world reflects our ability to be compassionate. Maybe you can elaborate on that and the connection between nature and compassion.
JT: I've been working with indigenous elders for the last four years or so, primarily the Maya from Guatemala but also with groups from other parts of the Americas. And what I have learned is that when you begin to spend more time in the natural world, you develop sensitivities that you didn't know you had or, perhaps, actually didn't have because of the way your life has been lived in a highly stimulating, technological environment. When I watch the indigenous people and the way they honor all living things, including each other as human beings and animals and plants, I recognize a deep sense of respect. They confer intelligence to everything, not human intelligence but intelligence of the force of life itself that carries the power to illuminate all things.
This extraordinary respect that they have lends itself to a compassionate way of being because, I think, that wisdom aspect of compassion—which is why it differs from empathy—is the wisdom of seeing all life as connected. They see that. They live it. And when you're around it, you see it too. It's there, much more naturally and profoundly than what can be experienced living in a state of separation from the natural world. And from this comes a sensitivity—one might almost say a tenderness—to all living things. Even in their interpersonal relationships, and I have witnessed certain conflicts that have come up between groups, their way of dealing with each other is far more mature than what I observe in the modern world. They are very generous and patient in their ways of solving conflict with each other and I think that that comes out of being as embedded in the natural world as they are.
PM: It takes us back to an earlier point about the culture we live in and how it is not particularly conducive to compassion. It almost sounds as if compassion is linked to culture, to vast social structures and belief systems.
JT: It might be. I think one of the dangers of our culture is the consumer aspect of it. That consuming, addictive, craving quality that we are bombarded with wherever we turn desensitizes us in many ways from this state of being I have referred to that the indigenous Mayas have. I wouldn't want to put a blanket label on our culture being less compassionate because, on the one hand, we live in a very pluralistic society and we do have a democracy that attempts to embrace a great diversity of people. Clearly, there are certainly some aspects of our culture that are conducive to compassion. But they are balanced against so many other things, like consumerism or the media culture, that operate to desensitize us.
PM: And yet you remain optimistic, and hopeful.
JT: I certainly feel that there's great potential and great hope. There are all kinds of institutions and conscious people who really are "getting it" more and more. And I'm not sure that American life was ever any more compassionate. Historically, people lived in their parochial communities and didn't have a lot of contact with "otherness" and they certainly had conflicts within their societies. Everything is much more complex now. I think there are equal numbers of things that are helping us become more compassionate as there are things that are keeping us from being compassionate. I do think that there is an upward trend in our consciousness, in our coming to understand and love more, as people, across the board. Everywhere you go you find people who are loving and trying to make life better, even in the face of suffering. That's where my hope is grounded.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue