Just sometimes you feel that humanity is a club worth belonging to.
I had to fill my car up with petrol at a service station. Having replenished my car with fuel, I went to pay the cashier. There were two others lined up to do the same. First in line was an elderly man. (These days I figure anyone who is obviously older than me is elderly!) Standing behind him was a strapping young fellow probably in his mid twenties.
The old fellow was having some sort of trouble, the exact nature of which I could not determine. We stood for perhaps ten minutes with no progress towards the cashier. Finally the girl behind the counter said something to the effect that, “You will have to fill out paperwork to cover your non-payment.” It dawned on me that he was having difficulty with his credit card and it was apparent he was becoming rather distressed.
The young man breasted the counter and said, “You can put it on my credit card, if he is having difficulty.” It was not a huge amount of money – thirty five dollars I think – but I was impressed by the altruism of the young fellow. The relief on the face of the older man was quite prominent. With the transactions made, at the old fellow’s request, the young man wrote out his personal details to enable him to be recompensed. But he had not put such a stipulation on the payment when he made it.
As I approached the cashier, I patted him on the back. “Well done, young fellow!” I ventured. He just smiled and walked out. Thinking about the incident when I got home, my mind turned to altruism and inevitably to someone who is a great champion of it.
I have written on a couple of occasions of my admiration for Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu Ricard is a French Buddhist monk who resides at Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal. His father was a renowned French philosopher and his mother a French abstract artist so there was no doubt his childhood was full of artistic and intellectual stimulation. He became a geneticist before forsaking his scientific career for Buddhism. As well as his charitable works for the Nepalese, he acts as the French translator for the Dalai Lama.
“What is happiness and how can we achieve it? Happiness is not limited to a few agreeable sensations, intense pleasure or a burst of joy. Rather it is a way of being and experiencing the world; a profound fulfillment that suffuses every instant of life and endures despite the inevitable daily hazards we encounter. A lack of well-being reflects a fundamental vulnerability to suffering, which ultimately can lead to a sense of self-loathing, a feeling that life is not worth living because we cannot find any meaning in it.”
There is no doubt but that the most ubiquitous desire of humanity is to be happy. As Ricard points out nobody awakens in the morning “with the ambition that they should suffer all day.”
Our dilemma is that we look for the source of happiness outside ourselves. We say to ourselves, “I will be happy when I have – a desirable partner, lots of money, good looks, happy children, a big house, and the very best car” – and so on. But when we do this we place our fate in the hands of circumstances that are largely beyond our control. What happens to us in the external physical world is often a matter of chance or dictated by forces over which we have little control.
But as Ricard alludes above, genuine happiness is being in a deep sense of fulfillment that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This state of being is impervious to the material exigencies of the world. In essence “our state of being” trumps “our state of having”. When we have such a healthy mind-state we have the inner resources to deal with whatever comes our way in the material world.
We all know people who have suffered great hardships yet still have a sense of equanimity. On the other hand we know many who are well-endowed with physical possessions who suffer great psychological suffering.
We know that our state of mind can over-ride outer conditions. In the midst of difficult circumstances we can still preserve our inner dignity and peace of mind.
Then what is it that we can control? In essence, it is our state of mind. As we saw in a previous blog, to have an enduring sense of well-being we need to eliminate the afflictive emotions of hatred, craving, arrogance and envy and so on. Through introspective enquiry, we gradually discover that, although some mental processes such as craving or hostility may be effective in the short term, they are not conducive for the flourishing of self or others.
All of us have at sometime experienced fleeting moments of compassion, mindfulness and inner peace. But these experiences are generally supplanted soon enough by less benevolent thoughts. Buddhism teaches that an enduring and beneficial state of mind can be conjured up by appropriate practice. Just as we can’t learn to play the piano or to juggle without practice, neither can we command a serene state of mind for long periods of time without conditioning our mind accordingly. Meditation is the technique that seems most effective in changing the brain state.
That meditation can change our brain is consistent with modern research on brain plasticity. It had been long thought that once adulthood was attained brain function had largely been determined and the only likelihood of change was deterioration through physical trauma and aging. Modern research has shown however that the brain has a capacity to heal itself by transferring functions from damaged areas to other areas. But now we have evidence that also through such practices as meditation the brain can change itself for the better.
University of Wisconsin researcher, Richard Davidson is one who has worked extensively in this field. Initially he examined the brains of adept meditators from the Tibetan school of Buddhism. In these skilled meditators there was heightened activity in the brain in areas that correlated with compassion and serenity. Then he took a group of 10 student volunteers and taught them the meditation practices of the Tibetan monks. They persisted with the practice for four months at the end of which significant brain changes were again detected compared with a control group. So, modern neuroscience has confirmed the benefit of these ancient practices. But even beyond the improvement to the psychological state, physical improvements including reduced anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure and improved immunity function were also confirmed.
Ricard, when he came to Australia in June this year, told his audience that he was working on a book about altruism. He states that “altruism is no longer a luxury but a necessity”.
He points out that there has been an assumption in psychology, economics and much of the science of evolution that Humankind is essentially selfish.
But he counters this with the findings of some contemporary studies.
“ during the last twenty years psychologists like Daniel Batson have shown that true altruism does exist; economists like Ernst Fehr has also shown that one must acknowledge the presence of a majority of people willing to cooperate when making economic decisions; whilst evolutionists like Boyd and Richerson have shown that the Darwinian evolution of cultures, which proceed much faster than the evolution of genes, can lead to a more altruistic society.”
As we saw above, collaboration between neuroscientists and Buddhist meditators has also shown that altruism and compassion are human qualities that can be cultivated by training.
At the conference where he spoke, someone commented to Ricard, “I don’t believe in altruism. We act in an altruistic way, because it makes us feel good – therefore it can’t be true altruism.”
Ricard replied with a metaphor. He said, “A farmer sets out to grow wheat, but when the wheat is harvested he gets straw as well. This does not detract from the fact that his purpose is to principally to grow wheat. If when we set out to act altruistically our prime purpose is to help another. Just because we derive some satisfaction from the process does not detract from our altruism but fortunately facilitates it.”
Before finishing the workshop, Ricard took us through a couple of simple meditation practices designed to enhance altruism.
I wonder what sort of a world it would be, if following Ricard’s example we could all train our minds thus, enhancing our compassion and altruism?